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Duke Performances has been exploring off-campus venues for some of its presentations for several years, and they've found a wonderful partner for their more intimate jazz concerts in the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Durham. The hoteliers preserved a fine paneled room on the ground floor of the former bank building, which serves not only for receptions but also as a right-sized room for strange dance performances and small concerts. It was a wonderful venue for the super-charged bassist Christian McBride and his Tip City Trio, whom DP presented as the final of three jazz performances at 21c this season.
There are various configurations for a jazz trio: in Tip City, the redoubtable McBride is buttressed by two younger players, Emmet Cohen on piano and Dan Wilson on hollow-body electric guitar; and their sound together is smooth and scintillating, full of lively mischief and surprise. At the 5 p.m. show on April 30, they played joyously, even on the sadder of the several jazz standards in the set.
"Jazz standard" sounds like an oxymoron, but really it's a paradox. When worked by passionate musicians, a classic tune can be a springboard into the infinite cosmos – and the path back to the known world. It's the exploratory improv in the middle that makes it jazz, and when that trip really swings, it's worthy of the complimentary tip of the hat – "tip city, man!" This trio is correctly named.
But of course, jazz is an ever-regenerating music, too, with new compositions being written all the time, in vital synergy with older works. The most wonderful part of this deeply satisfying set came in its middle, with "Wee Small Hours" followed by a brand new piece by pianist Cohen, "You Already Know."
"Wee Small Hours" (Mann/Hilliard, 1955) has been played, sung and recorded by a dozens of notable musicians, but this performance was the most beautiful I've heard. Wilson's plaintive guitar resonated through the violet spaces between McBride's indigo bass (the bow work pulled on the skin like raw silk) and Cohen's shimmering starlight piano. They took it very slow, dragging the sounds out like those 3 a.m. minutes of regret "when your lonely heart has learned its lesson," constantly checking with each other, finding the point when even one more note would have turned heartfelt poignancy into sentimental dreck – and stopping right there. Perfect.
From there, they launched into the only new tune of the seven-song set: Cohen's "You Already Know" was so new they'd only rehearsed it two hours earlier – this was its first performance. Here you felt, in the playing, a very different kind of daring – brinksmanship fueled by a dare, the real risk of a big fail. This is a rapid, rollicking composition (especially juxtaposed with "Wee Small Hours"), with lots of complex interweaving of the three parts as they rush down the river of sound. It felt great to hear them swing through it and bring it all home together with dash and panache. Tip city.
The trio also played Sonny Rollins' "Sonnymoon for Two," Milt Jackson's "The Masquerade is Over (I'm Afraid)," and Joseph Henderson's great "Recorda Me," with its samba sounds. Later they tipped their own hats to the centennial of so many jazz greats who were born in 1917, and did a fine version of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (Rodgers and Hart) in honor of Miss Ella Fitzgerald, who sang it so very very well. The evening concluded with a boisterous, feel-good arrangement by Wilson of the Beatles "I Got to Get You Into My Life," which is what every jazz lover should do with this extraordinary trio.