The title of yesterday’s Old First Concerts program at Old First Presbyterian Church was Arm Sized Legging, the name of a project conceived by jazz saxophonist Matt Renzi. The idea was to expand the usual trio based on a rhythm section of bass (John Wiitala) and drums (Hamir Atwal) with two string players, Lucy Southern on violin and Helen Newby on cello. The motivation was to explore the opportunity for richer instrumental textures and colorations. All of the pieces played yesterday were Renzi’s original compositions.
While this was an appealing idea, its realization was not particularly compelling. For the most part the strings, when they performed at all, did little more than add some highlighting to the instrumental sonorities of the trio. Part of the problem was that they were unamplified. While Old First has excellent acoustics, the decibel power of Renzi’s saxophone and Atwal’s drumming tended to flood the sanctuary (and every good jazz group knows that everyone backs off when the bass takes a solo). The result was that the violin and cello sounded like the alto and tenor sections of a choir that was not particularly well balanced. Furthermore, neither Southern nor Newby was given an opportunity to improvise along with the other members of the group.
For that matter Southern’s appearance was minimal, playing in only a few selections on either side of the intermission. She did not even come out for a final bow. Newby had the advantage of playing a duo with Renzi called “Family Picnic.” This gave her an opportunity to explore many of the alternative techniques that she seemed to command very well, and her sonorities tended to suggest that Renzi’s goal had been to depict the ants’ point of view of the picnic in his title. In just about every other setting, however, Newby tended either to follow Wiitala’s line or add a subdued harmonizing voice.
As to Renzi himself, his compositions tended to be at least moderately engaging but not particularly enduring. The same could be said of his saxophone improvisation work. In this context it was probably fortunate that his compositions tended to be on the short side. Since he was not that adventurous, there was no need for him to invest too much time in exploration. The overall result was a relatively brief program of original jazz music that offered more than a few pleasures but resulted in little that remained in memory after the hall had emptied.