Coping with crisisEnigmatic and eclectic, Chris Pattishall is largely absent from Amazon, Spotify, or Apple Music, the places where I usually search out the latest in jazz and classical – and he’s not always captured to best advantage on YouTube, where his presence is far more substantial. The keyboard artist – he plays accordion as well as piano – has firm ties to Jazz at Lincoln Center and the great Marcus Roberts, so it’s not surprising to find that he has earned a roster spot at the Savannah Music Festival for the past three years. Nor does it come as a shock that he would show up among the headliners at Duke Performances’ “The Show Must Go Online” series. Pattishall, after all, is a Durham native who has a special affinity with the music of Mary Lou Williams (1910-81), Duke University’s first artist-in-residence. Naturally, Pattishall’s solo offerings included samples – or should I say signs? – from Williams’ Zodiac Suite, for his quintet played an assortment of them when I saw the group live in 2019. Other selections, whether alone at the Steinway or with vocalist Vuyo Sotashe, were pleasant and intriguing surprises.

It seems almost sacrilegious to jump into the music without showering praise on the woodgrain vibe of The Bunker Studio, where this concert was filmed, and the wonderful sound engineering by Todd Carder. Director of photography Nick Hughes presumably merits the credit for the moody lighting and the restless variety of camera angles – producing images that are perennially sharp and never handheld. Introductory titles and video by Hughes told us immediately how classy the production values would be while establishing an astronomical/astrological motif, foreshadowing Pattishall’s Zodiac centerpiece. The first titles that flashed over shots of antique maps and a sweep of stars and concentric circles – more curious documents would be spread across Pattishall’s piano – were Carman Moore‘s “Tema I” and Richard Lee Smallwood‘s “Angels.” Further indications that we were headed skyward. We were still panning across a document depicting the night and the stars when the concert began.

Pattishall used “Tema” to frame his medley, a piece whose contemplative simplicity reminded me of Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs and Bill Evans’ recording of “Some Other Time.” In the middle, “Angels” sounded jazzier and more jagged with a harmonic palette that evoked a gloomy deserted cocktail bar late in the afternoon, not very ethereal at all. So “Angels” was a verbal harbinger of the Zodiac Suite, but it was “Tema I” that actually set the stage, beginning and ending Pattishall’s mashup. In his spoken intro, Pattishall wove his growing interest in Williams into a chronicle of his own development as a jazz musician. He was aware of her as he grew up in Durham, his dad had a vinyl record of hers, and he had gone to Duke University to hear pianist Geri Allen when she came and played the Zodiac Suite. What fascinated Pattishall most was how neatly Williams cut between the idioms of jazz, blues, and the church during a single composition or performance.

You may wish to search outside the Zodiac Suite – or at least beyond the four signs that Pattishall played – for footprints of the church. “Taurus” was heavily infused with both jazz and the blues, shuttling back and forth between the two idioms. At times, the blues seemed to take up residence in Pattishall’s left hand while jazz was partying upstairs in the treble – and some might have indeed perceived the occasional stomping chords up there as footprints of the church. Pattishall actually ranged further than Williams, whose 1945 recording of “Taurus” clocked in at a mere 2:35, playing a full minute longer and exploring chromatic terrain and Gershwinesque harmonies. “Libra” brought more sunshine in with it, sounding more like spring than autumn, with the feel of childhood, first steps, and plashing in a quiet brook before ending on a more meditative note, Pattishall once again giving himself a full minute more than Williams’ 1945 recording.

“Scorpio” certainly didn’t linger in the ruminative mood of “Libra,” entering stealthily and mischievously, as if Williams had sought to hint at the spookiness of Halloween in her opening bass figure. Pattishall stretched the original concept, taking the tune down a brooding path into an impressionistic clearing that veered spasmodically toward Thelonious Monk before softly reprising the opening vamp. Adding to the mischief, Hughes and B camera operator Rafiq Bhatia tossed in entirely new side and front angles throughout the piece. “Sagittarius” retained the new camera angles, soared with a rich aerial sound in the treble, where it circled around Gershwin-like chords once again. It wasn’t Pattishall’s longest tribute to Williams, but it was the one that added the most playing time to the 1945 original.

