Cercie Miller Quartet enlivens Brooks-Rogers with skillful show

Two weeks ago, the Williams Jazz Ensemble opened their season with a lively night of classical jazz. This past Thursday evening, the Ensemble just kept on giving, organizing a performance by the Cercie Miller Quartet to perform at Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall.

Cercie Miller is a nationally recognized jazz saxophonist and bandleader who has already completed two albums with her current quartet, including the just-released Blue Vistas. She has earned accolades for her talented play and compositional skill and stands as a potential breakout artist who could rise to greater prominence in the near future. On Thursday, Miller’s band demonstrated its considerable dexterity before a crowd that filled the auditorium to half-capacity.

The quartet opened the evening with its reading of a familiar number, Miles Davis’ “Walkin’.” It wasn’t as powerful as The Freddie Bryant Quintet’s version of Davis’ “Solar” from last year’s Thompson Concert Series, but it was well-played and tight and featured an interesting treatment of the head that incorporated tempo changes and drum breaks. The first – and most memorable – solo went to pianist Tim Ray, who nicely mixed the work’s melodic elements into his improvisation.

Ray’s performance, and, in fact, the band’s overall work on the piece, were in many ways prescient. Over the course of the evening, it became apparent that Ray was the band’s strongest individual performer: his dissonant lines gave “The Night I Met Eddie Palmieri” some much-needed force and he fleshed “The Blue Note” out with rich, textured chords.

This is not to understate the skills of the quartet’s other members, which were universally impressive. Bassist David Clark and drummer Bob Savine each exhibited in their solos a propensity for captivating, often frenetic improvisation. And Miller herself proved to be a technically proficient saxophonist. These qualities were in evidence on the band’s second number, “The Blue Note,” a tribute Miller penned in honor of her favorite soul jazz musicians (players such as Cannonball Adderley).

In addition to Ray’s layered sound, Miller’s playing was excellent on this number. She leaned back and roared as her solo hit some impressive climaxes, finally bringing it back down to a subdued tiptoe. Despite Miller’s versatility and technical facility, some of the most successful moments came when, as in “Blue Note,” she simply sat on a single note while her very talented rhythm section churned stormily in support.

“Sutherland’s Muse,” another Miller original, was a similarly impressive exhibition of the quartet’s prowess. Building off of a nostalgic and dancing intro from Ray, the piece had a real sense of development. It reached its peak when Savine, who had concentrated on the snare drum, recalling a military march, let loose with a furious but well-measured drum solo. The piece slowed down with another Ray solo, but it crescendoed to a tense, rhythmically charged conclusion as Savine again soloed over a vamp from in the piano and bass.

Clearly, playing the instruments was no problem for the Cercie Miller Quartet. The band did struggle a bit, though, when it came to the trickier matter of presenting its influences in a fresh manner. “Walkin’” and Duke Ellington’s famous “Mood Indigo” were well executed but they weren’t the least bit transcendent: both relied more on exercise than interpretation, although “Mood Indigo” featured a fine bowed bass solo by Clark.

Furthermore, the band’s originals were spotty, divided between smart if unoriginal tunes and somewhat forced attempts at branching out. Miller’s “The Night I Met Eddie Palmieri” was a particularly pointed example of the latter. Attempting to capture the Latin jazz feel its namesake pulls off so easily, “Palmieri” suffered from a rigidity and clunkiness that was salvaged in part only by fine work from Ray and Savine. Savine’s own “Near Elm” and Clark’s “The Sister of Brotherly Love” too often straddled the line between accessible simplicity and jazz-lite cliché.

The final piece played, Miller’s “New O” (a tribute to the so-called birthplace of jazz), best exemplified the dichotomy between excellent performance and disappointing composition. The playing itself was one of the night’s highlights, energetic and pulsating when the band worked together, extraordinarily skillful on the improvisational sections. Yet for all the band’s obvious talent and understanding, “New O” lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Blame it on the songwriting, which didn’t add any inherent panache to its admittedly well-structured framework.

If Cercie Miller and her Quartet develop a more comfortable relationship with jazz history, though, they should grow to be a formidable outfit. The evening’s best moments came when the band members were simply playing – when Miller stepped off to the side and nodded as the rhythm section grooved; when Charles or Savine got caught up in a hectic solo; when Ray and Miller chased each other with their instruments. When it remembered what exactly it was playing, though, the quartet often seemed uncomfortable in its own skin, too willing to channel jazz legends when it could be forming its own personality.

Credit pianist Ray for at times noticing this. His work was memorable expressly because at his best he reveled in the notes and in himself. This comes, one would assume, in part from his experience as a bandleader – his other project is the Tim Ray Band. But it also comes from confidence and looseness: even his more somber emotional moments benefited from a somewhat casual spirit. The Cercie Miller Quartet provided the crowd with an exemplarily played jazz set; had the atmosphere been slightly less constrained, the Quartet might have delivered a lot more.