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Flutology at the Kennedy Center

There are still those who hold that the flute does not belong in jazz, or that it is, at best, a marginal jazz instrument. There are, however, many artists working in the genre today who disprove that notion, and Flutology is at the top of the heap. This all-star sextet was formed at Birdland one night in 2002 when jazz flute pioneer Frank Wess heard two flutists in tandem--Holly Hoffman, who was working with Ray Brown's quartet, and Holly's long time friend and fellow young lioness Ali Ryerson, who was sitting in. Stimulated, Wess suggested a three flute outfit, a seemingly novel idea but actually very much in line with flutists' tendency to hunt in packs; flute clubs and choirs and ensembles are popular all over the world. Indeed, there have been a number of jazz recordings with multiple flutists: Sam Most and Joe Farrell, Herbie Mann and just about everyone, "Buddy Collette's Swinging Shepherds," "Billy Taylor With Four Flutes," Jane Bunnett and the "Havana Flute Masters," etc. (For more information consult my forthcoming book "The Flute in Jazz: Window On World Music.") Flutology is the first working jazz group of this kind that I know of in the US, although, in common with other all-star groups, its appearances are limited by the very busy schedules of all of its members. They are able to undertake two tours each year, and, so far, have recorded one CD--First Date. We were very fortunate to have them for two nights at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club.

As on their CD, the group opened with a real burner Dizzy Gillespie's "Be-Bop," and continued with Lee Morgan's lovely bossa nova "Ceora." From the outset, the group's two strength's were evident--top quality solo work supported by first-class writing. Flutology is fortunate to include two excellent arrangers, Wess and pianist Mike Wofford. They have both produced charts that allow the group to transcend its unusual instrumentation, so much so that Norman Weinstein could write in his review of First Date at "This is simply a major mainstream jazz album of 2003 by any standard, and the fact that it showcases flutes makes it that much more singular and breathtaking." This was evident throughout the set, which featured more arrangements from the CD, Hank Mobley's "This I Dig of You," Wess' "Equal Parts" and Bill Cunliffe's "Flutopia," along with some new charts, Thelonius Monk's standard "Straight No Chaser," and Denny Zietlin's "Quiet Now," an especially beautiful arrangement that drew a gorgeous sonority from the front line, with both Hoffman and Ryerson on alto flutes.

Writing is certainly important but a jazz group lives or dies on the strength of its soloists. Flutology's excellence in this department does more than transcend the limitations of the flute--to a large extent it reflects them. As Ryerson likes to point out, the flute is a "beautiful" instrument rather than a "strong" instrument. To be successful as a soloist, a flutist must rely on tonal beauty and melodic inventiveness; there is little scope for honking or squealing. Back in the midst of the avant-garde revolution of the sixties and seventies, in response to a lot of finger-waggling-while-overblowing saxophone solos, Herb Ellis wrote an article in Down Beat magazine called "New Thing Too Jive For Guitar." To the extent this is fair, it applies equally to the flute. There are extended techniques for the instrument, such as the vocalizations popularized by Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef, and other techniques from contemporary "serious" music. But none of the Flutologists go in for any of this.

Frank Wess, in fact, blazed another trail for the instrument by combining classical training with a flair for improvisation. He was followed by Paul Horn in the sixties and flute legend Hubert Laws in the seventies, and Ryerson and Hoffman are among the leading torch-bearers for the current generation. When he gave up the flute, feeling that the performance standards were too high to allow for doubling, altoist Bud Shank named Holly Hoffman as one of the few performers who might fulfill the potential of the flute in jazz. She continues to justify the faith Shank placed in her with powerful, bluesy, bebop-based lines, as in her feature, her "roommate" (read husband) Wofford's "No Mercy" in which she demonstrated that the flute and the blues scale are by no means strange bedfellows. Hoffman is complemented perfectly by Ryerson's elegant phrasing and burnished tone, especially on the alto flute of which she is probably jazz' leading exponent. She was featured on "Alice in Wonderland" in the later set. Binding the whole sound together with his writing and his Lester-Young-on-the-flute phrasing is the veteran Wess, whose first recorded flute solo was with Count Basie in 1953, several years before Hoffman and Ryerson were born! As Weinstein wrote in his CD review: "I have rarely heard a band with a three musician front line in recent years with as many creative ideas that so seamlessly mesh."

We shouldn't forget the Flutology rhythm section. Quite simply, they supported the soloists perfectly. Wofford is a fine, perhaps slightly underrated soloist in his own right, drummer Victor Lewis provides both drive and shading, and James King, subbing at somewhat short notice for the group's regular bass player, demonstrated that he is the consummate professional, reading the charts, according to Hoffman, "as if he wrote them."

Detractors of the flute maintain that it doesn't work in jazz because the sound is too shrill and the ear gets tired of it. Perhaps, as a flutist myself, I am impervious to this. But judging by the reaction of this evening's audience, which gave both sets standing ovations, I am not alone in my enthusiasm for Flutology. We await their next recording with impatience.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Flutology
  • Concert Date: March 10 & 11
  • Subtitle: Celebration of Jazz Flute Greeted With Enthusiastic Response
  • Venue: KC Jazz Club, Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
  • City State Country: Washington, DC
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