Last Wednesday, the Sidney Bechet Society, created by Eric Offner, held two concerts at Symphony Space, paying tribute to Kenny Davern, who died in 2006, and Bob Wilber, happily still with us. Here’s what took place at the 9 PM show, with Wilber himself, Dan Levinson, and Nik Payton on a vast assortment of reeds, Dick Hyman on piano, Vince Giordano on vocals, string bass, bass sax, and tuba, Matt Munisteri on guitar, and Kevin Dorn on drums.
After a very brief introduction by Donald Gardner, who, with Phil Stern, will be running the shows in future (Eric will continue to savor them from the audience), Dan and Nik launched into a Soprano Summit original, “Please Clarify,” in the spirit of a 1941 Eddie Sauter composition for Benny Goodman — ornate, needing superb technique.
I noticed, happily, that Hyman’s piano had a lovely acoustic sound rather than the over-miking one so often must endure. Dan commented, as a segue, that Kenny Davern was the reason he had wanted to become a jazz musician — a good thing for us all!
A looser “Love Me Or Leave Me” followed, with earnest playing by Nik and Matt, and sterling work from Kevin on his hi-hat; “Elsa’s Dream,” a Davern line on the chords of “I Found A New Baby,” let us hear the two reedmen trade fours, then twos — very exciting! Nik then had the stage to himself for a too-brief, heartfelt exploration of Bechet’s own “Premier Bal,” where he showed off his rich, woody clarinet tone. “Hindustan,” from the 1918 hit parade, had the horns — in true Summit fashion — swapping the lead and harmony roles. Matt was especially lively, as was Hyman, on this romp. Nik then played his tribute to Wilber (his mentor) whose middle name, he explained, is “Sage,” thus, “The Sage,” an attractive minor theme that suggested both a Goodman Sextet theme with echoes of “Dark Eyes.”
Dan took center stage himself to work out on a Davern variant of Ellington’s “Jubilee Stomp,” aptly dubbed “Fast As A Bastard.” It certainly was, offering Hyman a chance to show his amazing stride, and Vince to slap his aluminum string bass, resonant and focused as ever. Dan’s arrangement of PeeWee Russell’s “PeeWee’s Blues” brought Nik back, but the spotlight belonged to Matt, who bent notes as if Symphony Space had become the Delta for a few choruses. The first half of the concert ended with a deeply felt version of “Trav’lin All Alone.”
The second half began with The Man Himself, Bob Wilber, looking bouncy and boyish, announcing “Eighty is the new fifty!” (I still haven’t figured out how old that makes me: it’s a puzzlement.) Over the rocking rhythm section, with Kevin becoming Jo Jones, Bob and Nik played Kern’s “I Won’t Dance,” delighting in its singular bridge. Bob handed things over to Nik for a ballad, “You Are Too Beautiful,” that initially was a duet with Vince’s bass, reminding me of the Lucky Thompson – Oscar Pettiford – Skeeter Best recordings of the Fifties. A Condon-inspired “California, Here I Come” changed the mood in a flash, with Hyman boiling away behind the horns. Hyman announced his solo feature as a song with three titles: “Moritat,” “The Theme from The Threepenny Opera,” and “Mack the Knife,” and went from a brooding introduction to a minimalist exploration of the simple theme (echoes of Dave McKenna), to his patented uptempo stride, clipped and reminiscent of Forties Johnny Guarneri. It was truly a virtuoso exhibition with every note in place.
Much of the music that had preceded was cheerful, extroverted, which is as a tribute to Davern and Wilber should be. But for me the highlight of the evening was Wilber’s tribute to Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn, “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” where Wilber showed that his tone and power, his singing melodic conception, were all intact. (The brilliant young pianist Ehud Asherie was in the audience; at Smalls, the next night, he created a sorrowing version of Strayhorn’s song, clearly with Wilber’s notes in his head.)
The mood changed for a rollicking Vince vocal on “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” No tribute to Soprano Summit could conclude without “The Mooche,” and the evening concluded with a romp on “Bye Bye Blues,” with a guest spot for Wilber’s newest prodigy, Alex Mendham, on alto, as the youngest member of the lineage that began with Wilber as Bechet’s student in 1946. It was a generous concert — over two hours — in honor of reed players who gave their all to their audiences. Future concerts will feature Evan Christopher (September 15) and Vince’s “Mini-Hawks” (October 20). The smaller room at Symphony Space, by the way, has clear sight lines, good acoustics, and it’s a splendid place to hear jazz like this.