Tag Archives: Zack Page

Noel Freidline and Jon Metzger Deftly Distill the Essence of MJQ

Review: Noel Freidline Jazz Quartet @ St. Alban’s

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celtic, classic, folk, and jazz – the Music @ St. Alban’s concert series at the acoustically splendid Episcopal church in Davidson has embraced a wide variety of music over the years. So it was interesting to observe their welcoming approach to resuming live performances after an abbreviated season of online events. For their first concert of 2021-22, the Noel Freidline Quartet’s tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, St. Alban’s requested that all audience members be fully vaccinated and wear masks throughout the performance. No vaccination cards were checked at the entrance, while the series website invited anyone who wasn’t vaccinated to enjoy the live-stream of the concert – a trusting, responsible, and inclusive approach.

Any exploration of the Modern Jazz Quartet must begin with the special MJQ instrumentation and sound. Formed in 1952, MJQ always centered around its pianist-composer-arranger John Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson, whose interplay and musical rapport were legendary. By 1955, the formula and sound congealed as percussionist Connie Kay and bassist Percy Heath replaced their flashier, starrier predecessors, Kenny Clarke and Ray Brown. The Freidline combo featured Jon Metzger playing the vibraphone, Rick Dior on drums, Zack Page on bass, and the leader at the keyboard. Clearly, it was Freidline and Metzger who cooked up the program between them, since Dior replaced the drummer originally announced on our events calendar. As for Page, Freidline exposed his unfamiliarity with the bassist when he presumed that none of the other musicians onstage was familiar with “Rose Room”: Page not only knew the tune, he had played it with his twin brother, guitarist Andy Page, in a “Gypsy Jazz” tribute to Django Reinhardt less than two years ago at Charlotte’s Stage Door Theater.

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Freidline and Metzger were savvier in their sampling of the MJQ legacy, which stretched over 40 years and 50 recordings. They played compositions that are musts for anyone coming to this music for the first time, including Lewis’s classically sophisticated “Django” and “Vendôme,” offset by Jackson’s funkier “Bluesology” and “Bags’ Groove.” There were also discriminating choices like “Concorde,” perhaps Lewis’s most challenging composition, and standards such as “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” “All the Things You Are” and “Summertime,” that crystallized the pianist’s arranging genius. The rest of the selections were less expected, almost equally fresh for longtime MJQ fans as they were for neophytes, including “Afternoon in Paris,” “Autumn in New York,” “Delauney’s Dilemma,” and “Blues in C Minor.”

One of the characteristics that made MJQ so unique was their pioneering conservatism. They preferred outdoor festivals and concert halls to seedy clubs, dressed up for their performances in matching tuxedos like orchestra musicians, and insisted on being listened to rather than being taken for granted as dance or background music. For a long while, these practices, not terribly outré nowadays, were viewed as outlandish and pretentious. Less notorious, but no less innovative, was their practice of offering spoken intros to each of their pieces as they performed. Freidline, without self-consciously noting MJQ’s influence, adopted this practice himself.

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Beginning with “Afternoon in Paris,” probably Lewis’s earliest jazz standard, the Freidline Quartet made it evident that there would be some give-and-take in terms of their replication of the MJQ sound and style. If you had ever heard the quartet live – or spent hours and hours of quality time with their most revered albums – the sound of Metzger playing his Musser vibraphone repeatedly seemed to bring the playing of Milt “Bags” Jackson back to life. Metzger’s tremolo may not have been as slow, and his sustains may not have been quite as long or rich, but the Jackson swing and flow kept on coming – chiming – wave after luscious wave.

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As a leader, Freidline doled out far more spotlight to his supporting players than Lewis, trading four-bar improvisations with Dior toward the end of the opening piece and giving Page a solo on the ensuing “Bluesology,” where Metzger sounded even more like Jackson in playing on the legendary vibes master’s famed composition. Freidline, on the other hand, was nowhere near as trim or spare in his soloing as Lewis, sounding more like Dave Brubeck at the keyboard, full chords showering down at times from both hands rather than single note phrases. It wasn’t until we reached “Summertime,” whose silences Freidline extolled in his charming intro, that the pianist came near to echoing Lewis’s single-note soloing style, which always contrasted so beautifully with Jackson’s deluges.

Lewis was not at all discarded otherwise, for Freidline delighted in playing the pianist’s arrangements framing the MJQ’s interpretations of the standards, and when it came to “Concorde” and “Vendôme,” presenting Lewis’s own compositions as written. Perhaps the most eloquent moment in Freidline’s intro to “Concorde” was when he held out its nine pages of sheet music and allowed it to unfold down to the floor. So we heard the Bach-like layering that opens “Concorde,” the contrapuntal prelude that gives way to “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” and the solemn chiming that leads us in and out of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The most outrageous heresy of the concert, when Dior brandished sticks and played a full-out solo on “La Ronde,” wasn’t a heresy at all, for the group wasn’t referencing the hallowed European Concert version of 1960, featuring bassist Heath. They were hearkening back instead to the first MJQ recording, when Kenny Clarke was behind the drum kit wailing away in “La Ronde” from beginning to end – and soloing – on December 22, 1952.

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The tribute within the tribute, Lewis’s “Django,” was the highlight of the concert for me, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member who was moved by the composer’s hushed and sacred framing of the solos. Metzger was perfection in handling the transition between the bittersweet melody and the accelerated improvisations lavished upon it, turning the lament into a quiet celebration and making the lament all the more poignant as the Romani guitarist’s signature swing was wistfully evoked. Page had his best moments of the afternoon as he eloquently soloed, and Freidline was no less perfect than Metzger in his soloing and decelerating back to the mournful melody. Every note of this fine concert is preserved on YouTube.

