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WWU Faculty Jazz Collective – The Blue Horse Gallery
Wednesday, October 12th, 2011
I walk in to the Blue Horse Gallery to the slow padded mallet rumble and rhythm of Julian MacDonough’s drums and an unfurling series of smoky notes from Mike Allens’ sax. Just like that, the world seems to become deeper and richer, filled with the sound of talented musicians working out subtle equations of melody. There is a good crowd here. Attentive. Focused. Listening. Water and wine drinkers. The Professors, as they are called, are relaxed and smiling onstage. The music is excellent.
Adam Thomas, playing the stand-up bass, eases into Ray Charles’ “Black Jack.” Echoes of the ironic phrasing of Mose Allison in his voice. ‘How unlucky can one man be?” I am immediately struck by the level of discipline, control, tightness. At first impression, there is a formality even in the looseness of the performance. But after some time, what is apparent is a simply a higher level of musicianship than is usually present here in town. The next song is by Miles Black, who switches with ease from guitar to the old upright piano behind him. The song kicks off with a beautiful percussive intro, stand-up bass rumbling, the tension building between the two, setting the stage for the piano to step in. By the time Mike Allen’s sax appears, like a snake in the water, your head is sunk into the very heart of jazz. It’s so subtle, like a Zen joke about enlightenment. Makes you want to laugh out loud.
They segue into the Juan Tizol / Duke Ellington standard “Caravan.” Julian knocks out sharp rhythms on the edge of the drums, the sound of stick upon stretched skin. The classic exotic melody seems to catch fire, acquire a life of its own. The musicians play beautifully off of each other. Mike Allen’s sax stretches and twists the melody through time. Miles’ piano remarks in sharp staccato counterpoint response. Julian now playing with his hands, ancient intimate rhythms, ticking punctuation for questions of being that only music can ask, that the performance of live jazz, here and now, seem to particularly ask.
The second set starts off with soft brushes on the drums. Miles Black playing a piano sweet melody - reminding me of the introspective aspects of Bill Evans “I Loves You Porgy.” Bass slow and perfect. Something about the rolling time of the brushes. The languid spaces between the phrases. Mike Allen’s sax stepping in almost with a sense of humor, layering his phrasing with laughter. (Why is it that only jazz musicians seems to have a sense of humor about melody?) They follow this with an original, “Give Me The Moon.’ Siren whine of cymbals fading into leisurely time signatures. Breathtaking sax. Husky whisky sodden notes emerging from the developing structure of the song. Then a sort the melodic clarity. The song settling into its meaning. A sense of a slightly broken promise. The performance goes on into the night, another set, more songs. But it was right there, where the melody unfolded into something unsayable, where you wanted to stop thinking about it all and just let it be.
It’s a dead and beaten horse to say that the experience of jazz is a living thing. But you can wear out the grooves of records (or burn through your sound card) and never match the living performance of jazz. It is what the medium is about. You could go so far as to say you don't know it until you experience it live. You become part of it. Next Wednesday, head down to the Blue Horse for some great jazz by the Professors.