Sunday, July 29, 2018

Delightful Jazz History at the Red Poppy

Jazz pianist Adam Shulman (from the Red Poppy Art House event page)

Last night at the Red Poppy Art House, jazz pianist Adam Shulman presented a program entitled Forgotten Gems from the Bebop Era. He led a quartet whose others members were Patrick Wolff on saxophones (both alto and tenor), Miles Wick on bass, and James Gallagher on drums. At the end of the evening Shulman announced that Gallagher was about to move to New York, making the gig a farewell concert of sorts.

I had been looking forward to this concert ever since I had prepared my “July calendar” article about the Poppy; and my interest was then reinforced after seeing Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. As I had observed about that film, Blue Note had played a major role in “the emergence of bebop and the adventurous styles that followed up on it;” and I anticipated that Shulman’s selections would reinforce my experiences with those recordings. Taking stock this morning, I realized that of the course of twelve songs distributed equally across two sets, only one of the selections originated on a Blue Note recording: “Sighin’ and Cryin’” from Song for My Father, Horace Silver’s debut album as a leader on the label.

The composer who received the most attention on the program was Thelonious Monk. This was no surprise, simply because Monk composed so many tunes. Whether or not Shulman’s selections were “forgotten” is probably a matter of taste. One of them, “Light Blue,” which opened the evening, came from his time with Orrin Keepnews and Riverside. The other two, both in the second set, came from Columbia recordings, a work environment that was far less sympathetic to Monk’s approach to getting things done. Fortunately, some of the Columbia releases were taken from club or concert performances. That was the case for the first Monk selection in the second set, “Gallop’s Gallop,” from the album Live at the It Club. The remaining Monk piece, “Eronel,” came from the Criss-Cross studio album.

The remainder of the program featured many of the “usual suspects,” presented to the audience through pieces that definitely get far less attention than they deserve. “Light Blue” was followed by acknowledging another Monk. “Monk’s Shop” had nothing to do with Thelonious; instead, it was written by the prodigious jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and named after his brother William Howard Montgomery, who played electric bass and was known by his nickname “Monk.” Other composers included Hank Jones (“Minor Contention”) Tadd Dameron (“If You Could See Me Now”), Al Cohn (“Infinity”), Jackie McLean (“Little Melonae”), and J. J. Johnson (“Wee Dot”). Less familiar was Herb Geller, better known as a saxophonist than as a composer. The second set opened with his “Love Is Like A Turtle,” a somewhat provocative title considering the breakneck pace of the music.

The real surprise of the evening was George Shearing, who tends to be associated more with the pop genre than with bebop. His best-known composition was “Lullaby of Birdland,” which used to get a lot of exposure but seems to have faded since his death in 2011. For last night’s program Shulman and his quartet prepared “Conception,” which comes much closer than “Lullaby” to the bebop style that was the focus of the evening.

All four performers were solidly on top of every selection. Shulman could not have been a better leader, always teasing out his own inventive takes at the keyboard while allowing plenty of time for the other players to take the spotlight. Wolff did much of the heavy lifting when it came to introducing each tune, and he was equally comfortable with both his alto and tenor instruments. (He also seems to have powerful muscle memory. For one of the pieces, he picked up the wrong instrument and started playing in the wrong key!)

Given all of the jokes about bass players that go into circulation, I have to say that it was a delight that Wick was given a chance to improvise on each of the selections last night. He brought a wealth of imagination to his solo takes, suggesting that he appreciated the individuality of each song on the program and could reinforce just the right mood for each of them. The only disappointment was learning that Gallagher was about to leave town. He is one of those drummers who knows how to work his kit for pitch as well as rhythm. Thus, even when his solos were wildly aggressive, he always seemed to be thinking of a melodic line that would contribute to the shaping of the off-beat and angular rhythmic patterns that did so much to establish the bebop style.

Working as a group, the entire quartet made a solid case that none of the twelve “gems” they played deserves to be forgotten.

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