Sept. 6, 2009 performance reviewed by Ronald K. Baker
Smack-dab in the middle of a string of sunny days and pleasant temperatures, Sunday afternoon found some concertgoers lingering on the grounds of Tanglewood rather than being in a hurry to be seated in Ozawa Hall for the 2 p.m. presentation. The concert began precisely on time, nonetheless, as the last few trickled in.
Onstage, two elegant Steinways nestled together belly to belly so that the pianists could see each other. And so the summit of the titans began. Mulgrew Miller, with his hulking frame, maintained an upright posture with his gaze fixed on his opposite number, Kenny Barron, nine feet and eighty-eight keys away. For his part, Barron rarely looked up, preferring rather to lean slightly forward with his shoulders closer to the keyboard.
The program notes gave a brief history of previous piano duets, many of which took place with four hands on the same instrument. This occasion, a bit of a rarity, would find each instrumentalist having access to the full range of notes, hence making communication all the more essential. That, ostensibly, was the plan. For whatever reason, perhaps the proximity of the microphone, Miller’s instrument was in the foreground, both literally and figuratively. Barron’s was a bit subdued by comparison.
“Gentlemen, start your engines,” someone might well have proclaimed as the pair began. Barron, the senior member, played a solo introduction. Miller joined in mid-way, first adding a rolling bass line, and then taking the first improvisation, which was followed by spontaneous applause from the Jazz-savvy crowd.
The piece itself, the standard, “Just In Time,” was a fitting entry point that most listeners could relate to. For some, it was one of the more familiar offerings from the duo whose general fare was a clinic in virtuosity, style, and technique that seemed, at times, fiercely competitive.
That said, Kenny Barron played a decidedly lyrical and expressive solo rendition of “Memories of You,” a Eubie Blake composition. Barron’s creativity, subtleties, and dynamic changes to augment the mood, all played well to the crowd – bringing to mind the adage, You can get more flies with honey… . His understated vamp in the left hand came across like a giant on tiptoes. An attentive hush came over the audience.
In succeeding selections, creativity was the watchword. The pair executed runs up and down the ivories with such proficiency that 32nd notes seemed to ripple as effortlessly as the waving of a willow in the breeze.
The high point of the collaboration came when the pair decided to “funk” with each other on the selection “Blue Monk.” It was the only instance of protracted eye contact between the two players. The soulful moment had a feel-good swagger that was optimally engaging. It came to a close with a commanding stride-piano coda, as these two lions of jazz piano reached détente. The Tanglewood audience rose in appreciation.
John Mosca leads the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra
During the brief intermission one of the pianos was wheeled offstage, and the sixteen-piece Vanguard Jazz Orchestra got underway less than fifteen minutes later. John Mosca, veteran trombonist, doubled as moderator. His self-effacing presentation would prove easy to take for the remainder of the afternoon. By way of introduction, he noted that the band has been appearing on Monday nights without interruption at the Village Vanguard for the past forty-three years.
Many of the instrumentalists either lead or are members of other successful jazz groups. The credentials of this lineup are most impressive. Mosca pointed out that the band relies heavily on arrangements by the venerated Bobby Brookmeyer, the trombonist, who was one of the original members of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Vanguard Orchestra.
For this concert, the aggregation began with the rhythm section lulling the listeners into a false sense of security, which was, unfortunately, shattered when the full orchestra entered. There were sixteen separate microphones, one for each player as well as one for the individual players who made their way down front to be featured.
Among those who were called upon for such duty were the stand-outs lead trumpeter Terrell Stafford, tenor saxophonist Billy Drewes, and the alto saxophone virtuoso, Dick Oatts, who performed yeoman’s duty as assistant conductor from his chair in addition to his outstanding solo efforts.
The power of this orchestra, augmented by the amplification, made it hard to imagine how they could fare so well in the relative intimacy of the Village Vanguard. The sound engineer, wrestling with the sound in Ozawa Hall, had the added responsibility to deliver sound to those assembled on the lawn as well.
All in all, the arrangements were stellar and appropriately varied. The crowd, which had tweaked itself after the first concert, seemed appreciative enough, graciously applauding the soloists and the endings as well.
Among the most impressive of the selections were “ABC Blues,” whereon Oatts turned in a monster performance on alto, and, “The Waltz You Swang For Me,” a Thad Jones composition that showcased Drewes on soprano sax. And while many of the pieces waxed esoteric, if not cacophonic, a ballad changeup, called “Kids Are Pretty People,” had an easy feel, evoking images of nightfall in the city.
The soundman got a better handle on things as the concert went along (or the listener became inured to the volume level). Many of the pieces were quite busy by comparison, so that when pianist Michael Weiss presented a pensive chorus or two, accompanied only by the tasteful addition of bass and drums, it provided what seemed like a welcome respite. Gary Smulyan, whose performance was huge on baritone sax, offered up another poignant moment of his own.
Closing out the afternoon, Mosca dedicated the last selection to Edward M. Kennedy, the late senator from Massachusetts. As if to mimic the audience’s response to his dedication, the piece was delivered in subdued tones. Dick Oatts conducted nicely from his center chair in the band’s front row.
The faithful filed out of the hall, richly rewarded for their attendance. Crisp air and the angular sunshine of early September made for a leisurely departure across the green and shadowed lawns of afternoon.