During this baseball season, it’s a treat to sit in the crowded wooden bleacher seats of Fenway Park in Boston under a dome of big sky dreaming of catching a home run ball (or a bag of Fenway peanuts). Traveling a mile or so from Fenway, another buzzing capacity crowd gathered on May 6 in more elegant wooden pews and benches, under the beautiful domed ceiling of the historic Sanders Theatre at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The occasion: a soaring performance by Aziza, one of today’s most propulsive jazz partnerships.
Aziza is the creative synthesis of Dave Holland on bass, Chris Potter on saxophones, Lionel Loueke on guitars and Eric Harland on drums. The group last made their appearance in this region at the 2016 Newport Jazz Festival, where they performed an exuberant Sunday afternoon set.
Before commencing their concert (sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston), Holland announced that the foursome had not played together for some time, but that they were primed to “just jump in.” He said the group would play an uninterrupted set of member’s original compositions taken from their self-titled debut recording (released on Holland’s Dare2Records in 2016). He then coupled his bass with Loueke’s electric guitar to ignite the grooving “Aziza’s Dance.”
Taking the first solo, Loueke sounded more like a soulful blues organist than a guitarist. He spun out angular, electronic-shaded notes contrasted with rapid-fire strums (bending his knees in emphasis) as he drove home with intensity his funky, sharp-splintered attack.
Holland followed with a bass solo that rang with clarity, expressiveness and melodic invention. His bass resonated with funky bravado, combining slippery slides, bluesy holds and nimble caresses. Potter then took his turn in a brawny tenor solo in which he broke up the melodic line into shards of one-note punctuations. He started his funky journey down low and then meandered his way through his muscular register to a crescendo capped by high squeals.
This funk fest concluded with a solo from Harland, who displayed his resemblance to the great hitters of baseball lore: uncoiling in a slow-motion attack that effortlessly unleashed powerful cracks from his isolated snare and kick-drum. His churning solo moved with slowly evolving tension, all silvery lightness combined with elemental funk and rock beats.
The frisky creativity continued on Holland’s “Walkin’ The Walk,” highlighted by the bassist’s opening solo, in which he tossed perfunctory pauses, slurry slides and harmonic touches into the mix. With Loueke strolling on his wah-wah pedal for elastic undercurrent, Potter delivered a tenor solo marked by an ardent tone and meter shifts that slithered around Loueke and Holland’s web of bluesy, slow-brewing colors.
Potter’s dexterity in going from muscular glow to nimble dance on his horns was illustrated when he took up his soprano sax to take flight on another Holland original, “Finding The Light,” with his soprano scampering in incisively flexible and reedy tones. Midway through this piece, Potter switched again to his tenor to engage with Harland in a kinetic duet that combined Harland’s earthy ricochets with Potter’s jittery bursts of high notes and explosive honks.
Following this intense display, Loueke and Holland partnered in a lilting, peaceful moment, with Loueke singing in soft Yoruba-inspired phrases strums and Holland adding soft touches. This reflective calm evolved into Loueke’s buoyant “Sleepless Nights,” which crackled with the guitarist’s dynamic percussive effects, which effectively transformed his guitar into the sounds of an African talking drum. He then unleashed a flurry of Hendrix-inspired rifts in full rock glory that had everyone nodding in approval.
Harland followed Loueke’s volcanic concoction with a bone-rattling solo of his own, echoing his partner’s phrases with a slow-crawling snare pattern that erupted into a bolt of fluid fury.
After an ecstatic ovation, the band returned for an encore of Potter’s “Summer 15,” a buoyant piece that rode the slipstream of Holland’s Calypso riff and Harland’s wood rim snaps. Potter and Loueke joined the party, swinging with radiant twists of the melody in their spindly attacks and dashes of electronic color.
At the show’s conclusion, these consummate musicians gathered in a circle with smiles all around, clearly relishing the ebullient grooves that they had created in this, their most recent collective cavort. DB