Published Jun 28, 2011Geri Allen always brings drama to her piano playing. Listening to her is like listening to a river flow with crosscurrents of melody punctuated by the odd bit of jagged debris. She's definitely picked up on the abstract soulfulness of forbears like Bill Evans, but has chosen increasingly novel contexts in which to express her musicality, whether in a three-piano tribute to Jimi Hendrix or her recent solo piano work Flying Toward the Sound.
For this Montreal Jazz concert, the truly interesting element here was tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, who improvised along with the bass/piano/drums trio. The show started with just the trio reeling off a 20-minute-plus epic called "Angels." Drummer Kassa Overall, stellar throughout, was compelling with long mallet-driven swells of tom toms. Allen had led the charge from the rear, playing way behind the beat, which had practically everyone in the intimate confines of the Gésu craning their necks in anticipation.
Then, Chestnut sashayed out with the confidence of a boxer ready for a fight. He and Overall immediately started throwing down on "Philly Joe." Like a cutting contest straight out of jazz's glory days (or hip-hop's battle days), Chestnut and Overall went one-for-one for the rest of the night.
Chestnut's athleticism and rhythmic dexterity on an amplified piece of flooring added visual dynamism and a surprising range of sounds to the proceedings. While there might have been too much reliance of tap dancer and drummer calling and responding to each other, it did make for a great show, which was part of the point of this configuration: to take jazz, especially Allen's introspective variety, out of a cerebral zone and into something more visceral.
At times, Chestnut's accompaniment brought to mind congas, other times there was no instrumental comparison at all because he improvised with this feet and his body instead of his hands. Though bassist Kenny Davis was furthest in the background of this configuration, he shone during bluesy passages, which revealed new sensitivity in Chestnut's dancing.
A cover of Charles Lloyd's "Sweet Georgia Bright" was pure fireworks to end the show. It made one wonder whether an audio or even video recording of the performance would have done it justice; you just had to be there.