Jazz – and Jazz! – on Jay

Just couldn’t let the entire Jazz on Jazz season blur past without catching some sounds, so I hied myself to where Jay Street t’s onto State on September 18 for the Tarik Shah Trio, last in the regular free street jazz series. Had such a cool time, I then re-hied myself back for the three-band Jazz Appreciation Month concert there a week later.

Shorn of the dreads he sported at Jazz at the Spring with guitarist in pre-plague days (early February), bassist Shah, guitarist Luke Franco and drummer Matt Niedbalski balanced standards with originals to inviting effect. 

Warm day, warm music. 

They’d already started when I arrived, a bit late from an appointment and being distracted by the Open Door Bookshop window. So I may have missed something, but I felt grateful to catch the hearty funk of “Sunday’ Hardship Blues” – a family-mentoring tale where Shah clearly led, there on Jay Street, while his compadres kept up, held their own and pushed their own ideas into Shah’s original. In Quincy Jones’s “Quintessence” (no, not the late, great New Scotland Avenue bistro), Shah swapped his acoustic bass for an electric four-string and ganged up on the beat all by himself with a hard-hitting right thumb.

Tarik Shah Trio

In the Duke’s “Caravan,” Franco’s guitar punched the rhythm, especially when Shah laid out and Franco and Niedbalski went A-versus-B before Shah joined in to swap fours with everybody, then slapped a feedback coda on the whole sly and syncopated thing. More syncopation popped in Mal Waldron’ “Soul Eyes” and the band hung with the groove into the theme from “Black Orpheus” – a thrilling bossa-funk foray with Franco’s guitar swinging the melody while Shah and Niedbalski hit an exuberant double-time clip. 

“We’re gonna swing some,” Shah announced at their closing number, cueing up “My Shining Hour” to take us home. Warmed up from the first notes I saw, they hit top cruising altitude here.

Shah’s crew gauged the audience well, noting that lawn-chaired fans (all masked) at times barely outnumbered folks passing through, toting lunches from Jay Street eateries back to offices across State. The trio didn’t challenge, but they didn’t condescend, either. It was jazz for real, and for real fans.

Postponed from April, the official Jazz Appreciation Month, sponsors the Schenectady-Amsterdam Musical Union, Local 85-133 and the Music Performance Trust Fund patiently brought back this three-band freebie last Thursday (September 24) when the world felt safer.

Noisier, too, let’s note here. Sirens screamed, Harley hogs rapped their pipes, drivers honked horns. The three bands – the Dylan Canterbury Quintet, the Patti Melita Quintet and Cliff Brucker & New Circle – had to fight through way too much distraction. But they did it.

Paying tribute to a single artist can feel confining, monochromatic. Trumpeter-leader Canterbury’s ingenious arrangements and first-class playing by everybody highlighted the variety and verve of Thad Jones’s compositions which comprised the entire setlist. They played with an easy, mellow swagger; bluesy in “61st and Richard,” Latin-dancey in “Bossa Nova Ova, and even when they went dissonant, everything had swing. Canterbury and valve trombonist Tyler Giroux usually harmonized to state the theme, then one yielded for the other to solo, then they swapped roles. Pianist Wayne Hawkins, bassist Lou Smaldone and drummer Graeme Francis played ferocious or sensitive in support and ambushing their own solo spots with gusto. They balanced jaunty up-tunes – “Fingers,” a hot-rod welded onto the frame of “I Got Rhythm” took my breath away, and theirs – with the mature sweetness of “Consummation” – best ballad all day.

Dylan Canterbury Quintet

Patti Melita aimed her ageless voice and the solid, unassuming ease of her quintet at charming standards, appropriately noting they were playing on “On The Sunny Side of the Street” early on. Tenor saxophonist Jim Corigliano always took the first solo, echoing Melita’s elegance but adding fast-moving decoration at times, too. Keyboardist Peg Delaney played organ and vibes effects in “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Let There Be Love,” but mostly relied on regular piano tones. Bassist Bill Delaney and drummer Tim Coakley linked tight in both their crisp phrasing and droll asides, having fun, giving fun to the music.

Patti Melita Quintet

Extra credit to these local heroes for honoring one of our most heroic giants, the late, great Lee Shaw, closing with Shaw’s syncopated bossa nova “My Holiday” that felt festive and fine.

Leading a stripped-down version of the Full Circle band he’s led on two albums and several years of shows, drummer Cliff Brucker closed Thursday. His New Circle trio – keyboardist Pete Levin and guitarist Chad McLoughlin – went all bebop in an agile, imaginative set reaching into jazz history and the future with equal aplomb. 

Sound engineer Rob Aronstein, an ace keyboardist in his own right, mixed both front of house and stage monitors by himself, with problems marring only the early part of New Circle’s set. Backing off from the kinetic energy of their zippy opener, they soothed big time in Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” McLoughlin caressing the melody until Brucker engaged the guys in brisk riff swaps. 

Cliff Brucker’s New Circle

Levin made mighty organ sounds, listening closely and beautifully to his bandmates. He shared every idea, climbed aboard every melody and was always right on the money rhythmically, most spectacularly in “Afro Blue.” After early hesitancy, they found their way into Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” and their usual confidence, McLoughlin etching fast scales across this familiar structure and reclaiming the head after bouncy, feisty, short riffing. “Just Friends” found McLoughlin at his best – Brucker and Levin, too; a melodic bop hymn of energy and tenderness.

As coda of a very strange summer, with music moving online and into strange places or going away altogether, both these jazz events on Jay Street felt fun and welcome, despite distractions. Both pointed the way, we can only hope, to quality jazz by familiar faces in familiar places.