As the sun peeked out over Hoyt Lake, shining clear and hot through a canopy of white, cotton candy clouds, there was no doubt about it. It was an ideal day for Jazz at the Albright-Knox.
As the third installment of the 2007 Buffalo News summer jazz series was set to begin, people of all ages milled about the gallery's back lawn, taking in the light breeze and grooving to the lite bossa nova emanating from the speakers.
But once Don Rice hit the stage, the bass lines were the only things left walking. The crowd stayed seated -- and thoroughly entertained -- for the majority of the California-based tenor sax player's two-hour set, thanks to his polished, unobtrusive approach to classic jazz balladry.
Seeing that Rice has been leading jazz groups since the '60s (and that his 17-year run is the longest in the 25-year history of the summer jazz series), it's no surprise that he knows how to give his audiences what they want.
Backed by an accomplished trio of Buffalonians (keyboardist Bobby Jones, bassist Jim Kurzdorfer and drummer Dan Hull), Rice's smart, meat-and-potatoes playing led the charge through an airy set of dependable standards, including "Autumn Leaves," "St. Thomas," "Take the A Train" and the "Guys and Dolls" number "I've Been in Love Before." The group presented every tune simply and crisply, with focused, tight arrangements and nary an extended jam session.
Given that the quartet seemed to value consistency above all else -- in tone, mood, rhythm and song selection -- it was especially refreshing when Rice decided to switch things up. His solo take on "I Should Care" proved he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Not a word could be heard as the bandleader tackled the beautiful '40s ballad without a net.
"The John L. Sullivan Shuffle" gave Hull a chance to open up the groove a little, resulting in one of the most driving rhythms of the day. After intermission, the band gave the best performance of the afternoon -- the Horace Silver gem "Come On Home," which features a slinky blues vamp that sounded deliciously filthy among all the love songs and show tunes.
On a pair of songs, Rice passed the bandleader baton over to Jones, whose impeccable chops were made more than apparent. While Rice watched in the wings, Jones elicited big applause with his acrobatic, octave-jumping solos. (Unfortunately, while Jones is one of the best jazz pianists I've seen in a long while, he insisted on using a positively heinous electric piano sound for the entire show. It's the kind of keyboard sound that belongs on Bette Midler's "From a Distance," the occasional game show theme song and nothing else).
These moments showed that Rice wants to please jazz fans of all kinds, even though he clearly prefers the balladic golden age of the mid-20th century. And judging by the audience, which included slow-dancing couples, hyperactive toddlers flailing their arms with glee and one older woman who danced right in front of the stage from beginning to end (while I sat in a lawn chair, sweating and eating a Choco Taco), the 17th time was definitely the charm.
Don RicePart of The Buffalo News Jazz at the Albright-Knox series Sunday.