Thursday night, foremost T-dot bassist Roberto Occhipinti brought a quintet of fabulous players into the Commons Room to entertain a near capacity audience of (I would hazard to guess)university music students and upmarket middle-aged listeners. Occhipinti, Cuban piano god Hilario Duran, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, alto-saxophonist Luis Denis and drum wunderkindDafnis Prieto, held court playing (with the notable exception of three numbers - more on these later)two sets of straight ahead jazz.
Straight ahead jazz seems bound in a constrictive structure derived from a form Miles Davis' great second quintet (1965-68) came up with by melding selective elements of hard bop, soul-jazz, free bop and jazz funk. Check out Davis albums from that time: E.S.P., Sorceror, Miles Smiles and Nefertiti and Hancock's Takin' Off, Inventions and Dimensions, in particular,Maiden Voyage, to get some idea of where today's straight ahead jazz came from. The Davis concept proved both seminal and a template for contemporary conservative jazzers. It's reflected in their writing and quintet lineups. Both formulaic - almost ritualized. The standard band set up is always like this, absoluetly mimicking the Davis group. Players pretend to be either Herbie Hancock on piano, Tony Williams on drums, Ron Carter on bass, Wayne Shorter on sax or, of course, Miles on trumpet. Occhipinti's quintet proved no exception. That they were to a man, super players helped dispel the style's rigidity - often energerizing the music with soloing excursions out on a bit more adventurous terrain. Unfortunately, straight ahead compositions and their performances sound interchangeable to listeners like me and, as one who relishes daring musical exploration, the overall effect of straight ahead on me is tedium. Fortunately there were, as I mentioned before, three numbers that showcased the quintet's substantial musical chops to the degree that it became obvious that this quintet could, with ease, break out of the straight ahead mold. One number, a Brazilian composition, began with a gorgeously languid Occhipinti bass solo comprised of fat, dark chocolate-rich notes, pinging harmonics and lush chordings. A hauntingly beautiful melody line emerged that I had heard before but couldn't readily name. I jotted Italian opera, Puccini? down in my notebook. (Later Occhipinti identified the melody as one taken from an aria in the opera Tosca by,yup, Puccini.) Occipinti's solo morphed into a full band new melody evocation of a sultry night in Rio depicting someone lonely, full of longing. searching for some meaning for a troubled romantic life as he or she wandered the city's rain slicked streets. The melody itself reminded me of the melancholic theme music to the Robert Mitchum film version of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. Turcotte, on fluglehorn, blew achingly beautiful lines which seemed to inspire his bandmates. Each found a depth of emotional connection to the music that went straight to its humanist heart. This was exceptional music to get lost in and, to judge from a quick look-around at the audience, they were deeply lost in it, savoring every moment.
Briefly, the other two numbers featured the out-of this-world artistry of pianist Hilario Duran and drummer Dafnis Prieto. Fiery, propulsive, full of Latino wit and utter uncorked joy, these two brought the house down as they raised its roof.
It was a masterful exhibition of unbelievable technique serving limitless and inventive musicality. That the band could play with such verve with the devil-may-care attitude of fearless thrill-seakers suggests that, for a quintet this good, straight ahead is not the only worthwhile direction they should take.