Concert Review: Jamie Baum Septet + @ Senate Garage, Kingston, 03/10/23

Like the kids say, it had “been a minute” since I’d been down to Senate Garage for some Jazzstock. (In fact, it had been a minute since I’d been ANYWHERE musical, but that’s another story.) It was March 7th, 2020, and Joe Lovano & Friends was about to flip all our wigs with “an Evening of Expressive Music.” On the way down the Thruway, I’d heard that then-Governor Cuomo had just declared a state of emergency related to a downstate outbreak of something called COVID-19. Frank Kimbrough played piano that night; he would be gone by the end of the year, though not from COVID.

Photo by Rudy Lu

So yeah, last Friday night was special even before you consider who was playing: The Jamie Baum Septet +, and the “Plus” doesn’t just have to do with Baum’s instrumental configuration. Anyone who’s heard Baum’s singular recordings – and/or had seen the group blow away Lake George Jazz Weekend a few years back – knows that the diminutive flutist makes music that crosses all borders and boundaries. When it comes to “standard jazz,” Baum’s voluminous catalog is a dodecahedron peg that eschews ALL holes, not just the round ones.

The motivation for the program of all-new compositions had an origin as unique as Baum’s music: During Lockdown, a home-bound Baum discovered a feature on iconic newsman Bill Moyers’ website called “A Poet A Day.” It’s just what it sounds like: Moyers focuses on the works of one poet through readings and interviews, and the daily feature inspired Baum to create a platform for the words & ideas the poets put forth.

Baum practically glowed as she regaled us with the beauty & intelligence she found in Moyers’ videos, and how they compelled her to take pen in hand. This marks Baum’s first dive into music with vocals, so she brought in Sara Serpa for the occasion. It was one of several changes Baum had to make to a large group that had stayed together for over a decade. Still, by the middle of the airy opening number “To Be Of Use,” Baum’s augmented septet was broadcasting waves of intricate sounds as if everything had remained the same.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Baum read Marge Piercy’s original poem while pianist Nitzan Gavrieli chorded softly underneath. Then Gavrieli started the painstaking process of building the piece’s foundation with help from bassist Ricky Rodriguez and drummer Jeff Hirschfeld. Guitarist Brad Shepik added more chords and harmony, and then the rest of the group jumped in the pool, pouring more layers on top of the ones the rhythm section set down. The result was a multifaceted piece filled with the energy Baum took from Piercy’s evocative source material.

It went like that for almost seventy-five minutes as Baum and her partners brought light & heat to more works by Piercy, Tracy K. Smith and Adrian Rich, always linking to the central message of each piece. It must be incredibly freeing to write for a band that can literally make any sound or style they want appear like magic, and with a front line like Baum, French horn player Chris Komer, multi-instrumentalist Sam Sadigursky, and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, all the colors of the musical rainbow were readily available, and we saw all of them over the course of the night.

Finlayson may have had the hardest job as he was replacing Jason Palmer, who is deserving of Rising Star status. Even so, Finlayson knocked it out of the park with his clear, purposeful lines, and he gave a great in-piece reading of Smith’s poem “An Old Story.” Calling Serpa a singer is like calling Bjork “quirky.” Serpa’s piping, minimalist approach had bewitched me when she’d appeared with Linda May Han Oh at NYC’s Jazz Gallery, and it was a perfect addition to compositions that put classical concepts and jazz precepts in a blender and hit “Puree.” Unfortunately, her lyrics occasionally got lost in the massive sauce Shepik and the front line was serving, but her overall tone never waned, making it seem like there were dual flutes out front. No doubt the issue will be worked out by the time Baum takes the group into the studio in April.

Photo by Rudy Lu

At the start of the show, Baum admitted that, occasionally, she’s thought about going with a smaller outfit – “Maybe doing a trio album,” she smiled. But, at the end, she always returns to the small army she’s commanded brilliantly for many years. As a sometimes-strident advocate for change, I’ll admit right here that (at least in this case) it’s okay to stay in your own bag. Jamie Baum’s bag is full to the brim with brilliant tricks, as we’ll all hear when the disc is finally released.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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