Sep 28, 2014 - Abate and Friends Swing the Jazz Depot

By John Hamill

             If Wynton Marsalis’s perception that jazz is a conversation among musicians, then they were talking up a storm Sunday night (September 28) at the Jazz Depot.

            And Marsalis’s idea that even “strangers” can make great music because they speak the same jazz language was proven as a master musician led three exemplary Tulsa players through a stirring first set as if they were seasoned members of his “road band.”

            To do that takes enormous talent on the part of the leader as well as his “followers.” And that was in abundance when alto saxophone and flute master Greg Abate took the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame stage at the Depot.

            Abate, who has strong sideman credits with such stellar organizations as Ray Charles’s legendary big band, and the early 1980s band organized by Artie Shaw, covered all the major jazz bases in his two hour-plus performance and hit just about every note possible (and a few some would consider improbable) on his alto.

            His backing trio, who he met with for the first time only four hours before the performance, and then for only an hour, played like long-time Abate sidemen—Tim Shadley on piano, Bill Crosby on bass, and Nicholas Foster on drums. If the four were playing only jazz standards, the smooth meshing of their collective talents would not necessarily be noteworthy, but the evening’s playlist included several Abate originals that required, as Shadley noted during the intermission, “enormous concentration—at least on my part!”

            The concentration paid off as the Tulsa musicians acquitted themselves well.

            The evening began with Abate dedicating the concert to the late Tulsa musician Buddy Hawkins, who was a friend of Abate’s (they met when playing together at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club in Cincinnati) as well as bass player Crosby. Fittingly, Abate opened with a song he wrote for Hawkins, “Buddy’s Rendezvous.”  Based on the chord changes of Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low,” Abate’s lovely melody and improvisation covered the full range of his alto and reached, it seemed, into baritone territory and up to notes typically reserved for the soprano sax. Rather than simply playing aimless notes, Abate framed his lyrical solos in short stories with beginnings, middles and ends.

            As the opening number of the evening, Abate gave his bandmates an opportunity to both warm up and stretch—and all took full advantage. Shadley made full use of the piano keyboard seemingly leaving no piece of Steinway ivory untouched—and properly and impressively touched at that. His solos (on this piece and throughout the evening) demonstrated his versatility from room shaking handfuls of chords to delicate runs and single note melodies. Bill Crosby avoided the pyrotechnics too often favored by modern bass players and provided a solid lesson in tasteful, melodic bass soloing. Foster showed his range from light touches that followed the melody lines (in trading fours with both Shadley and Abate) and fireworks as he commanded the ears of anyone in the back row who may have arrived late.

            The evening progressed with jazz favorites such as “A Sleeping Bee,” and Abate originals. In regard to the latter, Tulsa audiences have grown enormously since the early days of Sunday JHOF concerts in the Greenwood Cultural Center. At that time, original jazz compositions seemed to be greeted with a “what’s he playing attitude.” Sunday, Abate’s originals were enthusiastically received—a credit both to the composer and the audience.

            Among the additional highlights were Abate’s playful quotes of well known songs during his solos—dropping a few bars of “Walking My Baby Back Home” into the middle of another tune brings smiles and appreciative nods from the audience. There was a Jazz at the Philharmonic interlude reminiscent of the interplay between Nat Cole and Illinois Jacquet (among others) where the sax player would play four bars and “challenge” the piano player to mirror him—that takes a great ear and quick fingers—and Shadley was up to the task.

            Abate was also “fearless” from the standpoint that he brilliantly played two songs some sax players avoid due to their identification with other masters. He closed the first set with a heartfelt reading of  “Body and Soul,” a song that Coleman Hawkins owns everything but the copyright to, and closed the evening with “Star Eyes,” a beautiful melody that Charlie Parker made famous. In both cases, Abate paid homage to the originators, yet claimed his own ownership through his tremendous talent. His full rich tone filled the hall without benefit of playing into the microphone—providing a doubly rich, unamplified and sensuous experience.  

            The second set of the program brought three more Tulsa musicians to the stand—the young Bishop Marsh on trumpet, Jordon Hehl on bass and Mike Leland on piano. A particular highlight of this set was “What is This Thing Called Love” played with Tad Dameron’s “Hot House” as counterpoint. Marsh was up to Abate’s urging with lyrical trumpet solos that often began quietly as he seemed to find his footing and then blossomed into full-throated improvisations. Leland’s lyrical and logical solos showed again why he is one of Tulsa’s finest keyboard players, and Hehl’s always innovative solos demonstrated why he is one of the great young guns of Tulsa jazz.

            Often visiting musicians are effusive in their praise of the local musicians assembled to back them. On this occasion, Abate did not shower verbal praise upon his fellow bandstand members—the lengthy solos he prompted, the lively interchange of trading “fours” and “eights,” and the clear joy spread across his face were evidence enough that Tulsa has remarkable jazz power and when combined with the greatness of a musician such as Abate it makes for a memorable evening.

            It’s a privilege to eavesdrop on such profound and entertaining conversations.