Monday, July 24, 2017

Pianist Kevin Bales 50th Birthday Bash: Bringing Out the Best in Atlanta's Jazz Community

Kevin Bales

What happens when one of the Southeast’s most sought-after jazz pianists- in  jazz parlance “one bad mf of a player”- wants to celebrate turning fifty and invites friends and fans to a birthday bash at a local jazz club/restaurant? You get a spectacular evening of song, camaraderie, and for the pianist, a humbling showering of respect and love that cannot be overstated. That is exactly what happened this past Friday evening at the Mason Tavern, on Clairmont Road in Decatur, when locally based pianist/educator Kevin Bales decided to celebrate his own personal milestone by sharing his music with family, friends, musical contemporaries and members of the Atlanta jazz community.

Tavern operator and jazz impresario Sam Yi-of Churchill Grounds fame- has been presenting jazz at the Tavern for the last five months and so it was no surprise when Bales asked Yi if the restaurant could accommodate his planned two-day birthday celebration.

Bales studied music at University of North Florida where he was mentored by legends saxophonist Bunky Green, bassist Ben Tucker and multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan.  Over the years, he has toured with Green, guitarist Nathen Page and vocalist Rene Marie. His brilliant sideman work can be heard on multiple recordings by Marie (one nominated for a Grammy); on Blue Note with trumpeter Marcus Printup; on records by Green, Sullivan and Page; as well as on recordings with local trumpeters Joe Gransden and Dr. Gordon Vernick. He has also recorded as a leader of his own piano trio and can be seen performing regularly around the Atlanta area. The energetic Bales also maintains a dedicated teaching practice at his studio in Tucker.

This past Friday night was truly special for Bales, he had hired a core rhythm section to play with him for the two nights of celebration; a joyful way to demonstrate and share his love of this music and the importance it has had on his life. The response from fellow musicians who wanted to play with him-celebrate his life of music- was so overwhelming that some who showed up never got a chance to play. No matter, the music was inspiring and the variety of talent was truly broad brushed.

Proprietor Sam Yi introduced the core band members, sometimes failing to find enough superlatives to describe their talents. The drummer Leon Anderson, Jr., now living in Tallahassee, Florida, was a special guest that Bales had summoned up for this gig. Bassist Billy Thorton, guitarist Trey Wright and saxophonist Sam Skelton rounded out the core group.

Sam Skelton
In talking to the pianist before the start of the set, Bales indicated that he had not prepared a set list of songs for the set, preferring to allow the spirit to move him in the right direction. It was a method that bubbled with entusiastic imagination.

They started off with the Victor Young classic “Stella by Starlight.”  Trey Wright, an accomplished guitarist and educator at Kennesaw Satet, took the first solo adding thoughtful, fluid lines to the melody as the rhythm section pushed the pace. The respected saxophonist Sam Skelton, who heads the jazz studies program at Kennesaw, took hold of the song and wrapped it around his fingers, twisting it taut, turning it to his whim before loosening it again, with a dazzling display of powerful virtuosity and control. Bassist Thorton probed the edges of the composition with rhythmic assurance. When Bales took his solo you could see the whirlwind developing. With a cascade of notes pouring out of his electric keyboard, Bales was often so driven to expression that he would elevate off his seat, creating his own tornado of sounds, you could hear the whoosh around him. He was clinging to his keyboard as if he might be spun off by the sheer centrifugal force of his playing. It was just a small glimpse of what was to come. Drummer Anderson seemed to be bidding his time, keeping the pace, but restraining himself at first; getting the lay of the terrain. His reticence was fortunately short-lived, as there were many times during the performance that his playing mesmerized the crowd with its sheer inventiveness.

