Tuesday, October 30, Seattle Jazz Scene, Seattle Drum School
By Cynthia Mullis

Byron Vannoy’s Meridian
Byron Vannoy (drums), Chris Symer (electric bass), Kacey Evans (piano), Chris Spencer (guitar), Eric Barber (saxophone)

This night during the third week of the Seattle Jazz Showcase was a concert of serious listening. The Seattle jazz brain trust was well represented in the audience and on stage. It was a night of deep thinkers, forward reachers and a departure from the well-trod path of standard repertoire and time feels.

The first band of the evening was drummer Byron Vannoy’s new group Meridian. This group has only been in the works for a few months and originated from Vannoy’s desire to play and record a collection of his compositions. All of the tunes in this set were composed by the drummer and he took on a subtle but clear leadership role in steering the group. The band had a definite electric bent and apparently this direction developed less intentionally than by circumstance. The musicians all brought a jazz sensibility to the ensemble but were able to “rock out” when necessary. As this was only their second performance as a band, there was a bit of the feeling that it wasn’t completely cooked—it still felt like individual players grouped together to play the compositions but I can see where it will coalesce over time.

The compositions were interesting, challenging and still entertaining. I enjoy hearing jazz on the electric side of the spectrum and I especially enjoy bands that use electric bass, which Chris Symer played on this gig. His bass concept transferred nicely to the horizontal orientation of electric bass and he sounded like someone who enjoys the instrument rather than someone who is making a compromise. I noticed some interesting unison lines between bass, guitar and Kacey Evans’ electric keyboard. Chris Spencer had some nice guitar solos that reminded me a little of Walter Becker, which complemented the subtle Steely Dan influence that I detected. To my ears, the group leaned more in the direction of the restrained, structured Yellowjackets/Steely Dan fusion than to the wilder freeform sounds of Miles’ electric bands. The wild card for me was Eric Barber on tenor sax, who never lost his unique style in the process—I was relieved to hear hard blowing, modern tenor sax playing that didn’t become mired in poor man’s “Breckerisms” that usually accompany this style of music. Unfortunately though, his sax sound got a little lost in the all of the amplification.

Tunes that I caught the names of included: Mejototo which was recorded on Julian Priester’s In Deep End Dance which began with a section of improvised bass detuning and moved into a very sweet groove; Valid Alibi started with a drum solo and went from there; The last tune of the set was a composition in seven entitled Expedition and set the odd-metered stage for the second group of the night. All in all, the music was fresh and creative and the playing very musical and accomplished. I’m sure that given a little more time to settle in, that the whole will become greater than the sum of the parts very quickly.

Ziggurat Quartet
Eric Barber (saxophone), Bill Anschell (piano), Doug Miller (bass), Byron Vannoy (drums)

The second band to perform on this Tuesday concert during the third week of the Seattle Jazz Showcase was the Ziggurat Quartet. This band is a meeting of equal minds in the loftiest of musical territory. The group played complex original compositions that were steeped in jazz, blues, East Indian music, chamber music, and rhythmic experimentation. Each member of the quartet brought their broad musical outlook and accomplished musicianship to the table for a musical mix that was actually greater than the sum of its substantial parts.

The sound of the group reminded me of a series of Black Saint label recordings that I had the opportunity to absorb several years ago and this group would be right at home in the Black Saint roster. While intellectual in its approach, the group was earthy and captivating—as an audience member, I was never left out of the proceedings as I am with some groups that are pushing the boundaries. The group had the mature, well-defined approach that four excellent musicians with strong opinions about music can create when they get the chance. The resulting music was thoughtful, experimental, and original without becoming mired in the “fad du jour” of the avant-garde.

I’m not sure if the group has a leader or if it is an equal collaboration but individually each musician is exceptional. Doug Miller is equally comfortable plying his earthy bass grooves in 4/4 as in some other mathematically mutated odd-meter. Byron Vannoy’s drumming was more subdued than with his own group earlier in the evening—he had a strong rhythmic presence but he did not distract attention from the ensemble effort. Bill Anschell held down the harmonic fort and straddled the line between notey, virtuostic lines and Bill Evans-like contemplation. I thoroughly enjoyed Eric Barber’s saxophone playing: he has a clean, classical technique, a dynamic, centered, expressive sound and he explored a range of extended sax techniques that reminded me of the modern classical saxophone repertoire. In addition to this, his lines consisted of long intricate patterns that avoided the slew of modern jazz saxophone clichés.

The closest to a 4/4 swing tune the band came was “10 to Five,” a blues in five by Anschell, based on a complex Indian mathematical rhythmic series that still maintained a serious swing. This was followed by Barber’s “Sezmora” which explored different modes and key shifts, also in an odd meter (I stopped trying to figure out the time signatures and just enjoyed the grooves). Anschell’s tune “Prizmic” was followed by another Barber tune entitled “Flattering Misconceptions,” which he explained was about being praised and pigeonholed at the same time. The set finished out with two tunes by Doug Miller, another blues in five entitled “The Jordy Strut” and then “Vindaloo,” which kept things in the mode of exploring East Indian tonalities and rhythms. It is interesting to me that a group that is exploring a world music tradition did not play anything from the Afro-Cuban, Brazilian or African side of things—not a complaint, just an observation. In the end though, it was a very inspiring, entertaining and satisfying night of music at the Seattle Jazz Showcase.

(These will also appear in print in the November issue of Seattle All Abut Jazz.)

Review, Seattle Jazz, Seattle Jazz Showcase