Archive for in performance

in performance: the lexington philharmonic with byron stripling

Byron Stripling.

In offering a New Year’s Eve performance at the Opera House thematically more than stylistically centered on the music of New Orleans, the Lexington Philharmonic largely bequeathed the evening to Columbus jazz artist Byron Stripling. As such, the orchestra maintained a distant presence in a program centered almost exclusively on Stripling’s animated profile as vocalist, raconteur, trumpeter and occasional conductor. But by the evening’s end, it was his second-in-command – and by that we don’t mean the first violinist – that stole the show.

First things first. The Philharmonic knew what it was in for by enlisting Stripling as guest conductor (one of the few leading the orchestra’s concerts this season not vying for the job of its next music director). Having served in the role as recently as 2017 for another New Year’s Eve performance centered on Cotton Club-era jazz, he proved an engaging, audience-friendly entertainer and a fine fit for a pops concert.

Juggling multiple roles with conducting consuming the least of his stage time, Stripling revealed a sharp, vibrant tone on trumpet indicative of his idol Louis Armstrong but a vocal and emcee flair more in line with a reveler like Cab Calloway.

All of that suited the evening’s repertoire neatly, whether it was through tunes readily associated with Crescent City, as in a regal reading of “Basin Street Blues” and its subsequent call-and-response vocals with the audience, or works with a comparatively tenuous New Orleans link, as in a somewhat overly tidy version of the blues standard “I Got My Mojo Working.”

Throughout most of this, the Philharmonic’s presence was modest, a product largely of arrangements that called for little more than rudimentary string and brass accompaniment. A few intriguing exceptions were “St. James Infirmary” and “St. Louis Blues,” where the orchestra’s summery grace provided the music with a “Porgy and Bess” level of elegance.

The bulk of the program instead placed emphasis on leaner workouts with a jazz trio featuring two of Stripling’s Columbus co-horts, pianist/B3 organist Bobby Floyd and drummer Rich Thompson, along with Lexington bassist Eli Uttal-Veroff. There was much to enjoy in their work, especially in an inventive Afro-Cuban remake of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Bobby Floyd.

While the trio’s work left the Philharmonic with little to do but sit and watch for a considerable portion of the concert, it gave voice to the evening’s ace-in-the-hole – keyboardist Floyd. Aside from the churchy soulfulness he provided the full company performances and frequent sparring bouts with Stripling, the evening’s highlights came when Floyd was left alone.

In the first set, that translated to a robust version of Scott Joplin’s “Maple City Rag” on solo piano that was as authentic in its grasp of New Orleans’ musical spirit as anything in the concert. The second set allowed him to transform something as unlikely as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” into a pastoral blend of gospel and ragtime on piano before the rest of the combo and, eventually, the orchestra joined in.

The most magical moment, though, was saved for show’s closing moments. Having offered a suitable level of sass on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Stripling ushered the Philharmonic offstage and then left himself, leaving Floyd to wail away with a singular gospel-soul jam accompanied only by Thompson. As retiring a presence onstage as Stripling was extroverted, Floyd flashed a shy smile to the audience upon the jam’s completion and exited the stage as the house lights came up. The show, for all intents and purposes, was in his pocket as he departed.

in performance: the blind boys of alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama. From left: Joey Williams, Ben Moore, Jimmy Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie and Paul Beasley

Jimmy Carter is one cunning individual. No, we’re not referencing the former President, but rather the last surviving member of the original pack of gospel mavericks making up the Blind Boys of Alabama. But the singer and the President are only a few years apart in age, so that should suggest the level of mutual ingenuity and vigor at work.

At the Singletary Center on Wednesday evening, the singing Carter spent much of the evening seated, serving more as congenial host as the 80-minute concert unfolded than an active participant. There would be a few instances when he would erupt, as in the backbeat savvy “I Can See.” The tune, an original by two of the Blind Boys’ band members (guitarist Joey Williams and bassist Ray Ladson), was a purposeful contradiction, a testament of sight from one who can not physically see. It was also a worldly proclamation worthy of the Blind Boys’ roots renaissance of the past two decades that Carter dug into with glee.

