Double bill last night at the Burilngton Discover Jazz Festival: the Roy Hargrove Quintet, and the Roberta Gambarini Quartet.
I was lingering over a lovely, long dinner on Church street and arrived at the theater after 8pm. The lobby was empty, except for a few folks at the merch table and a handful of ushers, looking expectant when we came in – “do you already have your tickets?” – oh yes, we did, with the time clearly printed on them. We were a little late…anyway. Everything seems to run a little slower during Jazz Fest time.
The question was, with two groups like that on the double bill – who was on first? Could have been either. I had to ask. It turned out to be the Roberta Gambarini Quartet – “La Gambarini”, as she’s affectionately known to fans. She sings in Italian occasionally, reminding us of her native roots, she plays a mean muted hand trumpet solo and she owns the stage when she’s anywhere near it. Can’t take your eyes off her arresting presence. Part of that is her stunning looks, but an even bigger part of that is her leading phrasing, enticingly extending a musical hand to guide one’s ears forward through each song. One area of particular specialty in Gambarini’s talents is her control of a line, regardless of the volume. She can open up in a full-throated note, but equally compelling are the quiet lines, spinning out as effortlessly as a delicate strand of spiderweb on the summer evening breeze.
As for the scatting (one of the reasons she’s so frequently compared to Sarah and Ella), a few friends commented to me at intermission how pleasantly understated that was. That was it, exactly – not machine gun fire, not abrasive, not tuneless in favor of packing in more tongue-trippy scat syllables. I’ve heard all of those unfortunate effects of the style, at one point or another over the years of listening to jazz vocalists. Not so with La Gam. As with any tool in a vocalist’s rep it’s to be used judiciously, thoughtfully, and only in context of the greater effort.
She’s an outstanding musician in all of the ways one hopes for.
It’s also easy to focus on the singer in a situation like this (on top of supreme musicianship those sequined curves don’t hurt in keeping her front and center) and skip mentioning the equally important individual contributions of ‘the rest of’ the group. So let’s not do that. Musical experiences like this can only be the result of a fine ensemble effort. The other three quarters of the Quartet are pianist Harold Mabern, bassist John Webber and percussionist Joe Farnsworth. Mabern is a jazz vet, a legend with a career that was made with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, Lee Morgan…and Sarah Vaughan. He can swing it. And he did. But he also offered just the right supportive complement within the ensemble, whether offering counterpoint to the vocals or playing off of a tasty bass solo. Less familiar to me (before last night) were bassist John Webber and drummer John Farnsworth. They won’t be strangers anymore, I plan on looking into more of their work and doing some listening. Impressive, both. And it was really nice to see the easy smiles that passed between the musicians at various times, they were having a great time just being there.
When I saw Gambarini three years ago at the Detroit Jazz Festival she was singing with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band it was an outdoor amphitheater on the city’s riverfront and the crowd of hundreds was enthusiastic, responsive and vocal. Gambarini responded in kind with with a presence that can only be called electric. I wouldn’t expect that to have been the same kind of performance at the Flynn Space last night, necessarily (seated, indoors, in Vermont) – that’s part of the nuance of any performer, creating different experiences for different settings and situations. But I think I still wanted that, or at least a little. The energy level of last night’s performance was rather subdued, creating a much more homogeneous-sounding set than any of the individual musical contributions would have suggested on their own.
Speaking of that memorable Detroit Jazz Fest experience…Roy Hargrove was at that one too, although not with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band at that particular moment. (Yes, he and Roberta Gambarini have actually shared the stage before – together, with that Band – and, he scats! Check it out here.)The Quinet is alto sax/flute man Justin Robinson, bassist Ameen Saleem, drummer Montez Coleman, pianist Sullivan Fortner and two-time Grammy winner Hargrove (flugelhorn, trumpet). Loved them. It’s such a pleasure to enjoy music knowing it’s in good hands, well in control and yet still quite capable of offering discoveries and moments of surprise and delight. After an uneven start with the first two numbers, the Hargrove Quintet settled in and delivered on all counts with dizzying solos and masterly competence. It was tight, it was exciting. One thing you know for sure you’re going to get when you hear Hargrove’s touch, either on his own instruments or with the several groups he’s formed, is a powerful sound with superbly executed musicianship coming from every corner.
If I could want for anything in the Quintet it might be that the group take some time to explore the quieter, more intimate nuances of performace that are uniquely available to a smaller group. It may not be something that comes naturally (nor should it) to a big band, or an Afro-Cuban-inspired ensemble (both of which configurations Hargrove has also created) but a more sparely populated combo setup could be a great opportunity to deepen the expressive palette in ways that these excellent musicians are certainly capable of exploring. Think of the sound the Miles Davis Quintet had on “Bye Bye Blackbird”, from the ‘Round About Midnight recording. Or, dare I even invoke the spectre – anything from Kind of Blue – and that was a sextet, with one more player, but still as deliciously intimate as it gets with jazz. Hargrove gets there in the ensemble he’s playing with on Shirley Horn’s I Remember Miles, but I would have loved to hear the Quintet get there too last night in all the ways I know they can.
One of these performances could have been a solo headliner. Both of them on the same bill goes a long way to illustrate what is so special about Burlington’s annual festival. We may live up here in a little green rural corner of the map but remarkably, but thanks to the organizations like BDJF that create a thriving culture, we don’t miss a thing for that privilege.