Review: Engaging quartet brings black music to life
"Black History Month Tribute to the Pianist-Composers" was the theme of the Rochester Chamber Music Society's charming concert this past Saturday night.
With a clever program, chronologically arranged, the society brought in jazz pianist Mary Marshall to play alongside different groupings of local favorites Robert S. P. Gardner (bass), Terry Gresser (drums) and Richard Rohrbaugh (sax). What cannot be conveyed on paper, however, was the delightful chemistry between them.
From Wallace Willis's "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" (1840) to James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout" (1921) to Benny Moten's eponymous "Swing" (1932), we moved from spiritual to ragtime to early jazz. We then interluded with four mid-century pieces by Thelonious Monk (1941-1952) and concluded with five works spanning 1954-1976. This was a wonderful way to hear a progression of sorts in the musical genre created by African-Americans, and a fine homage to Black History Month.
Once again, the superb musicians made Christ United Methodist Church feel like an intimate jazz club. Their endearing interactions with each other, and with the audience, are what made this concert groove — Gardner's deadpan humor, Gresser's gum-chewing, Rohrbaugh's nonchalant entrances and exits.
The linchpin was Marshall, whose humorous challenges keeping her music on her piano and right-side up, and whose bright and gracious turns toward the audience, were the final cause for adoration. Many in attendance nodded their heads to the beat. The palpable joy in music-making radiated to the audience, which rewarded this evening with two rowdy ovations.
Musically, I was drawn in by Marshall's seductive style — never overdramatic, measured, the fire smoldering just beneath the surface. "Understated" is the word that comes to mind. My favorite piece was Mary Lou Williams's 1974 "Syl-O-Gism." I loved how Gardner and Gresser playfully anticipated the beats in almost courtship-like fashion. But stylized it was not. This was expert music-making at its finest.