The tone was cool and soulful at Monday Night Jazz under cloudy skies and jacket-weather temperatures. For saxophone lovers, the first half of the evening showcased the instrument’s tonal diversity, with the Kris Allen Quartet’s original compositions centering around the interplay of two saxophones. Playing selections from the recently released album, “Beloved,” the Quartet featured tenor saxophonist Frank Kozyra’s talents in duet with Kris Allen on alto saxophone, framed by the exceptional Jonathan Barber’s drum rhythms and Matt Dwonszyk’s deft fingers at the bass. Starting with “More, Yeah,” inspired by Allen’s son’s “first stumblings on a toy piano,” and progressing through a new (as yet untitled) composition, Allen’s showed off his harmonic and rhythmic experimentation. A medley of one of Allen’s older compositions, “Lord Help My Unbelief” and the Cuban-rhythm inspired “Flores,” taking its name from bassist Charles Flores, started off slow and hymn-like before Barber’s drum solo electrified the tempo, followed by Dwonszyk articulating an accelerated bass line. With a joyful shift to Allen’s bright alto sax solo, the band members picked up the melody in turns, with Kozyra’s low and mellow notes lending a soulful tone.
The intermission featured tenor saxophonist Mike Casey, the second performance by one of the Hartford Jazz Society Emerging Artist finalists. Casey described his “exploration of the solo sax” as composer and performer before launching into two original compositions. Casey’s joyful playing revealed his love of the instrument and his kinship with a long line of saxophone aficionados emerging from the Hartt School’s Jackie McClean Institute of Jazz. Since graduating from the Hartt School, Casey has performed throughout New England and appeared at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. Jazz fans can vote on the finalists at this link.
If Allen and Casey represent an emerging generation of jazz artists, headliner Joanne Brackeen is a jazz legend, with a career spanning fifty years and myriad jazz styles. Comprised of Brackeen on the piano, bassist Ugonna Ukegwo and drummer Nate Smith, the Joanne Brackeen Trio shifted easily between jazz standards and the soulful moods and tempos of Brackeen’s original compositions. On “How Deep Is the Ocean,” Brackeen’s bright touch set the piano keys ringing before Ukegwo’s bass solo practically made the instrument dance, with Smith’s assertive drumming joining in a musical conversation that showcased their individual talents and cohesion as an ensemble. The trio’s chemistry was palpable on “Someday My Prince Will Come” before heating up with Brackeen’s “Cuban Exchange” and Ukwego’s Cuban-inspired bass line. It couldn’t be truly Cuban without the drums, and Smith’s sharp, taught rhythms were reminiscent of last week’s Latin congas. Brackeen cooled the mood with a piano solo that showed off the talents that made her one of Art Blakey’s only female jazz messengers. The trio rejoined for their first public performance of Brackeen’s “Catch Me If You Can” and ended the night with Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty,” featuring Smith’s fiery drum solo. The passionate finale vividly illustrated why Brackeen has been designated a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, and why she continues to inspire an up-and-coming class of future jazz masters.
photos by Maurice Robertson