“Frisky, colorful and gracious” might define a slide trombone’s sound, especially in the hands of a master trombone player like Hal Crook.
Crook displayed all of these qualities, and more, in his appearance during a galvanizing concert celebrating his musical career and legacy held before a sold-out audience at Berklee College of Music (www.berklee.edu) on February 18th.
Crook is a 1971 graduate of Berklee who has played on stages worldwide in the company of such greats as Clark Terry, Phil Woods, James Brown and many others. (www.halcrook.com). More than 40 albums list Crook as a leader or sideman in his trombone and piano career.
At this concert at Berklee, there was also a palpable outpouring of love for Crook as a mentor and teacher to countless music students in the science (and abiding mystery!) of jazz improvisation.
Fittingly, the concert began with Crook taking the stage at the Berklee Performance Center with a group of his former students, all of whom have staked out their own acclaimed musical territories since graduating from Berklee. Members of this particular “Crook Alumni Class” included Leo Genovese on piano; Chris Cheek on saxophone; Lionel Loueke on guitar; Esperanza Spalding on bass (and voice) and Antonio Sanchez on drums.
Here was a match made in soulful, swanky heaven with these young lions pushing Crook’s original compositions to their spontaneous, joyful and craggy heights- all urged on by the spirited presence of their mentor. The ensemble first launched into Crook’s surging composition, “Set Me Free,” with each player diving into the full throttled pacing with glee. The open fabric of Crook’s arrangement allowed for the spontaneous give and take between these master musicians. They clearly relished the chance to explore Crook’s compositional outlines with spontaneity, exuberance and a love for the unknown. Sanchez produced a light, fluid drum foundation that bristled with huge low drum pelts when needed. Genovese added velvety piano runs and chords that moved naturally in and out of Spalding’s radiant bass plucks and holds.
Spalding also shape-shifted with her high lustrous vocals, melding into Cheek’s flowing sax lines.
“Set Me Free” moved from a flurry of soulful solos (imbedded in a sprawling, upbeat melodic line) to an improvised section combining a New Orleans flavored backbeat with some bebop chug, all punctuated by Genovese’s powerful pounces on the far registers of his piano and Cheek’s brawny sax solo.
After “Set Me Free,” the spryly comic Crook commented that he was surprised that having this much fun playing music “was not illegal,” and then he took up his synthesized trombone, (which he called his “Trom-o-tizer”) and belted out a cavorting solo – all raspy, soulful and buoyant. This spunky trombone introduction lead into Crook’s compositions “Never Again” and “Nothing To Lose,” which were highlighted by a duet between Spalding’s dynamic bass and Loueke’s contrasting guitar hits and bursts. Loueke clearly dug deep with a love for the effect of ricochets and attacks on his electric guitar, making splinters of colors and sounds in unpredictable and jostling ways.
The flurry of colors from this striking duet melded eventually into a drum solo by Sanchez characterized by deep resonant hits and quick wood rim snaps. Following this rapid fired beauty, a playful romp emerged between all of the players that centered upon Crook’s ingenious stop-and-go rhythms, (like a circus theme gone haywire), amplified by Crook and Cheek bleating on their instruments in short, off-kilter beats.
These powerful grooves continued into the final piece, entitled “Domestic Violets”- a siren call for an end to domestic violence. After eloquent introductory remarks by Spalding about the need to eradicate domestic violence, the band hurled into the urgency of this piece by Crook. Peals of protest emerged from Cheek’s high riding sax; Sanchez hit his wood rims with cracks and crackles and Loueke’s guitar sputtered and wailed with Genovese berating his lower registers with heavy, percussive force. The band left the stage to ecstatic ovations, capping this intense piece of improvisational heat and its condemnation of violence.
The second part of the concert found Crook joining a larger ensemble, (composed of Berklee alumni, students, professors and some guest players) in performance of some of his other original compositions that soared into expansive rhythm and blues territory . One highlight of this swashbuckling performance was the effervescent vocal presence of Deborah Pierre, (Berklee ’13; www.deborahpierre.weebly.com), who commanded great presence in front of the band with her passion, swank and sway.
