Avery Sharpe Quintet plays musical tribute to jazz greats

Those who miss the city for its incredible live jazz scene need look no further than Chapin Hall for a taste of home. Professor of music Andy Jaffe recently brought to the stage an old friend and world-renowned bassist/composer Avery Sharpe to share his talent and warm enthusiasm with the audience. Friday night’s “Legends and Mentors” concert paid homage to three of jazz’s all-time greats: McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef, all of whom mentored Sharpe over the length of his career. Also featured was an impressive array of sidemen, including violinist John Blake, drummer Winand Harper, Onaje Allan Gumbs on piano and Joe Ford on alto and tenor saxophone.

Sharpe, who was born in Georgia and attended the University of Massachusetts, is a versatile musician who started out early by playing piano, accordion and electric bass. He didn’t pick up the acoustic bass until he was in college, but adapted at an alarmingly rapid rate, performing with the likes of Art Blakey and jazz piano virtuoso Tyner within a few years. Sharpe also came into contact with Shepp, who was one of his professors at the university, and accompanied him to Europe on his first professional tour. After working with Tyner for over 20 years, Sharpe went on to compose music for a number of different venues and continued to perform with his quintet, working with musicians like guitarist Pat Metheny and all-time jazz great Lateef, with whom he has collaborated for 15 years.

Despite the glamorous track record, Sharpe’s stage personality remains down-to-earth and avoidant of the spotlight. “It’s like a family reunion every time we get together,” Sharpe said warmly as he introduced, in his genteel manner, a star-studded cast of players who have amassed a wealth of knowledge and experience playing with the who’s who of jazz. The group then launched into a Shepp tune entitled “U jaama”, featuring Blake and Gumbs soloing over a tightly-knit accompaniment by Sharpe and Harper, whose intuitive changes in texture and usage of the ride cymbal showcased his talent right off the bat.

Next in line was “Steam,” a jazz waltz which gave every member of the band a chance to exhibit mastery of his instrument. Blake’s violin solo was backed up with effortless comping by Gumbs, switching over to Ford on soprano sax. His rich, vibrant tone soared and reverberated through the hall. As his solo built up to a climactic pitch, the interplay between him and the rest of the group was fascinating to watch, including a nice echo by Gumbs of his tremulo coming straight out of the build.

Sharpe’s bass soloing laid down a wicked groove as well. As I watched him in the next tune, “The Chief”, which he composed as a tribute to Shepp, I couldn’t help noticing how attuned he was to his bass in the way that only a seasoned musician could be, swaying back and forth and exploring various rhythms in a deep conversation with his instrument.

The highlight of the set was the group’s rendition of “Morning,” a beautiful Lateef composition, which started out softly with a plucked string motif from Blake over Gumbs’ lush, laid-back piano comping. Harper’s sparse accompaniment style on the drums lent an almost crystalline texture to his playing; I almost expected to see dewdrops glancing off of his sticks. Soon, Sharpe picked up and plucked along with Blake, the two of them interacting as though they were sharing a private joke. And then Blake launched into this growling, bluesy riff that blew away any notion of mine that a violin couldn’t play “dirty.” The effect was almost gypsy-like, and Sharpe’s bowed bass solo added to it. The piece ended in a nice soft fadeout, along with a general sound of assent and appreciation from the audience.

The next Lateef tune, “Because They Love Me,” had Ford tearing it up on alto, wailing over the rest of the group in a frenzy of sound. Gumbs also got to wander a bit, getting atonal and tempestuous as his solo progressed. There was extraordinary communication between him and Harper, who backed down to let him have his say and then pushed him to new heights. Harper’s own solo, a four-minute odyssey, started by laying down a tight, understated pulse with a constant backbeat, allowing him to free up and explore with crazy crossovers until his arms resembled nothing more than a blur.

Overall, the group put on an awesome show that ended with Tyner’s “Fly with the Wind,” which had the audience up on its feet and clapping along. For those who missed this incredible evening or can’t wait for the music department’s next jazz event – the Freddie Bryant Quartet on Oct. 4 – there will be a screening of the film Straight No Chaser, which highlights the career of jazz great Thelonious Monk, on Oct. 2 at 4:15 p.m. in Brooks-Rogers.