No connections

Assaf Kehati Quartet at the Regattabar, Hiromi at Scullers, February 5, 2010
By JON GARELICK  |  February 8, 2010

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There's very little connecting these two shows except that both were jazz and both took place on the same night. So I won't try.

Assaf Kehati is a young Israeli guitarist living in Boston. He was joined at the Regattabar by fellow Israel-Boston transplants Eli Degibri (tenor sax) and Noam Weisenberg (bass). His ace in the hole was the great veteran drummer Billy Hart, who was draw enough for some of the folks in the room who had never heard of Kehati.

Hart lived up to expectations, and he wasn't slumming, either. Kehati has a tone that's rounded and mellow, and also big — not in volume, but in presence. On the set opener, the standard "Long Ago and Far Away," he accelerated his solo into fast bebop runs, but he also left plenty of space in well-deployed rests, and he turned in his chair so he could maintain better eye contact with Hart as the two exchanged call-and-response patterns.

Kehati also has an open writing style, with plenty of dynamic and textural variety — which became even more apparent when, after a couple of numbers, he brought out Degibri (a veteran of Herbie Hancok's late-'90s sextet and more recently with Al Foster). The band patiently worked over Kehati's melody lines, gradually building to more-and-more-elaborate improvisations, Degibri cramming more notes into each phrase, pushing himself into the upper register. On the gentler side of things, both Degibri and Kehati gave beautiful treatment to the melody of Hart's "Lullaby for Imke." Kehati's "Mr. Mario" was an episodic portrait, with all manner of tempo and thematic shifts and a great 6/8 African groove by Hart and Weisenberg. "Don't Attack" was another varied piece, beginning with rubato ballad tempo and reaching a high point as Kehati moved a fast repeated eight-note pattern up and down the fretboard against Hart's slow, steady roll. This was a group sensitive to the pieces they played and to one another.

Born in Hamamatsu, in the Shizuoka prefecture of Japan, the 30-year-old Hiromi Uehara did five years at Berklee, and she's become a young star, with daunting technique and a stylistically flexible electric band, Sonicbloom. But these days, she's working a solo-acoustic CD, Place To Be (Telarc). Both her Scullers sets sold out.

There's not a lot of ambiguity in a Hiromi performance. (I've been ambivalent about her band's performances and recordings.) She likes pop-song directness, and she goes for big colors and big crowd-pleasing effects. But she sure can play. In the second set at Scullers, she began with a sprightly little swing tune (out of Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson) that ambled along pleasantly for a chorus and then — BOOM! — went up-tempo by quadruple warp speed, with flurries of double octaves obliterating the stride rhythms. Hiromi was most breathtaking at those high speeds, but she also knew how to quiet those finger-blurring runs down to a silky whisper. "Green Tea Farm" was a lovely folk-like ballad. "B.Q.E." — named for the Brooklyn Queens Expressway — conjured moving traffic with its stunning motoric single-note pattern and car horns with a few spare dissonant second intervals. For the one "cover," Pachelbel's Canon, she doctored the piano strings to get a harpsichord effect before taking off into an open-string bluesy improv. Elsewhere, there was proto-rock boogie-woogie, walking-bass swing, some harp-like strumming inside the piano, a laugh-provoking snatch of "Flight of the Bumblebee." Hiromi often vocalized with her playing or rose to her feet for a climax.

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