Pierre sang with liquid and clear phrasing which she combined with a hummingbird-quick vocal range that leaped with ease and grace. She inhabited the songs she sang completely. For instance, she and the band plunged into the deep pool of soul provided by Crook’s song “I Remember” with deliberate slow brewing phrasing in her lower registers, (mixing beautifully with the throbbing groove produced by the band with Tucker Antell’s sax solo languid and deep). When it came to the uplift and boogie of Crook’s lighter lyrical tunes, “Happiness” and “Music Makes Me High,” Pierre and the band swung with carefree and roguish charisma. Pierre danced around the stage, sending her voice high and bright in pitch perfect soars (swaying to the boisterous sax solo by Jon Bean -all swagger and boisterous). The show ended with an encore of Crook’s effervescent “Hide and Seek,” with the “Alumni Sextet” (from the first part of the show) joining the ensemble for one last delicious romp of finger-snapping declarations from every soloist, serenading Crook as he smiled ear to ear from the bandstand.
Coming home from this radiant concert, it seemed fitting to take a listen to one of Crook’s former students (and a performer at the concert) – the dynamic drummer and composer Antonio Sanchez- on his new recording, The Meridian Suite [Cam Jazz; www.CamJazz.com].
This is a recording of Sanchez’s first full-length original composition and it is filled with expansive sounds, colors and a roguish rhythmic freedom- all delivered by the venturesome and superb musicians of his band, Migration. The recording is also an audiophile gem: it delivers a vivid, immediate presence with a big sound field that contains a soundstage that bristles with the inner tactile details of instruments and voices performing in an airy acoustic space. The depths of Sanchez’s lowest drum hits and the deepest flourishes of Matt Brewer’s prodigious bass are captured with such force and air that this recording will test any audio system’s coherence down low and its ability to capture a sprawling soundstage with myriad instrumental textures and dynamics.
The opening “Grids and Patterns” is a whirlwind of titanic energy created by Sanchez’s fluid, (and shimmering) snare-cymbal work partnered with pianist John Escreet and saxophonist Seamus Blake in prancing solos. Joining them are vocalist Thana Alexa and guitarist Adam Rodgers, who add their own clarion voice and guitar colors to this musical structure that ebbs and flows beautifully. “Imaginary Lines” follows with a deep sinuous bass solo by Matt Brewer as he descends from the soft layers of liquid high vocals by Alexa accompanied by Rodgers’ tangled guitar riffs. Far below all of this action are Sanchez’s bone-rattling bass drum hits that reverberate and cast a deep spell. Sanchez displays an up-front magnetic presence on drums. He always succeeds in providing an uncanny, (seemingly effortless and fluid) cornucopia of textures and sounds from his drum kit that augments every narrative and dramatic flourish.
“Channels of Energy” and “Magnetic Currents” both burst forth with brute, capacious forces as each member of the band contributes impressive solos, from Sanchez’s gut-thumping drums to Escreet’s bright and spidery Fender Rhodes explorations. These glorious pelts of sonic runs and attacks are followed by the equally capacious, slow breathing groove of “Pathways of the Mind,” the final piece in Sanchez’s Meridian Suite. “Pathways” begins with a beautiful curling sax solo by Blake, all lush and coiled, with great tactile feel and breath.
Blake’s solo evolves into a glowing flow of colors (as light as a feather) that soars naturally into Alexa’s cool and restless vocals and Escreet’s delicate piano lines on the margins. “Pathways” builds to a crescendo of sounds and colors as each member of the band contributes solos with strong and bright voices that add to the condensed velocity of this churning, evolving journey. Sanchez’s final blistering drum sequence is forged with raw kinetic energy. It sounds like a locomotive engine at high speed providing a cataclysmic churn and undertow to the creative instrumental voices rising and falling in salute. The inspiration of Hal Crook, Sanchez’s mentor, is readily apparent in Sanchez’s eclectic and restless spirit in Meridian, with its joyful exploration of the art of improvisation to new territories all Sanchez’s own.
UPCOMING CONCERT NOTE: Sanchez and Migration perform The Meridian Suite at the Berklee Performance Center on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. For more information, see www.berklee.edu.