Two Bands…Three Dimensions of Music

Christian McBride and José James Lead Diverse Ensembles of Excellence
Disney Hall
April 1, 2016
Concert Reflections by A. Scott Galloway

Toward the end of a Friday evening that more than fortified the strength, resilience and future of music called Jazz, tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum made a statement about people prematurely laying the genre to rest. Essentially he said that if you were drawing breath inside Disney Hall at that moment, you know better. Truth was spoken, sung, blown, plucked and pounded this night with a curious yet victorious double bill consisting of an acoustic “Super Band” culled from the roster of Detroit’s Mack Avenue Records headlining over maverick vocalist José James.

Mack Avenue Super Band - Disney Hall - Cropped April 1, 2016 - photo by Michael K. Adams
Mack Avenue Super Band (Photo: Michael K. Adams)

The Super Band – led by bassist Christian McBride – proved a powerful septet of players, each bringing impressive compositions to the table that inspired mercurial solos from their teammates plus engaging melodic and harmonic forms that captivated the audience. Whalum – refreshing to hear in a straight jazz context – brought his signature soul to “Praise Hank” (a tribute to the great Hank Crawford). Alto saxophonist Tia Fuller (who moonlights in Beyonce’s all-female band) was fully liberated via the challenging changes of her “Decisive Steps.” McBride’s “Paint Brushes” was a gorgeous feature for the legendary Gary Burton on vibraphone with its ascending melody lines and windings. Burton’s own “On Lakeshore Drive” was a burst of joy dedicated to his son and daughter. Trumpeter Sean Jones’ “Gretchen” was a lovely showcase for seamless haunting whole-note handoffs between him and longtime collaborator Fuller. Drummer Carl Allen, ever tasteful with quiet fire in the cut all night, transfixed with a soft mallets tom-toms solo. And the set closed with the punchy syncopated “Up” by pianist Christian Sands. There wasn’t one weak link in this ensemble representing richly engaging music being made in jazz today by players across generational and gender lines of invested mastery and diversity.

This writer had seen opener José James three times prior. What can always be expected from this dynamic performer is the unexpected as he is known to mash-up genres, styles and moods at will. The first time I saw him at Catalina Bar & Grill, he was very much being groomed as the modern Johnny Hartman. Years later at UCLA’s Royce Hall, he was flaunting rock and hip hop influences as funneled through devil-may-care vocal acrobatics, egged on by friend Taylor McFerrin (son of vocal magician Bobby McFerrin). He later amplified these facets on the greater stage of the Hollywood Bowl at a “Playboy Jazz Festival.”

Jose James at Disney Hall - photo by JamBase
José James (Photo: JamBase)

Tonight at Disney Hall, McFerrin was again James’ special guest for one piece that was a virtuosic exhibition whereupon his beat-boxed rhythms were placed against James’ shape-shifting phrases and stabs for which James controlled both the tempo and texture with Jedi mind trick caprices that kept you on the edge of your seat. Control was a recurring element of José James’ brilliant set as he challenged 5-star drummer Nate Smith with spur of the moment changes in mood and tempo. There was something special about this night, the acoustically warm Disney Hall and James’ opening slot for the Super Band that coaxed out an impeccable balance in his capabilities. From his urban cool opening number and an astounding medley of Bill Withers’ “Who is He and What is He to You,” “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” (on which he turned the snatch of a phrase “in Jesus’ hands” into something like a turntablist’s mantra then threatened to slide into a fourth tune by teasing, “I hear the crystal raindrops fall…”) to ballads of layered sensuality anchored by keyboardist Takeshi Ohbayashi that paired James’ hushed baritone voice with bassist Solomon Dorsey’s high tenor on one and special guest Mali Music’s voice on another – slow rockin’ the auditorium in a cradle of calm.

José James made many new fans and converts this night. Even McBride in his opening greeting to the audience following James gave up the ultimate hard-won compliment, “Maybe we should have opened for him.” This writer hopes that James has at least temporarily landed at his artistry’s optimal wavelength…but that’s likely too much to ask of such a restless spirit.

A. Scott Galloway
Music Editor
The Urban Music Scene
April 2, 2016

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