Artists Spanning Generations Infuse BRIC JazzFest with Soul

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Steve Cardenas (left), Jeremy Pelt, Allison Miller and Ben Allison (the group’s leader) perform at the BRIC JazzFest in Brooklyn on Oct. 13.

(Photo: Courtesy BRIC JazzFest)

By this time, 25 minutes had passed, so I moved to the Studio to hear 21-year-old pianist James Francies—a recent New York arrival from Houston and new signee to Blue Note—helming a quartet comprising guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Jeremy Dutton, a fellow Houstonian.

I entered the room as Francies was uncorking long, cascading chromatic runs with well-calibrated touch on his original tune “Leaps,” so titled, he said later, “for the jumps in the song.”

The next selection, “Reciprocal,” began with a “free” passage on which all four members explored disparate motifs around a tonal center before coalescing. Francies displayed his classical roots as he began his journey, juxtaposing rubato passages with fleet, crisply executed lines; Dutton’s ametric painting evoked Roy Haynes’ rhythm-stacking on Andrew Hill’s mid-’60s albums.

Francies’ orchestral chops were displayed on a formidable unaccompanied opening statement on “Sway,” which included some spikily comping as first Moreno then Williams soloed. Francies brought the church into his contemplative second solo with interplay between his hands. He unleashed another chromatic whirlwind on “Fall For It,” following a solo by guest flutist Elena Pinderhughes.

If you want to chase down Francies’ refracted influences, Aaron Parks and Robert Glasper are good places to start, as are Hill and Monk, but Francies already has a personal sound, and it will be a pleasure to observe him as he evolves.

Back at the Stoop, soulful, erudite Argentine vocalist Sofia Rei—who also plays the Bolivian charango and incorporates real-time electronics and sampling to elucidate the flow of her narrative—performed two stirring, well-wrought pieces with a well-blended Pan-American oriented sextet (American trumpeter Josh Deutsch; French-Guadeloupian electric guitarist J.C. Maillard, American Afro-Peruvian guitarist Eric Kurimski, Argentine bassist Jorge Roeder and virtuoso Argentine drummer Franco Pinna, whose setup includes a host of South American folkloric percussion).

Problems with feedback in the mix disrupted the third tune, which I took as a sign to move to the Studio to hear Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa, who focused on songs from his new album, El Viaje (Mack Avenue), with Senegalese bassist Alune Wade and drummer Ruy Adrián López-Nussa, his brother.

Jazz pianists do not emerge from Cuba without possessing abundant technique, and López-Nussa has it to burn, as he showed on the opening selection, a gentle son on which he followed a falsetto vocal by Wade with a florid solo replete with percolating montunos, ample counterpoint, and percussive Don Pullen-style clusters. His avuncular commentary between songs was of a piece with his crowd-pleasing playing.

Back in the Ballroom, vocalist José James, another Blue Note artist (Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday is his most recent album), shed crooner trappings in a stirring, thought-provoking duo performance with drummer Nate Smith that included a number of electronics-enhaced original songs.

His hair teased out, wearing black shades, a black zip-top with crocheted sleeves, black jeans and black lace-ups, James—a 38-year-old Minneapolis native who spends significant time in Brooklyn—seemed to have Prince and social justice on his mind.

On one track, he emulated beatboxing, growling the beats with spot-on pitch and pinpoint phrasing. On another, he delivered a raw, skillfully rhymed lyric that addressed homelessness, poverty and police violence, to which Smith responded with a long, structurally cohesive, polyrhythmic solo.

Elsewhere, James brought McFerrin on stage to create vocal drumbeats against a loop that began with “cops put a hurtin’ on your ass … get outta the street and into the car.” As the set wound down, James moved back into soulful mode—“for the ladies,” he proclaimed—but fans of both genders could appreciate his velvety, flexible voice.

In the Studio, 27-year-old Nashville native Kandace Springs, herself a Blue Note artist and one of Prince’s last protégés, sang Jesse Harris’ “Talk To Me” and Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” (both of which appear on her June release Soul Eyes) and Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude.”

Springs is a polished performer—she showcased considerable pianistic skills on Oscar Peterson’s “Chicago Blues”—and can already claim a personal niche for her well-calibrated delivery. I was particularly taken with the depth of her sound, enviable range, textured intonation, performative savoir faire and old-soul sensibility—all of which allowed her to place her virtuoso skill sets at the service of the song in question.

After a musical banquet devoted to such appealing young talent, hearing old master Eddie Palmieri with his Afro-Caribbean Sextet (Louis Fouche, alto saxophone; Jonathan Powell, trumpet; Luques Curtis, bass; Camilo Molina, timbales; Nicky Marrero, bongos and timbal; Little Johnny Rivero, congas) was equivalent to an after-meal snifter of well-tempered 30-year-old single malt.

Now pushing 80, Palmieri’s tonal personality has grown increasingly ruminative, and on a long unaccompanied homage to his late wife, he took full advantage of a well-tuned acoustic piano to linger on nuances of overtones and timbre.

But it’s also true that, in Palmieri’s hands, the piano can become a dynamic percussion instrument, as was evident in a succession of dialogues with Curtis, who, as Palmieri humorously pointed out, anticipated the maestro’s every move, executing complementary responses with a huge tone and horn-like phrasing, while remaining in sync to the locked-in drummers with a mighty tumbao.

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