Jazz review: Nashville Jazz Workshop meets Mr. Lucky at the Jazz Cave

aliquo1The parking lot was packed outside the Nashville Jazz Workshop on Friday night, and that meant just one thing. Mr. Lucky was inside the building.

Actually, the proximate cause of all that congestion was one Don Aliquo, saxophonist extraordinaire. Aliquo was holding forth inside the workshop’s intimate Jazz Cave, performing in the final Snap On 2&4 concert of 2012. His gig will not soon be forgotten.

For nearly three hours, Aliquo and his veteran quartet presented a veritable master class in improvisation, playing both standards and original numbers with daring and imagination. A few stellar guest performers were persuaded to sit in near the end of the performance. As an added bonus, jazz aficionados who stayed for the concert’s lengthy second half got to hear one of the most sensual arrangements of an Ástor Piazzolla song heard this side of Buenos Aires.

A Pittsburgh native, Aliquo has spent the past dozen years teaching at Middle Tennessee State University, and in that time he’s developed a considerable local following. Many of his fans were obviously at the Jazz Cave on Friday night. They were familiar with his playing and they knew his repertoire. After playing the first number, Aliquo asked the audience if they knew the name of the song. Everybody did. “Mr. Lucky,” the crowd shouted.

aliquo2Aliquo’s performance of the Henry Mancini classic set the tone for the entire evening. The quartet – Aliquo, pianist Lori Mechem, bassist Roger Spencer and drummer Chris Brown – introduced the theme with an easygoing sort of swing. Beneath the rhythm section’s steady pulse, Aliquo then launched into urgent and increasingly discordant flights of improvisational fancy.

The musicians were always intensely in the moment, playing spontaneously, like old friends engaged in an animated conversation. But with Aliquo in the room, it was sometimes difficult for the others musicians to get a solo note in edgewise. Aliquo was like a human bellows, barely taking time to breathe, let alone pause. After a seemingly endless number of choruses, Mechem had to playfully waive him away.

Aliquo’s first set included a fitting tribute to Dave Brubeck, the legendary jazz pianist who died last Wednesday, one day short of his 92nd birthday. The quartet’s performance of Brubeck’s “The Duke” was full of grace and taste. In the best tradition of Paul Desmond, Aliquo explored the full range of his instrument, playing dusky bottom and silky top notes with the breathy nuance of a great singer.

Most of the evening’s big surprises came in the second set. One rarely expects to hear Piazzolla’s music inside the Jazz Cave, and that made the quartet’s performance of the composer’s “Oblivion” seem all the more unforgettable. Mechem, who arranged the song specifically for Aliquo’s concert, opened with ascending scale passages that were drenched in damper pedal, adding to the music’s sensual allure. Aliquo played the theme with deep feeling, while Spencer and Brown, using bow and brushes, respectively, provided intimate rhythmic accompaniment. As the ensemble reached the climax, the sonic imagery was so vivid one could practically see the tango dancers gliding across the stage.

After a little arm twisting, Nashville pianist Bruce Dudley was ushered onstage, joining Aliquo, Spencer and Brown in a vibrant rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle.” Dudley played this rhythmically complex music with polished perfection, without benefit of a moment’s rehearsal. Guest drummer Jim White gave an equally jaw-dropping performance in “Benny’s Pennies.”

Nashville Jazz Workshop has one more major event scheduled for 2012, a CD release party for vocalist Monica Ramey and the Beegie Adair Trio. That event is at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9 at the Jazz Cave, 1319 Adams Street. CDs will be available for purchase and signing, and Ramey and the Adair Trio will perform. Jazz connoisseurs should make every effort to attend this free party.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.