Alto Madness Summit Reaches Heights of Sophistication


Tia Fuller (left), Sharel Cassity and Lakecia Benjamin took the stage and delivered at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Paul Carr)

Bristling cutting contests are as cherished in jazz as bracing collaborations. When the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival billed its Feb. 19 performance of Lakecia Benjamin, Sharel Cassity and Tia Fuller as “The Alto Madness Summit,” one could possibly imagine a scintillating jousting of virtuosic skills from each saxophonist at the risk of more nuanced communal bond. The concert, which took place on the Ronnie Wells Main Stage inside the Hilton Hotel in Rockville, Maryland (right outside of Washington, D.C.), is named in honor of the 1957 LP Alto Madness, on which Jackie McLean dueled with John Jenkins, and the 1968 LP Alto Summit led by Lee Konitz, Pony Poindexter, Phil Woods and Leo Wright. Both albums suggest friendly-fire showdowns.

During their festival performance, each saxophonist demonstrated lavish pyrotechnics throughout a program of mostly jazz classics. But thankfully, they didn’t engage in the gladiatorial upmanship that oftentimes result in flashy, but ultimately forgettable, all-star sets. Instead, when it came time to trade off on improvisation, they listened keenly to the zipping phrasing of one of another, whether it was designed more with melodic contours or spiky riffs. And once the other saxophonist began, they built upon the sophisticated improvisation of the previous player.

In addition to showing an awareness of each other, the saxophonists interacted with the accompanying rhythm section in quick-witted antiphonic banter. Pianist Allyn Johnson, bassist Amy Shook and drummer Lewis Nash certainly didn’t relegate themselves simply to supporting cast. Collectively and individually, they provided the three altos with aggressive-yet-convivial repartee that elevated the proceedings beyond rote jam sessions.

The concert commenced with a vivacious reading of Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig Of You,” on which Fuller’s hearty tone and fluid passages first stated the joyous melody against the rhythm section’s buoyant accompaniment. Cassity then joined Fuller for a unison reiteration of the melody before Fuller blasted into a writhing improvisation. Her solo set the bar not only for Cassity to deliver an equally fiery essay, but for the entire concert. Before the song ended, Benjamin joined them on stage and waxed a boiling solo, accentuated by dissonant flares and rapid-fire riffs that reminisced old-school saxophonists from the ’60s, who were as versed in barrelhouse blues as they were in hard-bop.

After that dynamic kick-off, which also included burning solos from each member of the rhythm section, the concert paved way for spotlights of each leader per song. Benjamin led with a testifying reading of John Coltrane’s “Liberia” — a nod to her latest album, Pursuance: The Coltranes — this time revealing her affinity for searing long-tone passages and surging multiphonic wails.

Cassity followed with a tribute to one of her mentors, Kenny Garrett, with her original “Kenny’s Quest,” a modal burner that illustrated Coltrane’s influence on Garrett’s compositional ingenuity. Cassity at once danced inside Nash and Shook’s propulsive, airtight rhythm, then she soared majestically above while Johnson anchored the proceedings with thick block-chords worthy of McCoy Tyner.

In concluding this segment of the concert, Fuller paid respect to one of her mentors, Ralph Peterson Jr. with her forceful original, “Breakthrough,” on which she alluded to the late honoree’s knack for delivering thunderous drumming dialogues with sinewy horn solos when she engaged Nash in an explosive duet.

Whereas incendiary uptempo pieces distinguished the first half, the second part allowed the saxophonists to lower the flame on a trio of ballads that once again gave each one the spotlight. Cassity began with a sumptuous reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” that maximized her rhapsodic tone and swaggering phrasing. Fuller masterfully picked up from Cassity’s melodic phrasing to launch into a luxurious reading of Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started.” After Fuller delivered a slowing cadenza, Benjamin took the stage for sensual makeover of Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Easy Living” on which she enlivened the melody with subtle growls and hot-blooded howlers.

The Alto Madness Summit concluded with a frothy treatment of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “My Shining Hour,” on which the three saxophonists tore into the snazzy melody with gleeful aplomb. DB

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