One Night at Chris’
This live album from saxophonist Dave Wilson and his quartet at Philly’s Chris’ Jazz Café is a different kind of jazz album due to the choice of rock cover songs, not often heard in a jazz format. They include the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows,” Creed’s “My Own Prison” and Ambrosia’s “The Biggest Part of Me.” But, rest assured. This is energetic, lively jazz throughout.
Joining the saxophonist are Kirk Reese on piano, Tony Marino on acoustic bass, and Dan Monaghan on drums. Although it is a live album the editing leaves the crowd out, with at least three tracks fading out, rather curious in that this is Wilson’s first live album and fifth as a leader. Wilson studied under the great saxophonist Bill Barron at Wesleyan University in the mid-seventies, forging a sound that’s part bebop and part Coltrane part-Dexter Gordon-influenced. He often plays in the Philly area but is based in nearby Lancaster. The rock songs he renders hers come from his love of jam bands, and countless Dead shows. He covered their “Cassidy” on his 2015 release, There Never Was. “There are certain pop tunes that I feel like I have a personal relationship with,” he explained. “They just reach out and grab me.”
The disc opens with an original tune, “Ocean Blue,” a funky boogaloo that previously appeared on his 2010 Spiral. Wilson comes out of the gate firing on all cylinders before relenting so that long-time cohort Kirk Reese can lead with shimmering piano. That’s followed by “Friend Of The Devil” rendered faithfully as the original version from American Beauty, showcasing again Reese’s impeccable piano. The band then does slow things down for a nice take on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” Dave Wilson’s saxophone delivering the vocal line, then venturing into other territory. This track also features a provocative lead from bassist Marino (longtime sideman for Dave Liebman) When Wilson returns to the melody it seems to have even more impact.
The quartet kicks it up again with “My Own Prison,” in a raucous version that amps up the tempo from the post-grunge ‘90s hit. The Ambrosia tune follows, beginning smoothly before we hear aggressive blowing from Wilson in the middle spurred on by Monaghan’s trap work. We hear more full-bodied tenor statements from Wilson in his own Afro-Cuban “Moving On,” which also features a cascading piano solo from Reese. The gorgeous “God Only Knows,” perhaps one of Brain Wilson’s best songs, has Wilson on soprano in exploratory mode with Monaghan finding the right balance between swinging and sensitive support.
The roof is about to come off the venue with the incendiary “Untitled Modal Tune” with Wilson’s wild tenor excursions and Reese’s lightning all-over-the-88s fingers. This has Trane and McCoy Tyner written all over it and it stems from Wilson’s 2002 Through the Times. This live version plays to the strengths of all four players, each of whom shine. Toward the end Monaghan dialogues with both soloists on the eights. They put an Afro-Cuban spin on the Gershwin classic “Summertime,” the disc’s longest track at eleven minutes plus, with more free avant-garde like tenor blowing from Wilson and a unaccompanied drum solo. The disc then concludes with an original tune, “Spiral,” from the 2010 album of the same name, another cooker with call and response sequences between Wilson and Reese, as intense as any moments in the set.
It seems as if the energy level builds throughout the set to one gigantic crescendo, only to end in a fade, leaving us wanting more. This is a great fusion of straight-ahead and exploratory jazz, highly accessible, and packed full of the energy one expects in a live recording. It’s a bit disappointing that we don’t hear the audience response but there’s nary a negative about the music itself.
- Jim Hynes