The Russ Gershon Trio played Saturday night, Jan. 14, to a good crowd, at the Third Life Gallery, despite being up against the Patriots-Titans game. Gershon on tenor, alto, soprano, flute, some piano, and a little singing; Blake Newman on bass; and Phil Neighbors on drums and also a bit of piano.
- “Miss Nancy, ” by Arthur Blythe. Throughout, I kept thinking, I KNOW this song, I know it really well, but i couldn’t place it. After the tune, Gershon announced it as something one heard on New York radio “all the time” circa 1981. “On the one jazz radio station… that played it twice a week.” A great, hooky tune. Blythe, a wondrous alto saxophonist, was the thing for a while — early albums on India Navigation and the startling “Bush Baby,” on Adelphi. This one is from Illusions, Blythe’s second album of four for Columbia. Blythe died March 27, 2017, at age 76, from “complications from Parkinson’s disease.”
2. “Sophisticated Lady,” by Duke Ellington. Though it’s identified with Johnny Hodges’s alto solos, the version the trio listened to was, said Gershon, recorded during a period when Willie “not the Lion” Smith was in the alto chair. Nice brush work from Neighbors, and a sweet, measured cadenza from Gershon (on alto again).
3. “The Freedom Suite,” by Sonny Rollins. Gershon introduced this as “Hubris, Pt.1.” playing the Sonny Rollins extended-form masterpiece, one that, Gershon noted, Rollins played only on the original recording (1958, Riverside), never live. And, frankly, I have listened to this 20-minute piece only a few times myself, remembering mostly the two main themes -— one boppish and fleet, the other a more brawny vamp with a great “African” 6/8 with cross rhythms, beautifully played by Newman and Neighbors. And here were parts I had forgotten — including a pensive ballad section. The hubris, of course was in the roles played by the trio: “Phil Neighbors as Max Roach . . . Blake Newman as Oscar Pettiford.. and … the most unmitigated gall of all, me as Sonny Rollins [on tenor].” Gall or not, it was a terrific band playing a piece that needs to be heard more often.
4. “Morning Dew” (Grateful Dead). Here was “Hubris Pt. 1A,” the band playing an old Dead song (by Garcia and Robert Hunter?). Gershon called it “a sad song for any occasion,” but particularly appropriate for “the current political climate.” Gershon played the slow, ruminating vamp on piano, sang (affectingly), played a soprano sax solo (standing in for the Garcia part). After the final chorus, with the vamp still playing, Gershon introduced the band and segued to . . .
5. “Born in a Suitcase,” Gershon. This was for many years a nightly standard for Gershon’s Either/Orchestra. A medium-tempo 6/8 blues, Gershon moving from piano to tenor.
- “Ouagoudougou,” by Clifford Jordan. From Jordan’s 1972 album “In the World” (Strata-East), the song was named for the city that was the capital of what was then Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso. “One of those African countries…” Gershon began, before Neighbors cut him off with bass-drum bombs.
2. “It’s Over Before You Know It,” by Gershon. Inspired by Ornette Coleman, with the requisite folk-like simplicity and groove. Gershon began the solo section (on alto, of course) with one strong, unbroken blast of notes. Bass and drum solos. “Really cooking,” I wrote on my four-way folded 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of note paper.
3. “Meditations on Integration,” by Charles Mingus. From one of Mingus’s great 1964 Jazz Workshop bands, with, Gershon noted, “a genius in every chair”: Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard (“from Worcester”), Johnny Coles on trumpet. There are multiple versions of this, sometimes called “Meditations on a Pair of Wire Cutters.” Another extended composition, the counterpart to the first set’s “Freedom Suite,” but more complex compositionally, with shifting time signatures and themes, the medium-tempo opening theme played over an insistent tattoo of bass and drums. Gershon played the theme on flute, then slamming bass-register staccato chords to introduce the next section (Mingus would undoubtedly have approved). There was the secondary theme for bowed bass and flute duo, some fast walking swing with tenor. I’d love to hear other Boston bands take this on, with more horns to replicate the voicings — a perfect vehicle for the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, I would imagine or, for that matter, the Either/Orchestra. But the Aardvarks have a big enough crew to take on Mingus’s Monterey Jazz Festival big band arrangement, where the piece was officially debuted.
4. “Theme for the Eulipions,” by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Gershon recounted attending a concert at Carnegie Hall that went from the Alice Coltrane group, to Pharoah Sanders, and then Rahsaan. This piece is from “The Return of the 5,000-lb. Man,” released in 1976, after Rahsaan’s debilitating stroke, so that he was reduced to playing one instrument at a time — and giving Gershon a better chance at recreating the piece. There was much doubling here, Gershon playing piano behind a Newman bass solo, playing a nice, soft alto cadenza, singing a bit, reciting and singing the story-lyrics. The story was about a mythic traveler, and about disenfranchisement and disillusion and perseverance and spiritual strength. Again, very affecting.
“Portrait of the Beautiful Ladies,” by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. For Billie Holiday, quoting some of the tunes she made famous, said Gershon, though I didn’t pick any out. Here was flute, with a strong backbeat but swinging beautifully, and then Gershon switching over to tenor, and getting a particularly Rahsaan-ish timbre out of it on a few phrases.
The show overall was immensely satisfying, with all manner of variety — emotionally, musically, in the solos and arrangements. It’s not doing Gershon a disservice to say that he’s not a virtuoso soloist in the manner of Chris Potter or Rudresh Mahanthappa — he’s not going to mow you down with million-notes-a-second velocity. But he plays beautifully, with great musicality — as a composer and bandleader sensitive to compositional details and arrangements.. Which is why his “reductions” of pieces for bigger bands worked so well. It was a show that held the ear and the mind and body at every moment — which isn’t something I can say about some of the shows I’ve seen by flashier players and bands.
“There, wasn’t that better than a football game?” asked Mark Redmond, the presenter dba Mandorla Music.
“Not a word!” Gershon broke in. “No affect, nothing!” He was DVRing the game.
-Jan. 15, 2018