Jimmy Mak's - Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Mel Brown Quartet
Tony Pacini, Piano
Dan Balmer, Guitar
Ed Bennett, Bass
Mel Brown, Drums
My first visit to the new Jimmy Mak's was a great one. The Mel Brown Quartet put out two sets with professionalism, timing and variety that matched the new surroundings.
Portland is such a fine city: all of those outdoor attractions and activities within an hour's drive plus world-class live jazz on a Wednesday night in a cool new club. Life is better here!
Tony Pacini appears to play keyboards with a very light touch. Yet he delivers a dynamic sound that frequently has the power of Gene Harris. His arrangement of Yardbird Suite has been with him for a long time, but was new to this aggregation. Balmer and Pacini each took extended solos, borrowing more than a few long phrases from other standards. Pacini can really move some very complex block chords around rapidly. By its end, the group seemed to have completely re-thought the whole Parker tune. Very exciting and the crowd got it.
I had no idea what was coming when Dan Balmer played a pensive, out-of-tempo solo to introduce the rarely-heard chestnut Liza. Then Mel, Tony and Ed kicked the head at lightning speed. Pacini improvised using single-finger unisons for very long stretches. Its an impressive sound, particularly at this speed, because many pianists cannot carry it off for more than a few bars. Balmer, Bennett and Brown all took set-climaxing solos to the audience's prolonged applause.
One of Henry Mancini's most durable jazz themes, Mr. Lucky, got a bright up-tempo treatment here. This has always been a favorite of mine, but Pacini's extensive block chording reminded me of the great harmonic progressions that are its foundation. Ed Bennett took a very thorough turn on the tune over Balmer's tasty rhythm guitar, while Pacini and Brown laid out. This can be a cumbersome tune to end as it was written, but the quartet chose instead a bluesy vamp to a fade-out -- Sweet.
Mel Brown had Love for Sale totally under his control as it went from a funky A section to the traditional swing tempo of the bridge. Then it was back to the funk for some great solos by Bennett and Balmer. Brown reprised the swing-style bridge just often enough to feel like a window was opened to a warm breeze.
Teach Me Tonight was my request and it was a treat. For me, the tempo is the thing that makes or breaks this tune. Without introduction, they started at the top in a swinging medium-tempo, allowing enough room for some gutsy solos frequently under-scored by prolonged rolling left-hand keyboard chords. Pacini has the endurance to keep this going long enough to build the tune's momentum, particularly when coupled with Mel Brown's expert showmanship.
The new Jimmy Mak's club is focused, simply-stated and classy. Furnishings are very comfortable but not so posh as to make you wish you had worn a tie, unless you did and that's okay too. It's Portland. The lighting is quite good: subdued and moody, but not foggy or tomb-like. There are plenty of light sources but they don't intrude. The stage is well-positioned and the sound system manages to be visually interesting as well as efficient. There was some crowd noise coming from the bar itself, but most of this was confined to the back room which offers generous space for pool and conversation. This is definitely a place to take out-of-towners for an evening of Portland jazz. And the Mel Brown Quartet IS Portland Jazz.