Admitting that he was “a sucker for a slow second movement with a haunting English horn melody,” Pattishall said that he had discovered William Dawson and his Negro Folk Symphony only recently, so his transcription of the second movement, “Hope in the Night,” was also a personal exploration of the composer’s counterpoint, his sense of drama, and his pacing. Interestingly, this transcription substantially reduced the length of Dawson’s slow movement, smoothed the jagged edges of transitions that jump from one orchestra section to another in the symphony, and transmuted the primal passages in the latter half of the movement into something yearning and modern.

Pattishall told us how he first met Satashe at William Paterson University in 2013 and connected with him subsequently in the offices of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Then he recalled how, when he first heard Satashe perform, he lived up to all the hype he had heard. What he left out, and what you can only catch hints of on previous YouTube clips, is how astonishingly Satashe has advanced his artistry and transformed his presentation. The man hails from South Africa, so the exotic element, his ability to inject Xhosa clicks into renditions of African songs, has always been there. You can also find more than a couple specimens of his scatting ability among the clips. Because Satashe hasn’t been recorded quite so clearly and intimately as he was at The Bunker, you would likely miss how chameleonic his voice is.

On “I’ll Never Be the Same,” his timbre and inflections reminded me of Billie Holiday first (Holiday recorded the song in 1937) and then Dinah Washington – with an interval of Pattishall soloing that sounded, ironically enough, more like Mary Lou Williams’ keyboard style than any of his prior riffs on her music. Satashe’s African selection, “Sylvia” by Michael Moerane, had a surprisingly Western pop flavor, sprinkled so lightly with Xhosa clicks that I wasn’t sure at first that I’d heard them. There were actually two kinds if you listened closely: one a generic knock or clunk, the other like a flick of a fly-swatter on your window. But now as I scrambled to find an analogous voice, I found myself settling on Abbey Lincoln, maybe taken down a third.

When we reached “Autumn Nocturne,” Satashe suddenly went low, often sounding like Stevie Wonder in this ballad, with a bottom that Wonder can only pray for – amazingly in the same league as Kurt Elling, though I suspect Satashe has also listened to Johnny Hartman’s “Autumn Serenade.” Before the duet on Dave and Iola Brubeck’s “They Say I Look Like God,” both Satashe and Pattishall extolled the humanity of Louis Armstrong, who introduced the song on The Real Ambassadors, a show and recording from 1962. They also discussed the poignance of the song, what Satashe said connects with the “ancestral energy of our fight for life force.” In his candor, Satashe let slip that the original song – recorded only that one time on Columbia – had biblical verses intertwined with Armstrong’s lead vocal. These were sung by Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross, the renowned jazz vocal trio, but behind Satashe, Pattishall had to cut all those biblical verses the singer was referencing. Instead, he played piano reductions of the trio’s chant (plus a solo break replicating one stanza of the vocal), leaving Satashe to address racism with his haunting Socratic questions.

As with his Dawson arrangement, Pattishall compacted the length of the Brubecks’ original, which can be accused of hammering its point with too many biblical verses – making Satashe’s reclamation all the more powerful. Here the vocalist once again sounded like Lincoln with just a pinch of Carmen McRae, but on the closing tune, “Come Back as a Flower,” Satashe shuttled back to Wonder, which made sense when the credits rolled, since it turned out to be a Stevie Wonder composition I was unfamiliar with.

My first priority after the video was done was to swing on over to Google and YouTube to check Satashe out – for neither the singer’s first name nor the program notes decisively settled the question of gender. Well, when you look at other bios and watch the YouTube videos, where Satashe sports men’s suits and sweaters, the question is readily settled. On this new Bunker date, the singer looked as androgynous as his voice, newly adorned with dreadlocks, big earrings, and a nose ring. So, the presentation was now of an exotic African with Xhosa clicks compounded by the mystery of androgyny when you see and hear him – far different from his gangly prom date look I found on YouTube when he sang at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in 2015. Clearly this is an artist who is finding his identity even more quickly and arrestingly than he’s finding his own individual voice, if he’s even thinking in those terms. As long as he keeps the clicks, I’ll be watching and listening.