Andy Page Turns Stage Door Theater Into a Hot Club With Django Tribute

Review: JazzArts Charlotte’s Stage Door Theater “Gypsy Jazz: Andy Page                 Plays Django Reinhardt”

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Rolled out during the fall of 2018, JazzArts Charlotte’s new Premiere Thursdays augments its firmly-established Jazz Room series. Jazz Room began its 14th season in October at the Stage Door Theater, packing four sessions into Friday and Saturday nights. Premiere Thursdays began its second season at that same venue with “Gypsy Jazz: Andy Page Plays Django Reinhardt,” logging two sets – the second one at 8pm sold-out – during its one-night stand. Unlike other subjects of Jazz Room homages, say pianist Thelonious Monk or saxophonist John Coltrane, Reinhardt’s guitar exploits are often synonymous with a group and a genre, namely the Quintette du Hot Club de France and Gypsy Jazz.

So it might have been a little surprising to see four musicians taking the bandstand for the 6pm performance that I attended. But with violinist Steve Trismen filling the great Stéphane Grapelli’s slot in the Quintette and a second guitarist, Leo Johnson, available to strum rhythm behind the leader, I was confident that the basic Hot Club sound would be preserved. Page was joined by his twin brother, Zack Page, playing the upright bass, while vocalist Lauren Hayworth was waiting in the wings.

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With the second guitar strumming, bolstered by pizzicatos from the bass and even – at times – the violin, Page’s quartet had a surprisingly driving sound from the moment the leader launched into his opening tune, “Rose Room.” They were very much on-the-beat in a way that combos with drums and piano rarely are, and with plenty of space accorded to the soloists – three choruses each for Andy Page and Trismen, and one for Johnson – we quickly became acquainted with their swinging capabilities. Page’s asymmetrical guitar had the look of instruments Django was photographed playing, and his sound had a similar twang, though Page had a greater tendency to indulge in slides at the end of his phrases. All in all, both in the configuration of the group and in the leader’s style, we were getting the flavor of the Hot Club quintet with individualistic departures rather than merely a slavish imitation.

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In the ensuing “Douce Ambiance,” a more complex arrangement that divided the closing chorus among multiple soloists, Page demonstrated his readiness to share the heavy lifting with his bandmates. After Page played the melody, Trismen drew the most solo space and Johnson, with a guitar as Django-like as Page’s, proved to be just as schooled in the rudiments of Reinhardt’s style, dwelling more constantly up in the treble with a tinnier sound. At a slower tempo, “Troublant Bolero,” covered one of Reinhardt’s most amazing solos. Though “Bolero” was quite differently arranged from Reinhardt’s recording, with Page playing the melody instead of his violinist, similar harmonics adorned Page’s concluding coda. “Swing 39” expressly featured Johnson, with a half-chorus set aside for Zack Page to solo on.

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The next nine selections diverged from the opening cluster. Between two stints by vocalist Lauren Hayworth, joining the band for a nice mix of French and American tunes, Johnson switched out his guitar for a clarinet and fronted the quartet for a couple of tunes, “Tears” and “Belleville.” Before taking a chorus of his own on “Tears,” Trismen heightened the impact of Johnson’s fine solo with his backup work. At a quicker pace, Trismen and Johnson split four choruses improvising on “Bellville,” with simpler statements of the melody by Johnson framing their duel.

Reinhardt hardly ever recorded with vocalists, so it was interesting to see how Hayworth would mesh with the combo and what tunes she would select. The first three – “Ménilmontant,” “J’Attendrai,” and “Si Tu Savais” – can be found in Reinhardt’s discography in instrumental versions, so these vocals were nice discoveries. Others that followed, “C’est si bon” and “Sous le Ciel de Paris,” weren’t connected to Reinhardt. With exponents as diverse as Yves Montand and Conway Twitty, “C’est si bon” is a more commercial work, so Hayworth’s comparative lack of pizzazz wasn’t an asset, but on “Sous le Ciel de Paris,” most closely identified with Edith Piaf, Hayworth’s vibrato-less version had a refreshing effect like Karrin Allyson’s recent recording. Hayworth’s lack of ornament wasn’t a lack of feeling at all. Rather, it reminded me of approach that Brazilian singers like Astrud Gilberto have to songs and lyrics.

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Nevertheless, songs sung in English by Hayworth were a pinch spicier, especially after her “Crazy Rhythm” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy” medley. “Undecided,” an early Ella Fitzgerald hit that Reinhardt actually recorded with vocalist Beryl Davis, drew Hayworth’s most swinging singing of the evening, bolstered by some of Page’s hottest soloing. Nor did the break that Hayworth took afterwards dull her edge while the quartet played two of Reinhardt’s signature compositions, “Nuages” and “Minor Swing,” the latter co-written by Grapelli.

Page’s brilliance on “Undecided” carried over into “Nuages,” and brother Zack had his best moments of the program soloing on “Minor Swing.” Hayworth returned for the finale, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” certainly a great getaway title – and one on which both Reinhardt and Chet Atkins lavished some sliding glissandos of their own in their recordings. Hayworth floated over the hard-driving accompaniment bookending the arrangement, always an exhilarating effect. In between vocals, Trismen, Johnson, and Andy Page each frolicked through the melody at breakneck speed with distinctive embellishments. We were in for a rousing finish when Hayworth reminded us of Isham Jones’s simple tune, with even more jubilant unrest percolating beneath the singer’s silky voice.