Tag Archives: Ron Brendle

Ziad Quartet – Plus Extra Brass – Celebrates Classic Blue Train Album

Review:   Virtual Jazz at the Bechtler event hosted by The Playroom, the Ziad Jazz Quartet

By Perry Tannenbaum

Aside from the color blue, John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue have a few things in common. Both were recorded in the late fifties, Coltrane’s album for Blue Note in 1957 and Davis’s for Columbia in 1959, both featured sextets, both were dominated by compositions written by their leaders, and both were fueled by tenor saxophonist Coltrane at his fiery peak, one of the many reasons why both albums are regarded as jazz classics. As the title implies, Blue Train is the more hard-driving of the two albums, and in the second virtual Jazz at the Bechtler event hosted by The Playroom, the Ziad Jazz Quartet paid tribute to this beloved recording, roaring as perhaps they’ve never roared before. Pumping up the volume for this special event, and helping tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie to replicate Trane’s original instrumentation, were guest artists Lynn Grissett playing trumpet and Rick Simerly ably sliding a trombone. Bassist Ron Brendle and percussionist Rick Dior returned in their backup roles, while Lovell Bradford took over Noël Freidline’s bench at the keyboard.

The two brass players made social distancing a bit more strained than last month’s Quartet tribute to Jimmy Heath, but space was adequate and both guests sported pandemically-correct masks with cunning mouth flaps designed for wind players, the first time I had seen these. Nor was there any delay in seeing these masks in action, for one of the most memorable aspects of the title tune that opens the Blue Train album is the roar of the saxophone, the trumpet, and the trombone all playing at once. Even watching a 23-inch monitor and listening through a pair of Boston Acoustic speakers via a Bluetooth hookup to my Yamaha receiver, I was surprised by how emotional I became listening to the familiar sound. It’s the trombone that makes the blend so distinctive, and maybe that’s why I found myself getting choked-up. Rabie certainly didn’t let me recover as he launched his solo, wasting no time in reaching peak form – perhaps the most majestic playing I’ve heard from him. Adding extra coal to the engine of this “Train,” as each of the horns nears the end of his solo, the other two horns back him up with a repeated riff, challenging the soloist to rise above them.

Rabie was pretty much at full throttle beginning his solo, so he needed to flare up to white heat with the brass behind him, yet Grissett came in softly with his trumpet solo, reminding us after Rabie’s fury that “Blue Train” is actually a midtempo tune. He and Simerly, who would follow, gradually came to a boil in their brass solos, and the other two horns would enter when the soloist had shifted into cruising gear – and the backup would prod them into redlining. It’s a wonderful arrangement, very much in the hard-bop tradition perfected at Blue Note records, so it came as no surprise when Rabie later stated that the musicians on the original recording had been given two days to rehearse. At the keyboard, Bradford was up to the challenge of having three horns behind him as his solo climaxed, beginning quietly and tightening the tension with each chorus. The quieted episodes of the performance enabled us to savor Brendle’s bass, heard to better advantage than at last month’s session, while Dior also made his presence known as the soloists reached maximum ferocity, most noticeably when crashing his cymbals in the transition between Simerly and Bradford. To be absolutely precise about the arrangement of the melody, repeated at the end, it was Rabie and Simerly who began, with Grissett’s entry on trumpet perfecting the blend.

Named by trombonist Curtis Fuller because of how the tune was sprung on him at the Blue Train recording session, “Moment’s Notice” has always been one of my favorite Coltrane compositions, notably covered by flutist Hubert Laws on his In the Beginning album. Once again, the three horn players combined in introducing the melody – until the final eight bars, which Ziad used as a runway to launch his solo. Rabie seemed to share my affection for this composition, for he worked Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” – a tune that Coltrane made a jazz standard – into his blazing solo. Simerly reached peak form in his solo, saluted again with a bomb from Dior as he made way for Grissett, cooling things down before gradually turning his solo up to high heat. Bradford’s allusions to the Scottish “Comin’ Through the Rye” in his solo were less Coltrane-connected than Rabie’s had been, but they made amusing musical sense.

The sextet played “Locomotion,” aptly described by Rabie as “a blues with a bridge,” at a noticeably slower tempo than you will hear on the Blue Train album (a newer release, The Ultimate Blue Train, adds two alternate takes to the original album). I have to say – heretically, I know – that Rabie has found the better groove. It’s another glorious arrangement, three horns again playing the melody until the final eight bars and Rabie once again launching into his solo after already seizing the spotlight. A similar falling away occurred in this arrangement when Simerly and Grissett began their solos, the rhythm section suddenly silenced as the brass players entered acapella. When the rhythm section returned, Dior on drums especially raucous, it was like giving each of these solos a fresh kickstart. Grissett was consistently wonderful through this entire set – maybe his evocation of Lee Morgan, the original Blue Train trumpeter, explains the unexpected emotional impact I felt with each of his solos. The rhythm section kept going when Bradford took his turn, building to a two-fisted apex before handing things over to Dior for a well-earned, well-bashed solo.

Rabie introduced Todd Smith, who informed us that he was in his fourth day as the Bechtler’s new executive director. Better yet, he said the Museum would be reopening in a couple of weeks with free admission to start. This little respite was followed by a change in mood as the sextet played “I’m Old Fashioned,” the only non-Coltrane composition on the album and the only ballad. Rabie played the melody, this time without the brass at all, beginning with the lovely ending to the Jerome Kern melody and then recapping as the full rhythm section entered so that the end the melody got an extra hearing before he set off into his solo. Simerly followed in a more solemn ballad mode, with enough space in the arrangement for Brendle to shine briefly before Bradford’s entry. The pianist didn’t hurry the tempo, but he certainly crammed more notes into it, reminding me of how Art Tatum and Red Garland treated the blues. Grissett’s solo, weaving bits of “My Funny Valentine” into the fabric, was another gem, Dior sensitively plying his brushes in accompaniment. A short coda from Grissett was backed by the other winds.

Grissett continued in the lead for the final piece, “Lazy Bird,” only sparingly accompanied by the other horns before swooping into his solo. Simerly played in a lighter vein, pointing up the melody’s anthemic jollity, while Rabie upstaged him slightly, pulling out his horn-player’s mask for the first time and trying it on. Perhaps he had been worried that taking the mask off for his emceeing chores would dislodge his eyeglasses or his earpieces. Whatever caused the hesitation, the mask was no impediment as Rabie’s tenor solo evoked Trane’s most joyous vein. Bradford continued the celebratory mood, giving way to Dior, who regained his customary ebullience with his sticks before Grissett led the outchorus.

Production of the latest livestream improved incrementally on its predecessor. The opening montage by Wonderland still rocks, and Playroom was still populated by four video cameras that never budged or zoomed. Positioning was slightly changed. The better-miked Brendle gave up his dedicated camera to Simerly, while Bradford shared his with Grissett. A third camera occasionally peeped in on Dior from the rear of the stage, and there was an establishing shot from front-and-center. Song titles were discreetly scrawled at the bottom of the screen, perhaps too briefly but a nice new touch. Only the rhythm section seemed to have gotten the blue memo about the dress code, while Rabie and Grissett veered off into olive green. Simerly was the outlier in a peach-and-tan outfit, but he blended best with the special burnt-orange COVID masks. Best of all, the set didn’t abruptly end at the hour mark, continuing at least ten minutes longer until the complete Blue Train tribute was done. Well done.

Ziad Tribute to Jimmy Heath Marks the Beginning of a Beautiful Bechtler-Playroom Friendship

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.