Monthly Archives: October 2020

David Lail’s Jazz Quintet Celebrate the Goliaths of Tenor Sax

Review:   Ocie and Lonnie Davis have launched a new series, Live at the Crown

By Perry Tannenbaum

My last memories of the NoDa district of Charlotte, when theatre still thrived there and gentrification was still in progress, are vividly stamped by the obstruction that bisected 36th Street about a block west of North Davidson Street. This was the ongoing construction of light rail, envisioned as salvation for theatre companies producing in NoDa until Carolina Actors Studio Theatre was shut down in 2014 by its less-than-visionary board of directors.

Fringe theatre companies are more comfortable these days in Plaza Midwood, but a new online JazzArts Charlotte series is supplying me with fresh incentive to revisit NoDa once we’re all clear of current pandemic restrictions. Presenters Ocie and Lonnie Davis have launched a new series, Live at the Crown, that has an intimate clubby feel, devoid of the glitzy studio vibe of The Playroom, where Bechtler Museum is streaming its jazz series, and more to the liking of cellar dwellers.

Crown Station, as its name implies, will be accessible for its indoor events by motor and light-rail transit once Governor Cooper sounds the all-clear. Meanwhile, my first exposure to the Crown via the David Lail Quintet put me in mind of the Village Vanguard with its unassuming ambiance. Three cameras were deployed for the Facebook Live webcast, none of which changed position or zoomed in when musicians soloed. Combined with Chromecast, the stream produced fairly sharp video, particularly when pianist Phillip Howe soloed.

On the audio feed (pumped into Boston Acoustic speakers via Bluetooth and a Yamaha receiver), Lail on tenor sax, Matt Postle playing trumpet, and Ocie Davis behind the drumkit were the best served. Howe could have benefited from a smidge more amplification at his open-front upright, and bassist Vince Rivers was woefully undermiked on his first solo, but evidence of on-the-fly audio engineering could be detected during Rivers’ subsequent solo, and he was a satisfying part of the mix afterwards. On a couple of occasions, Lail’s hand mic didn’t seem to be switched on during his introductions, but this problem seemed to have been remedied in post-production when I watched the set a second time.

After Davis’s welcoming remarks, Lail’s program emerged as an homage to his tenor sax heroes – Wayne Shorter, Joe Farrell, Stan Getz, and Joe Henderson. Discriminating listeners may have descried John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon among the leader’s unmentioned influences. The emphasis for the first three selections was on Shorter, Coltrane’s successor in the Miles Davis Quintet, in compositions written during the 1960s – before Shorter became a foundational member of Weather Report and better known for his work on soprano sax.

“Armageddon,” the opening tune, was first recorded on Shorter’s Night Dreamer album, his 1964 debut on the legendary Blue Note label. This composition surely has the hard-bop flavor that Blue Note is famous for, but Lail’s solo, like Shorter’s before him, was marked by the surge and wail of Coltrane and Gordon. Postle proved to an effective counterpart, cooler and less frenetic in his trumpet solo. Howe was even cooler, soft enough for us to savor the support from Davis more keenly before Rivers had his muffled spot. Davis took over briefly and effectively before the horns reprised the melody.

“Night Dreamer” brought forth an even more blazing solo from Lail, with Postle and Howe sounding comparatively meek in his wake, but it was reassuring to hear the swing from Rivers’ bass as his solo gathered steam. Once again, the tenor and the trumpet returned with the outchorus, but this time, Lail reserved a slice of the replay for himself.

My strongest misgivings of the evening assailed me when Lail announced “Nefertiti” as his next number, a Shorter composition that first appeared as the title tune on a Miles Davis release in 1968. On both the Davis album and Herbie Hancock’s subsequent V.S.O.P. recording, the arrangement became a tedious repetition of the same slow-paced riff played by the horns, with all the excitement passed down to the piano and drums’ accompaniment. Lail and Postle both triumphantly proved that you can improvise on this composition without compromising its lazy, luxurious pace, and despite being granted scant time in this arrangement, Howe also distinguished himself with his thoughtful work.

