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The final concert in the current Hob Nob Jazz Series took place on a rather rainy evening on the deck of the Koka Booth Amphitheatre rather than on the main stage of this delightful open-air venue. This was fortuitous in that the covered facility provided a more intimate setting to enjoy an early evening jazz performance complete with seating, tables, and the ready availability of victuals and drinks appropriate for the occasion. Ideal for the relatively small but enthusiastic audience of about 100 happy souls!
Al Strong is a trumpeter and jazz educator who holds faculty appointments at Saint Augustine's and North Carolina Central Universities in the Triangle; he is also co-founder of the Durham based Art of Cool Project that sponsors jazz events, as well as jazz education programs for children in the area. His cohorts consisted of Alan Thompson on tenor saxophone, Russell Favvret on guitar, Christian Sharp on acoustic and electric basses, and Jonathan Curry on drums. No piano or keyboard was used.
Following a somewhat restrained opening with Horace Silver's medium tempo bebop standard "Kiss Me Right" that featured melodic solos from Thompson, Strong and Favvret. Harry "Sweets" Edison's "Centerpiece" was a solid blues piece that nicely demonstrated the role of the acoustic bass integrated with tasteful drumming as the rhythmic hub of straight ahead jazz. However, the band began to find their energy "mojo" with a rock/Latin interpretation of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart standard "My Funny Valentine"; it could well have been called "My Funky Valentine" in Strong’s version, with an impressively articulate bass solo by Sharp.
All the musicians seemed to come into their elements on an original (as yet untitled) composition by drummer Curry. This piece entered a contemporary jazz/rock vein that emphasizes the arena of so-called "free jazz" with the blending of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic approaches to a piece. Since this at times can appear cacophonous, if it is done thoughtfully and is not as "free" as the name suggests, it can be appreciated for the sometimes-poetic construct that it is. For example, Dixieland or Traditional jazz uses a similar approach with the horns apparently playing together independently; free jazz, in its modern concept, also involves the rhythm section, which can easily appear to be totally chaotic with all the players competing against each other.
Strong's quintet has adopted the aforementioned thoughtful approach of the "soloists" complementing each other. While the structure of the piece can be harder for the listening audience to follow, it can be done; for example, a good drummer (in this case, Curry) will tend to rhythmically emphasize the beginning and end of each chorus or segment. In contrast to some recent concerts where the drummers appeared to be competing with the soloists, and often overpowering them, Curry consistently was able to augment them. Multi-instrumental interaction is in part the key (pardon the pun!) to an appreciation of this relatively new jazz.
On the other hand, an overemphasis on physical technique, which is sometimes displayed especially by younger musicians, can often be mistaken for brilliant musicianship; it is not and never has been. What can result, maybe inadvertently, is a tendency to overbearingly loud sounds that are so common in rock music. It happened in this concert on a few occasions especially towards the end of each set, and can seriously interfere with some of the subtleties inherent in what the musicians intend. This was somewhat evident in Wayne Shorter's "Free for All." However, on Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly" and the Beatles' "Here There and Everywhere" (Paul McCartney), solid rhythmic patterns and communication between drums and bass clearly encouraged melodic and technically remarkable solos from Thompson and Strong. The occasional use of an electronic wah-wah mute on the trumpet by Strong was most effective on this and a few other tunes; it produced a much more flexible sound than the conventional physical mute.
The finale was a Hip Hop jazz piece, "No Church in the Wild" by Kanye West and Jay-Z. This might sound like an oxymoron but is not; hip hop (and rap music) has always had an affinity for jazz, and vice versa, going back to the early years of jazz in the 1920s. However, no words were sung in this quintet's version. Rather there were lengthy solos in a free jazz format that resulted in a standing ovation from the now energized audience as well. A cheerful ending to an otherwise meteorologically inclement evening!