John Hicks Sextet at Birdland

This group has come to be a New York tradition, and it's because John Hicks has established himself as a first-rate Jazz pianist and bandleader. They've appeared at Birdland several times, and on the night of April 20, the house was full. Old friends and people from every nationality gathered in one of the oldest Jazz clubs in New York (albeit the third location). The bandmembers were: John Hicks on piano, Elise Wood on flute(s), Bobby Watson on alto sax, Vincent Herring on tenor, and rounding out the group were Curtis Lundy, bass and Cecil Brooks III, drums.

The first tune, "Yemenja," started out with Hicks playing solo piano, introducing the harmonies. This is an up-beat tune in 3/4 time, and the head is played with the horns echoing each other. It's a nice light tune for flute, and Elise took the first solo, with the drums playing polyrhythms underneath. She demonstrated a good sense of phrasing, and it was picked up by Bobby Watson, who has a knack for building up his solos from simple to complex. He chose his notes carefully, and created excitement in the music, taking his solo to a climax of virtuosity.

Vincent Herring is no slouch, either. I love his tone, he's in control of his music, thinking it through. The rhythm section was backing him up, each person listening and reacting. Like Bobby, Vincent knows how to construct a solo and added more triplets and sixteenth notes. When the rhythm section went into a swing beat, Vincent came down in intensity, leaving spaces between his phrases.

The piano solo was mesmerizing, because John had both hands moving in counterpoint. Then, suddenly his left hand punched out strong voicings, while his right hand played fast runs. He always keeps the original melody in mind, however much he starts digging in. The bassist and drummer were propelling him along - I think he likes the energy of this drummer. After the last head, the horns vamped for a long time, gradually bringing the energy back down, until they ended in a mysterious way.

This was followed by one of my all-time favorite originals of John's - "Naima's Love Song." The bass player and drummer left the stage for a long piano interlude. Hicks set a quiet mood with gospel chords and arpeggios. When the band did finally enter, there was a call and response from the horns to the bass (in a latin beat), followed by a tenor solo. Vincent was playing so smoothly, he sailed over the changes. He phrases with a great sense of harmonic rhythm, making the music work for him. The rhythm section was more together on this tune, ebbing and flowing with the phrases.
Elise Wood's flute solo on this piece showed off her chops. First she used the off-beat rhythm to create melodies, then added trills and double-tongueing. Her solo ended cleanly and Bobby Watson took over on the alto. He got the crowd going, playing so well. Bobby has a great choice of notes that are soulful and yet funky. He repeats a phrase, then changes it slightly, gradually building it up to a higher level.

During Hicks' solo, the piano and bass held a conversation on their respective instruments. Watson played tastefully in the background. Hicks put in some octave tremolos, putting his whole body into his solo. Curtis Lundy, the bassist, played with a lot of feeling, and when he finally took a solo he used big jumps mixed in with sensitive small movements - beautiful! The flute led the horns out on the head.

"It's Easy to Remember" was the next piece, with the melody interpreted by Wood on alto flute. The most memorable part of this tune was the easy grooving alto solo. This was followed by "Life," an original tune in 6/8 time. Watson took the first solo, stretching out on this one, adding triplets and sixteenth notes gradually. Herring solos with an opposite feeling on tenor, more serious but just as musical.

"Rhythm-a-ning" by Monk was the break tune. Hicks tore it up at the piano, letting the music go with Curtis and Cecil. It was altogether a fabulous evening.

by Lucy Galliher

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