There are certainly more obvious launchpads for a tribute to Joe Farrell than “500 Miles High,” a Chick Corea tune that first appeared on Return to Forever’s Light as a Feather album in 1973, where Farrell appeared as a guest artist playing flute, soprano sax, and tenor. The texture of that cut – with a Flora Purim vocal, Corea playing electric piano, and no trumpet at all – was very different from the sound that the Lail Qunitet brought to the Crown. Maybe that’s why the performances on “500 Miles High” were even more impressive than those on “Nefertiti.”

Postle opened the soloing, more brash and confident than he had been when comparisons might be made with trumpeters Lee Morgan or Miles on the original recordings. Lail had a more individual sound here as well when he followed – and a well-defined story to tell, building his solo beautifully and not entirely discarding his Trane-like wail. Not at all obligated to sound like an electronic Corea, Howe sounded more like Hancock or early McCoy Tyner as he worked up a lather.

Tyner is the common denominator who bridged Lail’s early segment of Shorter compositions with the final two paying tribute to Henderson, for Tyner was a sideman on Shorter’s Night Dreamer and on Henderson’s Inner Urge. After those stellar 1964 albums, Henderson guested on another Blue Note gem in 1967, The Real McCoy, from which Lail covered one of Tyner’s most celebrated compositions, “Passion Dance.” Once again, Postle took the first solo, still frisky and brash but now punching in a style that might bring Dizzy Gillespie to mind. Lail roared again in his Coltrane comfort zone, but it was Howe who surprised most. Inevitably, he must have been thinking of Tyner’s rich and heavy left hand, but the chords he played were different and his right-hand treble was funkier, reminding me more of Dave McKenna’s hard-driving swing. In a foretaste of fireworks yet to come, Davis asserted himself in a fine bashing solo.

Before a snippet of Shorter’s “Footprints” faded us out, the closer was a Henderson original, “Isotope.” It would have been interesting to hear Lail and Howe hook up on the melody as Henderson and Tyner did on Inner Urge, but instead Lail remained formulaic, introducing the catchy tune in unison with Postle. The trumpeter began the soloing again, poised and authoritative, and the leader was nearly as inspired as he had been in “500 Miles,” clearly having fun and dropping a snatch of Coltrane’s “Bessie’s Blues” as he signed off.

Howe was also in a frolicsome mood as he soloed, and the camera caught Davis acknowledging that he was up next. Here Lail’s arrangement was more in line with Henderson’s when the tenor sax traded four-bar volleys with Davis, but Lail also admitted Postle and Howe to his trading-fours party. Two rounds of Davis pounding his answers to trumpet, tenor, and piano led us back to Henderson’s genial melody. Taking up his microphone and thanking us for virtually being there, Davis had plenty to be pleased with.

ZOOMvestigating a Murder

Review: CPCC Theatre staged A Virtual Whodunnit

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Virtual Whodunnit-01

Nobody has quite opened their doors for business as the 2020-21 theatre season begins, but a couple of companies were inching in that direction last week. Theatre Charlotte staged their season opener for a limited, socially-distanced audience out on Queens Road in their parking lot. The broader public and citizens of the world will be able to stream What I Did Last Summer after they bring the show indoors and record a better-lit, better-miked version on their stage.

Meanwhile, CPCC Theatre used our computer and TV monitors as their stage with A Virtual Whodunnit by Flip Kobler and Cindy Marcus, a lighthearted made-for-ZOOM romp that deployed nine digitally-distanced actors on a layout that, decades ago, would have been identified as Hollywood Squares. Very much attuned to this COVID-19 moment, the storyline of this murder mystery manages to keep the murder victim, seven suspects, and a retro hat-sporting shamus homebound – or office-bound – throughout a fast-paced sequence of scenes.

Kobler and Marcus package an antagonistic meeting of the victim and our suspects, an onscreen killing, an investigation that includes interviews with all possible culprits, and – after viewers message their votes on who is guilty – the final reveal. All in about one hour, a proper chunk of time for a family entertainment.

James Duke picks up the reins as director in the first CP show since the retirement of Tom Hollis as department chair. Duke’s imprint is also evident on the lighting, sound design, and virtual scenery of this production. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Duke’s work is his matchless cast: not one of their names matches a search of my voluminous computer files over the past 27 years.