But for the most part, he remained seated and silent, dispatching most of the vocal duties to co-singers Ben Moore and Ricky McKinnie, who sat to each side of Carter onstage. Not that this was shortchanging anyone. McKinnie grabbed hold of the 1970 Norman Greenbaum single “Spirit in the Sky” and injected it with more than enough gospel fervor to make it sound like the kind of Southern spiritual the Blind Boys surrounded themselves with when the group started in the late 1930s. Similarly, Moore offered a confident, calming tenor lead on “God Knows Everything,” a Marc Cohn/John Leventhal work included (as was “I Can See”) on the Blind Boys’ 2017 album, “Almost Home.”

But what of Carter? Content to serve as a congenial emcee with a few appealing quips to trigger audience involvement (“The Blind Boys don’t like to play to a conservative crowd. We want you to wake up.”), the singer almost presented himself as an artist seemingly content in maintaining a retiring stage profile.

Almost.

As the concert headed for home, the group launched into the gospel staple “Look Where He Brought Me From,” a work that was part of the Blind Boys repertoire long before the group’s critical and commercial resurgence began in 2001. At once, Carter came to his feet and sang – and sang and sang. As he was guided to the front of the stage and then out into the audience, the singer was in full testimony mode with a vocal roar that never downshifted in its sense of elation. It was a display of ageless spiritual might, a display one can’t help but think Carter was delighting in holding back on until the show began to wind down.

It should be noted that the performance was billed as a Christmas concert, which was sort of the case. Hearing the Blind Boys sing “Silent Night” and “White Christmas” possessed ample charm, but they were distant entries compared to the gospel fare. The show’s most outwardly seasonal feel emerged when the program turned to a pair of traditional spirituals “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and the show-closing encore of “Last Month of the Year.”

The tunes (both of which were featured on the Blind Boys’ 2003 Grammy winning album “Go Tell It on the Mountain”) encapsulated what the group does best – an emboldened gospel charge delivered with an unspoiled, sage-like conviction and an electric, roots-savvy groove.

“This song’s got a little beat to it,” Carter warned as “Last Month of the Year” commenced. Actually, the whole program did. The Blind Boys of Alabama may be elders of their genre, but at the Singletary, they mastered the art of reaching the soul and making it dance with a joy both earthy but righteous.

in performance: origin jazz series all-stars play duke ellington’s “the nutcracker suite”

One could go on for days citing the innovations Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn brought to all levels of jazz music, from their compositional ingenuity to the incredible instrumental dynamics that distinguished their works in performance. But it took their re-imagining of “The Nutcracker Suite,” performed by the Origin Jazz Series All-Stars on Saturday evening at Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, to place it all in rich, revealing and, yes, seasonal perspective.

The tune that best typified the fun was “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” a rewired version of “March of the Tin Soldiers.” The title (along with all the new names affixed to the Ellington/Strayhorn takes on Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic) was a hint at the level of animation this music aimed for. In place of the warm, peppered orchestration that served as a processional opening to the piece, what was unleashed at the Lyric was a blast of merry horns and winds that set the mood to swing. The subsequent gliding ensemble passages, executed by strings in the ballet version, became  a fluid run of saxophones that made the piece sound like it was an Ellington original all along.

That the 15 members of the Origin Jazz Series All-Stars executed the romp under the direction of Matthew Pivec with just a single afternoon rehearsal was rather remarkable. Several of the artists came from neighboring states. Many had never played together before. Still, there was a joyous cohesion to this performance that made the unit sound like a solid, well-traveled troupe.

