Monday, March 27, 2017

The Kevin Bales Quartet Steams up the Mason Tavern

Pianist Kevin Bales

This past Saturday the quartet of the fine pianist Kevin Bales entertained the patrons of the Mason Tavern in North Decatur. The Tavern has been revitalized with the addition of partner Sam Yi, of Churchill Grounds fame, and his inclusion of Thursday night jazz sessions since December 8, 2016. The formula has worked so well that Sam recently expanded the music to include Saturday night shows.

Yi has been a fixture on the Atlanta jazz scene as the proprietor of the venerable jazz club “Churchill Grounds.”  The club was forced to close last July after a twenty-year run.  In search of an alternate venue, Sam was able to institute pop-up jazz events at the Mason Tavern, a local North Decatur eatery on Clairmont Road, and to date some extraordinary jazz has been played at this welcoming venue.
The venue has featured a stable of local and nationally recognized talent with names like Louis Heriveaux, Russell Gunn, Dave Potter, Craig Shaw, Darren English, Terrence and Deshawn Harper, Marlon Patton, Gary Motley and Chris Burroughs appearing on multiple occasions.  It has also seen the likes of Jason Marsalis, Carl Allen, Rodney Witaker, Theodross Avery and Russell Malone all sitting-in at the Tavern.
Kevin Bales and Sam Yi at Mason Tavern
On this evening, the renowned pianist Kevin Bales brought together a cooking ensemble, with Kevin Smith on upright bass, Robert Boone on drums and E.J. Hughes on saxophones. Bales is one of the Southwest’s busiest on-call jazz keyboard artists. A graduate from the University of North Florida music program, he has toured and recorded with iconic saxophonist Bunky Green, guitarist Nathen Page, trumpeter Marcus Printip, and Grammy nominated vocalist Rene Marie to name a few. His journeyman work as a sideman always adds a touch of inventiveness and energy to any artist he supports. He is a busy educator who offers individual and group lessons through his music company, Kevin Bales Music.

Robert Boone, dr; EJ Hughes,saxs; Kevin Smith, b; Kevin Bales, keys
After a brief introduction by Mr. Yi, the evening started out with Bales and company playing an Ellis Marsalis composition that I was unfamiliar with,” Swingin’ at the Haven.” The group took this easy swinger immediately into high gear with Bales pushing the pace and Boone and Smith responding in kind. E.J. Hughes played a sedate but tasteful soprano saxophone solo. The animated pianist soloed on his electronic keyboard with abandon.  He bounced on his small stool , jostling his keyboard with a joyous elan that shook the stand to the point of precariousness. His fleet right hand blurred the separation between notes with speed and agility.

The set continued with the classic “Time After Time,” a song originally penned for the film It happened in Brooklyn. Hughes on tenor this time using a vibrato-less, soulful tone that had no pretense or flash. Bassist Smith produced nice, plump walking bass notes over which Bales played a particularly bluesy piano solo.

The quartet proceeded with the traditional New Orleans standard “House of the Rising Sun,’ popularized by Eric Burden and the Animals in 1964. Under Bales direction the group took a deep, down and dirty approach to this blues classic. Bassist Smith showed off his arco abilities by bowing a soulful passage. Saxophonist Hughes also elicited some mournful notes on his sparse tenor. Drummer Boone tastefully kept the pace as Bales, a master of dynamics,  led his group up through a crescendo of tension ultimately easing the music back down to a skillful release.

“If I Were a Bell,” a song penned for the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls and made famous by Miles Davis rendition on his 1956 album Relaxin” with the Miles Davis Quintet, was next on the playlist.  The group played this with tremendously intuitive interplay, Boone being especially attentive to Bales musical suggestions along the way. Smith knowing precisely where to place purposeful bass line for maximum effect. This was surprising as Bales admitted to having not discussed the playlist with his rhythm section prior to the gig.

The group ended the first set with the title track from the 1990 Spike Lee movie of the same name “Mo Better Blues.” Bales switched the tone of his electronic keyboard to sound like an organ. The tone was perfect for the gospel inspired composition that had the band cooking, with Bales directing the up and down of the pace at will. Bales is an incredibly facile player who seems to have an inner wellspring from which percolates creativity and expansion in his playing. His ebullient personae is infectious spurring on his bandmates and assuring his audiences a night of musical adventure and steamy delight.

You can listen here:

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