Iconoclastic jazz pianist Dred Scott’s Tuesday midnight residency at Rockwood Music Hall has become a New York legend – and it’s still going on every week. Last Wednesday he and his trio stole away for a quartet gig at Smalls with Ratdog’s Kenny Brooks on tenor sax, a treat for anyone daunted by the prospect of the F train, or any train for that matter, in the wee hours. It was a characteristically rich mix of devious fun and ferocious chops. Scott’s deadpan cool is something of a front: there’s a pretty much unlimited supply of power and joy in his playing, to go along with the clever, occasionally snide humor and the “hmmm, let’s see if anybody in the house gets this” japes. The set was a characteristically memorable mix of tunes. A swinging, Monk-ish new number, Scott alluded, took a cue from Glenn Miller’s Pennsylvania 6-5000: at the end of the verse, the band all shouted, “Sixty-six, six!” The melody was a little creepy but short of satanic, bassist Ben Rubin taking the first solo, reaching for the rafters quickly. Either Scott’s humor is contagious, or he’s found a fellow traveler, the two throwing “are you ready” elbows at each other until Scott took it down to a noir, modal groove, finally hammering against drummer Jochen Rueckert’s pulsing cymbals. From there, they took it absolutely noir with another modal number where Scott worked his way in lyrically, sprinting through a maze of cascades to where Rubin shifted from a boogie bass solo into some bracing swoops. Another Scott tune was gorgeous and plaintive in a Brubeck-meets-Frisell, Americana-tinged vein and served as the springboard for the best solo of the night, from Scott, apprehensively bending and twisting against the rhythm section’s one-two-three assault.
A number by Cleveland saxophonist Ernie Krivda – “The Mad Hungarian – no, that was Al Hrabosky,” Scott mused – had Brooks playing amiably against a cyclical Joe Zawinul-esque melody, Rueckert and then Rubin taking it into jaunty bluesfunk territory against Scott’s big block chords and Brooks’ soulfully nocturnal lines. They wound up the set with what sounded like a couple of seriously altered standards, the first shifting back and forth to doubletime, Scott practically spinning on his bench with a blistering series of torrents, the second with a bustling Weather Report-gone-acoustic vibe where Rueckert wouldn’t let Scott tack on an ending until he was done with an amusing series of crescendos. By now, everybody was in on the fun. And that was just the first set. All this can be streamed at the Smalls site, since they archive all the shows there.
Jazz with strings – what a great trend this could be! Guitarist Gene Bertoncini turned in a lushly beautiful set with a string quartet at the Jazz Standard back in March and this was even better. The Dred Scott Trio’s weekly Tuesday midnight residency at Rockwood Music Hall is now over four years old, at the point where legendary status starts to creep in, and this show in the more spacious, comfortable downstairs confines of Smalls reaffirmed that eventuality. Scott’s a fast, sometimes pyrotechnic pianist in the Kenny Barron mode, but more playful and stylistically diverse, as adept at ballads as he is barrelling along at full throttle. There’s a fearlessness and a completely out-of-the-box sensibility in his playing and his writing that ultimately goes back to punk rock. This show was typical in that Scott, bassist Ben Rubin and drummer Tony Mason, lushly augmented by an all-female string quartet, aired out pretty much every weapon in the arsenal.
They opened with a swinging original, Apropos of Nothing, vividly lyrical strings doubling the intro’s syncopated hook, then accentuating the end with a fast, staccato eight note passage. Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti, a genial, pretty straight-up bluesy number vastly benefited from the sweep of the strings. Scott had named another original Mojo Rhythm after a friend’s kid of the same name (you have to wonder about guys like that), a striking, intensely rhythmic number with Mason kicking up rolling thunder, Scott swaying and stomping through the opening melody, Rubin bringing in the crescendo on the chorus as the strings ably doubled it. And then Scott and Rubin yelled “Fuck you!” in unison. It was the only lyric of the set. An unsettling violin solo appeared amidst the pandemonium but without amplification, was pretty much lost in the melee.The cheesy eighties hit Let’s Get Physical was redone as a bossa tune with some tastefully incisive fills by Scott, ironically the evening’s least physical number.
Best song of the night was Bobo, the nickname for a California town Scott had spent some time in as a kid, a plaintive, Dave Brubeck-esque jazz waltz lit up by an absolutely gorgeous eight-chord head that screamed out to be brought back, again and again. And finally, it was. Scott then brought up longtime co-conspirator Carol Lipnik (whose show at the Delancey earlier this spring had to have been one of the year’s most transcendent live moments so far) for vocals on a cover of Brian Eno’s By This River. Warmly and inclusively, backed only by Scott’s piano, the occasional minimalist bass note or cymbal touch, her vocalese took the crowd way out to a different place (she’s going to Yaddo in a couple of weeks – maybe that had something to do with it). The band wrapped up the set with a scurrying, somewhat apprehensive tableau taken way up by a Scott solo, furiously and intricately working vast permutations of a walk down the major scale. If you haven’t seen this band yet, they’re at the Rockwood every Tuesday – you have no excuse.