So versed, in fact, was the All-Stars’ execution of this crafty revision that it became easy to approach the Ellington/Strayhorn music on its own terms. Nearly every piece bore enough of Tchaikovsky’s original melody to provide the audience with at least a signpost of familiarity. But how those melodies were warped and elongated in terms of temperament and tempo yielded the program’s biggest thrills.

“Dance of the Reed Pipes” (incredulously retitled “Toot Toot Tootie Toot”) and especially “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (“Sugar Rum Cherry”) redrew the melodies with a sense of wobbly, woozy swing, as though Tchaikovsky’s characters had perhaps stayed a touch too late at the Cotton Club one evening.

But the most insightful reimagining was saved for last when the “Arabian Dance” (which boasted my favorite redubbed title, “Arabesque Cookie”) took on a dreamlike state that was initially Eastern in design, much as Tchaikovsky’s original work was, before bassist Eli Uttal-Veroff and drummer Paul Deatherage, set a slinky, rolling groove in motion that shifted the music’s dance strategies completely to American soil.

Numerous soloists provided consistently engaging colors to the music, including clarinetist Meghan Pund, baritone/bass saxophonist Cara Thomas and especially Knoxville tenor saxophonist Will Boyd. Team these strong talents with the sense of invention Ellington and Strayhorn surrounded this music with and the general community spirit that sat at the heart of the program and you had a holiday greeting of honest artistic cheer.

in performance: ben monder

Ben Monder. Photo by John Rogers

After an extended opening medley of “My One and Only Love” and “Dreamsville” that offered dual images of his guitar profile, Ben Monder mumbled a cordial greeting to the crowd gathered Friday evening at the Friends Meeting House on Price Ave. for the Origins Jazz Series. It was next to impossible to discern what was said, so the follow-up remark seemed a little curious.
“That was a joke.”
Mild laughter.
“I’ll be here all night.”
Slightly more pronounced laughter.
“Well, for about another 30 minutes.”
While the New York guitarist’s future as a comedian may be in doubt, his considerable ability to create a gallery full of sound portraits during the 70-minute solo electric performance was asserted. The opening medley, performed as separate interpretations on his fine 2019 album “Day After Day,” set the pace for a program whose melodic intensity continually mounted. “My One and Only Love,” however, came across like an intimate conversation with single, piano-like notes that established a chiming balance of atmospherics and melody.
For much of the evening, such duality would be called upon. Monder would regularly employ a modest array of pedal effects to establish his sound, although they were mostly used for tonal effect. There was no looping and noticeable delay gimmickry. The textured sound he would create for the program seemed quite organic.
Things intensified slightly as Monder took on Ralph Towner’s “Anthem.” While it was thrilling just to hear a work by the almost exclusively acoustic catalogue of the great Towner transferred to an electric setting, Monder struck a fascinating balance between his layered sound and the tune’s moody countenance. For instance, at the heart of the composition sat a brief, but ominous melody reminiscent of a chant. Monder used it as an anchor for an interpretation that employed more distorted guitar voices, courtesy of the pedals, to establish his own sense of ambience.
The warmer, cyclical set up of another standard, “Never Let Me Go,” reflected orchestration constructed around a series of agile, rolling chords repeated in almost mantra-like fashion. That helped set up an eventual finale where Monder gave in fully to his darker ambient impulses. The soundscape opened with a mounting electric edge, suggestive of the storm to come. When it arrived, Monder indulged in an exquisite torrent of sound – a massive electric wash that flooded the room in waves. The results mirrored remarkably the sonic imagery from the title tune to “Day After Day.”
Monder mentioned the segment was inspired by Zen poetry. The music’s initial darkness might have disputed that estimation, but the eventual electric envelopment of the finale did indeed suggest a choral spaciousness – an aural sky where shards of light continually found their way safely to those below.

in performance: elvis costello and the imposters

Elvis Costello. Photo by Stephen Done.

