Zem Audu Makes a Dynamic Blue Note Debut
In his Blue Note debut as a bandleader Saturday night, tenor saxophonist Zem Audu showed off a terse, purposeful sensibility, a smokily nuanced tone and compositional fluency in styles ranging from Monty Alexander-style Jamdown jazz, to colorful postbop, funk and more. Much as this guy is used to working a crowd, as a touring and recording member of what’s left of the iconic Skatalites, he saves the sizzle for when he really needs it. Along for the ride and dazzling the crowd with his signature blend of vivid, lushly lyrical neoromantic glimmer, erudite blues and the occasional triumphant detour into Afro-Cuban sounds was powerhouse pianist Benito Gonzalez, anchored by drummer Corey Rawls and six-string bassist Teymur Phell.
The band eased their way into the opening number, Biologique, a vampy, Bahian-tinged thing, Gonzalez elevating it in a split-second with a long, sabretoothed solo, part glistening river of angst, part blues. Rawls opened Posi-Vibes with a hypnotically insistent Nyabinghi drum solo: as the band took it deeper into straight-up reggae, Gonzalez pushed at the edges with disarmingly clever close harmonic variations. Layers began as a strut, then the group shifted it almost imperceptibly toward an implied clave groove.
The night’s showstopper was Shining. Audu opened it as slinky, airconditioned LA boudoir noir, something straight out of the Bob Belden post-Miles catalog. But then the bandleader pushed it on the wings of a little feral valve-torturing and a swirling series of lickety-split Coltrane-esque spirals into more jaunty postbop, teaming with Gonzalez to end it on a triumphant note. After that, the funky intro of Flow didn’t exactly telegraph excitement…until Rawls hit a second line-tinged groove and then everybody got on the gospel bus to New Orleans. The night’s final number was also the most trad, a catchy Frank Foster-ish riff-driven tune bookended by some unexpectedly gentle, sepulchral work from Audu and Gonzalez. Audu and his quartet are at Club Bonafide (the old Something Jazz Club), 212 E 52nd St. on April 22 at 7 PM. Cover is $15.