Feb 27, 2014 - Washington Rucker Wows Again


As he welcomed the near-capacity audience at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s Jazz Depot Sunday evening in his second concert in the last eight months, Washington Rucker issued a warning. 

The Hall of Fame drummer, Booker T. Washington High School graduate and first-call drum master declared, “I am not a “soloist, but a swing drummer.” 

During the course of the two-hour swinging concert it became clear that Rucker fibs. He solos and well as he swings. 

This second visit to the Jazz Depot was as triumphant as his first last July—perhaps more so as it added the incomparable talent of reedman Tommy Poole to the mix. And Nathan Eicher on bass. And Tim Shadley on piano. (Plus, Cynthia Simmons sparkled in her two numbers, as did a guest “from the audience”). 

What make the evening unique is the remarkable grace and lack of ego that Rucker displays in deference his cohorts. Indeed, the evening could just as easily be called a showcase for either Poole or Eicher

While Rucker is clearly in charge, his preference is to let his new found (they rehearsed Sunday afternoon prior to the performance for the first time) friends share, and at times, command the spotlight. 

Rather than a song by tune rundown of the performance, a few observations might better capture the tone of the evening.

Poole, who directs the Northeastern State University Jazz Program, is a treasure. His alto playing is something many aspire to, but few equal. On the Strayhorn-composed classic, “Take the A Train,” Poole’s command of his alto filled the Depot with innovative solos and a tone that is truly remarkable. 

Though the favored saxophone of reed-players from Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond through local contemporary jazz favorite Grady Nichols, an alto’s tone can stray. Often an alto player may end up with a brittle edge emanating from the golden horn—think of some of Ace Cannon’s work. 

Poole’s tone is clear—his tones are rounded and bell-like with no edges whatsoever. His runs never dissolve into slurs, but each note is played individually and clearly—as evidenced on a portion of his “A Train” solo that seemed to run the entire range of his instrument.

And speaking of range. A compliant among serious jazz fans is directed toward horn players who try for the Maynard Ferguson high notes and end up screeching. Likewise, alto players who think uncomfortably stretching the instrument’s range beyond its upper limits somehow demonstrates improvisational talent. Unfortunately, jazz audiences often reward these futile efforts with applause. 

Then there’s Poole. His ability to stretch the upper limits of his alto had the audience thinking he had replaced his alto with a soprano sax in mid-chorus. So clear and bell-like were Poole’s high notes that his solos became workshops on how to play an alto with verve, imagination and joy. 

Indeed, Poole is effervescent on stage—looking at times like a bemused and happy Harry Anderson from the old “Night Court” television series.

Happy is also the word for Nathan Eicher as he clearly was enjoying himself throughout the evening. Often bowing his electric standup bass with the alacrity of a violinist, his solos also seemed to stretch the limits of his instrument, but never became hokey. 

Tim Shadley provided solid accompaniment throughout the evening with rapid runs and muscular full-fingered chords during his solos. A clear highlight was his work from the Hammond B-3 during “Georgia on My Mind.” His soulful solo brought two words to mind, “Jimmy Smith,” and if the quartet had cooked any hotter an altar call would have easily brought the house to the front of the stage. 

Rucker, meanwhile, provided not only his legendary timekeeping (though, as with swing/bop style drumming, he occasionally left that duty to Eicher) while he roamed the landscape lending appropriate accents. He also showed that he is perfectly capable of amazing the audience during his solos, using every aspect of his drum kit (including the sides of the cymbals and his hi-hat stand) during his performance. He was remarkable, gracious and everything you’d expect in a headliner. 

An added attraction was 15-year-old Bishop Marsh, who had impressed Rucker during one of his school workshops while in Tulsa. The young trumpet player rose from the audience during a blazing “A Night in Tunisia” for a solo and soon joined Poole in stage in “trading fours.” He showed a fine ear and command of his instrument as he and Poole effectively played off each other. 

As the evening closed shortly after seven, the musicians hugged each other on stage in sheer exuberance of what they had presented the Jazz Depot crowd. The enthusiastic applause was the audience’s equivalent of its own group hug to the musicians. 

Once again, Rucker wowed a Tulsa crowd.

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