Saturday’s concert by heavyweight jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller and his trio was a triumph, not just for Miller but also for Jos DaCosta’s “Exodus To Jazz” concert series, an impressive success story of arts advocacy. DaCosta, a UR alumnus, started “Exodus To Jazz Productions” in 2004, hoping to bring serious straight-ahead jazz performers to the city.
Lately, Venu Nightclub (in downtown Rochester, on St. Paul Street) has been hosting this Rochester jazz renaissance in a string of Saturday night shows. Venu’s interior, with beautiful lighting and minimal, contemporary dcor, is modeled after various New York City clubs – it’s the ideal space for two hour-long sets by one of the hottest piano trios working today.
I was at the first of these sets, in the front row amidst a diverse crowd of between 50 and 60 patrons. Before the trio went on, DaCosta said a few words of introduction, at one point suggesting that Miller may be “the quintessential jazz pianist today.” DaCosta cited Miller’s free master class at the Eastman Community Music School that had occurred earlier that afternoon. A willingness to teach has become increasingly important to the professional lives of jazz musicians. Miller has embraced this, teaching clinics around the country as he tours with his trio and his acclaimed quintet, Wingspan.
Education was on the back burner, however, when the elegantly-dressed Miller and his rhythm section stepped up to perform. At that point, it was all about gripping showmanship.
The trio masterfully swung into a set of seven well-chosen tunes, including two originals, demonstrating fierce creative energy. The emphasis was not on arrangements but on burning improvisation. From their opening number, the standard “If I Should Lose You,” Miller proved that he really is the “quintessential” jazz pianist on the mainstream scene. Miller’s playing extends largely from a pastiche of material, lovingly copped from the iconic standbys of modern jazz piano: Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, McCoy Tiner. These historical citations, rather than interrupting his expression, simply spurred his restless interplay with the exceptional rhythm section of Ulysses Owens on drums and Ivan Taylor on bass.
Both Owens and Taylor are in their 20’s, studied at the Juliard School of Music and play with panach and maturity that belies their youth. At one point, Miller, an articulate and gentlemanly speaker, indicated the two of them, saying, “In case any of you are wondering where jazz is going?.” He also caused an unintended explosion of hilarity from band and the audience alike when he complemented Ivan by saying that, despite his age, he is “heavily endowed” (with, uh? talent).
Highlights included a touching rendition of the ballad “Skylark,” the funky, Gospel-based original “When I Get There” and a frenetic foray into Thelonious Monk’s obscure gem “Monk’s Dream,” featuring a sprawling bass solo and several choruses of delightful piano-drums trading. The set received a standing ovation and, from the looks of the crowd on my way out, the second set promised to be every bit as packed.
If you missed this excellent gig, there’s hope: Miller returns to Venu on Dec. 8 for a one-on-one piano duel with his old friend and colleague Johnny O’Neill. Ulysses Owens will also be returning to Venu, with a trio featuring famed jazz organist Lonnie Smith and Rochester guitarist Mel Henderson.
Don’t be shy, UR folks, there’s a 50 percent discount on tickets for students who bring along their ID, and even if you’re not 21, you can still hang out and have a great time. Maybe I’ll see you there.
Kloss is a member of the class of 2008.