Trey Wright and Kevin Bales
Bales took to the microphone to thank the full house of patrons for coming out to help him celebrate  this milestone. He acknowledged the presence of his family in the house; his son, daughter and future son-in law were happily all present, but what seemed to make him most nervous was the presence of his mother in the audience. Bales was especially moved by her attendance, intimating that she hadn’t seen him perform in several years. He dutifully dedicated the next song to her, the spiritual “Just A Closer Walk with Thee.”  The hymn, often played at New Orleans funeral services, is known for its gospel roots. It was beautifully rendered by pianist and his band, with drummer Anderson venturing into more creative grounds here.

Leon Anderson Jr.
With so many musicians in attendance, many anxiously waiting to perform in the pianist's honor, the guests started to make their way up to the stage. Two singers, Laura Coyle and Tom Dean, perfromed a few impromptu numbers. Duke Jordan’s "Jordu" was a sung as a duet that featured some deft scatting by both the lyrical Coyle and the raspy Dean, to the audience’s delight. Dean did his own interpretive, off-beat version of the Judy Garland classic “Over the Rainbow” and then the two returned to do a scat version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Bales was at his most animated on this Edgar Sampson classic(made famous by Benny Goodman), tearing up the keyboard, bursts of creativity  pouring out of him like a gush of water from a bursting dam. The audience cheered in appreciation.
Tom Dean and Laura Coyle
After  a five-minute jazz-time break that was more like thirty, comedian Jerry Farber took to the microphone had the audience laughing, as he told one of his famous jokes before wishing Kevin a Happy Birthday. 

The second set started when Neal Starkey, a valued mentor that Bales acknowledged was crucial to his development when he first came to Atlanta, took the bass chair for a couple of songs, as tenor saxophonist Mike Walton, a regular member of the Joe Gransden Big Band,  did a stirring, Coltrane-inspired version of Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile.”
Mike Walton and Neal Starkey

Vocal stylist Virginia Schenck, who has several recordings with Bales accompanying her on piano, did a theatrical version of  the classic “Nature Boy.”  

Pianist Kenny Banks Sr., one of several fellow pianists who showed up to honor Bales, settled into the keyboard, starting a house-stirring Blues, supported by Thorton on bass, and Anderson percolating on drums,  Banks Sr. knows his blues bringing a different level of funk and soul to the keyboard. The rhythm section got into his groove and then saxophonist John Sandfort sat in to give a soulful solo of his own invention.

Trumpeter Russell Gunn, one of Atlanta's premier musicians and a former member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, surprisingly popped in unannounced  for a cameo, after Sandfort’s solo. The fiercely powerful, take no prisoners Gunn, blasted this blues into the stratosphere with a brief but powerful solo that got right to the heart of the song's sentment and had the audience on its feet. The trombonist Saunder Sermens also joined in with a softer, more deliberately paced solo. 

Leon Anderson Jr., Russell Gunn and Billy Thorton
The evening continued with Kevin Smith taking over the bass chair as the Armenian cellist/vocalist, Arpenik Hakobyan sang a sensitive version of the classic “Autumn Leaves.” Pianist and Director of Jazz Studies at Emory University, Gary Motley took over the keyboard from Bales and joined by Anderson, Skelton and Smith did a rousing version of “Close Your Eyes.” The evening closed out, past the midnight witching hour, to the house singing Happy Birthday to Bales, led by his daughter, and with Motley and Bales dueling at the cramped electric keyboard to a roaring finale.
Billy Thorton and Kenny Banks Sr.

Due to time restraints, many musicians who came never had the opportunity to play. I saw Joe Gransden, E.J. Hughes, Nick Rosen, Tia Rix and others all in attendance and support. To say that it was a memorable evening would be an understatement, but clearly the event represented some of the best the Atlanta jazz community has to offer and is a testament to how much love and respect pianist Kevin Bales inspires. 

Kevin Smith, Gary Motley and Kevin Bales

1 comment:

  1. It was fate to come here at this place. It really paves the way for me to want to go out more. I was fortunate enough to have seen this excellent event space NYC with my friends. The entire space feel warm and intimate.