With George Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band,” Don Rice and the Bobby Jones Trio kicked off a Summer Jazz at the Albright-Knox concert long on up-tempo standards and smooth-playing ballads drawn from the Great American Songbook.
In many ways, this was the perfect song to herald the other songs in Rice’s concert, not necessarily because of the actual tune but because of the era in which it was born. Music from the middle of the 20th century dominated the set list and that made for an afternoon of musical comfort that blended well with the pleasant weather, the relatively clear skies and the large, appreciative audience, which was scattered, for the most part, wherever there was shade.
While Rice and his tenor saxophone were the focus of the program, the support crew was there to make sure that things went smoothly. Bassist Wayne Moose and drummer Dan Hull provided the backbone for the gig, while keyboard legend Bobby Jones was an alternate lead voice for the ensemble when he wasn’t feeding chords for Rice to take off on.
The second song of the set was a great example of what was to come. While the sax solo on “When You’re Smiling” was a textbook example of mid-tempo swing, the long, gorgeous solo from Jones, sprinkled with a few gospel-inspired measures, was a great complement to the steady pacing of the Moose and Hull rhythm section.
Luiz Bonfa’s “Manha de Carnival” (a.k.a. “A Day in the Life of a Fool”) brought a bossa nova element to the mix of chestnuts before Rice stepped aside to allow the trio a spotlight.
This spotlight came courtesy of Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” with Jones dipping into the gospel bag one more time for his piano intro before leading the rhythm keepers through an inventive set of riffs that highlighted, to some extent, the different eras influencing the trio when compared to the leader.
After the intermission, Rice reached into the hard bop repertoire for an interesting riff on Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig of You” that showed he could move in those circles too before calling his bandmates to join him in earlier decades for “Touch of Your Lips,” and “Smile.” In the midst of that set, Rice stepped aside once again and turned over the proceedings to the trio, who wound their way through a worthy take on “Autumn Leaves.”
The quartet’s version of “Canadian Sunset” came about because the saxophonist was inspired by a Gene Ammons arrangement from 1960. This may have been Rice’s finest moment of the afternoon, the point where his playing rose above musical pleasantry to something more than spinning well worn, audience-pleasing phrases. The notes danced from his horn and were met with complementary offerings from Jones, Moose, and Hull. There were actually a couple of audience members dancing to the resulting art.
All things must end, however, and Rice kicked off “That’s All” as a suitable concert closer. The group was applauded and the equipment was packed up, but not before an announcement was made of the season’s final concert next Sunday, a date with Three Brothers and a Distant Cousin, an ad hoc outfit comprising some amazing local jazz musicians.