When a four-decade career has weathered numerous shifts and detours through the pop universe, an audience can become understandably fractured. The problem with that? Fashioning a concert program that appeals to as much of that far-reaching fanbase as possible. Elvis Costello made all that look ridiculously easy Sunday evening at the Louisville Palace with a fun, vital and immensely electric performance alongside with his long-running Imposters band. It was part garage-rock brawl, part pop-soul manifesto and part post-punk carnival.

Fancy the favorites? The Imposters covered just about every lasting hit in the Costello catalog, from a playful “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes” and to a prayer-like concert finale of “Alison” that morphed into the 1968 Supremes/Temptations hit “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” The most beguiling of the classics, though, remained “Watching the Detectives.” Costello hotwired it with a subtle but pronounced urgency over the dub-like atmospherics of keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas (holdovers from the singer’s Attractions band of the ‘70s and ‘80s) and a visual backdrop of vintage film noir posters (including “Kansas City Confidential” AND “New York Confidential,” no less).

Looking for obscurities? Ah, this is where the show really got interesting. Costello spent roughly half of the concert rummaging through the more distant chapters of his songbook. The excavation began at the onset of the evening with the show-opening “Strict Time” (from 1981’s exquisite “Trust” album) that was delivered with a punctuated, Bo Diddley-inspired groove. Later, the show downshifted with Costello at the piano for Allen Toussaint’s stately “The Greatest Love” (a bonus track from the 2006 Costello/Toussaint collaboration “The River in Reverse”). The biggest surprise, though, had to be “Next Time ‘Round,” a dark hullabaloo off of 1986’s “Blood and Chocolate” full of ragged melodic hooks, glorious vocal support from Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee and an ensemble Imposters sound that framed the song’s Brit-pop accent with punkish immediacy.

Want a song from the present day? For all of the time tripping, Costello stayed current. There were a pair of tunes from 2018’s “Look Now” – a pared down reading of “Suspect My Tears” that replaced the studio version’s lush orchestration with a leaner neo-soul sheen, and the more outwardly Motown-ish “Mr. and Mrs. Hush” with its jubilantly defiant chorus chant of “Are you ready?” There were also intriguing previews of a musical Costello is basing around the 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd” highlighted by the snake-oil spiritualism of “Blood and Hot Sauce” (“Keep your hand on the Bible and your finger on the trigger”).

For all of his considerable rock ‘n’ roll persona, Costello often revealed himself as a traditionally minded stage entertainer, whether it was through occasional vaudeville-esque wisecracking (“I have the face of a priest. He wants it back.”) or letting a wildly fervent “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” slip briefly into the calmer romantic breeze of the “West Side Story” serenade “Somewhere.”

Such is the odyssey of a pop journeyman mindful of his musical past and future but still very much at home in his performance skin of the moment.

in performance: the allman betts band

From left, Berry Duane Oakley, Devon Allman and Duane Betts of the Allman Betts Band.

The recorded intro to Monday evening’s very involving performance by the Allman Betts Band at Frankfort’s Grand Theatre was as telling as it was familiar. It was the classic 1972 version of “Little Martha,” a cornerstone tune of the Allman Brothers Band, the ensemble that in many ways served as a template for the younger group about to walk onstage.

But the piece refined that sense of place and purpose, as it was an unaccompanied acoustic guitar duet between Duane Allman and Dicky Betts, the uncle and father, respectively, of the two guitarists at the helm of this current troupe, Devon Allman and Duane Betts. As the live adventures of the Allman Betts Band unfolded over the next 1 ¾ hours, the inevitable lineage to the Allman Brothers Band was both embraced and built upon. The echoes of the past were often very purposeful but so was the establishment of a separate and distinct Southern voice. Where the fathers’ band was rooted in the blues, much of the sons’ ensemble took its cue from Muscle Shoals soul. But regularly, the generational differences nicely converged.

