A perfect summer evening sparkled with goddess energy as two jazz “mistresses” filled the air with their inimitable brand of jazz improvisation and interpretation. The Maxine Martin Quartet opened Monday Night Jazz with original compositions executed by Maxine Martin on tenor saxophone and clarinet, guitarist Jim Mercik, “Abu” Alvin Carter, Sr. on congas and Cori Lovejoy at the piano. Martin characterized her work as inspired by “everyday moments and ordinary people,” and the tonal range and rhythmic overlays evoked the complexities of those “nameless people all over the world.” On “Then and Now,” dedicated to Martin’s father and styled after Bessie Smith and Fats Waller, Martin’s joyful trilling on the clarinet, dancing as she played, was infectious. Combined with Mercik’s bright steel guitar notes overlaying Lovejoy’s rolling keys and Carter’s playful conga rhythms, the piece testified to a life well lived. On “Night Walker,” Martin struck a sultry tone on tenor sax and set a contrast to Lovejoy’s bright piano keys. Martin ended with a funky “Transcendence,” singing scat alternating with sax, while Lovejoy backed up on vocals and a bluesy piano. Combined with Mercik’s bending notes on the guitar and Carter’s dancing congas, the effect was positively transcendent.
Tony Davis, the third Hartford Jazz Society Emerging Artist finalist to perform for Monday Night Jazz, entertained the intermission audience with the sweet strains of acoustic guitar. A Hartt School graduate and son of the incomparable trombonist Steve Davis, Davis teaches at Hartford’s Artists Collective and performs throughout New England. The contrast of Davis’ intricate guitar styling with previous finalist performers’ more traditional saxophone work underscores why jazz encompasses a rich variety of tones, rhythms and forms. Of course, it also reminds audiences of the indelible mark Hartt’s Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz has left on the jazz scene both locally and nationally.
The Sylvia Cuenca Organ Quintet represented the fresh new face of female-led jazz interpretation, with Cuenca’s signature improvisational drumming sounding more melodic than rhythmic. Featuring Dave Stryker’s distinctively bluesy guitar, along with Jared Gold on an “old-school” Hammond B-3 electric organ, saxophonist Troy Roberts and vibraphonist Steve Nelson, the band’s forward-motion playing drove the entire performance. Cuenca’s surprising improvisations of well-know tunes, include the opening “Ain’t Necessarily So,” made the pieces entirely her own, even as familiar melodies emerged underneath the harmonization. Nelson attacked the vibraphone with a ringing intensity, and set against Gold’s passionately charged Hammond tones, the pure clarity of Robert’s saxophone and Stryker’s slide-guitar styling, produced an effect reminiscent of Phil Specter’s “wall of sound.” On “Times Are Hard on the Boulevard,” the sheer joy of Cuenca’s rocking beat and driving rhythms made the boulevard sound musically irresistible. The band’s encore performance, with Stryker’s singing slide guitar and Nelson’s vibraphone flurries, the heady underlayment of Gold’s organ and the vitality of Robert’s saxophone, all framed by Cuenca’s assertive percussion, electrified the stage. For this Monday Night Jazz session, the goddesses of jazz owned the evening and the art form.