LIVE: Sylvia Cuenca Quintet @ Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College

“They said I could bring any band I wanted,” drummer Sylvia Cuenca told us, grinning happily as she looked at her band mates – guitarist Paul Bollenback, keyboardist Jared Gold, tenorman Ralph Bowen, and trumpeter Freddie Hendrix. “These are the guys I wanted.”

Photo by Rudy Lu

Cuenca has gigged with Bollenback and Gold on multiple occasions, and Gold told me she brings in the two horns whenever she can, so familiarity was definitely a factor in Cuenca’s personnel choice. The bottom line, though, is that the Sylvia Cuenca Quintet provides something (to both its members and its audience) that’s pretty thin on the ground in jazz these days: FUN! Not only did that make for a great time for the almost-full house at Zankel Music Center’s Ladd Concert Hall, but it also showed the Skidmore Jazz Institute students in attendance that this music can – and should – go beyond the purely technical.

Cuenca’s opening drum figure on Donald Brown’s “Theme for Malcolm” had Latin jazz at its base, but then Gold’s Hammond B3 took the tune somewhere else entirely. His organ pulsed like a sore tooth while Cuenca filled around Bowen, who was already blowing up a gale. Bowen’s “hip professor” look made an interesting visual pairing with Hendrix, who wore a blue dress shirt and two pieces of a grey checked three-piece suit; combined with the shiny trumpet Hendrix held in his right hand, the overall effect was, “Daddy’s home, and he’s ready to play!” And Hendrix was, blasting big bold lines directly at the lucky souls sitting in the Ladd’s elevated back row. Hendrix sent the tune’s closing note up into the rafters, which must have shaken from the onslaught.

Photo by Rudy Lu

After a swirling take on George & Ira Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, Cuenca introduced the first of several Jared Gold compositions we’d hear over the course of the evening: “Fantified”, Gold’s fast-paced tribute to the Fanta soft-drink brand, was definitely written by someone in the throes of a sugar rush. Gold’s made a name for himself providing hot organ to leaders like Cuenca and guitarist Dave Stryker, but Gold’s also a prolific composer with solid CDs on the Positone label. His blues-tinged “Splat” made a great contrast to the meditative “Textures”, and Jared’s closer “Times Are Hard on The Boulevard” took us down a side street where hard knocks are always the catch of the day.

Hendrix is another well-known sideman, working with everyone from Christian McBride to Giacomo Gates; however, he’s only got one disc as a leader (the Sunnyside release Jersey Cat), and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Hendrix is one of the most powerful, most soulful trumpeters on today’s menu, a true successor to the late-and-legendary Freddie Hubbard, and Hendrix showed the horn players among the Institute students how it’s meant to be done. While he displayed his muscle-car power and savory chops throughout the night, his best moment was a tender flugelhorn take on Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes.”

Photo by Rudy Lu

While Bowen does bring bands to Smalls Jazz Club in NYC, he tends to stay inside jazz academia when he’s not making his own discs for Positone, so a chance to see him play live was a big treat, and a big surprise. It’s not that he did anything I didn’t expect: Bowen was every bit the beast I’ve come to know and love, particularly on “Necessarily” and “Prozeca.” That said, what surprised me was how Bowen could stand so stock-still while sending endlessly exciting solos cascading out into the Ladd. The closest parallel my seatmate could think of was Sheila Jordan, who creates some of the most beautiful vocals on earth while remaining utterly motionless.

Cuenca, Gold, and Bollenback unquestionably take the organ-trio concept to the next level, and a lot of the credit goes to Bollenback’s singular approach. Put simply, the Illinois native is about as far from “standard” guitarists like Stryker and Ed Cherry as Skidmore is from Saturn. You can put it down to Bollenback’s love of quartal harmony, or his love for Miles Davis. Either way, Bollenback’s lines on “Textures” sounded like they were being broadcast from the International Space Station, and all his solos were some of the most aggressive attacks I’ve seen at the Institute’s annual concert series. This was the first time I’d seen Bollenback play live, and I want more where this came from!

Photo by Rudy Lu

I’m glad I attended Skidmore Jazz’ Participant concert on July 5th, because there were quite a few students that gave me hope for this music’s future. But I’m also glad these students saw the Sylvia Cuenca Quintet in action, because – aside from witnessing tremendous music played by truly stellar musicians – they literally got a front-row taste of the levels they’ll need to reach in order to go beyond this stage.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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