The show opening “All Night,” for instance, was bathed in an entirely different Southern aura – namely, the power chords and celebratory rock intent of Tom Petty. That inspiration would echo more profoundly near the end of the evening with a cover of Petty’s “Southern Accent,” a tale of weather-beaten cultural identity that differs greatly from the usual fist-pumping anthems associated with conventional Southern rock. Performed with a percussion-less arrangement of vocals, keyboards and guitar, Petty’s tune became something of a cautionary meditation.

Both songs featured Allman, who looked, acted, and sang nothing like his late father, Gregg Allman. The younger artist was more jovial and outgoing, possessing a deeper, less blues-savvy voice. That helped works like “All Gone” and “Down by the River” fortify the soul-savvy foundation of the newer band’s sound.

Betts, on the other hand, is a dead ringer for dad. He sang with his father’s high Southern tenor and played guitar with a knowing progressive phrasing that propelled a very faithful reading of the Dickey Betts instrumental staple “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” as well the best of the newer group’s material, namely an extended work called “Autumn Breeze.” The latter revealed a relaxed, orchestral groove that his guitarwork, along with the colorful slide guitar contributions of Johnny Stachela, glided over with studied grace.

The family ties didn’t end there. Playing bass was Berry Duane Oakley, son of founding Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley. Although he honored his father by singing lead on the John Lee Hooker boogie gem “Dimples” (a tune his dad regularly performed with the Allman Brothers), the younger Oakley was content to play the role of lieutenant in the Allman Betts brigade. He added joyous, rolling bass lines to new works like “Good Ol’ Days” and a patient, practiced foundation to a rendition of “Purple Rain” that layered the Prince hit, as well as the other dozen compositions making up this spirited performance, with a coating of honest Southern solemnity.

in performance: the avett brothers

The Avett Brothers: Joe Kwon, Bob Crawford, Scott Avett and Seth Avett.

“I am a breathing time machine,” sang Scott Avett at the halfway point of an immensely affirmative performance by the Avett Brothers at Rupp Arena on Saturday evening. “I’ll take you all for a ride.”

That he did, along with guitarist/sibling Seth Avett, longtime bassist Bob Crawford and five other resourceful players, by tearing through a suitcase full of folk-rock inspirations and storylines that shifted from the delicate to the morose to the political. The combination mixed folk revival fervor with an organic performance design rooted in vintage indie pop and a dash of jam band glee. That meant the music that surfaced for the crowd of 5,000 was as fun as it was appealingly unvarnished.

The “time machine” brother Scott sang of in “Laundry Room” didn’t allude to any lasting sense of folk tradition. The Avetts didn’t come off as a throwback act. Any trace of traditionalism was fleeting, like the bluegrass accents that initiated “Denouncing November Blue (Uneasy Writer)” earlier in the evening. Instead, the Avetts preferred mashing up generations as well as stylistic influences, which is why many of the songs in the two-hour program possessed an intriguing sense of contrasting and, at times, conflicting dynamics.

“Laundry Room,” for instance, began with quiet, folkish reflection before exploding into a rambunctious ensemble hoedown. Similarly, “Bleeding White,” one of several tunes pulled from the Avetts’ new “Closer Than Together” album, shifted away from folk intention entirely and plugged into some of the show’s choicest electric stamina.

Sometimes the imagery turned dark, as in “Satan Pulls the Strings,” but the drive of the full seven-member ensemble – a troupe that augmented the core trio of Avett, Avett and Crawford with strings, keyboards and drums – dispelled any true spirit of menace. The groove was too hearty for that.

As intriguing as the give and take of the ensemble dynamics were, some of the evening’s most arresting moments came when the Avetts trimmed the band back to its trio foundation or less. The show-opening “Shame” let the modest blend of the brothers’ banjo/guitar dialogue ease the evening in before the full band charge took over. Later, the trio took to a single microphone at the end of a short walkway that extended into the audience to create a similar sense of intimacy with “I Wish I Was.”

