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The Triangle has a jewel of jazz vibrancy in its midst, especially Durham. It pulls from the consistently productive North Carolina Central University Jazz Studies Program and others at both the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and Duke University. An active force in all this live jazz availability in central North Carolina and beyond is trumpeter/composer Al Strong.
Friday, September 1 at the Weldon Mills Distillery Durham he showed off some of the essential elements of the long tradition of jazz communities – tight affinity between the musicians, broad immersion in the standards of the music, and an open acknowledgement and invitation to others who came to play. Strong was accompanied this night by a badass rhythm section – his closest of colleagues Jeremy "Bean" Clemons on drums, cool yet excitable at times bassist Butler Knowles, and a newcomer on piano, Holland Majors!
They opened with Strong's original "At-Nimara's Journey" from his second release Love Stronger. It was a lively swinging tune befitting the venue's wall of green, an array of indoor plants that were the perfect backdrop for the band. Majors took the first solo fully engaged in the discussion set up between his piano and "Bean" on drums. He has a free and natural, truly comfortable play over the higher range of the keys. His arrival here is gaining notice and accolades aplenty.
Did I say "newcomer." Yes, Majors is in his second year at UNC-Chapel Hill originally from Charlotte where he was homeschooled. His hero and inspiration is pianist Vince Guaraldi of the animated Peanuts comic strip soundtrack fame. It was upon hearing Guaraldi's arrangement of "Samba de Orpheus" that hooked him. It is the first song where he learned how to get his voicings. He wants to get to the level of Oscar Peterson, right now moving through Cedar Walton and Chick Corea. This kid added spice throughout the evening.
Next up to sonically grace us as we bathed in the glow of the shiny distillery vats was a roamin' and rolickin' version of Roy Hargrove's "Soppin' the Biscuit." Surely suggested by the ever-in-demand drummer Clemons who played with the esteemed Hargrove for a spell. "Bean" is a leader and communicator on the bandstand like the second-coming of the late drummer Art Blakey, the chancellor of Hard Bop University. Roamin' and rolickin' was the way of this tune as the sound stayed put amongst the ancient bricks of the space. Strong drove the groove and invited up 17-year-old tap queen Caroline Brody. Strong has a penchant for recognizing talent and has featured Brody since she was 11. She has a hoofer's keen ear for vibing with the drum which was in joyous example this night. Another highlight in this song was the communication between Knowles' bass and Bean's explications on drums. It led not only to Knowles' sprightly dance with his instrument, but his shakin' and bakin' solo.
The set closed with a soulful performance by Strong on the flugelhorn and trumpet on "Starmaker" recorded by Hargrove on his "Earfood" album. "Bean" has chosen this tune to honor quiet and phenomenal sax player and composer Dr. Brian Horton, who passed last year not too many months after being selected to direct the jazz studies program at NCCU. Horton replaced his mentor, Dr. Ira Wiggins, both of whom are from Kinston, NC. It was also selected for this night to honor recently deceased Sam King, another sax playing product of NCCU. He and "Bean" just recently returned from Germany touring with the great Reggae legend Burning Spear. King's physical playing style was very similar to Horton's. As is the case within jazz community tradition all are brought in at the right time on the right tune. Yours truly* was brought on to deliver in conjunction with "Starmaker" my jazz poem in performance, "A Certain Something," to celebrate both Horton and King as the stop start dirge-like cadence of drum, bass, horn and now Rhodes piano traversed with the sax spirits through the cosmos seemingly forever.
The evening continued with a host of additional stars of the jazz community in Durham. It opened with "People Make the World Go Round" that had a lovely jet-powered piano duet of Majors on Roland and DC's own and NC A&T trained Branden Williams. It was followed by vocalist Jo Gore making Ray Charles smile on "Georgia" that included a well-worked trombone vocalese by her esteemed self. The evening spiraled into soul jazz glory through Marvin J singing Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and Adia Ledbetter's superb feeling-filled vulnerable version of the jazz standard "The Nearness of You" with Jeffery Hammonds just as sensual guitar solo. It all finished in fantasy land with Herbie Hancock's classic "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" masterfully delivered by the ever engaging Strong on vocoder and flugelhorn.
But wait! This community is deep and full of heart. The musicians had to convey more of their love for Sam King, their fellow band mate gone on. Why? As if to answer the question, Marvin J, Bean, and I each took up a chorus of "The Creator Has a Master Plan," written by saxophonist extraordinaire Pharoah Sanders and free jazz vocalist Leon Thomas, leaving many an eye teary with the band in harmony as the chant continued to echo:
"The creator has a master plan
Peace and happiness for every man
The creator makes but one demand
Peace and happiness through all the land…"
Strong's group will be back at Weldon Mills Distillery, Friday September 29. Don't miss a chance to hear the some of best jazz the Triangle has to offer and local venues!
*Editor's Note: CVNC acknowledges that the writer also participated in this event. It was assigned prior to the passing of Sam King. Understanding that jazz is often a collaborative effort with audience members frequently being called to "sit in," and on the event of Sam King's passing, the writer was called to participate and we stand behind his doing so. – Maggie Pate