Last Thursday night in the Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, Artist-in-Residence in Jazz and Lecturer in Music Kris Allen delivered a dynamic tribute to the late distinguished jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller, having deemed Miller the “consummate accompanist of his time.” Allen was accompanied by his wife, Jen Allen, on the piano and two faculty members, Avery Sharpe and Connor Meehan on the bass and drums, respectively. Kris Allen himself is the Lyell B. Clay Artist-in-Residence in jazz saxophone, a lecturer in music and the director of the Williams Jazz Ensemble.
A piece titled “Wingspan” launched the night’s dynamic program. Its voracious energy was echoed in the nodding heads and tapping feet scattered throughout the audience, who clearly enjoyed the performance. Some of the more passionate jazz enthusiasts in the crowd of note-taking students and Williamstown residents bore overwhelming grins of appreciation. Their animation echoed the energy of the musicians on stage, particularly of the bass player. Wearing a spirited purple shirt, Sharpe seemed to engage in a swing dance with his instrument, moving to each syncopated note of the fast-paced composition, his contorted face reflecting each note. Even the three cherubic looking young children in front of me seemed enraptured by the infectious vitality of the piece and the musicians themselves.
From this first piece onward, there developed a tone of conversation between the musicians and the audience, as well as with the Recital Hall stage itself. Kris Allen interspersed music with anecdotes about Mulgrew Miller and moments of humility and humor, quipping, “I really appreciate all you guys coming out here tonight in lieu of watching the Red Sox.” He said of Mulgrew Miller that “he is Exhibit A in disproving the idea that nothing new has happened in jazz since 1965.” The easy tone and friendly attitude of Kris Allen’s words contributed to the convivial, intimate atmosphere that developed in the room.
This tone was maintained even as the separate moods of the pieces varied widely. The second piece, “For those who do,” began with soft drums and a slowly lulling focus on the saxophone, a much calmer entrance into the piece than the first “Wingspan.” But as the bass and piano entered the composition, the saxophone seemed to gain strength from their company and climbed to a much more energetic, engaging phase. “Elation,” the third piece, showcased a captivating communication between piano and saxophone, husband and wife. Both were nimble and rhythmic, with the saxophone becoming gradually more expressive. The exchange between the drums and the saxophone later in the piece built excitement, receiving an enthusiastic reception from the audience. “Body and Soul” featured solely the saxophone and piano. The velvety piano intro filled the room, gently complemented by the soulful crackling of the saxophone. It was accompanied by an anecdote from Kris Allen. He described the incident of a student asking Miller about the specifics of a lick in the piece after he finished playing it at a college Kris Allen used to work at. Miller responded, “If you needed to play it, you would.” Kris Allen called it “one of his very favorite educational moments in jazz.” Unfortunately, the piece itself ended on a weaker note than in started on. But this was picked up by the sultry “Threnody” and by the welcomed and impressive contribution of two Williams students, Jackson Myers ’17 and Jonathan Dely ’15 to “Hindsight” by Cedar Walton on the saxophone and trumpet, respectively. They fitted seamlessly into the familial feeling of the stage, with Kris Allen looking on them as an admiring father would. These last two pieces were not composed by Miller but by Marian McPartland and Cedar Walton, both of whom also passed away last summer. The inclusion of other artists was by suggestion of event manager Jonathan Myer and far from detracting from the focus on a tribute to Miller, it nourished a tone of reverence not only toward him as an artist but toward jazz in general.
The final song “Soul-Leo” recreated the energy and excitement of the first. The music seemed to bubble off the musicians, creating a pulsating enthusiasm throughout the entire hall. Beginnning with a piano intro, the focus bounced from instrument to instrument, emulating the conversational flavor of the entire night. It was a most appropriate conclusion to an intimate performance imbued with passion and enthusiasm.