Thursday, April 21, 2022

Recap of Vanessa Rubin & Her All-Star Octet (From April 9)

One night after the mssv show (see entry below), Vanessa Rubin and her All-Star Octet performed at the New Hazlett Theater. Like previous shows presented by the Kente Arts Alliance (The Cookers, Charles McPherson), everyone had to present their vaccination card to gain entry to the theater. We also had to keep our masks on during the show. 

Perhaps knowing that the show would not be completely sold out, the staff closed off the balconies on stage right and stage left at the Hazlett, which was the perfect place for patrons like me, who arrived just as things were starting. I wound up squeezing into a seat in front of center stage, next to some friends who had an empty seat between them and another patron. I appreciated the offer but it meant I felt too self-conscious about moving around during the performance, trying to work both my phone and scoop pad (which I use to take notes). Hence, I wasn't able to sneak a photo or two. My notes were scribbled in the dark but at least some were legible.

I'm rather particular about jazz singers. Fussy, one might say. I prefer instrumentalists when it comes to jazz. But I was piqued both by Vanessa Rubin's set - a tribute to composer/bandleader Tadd Dameron - and the group backing her up. The octet lived up to its name, with a saxophone section alone that consisted of Antonio Hart (alto, flute), Patience Riggins (tenor, flute) and Alex Harding (baritone). (The latter player has visited Pittsburgh in several different groups, from Oliver Lake's big band to Kahil ElZabar's trio.) 

The horn section was rounded out by Eddie Allen (trumpet) and Dion Tucker (trombone). The rhythm section consisted featured Brandon McCune (piano), Kenny Davis (bass) and Carl Allen (drums). The group was under the direction of veteran bandleader/trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, who conducted them. After a brief but rich medley of Dameron tunes, Ms. Rubin joined them onstage.

There are many musicians in jazz who could be considered forgotten or whose work is overlooked.  Pianist Tadd Dameron ranks pretty high on the list. Many people might not know his name, but hum a few bars of  that bebop classic "Hot House" and the lightbulb will go off above people's heads. (I did that very thing to someone a few hours before the concert.) He wrote several other songs that were really popular with his peers during the bebop era ("Good Bait," "Lady Bird") and the period soon after. He also wrote and arranged in a way that could make a small group come alive like a big band.

All of that happened on April 9 with Rubin's set. "Lady Bird" came to life with strong solos by trumpeter Allen and pianist McCune before Rubin went off on a scat solo that swung as hard as her bandmates' work. She also added some scatting to "Kitchenette Across the Hall," a deeper Dameron cut, that included some baritone shouts from Harding. The weight of Dameron's voicing skills was in full effect during "If You Could See Me Now." 

There were also moments where things got a little lush but the music never lost any of its impact. "You're a Joy" featured flute work from the sax section, which added a dreamy quality to the sound. Both Higgins and Hart doubled on flute at different times during the night and both of them blew with power. 

The stage layout included a table with flowers near where Rubin was standing. It seemed like it might have been there to help set a scene for some of the lyrics, giving them some more drama. But in the end, Rubin didn't go for such anything forced because she was too caught up in the music itself. Her ballads were tender without being flashy. She didn't need to over emphasize any of the lyrics because her sense of swing gave her an air of authority. Really, her performance proved she was just as much a musician as everyone else onstage.

No comments: