13 September 2011


There was joy and brilliance aplenty the other night. Geri Allen played the Village Vanguard. She’d been there for the week but this was a different and special show. When I arrived, I heard that Christian McBride was sitting in on bass for this one gig. Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave was another addition just for this night. Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts rounded out the band. What a band, and how unexpected. Marcus was an early support for Geri, so there’s a love there. But beyond that, this stage glowed with joy and was riddled with communication. From the arrival on stage, there was casual patter with audience and private smiles and chatter on the stage. Geri led - you could see that in the respectful glances - but this was a partnership, even a family, and her offsiders gave generously. There was normal, human communication with eyes searching and often locked. Certainly Geri was all eyes on the band and almost nil to keyboard, and Jeff was gazing to follow her leads. Marcus and Christian a bit less so, although they looked often enough too. But the musical communication was paramount. Geri was a master of chordal colours that could ape a solo but also lead it with harmonic movements, modal or rhythmical. This is the complexity of the spoken word and these are Shakespearean skills. She was nothing less in solos, of course. Blues with inflections and simplicity; modal with fourths and symmetrical movements that just floored me. I know it’s done, I’ve heard it on record but never live like this. Christian was rock-like solidity with huge tone and absolute steadiness and plenty of space and smiles. This is a big man playing a big instrument that he fitted. The solos were no different, just more. Melodic and appropriate and musical, but devastating and speedy across the neck, and up into the thumb positions. I wondered if some lines were humanly possible, they were so quick and so sustained. They were and he did them. Clearly work of a master with immense knowledge and easy interpretation. I must admit that the concert was too short to capture it all; I was so enraptured by Geri and Christian that I didn’t listen enough to Marcus and Jeff. Marcus Belgrave was an older man and I thought not too well, but his happiness was infectious. The night felt like a family get-together, and there were clearly old mates in the audience because they were chatting after. His trumpet and flugelhorn were post-bop expressive, I thought maybe tested by age, but there were some soulful melodies and a few explosive quick lines. Jeff ‘Tain’ was all groove but also some volume. His is not a drumming of sly infection or of sparkling rudiments. This was more earthy and thumping and on occasion very loud. Here too there’s a family story. He’s got young girl children – I’d seen him carrying one out of the Vanguard between shows – and his wife is from the Sunshine Coast. We should see him more often. All these players were open, lyrical, simple when called for, but virtuosic on call with ease and without affectation. They played generously and the tunes were generously encountered, so the weren’t many. The trio started with a gentle Lucky to be me with immense space and heavy groove. Marcus joined them from the second tune, a ¾ with clinical beauty. There was a quick latin groove and Sunflower done with the subtly and expression of the Freddie Hubbard original. I’ve played this and heard this often enough, but this was another thing again. Geri led another tune with a sparse groove that Christian took up. I thought it may have been Summertime and maybe it was based on that, but it never resolved into the melody an eventually morphed into a blues. There was perhaps one other tune.

I haven’t done any of this justice. Geri’s glorious piano and Christian’s devastating bass were so special and the time so short. I needed another set at least to grow to live with these skills and to be able to give time to Tain and Marcus. It was like that: informed masters playing with ease and joy. Too good. Geri Allen (piano) played with Marcus Belgrave (trumpet, flugelhorn), Christian McBride (bass) and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts (drums) at the Village Vanguard, NYC. Village Vanguard doesn't allow pics during the performance.

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