Concert Review: The Jentsch Group Quartet at Context Studios, Brooklyn NY 6/17/09
The Jentsch Group are shapeshifters in both senses of the word: sometimes jazz guitarist/composer Chris Jentsch’s project is a big band, sometimes much a smaller crew. This was a rare performance of a lean, stripped-down unit featuring Matt Renzi on saxophones, Jim Whitney of Andy Statman’s band on double bass and John Mettam on drums. Playing a captivating mix of both older and new, unreleased material from Jentsch’s forthcoming cd Fractured Pop, Jentsch revealed an uncanny ear for timbre, melodies taking on different shades and significance as they took on different permutations, passed between the band members. Jentsch likes variations on a theme and this show was full of them.
As someone influenced by Toru Takemitsu and Indian music as well as American styles, Jentsch also doesn’t let preconceived stylistic constraints get in the way. Was this rock, or was this jazz? It was both – if you can write in both idioms, why not? The first number started out pretty and jangly over some tricky changes but then straightened itself into a fairly straight-up indie rock instrumental over variants on the most basic blues riff, Renzi adding brightness before Jentsch took it into offhandedly biting David Gilmour territory with a solo of his own, then handing the reins back to the sax. Throughout the set, Jentsch used his volume pedal like an ebow, adding shades of sustain on the next number, a warm yet pensive melody in 6/8 that with its alternately stark and expressive permutations, one of them a latin guitar vamp, evoked Astor Piazzolla. A brief reggae interlude, Jentsch playing four on three, made for a playful diversion.
Then they launched into the main theme from Jentsch’s 2007 album Brooklyn Suite, a genuine modern jazz classic. The central hook is a savagely descending four-bar theme that ranks with any other iconic melody you can imagine. It’s neither difficult to play nor to sing to yourself and hearing Renzi pick it up before Jentsch finally got its hands on it and tore it to shreds was something akin to watching B.B. King do The Thrill Is Gone…or seeing Coltrane work himself into a particularly inspired Giant Steps. It was that good. The album version is lush and sweeping: this four-piece edition gave the melody the opportunity to bare its fangs even further, unconstrained by the swells of the horns and reeds. Maybe to see if anybody was paying attention, Jentsch tossed in a familiar Eddie Van Halen quote (ok, it was Beat It) toward the end. They wrapped up the set with one of the more ambient, atmospheric parts of the Brooklyn Suite, a cut from the new Cycles Suite cd propelled with masterful subtlety by Whitney and closed with a world premiere, the apprehensive nocturne Are You Bye?, an opportunity for Mettam to add some expansive menace, which Jentsch explained afterward took not only its title but also its central chord progression from Bye Bye Blackbird. Considering that Jentsch doesn’t frequently play out, this was worth the trek to the Williamsburg waterfront and then some.
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