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The Graduate

Jacob Yoffee Quartet, An die Musik, July 23

Christopher Myers
Joy of Sax: Yoffee (left) sets the pace.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/28/2004

Esteemed local pianist Tim Murphy’s angular, repetitive intro to the fourth song in the Jacob Yoffee Quartet’s opening set at An die Musik painted an anxious, pensive mood. Lines stopped just before resolution, the sustain leaving the chords suspended in the air like an incomplete thought. And when the rest of the group—bassist Jeff Reed, drummer Dan Marcellus, and saxophonist Yoffee, the leader/composer of most of the tunes this evening—joined in, the combo sculpted a smoky, sinewy ballad. Reed’s notes sounded a barely perceptible pulse against Marcellus’ brush work and created a pattern of wave swells and crashes. Yoffee echoed Murphy’s uncertain motif and wandered gingerly into Reed and Marcellus’ rhythm surf, his tenor lines testing the waters with short, lyrical runs over the course of the tune, before soulfully turning headfirst into it as the tune reached its emotive, concluding peak.

Chops are great, but if you want to see what jazz players can do, you’ve gotta hear how they handle a ballad. You can learn scales, you can learn tempo, you can learn arrangements, and you can learn how to combine them all into lively, combustible solos, but the ballad takes tenderness. The ballad takes soul. The ballad takes heart. And you can’t fake it if you don’t got it.

Yoffee is a recent graduate from the Peabody Institute’s jazz department, a member of the first class to enter and complete the entire program. And if he’s any ruler by which to judge it, then look out: His playing is agile but not too trained, and the four originals he unveiled tonight showcase a still-developing composer in touch with that part of writing that you can’t teach but just got to nurture along. This ballad is called “She,” a piece the recently married 25-year-old wrote for his wife. And not only did it eloquently convey a sort of should-I-or-shouldn’t-I? emotional debate that updates a classic romantic love to the present, but it showcased a young musician with the maturity to turn that internal dialogue into a musical one and the confidence to put it out there for everybody to see.

Such self-assurance swam through all four of Yoffee’s originals, from the playfully agile “Temporary Suspension of Disbelief” to the rhythmically dynamic yet still swinging “Aftermath.” And though it was only the debut of this quartet—Yoffee confessed that this evening’s performance of his “Inquisition” was the first time he heard it with piano—the group maintained a relaxed cohesiveness, with Marcellus steering the changes along and Reed, who kicked in the night’s wittiest solo during an inventive group riff on Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” holding everything together.

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