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Top 10 Most Mind-Blowing Concerts: The Rutgers Years (1992-1998)

Recently I returned to New Brunswick/Rutgers for the first time in seven years, which not surprisingly led to a pretty heavy nostalgia trip. While my relationships with the faculty (particularly Kenny Barron and Ted Dunbar) dominate my memories of my time there, there was much else. One of the main reasons I wound up there was due to the proximity to NY and I took frequent trips to the City (where 9 out of these 10 shows took place) to hear both legendary and up-and-coming musicians play.

I couldn’t really come up with a definitive set of criteria for these, so I “went with the gut” and picked the ones that produced the most resonant memories. Because memory fades as time passes, the dates (in chronological order here) are not guaranteed to be totally accurate, but rather a best educated guess. If you were at any of these shows and remember the dates better than I do, please let me know! Note also that this is not a self-consciously jazz-specific list, but because this was an immersion period for me, 9 out of 10 of the shows here are in that category. One of these days I’ll do a concert Top 10 list from my pre-college days and then we’ll give the rockers some more love.

1 ) Fall, 1992: Brad Mehldau Trio at the Village Gate (BM – piano; Ugonna Okegwo – bass; Leon Parker – drums)

I had heard Brad play a couple times by this point with trombonist Steve Davis, one of my teachers at the Artists’ Collective in Hartford, and he was spoken of in glowing terms in CT. As such, I was excited when one of my schoolmates said he was heading into NY to hear “this piano player,” of whom apparently none of my classmates have heard.

Allow me to insert a rant here – Brad is no doubt a genius and a virtuoso and I have the utmost respect for the work he has done in the 15 or so years since he became a major-label recording artist. That said, I haven’t heard anything in those 15 years that has matched the vibrancy, swing, blues feeling and overall excitement that I heard in the years leading up to that point. And never was this more apparent than on this night at the Village Gate – I still remember the way he, Ugonna and Leon TORE UP “Love for Sale” and “Serpent’s Tooth.” Much of what I do now is a pale attempt to recreate what I remember hearing that night.

2 ) Fall, 1992: Kenny Drew, Jr. Quintet at Fat Tuesdays (KDJ – piano; Michael Mossman – trumpet and trombone; Ralph Bowen – tenor; Charnett Moffett – bass; Cody Moffett – drums)

This one was a big deal on two levels. One, I had just begun studying with Bowen (and would soon study with Mossman as well), so this was a new thing – to be hearing my teachers at a major NY club (Kenny Barron was another category). Two, Kenny Drew, Jr. showed a level of soulful virtuosity that blew my mind (which hadn’t yet been put back together from Brad’s show). Hearing two (at the time) under-the-radar pianists in a short span who had ridiculous technique yet were soulful and expressive was inspiring and very well-timed.

3 ) Fall, 1993: Tom Harrell Quintet at Visiones (TH – trumpet/flugelhorn; Don Braden – tenor; Danilo Perez – piano; Ray Drummond – bass; Leon Parker – drums)

This still ranks as among the most exciting shows I’ve ever seen. Have you ever seen a concert where everyone on the bandstand was feeding off a virtually palpable electricity, pushing one another to new heights from one chorus to the next? This was one such show, and although they were playing tunes (3 of Tom’s and Ornette’s “Blues Connotation”), the level of thematic development and interplay made the whole set sound like one intricately through-composed piece. Appropriately, the audience was beside itself with excitement through most of it. This was my first time hearing Danilo, and I have never heard Don or Leon sound better than they did that night, which is saying something.

4 ) Fall, 1993: Jerry Garcia Band at Madison Square Garden (featuring David Murray – tenor)

This, the only non-jazz concert on the list, gets the nod not because it was necessarily superlative (it was, in fact, not even the best JGB show I had seen up until that point). But it was interestingly-timed in a couple ways. One, I had by this point immersed myself so much in jazz that it was illuminating and a bit disorienting to experience a stadium rock show, the likes of which I had attended often in high school. In some ways it was a musical homecoming and in other ways it was emblematic of the ways my tastes had changed (though I still had a grand ol’ time hearing the Dead a couple times a year later at MSG), kind of like putting on a favorite old pair of pants that doesn’t quite fit anymore. Two, hearing Murray in this context was fascinating. The last time I had heard a saxophonist with this band it was Clarence Clemons, and rather than having a polar opposite impact, this seemed more like two shades of the same color. On virtually every tune, Murray engaged in whisper-to-a-scream dynamic development and ended up with altissimo shrieking that made the Deadheads go nuts. So I was simultaneously presented with the gap between jazz and rock and the common ground between them. Whoa, trippy, dude.

5 ) Winter, 1994: Jackie McLean Sextet at Choate Rosemary Hall (JM – alto; Rene McLean – tenor; Steve Davis – trombone; Alan Jay Palmer – piano; Nat Reeves – bass; Eric McPherson – drums

Though I studied at McLean’s Artists’ Collective in high school, he seldom performed in CT, so as of this concert (which I attended with friends from back home while in CT for a school break) I had actually never heard him live. And while his records were (and are) great, the energy of the live experience was just awesome, between the intense vibe of the band and its repertoire and J-Mac’s own indescribably heavy presence (this is hard to articulate, but anyone who had the privilege of being around him knows what I’m talking about – he walked into the room and it was as if the gravitational pull had changed). I was fortunate to hear him on subsequent occasions in NY, but this “homecoming” experience was awesome.

