Review: The David Lail Jazz Quintet, 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.