Beautiful people on stage and in the audience, that was my first thought as I entered Casa de Ibiza last night. Guitarist Dean Williams and the three young men, Rodney Alexander (bass), Alpha Simpson (drums), Anthony Woodroffe (sax) were definitely worth a second look, while the music, played to a young, attractive, progressive-looking, mature-looking audience, made me not just take a second look but also a closer listen. As I did, I found myself thinking, “this sounds like Stevie Wonder”, “this sounds like Marcus Miller”, “this sounds like Steve Coleman”, “this sounds like the horn lines from Etienne Charles’ Douens”, “this reminds me of Omar Hakim”, “that calypso soca groove sounds like Kid Creole”. These references were not necessarily a good or a bad thing, simply and interesting one.
In the first set these musical styles and references were more apparent since Dean presented standard material first and they actually played Stevie’s “Isn’t she lovely” into John Legend’s “Ordinary People”, followed by Ralph MacDonald’s “Just the two of us”, and ended with Gershwin’s “Summertime”. They played all of these in Funk/R&B style so it would be hard to navigate away from the style of drummers like Hakim, bassists like Miller and guitarists like Benson who have defined that style of improv for decades, or to resist quoting themes from popular songs like Maniac from Flashdance. So they stayed close to the flight plan and did a good job of it. The problem, though, was balance. Bass, drums and guitar is a hard rhythm section format. The middle/chords/colour that we get from an extra guitar or keys can easily be and, in this case for me, was missed. I tried to figure out why, since this is not a new combination, Theron Shaw, Douglas Redon, and Sean Thomas did it quite successfully in their group Three in One. I settled on a few possibilities. Maybe the bass took up too much and the guitar took up too little of a presence in the mix, maybe the obvious skill gained by the drummer and bassist from study and transcriptions should now be harnessed into thinking well about establishing a smoother and less static underlying groove when playing together in this combination. Anthony’s solos on sax and his and Dean’s singing on Just the two of us and Summertime, respectively, took my attention away from the thinking and allowed me to enjoy the last two pieces in this set.
After the break during which I had a taste of some pretty good chicken, we were treated to originals. Dean let us know that they were his originals re-arranged by Jesse Ryan. Jesse joined Anthony in the sax section for the second set. The additional sax made a marked difference to the sound. Perhaps the background lines and solos gave Dean a chance to fill in the middle. Whatever it was it did change things. Although most of the originals were clearly built around familiar musical examples; Dean’s song for his daughter, was reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s song for his daughter (Isn’t she lovely) in several respects, the horn lines in Tanzania were a bit too close to the ones Etienne wrote for his original Douens, and the Kid Creaole take used to establish the groove for Dean’s Caribbean inspired piece was a bit shaky (timewise); I was glad to have them. I was glad to have them because I could feel the enjoyment and excitement that the group and the audience felt in experiencing them. Rodney and Alpha had a really good time with their solos in this half, especially in the last piece, Super Speed, and I really appreciated their approach to playing with the time.
All in all it is clear that these musicians are listening and transcribing and I believe that they will come more and more into their own. They also have a really nice audience to grow with.
Modupe Onilu and his group are on next week at Blue Culture’s Jazz Quarters, Ibiza, Tragarete Road, Port-of-Spain, Tuesday 10th July, 9pm.