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Living History

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/4/2002

A Hometown Jazz Extravaganza

Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, Nov. 30


Baltimore often gets the short end of the American Jazz stick. New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, New York, Los Angeles--these cities embrace their jazz past and present, and jazz's notoriously catholic historians and critics have seen fit to return the favor. But Baltimore, despite possessing a jazz legacy as lengthy and compelling as any of the above, rarely receives even a modest mention in jazz's so-called canon. Even in Ken Burns' hagiography Jazz Baltimore crops up only in passing, a mere stop in musicians' lives on the road to the real hearts of the art.

So you've gotta hand it to WEAA (88.9 FM). To celebrate its 25th year on the air, the National Public Radio affiliate located on the campus of Morgan State University decided to answer the calling of its call letters--"we educate African-Americas"--with an homage to Baltimore's jazz legacy by the people who know it best. A rich but by no means exhaustive sample of Baltimore's jazz musicians supplied a hearty reminder that Charm City has a jazz community worth trumpeting. In fact, on the evening of Nov. 30 at Morgan's new Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, drummer Winard Harper practically wrote an impromptu precis on jazz percussion all by his damn self.

Taking the form of a musical review, WEAA's "A Hometown Jazz Extravaganza" spread seven performances over an evening that rarely lost steam. A good deal of the night's success owed to the station's on-air personalities--morning host Sandi Mallory, "Midday Jazz Café" host Melanie, and "Sets and Sessions" host Gary Ellerbe--who kept the proceedings moving between sets from rising local stars to incendiary legends.

Of course, quality control is the problem with a musical potpourri. Sets were brisk, making performers come out and grab the audience from the get-go, a skill that traditionally comes with professional practice. So although the performance of familiar jazz and pop tunes by the Terri Kee Trio (led by Kee, the 2002 winner of the Mayor's Billie Holiday Vocal Competition), Michael Austin (the Baltimore man released last year after being wrongly imprisoned for 27 years), and Timmy and Kelly Shepherd were far from disappointing, they suffered from comparison to their esteemed company on the program.

The entire evening was capped by a star-studded one-two punch. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut delivered a typically energetic, polished, crowd-pleasing set that showcased his effortless panache. Chestnut the composer doesn't hide his gospel roots--he inventively explores the call-and-response structure and favors slow, long-phrased melodies or fast, motivic melodies in which his piano provides staccato polyrhythms and ostinatos. Chestnut the player, however, mirthfully camouflages his unusual technical compositions with musicianship that comes across as gleeful as speakeasy stomps and blues. His fingers wiggled across the keys whipping up a delightful dance, and his set raised the adrenaline level for what followed: an all-star jam featuring the evening's musicians. Led by Dr. John Lamkin, the coordinator of the music education program at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, and hosted by local diva Ruby Glover, the stage overflowed with talent, but the huge ensemble came across like a highlight reel of great plays with little holding them together.

Earlier in the evening, however, a septet of Baltimore's favorite jazz sons didn't fail once during their just-over-an-hour performance of standards such as Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz's "Alone Together," "Blues in B Flat," and the Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields classic "The Way You Look Tonight." In fact, trumpeters Wendell Shepherd and Dontae Winslow, saxophonists Gary Bartz and Andy Ennis, pianist Charlie Covington, bassist Michael Bowie, and drummer Harper sounded ready to raise the dead. This liveliness was no doubt due to the hodgepodge grouping. All these musicians are bandleaders in the their own right, and the unspoken gift of putting a bunch of high rollers onstage together is that it encourages them to bring their "A" games.

Bartz set the pace with his inventive solos. Alternating between his signature alto sax and a spry soprano, Bartz delivered extended solos that climbed from bouncing, bluesy lines into careening sheets punctuated with peal and skronk exclamations. He had competition in the fireworks department from Wendell Shepherd, who exploded a big, brassy sound with quickly fingered lines that stood up and shouted. His squealing trumpet bursts and occasionally bawdy solos turned even the modestly priggish "The Way You Look Tonight" into something with a refreshingly naughty streak.

Ennis, who used to play in Ray Charles' band, took a more soulful approach during his solos, delivering shorter bop lines. Covington--who also performed an impeccable solo tribute to Art Tatum--played with the deliberate confidence of Ahmad Jamal, fingering swinging solos that found the happy medium between too many and too few notes. And Winslow was a calm player with the sophisticated tone of Kenny Dorham, opting for elegantly formed phrasing over flash and filigree; his muted solo during "The Way You Look Tonight" was as lovely a moment as any that occurred onstage.

But the stars of this group were the rhythm section of Bowie and Harper. The septet whittled itself down to a series of trios and quartets during solos, and, though each soloist opted for a drastically different approach, Bowie and Harper were there to keep the song from morphing into something completely different. Harper especially deserves credit for laying down a right hand on high-hat swing that was ready to go wherever the soloists wanted. He backed Wendell Shepherd with big beats, flawlessly punctuated Bartz's emotional excursions, tastefully danced around Covington's lines, and turned to wire brushes to nuzzle into Winslow's muted solo. Whenever, wherever, Harper was ready, willing, and able to go there--vamp, hard bop, swing, blues, stretch the central motif during a run-on solo and snap back on a dime? No problem. It was a thrilling performance to watch, if only because Harper looked like he was having more fun than everybody else combined. He had come back to town and was taking a jaunty stroll down his home's musical streets, touching upon all the sounds that once emanated out of clubs played by musicians gone but not forgotten. No wonder he had a smile on his face.

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