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  • Glenn Siegel

Bigmouth Sighted in Greenfield

How does music reach people? I’ve been asking myself that question since Chris Lightcap and his quintet, Bigmouth, connected with 100 people at the Arts Block in Greenfield on Thursday, April 21. It was the ninth concert in Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ fourth season.

Playing music from their two most recent Clean Feed releases, Deluxe (2010) and Epicenter (2015), the band had the rapt attention of all present. The audience reaction, which included lots of yelps, applause, unsolicited clapping (in clave) and a standing ovation, was one indication of approval. Post-show reaction and CD sales provided other gauges of success.

What was it about the music that so captivated us? The high level of musicianship was certainly one factor. All four sidemen are potent improvisers, first-call veterans who also compose and lead ensembles. The band: Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek, tenor saxophones, Craig Taborn, keyboards, Gerald Cleaver, drums, and the leader on bass, has developed an uncanny rapport after more than six years together. Their familiarity with the material helped and Lightcap’s repartee with the audience was relaxed and unforced.

But lots of the ensembles we present meet those criteria. What made this concert so memorable was the material. With the exception of the encore, Lou Reed’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, the compositions were penned by Lightcap. Though varied, the pieces all featured strong melodies, hooks that enabled us to follow and anticipate the contours of each song. Sometimes the melody was full blown; other times it was merely a repeated phrase or motif. The pieces were often anthemic and had this bursting quality, a full flowering that had a spiritual dimension. On more than one occasion I had the sensation of flying and felt a sense of becoming.

Another secret to their success was a kind of pop sensibility that is irresistible when stretched so creatively. It was interesting to note how closely the live performance adhered to the recording.

The two tenors interacted in delicious ways, finishing each other’s thoughts, twining around the compositional pole, engaged in harmony, sweet and tart. The sturdiness of each song allowed the soloists to stretch without having to worry about breaking the song structure. In fact, Malaby, who was masterful throughout, got the loudest reactions as he rose through the stratosphere.

The 46-year old Taborn is a modern master, regarded as one of the top pianists in jazz. His work on both acoustic piano and Rhodes provided color and rhythmic propulsion throughout the 80-minute performance. My one regret was the lack of solo space for drummer Gerald Cleaver, who has powered many of the best small groups of the past 15 years. His only solo turn was a brief foray with keyboard ostinato during the encore.

The band had performed the night before at Williams College, Lightcap’s alma mater. He told us that as an undergrad his mentor, Andy Jaffe (who was in attendance), took a van full of students to the very first Magic Triangle Series concert at UMass in 1990 featuring Steve Turre, Bob Stewart, Mulgrew Miller and returned two years later to see Ed Blackwell with Dewey Redman and Cameron Brown. Those early jazz experiences had a major impact on the young bassist.

Lightcap has absorbed the history and is giving us his version of the story, doing what the greats do.

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