6 ) Spring, 1994: Joel Frahm Quartet at Augie’s (JF – tenor; David Berkman – piano; Joe Martin – bass; Matt Wilson – drums)

I realize now that some of my most exciting experiences during this period were not necessarily the times I heard the legends (many of whom didn’t make this list, though they probably would have it it were a “Top 20”) but rather the times I heard young and lesser-known players displaying major artistry while still flying under the radar. For what It’s worth (admittedly not much), I must say that my track record of foresight was pretty good when I said to myself “Geez, why isn’t this person more famous?” in the sense that invariably those musicians (Brad, Mark Turner, David Sanchez, Bill Charlap, Chris Potter, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Conrad Herwig, Seamus Blake, etc.) didn’t stay under the radar for too long.

I chose this concert to represent that phenomenon because it translated across the entire bandstand. This was a real band, to boot, with a wonderful rapport and a warm energy that was totally infectious. Extra credit to M@ for playing quite possibly the baddest spatulas-instead-of-sticks drum solo ever.

7 ) Fall, 1995: Cedar Walton Quartet at Sweet Basil (CW – piano; David Williams – bass; Billy Higgins – drums)

I had heard this rhythm section in high school at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass., with Ralph Moore on tenor rounding out the “Eastern Rebellion” quartet. That was great (and meeting Cedar provided me with some advice, “Stay on the Path,” that eventually became a sort of mantra for me). Realistically, though, neither my vocabulary nor my rhythm section concept was yet at the point where I could really wrap my brain around what I was hearing. By this point, however, my ears were ready. And the elegance of what I heard that night had a profound impact on my own musical development from that point on. The rapport between Cedar and Billy was one of the most special (and, I dare say, unappreciated) interpersonal pieces of magic in modern jazz history, and on this night they were in particularly high form with the telepathy of their interplay.

8 ) Fall, 1995: James Williams Intensive Care Unit at Visiones (JW – piano; Bill Pierce – tenor; Steve Wilson – alto; Roger Holland and Miles Griffith – vocals; John Lockwood – bass; Yoron Israel – drums).

As anyone who knows me or reads this blog surely knows, James Williams was one of my heroes. During this period there were a number of highlights from my trips in to NY to hear him (with Bob Cranshaw and Billy Drummond at Tavern on the Green, with Ira Coleman and Greg Hutchinson at Bradleys, with Milt Hinton at Zinno’s, etc.). This, however, was my first time hearing the ICU, with the added bonus of having both Bill Pierce and Steve Wilson present on saxophones. Though this music is not entirely without precedent (Andy Bey’s work with Horace Silver, for example), I’ve never heard anything entirely like it, and the spirit the group had live was soul-affirming on the highest level.

9) Spring, 1996: Ben Riley Quartet at Sweet Basil (BR – drums; Ted Dunbar – guitar; Steve Nelson – vibes; Kiyoshi Kitagawa – bass)

Most of the groups represented here were either one-offs or, if they were working bands, were at least semi-adequately documented on recordings. The Mehldau trio at #1 is a notable exception, alas, and this one is perhaps an even more unfortunate exception. Ted was an amazing teacher and mentor as well as a great guitarist, and he felt extremely invested in this group, with Ben giving him the freedom to be a sort of “deputy bandleader,” if you will. Ted’s musical wisdom was a perfect fit for Ben’s band concept and brought great things out of Kiyoshi and Steve, the latter of whom had been a student of Ted’s at Rutgers and had made one of his first recorded appearances over 15 years prior on Ted’s Secundem Artem record.

Anyway, I’m very thankful to have been there for a couple nights during this run. The final night I had the extra honor of sitting with the great pianist Bertha Hope, whose late husband Elmo had composed much of the group’s repertoire. Purportedly Ben still has master-quality recordings from this week and continues to await a label willing to release the music. Hopefully there’s a label muck-a-muck reading this!

10 ) Fall, 1996: Kenny Barron Trio at Village Vanguard (KB – piano; Ron Carter – bass; Ben Riley – drums)

Picking one Kenny Barron show, among dozens I attended, is kind of ludicrous. If that were a top 10 list of its own, the other 9 (in no particular order) might include:

- Javon Jackson Quartet (with KB, Ron Carter, Lewis Nash) at the Village Vanguard
- Quartet “residency” at Village Vanguard with Buster Williams, Ben Riley and various frontmen (including David Sanchez, Steve Nelson, James Spaulding, Gary Bartz)
- Quintet at Fat Tuesday’s (with Steve Nelson, Don Braden, Ray Drummond, Victor Lewis)
- “Classic” Quintet at Sweet Basil (with John Stubblefield, Eddie Henderson, David Williams, Victor Lewis)
- Trio at Bradley’s (with Ray Drummond and Ben Riley)
- Duo at Bradley’s (with Mulgrew Miller)
- solo at the Raritan River Club in New Brunswick, NJ
- Duo at Rutgers (with Ted Dunbar)
- Buster Williams Quintet at Bushnell Park in Hartford, CT (with KB, Shunzo Ono, Steve Wilson and Carl Allen)

So why this one? I heard Kenny and Ben play together a lot and it was always great. And I loved the other bassists I heard in that setting (and still love ‘em, particularly Buster and Ray). But hearing Ron Carter in this context on this night was revelatory. I had heard Ron a few times by this point, but because I was intimately familiar by this point with what a “normal” trio set with Kenny and Ben would be, I was thus able to be thoroughly blown away by hearing how his playing transformed the music and the playing of the other two. This deepened my appreciation for Ron and for the power of non-rote bass playing in general, and it’s quite possibly the best I ever heard the other two play.

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