One of the most exhilarating and engaging musical evenings I've enjoyed in quite some took place at the fine Grassroots Music Series presented at the Kansas City Academy on Saturday, Feb. 18, when alto saxophone master Dave Pietro, from New York City, teamed with Kansas City’s bassist Jeff Harshbarger and drummer Brandon Draper. This instrumental format, without the typical jazz combo chording instrument like piano or guitar, offers special challenges but also, in the right hands, special rewards. And the audience was certainly rewarded.
In this format, there is a special premium put on the bassist, who must provide more harmonic underpinning than in the typical combo. And Harshbarger was more than suited to that task. Also, the importance of all three musicians listening to each other intently is maximized, since there is no chordal instrument outlining the music.
From the first tune, a hard charging version of Wayne Shorter's United, it was clear that Pietro is a true master. One advantage of the Kansas City Academy is that the intimate setting and excellent acoustics means that, other than a small bass amp, there is no need for sound amplification. Which means that the sheer sound of the saxophone is a crucial component--and Pietro has a rich, lovely sound, and an excellent command of dynamics. As he showed from first to last, he is also an endless fount of inventive ideas, and able and willing to make use of all registers of his horn.
One reason this was such a special performance was the rhythmic variety of the evening. The second piece, a Pietro original called the Scene Between Two Unseens, was grounded in the Brazilian rhythm called Baio, where Draper provided truly infectious rhythms. From there, the band explored free improvisation on a Pietro tune, Joyance, inspired by Ornette Coleman. Like an early Coleman line, the melody was both very catchy and took surprising stops, turns and twists. From there, the band engaged in improvisation, with no chordal guideposts to fall back on. This only works with intently listening musicians who pick up cues quickly from each other. And here, Harshbarger was especially impressive, getting a rich tone in the lower registers and having a Haden-like knack for melody.
More adventures in rhythm came with the standard, You Don't Know What Love Is, done in seven rather than the usual four. A long exchange between Pietro and Draper was highlighted by Draper setting down his drumsticks and playing just tambourine as Pietro and Harshbarger took the dynamics down to "intimate." From there, Draper worked in hand drumming and then back to the full kit before the tune was through. From there, it was on to the musicial world of Thelonious Monk, with the gorgeous ballad, Ask Me Now. Here is where Pietro showed off full command of his horn on a lengthy and lush unaccompanied intro. From there, it was on to Kurt Weill's This Is New, which wrapped up the main part of the concert.
The distinctive thing about the Grassroots Series is that after the main set, the musicians answer questions from the audience, which leads to some great discussion and fascinating explanations of the music. Here, Pietro gave a masterful discussion of how the lack of a chordal instrument opened up the music--and how chords themselves are just brief "snapshots" of places in the music, but that music is a continuous flow in time, and sometimes too much overt attention to the chords can impede the flow of the music. One audience member noted that she usually does not like alto saxophone, but enjoyed this show, and asked why. The discussion that ensued focused on the tonal quality of the instrument, and that while for some time, most players have preferred a very bright tone, Pietro says his influence there have come from older players with a richer, rounder sound. He then demonstrated by playing samples in the sound of Johnny Hodges, Cannonball Adderley, and Charlie Parker. There were interesting stories about their practice routines from both Harshbarger and Draper, and Draper explained some methods he has used to get comfortable with more unusual rhythms, like seven.
After the discussion, the encore piece was a fun stroll through Bye Bye Blackbird, with Pietro using a lot of blues feeling and the entire group feeling at ease with a late fifties style sound. The only disappointment to this evening was the meager turnout of about 15 people. I'm hoping the word gets out about this series and that more people check out this distinctive mode of presentation. For more info on the Grassroots series, go to http://www.kcacademy.org/music/