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Don Rice takes the standards to a high level

A die-hard Jazz at the Albright-Knox regular said that by his estimate, Sunday's was the biggest crowd this summer at the Buffalo News-sponsored free jazz festival. And why not?

It was a perfect day -- breezy and cool, with clouds here and there. And we had saxophonist Don Rice and the Bobby Jones Trio. If you were out of town and wandered into a club and heard this combo, you would feel lucky and come home bragging to your friends. They are that good.

Don Rice has a laid-back, whispery sound -- I want to say West Coast, but it is more soulful than that. I imagine he takes his cues from the great saxophonist Lester Young, and those who followed Lester Young, maybe Zoot Sims. Someone else in the crowd brought up Stan Getz.

Anyway, we are talking a tenor sax style that is low and slow and, even in uptempo numbers, full of soul and nostalgia. There was never a dull moment in the two sets, as Rice took us through standard after standard, with a few bop numbers thrown in.

Some things were, gloriously, just what you hoped for. A ballad medley began with "These Foolish Things" -- see, I told you he was thinking of Lester Young. It continued with "Don't Blame Me" and "Don't Take Your Love From Me." Rice's breathy tone -- sometimes, thrillingly, barely audible -- seemed to make the afternoon stand still.

At the same time, Rice liked to surprise you. He did some ballads uptempo. "Yesterdays" fared well that way. He also did a bittersweet "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)," and "There Is No Greater Love" (with Bobby Jones contributing a fine, bluesy solo).

And talk about a surprise. "We want to be the first people to wish you Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays," Rice told us. The group proceeded to play "The Christmas Song." So cool -- and cooling.

"Like Someone in Love" was lovely. A brisk "Tenor Madness" featured a lightning-quick solo by bassist Jim Colemon. "St. Thomas," a tune that belongs to the drummer, warranted a crisp solo from drummer Danny Hull. This is a traditional Jazz at the Albright-Knox number. I was thinking of how often I have enjoyed it as I lay kicked back, baking in the sun. We should demand that all participants play it.

A very talented 15-year-old pianist, Harry Brazier, also took a turn at the keyboard. He had a sure touch and a fine energy about him.

Bobby Jones brought out the bluesy underpinnings of "Centerpiece."

Which reminds me: I realize we are dealing with outdoor realities, but I found myself wishing for an acoustic piano. The electric piano can just sound so hokey, and does not do justice either to the pianists' talents or to Rice's subtleties. Jones likes electronics -- I thought I could hear him playing with the sound -- but oh, to hear this group with more pristine acoustics. Well, that is high praise.

As it is, I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. It was a wonderful afternoon.

The Sunday coming up brings the Buffalo State Reunion Big Band. They should be great, but they've got a tough act to follow.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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Don Rice & His Mellow Tenor Sax    

Part of the Jazz at the Albright-Knox free concert series.

Sunday afternoon on Shakespeare Hill, Delaware Park.