Gregg August and Sextet Smolder at Smoke
On one level, it could be said that bassist Gregg August and his band put on a clinic in straight-ahead latin-flavored postbop last night at Smoke. But the show was also just plain good fun: the sextet’s judicious exuberance was contagious. Much as August’s compositions can be rigorously cerebral and often very intense, they’re just as catchy The solo of the night – at least from the generously expansive first set – was from Yosvany Terry on alto sax, who began with a goodnatured nonchalance and worked his way methodically and increasingly apprehensively to a shivery, menacing coda on For Max, a wickedly hook-driven, vintage Miles Davis-inflected number from August’s latest album Four by Six. Trumpeter John Bailey channeled his inner bluesman, tenor saxophonist John Ellis worked the corners dynamically over the sometimes incisively dancing, sometimes radiantly resonant piano of Xavier Davis, drummer Rudy Royston pushing the clave by riding the rims, throwing elbows at August with playful polyrhythms. And for all of August’s wry wit – most noticeably during a solo late in the set, where he seemed to draw a blank and then decided to make a good joke out of it – his music is serious. Darkness and transcendence were in full effect.
They only did the traditional solos-around-the-horn thing once, on the opening number, Deceptions, Royston more than hinting that he was in the mood for more than a steady swing groove, finally taking it outside as August held the rhythm in place, switching to terse, even minimal, from out of a tirelessly racewalking pace. The night’s second tune built on a ridiculously catchy ensemble hook from the horns over clave syncopation – that groove was nearly ubiquitous even when it was implied, which was much of the time. A little later, they mixed up the beats with an epically intense take of Sweet Melody, a dark salsa jazz piece, Davis building noir ambience with lingering, glimmering chromatics over Royston’s hypnotically simple pulse, Terry switcing to chekere and energizing the crowd with his agility on the big rattle. They gracefully faded down all but one of the songs, which made sense considering that everybody in the band is busy with other projects (August is first chair bassist in the Brooklyn Phiharmonic and also joins forces with Royston in JD Allen’s trio), and may not have had much rehearsal time at their disposal. But any chance to see August lead a band and play his own music is a treat, and made the trip uptown to this cozy, sonically rich spot well worth the effort.