The Sunday Jazz Series at Isis, hosted by Isis owner Scott Woody and artistic director William Bares, continued its reputation as the place to hear highly talented jazz artists in Asheville. Sunday evening was especially notable for its display of musical diversity, with two acts – one upstairs in the lounge and the other downstairs on the main stage – taking radically different yet equally successful approaches to what Billy Taylor famously referred to as "America's classical music."
Upstairs, pianist/vocalist Jamar Woods, bassist Jake O' Connor, and drummer Michael Tillis opened with a riveting performance of Horace Silver's "Sister Sadie." Woods and O'Connor both demonstrated their understanding of the jazz tradition, alternating the eight-measure motive of the tune with soulful panache and driving energy. Woods' approach to the piano was a distinct combination of Ray Charles' gospel-injected riffs, Thelonious Monk's rhythmic dynamicism, Oscar Peterson's playful energy, and the composer's hard-bop edge. Coupled with O' Connor's and Tillis' driving shuffle feel, Woods brought the bluesy aesthetic of Silver's tune to life.
By contrast, the following two numbers were popular selections from the American Songbook, "Never Will I Marry," and "My Foolish Heart." Woods demonstrated a unique vocal style, an initially surprising yet successful fusion of the pentatonic-infused melismas of such R&B singers as Ray Charles and Luther Vandross with the refined sophistication of a jazz vocalist. The latter was especially apparent on his sincere and beautiful rendition of the haunting ballad, "Don't Explain," made famous by Billie Holiday. The late singer's influence was channeled with an expansive and heartfelt approach by Woods, whose command of the silence in between the notes during his vocal interpretation and whose piano solo over the first two A sections of the composition demonstrated musical wisdom well beyond the young performer's years.
The 17-piece big band that took the main stage for the second act offered a sound starkly different from Wood's amalgamation of R&B and jazz. With a classic, roaring sound reminiscent of the territory bands of the 1930s and '40s, the Asheville Jazz Orchestra triumphantly roared a full hour of classic compositions from one of the most influential big bands of all time – the Count Basie Orchestra. Pianist Jeff Knorr, granted the difficult responsibility of playing the role of the Count himself, did the part great justice. Knorr's light comping and tasteful lines provided an energetic but cool introduction to one of Basie's most famous numbers, the riff-based and syncopation driven composition, "Straight Ahead," (actually written by the great arranger and composer Sammy Nestico). The saxophone section especially shone on this number, attacking and releasing the signature scoops and bends made famous by the Basie Big Band with collective accuracy and unified blend. Steve Alford and Alan Theisen especially stood out with their supply colored alto saxophone lines rising above the ensemble with a brilliant sheen. The brass section demonstrated the same acuity as a section within the larger ensemble on the ballad "Lil' Darlin." The double quartet of four trumpets and four trombones generated a warm and rounded sound, their rendition of the gracefully descending melodic line performed with swinging unity.
The AJO then performed Freddie Green's riff-based composition, "Corner Pocket." The saxophone section once again took center stage, with all five performers flawlessly executing the repetitive motive with the aggressive yet refined attitude that characterized the Basie sound. Josh Farnham and Woody Dotson both performed lyrical solos, an excellent contrast to the intensity of the ensuing shout chorus. On Neal Hefti's, "Cute," a vehicle for the Basie Band's drummer Sonny Payne, AJO drummer Justin Watt crafted syncopated excursions in the windows afforded by the stop-time melody. Armed with nothing more than a pair of brushes, he brought a vital surge of rhythmic energy, enunciating the composer's noted ability to develop the simplest musical motive into a fully-fledged composition for the ensemble. The highlight of this first Basie-themed set, however, was the ensemble's interpretation of one of Nestico's finest arrangements, "Hayburner." Again, Knorr's introductory vamp was a terrific homage to Basie's classic minimalist sound. The saxophone section once again shone, as the quintet within the ensemble jauntily relished in the infectious scoops and shakes of the arrangement, displaying to the audience exactly how "playing behind the beat" should sound.
The second set featured numerous original works by various members of the AJO. The first selection, by AJO musical director and bandleader David Wilken], was a blistering melody over standard blues changes, aptly titled "Houdini's Escape," after the famous magician's trademark routine. Dotson demonstrated his versatility, performing in the style of Dizzy Gillespie and offering a fiery contrast to his more subdued solo in the first set.
This was followed by another excellently crafted composition and arrangement by Wilken, "Doppio," a lush ballad featuring baritone saxophonist Frank Southecorvo and Doston on flugelhorn. Both demonstrated great nuance and subtlety in their playing, gently coaxing sophisticated and sincere melodic gestures from the bells of their respective horns. Following their individual choruses, Southecorvo and Dotson engaged in a brief yet exhilarating trading of fours, their lines seamlessly integrated into a beautiful symbiosis. Steve Alford, a long-time alto saxophonist with the ensemble, provided his unique interpretation of the 32 measure rhythm changes form with a dodecaphonic melody in "Stumpy the Gnome." Alford's infusion of thematic material from the melody's angular lines with bop-based scalar runs provided an energetic solo in the style of Eric Dolphy that had the audience (especially this reviewer), roaring with judicious applause.
Unfortunately, the audience size had greatly diminished by the second set. This was not due to a poor performance, as the band did Basie's music great justice in the first set and received roaring admiration from the heavily-packed hall of the Isis. Perhaps the notion of original jazz music proved intimidating for many people. In spite of the decrease attendance, there were many avid listeners still present for the original set. Their enthusiastic reception of the new jazz music was affirmation of Asheville's reputation as a creative hotbed for great improvisational music.