Coping with crisisWhile not much about December in 2020 feels festive, watching holiday jazz in your pajamas with a nice drink in hand is definitely one of the high points of the season so far. The Jazz at the Bechtler Series, which has been selling out shows for over a decade, is now available to anybody with an internet connection for free – a rare perk of COVID restrictions. Past performances can be viewed here. Get thyself hence and have a listen (while you finish reading this review, of course).

The Ziad Jazz Quartet’s performances at Jazz at the Bechtler are a monthly affair. Being December, it was time to break out the Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid al-Fitr, and Kwanzaa music. The quartet features a somewhat flexible lineup, but tonight’s iteration featured frontman and artistic director Ziad Rabie on tenor and soprano sax, Noel Freidline on piano, Ron Brendle on bass, Al Sergel on drums, and special guest Al Strong on trumpet.

Rabie, a Charlotte native, and Strong, with his masters from NC Central, both provided a timely reminder that North Carolina has and continues to produce spectacular jazz talent (in addition to the obvious Thelonious Monk). While livestreaming concerts does tend to dull the connection between local artists and their communities, perhaps we can think of it as an opportunity to showcase our local talent on an international stage.

The ensemble was everything you expect from a bop group: tight, almost nervously so, virtuosic, creative, and quirky. Every one of these musicians has killer chops and a stellar resume filled with collaborations with artists like Aretha Franklin, Dave Brubeck, and Herbie Hancock. Together, they have a great sound that makes you itch to hear them live. The mix was a bit uneven in places, presumably due to the limitations of any streaming platform (and the user-end equipment as well), but it just served as yet another reminder that the best music is live music.

The setlist included a Roy Hargrove arrangement of “Frosty the Snowman,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” (arr. Herb Albert), the ever-present “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a multicultural medley, “We Three Funky Kings,” and “Deck the Halls.” A bit short for a jazz concert, clocking in at just over an hour, the set was packed with mostly up-tempo familiar Christmas tunes, although there were a few unexpected arrangements that truly stood out. The multicultural medley included a poignant version of “The Dreidel Song,” among several other tunes that are not played often enough, such as “Karma Kwanzaa.” Considering that, like most children’s songs, the source material for Dreidel is very simple and repetitive, it was impressive to hear the complex harmonic and motivic development in the solos for this number. “We Three Funky Kings” provided a wonderful shift from the neurotic virtuosity of bop into a more relaxed funk groove. This tune also featured some of the more creative stocking-stuffer quotations of melodies not officially on the setlist, some subtle and some not so much. “My Favorite Things,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and quite possibly the Miles Davis standard “All Blues” made appearances in various solos throughout the night.

Rabie and Strong had some truly special moments when improvising together. The unity of style combined with very different approaches to color and timbre made for a very satisfying pairing. Freidline’s manic and unpredictable solos added an important element of risk-taking to the group. Additionally, this reviewer wanted to hear more solo work from Brendle. His delicate, architectural melodic sense makes him the secret weapon for this group – as is all too often true of bass players. He and Sergel maintained a tight pocket that allowed the other three to be more experimental, but always kept the listener grounded. The live stream, produced by Eddie Z, featured tasteful camera work, and the titles for each tune were thoughtfully shown on the screen, but not too early as to spoil the surprise with some of the more unorthodox introductions. A small detail, but an appreciated one. The chat function of the livestream was brimming with enthusiastic comments from the approximately 1,400 attendees, some hailing from as far away as California. Jazz at the Bechtler’s 2021 schedule is yet to be determined, so please keep an eye on our calendar so that you can join us next time!