Trombonist Ryan Keberle recently commented in the New York City Jazz Record that music educators like himself ought to spend more time figuring out how to get their students to find “the zone,” where they can improvise at the highest level. One way to do it was how Keberle did it at Hunter College last night with his Big Band Living Legacy Project, surrounding himself with a crew of big band jazz legends, many of whom had mentored him or inspired him to transcribe and learn solos they’d played on albums over the past several decades. With this group, Keberle spent most of his time conducting rather than soloing, but when he did – especially during his own luminous, Gil Evans-ish arrangement of Summertime, which he sheepishly told the crowd he’d decided to reinvent as a trombone feature – he very tersely and poignantly headed straight for “the zone” and stayed there. And no wonder. Who wouldn’t be inspired to take it to the next level, surrounded by the players onstage?
This is an amazing band. The show was mostly upbeat swing blues tunes, the majority from the Basie book, with a trio of numbers associated with Ellington along with boisterous, brass-fueled takes of JJ Johnson’s Say When, Thad Jones’ Big Dipper, Sy Oliver’s Looselid Special and the old Benny Goodman chestnut King Porter Stomp. Scott Robinson stood in for Goodman, as Keberle wryly put it, with his whirling clarinet and then his blues-infused tenor sax work. Baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley (of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) showed off a period-perfect, mile-wide tremolo on an achingly lyrical take of Ellington’s I Like the Sunrise, from the Iberian Suite. James Zollar delivered crescendos that ranged from sizzling to droll from behind his mute alongside his fellow trumpeters Bob Millikan, Earl Gardner and Greg Gisbert. Altoist Jerry Dodgion got a couple of soulful spots late in the show, up front in the sax section alongside Billy Drewes and Bill Easley.
Watching bassist Rufus Reid move from the simplest pedalpoint on the oldest numbers to a majestic stroll on the more recent material was a capsule history of big band jazz rhythm. Likewise, Carl Allen’s trip through beats from across the decades, from shuffles on the ride cymbal through more artful, unexpected ka-THUMP syncopation on the more blazing tunes, while pianist Alan Broadbent colored the songs with ambered blues tones and the occasional misty interlude way up in the highest octaves.
Bass trombonist Earl McIntyre – whose mighty gravitas anchored the Arturo O’Farrill band’s sensational show a week ago at the Apollo – drew plenty of laughs as he faked out the crowd with pregnant pauses in a romp through Thad Jones’ The Deacon, one of the Basie tunes. His fellow ‘bone guys Mike Davis and Clarence Banks also got time in the spotlight later on, no surprise considering who the bandleader was. The highlight of the set might have been a richly gospel-inspired take of Mary Lou Williams’ wickedly catchy Blue Skies. Or it could have been the majestic version of Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, or the nimble, incisive run through Isfahan a few numbers later. With this kind of material and these kind of players, you just sit and sway in your seat and take it all in and remain grateful that you live in an era where people still play this kind of music – and pass it on to another generation.