Sunday, February 18, 2018

Emory Jazz Fest 2018: Peter Erskine, Darek Oles, Warren Wolf and Gary Motley perform at the Schwartz Center

Gary Motley, Darek Oles, Warren Wolf and Peter Erskine at Emory's Schwartz Center
On Friday February 9th the 2018 Emory Jazz Fest presented a sophisticated quartet at the beautiful Schwartz Center featuring the world class drummer Peter Erskine, the vibraphonist Warren Wolf, the bassist Darek Oles and Emory’s own director of Jazz Studies Gary Motley on piano. The concert on Friday was the highlight of a series of master classes that professor Motley arranged with the drummer/educator Peter Erskine to conduct on Thursday for the jazz studies students. Bringing in musicians of Mr. Erskine’s caliber, to share their in-depth insight, makes the musical educational experience at Emory appreciably more vibrant and Professor Motley should be applauded for his continuing efforts in this direction. Past performers at the Emory Jazz Fest have featured an impressive array of artists including the trumpeter Nicholas Payton, the saxophonist Theodross Avery, the drummer Carl Allen, the bassist Rodney Whitaker, the clarinetist Anat Cohen, multi-reed artist Victor Goines, the violinist Regina Carter and drummer Terreon Gulley.  The Emory Jazz Alliance should also be commended for their dedication to supporting the jazz studies program at Emory by raising awareness of this admirable art form.

The concert on Friday night was a highlight open to the public. A drum clinic on Saturday morning was opened to the public and was packed with drummers who wanted to get some of the inside scoop on techniques from the jubilant Mr. Erskine. Erskine, a roundish almost jovial presence, peppered his Saturday morning clinic and demonstration with some pithy anecdotes about his career and the various characters that he has worked with over the years, from Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan to Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter from his Weather Report Days. 

Erskine’s work can be heard on over seven hundred recordings starting with the Stan Kenton Big Band,  the seminal fusion group Weather Report and the cutting edge group Steps Ahead and including his work with artists from Joni Mitchell, Diane Krall and Jaco Pastorious to Bob Mintzer and Pat Metheny. He is a drummer’s drummer.

I attended both the Friday night concert and the Saturday morning drum clinic with Mr. Erskine. I was unable to attend the Saturday performance where Mr. Erskine and Mr. Oles performed with Mr. Motley and the Emory jazz orchestra and the Emory Symphony Strings.

The Friday night concert was nearly sold out, with the audience anxious to see this talented group perform. The group started with Erskine’s own composition “Twelve” which is a swinger loosely based on Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.” Warren Wolf, whose vibraphone was center stage, took the lead solo; a smoothly executed cascade of high register notes. Mr. Motley seated at the piano stage left, took the second solo, a brief one featuring some interesting block chording ala George Shearing. The bassist Oles (whose full name is Darek Oleszkiewicz) offered a facile, deep-toned solo of his own before Erskine ended the piece with his own rousing barrage.

“Solstice” was the next selection, a pretty melody written by Mr. Motley and featured on his fine album No Reservations Required, released in 2017, but played here at a slower more sensitive pace. Kenny Barron’s “The Traveler” became the vehicle for some nice synchronous playing between Wolf’s vibraphone and Motley’s piano. Watching Erskine was like a lesson in technique. While the drummer for the most part played very laid back, he utilized sticks, brushes, the back of his brush, mallets and every other technique to get the sound he wanted.

Mr. Wolf led the proceeding for the most part when he was on stage. His composition “Sweetbread,” an upbeat swinger, was the next selection and his work on the vibes was light and liquid. He drew upon that tubular sound of his instrument to great effect letting the ring of those metal tubes linger in the air when appropriate. Erskine started to push the proceedings along a bit and Mr. Motley seemed to respond to the prodding with his own invigorated piano work.

Mr. Wolf’s beautiful ballad “Annoyance” from his album Wolfgang was said to be inspired by an annoyingly repeated note in one of Mozart’s compositions. Mr. Wolf, who credits the vibraphonist Dave Samuels as his mentor, can be quite moving on his instrument. The talented Wolf can also play drums, marimba and piano.

Mr. Wolf then left the stage and the quartet turned into Mr. Motley’s trio. The group did a Cole Porter tune “Everything I Love.” The song started out with a call and response between Oles and Erskine. You could see the intuitive nature of these two communicating on the stand as they have worked numerous times together over the years. Being the odd man out, Motley at times during the evening seemed a bit tentative, but on this one his solo work was a fountainhead of creativity and nuance. It became obvious that it became his trio and the three musicians responded to his commanding direction.

Wolf returned, and the quartet did a Stevie Wonder composition “Knocks Me Off My Feet” from his Songs in the Key of Life for the final song. The funky arrangement featured a nice solo by Wolf.  The group took a bow and the audience stood applauding until they came back for a final encore.

The group did an encore of “You and the Night and the Music,” which featured one of Motley’s most adventurous solos of the night. Wolf was as smooth as silk. Oles kept a rock-solid tempo throughout the evening and Erskine made his nuanced drum work look like it was effortless. The drummer ended the set with a rolling tom solo that scintillated the crowd.

The group never got too out of the box but presented a very polished performance that was reminiscent of the sophisticated work of John Lewis and Milt Jackson with their seminal group the Modern Jazz Quartet. 

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