by Andrew Zaleski
You couldn’t hear Gary Thomas in the back of the Peabody Conservatory’s East Room on this particular Wednesday night. The founding director of the jazz studies program has a softspoken, if deep, voice. That was but a minor inconvenience on May 2nd, when the focus of the night was the occasion being celebrated—ten years since the inception of Peabody’s jazz studies concentration—and the rather large, twenty-member-plus Improvisation and Multimedia Ensemble assembled at the front of the room.
Indeed the energy came not so much from Thomas, but from the musicians in the audience and on stage gathered around him, which is more of a testament to Thomas’s tutelage and musicianship than a casual observer might think. A member of the Herbie Hancock Quartet since 2002, Thomas, an internationally renowned tenor saxophonist, has also recorded and performed with the likes of Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, and another great Baltimore musician, Dennis Chambers. To study jazz under Thomas is the real privilege, and even though on this night he was only conducting a gaggle of musicians, they made sure he hadn’t forgotten the impact of a decade of intense musical study.
“He’s been known to drop the hammer,” announced alto saxophonist and Peabody alumnus Russell Kirk, as he and fellow alumnus and tenor saxophonist Jacob Yoffee presented Thomas with an honor of their own invention, the Badass Mentor Award, just before the fifth and final tune in the set list. (Hometown trumpeter DontaeWinslow, sitting not too far from my row, demanded, loudly yet jokingly, “Cry, Gary”).
“Dropping the hammer” puts it mildly, considering the deftness of the compositions that evening. All five tunes were written by Thomas himself, and each was a packaged blend of disparate styles—blues, funk, avant garde—that makes jazz the savvy, complex genre it is. Trying to count along made me feel as if a few remedial math classes were in my immediate future.
Most impressive were the tunes that bookended the performance. “Out of Harm’s Way,” arranged by German saxophonist Axel Claudius Knappmeyer, began the night with a bit of off-time grooving between the drums and the piano, which Todd Simon played with excellent precision all the way through. What seemed like a triplet groove was gradually washed over by a dark, slow buildup in the brass section, at which point the rhythm section assumed a brooding tone and Simon employed some Monk-like stammers on the piano. The treat here was Yoffee, who had been honored earlier with the Outstanding Recent Graduate Award. His tenor solo was masterly, and displayed not only control of the horn’s range, but also a silky, soulful crooning sound that illustrated why he deserved that award.
The final piece, “Exile’s Gate”—another one arranged by Knappmeyer—was a behemoth of a tune that employed a plucky bass line and seven saxophones, as Soot traded bars with Yoffee and Kirk; a mesmerizing flurry of honking brass lines then became progressively quicker until a monster crescendo with the rest of the band ended the impromptu saxophone war.
While the other tunes were excellent in their own right, at moments the jazz was almost too avant garde for my liking. (Then again, this might be symptomatic of my ability to play only straight-ahead swing and hard bop.) “Who’s In Control,” a piece arranged by Kirk, tended to drag during the various solos, and “Peace of the Corridor” somewhat defied characterization (perhaps a good thing in the jazz world). Nonetheless, the ensemble performance was a triumph, and a sign of what undoubtedly will be another decade of phenomenal jazz music from Peabody.