The Isis has established itself as the venue to hear live Jazz in Asheville. William Bares, artistic director and curator for the Sunday Live Jazz Showcase, has done a fantastic job presenting the myriad of diverse jazz artists in Western North Carolina since the series' inception in December 2012. Sunday night was no exception; it was a standout evening in the series, featuring a sublime trio in the upstairs lounge and a chamber ensemble par excellence on the main stage downstairs.
Brian Felix, a pianist, composer, and faculty member at UNC-Asheville, performed an intimate set in the time honored setting of a piano trio, with local bassist Zack Page and drummer Justin Watt. For the opening selection, Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Meditation," Felix caressed the keys of the piano with a hypnotic eighth-note groove under the seductive melody before being joined by Page and Watt on the second repeat of the form. All the solos were top notch, but it was Watt who especially stood out in this first number, demonstrating his melodic approach to the drum set as he quoted the theme of the tune on his two tom-toms while maintaining the surdo rhythm in the bass drum and an unrelenting yet relaxed eighth note pulse on his ride cymbal. The second selection was a masterful rendition of "Stella by Starlight" wherein Felix cleverly re-harmonized the familiar standard. An intimate knowledge of the tune was notably present in Felix's solo, as he began each of his three choruses with the opening 6 note motive of the tune, gradually increasing the texture from an introspective and minimalistic monophonic line into an orchestral fanfare of polyrhythmic and polytonal excitement. This exploration of the melody was improvisation at its finest, a composition created in real time.
The next two selections, "The Crown" and "Old Guard," were original compositions by Felix. The former is reminiscent of Herbie Hancock's Blue Note recordings, notably the expansive tune "Dolphin Dance." Felix deftly combined the impressionistic harmonies with blues-infected lines as the performance evolved from a sparse and serene chord melody into a rhythmically dynamic adventure, all while maintaining a lush and ethereal quality. By contrast, "Old Guard" is a medium-tempo funk number with an infectiously catchy blues riff. Felix seamlessly fused the dark pathos of the blues with its joyous and almost comical aspects, weaving his careful selection of pitches into a tapestry of octatonic and blues gestures. In the hands of a lesser musician, these would have come across as trite and predictable, but through Felix's rhythmic cleverness and attention to phrasing were instead transformed into a riveting musical journey for the listener. These compositions wonderfully showcased Felix's musical depth, but his diverse abilities as a pianist and improviser were most apparent when he performed the classic Beatles song "Strawberry Fields Forever." Felix's arrangement captured the mysterious essence of the original recording, and his dialogue with Page was especially enchanting. Page's beautiful legato pizzicato and crystalline harmonics provided a luminescent sheen to the orchestral palette of timbres emanating from Felix's fingertips.
Shortly following Felix's performance upstairs, the Hard Bop Explosion, a long-time artist-in-residence at the Isis Sunday Jazz Showcase, took to the main stage for the tribute to Miles Davis' seminal album, The Birth of the Cool. The ensemble was augmented with Shannon Hoover, tuba (also an extremely versatile bassist), and Dave Lehlbach, French horn, a pairing of brass instruments at opposite ends of the range spectrum which provided the classic album with its distinctive sound. The remaining septet, led by William Bares, piano, and consisting of Steve Alford, alto saxophone, Jacob Rodgriguez, baritone saxophone, Justin Ray, trumpet, Rick Simerly, trombone, Zack Page, bass, and Michael W. Davis, drums, performed the Dizzy Gillespie composition "Anthropology" to demonstrate the prevailing Bebop style Miles Davis sought to counteract with his radical Birth of the Cool. After this riveting opening number, the full nonet launched into the opening track of the album, with the Denzil Best composition "Move." The opening fanfare with the full ensemble was uncannily similar to the recording – it was immediately apparent that all the performers had done their homework and taken the time to emulate the articulations and dynamic balance within the ensemble that characterized the unique sound presented on the album when it was first released in 1950 – it was a rare treat to hear an ensemble deliberately re-enact this classic sound from a timeless album. Hoover and Lehlbach's rhythmic precision, telepathic attention to attacks and releases, and precise intonation and blend with the more traditional Jazz instrumentation created a warm sound that enunciated the polyphonic textures of the music.
"Jeru," written and originally performed by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, afforded Rodriguez the opportunity to showcase his impressive technical facility on an instrument that is notoriously cumbersome. In his hands, however, the baritone saxophone provided a conduit for his logically-crafted and smoothly-adorned melodic lines. "Moon Dreams" echoed across the halls of the Isis, setting an ethereal mood. Alford shone with his florid ornamentation and sweet, subdued tone, a stark contrast to his more aggressive approach on the alto sax, demonstrating his wide range as a performer and his commitment to channeling Lee Konitz's legendary subdued approach on the original album. This subdued dynamism was also brilliantly displayed by Alford on "Venus de Milo," where his double time solo over the relaxed swing feel beautifully integrated the rapid-fire linear approach of the Bebop school with the graceful finesse of the Cool school.
On "Deception," a composition with an asymmetrical form and, as the title suggests, unpredictable harmonic resolutions, Justin Ray wonderfully captured the essence of Miles Davis' mysterious and seductive timbre, reminding this reviewer why the late great jazz trumpeter was often referred to as "The Prince of Darkness." Justin also shone on "Walkin'," an up-tempo blues number Miles Davis performed throughout his career. Ray's solo was one of many notable improvisations on this number, as Rodriguez and Alford once again took center stage and left the audience breathless with their improvisational capabilities. Simerly, undeterred by the rapid tempo, demonstrated his virtuosic skills on the trombone, as he leaped from one register of his horn to the next, before concluding with a fiery display of spit-fire ornamentations around his high F for a riveting climax. Bares continued the exciting energy of these solos with a high-energy riff-based solo, his left hand thundering out exhilarating McCoy Tyner chord voicings as his right hand modulated the theme through a brilliant set of rhythmic variations. His unrelenting vivacity and precision provided a perfect transition into Michael W. Davis' lively and cleverly crafted drum solo.
A great deal of credit must be given to Dr. Bares as well as Isis owner Scott Woody – while Birth of the Cool is a monumental work of art, it is also an album that is still often branded as being too cerebral and inaccessible. Coupled with the immense difficulty of the music, it is not surprising why performances of the album are rare. All nine musicians on the stage of the Isis, however, did the music great justice and achieved the even more difficult task of paying homage to the classic sound forged by the legendary musicians on Birth of the Cool, all without losing their own unique voices as Jazz musicians and improvisers of the highest order.