Not everything worked, at least from a compositional standpoint. Seth Avett’s “We Americans,” another “Closer Than Together” song, was a well-meaning but overreaching socio-political discourse that didn’t possess the musical ingenuity to match its lofty narrative intent.

But for the most part, the band dynamics commanded the evening, as in the way the summery “At the Beach” prefaced the anthemic “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise” and the manner in which a merry encore cover of the Bob Wills staple “Stay a Little Longer” (the show’s only obvious traditional concession) set up the more plaintive finale of “No Hard Feelings.”

It should be also noted that this performance may have a set a record for early evening completion of a Rupp concert. With no opening act on the bill and no intermission to indulge in, the Avetts delivered their full 23 song show and sent the crowd home before 10 o’clock. The start of a new arena show concept? If anyone is asking, my vote is a yea.

 

in performance: the earls of leicester

The Earls of Leicester.

It was the last concert of the year for the Earls of Leicester on Sunday evening at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. So in explaining the band’s eagerness in hitting the road and heading home, band founder and overall ringmaster Jerry Douglas offered a proclamation on the onset of the evening.

“We’re going to play real fast.”

A joke? And if not, a feckless excuse for getting a concert over and done with? The answers: Definitely no to the latter and sorta kinda to the former. The thing is, the whole deal with the Earls is bluegrass – specifically, the still soulful and technically audacious repertoire of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, so playing “real fast” is something of a requisite.

Yes, the Earls made quick business of things at the Lyric, cramming 25 tunes into a set that clocked in at just under 90 minutes. And while audience patrons did have to figuratively strap themselves in to keep up with the lightning pace, no one was short changed. The musicianship was typically authoritative, the harmonies were sublime (especially the frequent four-part blend that draped the more patiently paced tunes as well as the warp speed numbers) and the band spirit was bold enough to suggest no one was enjoying this wrap party of a performance more than the players onstage.

With only one exception (a fun cover of Roger Miller’s “In the Summertime”), the setlist was drawn exclusively from the Flatt & Scruggs catalog, from Charlie Cushman’s take on Scruggs’ wild shifts in banjo tuning during “Flint Hill Special” (which closed the concert) to guitarist Shawn Camp’s light and inviting Flatt-style presence as an emcee as well as vocalist to the irrepressibly joyous runs on fiddle by Johnny Warren (the son of original Foggy Mountain Boys fiddle man Paul Warren).

There were a few new faces in the lineup, too. Specifically, Ashby Frank subbed for Jeff White on mandolin while Daniel Kimbro took over for Barry Bales on bass. But the transition was seamless. “I’ll Go Stepping Too” still breezed along with effortless string music cheer, “White House Blues” still raced with delirious speed and agility and “Paul and Silas” still used the Earls’ potent harmonies to fuel an impassioned gospel feel.

That left, as Camp called him, “Uncle Flux” – the mighty Douglas. Unlike his own projects, the Earls’ sense of ensemble stamina and performance economy left minimal room to showcase his full dexterity on the dobro. But since Flatt & Scruggs dobro great Josh Graves, a musical mentor for Douglas, had to operate with similar efficiency in the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Earls’ dobro lines were delivered with a concise but very defined drive.

For those needing something just a touch more demonstrative, though, there was the instrumental medley of “Spanish Two Step” and “Steel Guitar Blues,” an astonishing display of tone and tempo where the spirit of Graves and ingenuity of Douglas merged into a singular, fiery celebration of bluegrass tradition.

Had the Earls been able to convert that kind of energy into bus fuel for the ride back home… well, let’s just say there would have quite a few startled state troopers along I-65 on Sunday night.

in performance: postmodern jukebox

Rogelio Douglas Jr of Postmodern Jukebox.

