WXXI AM News

Jazz Fest 2019, Day 2: Ron reviews Tommy Smith & Peter Johnstone, Gilad Hekselman, and Empirical

Jun 23, 2019

Empirical charmed the audience at Christ Church on Saturday with a more abstract approach to jazz.
Credit Photo by Josh Saunders

There were many great moments in the Tommy Smith & Peter Johnstone concert at Hatch Recital Hall on Saturday, but none of them beat Smith’s solo on Robert Burns' "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose." Smith played the song, written in 1794, on tenor saxophone, but he played it into the lifted lid of the piano, causing a gorgeous, somewhat dissonant harmony to rise from the vibrating piano strings. It was something akin to the haunting sound of a theremin.

I’d seen Smith do this once before, but this time he told the audience the back story. In the poor area of Scotland where he grew up, he said, his school had a piano. But it had no legs, no keys and no lid. The body with strings inside was mounted on a wall and Smith liked to play into it. Smith was highly conversational with the audience, but his saxophone spoke even more eloquently.

He and Johnstone, Smith’s excellent former student, played some standard repertoire, like Duke Ellington’s gorgeous "The Single Petal Of A Rose," but they also went in some wonderfully unusual directions. After discussing both a saxophone lesson from a Turkish musician who did not play saxophone and a visit to Yemen, in which Smith played music where it had previously been banned, he and Johnstone played a harmonically challenging Yemeni song.

Johnstone was particularly spectacular on this tune, keeping up a complex bass figure with his left hand while his right hand played the Middle Eastern music as if he’d known it all his life.

A trio with simpatico

At the Lutheran Church, guitarist Gilad Hekselman led a tight trio in a set of mostly original tunes. Hekselman, bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jonathan Pinson formed a triangle on the stage and constantly interacted with each other — nodding, leaning in, and transferring energy. With seemingly impossible dexterity, Hekselman had absolute command of his instrument. When he wanted it to sing, it sang; when he wanted it to growl, it growled. Most of the time, he employed a clear, ringing tone and a melodic approach in his solos.

 

Rosato provided an excellent foundation on bass and took some fine solos. Pinson was simply outstanding on the drums, by turns subtle and bombastic. Each time he soloed, he threw his entire body into it.

Abstract expression

Empirical won over the crowd at Christ Church even though the group’s set consisted of highly abstract compositions written as social commentary through music. At its best, the music was elegiac, perhaps enhanced by the cavernous church setting. Alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey tended toward John Coltrane-like cascades of notes. Lewis Wright was excellent on vibraphone, favoring a four-mallet technique. Double bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Shaney Forbes provided solid support.

Sunday evening I'll be back in Hatch Recital Hall to see pianist Bill Dobbins. I also look forward to hearing another keyboard player, Kit Downes, at Christ Church, as well as guitarist Jostein Gulbrandsen at the Lutheran Church.