LIVE: Tom Dempsey/Tim Ferguson Quartet @ Athens Cultural Center, 6/2/12

Tom Dempsey and Tim Ferguson
Tom Dempsey and Tim Ferguson

Review and photographs by J Hunter

Sometimes you do get more than you paid for. Tom Dempsey and Tim Ferguson had been set to play as a duo at the latest “Jazz one2one Series” show at Athens Cultural Center – no big whoop, since the guitarist and bassist have been working that format on-and-off for the last 25 years. However, the Greene County Council on the Arts was nice enough to throw a little more money Thom Bellino’s way, so the Planet Arts impresario was able to bring in reedman Joel Frahm and drummer Eliot Zigmund, the other half of Dempsey and Ferguson’s latest disc “Beautiful Friendship.”

Who says government can’t create jobs?

What’s more, the initial shipment of “Friendship” discs had arrived that afternoon (“The ink’s still drying on them,” Bellino told us in his introduction to the pre-show Q&A), so the evening became an impromptu drop party. While Bellino did move some product by the end of the night, the late-arriving crowd came in looking for what one2one shows usually provide: A wide-ranging, informative and (usually) funny discussion of jazz in general and the players’ experience in particular. And the people who made cracks on Dempsey’s Facebook page about the remoteness of the gig (“The L Train doesn’t go up there,” one wag typed) missed out big time!

The quartet’s experience goes back farther than Dempsey and Ferguson’s first ventures as a performing unit: Dempsey met Zigmund at New Jersey’s William Paterson University, where Zigmund was on the faculty at the time; at the same time, both Dempsey and Frahm were enrolled down the Jersey Turnpike at Rutgers. It was Six Degrees of Separation applied to jazz: “I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy… oh, you know that guy?” This led to a discussion on jazz education, which Zigmund was less than fulsome about.

“Jazz education is a double-edged sword,” Zigmund told us, explaining that it has replaced the hands-on experience musicians used to get playing in touring bands. “Jazz is at its best, for me, when it’s street music.” Frahm agreed, saying how lucky he was to be able to hone his chops while working for Maynard Ferguson and Betty Carter.

Both Zigmund and Frahm despaired that, while jazz education turns out some monstrous young players, the lack of places to play mean there are no jobs for those players. “There are great players all over the world now,” Zigmund explained. “So it’s rare for a whole band to tour Europe.” Frahm’s wish is that young
players “go beyond their own web sites,” get together, and create their own scene – something I’m happy to say I’ve witnessed in Greater Nippertown over the last seven years.

All four players admitted that with the dearth of clubs and tours to play, it comes down to finding alternative venues to play, such as house concerts. “Committed musicians will always find a way to present themselves,” Zigmund asserted.

“I’ve separated my economic aspirations from my musical aspirations,” Frahm went on. “So it’s by hook or by crook. We make it happen however we make it happen.” He laughed and gave us his favorite quote on this subject from none other than the legendary Wayne Shorter: “If you’re going to go down with the ship, make it a submarine!”

While all four players have worked with each other in various combinations since college, “Beautiful Friendship” marks the first time they’ve performed as a unit. And while Dempsey and Ferguson are more than comfortable playing duo, there are definite drawbacks, as the pair discovered when they recorded their first duo date and found the editing and mixing was a lot harder than the actual recording. “What you don’t get in a duo that you get from a larger band are places to hide,” Dempsey freely admitted. “In a duo recording, you’re completely exposed.”

Ferguson added that a larger group does offer more colors to work with. “When the time changes with a drummer like Eliot, and the melody changes with a player like Joel… it’s magic!”

And then we got to see that magic.

They opened the musical portion of the program the same way they open “Friendship”: With a swirling take on Randy Weston’s “Little Niles.” Ferguson laid down the opening figure, which Zigmund began to embroider almost immediately, and then Dempsey and Frahm launched the melody, commuting from unison to harmony and back again at the drop of a hat. From there, Frahm took hold of the piece while Dempsey comped expertly. Ferguson literally bobbed and weaved as he laid down his fat, dancing foundation; contrariwise, only Zigmund’s hands seemed to move as he sat behind his kit, eyes closed, watching the music unfold inside his eyelids.

Anybody who saw Frahm’s past Nippertown appearances backing Samuel Torres and Linda Oh are familiar with the rich, glowing tone that flows out of Frahm’s tenor sax. His solos are also the opposite of the kind of jazz both he and Ferguson dissed as “too clever by half” during the Q&A. That doesn’t mean Frahm’s lines are lead-pencil simple – far from it. Instead, he draws you into his space with warm, welcoming progressions that grow in complexity but don’t leave you behind or (even worse) beat you about the head and shoulders with how marvelously byzantine they are. He smoked us into a smiling daze on Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York,” but when he pushed the outside of the envelope on “It’s True” (the group’s busting work-up of the changes on “There is No Greater Love”) and Thad Jones’ “50-21,” you saw where Frahm was going because he’d brought you with him every step of the way.

This makes two straight one2one shows where we got to see how hollow-body guitar should be played – first with Joe Finn, and now with Dempsey, whose chords tell just as detailed a story as his progressions. It’s clean, it’s sharp, and it makes you want to outlaw effects boxes that do anything other than pump up the volume. Dempsey’s work on “Autumn” and the Donald Kahn/Stanley Styne tune that is the title track of “Friendship” was straight out of the Old School that graduated Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino, and he applied that same galvanizing style to his originals “Focus Pocus” and “Ted’s Groove” – the latter tune written for the late jazz guitarist Ted Dunbar.

While Dempsey and Frahm were rocking the melodies, Ferguson and Zigmund were building a floor as ornate as some of the 19th-century decorative items on display in ACC’s main gallery. Ferguson has an undeniable energy that propels him in solo and support, and showed a peerless sense of lyric during solos on “50” and “Autumn.” Zigmund’s resume includes a stint with a semi-important pianist named Bill Evans, so you expected him to keep it elegant, which he surely did. But when he got to go big, as he did during trade-offs with the front line on “Niles,” he was more than up to the challenge, and his Second Line rhythm on Ferguson’s glorious “Cakewalk” was – like the piece itself – just too much fun!

“Beautiful Friendship” offers bright trad jazz that’s tight as a drum and full of the life that too many people think has vanished from the genre. That said, it was a real treat to see this music unfold before us in an intimate setting like ACC, and the conversation that preceded it will make the space between now and one2one’s reappearance in the fall seem like a long, long time.

Rudy Lu’s photographs @ Albany Jazz

Eliot Zigmund and Joel Frahm
Eliot Zigmund and Joel Frahm

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