The music warmed up more than the weather Thursday as young alto saxophonist Joshua Nelson delivered a confident, crowd-pleasing straight-head show; not that there was anything wrong with the sunny afternoon, either.
The former Schenectady resident brought downstate band-mates, but happily greeted family, friends and mentors from the tented bandstand.
In his first number, from his debut EP, Nelson displayed a pleasing tone but soon went from mild to wild. Throughout his 90-minute set, he resourcefully explored even the most mellow tunes to discover and express their excitement. Studying with saxophonists Brian Patneaude and Ralph Lalama, he emerged from SUNY Schenectady and SUNY Purchase with the full package as composer/arranger, soloist and accompanist and leader. His talent also confirmed how well the Jazz on Jay youth movement is working.
Nelson used repetition and scales to build tension in tunes from his “Live” EP and an album under construction. But his strongest playing Thursday – both most lyrical and most outside – came in the classic “Body and Soul.”
First, however, imaginative originals earned applause on his solos and everybody’s, plus crisp old-friends unison playing. Like Nelson, pianist Jack Redsecker warmed into full flight in their opening number, and got to show off more than bassist Ronald Gardner and drummer Joshua Simpson. All were solid, at least; but the powerful way Simpson made a big sound from a small kit was a treat of invention and strength.
After the mid-tempo “Cadence” cruised in waltz-time, Gardner’s Latin ostinato built into “5/13” (the date Nelson wrote it), an early high point. Fiery piano fed directly into Nelson’s own solo, as if he came out of the elevator on the top floor, then kept climbing.
Of course, the ambulance siren that distracted from the music screamed past on State Street during the quiet ballad “If You Love Something Enough,” but the band kept its momentum anyway. In Nelson’s solo we could hear the syllables of the title, as if sung as lyrics, and feel its emotion in the melody.
Things climbed after that. Redsecker’s jaunty unaccompanied piano intro invited the band into a breezy mid-tempo tune where Nelson’s solo repeated riffs to get to the heart of things; it elevated from happy to joyful. Then Nelson played alone to introduce “Sunday” with a jagged cadence that resolved through cascading scales into a charming waltz.
Then came “Body and Soul,” slow and sweet from Redsecker’s stately piano intro to Nelson going all Charlie Parker to get deep into this classic.
His own mid-tempo “Portraits of a Smile” brought a strong finish including Simpson pumping at his funkiest at the drums and Nelson again building up and easing off in the shape of a pyramid.
Impresario/host Betsy Sandberg and fan Karen Ciancetta took turns shading Simpson from the sun as it migrated around to splash into the rear of the tent over the players. But the guy gave lots of heat and light himself in an upbeat, fun set.
Jazz on Jay concludes Thursday, Sept. 23 with tenor saxophonist Awan Rashad’s Quartet.