By Michael Katz
Trumpeter Randy Brecker led the Jazz Bakery into its final month on Helms Ave. this weekend with a fiery hard bop quintet featuring Bob Sheppard on saxophones, Patrice Rushen on piano, Hamilton Price on bass and backed by superb drummer Gerry Gibbs. The first set Friday night featured a series of creative compositions originating from Ireland to China, all of them showcasing a driving up tempo pace reminiscent of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
The opening “Dirty Dogs”, a blues line, featured the duo of Brecker and Sheppard on tenor sax, with Patrice Rushen contributing a swinging blues progression. Brecker next introduced an Irish theme, wryly titled “O Corko Mio,” written by his wife, Ada Rovatti. Sheppard switched to soprano and Brecker explored the mid-ranges of the trumpet, but the highlight was an epic percussion solo by Gerry Gibbs. Starting with a crisp patter on snare and cymbals, Gibbs shifted to a small xylophone for a few bars, no doubt a nod to his dad Terry, then produced some Bobby McFerrin-like vocal effects before shifting back to the jazz drum set for some lightning fast stick work that wowed the crowd.
Brecker’s version of the trumpet standard “I Can’t Get Started” was a joy. Not one to partake in stagy pyrotechnics, he has a casual demeanor, making it look almost too easy as he glides into flawless cadenzas, reaching into the upper registers for expressiveness, rather than to show off.
The set’s final number was a Patrice Rushen composition, “Shorty’s Porsche,” which featured Bob Sheppard’s sweet tones on tenor and Rushen and bassist Hamilton Price backing each other on their solos.
It’s not exactly a revelation that second sets often provide the evening’s highlight. The band loosens up, feeling out the atmosphere, the music is less structured and freer flowing. Still, it is worth repeating here in LA, where audiences often drift off into the night after one set. The Jazz Bakery, in particular, has had a generous policy of little or no fees for readmission, depending on the size of the crowd, with no drink minimums and a reasonably quick time between sets.
Friday night, those who stuck around were in for a real treat. Brecker opened up with his composition, “There’s a Mingus A Monk-Us” an imagined meeting of Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk, with Patrice Rushen holding down the Monk-like off-beat rhythms on piano and Hamilton Price providing solid backing on bass. “Shaing-High” was a repeat from the first set, which had been played with funky guest artist Janek Gwizdala sitting in on electric bass, but now took on more of a straight ahead feel with Price back on upright.
The evening’s highlight was Brecker’s nod to the late Freddie Hubbard. You could sense this coming all evening, given the hard bop nature of the quintet. Having just performed at a memorial to Hubbard, Brecker’s rendition of the late trumpeter’s standard “Up Jumped Spring” was especially poignant, as was the lovely solo by Patrice Rushen and Bob Sheppard’s run on soprano sax. Sheppard next took the lead on “Body and Soul,” exploring the chordal structures of the song with a soulful late night tenor solo, while Randy Brecker, from the opposite corner of the room, reinforced the melody, the two of them coming together at center stage to bring the anthem home.
The group ended up with a rousing “Some Skunk Funk,” with all the musicians contributing closing solos, highlighted again by the stirring percussion of Gerry Gibbs. Trying to describe Gibbs’ stick work is like parsing a hummingbird. Better to be there, or at another of Gibbs’ many incarnations on the LA scene.
All in all it was a scintillating evening, especially for those who stuck around until the end.