If you want to be part of a racially diverse audience experiencing jazz in an intimate setting, then the Tri-C Jazz Festival's "Debut" series, held at the East Cleveland Public Library, is the place to be. But don't be late, because the 250-seat auditorium is filled on a first-come-first-served basis and the line forms on the sidewalk well over an hour before the doors even open. You'll never be disappointed either, for the featured performer is always top-shelf in caliber, even if yet to be a household name. Bassist Ben Williams and his Sound Effect band met both criteria, with the latter hopefully to be surmounted very soon.
Like most young jazz artists who grew up listening to hip-hop, subtle influences from this genre creep into their jazz compositions, but more importantly, they look to 1970s era R&B music as sources for cover versions, rather than Tin Pan Alley songs, as did jazzers of prior generations. The opening tune "Home" abounded with the skittering rhythms of hip-hop, intuitively laid down by drummer John Davis, while guitarist Matthew Stevens inserted jagged guitar punctuations, like a little boy jabbing a stick into the cage of a captive animal.
Guitarist Stevens' angular style of playing owes more to the John Scofield approach than it does the John Pizzarelli style of playing, which is appropriate in this quintet format, thus allowing him to avoid conflict with the other chord-based voice in the band, pianist David Bryant. The guitar solo on "Dawn Of A New Day" was a highlight for Stevens, as his face contorted commensurately with each bent string. Bryant was a last minute replacement for an ailing Taylor Eigsti and acquitted himself well. You could see that he was listening really hard and his responses to musical statements from the other band members were informed and empathic. Despite seeming to be more comfortable on the Steinway, he did turn in a roiling electric piano solo on the aforementioned "Home."
Two easily recognized covers were Michael Jackson's "Little Susie" and Stevie Wonder's "Part Time Lover." The former began with an enthralling, solo bass intro from Williams (he was the winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute jazz competition for bass) that eventually had Davis join him in a groove that was funky without being greasy. Bryant's solo spewed so may well placed notes that it sounded like spilt marbles on a linoleum floor. But it was also on this tune where saxophonist Marcus Strickland reached his apex. Playing soprano, his turn in the limelight quickly accelerated to a sustained fever pitch where he seemed to be channeling a player by the name of Coltrane. The latter cover tune had a relaxed swing while the nuanced narrative of the melody melted your tensions away in time for an impassioned tenor solo from Strickland and an exceptionally melodic solo from Williams.
This is not to say that Williams only draws upon recent songs by others to augment his own compositions. Woody Shaw's classic piece "Moontrane" was given an inspired, but reverential rendition. Following the stately melody of the head, Williams executed a fleet-fingered, resonantly "woody" sounding solo, followed by Strickland's tenor performing some Bennie Wallace style intervallic leaps across the range of the horn, before Bryant downshifted the momentum at his solo's beginning, only to finish with the band once again in high gear. And all the while, Davis was swinging his butt off!
"November" had its double-time melody shifts bookend another pyrotechnic solo by Williams and the pronounced backbeat of "Dawn Of A New Day" wasn't heavy handed, which allowed the sweetness of Strickland's effulgent soprano to radiate like a late afternoon sun. While the term "young lions" has become a tired cliché, because every generation has them, these cats played with all of the passion and skill befitting musicians who want to fly above the radar and be known to a broader audience.
The second performance of the day took place on the campus of Cuyahoga Community College in the debut of the newly christened Black Box performance space. This cozy little room is decorated just as its name states, with the only contrast to the obsidian interior being a full-wall canvas of Cleveland's nighttime skyline. This scheme must have been influenced by Jazz At Lincoln Center's Allen Room, with its 5th floor view of the New York City skyline. The performer to play the inaugural Black Box gig was Marcus Strickland's quartet. If you were one of the few to have attended both of the day's events, you could view this as a second set of sorts, as the band was Bryant, Williams, Marcus and Strickland's identical twin brother E.J. behind the drums.
The heavily syncopated, odd-metered "Mudbone" opened the set and set the tone with Marcus unleashing a fire-breathing tenor solo that seems to say, "Now I'm the leader." But a munificent one, as everyone took an extended solo on the tune. "Lilt" also featured bustling polyrhythm, with E.J. pinging a prominent backbeat on the bell of a cymbal. In fact, E.J.'s cymbal work clearly distinguished him from his predecessor of the day.
His chattering cymbals and snare drum laid the foundation for "Surreal" which was inspired by Picasso's painting "The Seated Bather." Atop this rhythm, Marcus' soprano sax wove tales of exotic intrigue like a snake charmer. His tone on this horn is quite warm; lacking the harsh or nasally sound it can produce in lesser hands. After dropping into a straight 4/4 time, Bryant, exclusive to a Steinway for this set, took a solo that was straight out of Sonny Clark during the Blue Note days.
Other nods to the tradition appeared via a no-nonsense reading of Charlie Parker's "Bloomdido." This be-bop workout appropriately featured Marcus on alto sax and Williams' bass was walking with a vengeance. Bryant now played with the drive of Bud Powell, with his small hands bouncing all over the keys in a hyperactive blur. Given that the melody of this tune was written over the "borrowed" chord changes of "I Got Rhythm" Bryant quoted the chorus in its entirety to conclude his solo. Who could ask for anything more, indeed.
Another cover tune, albeit a surprising choice, was Nina Simone's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (Do Not Leave Me). This was all light and airy, with E.J. using brushes on the drum kit and Bryant's grand pianistic statements echoing Simone's infamous indignation. Contrasting this, "Entomology" had a brown-sugar sweet melody pouring from Marcus' alto. Ostinato figures on the piano, during the head, would segue way into a very forceful piano solo while Williams seemed super relaxed as he plucked deep, rich notes from the bass. With beads of sweat forming on his shaved pate, Marcus was intense and very much the leader for this high-octane set.