Review: Jazz at the Bechtler
By Perry Tannenbaum
Located on the west side of town, The Playroom bills itself as Charlotte’s oldest music production facility, offering rehearsal space and recording/mixing services. Lately, Playroom has changed its tune, becoming the site for the newest Jazz at the Bechtler webcast as the Ziad Jazz Quartet paid tribute to the music of Jimmy Heath, the composer and saxophonist who passed away back in January at the age of 93. As social distancing and severely restricted public gatherings become pandemic norms, the Bechtler-Playroom partnership makes beautiful sense from a musical standpoint. Technically, the museum can expect the studio to deliver optimum sound from expertly deployed state-of-the-art equipment, and if Ziad Rabie and his jazz quartet are to perform concerts without the vibe of a live audience, it would be hard to imagine a more comfortable place for them to play than the studio of their choice.
The risky element of this business had to be the video, for livestreams are not on Playroom’s pricing schedule. Any misgivings about this end of the Bechtler-Playroom collaboration were quickly dispelled when the program opened with an adroitly edited montage of Charlotte night scenes, including the city’s light rail and its iconic “Firebird” sculpture in front of the museum. Music from the quartet was already playing under the movie cuts, and aside from a voiceover “5-4-3-2” countdown, the Ziad Quartet’s set began without any formalities – or an emcee until Rabie himself spoke after the third selection.
Rabie gave his downbeat for the first Heath original of the evening, “Togetherness,” behind a second retro test pattern, but our first glimpse of The Playroom was not at all old-timey. Pinpoint lightbulbs studded a black backdrop, dispelling any worries of a rehearsal room ambiance. Lighting was otherwise ample, giving a nightclub feel to a venue that presumably offers limited seating. All four cameras came into play with nifty screen wipes as we transitioned from one view to another and pianist Noël Freidline soloed between two Ziad improvisations. An unobtrusive “Live from The Playroom” logo took up permanent residence at the upper righthand corner of our screens, no matter which camera view we saw. Occasionally, promo messages for donations and the Bechtler’s Facebook and Twitter hangouts swept across the lower lefthand corner. The cosmopolitan polish of the introductory montage was definitely sustained.
Freidline, drummer Rick Dior, and bassist Ron Brendle all wore masks – and all were admirably socially-distanced behind Rabie in a diamond-shaped configuration as Rabie blew on his tenor sax. Sitting upstage behind a plexiglass enclosure and wearing headphones as he wielded his drumsticks, Dior was the most conspicuous reminder that we were in a studio, but his bandmates were also wearing earbuds of some kind. Rabie would turn around between tunes as Dior launched “Gemini” and then “C.T.A.” in the opening cluster of Heath compositions, so they played with hardly a pause.
“Gemini” was most famously covered by Cannonball Adderley, a slower, bluesier title than “Togetherness” that settled comfortably into a waltzing 3/4 groove. Freidline had the first solo after Rabie played the melody, and then the leader returned with a rougher sax sound than we had heard earlier, not at all shy about revealing that he had listened to more John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins than to Heath in forming his style. Brendle soloed tastefully afterwards, though I wished his bass were potted up more at the soundboard, before Ziad then took the outchorus.
Another oldie, recorded by both Miles Davis and Lee Morgan when they vied for trumpet supremacy back in the ‘50s, “C.T.A.” returned us to uptempo. Rabie was already in bebop mode when he introduced the melody, bouncing when he laid out the melody, and he didn’t let go until he had wailed an extended improvisatory rant. Freidline took over authoritatively at the keyboard, swinging hard and comping aggressively when he handed the reins over to Brendle. Dior excelled in his first spotlight of the evening, trading four-bar thrusts with both Freidline and Ziad before the leader circled back to the theme.
Featuring all the members of the quartet, “C.T.A.” was the sort of arrangement that scales a summit that concerts should close with. So it was the right moment for Rabie to pause and speak to us, introducing his band and speaking briefly about Heath, his music, and his career. It was also the right moment to change the mood. Musically, Radie did the job beautifully with Heath’s “The Voice of the Saxophone” after an impressionistic and unaccompanied intro from Freidline. If you’ve heard Coltrane’s Ballads album, you can imagine the aching, romantic region that Rabie steered us toward after the full stop that preceded his solo. It was only here that it became apparent that we might be watching The Playroom’s maiden voyage into video. Lights didn’t dim for Rabie’s most lyrical moments of the evening, nor did we zoom closer to either of the soloists in “The Voice of the Saxophone,” laying bare the fact that both the lights and cameras were unmanned.
While the tech crew for this production didn’t sustain the nightclub vibe here, they were tasteful enough to refrain from marring the seriousness of Ziad’s balladeering with any promotional wipes on the video. Rabie also had a sure sense of drama, following his tenderest selection with his wildest so far. The percussive two-note phrase that is so salient in the melody of “The Thumper” probably gave this Heath piece its name – and it definitely stamps its hard-bop flavor. Ziad embraced its bounce from the beginning, with wilder, higher and screechier playing on tenor than ever, doubling back to the melody before handing soloing chores over to Freidline, who sprinkled broad hints of Charlie Parker and Gershwin into his launch, almost tipping his chair over with his gusto. Brendle also seemed to be keyed-up by this tune’s exuberance in his brief spot, his most impressive playing so far.
During an interval when Bechtler’s director of programming and public engagement, Daniel Ferrulli, punctuated his descriptions of the museum’s upcoming programming with pleas for financial support (rather than the other way around), one of the camera positions was altered, moving closer to Freidline and blocking off the leader from his rhythm section. “A Sound for Sore Ears” had the most irregular pacing of the night as Rabie unveiled the melody, Dior’s emphasis on his cymbals adding a Latin tinge. Freidline had no difficulty at all navigating the jagged terrain as he initiated the soloing, wailing and banging away as he riffed. Rabie answered with a majestic rant of his own before handing things over to Dior for his most extended soloing yet, and the saxophonist added extra trimmings when he returned with his outchorus.
The Ziad Quartet arrangement of “Gingerbread Boy,” by far Heath’s most recorded composition, emphasized its funkiness, effectively splitting the melody between Rabie and Freidline, who only needed to alter his introductory vamp slightly to make it mesh with the sax portion. First recorded in 1961 on Milt Jackson’s Statements album, where Heath played tenor sax in the vibraphonist’s quintet (with pianist Tommy Flanagan anchoring the rhythm section), “Gingerbread Boy” has attracted a sufficient number of proponents, from Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon back in day to more recent covers by Kendrick Scott and Kurt Elling, for it to be considered a jazz standard. Both Rabie and Freidline seemed to be having fun with their own slant on the tune, the saxophonist squonking merrily in his glee and the pianist shuffling through a variety of jazz styles in their solos. Rabie returned just briefly, supplying a launching pad for Dior’s firecracker rampage on the drums. Completing the admirable symmetry of this arrangement, the rhythm section led by Freidline chugged it out.
In effect, “Gingerbread” was the closer. Although the combo moved onto “Far Away Lands,” a tune that has been covered by saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Art Farmer, the webcast cut off abruptly about 30 seconds past the one-hour mark, just as Freidline was beginning to work up a lather in his solo. Rabie had given us a fine account before relinquishing the reins, leaning into the speedy piece with Coltrane-like intensity in his valedictory solo. No doubt when the Bechtler Museum and The Playroom look back on their first collaboration they will be very pleased, but they will also doubtless be thinking of adding a webcast sign-off that’s as slick and urbane as their intro.