Music Review: Nashville jazz community honors Billy Adair

adairSeveral of Nashville’s top jazz vocalists and instrumentalists joined forces over two weekends to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a beloved friend and mentor to numerous area performers young and old.

The outstanding arranger, guitarist/bassist, bandleader and instructor Billy Adair, who passed away last month, was honored in two memorial concerts at Ingram Hall by The Blair Big Band (April 19) and the Nashville Jazz Orchestra (April 27).

Both shows featured many performers to whom Adair was an inspiration, and they mixed stirring solos and inspirational vocal performances with humorous remembrances of a vibrant personality everyone agreed was an unstoppable force in Music City jazz, session and academic circles.

Sunday’s Nashville Jazz Orchestra concert began with a sweeping rendition of Thad Jones’ “Groove Merchant,” a tune transcribed by Adair. Molly Jewel was featured on three numbers that accented Adair’s favorite standards and sentimental numbers, the best being her version of “You’re Getting To Be A Habit with Me.”

Liz Johnson was superb on three numbers, doing a sultry version of “Deed I Do,” and sparkling performances of “Route 66” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.”

Matt Belasante offered a swing-oriented conclusion to the program’s first half, nicely swaying over the Orchestra’s backing on “Come Fly With Me and “The Way You Look Tonight.”

The second half briefly dipped into a Latin groove, with a quartet rendition of the Jobim/de Moraes numbr “Chega de Saudade (No More Blues),” the first of three showcase pieces for Sarah Edmonds.

She talked about Adair’s love of June Christy, then ably reflected that blend of sophistication and sensuality throughout her versions of “Something Cool” and “Taking a Chance On Love.”

NJO Music Director Jim Williamson took center stage on “If You Could See Me Now,” excelling on flugelhorn while performing another Adair arrangement. The night’s last featured vocalist, Sarah Williams, got her turn on “Falling In Love With Love,” “Teach Me Tonight,” and her finest outing, “This Time The Dream’s On Me.”

Belsante returned for the last two numbers, moving into uptempo territory with flair on “Let The Good Times Roll.” All the singers joined the band for spirited exchanges and interaction during the encore “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.”

Adair’s arrangements were equally prominent throughout the Blair Big Band’s April 19th concert, though this evening was also filled with great stories and humorous memories, among them Carl Smith, a Senior Lecturer in Music Composition and Theory, recollecting his difficulties in developing a jazz arrangement when his field of expertise was classical music from many centuries earlier. “Billy finally kind of admitted he was glad I couldn’t come up with anything,” he laughed.

Smith also talked about how much fun Adair got out of people confusing him with country singer Carl Smith. “Dude, that is wild,” was Adair’s reaction to a news story that credited the classical organist with being a honky-tonk hero.

The evening had additional commemorations and tales of Adair’s penchant for jokes and tireless support of his students from Mark Wait, Dean of the Blair School of Music, Rev. Robert Early, who’d been a trumpeter with the Exotics, and one-time Establishment trombonist Greg Cox. Plus, there were poems read by Sarah Williams and the Rev. Edward Farley, who also did the Benediction.

Still, there were plenty of musical highlights as well. The Blair Big Band’s top numbers included “Just Friends,” “Count Bubba,” “Shiny Stockings” and “A Time For Love,” with Associate Professor of Trombone Jeremy Wilson the featured soloist, as well as the finale, “This Time The Dream’s On Me,” which featured an Adair arrangement with vocalist Sarah Edmonds and guitarist Jerry Kimbrough.

While Adair’s advocacy and constant support for his students was frequently recalled, they didn’t always meet his high standards for how they should sound, look and perform.

Michael Rinne, a Blair School of Music graduate from the class of 2010, remembered a time when Adair, weary of sloppiness and tardiness by some group members, blistered them with some uncomplimentary assessments and remarks. But Rinne added even during this dressing down it was still quite clear how much he valued and appreciated them.

The Blair Jazz Faculty’s rendition of “The Very Thought Of You,” with Johnson on vocals and an exemplary quintet behind her, provided more standout moments, as did guitarist Lloyd Wells’ two numbers “I Wish You Love,” and “When You Wish Upon A Star.”

As both shows made clear, Billy Adair’s loss will be greatly felt for many years to come. But these concerts were a testament to his impact and the importance of his legacy, as well as the love numerous musicians and students will always have for him.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.