For all the concern in capturing the feel of the 1920s, a sentiment that extended to tagging its current tour as “Welcome to the Twenties 2.0,” Postmodern Jukebox didn’t seem content in staying put in any set time zone Saturday evening at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

Sure, the better part of its immensely entertaining two set, two hour concert used the a 30 year span stretching from the Roaring ‘20s to the Post-war era as a ballpark scenario for its jazz and blues re-castings of contemporary pop compositions. And, yes, with four immensely capable vocalists, six stylistically astute musicians and a tap dancing maniac, the ensemble found yesteryear a pretty cozy place to chart at least part of the evening from. But by the end of the night, the time tripping landed everyone in the present day for the most volcanically potent performance of the night.

First, the beginning – or rather, the past. The first three songs of the evening indeed roared back to somewhere around the ‘20s with a sense of vaudeville that was as pronounced as the jazz sensibility. It began with vocalist/emcee Rogelio Douglas, Jr. and tap dancer Matt Shields transforming the Michael Jackson staple “Thriller” into a slice of playful swing. Singer Dani Armstrong (who performed last night under the non de plume of Jack Dani) then injected “Toxic” with noir-seasoned textures and dynamics that were light years beyond the vocal ability of the song’s originator, Britney Spears. Then PMJ newcomer Therese Curatolo led a charge of swing that fell somewhere between tango and klezmer on a makeover of Billie Eilish’s “bad guy.” Actually, the latter’s foremost accomplishment was wiping clean the original’s vacuous attitude and robotic vocal detachment so Curatolo could inject the tune with some vampish humanity.

The rest of the program maintained the inventive, retro-inclined cabaret spirit with a few technical glitches (a muddy sound mix at the show’s onset and some intrusive rings of feedback in the second set) until the past caught up with the present during the program’s encore.

Here, Armstrong grabbed hold of the Sia hit “Chandelier” in a version that didn’t so much echo the ‘20s as simply free the song from the synthesized confines of its original version. In short, it was presented as an organically orchestrated pop work that Armstrong took to the heavens with earnest, operatic vocal drama. No, it didn’t possess any obvious atmosphere of nostalgia or even the campy pleasantries that distinguished the rest of the show. It was rather a straight-up arrangement with a commanding vocal presence that, frankly, put the original to shame. And that’s a pop effect that works like magic in any era.

in performance: amanda gardier

Amanda Gardier. Photo by Tim McLaughlin.

The performance appeal and accessibility of Amanda Gardier was established within the opening moments of a set (the first of two) Friday evening at Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Club. The tune that placed the introduction in motion was “Fjord,” an original composition by the Indianapolis based alto saxophonist that revealed a respect for melody – specifically, a rolling, descending riff with a hint of Latin flavor. It affirmed an instrumental voice that was subtle, tasteful and a touch restless.

Though she would eventually establish as assured command of bop and swing, Gardier never overplayed her hand. There was a lightness in her playing that made brash, exploitive runs on the sax unnecessary. Instead, much of her set revealed an alto sound of often graceful ease, whether it was through the more boppish inclination of standards like “Beatrice” or the more autumnal luster of originals like “Smoke.”

But this wasn’t pop or fusion-esque lyricism at work. As melodically spacious as her playing was, Gardier also exhibited inventive twists of tempos and dynamics within a solo, especially through the darting, punctuated runs that ignited a nimble reading of “You and the Night and Music.”

Gardier had considerable help in piloting such an intriguing set. The prime foil within her onstage quartet was guitarist and husband Charlie Ballantine, a player with zero interest in fusion-style flamboyance in his soloing. Instead, he employed a modest touch of echo to frame solos as well as rhythmic passages, which, in their more spacious moments, nicely recalled the electric taste of the late John Abercrombie.

Such accessibility served Gardier well. As the second featured artist in the third season of the Origins Jazz Series, she is largely unknown in Central Kentucky. By exhibiting a conservable level of solo and ensemble ingenuity that respectfully honored groove and melody without surrendering to them, she offered a performance introduction that tastefully calls for a follow-up visit.

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