Quartet explores stylistic variety

Steeped in critical acclaim that came with their most recent release “Beloved”, the Kris Allen Quartet offered a taste of it’s unique and modern sound this past Saturday to a full auditorium at the Clark Art Institute. A set of mostly original material written by Artist-in-Residence and Jazz Ensemble Director Kris Allen, the music stylistically weaved between beautiful ballads and more up-tempo compositions which showcased the diverse improvisational skills of the Quartet. Allen’s group consisted of himself on alto saxophone, tenor saxophonist Frank Kozyra, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Jonathan Barber. Perhaps most interestingly, the group’s instrumentation is a bit out of the ordinary. With two saxophones and a rhythm section (bass and drums) that features no instrument to play full chords, the group explored a wide, harmonically rich and complex approach in its playing. During either composed or improvised moments, the whole band took advantage of the stripped-down harmonic limitations they faced and ventured into captivating territory. Drummer Jonathan Barber’s playing stood out as he skillfully supported solos, highlighted Allen’s interesting and original melodies, tastefully filled the vacated compositional space left by the missing chordal instruments and took a few of his own solos, leaving many in the crowd wanting more.

In fact, the theme of the night was the idea of “more.” This tone was set early on when Allen could not narrow down his choice of featured artwork behind the band to one singular work; a projector screen behind the band which displayed some of the Clark’s collection moved from piece to piece throughout the show. However, this theme of “more” was not just restricted to the visual art behind the stage; in fact, it was applied equally to the musicians. As with most — if not all — jazz shows, improvisation was the highlight. The single unifying strength across every solo taken by members of the Quartet was that each improvisation built upon itself and the ones which came before it. This was most evident during an extended solo by Jonathan Barber, in which he started by using mallets on the drum set to produce intriguing sounds. After building the solo to a loud climax, Barber seamlessly transitioned into using drumsticks and continued improvising. As soon as the band transitioned back into the melody, the audience let out one its loudest cheers of the night.

One thing – usually out of the control of performers – which aided the band was the venue itself. The auditorium in the Manton Research Center at the Clark was one of the best acoustic environments I have experienced in the Berkshires. When talking to a contingent of Williams Jazz musicians after the show, Allen joked that during sound check he asked for the drums to be turned up in the house mix because he heard too much bass, a truly rare scenario. Despite the amplifier for the bass, overhead microphones for the drum set and microphones for each saxophone, the band easily could have played its set with no amplification, and there would have been no difference. Members of the Jazz at Williams community also joked that they wished they could perform in the space.

However, irrespective of the beautiful venue, the Quartet’s performance was perhaps the most amazing jazz event all year on campus. The virtuosic musicality of the players, the incredible compositions and the multiple but cohesive artistic elements brought to the performance made it an unparalleled experience for the Williamstown community. For those interested in hearing more jazz at the College, there will be a swing dance with the Williams Jazz Ensemble (WJE) – led by Allen – this Saturday as well as concerts on April 28 (WJE), May 10 (Jazz Combos) and May 11 (Williams Jazz Repertory Ensemble).

Last Saturday’s performance by the Kris Allen Quartet highlighted the improvisational ability of the group. Photo courtesy of krissallen.com.