Professional Jazz Concert In The Library

Lively jazz spanning wide stylistic flavor filled a room in the Bellevue Library on June 1st. The main artist was noted jazz guitarist Chris Spencer, who is respected around the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere for his professionalism, versatility, and recording and teaching experience. On this day he was showcased in a five-day music festival in the jazz-rich city of Bellevue featuring jazz and blues performers from all around the Seattle metro area. The concert was free and fairly informal, but the music was far from amateur or spontaneous, unless one counts the absence of a written program. Spencer also surprised and delighted the audience by bringing his daughter, an accomplished saxophonist, onto the improvised stage to play four of the concert’s thirteen tunes. I talked with the two performers during intermission, and they were approachable and congenial. The room had two large windows, and the door was open to visitors, creating an inviting atmosphere and making it easy to take notes; I had heard the music as soon as I walked in the library. The audience, the majority of which was somewhat elderly, was quite enthusiastic and supportive of the music itself as well as the clear fervor of the performers. Overall, the venue seemed odd for a professional jazz performer yet was perfect considering its reception.

Much of the music Chris and his daughter played was standard repertoire. They refrained from announcing the titles of a few tunes, leaving the audience to guess them in two cases and meanwhile keeping us engaged and mentally invested in the occasion. As mentioned, there was no written program, but the very lack of predictability kept me listening more attentively than I would have otherwise. Though his daughter read from a head and chords to keep place, Chris did not use music, unsurprisingly experienced enough to do so. Chris’s guitar was electric and amplified, emphasizing a clean timbre and evidently simplifying the task of developing a rhythmic groove, such as when an easy-to-project ostinato in the bass range fueled the eleventh tune forward. During solos he played over a recorded comp, though occasionally accompanying himself; under saxophone solos he covered the chords live. Comps were either blocked chords or a walking bass line.

The second tune in which the guitar and saxophone joined forces was the ballad “It Could Happen to You” by Jimmy Van Heusen, played in E flat major. I wondered why the duo transposed it from the the original key, G major, when flatted keys are usually more difficult for the guitar, but I know that flatted keys tend to be mellower and thus better suited for ballads. This is a favorite standard of mine, having played it on the piano, and I listened closely to the form. It was simple: the saxophone, backed by the live guitar, sang out the melody, embellishing as she went. Then the guitar took over, not making prominent use of repetition but instead utilizing short hidden motifs such as turns and leading tones. Finally, both instruments intertwined again, the guitar doubling the saxophone on some melody notes, and ended on a mildly deceptive cadence. This was a satisfying yet fresh take on a familiar melody.

Then the saxophonist stepped down and her father took center stage. A subsequent tune that captured my attention was Duke Ellington’s celebrated “Mood Indigo”. Rather, it was Chris’s arrangement of it, which was confusing at first but then settled into the well-known melody, almost as if he couldn’t bring himself to condescend to a mere written score and chords. Chords were blocked rather than rolled; throughout the concert I noticed that slower, more expressive accompaniment demanded more feeling than up-tempos. The simpler head gave way to more chromatic and arpeggiated experimentation; AbM/C – Bdim – Bbm7 was an oft-repeated sequence. The disjunct playtime landed in a traditional A flat major chord, presumably for special effect.

One of the most unusual tunes on the program was attributed to Miles Davis; unfortunately my ears missed the title announcement. A recorded walking bass lent an air of breeziness and spunk to the performance. Blue notes were widely featured but not confined to the common blues scale. Chris’s solo in this tune made extensive use of half steps, leading tones, and patterns, which had a pleasing and anchoring effect because the music was not in any definite key. Several times I saw him infuse flair into the mix by gently shaking the guitar and producing slow vibrato. His fingers were also busy: one time they had a dissonant dialogue with the recorded walking bass line, picking a seemingly random countermelody over the low, steady notes. Relaxing the tension a bit, he tweaked the pattern and played thirds over the bass line, prompting me to wonder if he had recorded it himself and enhancing the odd feeling in the air by abstaining from chordal underpinning. It was unclear to me whether the uncanniness of this tune, which I had not heard previously, was due primarily to the guitarist’s improvisations or Davis himself. It ended on an unresolved Ab7.

I understood why “Lady Bird” by Tadd Dameron, played by both instruments in the original key (C major), was one of the last tunes on the program. It turned a popular modern jazz standard into a more involved exploration of harmony. The saxophone tuned with the guitar before beginning a complex arrangement of the straightforward 16-bar sequence, the guitar accompanying with an occasional countermelody. The saxophonist soloed more freely than in her earlier improvisations and took advantage of her wide range. By this time, the audience was swept up in the 3-part texture (sax, guitar, recorded comp) and straight-8th rhythm. The guitar wheeled in and continued the arpeggio theme that his daughter had initiated. Some of his kinetic licks, which made use of techniques such as finger-picking and exaggerated sliding, intentionally clashed with the recorded underlying changes. To my infinite delight, this solo soon smoothed into a call-and-response ritual between the two live instruments, where the audience, whether it knew it or not, was instantly engineered to anticipate the perceptive questions and answers they posed. After several of these playful exchanges, the performers meandered out on a head that almost exactly mirrored the beginning; this repetition, however, enhanced the sense of order and professionalism that ultimately earned my admiration of the duo.

The experience exceeded my expectations with regard to the technical talent and musical inventiveness shown as well as the pleasant and sociable atmosphere in which I heard it. The most striking difference between this live concert and its hypothetical recorded equivalent was the ways in which the audience and performers interacted; the audience received visual and audible connection with Chris before, between, and after the songs as well as in minute but significant ways during the music. For instance, eye contact during the performance formed an indispensable component of the experience. Whether I recommended this performance to a friend or not would depend on my knowledge of that person’s artistic inclinations. Many young people who are used to splashy, loud shows attended by commercial entertainers would be uninterested by a small jazz ensemble playing music to which they were not accustomed. I do not conform to that category, but I am conscious of others’ tastes.

09 March 2021
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