When the unassuming saxophonist Chris West picked up his horn for the first time on Wednesday night at the Family Wash, it was easy to tell who in the audience knew of him and who was about to learn. Those familiar with West stopped talking, turned their chairs towards the stage and waited. And, after the first few bars, everyone else in the room followed suit.
This was the third week of West’s October residency at the Family Wash. Billed as “Chris West and Friends,” he was joined by all-star players Jon Paul Frappier on trumpet, Scott Hall on guitar, D.D. Holt on keys, Greg Bryant on bass, Derek Phillips on drums and Giovanni Rodriguez on percussion.
The band opened with the lively funk tune, “Where I Got My Groove,” off West’s Surprise Trilogy 3, the third in a three-disc set released in 2011. West and Frappier launched into the melody, attacking each phrase with a kind of energy and precision not often seen on the Family Wash stage. Featuring virtuosic solos from West, Frappier, Holt and Hall, this first tune allowed the septet plenty of time to settle into their groove for the night. Not that they remained in that groove for long. The most compelling part of the performance was West’s ability to glide the group between styles without the set ever seeming disjointed. From the funk opener, they moved into a blues shuffle, a Latin tune, and then returned to a groove tune to finish out the first set.
Onstage, West was semi-stoic, and when not playing, he stood center stage, listening intently. He would crack a smile of recognition when someone executed a particularly impressive line, which, given the performers, happened quite often. An excellent bandleader, he did not waste time between tunes and seamlessly directed the arrangements.
With the exception of his take on Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” West performed all original compositions. A standout was the closing piece, “Surprise,” which was the first tune to showcase West’s (and the rest of the band’s) ability to speak the bop language with ease. From bop to funk, it was West’s clear compositional voice that tied the pieces together. His varied stylistic interests were the reason for releasing Surprise Trilogy, which was an expansive sophomore album set designed to showcase West’s compositional dexterity and versatility.
West is more than halfway through his month-long residency at the Family Wash. He will return on Wednesday, Oct. 24, and Wednesday, Oct. 31. The sets are advertised to begin at 8:30 p.m., but in jazz language that simply means sometime after 9 o’clock. It’s true that Nashville’s jazz fans have long-lamented the lack of a proper jazz club in Nashville. And, certainly, the Family Wash is not a typical jazz venue; there are no clinking martini glasses, no dim lighting. But when a venue like the Family Wash opens its arms to a young jazz artist like Chris West, the space is transformed with the first note. It’s not the Blue Note or the Village Vanguard, but for Wednesday nights in October, it’s close enough for us.