I can't remember the last time I saw a costume change in the middle of a jazz show — if ever — but violinist Marissa Licata's performance with her father, saxophonist Charles Licata, and their band held all kinds of surprises.
For one thing, they packed Scullers on a Tuesday night in January. This is a fairly unknown twentysomething violinist — with an impressive resume of gigs, both classical and pop (including tours with Jethro Tull), but still. Water Level, the album Charles wrote for his daughter — and this band — is just out, and it's surprising for what it's not — a showcase for a slick virtuoso. Instead, Licata père laces his tunes — by turns lyrical and grooving — with a slight avant-ish cast, reinforced by his own affecting Ornette-tinged alto. There are two violinists on the album (Ethan Wood joins Marissa), two bassists, a drummer, and a percussionist. Everyone sounds good, but they're all there to serve the music and each other rather than as background for a solo star.
That was not the case at Scullers. Marissa came on stage alone, in a black, short-sleeve mini-dress and heels, her abundant raven hair falling around her shoulders. She immediately took a big, long stroke with her bow — a loud double-stop with a tincture of dissonance. She built a series of long double-stopped tones to a minor-scale theme that began to ripple with fast notes. The other players joined her — drums (Lee Fish), percussionist (Kenny Kozol), one bass, then another (Will Slater, Sean Farias), second violin — creating a web of cross rhythms that defined the night.
There were odd meters (one, Marissa announced, was in 11), several Bulgarian dance tunes, Astor Piazzolla's "Libertango," all with driving grooves. Marissa and Wood engaged in all manner of double-winged virtuoso flights, playing unison harmony themes, trading solos. And their cold-stop codas to those driving rhythms brought whoops from the crowd. But I would have liked to have heard more of Water Level. When Charles followed up the odd-meter groove of the first tune (the "Gypsy Scene" music from the movie The Red Violin) with his vocal-like phrasing over walking-bass swing, he might have been stepping in from another planet. On the last tune of the night, he went head to head with the two violinists and the rhythm section — it held out the promise of becoming a lovely mess. It wasn't quite, but it was exciting to see and hear the band get a little ragged.
By that point, Marissa had changed into her second mini-dress (an iridescent emerald green off-the-shoulder number with black ruffled hem). All night she was charming and engaging, heaping praise on her band and dad ("Papi"), and thanks on the crowd. "Is this girl beautiful or what?" Charles broke in at one point. Yes, and you could even say bubbly. That's something else you don't see at jazz shows very often.