LIVE: “Jazz Mentors and New Voices” @ Athens Cultural Center, 5/5/12

Adam Siegel, Mike Lawrence and Rhys Tivey
Adam Siegel, Mike Lawrence and Rhys Tivey (photo by J Hunter)

Review and photographs by J Hunter
Additional photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

I’m in lock-step with Planet Arts svengali Thom Bellino when he says “(This) has always been a good area for jazz, but right now I think it’s terrific!” It’s not just that major musicians have come out of upstate New York, while others now call it home; it’s because the cadre of Greater Nippertown jazzers that have maintained the fire for decades is being augmented by a stream of young players that now make “young lions” like Brian Patneaude and Keith Pray seem like seasoned pros (which they are). Bellino pulled together both sides of this happy situation to begin the latest edition of PlanetArts’ “one2one” concert/discussion series.

The theme for the night was “Jazz Mentors and New Voices”, and the SRO crowd stuffed into the Athens Cultural Center’s main gallery had fine examples of both: On the Mentor side, Bellino and Michael Benedict have been working together for the last two years (most recently on the drummer/educator’s latest Bopitude disc “Five and One”), while Joe Finn’s been working his own side of the street for quite some time, giving us hollowbody guitar goodness through his own band and recording String Theory. As for New Voices, altoist Adam Siegel has been dive-bombing this area for over a year – primarily with various iterations of Joe Barna’s Sketches of Influence – while trumpeter Rhys Tivey is a former student of Benedict’s who will soon be graduating from NYU. Mike Lawrence has a foot in both categories: A great young bassist who’s played with Bopitude and Yuko Kishimoto, Lawrence is an educator at Schenectady High School.

The coolest thing about the one2one series is that the pre-show Q&A sessions are as good as the shows that follow. You get a real sense of the mindset and the history that goes into the music and the musicians, which helps both the veteran listener and the curious newcomer find a deeper understanding of what’s happening in front of them. You also get some insight into the relationships between the musicians, and when it comes to the relationship between teacher and student, that doesn’t really change with time and age.

“Rhys is one of the best students I ever had,” Benedict told us at one point, smiling warmly. “It’s so rewarding to see what he’s done.”

When it became Tivey’s turn to speak, he began, “Mike was a great teacher…”

Benedict turned towards Tivey. “Mike?” He was still smiling, but his tone clearly had one raised eyebrow.

Tivey closed his eyes, probably so we couldn’t see him roll them. “Mister Benedict.” That got a big laugh, and then Tivey got a bigger laugh when he added, “Professor Benedict!”

We were having fun, but the overall conversation was pretty serious, as it not only dealt with both sides of the teaching experience, but the role of music education in general. Despite the mental dexterity that comes from exposure to the arts, they’ve always taken it in the neck whenever budgets cuts are demanded, and both Benedict and Lawrence have been on the business end of this unfortunate situation. One audience member asked if the Internet was of any help. “It’s a great tool,” Lawrence answered. “If I want a big band to hear a tune, you just pull it up on YouTube and there’s 50 versions of the same tune. ‘Here’s Charlie Parker’s version. Here’s Miles Davis’ version…'”

Benedict wasn’t as fulsome about the ‘net, as he explained while telling us about students he met on a recent trip to Tunisia with Bellino. Prior to their work with Benedict, the only lessons some of those students had experienced came from the Web. “You can get guitar lessons on the Internet,” Benedict told us. “You can get drum lessons. You can get piano lessons. But who’s teaching those lessons?” Translation: The quality of the lesson depends on what link you click on, and that’s a crapshoot.

One thing everyone on the dais agreed on is that the lessons don’t stop at the classroom door. “The education never ends,” Lawrence asserted. “It just goes on.”

While Siegel lauded Mike Richman’s work at Albany High School, Siegel added, “My friends were also pretty great teachers.” When asked about how he improved his ability to improvise, “Siegel immediately answered, “Listening to people who are better than me do it.”

That comment echoed an earlier one made by Tivey: “It’s better to have teachers by example.”

Eventually, we got to see how well these players had learned their lessons during a burning-hot set that mixed standards with new compositions by Siegel and Tivey. Although this band had never played together before this evening, they hit the opener – Kenny Dorham’s “Lotus Blossom” – like it had stolen something. Benedict’s drums shook the ACC’s weathered wood floor, but he also painted brilliant brushwork on Siegel’s bluesy waltz “Winter in Cuba.” Tivey may not be out of school yet, but he’s got poise beyond his years, as well as the sense of structure that a great set of chops needs to bring a solo home.

Speaking of chops, that list of people “better than him” that Siegel listens to must include Eric Dolphy, because Siegel served up a ton of Dolphy-like controlled chaos on Clifford Jordan’s “Down Through the Years” and Clifford Jordan’s “Bluesies.” Although he contributed clear, bright light throughout the night, it was on the latter tune where Finn really tore it up, inundating us with the kind of lines I can listen to for hours. Along with his usual stellar foundation work, Lawrence’s solo on “Cuba” had a lot to say, and he helped maintain the uneasy sense that ran through Tivey’s anti-ballad “Sunflower Eyes.” It all ended with “Minor’s Holiday”, another hot Kenny Dorham tune that made a great bookend to an evening that was interesting and entertaining before anyone played a note.

Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz

The Michael Benedict Quintet
The Michael Benedict Quintet
Adam Siegel and Rhys Tivey
Adam Siegel and Rhys Tivey
Michael Benedict (photo by J Hunter)
Michael Benedict (photo by J Hunter)

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