I’m not quite sure any of Duke’s choices is that old – Tony Cudic as Detective Rockford Sloan seems to be – or if all of them have reached legal voting age. This cradle raid proves curiously apt for a layout that is so miniaturized and claustrophobic, where the hand-to-hand violence of conventional police procedurals would be frowned upon by the CDC and the Governor’s office.

Hard-bitten realism is not the artistic aim here, though it figures as the satirical target when Detective Sloan is on the prowl. We convene at the bidding of software mogul Augustus Sterling, whose overbearing bluster and over-the-top cruelty occasionally reminds us of our Orange Incumbent. It’s really a bravura debut for Brennan Sawyer, who loudly fills his screen and seems destined to eat it. Nobody comes close to rivaling Sawyer’s scenery chewing, but we find numerous tasty clichés to savor in his circle.

The frustrated brain of the family is Sterling’s son, Bullion, a perpetually seething Daniel Keith, whom Dukes places nearly as close to his screen as his dad. Keeping poor Bullion at a near boil is the family princess, Juniper, as spoiled and pampered as her brother is oppressed and ignored. Corina Childs doesn’t quite play Her Highness’s cluelessness to the hilt, but she has a firm enough grasp on her patrician privilege. The third sib, Macy, is the anti-capitalist tree-hugging wildcard of the family, providing Dukes an opportunity to play with colorful lighting and giving costumer Ramsey Lyric a go at hippy garb.

Florina is the interloping stepmother, stymied by a pre-nup and resented by all her stepchildren. Jeanine Diaz plays this brazen opportunist in fine dragon-lady style – you may detect a wisp of Melania foreignness in her accent – blatantly bidding for audience votes. Can she wriggle out of her legal bind with the help of Barry Schwartz, the corporate attorney who is redrafting her husband’s will? Played close-to-the-vest by Jacob Feldpausch, Schwartz could have company secrets to leverage and his own fish to fry. He’s also the only suspect who must know the reason for his boss’s meeting.

Encountering the VP of technology, Haley Hawkins, we find that the Sterlings’ corporate intrigue goes deeper. A software developer who has been instrumental to her company’s success, the underappreciated Haley is sympathetic toward Bullion’s vision of the firm’s potential. Of course, the Haley-Bullion alliance may be more than cerebral after office hours, but Shelby Armstrong mostly plays the overlooked VP as wide-eyed and principled, without nearly the same level of resentment as her confidante.

Amid these raging and suppressed malcontents, Andrew Blackwell stands apart as Eugene Everton, the downtrodden CFO at Sterling Software and the imperious Juniper’s puppy-dog husband. I was so tempted to vote for this soft-spoken nerd as the culprit. Blackwell makes him so quietly forgotten at work and so uncomplainingly hen-pecked at home, each of his tantalizingly brief statements barely above a whisper, that I longed to see Blackwell break loose and become unhinged. Or simply move with a trace of energy.

With his wide-brimmed hat, Cudic presides over this mystery and infuses it with its noire flavor. Heaven knows why he doesn’t go all the way and pile on a Bogart lisp for the old-timers in the audience, but Cudic’s head is always turned maybe 15 degrees askance of his camera, assuring us that he isn’t corporate, hippy, dictatorial, or sexually brash. Everyone on this cheesy tic-tac-toe layout stays in his or her lane.

If you’ve never experienced the difference before, there’s a certain campy quality that comes with a ZOOM theatrical – beyond the compartmentalized miniaturization – when pitted against our nostalgic memories of live, in-person productions. Every person has his or her name inscribed in the corner of their cubicle, and the frames of these cubicles will light up for each person as she or he speaks. When characters leave the scene, Duke keeps their places reserved, their names inscribed over humble icons, as if they were inert apps on your iPad.

What makes Sawyer’s cameo so treasurable for me is that he rages against his confinement and the dopey simplicity of the format. August not only fills the screen in his final moments of life, he dies into his webcam when he is killed, claiming a good chunk of his wee screen with the top of his head. On the other hand, Blackwell remains precious because he succumbs so totally to his belittling plight, sometimes scrunching up as if he isn’t sufficiently confined.

Priced at five bucks, this webcast is clearly worth it, especially if you’re spreading the suspense, the plot twists, and the laughs among multiple generations in your household. Every cellphone, computer, and tablet can have a vote on the outcome. Hopefully, you emerge after this merry hourlong escape remembering how important it is to vote in real life.