This intimate penthouse concert, conceived by visionary org Jazz at Lincoln Center, united four formidable tenor sax players in a program that concentrated on balladry and revealed individual styles, imaginative solos and contrasting sounds. The front line comprised Lew Tabackin, Wayne Escoffrey, Steve Riley and Count Basie veteran Frank Wess. Each took a fervent ballad solo turn, creating a flavorful candlelight-and-wine mood. Romance was at the top of the menu, and compliments were in order for the cookers.
Riley was the first to solo, playing Richard Rodgers’ “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” His fluffy, airy tone and clearly charted direction lent itself to the required mood. It was an impressive bow. The 27-year-old from North Carolina understands how to go for the heart, and his fresh, silky sound proved a marked contrast to that of his heavyweight colleagues. It is not surprising to learn he is a past winner of a Stan Getz Fellowship competition.
Tabackin, whose sound has a bold, gritty edge, played “Autumn Nocturne,” which served as an early spring tonic. The perf can be heard on Tabakin’s ’96 Concord CD, “Tenority.” Bowing to the influence of both Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, his playing is melodically muscular. He is an individualist whose solos have drive, urgency and decided pungency.
Former London native Wayne Escoffrey stepped up front with “My One and Only Love” and gave a supremely melodic performance. There was poetry in his phrasing, and one wondered if the lyrics just might have been dancing in his head as he played. His tone is clean and pure, and his musical thoughts float with a kind of rambling grace.
Wess, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, is a master of nuance and subtle shadings. His smooth take on Johnny Mandel’s “A Time to Love” turned out to be an admirably structured solo, burnished with wistful improvisation.
The program had a swinging side as well. The romantic encounters were punctuated by some dazzling unison work. The Basie/Hefti “Cute” featured some dancing brush work by drummer Kenny Washington. Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” found Escoffrey and Wess sailing tastefully, followed by Tabackin’s aggressive bite and a politely lean turn from Riley. It was the concert topper, with a great spirited piano solo by Bill Charlap.
Perhaps the most obvious showcase when four tenor sax players unite is “Four Brothers,” the Woody Herman big band classic. If it didn’t quite boast the kind of chops that marked the careers of a Zoot Sims or an Al Cohn, it remained a potent platform for the foursome, who displayed a good romping groove and a keen rapport with the rhythm section.