Solo greats zealously riff at Williamstown Jazz Festival

Word was that pianist Robert Glasper took a wrong turn on his way to the Williamstown Jazz Festival and drove to Boston instead of Williamstown. Whatever the reason, saxophonist Joe Lovano’s quartet played first at the headline show on Saturday, going against the stated order on the program. The switch reversed the night’s energy trajectory: spirits peaked in the middle of the evening as Lovano ended his performance and underwent a slow decline once Glasper took the stage. The arc was unexpected, but didn’t prevent the real highlights from showing through.

Particularly outstanding performances came from Lovano as well as drummer Matt Wilson and showed that perhaps Williamstown isn’t as far removed from New York, the capital of the jazz world, as those who bemoan the effects of the “Purple Bubble” would have us believe.

Lovano’s quartet featured Wilson on drums, Frank Kinbrough on piano and Williams studio instructor John Menegon on bass. The group began with an upbeat rendition of one of Lovano’s own compositions entitled “Ft. Worth.” Lovano had an extended solo in which he took the horn on enthusiastic flights from low throaty richness to shrill fluorescence.

The meat of the solo derived not particularly from its build, but from sheer longevity. It seemed that the solo had reached its peak after the first several minutes, but I found excitedly (and a bit exhaustedly) after another five minutes that it wasn’t even half over.

Pianist Kinbrough responded with a solo that had a classic pentatonic sound and strong pedaled fifths on the downbeat, echoing flavors popularized by McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea.

Even though Wilson didn’t take a solo on this first number, a very serious problem threatened to crystallize even from the outset of this performance. This was that Wilson, contrary to the unfortunately reductive conception of the drummer as glorified metronome, was playing with possibly more deftness and artistry than anyone else on stage.

This is a serious problem indeed for anyone subscribing to the notion that for an instrument to have legitimacy it needs to be able to play notes. Wilson’s craft became increasingly clear following a few special moments – arguably the highlights of the entire night.

One such moment occurred in the second piece, a tribute to famed tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman entitled “Dewey’s Tune.” Here, following a lengthy intro by Menegon, Wilson led the audience on a poetically nuanced journey from a minimalist initial expression to a rolling finale.

Another exhilarating moment provoked by Wilson occurred in a perhaps unexpected juncture – during a bass solo on the fourth piece of the evening, “Quickening.” Menegon had taken over from Kinbrough in a pensive if somewhat dispassionate solo, and was joined, delicately at first, then with increasing zeal, by Wilson. Almost immediately, and even really before Wilson had started playing anything substantial, it was impossible to keep your eyes off him.

This might have been due to the unabashedly animated expression on his face. It also might have been due to the fact that his search for new nuances of expression with the set had led him towards unorthodox playing styles, such as hitting the backsides of the cymbals, getting a tinny squashing sound and hitting the backside of the bass drum, getting little discernible difference at all.

In sum, while the conversation between the two players was indeed meaningful and expressive, Menegon might have been a bit better off if Wilson had been playing behind a drawn curtain, so the audience might have paid attention to the music rather than Wilson’s dynamism. Of course, it was not really his fault that he, with his vivacity, stole the show. It may be too much to ask to have an audience whose reaction reflects the level of musicianship on stage rather than the visible spectacle
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Following a few more varied pieces, including a refreshingly honest rendition of a classic ballad, Lovano’s quartet gave the stage to the Robert Glasper Trio, which included Alan Hampton on bass and Chris Dave on drums. The trio opened with a shimmery version of “G&B” from Glasper’s new album. The piece made effective use of non-traditional meters and was enhanced by forceful drum accompaniment.

From here, unfortunately, the energy of the set took a downward turn, possibly owing to the trio’s lethargy from a trip that had apparently routed through Boston not much more than two hours before.
Perhaps the directors of the Jazz Festival, in addition to procuring some of the best talent in New York, should have also ensured that these musicians were provided with proper directions to Williamstown.