The Gregg Gelb jazzet took the stage at the Cameron Art Museum in a program which appealed to lovers of older, traditional jazz. The Cameron Museum has evolved itself into a nexus of varied cultural presentations here in Wilmington. Among their most dynamic offerings is the monthly series, presented in conjunction with the Cape Fear Jazz Society, appealingly titled Jazz @ the CAM. One intent of the series, according to Daphne Holmes, the museum's Curator of Public Programs, who introduced the event, is to give Wilmington audiences the opportunity to hear jazz performers whom they might not readily hear elsewhere in town.
Gelb, who plays saxophone and clarinet, hails from the Triangle, where he has had a decades-long career as a jazz performer and teacher, and leads bands in a diversity of jazz styles. His partner was the pianist and vocalist Steve Wing. The moniker jazzet suggests a cozy, intimate jazz experience which, even with the large crowd, this event convincingly was.
The opening tune was the 1940's dance-style number "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," by Mercer Ellington, the son of the great Duke whose band popularized the piece. Gelb's solos were easygoing, melodically appealing. He favored shorter, discreet phrases rather than melismatic passages, more tuneful and tonal chordal patterns over rapidly running scales. His improvisation stayed generally in the mid-range of the instrument, not reaching into the high register very often.
Wing favored a more rhythmic, vigorous, boogie-tinged approach on the piano; this was something of a counterpoint to Gelb's smoother sound. Like Gelb, he stayed largely in the low to mid-range of his instrument. He favored the use of octaves over fuller and denser chords. In keeping with his participation as vocalist – but not always a benefit – he had a penchant for vocalizing during his keyboard solos as well as in the actual songs.
All of these qualities set the tone for the following nine numbers in the two sets. The third tune was another great old standard, "On the Sunny Side of the Street," which has been recorded by artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Wing sang the lyrics here in a voice which carried the line but was noticeably pushed in the higher register. There was an appealing call and response between the lyrics and the sax. Gelb turned to the clarinet in this song, with an engaging mellow sound. As before, his solos tended to work in sequences and not rise to notable peaks.
Another tune was the 1930s ballad "Body and Soul," reflectively played on the sax with quiet piano background. After the piano solo, the sax came back in with bracing vigor, before leading into a mellow ending.
The opening of the second set was the Duke Ellington standard, "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing." This evergreen great was sung by Wing, who brought substantial energy to his piano solo along with some attractive vocal improv. A later tune, not named by the performers, brought forth energetic scales from Gelb's sax and higher-range keyboard passages, both of which showed a wider range of sound than most of the other solos.
The closing number moved from the propulsively irregular rhythms of "St. Thomas" to the New Orleans evergreen, "When the Saints Go Marching In." Gelb brought almost whimsical clarinet slides to this song before ending on a triumphant high F. The rousing conclusion was greeted with cheers from an obviously appreciative audience.
This series of Jazz @ the CAM continues on February 13. For details, click here.