All the "Art of Jazz" concerts held in the auditorium of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery benefit from their surroundings -- the walks past the art, the seating where clear sightlines are the rule and the simple but effective staging -- but Saturday night shows have a different feel to them.
Part of it is undoubtedly due to the weekend "evening out" crowd, where the clothing is generally "dressed up" casual instead of the "normal" casual outfits exhibited by most Sunday afternoon audiences. But the other part comes from how night looks into the floor-to-ceiling windows and how, in the best of all possible worlds, the resulting ambience and the music can wash over you.
The Cindy Blackman Quartet opened this season's (10th) "Art of Jazz" series with a frequently adventurous set that was a showcase for the bandleader's impressive drumming and J.D. Allen's tenor sax playing. This isn't to denigrate the rest of the band's skills because bassist George Mitchell is an anchor in the constantly changing rhythmic sea and keyboard player Carlton Holmes comps well during the front line's soloing, combining with Mitchell to provide the ground for Blackman and Allen to fly off.
It became apparent rather quickly why some critics compare Blackman's drumming to that of her idol, Tony Williams. There is the near-constant display of power that comes from dropping those drumsticks onto the drum heads, with all the force of a linebacker's helmet-cracking hit, and the resulting sound levels that frequently obliterate the music being played by the rest of the ensemble. But there are also moments when the sound became subtler, visiting that space where delicacy meets tensile strength, as if Blackman was weaving a sonic spider's web supporting her band.
Blackman is one of those drummers whose sheer, physically demanding style of playing is counterbalanced by the subtlety of her stick work, the way she shades percussive tones. Even when Blackman takes off on a solo it becomes apparent that the drums sing for her, as she modulates pressure, speed and location to create something extraordinary, something more than what most other pulse keepers are capable of.
Saxophonist Allen was the deceptively straightforward sounding counter to Blackman's time-keeping flurries. As the other dominant musical voice in the quartet, he was obliged to keep it simple but with the proviso that power surges were permissible.