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While there was once a jazz club called Jonathan's long ago on 7th Street – and an annual JazzCharlotte Festival in the early 1990s – tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie, a part of all that, could stand onstage at Knight Theater last Friday night and take satisfaction in the role he and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art have played in establishing a Charlotte jazz scene that is more deeply rooted and widely flourishing. Gathering together with his jazz quartet and three distinguished guests – guitarist Russell Malone and vocalists Nicolas Bearde and Maria Howell – to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Jazz at the Bechtler, Rabie could reminisce about the humble beginnings of the museum's concert series. He recalled the museum reaching out to him, inquiring whether he could play the jazz standards by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. He could tell how few people attended the first concerts he organized across the lobby on the museum's ground floor and in the outdoor courtyard beyond. After multiple tribute concerts to each of these jazz greats and many others, Rabie could also say that the series has grown and blossomed – and he could say it to a sold-out house of Jazz at the Bechtler fans at the Knight, which seats hundreds more than any room at the museum.
Rabie wasn't the first to come onstage and pour forth kudos and thanksgiving to the people behind the scenes who had helped to make the museum successful as a jazz hub, including Andreas Bechtler, whose outstanding collection of paintings and sculptures were the foundation and inspiration for a cultural gathering place that has become the signature landmark of Charlotte. At about the moment when the Jazz at the Bechtler Birthday Bash tributes from the stage and acknowledging bows from notables in the audience reached the point where we could appreciate that we were at an auspicious event, the talking stopped and the musicmaking began.
The sense of a special event was sustained from the top of the program, as the Ziad Jazz Quartet – including pianist Noel Freidline, bassist Ron Brendle, and drummer Rick Dior – were augmented by two potent performers, trumpeter Justin Ray and alto saxophonist Adrian Crutchfield, playing a Rabie original, "One for Curt." Rabie's arrangement gave everyone a chance to shine. After the melody statement from the reeds and brass, there was a riff from these frontline players that would repeat before each of the ensuing solos from Rabie, Ray, Crutchfield, Freidline, and Brendle, evoking the rousing flavor of Horace Silver's hard bop compositions and the famed Jazz Messengers ensemble who played them. When we reached Dior's turn in the spotlight, we didn't get an epic Art Blakey-like soliloquy. Instead the drummer traded with all the horns, creating a satisfying climax, though Crutchfield's blazing solo remained the emotional peak.
Yet Rabie was still wishing to turn the heat up higher, asking, "Can we burn one?" Everyone except Brendle was involved in the solo fireworks that followed, as fevered pleasantries of eight bars each from members of the horn trio gave way to untethered swiftly-paced solos by a still-raging Crutchfield, followed by Ray, Rabie, and Freidline. Even when Dior began trading four-bar explosions with each of the horn players individually, we hardly had a clue about what tune we were hearing. That tension was finally released after the drum segment when the sextet suddenly converged on Ray Noble's "Cherokee," a jazz standard for over 80 years still sounding fresh.
Bearde's rich baritone was well-suited to serve as a mellowing agent after these brash instrumentals. Singing "Living Room," Bearde began so slowly on the Abbey Lincoln-Max Roach tune that it sounded as if the couple had written an introductory verse. By the time Rabie interpolated his tasty solo, however, Bearde had swung into a nice mid-tempo groove, and he swung even harder when the sax solo concluded. Instead of setting aside a spot to plug his latest album, I Remember You: The Music of Nat King Cole, which just finished 2019 as No. 76 in the JazzWeek chart for all jazz albums released last year, Bearde continued with his own composition, "Falling in Love." Thinned-down compared with the brassy arrangement on the vocalist's 2013 Visions album, the leaner chart didn't dampen Bearde's intensity, and Crutchfield was as fiery as ever when he soloed.
If I'm not mistaken, Malone was returning to the Knight Theater stage for the first time since its inaugural year in 2010, when he played at another all-star concert – to another sell-out crowd – with an ensemble from the Monterey Jazz Festival. He was no stranger to the Jazz at the Bechtler series, that is certain, having played at the Museum as recently as October 2018. The guitarist's last two albums, All About Melody and Time for the Dancers, finished No. 2 and No. 17 respectively in JazzWeek's year-end charts for 2016 and 2017. Among the cognoscenti in the audience, he commanded plenty of respect even before he plugged in his D'Angelico. Nobody else in the hall needed to make a sound as Malone played a long, lovely intro to Jimmy Van Heusen's "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." Only the Rabie rhythm section joined in when Malone unveiled the melody, Freidline getting a superb half-chorus at the keyboard before the guitarist finished the out-chorus and added a coda. Rabie returned from the wings to help ignite "Soul Leo," a Mulgrew Miller tune that Malone recorded on Love Looks Good on You, the No. 1 album of 2015 on the JazzWeek chart. The tenor saxophonist blazed so fiercely here that I couldn't help thinking that he had been holding back a little until now – and in direct exchanges with Rabie, Malone rose to the challenge.
Filling in at the last moment for Nnenna Freelon, Howell was definitely not out of place, having headlined Jazz at the Bechtler during most of the ten years that the series was celebrating, arguably as much a foundational performer in the Charlotte jazz scene as Ziad and Freidline. Howell came armed with songs by Stevie Wonder, Carole King, and Billy Joel, pop and R&B icons, yet she mostly kept to a jazz mold. Wonder's "Higher Ground" slammed into a hard-driving groove as soon as Howell grabbed her microphone, with Rabie and Freidline taking infectious solos. Even where she strayed into pop for King's "So Far Away," Rabie's impassioned sax solo pulled Howell's performance back in. It was in Joel's "New York State of Mind" that Howell and the Ziad Quartet – with their second drummer, Al Sergel, inconspicuously replacing Dior – surpassed themselves, the singer dragging the pop standard into a jazz groove introducing the melody before Freidline and Rabie took scorching solos. Howell then demonstrated that she could still turn up the heat a couple of notches, mixing talk and scat into her second vocal. Now it was Rabie's turn to respond to a challenge – and he did, before releasing the melody back into Howell's tonsils.
While Howell's prior experience with the house band may have smoothed over the lack of rehearsal time she had for this concert, it may have also deprived Ray and Crutchfield of playing time they might have feasted on if Freelon had appeared. Not to worry, the trumpeter and the altoist were back in full force for the finale, "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers and Skip Scarborough. Everybody got a chance to solo – including both Dior and Sergel on separate drum kits – as this R&B hit gradually transformed from a genial shuffle into an incantatory anthem and a jubilant shout. Excitement peaked after the instrumental solos when Bearde and Howell faced off with each other and joyously wailed, for the Withers hit has always been a sunshiney celebratory song. On the other hand, when the two drummers vied to upstage one another, the concert truly became the bash it will billed to be.