Pianist, bandleader and composer Bruce Dudley’s amassed both a strong reputation and impressive credits as a player and contributor to several outstanding area sessions. Plus he’s widely admired for his stellar interpretations of works from such greats as Thelonious Monk.
The presence of several young faces at Saturday night’s Bruce Dudley Quartet performance at the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s Jazz Cave proved he’s a valued educator as well.
Dudley demonstrated another side of his playing portfolio as his quartet performed two terrific sets, the latest event in the Workshop’s ongoing “Contemporary Jazz Series.” The accent was on new, challenging works penned by either Dudley or fellow band members rather than exploring historic compositions from the jazz canon.
The bands and musicians spotlighted in this series have ranged from well known to somewhat obscure (at least for the area), but all are seasoned and versatile. Dudley’s group was no exception.
Saxophonist Jesus Santandreu has extensive range, a fluid and expressive tone, and loads of energy. He easily shifted between ballads, animated pieces and the occasional reworked version of a jazz or pop tune.
As the leader, Dudley set the evening’s tone with a supple, rich blend of assertive melodic statements, delightful accompaniment, first-rate phrasing, counterpoint and harmonizing. He previously showed on his Monk LP he could personalize difficult arrangements and compositions, but most of Saturday’s material wasn’t filled with the unexpected sharps – rather than flats, naturals or frequently odd structures – that were Monk’s hallmark.
Instead, the pieces he and bassist Jonathan Wires (the evening’s principal composers) featured tended to be lengthy (from six to 10 minutes), multi-layered, intense and compelling. Drummer Derrek Phillips also contributed a couple of works to the sets.
Wires’ songs comprised a hefty portion of the material, and he was also a reliable, sturdy figure in the rhythm section. Wires didn’t get many solos, but when it was his time alone he played with a disciplined flair that showcased his technical prowess and willingness to frame statements rather than just rip off notes.
Phillips proved a percussion marvel, able to generate furious rhythms or smoother, sleek textures. He also didn’t get a lot of solos, because just going through a blowing session or a series of lengthy exchanges wasn’t what the Dudley Quartet’s music championed. But when he did get the opportunity, Phillips thrilled the crowd with a surging mix of arresting beats and textures.
Most of the time, the quartet offered a unified presentation that still provided enough standout sections to billboard each member’s instrumental brilliance. But the goal was for the band as a whole to excel, rather than just offering audiences the basic melody/solos/melody formula that can get weary when constantly done by players incapable of extending or stretching it. That certainly wasn’t the case Saturday night.
High points (though none of the pieces was anything less than intriguing) included a powerful, if surprising in its stylistic evolution, number titled “The Blue Line” that was the opening set’s second piece. It featured some of Dudley’s more animated playing and dazzling rhythmic support from the Wires/Phillips tandem, augmented by sax playing from Santandrea that alternated between tender and torrid.
The same was true of Phillips’ “The Waiting,” which was fueled by stirring bass/drum interaction throughout, a blend of soothing and fiery piano work by Dudley and another superb tenor contribution from Santandreu. Indeed the quartet’s interaction was so intense they gave listeners a first set that ran nearly 75 minutes.
The second set was more abbreviated, but no less worthy. Dudley turned to his rock/pop side, discussing his admiration of Prince and talking about his experiences with the late Claire Fischer, who got some crossover attention for his collaborations with Prince. The quartet later nicely reworked “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” with a slightly different take that didn’t veer so far from the original.
Dudley’s group also included a fine rendition of McCoy Tyner’s “Four For Five,” from his 1967 Blue Note debut LP “The Real McCoy.” This concluded a strong show that revealed Dudley’s just as memorable and dynamic in front of his own combo as when he’s a contributor in the studio or on to another band.
Music City listeners and jazz fans in general should anticipate more vigorous and unpredictable music from the Bruce Dudley Quartet in the near future.