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Don Rice ‘recharges the soul’ at Albright Knox Summer Jazz Series

Puffy cumulus clouds were moving across the sky, pushed by the same wind currents that, when heated by the sun, provided thermals for a lone hawk cruising above the crowd with nary a wing beating, soaring this way and that with apparent ease.

The grounds of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery were crowded Sunday with lawn chairs, even as some souls found their place on the steps directly in front of the players or set up camp across the street near Hoyt Lake.

A cool breeze made its way toward the steps of the museum where the Summer Jazz Series was in session. The whole ambience of the day and place was laid back, just the sort of thing that the playing of tenor saxophonist Don Rice and his trio of backup musicians only enhanced.

Don Metz, the series organizer, in his remarks before the concert began, noted that Rice has performed every summer in Buffalo for a number of years (the saxophonist flies in from his home in California to do so) and is one of Metz’s favorite ballad players. With that in mind, it made perfect sense for Rice to create a set list leaning heavily toward arrangements that focused on his strength.

Early and mid-20th century standards, like “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Tenderly,” “Body and Soul” and “Just My Foolish Heart,” all benefitted from his gently swinging phrases. He even slowed down the pace that most bands take when playing Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” using an arrangement that drew out the melody and stretched it without any major damage incurring.

In many ways Rice ballad playing probably owes a lot to Stan Getz, but whereas Getz sometimes played mid- and up-tempo tunes with considerable verve, Rice’s lighter phrasing, even in Dizzy Gillespie’s “Birk’s Works,” was less urgent – more of handshake than a hug. The pacing was there – driven by drummer Dan Hull, bassist Wayne Moose and pianist Jay Bianchi – but the energy level was channeled more toward comfort rather than virtuosity (not that any of them lacked the chops necessary to rile things up).

Still, every note heard glided into the ears, got toes to tap and even cajoled a few people to get up and dance. Members of the audience were, for the most part, attentive. All of the sidemen took solos, acquitting themselves well and doing a heck of a job supporting Rice.

There really wasn’t a bad or negative thing that one could say about the whole concert. Why? Because the music, the audience and the weather were in sync.

Concerts like the one on Sunday are like gatherings with loved ones where flaws fade into the background and nobody misses the troublemakers.

Every once in a while, it is good to gently recharge the soul instead of exciting it.