Jul 15, 2014 - Amram—Am-azing at Jazz Depot



AmramAm-azing at Jazz Depot


                  David Amram can make a penny whistle sound like a million dollars.
                  He proved that time after time Sunday (July 13) at Tulsa’s Jazz Depot with a virtuoso performance with a tableful of instruments that have earned him justifiable international renown.

                  A penny whistle?
                  Yes. Think of perennial jazz poll winner Herbie Mann on the flute. Now think of a flute-like tone that is more penetrating through the aural atmosphere. Kind of like a flugelhorn and a trumpet playing the same note with the flute being the flugelhorn and the penny whistle the trumpet. There’s no breathiness to Amram’s penny whistle playing, in contract to a flute. No, just a simple, pure, penetratingly pleasing flute-like tone that holds the ear hostage and asking for more.
                  Of course, sound is one thing—what an artist does with that sound is another, and Amram’s creativity as he played his way through “Blues in the Closet,” “Bohemia After Dark,” and “Take the A Train,” to name but three from his two-hour long performance, provided evidence aplenty that his successful sojourns into soundtrack composition, classical music, and an assorted plethora of musical activities have helped honed his jazz chops.

                  The occasion for this Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame Life Time Achievement award-winner, was a Tribute to Oklahoma’s pacesetting bass player Oscar Pettiford. Amram shared the stage with another OJHOF honoree, Washington Rucker, who graciously focused the spotlight on his fellow inductee; of course, that was by intent, for Amram’s connection with Pettiford was in the spotlight on this occasion.
                  Not only was this event a musical treat, but Amram’s extensive knowledge of jazz history (heck, he lived much of it having a career that began in the early 1940s) and professional and personal relationship with Pettiford enhanced the early evening performance. Amram told the tale of Pettiford bringing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker out of Harlem to the Onyx Club and a wider audience in the mid-1940s, as well as times spent with Pettiford while Amram was playing French horn with Charlie Mingus’s band.
                  Speaking of French Horn, Amram showed why during the 1950s he was one of the two most respect jazz French Horn players (Julius Watkins was the other) when he improvised on an blues theme in E-minor—his tone seemed to come from another world as he switched from playing the piano to the French Horn.
                  But, music, not history, is why Amram, ably supported by Tulsa musicians, received enthusiastic, shouting, foot-stomping applause.

                  Opening with Mike Leland on piano, Bill Crosby on bass, and Rucker on drums, Amram unassumingly entered the stage in a brown leather sport coat, black shirt, and tan pants. Looking a bit like a small-sized version of Victor Borge, talked of Pettiford (“or O.P. as he was known”) replacing Jimmy Blanton in Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and “where Blanton took the bass to a new level, O.P. took it even higher”) and then opened with O.P.’s “Blues in the Closet,” a tune that set the tone for the rest of the evening.
                  Leland’s sure-handed piano provided a foundation for the improvisations to follow—including his own. Trading “fours” like the seasoned musicians they are, Crosby, Leland and Rucker set the stage for Amram’s ebony penny whistle to soar through the high ceiling Jazz Depot performance hall. What was particularly artful about the performance was the close interaction among the musicians—though it was hardly surprising. Playing like a seasoned quartet, Leland fed phrases to Crosby, Crosby traded rhythmic riffs with Rucker and Amram complemented them all. It was the kind of performance that could be a tutorial for beginning jazz players on interaction in the band. The first lesion: listen!
                  Rucker displayed his phenomenal “listening” ability throughout—particularly when it came to melody. Yes, melody. Rucker’s remarkable ear for music is evident when he is trading fours or eights with his fellow musicians. Even though they are not tuned like tympani, each tom, cymbal and snare has its own pitch. Rucker doesn’t simply beat out a rhythm in response to his cohorts, his solos also follow the melodic concept/conversation with the piano, guitar, bass, or Amram, for that matter. He once again proved why he is such a Jazz Depot favorite. 
                  Subsequent selections built upon the foundation established by the opening. Additions and highlights included Edwin Garcia on bass with impeccable and melodic improvisations on “Bohemia After Dark.” Joe Barger on tenor playing several numbers with the group beginning with “Take the A Train.” The young Barger began slightly tentatively, but with accompanying encouragement from Leland and the group began playing increasingly confidently. As a young musician, Barger would occasionally play a jazz cliché, but by the end of the evening he became increasingly inventive. Along the way he seemed to have quoted every major tenor player from Clifford Scott to John Coltrane. It will be continuously fascinating to listen to Barger as he finds his own voice—he clearly has a command of his instrument and jazz tenor history.
                  Nathan Eicher was another highlight demonstrating his remarkable prowess on the bowed bass. Brent Nickel was brought on stage by Amram to play tuba during “C Jam Blues,” and he showed how a tuba could swing—yes, swing. Leland showed his versatility, successfully shifting to electric guitar when Amram took his place at the piano—Leland was particularly effective on the guitar during “A Train.”
                  Amram also amazed the audience with swinging performances on an Irish flute, an alto flute and haunting melodies on a Native American flute and a Chinese flute-like instrument. All the while over the rock-steady and always creative foundation by Rucker.  

                  In all, reciting the all highlights would double the length of this review.  Suffice to say that the evening clearly showed the remarkable jazz talent in Tulsa (a fact Amram repeatedly acknowledged) and was a fitting tribute to an Oklahoma native son: Oscar Pettiford.
                  It’s no overstatement to say O.P. would have been proud to have his name on this particular evening.