By my count, last night’s performance by the Resonance Jazz Ensemble in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church was their fourth; and, given how rare staying power seems to be in our digital world in which technological connections seems to make us more physically disconnected, it was a pleasure to see that the personnel in the group had not changed. This is particularly important since the constitution of that group is rather unique.
One might say that it has been built around a relatively conventional core. Georgianna Krieger is there on the front line with saxophones of all sizes, playing with a rhythm section of Ted Burik on bass, Greg German on drums, and Stephen McQuarry, the group’s leader on piano. She is then joined by Laura Austin Wiley on flute. At last summer’s concert Wiley also sang, but last night she only played flute. However, what makes the group most interesting is the augmentation of these relatively traditional resources with a string trio consisting on Michèle Walther on violin, Michelle Mastin on viola, and Nancy Bien on cello.
Last night’s concert was entitled Tempos of Summer, which complemented last year’s Summer Heat title. However, more interesting than any reference to the weather (far more unusual than it was last summer) was the framing of the entire program to honor John Coltrane. It began with “Acknowledgement,” the first movement from Coltrane’s groundbreaking suite A Love Supreme, and closed affectionately with “Song of John,” written by Stanley Clarke after Coltrane’s death and dedicated to his memory.
Both of these pieces were performed last summer, but the framework was different. At that time I suggested that it amounted to a survey of “how jazz began to find new paths during the Forties and kept forging ahead for the rest of the century.” Last night’s program, on the other hand, was more in the spirit of “yesterday and today.” Four of the players contributed works of their own composition. This included not only leader McQuarry (“The Journey of Each Other”) but also Krieger (“Empty Rockets”), Wiley (“Contingency Plans”), and Walther (“Valentine Waltz”). The other “yesterday” composers were Fats Waller (“Jitterbug Waltz”), Dave Brubeck (“Blue Rondo à la Turk”), and Joaquín Rodrigo, through Chick Corea’s “Spain,” which is basically an extended fantasia on the second movement of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.”
All this made for an evening of highly satisfying composition work. Performances, on the other hand, were a little less even. Krieger was most impressive in her soprano saxophone work, which she seemed to prefer for the majority of the selections. She plays it with particularly mellow sonorities, all of which are cleanly articulated, no mean feat since the instrument is probably the most obstreperous of the saxophone family. Her baritone work was less convincing, but the instrument itself was not the best for the wide intervallic leaps of “Jitterbug Waltz.”
Playing only on a single instrument, Walther was just as impressive. Her sounds were amplified, which allowed her a bit more flexibility in dynamic range without being overwhelmed by the rest of the group. Most impressive, however, was her capacity for improvisation, exploring the inventive potential of just about every selection she played. Equally striking was how much of her solo in “The Journey of Each Other” was played only on the G string, whose dark sonorities seemed particularly suited to what seemed to be the Asian connotations of the music.
More disappointing were the lower strings, meaning that the string trio never really sounded like a string trio. Bien had one particularly rich solo at the beginning of “Song for John,” which was definitely a high point of the evening. However, for the rest of the concert both she and Mastin sounded under-amplified compared with the rest of the group; and the few solo turns that Mastin took were barely audible. On the “jazz side” Burik was always audible, sometimes (as when his sense of pitch was not necessarily as solid as it should be) a bit too much so.
On the whole this is a group that has its ups and downs, but there is so much satisfying about so many of the ups that one is willing to overlook at least some of those downs.