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The Sweet Sounds of Saxophone Colossi

The BJA’s Saxophone Colossi Battle Royale concert last month featured Andy Ennis, Tim Green, Sam King and Brad Collins (from left). Photos by Andrew Zaleski

by Andrew Zaleski

Stereotypes about large, stocky men don’t stick to Brad Collins, who has managed to train his left leg to pop up each time he draws high notes from his tenor saxophone.

As he and the band swing into the first notes of a five-song set, Collins seems to be more graceful than the broadness of his shoulders suggests: the fingers of his right hand punch the keys of his sax, his left hand dangling in the air above his head, as he moves his hips, plays the last notes of his solo, then sends the energy over to Tim Green and his alto saxophone.

That energy was easily felt the night of February 23rd, when Collins and Green, along with tenor saxophonist Andy Ennis and alto saxophonist Sam King, took the stage of the hall inside the Creative Alliance. Four saxophonists on a single stage might seem excessive, but the event, billed as Saxophone Colossi, made for the perfect backdrop. In a subtle homage to legendary jazz saxman Sonny Rollins—and his album Saxophone Colossus—the old heads Collins and Ennis squared off against young guns Green and King in two, five-song sets.

This was no ruthless competition, but then again, neither were the cutting contests of 1950s and 1960s, when musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis appeared at after-hours clubs in New York City, Chicago, and St. Louis and tested their chops against worthy contenders.

If anything, Collins and Ennis—a man known as the Dean of Baltimore Jazz—held back, permitting the spotlight to shine more strongly on the night’s younger stars. The third tune of the first set, “Minority,” featured King, a skinny kid with a driver’s cap, glasses, and a gray blazer cut short, who started off blowing in a breezy bebop style. At song’s end, when the line of alto-tenor-alto-tenor traded fours, it was obvious Collins and Ennis were doing more to tee up their young compatriots than to draw attention to their individual efforts.

Green was perhaps the most compositionally gifted of the bunch. He dispensed with his first solo of the night—a masterful mixing of sounds that bent bar lines and was as inventive as it was quick—to roaring applause. He was the featured sax again during one tune of the second set, a song written by Collins’s trio Firm Roots that started off as a bossa before changing to a fast, traditional swing, and the outcome was no different there. His cheeks ballooning outward with each bar played, Green effortlessly switching between speeding notes that hit their plateaus in sudden crescendos and more melodic, wending lines of music.

It was evident, however, that if Green and King shared more time in the spotlight, Collins and Ennis had planned this effect, for the two elder tenors had no trouble keeping up. Dean Ennis displayed his soulful, calm, complex chops in the first set’s “I’m in the Mood for Love” (segueing seamlessly into a scat-sung “Moody’s Mood for Love”) and in a Sonny Rollins blues, the final tune of that set. Collins, a consummate showman, split his duties between emcee of the evening and solid anchor on stage, cuing up band members, working the audience, and adding his gregarious tone to the mix, delivering bebop lines with as much ferocity as Green.

Although the focus of the Creative Alliance show was the saxophonists, not to be outdone was a superb rhythm section: pianist Eric Byrd, Amy Shook on bass, and Robert Shahid, dressed to the nines as usual in a dark vest, white Oxford shirt, and golden tie, on drums. Not a finer group of rhythm musicians plays in Baltimore, and they made it known this particular evening. Shahid appeared out of body several times in the evening as he peppered in paradiddles, ratamacues, and a host of other rudiments you wouldn’t dream of saying five times fast throughout his hypnotizing fills and solos. Byrd, who probably plays ragtime just to warm up, was bright, upbeat, and forceful on the piano, at one point nearly pushing it off the back of the stage. (He moved it back during the intermission.) And Shook, who plays in Gregory Thompkins’s band and the FAB Trio, always shines on bass: when the piano drops out, and every ear in the audience is trained on plucky, low bass notes, it’s Shook who propels tunes forward while deftly maneuvering through complex solos of her own.

It’s not often jazz shows of this caliber are staged. But it comes off as simplistic, a trapping of fake novelty, to wonder at the talent assembled on one night at a theater in Highlandtown. This is the jazz that still exists in this city, one with its own storied history in this music, a history that could rival the Big Apple’s.

The crowd knew that. At 7:50 p.m., ten minutes before showtime, there were plenty of empty seats. By 8:05, not a seat was open; people arriving late stood in the back or grabbed overflow seating to the left and right sides of the stage.

At least a hundred people were there—probably more. And as they cheered for Green, Collins, King, and Ennis while the band thundered into Sonny Rollins’s “Tenor Madness,” and King pulled out his iPhone to check his messages between solos and the crowd cheered all the louder, you knew no one would leave the theater after this final tune of the first set.

Truly, why would anyone have left such a colossal event?

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