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Benson Hotel Lobby Lounge - April 28, 2006
Brian Ward Quartet with Lee Wuthenow

Brian Ward - Piano
Lee Wuthenow - Saxophone
Kevin Deitz - Bass
Neil Masson - Drums

The Lobby Lounge at the ageless Benson Hotel in downtown Portland, surely must be one of the longest-running jazz venues in Portland. As a college student, I remember hearing the great Marian and Julian there many times. Though the hotel has changed ownership several times over the last few decades, thankfully, the jazz continues.

Brian Ward's quartet of Kevin Deitz on bass, Neil Masson on drums, Lee Wuthenow on sax and himself on piano is an ideal combo for the classic Benson lobby. The acoustic sounds seemed to be evenly distributed throughout the space without the need for complex amplification. The music doesn't overwhelm the cozy bar, yet it can be enjoyed thoroughly from virtually any seat in the place despite the towering paneled columns reaching up like lovely old-growth timber. The ambiance is high-toned and classy.

From the last available seat at the bar, I listened to an extended treatment of "Embraceable You" with several rich choruses from Wuthenow. Despite the customers' obvious attention to the music, there was no applause after solos. Interesting. Besame Mucho followed at Masson's sultry Latin tempo with tasty extended runs by Ward. Wuthenow, who often did not enter until several choruses into a tune, always managed a smooth and assured arrival. By the last chorus, Besame Mucho had nearly become an up-tempo piece, but the evolution felt natural.

Continuing with standard evergreens, the quartet did a medium tempo I Love You, followed by the dramatic You've Changed. Ward's extended introduction gave way to Wuthenow's melody statement with another of those "gliding-into-a-pool" entrances. Speak Low was another smart, seductive Latin tune. Deitz was the kingpin on this one. Yesterdays wrapped the set on an up tempo.

Jazz at the Benson is not background music. But neither is the audience silent and rapt. There is conversation, tastefully low and not intrusive. Most tunes finished with no applause, disconcerting at first. But in a way, it felt more like reverence in the setting than disrespect for the musicians. Perhaps this is a reflection of an earlier time when live jazz was so common in the lobbies of great hotels that it was simply taken for granted. All-in-all, it was a very satisfying experience with top line players and dynamic straight-ahead jazz.

Check out Brian as JSO's July, 2006 Featured Musician of the Month here!



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