Bill Gerhardt is truly a local legend. Recording for the acclaimed jazz record label Steeplechase and having performed with some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz, it is always an exciting event when he performs. On Sunday, at a concert in the First Congregational Church sponsored by Hendersonville Chamber Music , he was joined by bassist Zack Page, drummer Sonny Thornton, and guest vocalist Sharon LaMotte. The group laid down a stellar, forward looking set, with a repertoire predominantly consisting of old chestnuts.
"I Just Found Out About Love" began the proceedings with Thornton and Page wasting no time in providing a firm, deep pocket over which Gerhardt and LaMotte wove melodic variations. Once LaMotte sang the melody, Gerhardt exploded into virtuosic phrases which were somewhat reminiscent of Art Tatum. "So Nice," a tune which in the hands of lesser plays often sounds dated, was given a fresh update. Thornton and Page again impressed with the creativity and consistency of their groove; Thornton in particular set up an unusual, hi-hat pattern that sparked new life in the standard.
The group performed a variety of lesser known standards throughout the remainder of the first set. "Little Jazz Bird" by Gershwin and the little-known "Blackberry Winter" were two of the finest. "Little Jazz Bird" is an interesting piece of repertoire; inspired by the Blossom Dearie version, the trio's performance stood out, especially for Gerhardt's text painting ability behind LaMotte. "Blackberry Winter," a song co-written by Alec Wilder and North Carolina native Loonis McGlohon, finished the first set. Performed as a duo between LaMotte and Gerhardt, the tune was given an introspective and fully beautiful reading. It is a wonder that such a great song has not been absorbed into the jazz canon.
Finishing the concert with more familiar standards including "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "On Green Dolphin Street," the group was even more together in the groove and fluid in their improvisations. A clever-sounding figure on the piano suggesting the clopping of hooves introduced "Surrey," and a variety of other text painting effects then showed Gerhardt's mastery of the idiom and the thought he put into the performance. LaMotte gave the text an appropriate interpretation, and during the solo section the instrumentalists took off with their typical finesse and group interaction. "On Green Dolphin Street" provided a burning ending to the performance.
All members of the trio were thoroughly impressive. Gerhardt's piano interpretations were magnificent, really getting into the meat of the songs, never just running the changes. Page and Thornton were a fantastic rhythm section, always grooving and commenting on the phrases handed out by Gerhardt and LaMotte. Thornton in particular stood out with his idiosyncratic, melodic style of drumming and Page, when called upon to solo, never failed to provide intriguing and virtuosic ideas. Western North Carolina jazz audiences have much for which to be thankful as long as players this gifted remain in the area.