The Joy of Saxes


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Composer, arranger and bandleader Jim Roberts was the Charlotte County Jazz Society’s first guest artist with an outdoor concert back in 1991, the year he move to the Orlando area from New York City. He’s been a frequent visitor to the CCJS concert series over the years – and his visits never get dated or tiring.

He brought his Saxtet, with a mighty three-reed horn line, back to Port Charlotte FL on Monday, March 11. They turned in a superb performance coursing through a wide range of jazz material.

Roberts plays the piano, and plays it well in a sprightly style, but his finest contribution is the intricate, swinging extended arrangements he has crafted for the band. There are lush three-flute and three-sax choruses (sometimes a blend of alto, soprano and tenor, sometimes three tenors). A bit of sax counterpoint sneaks in from time to time. And there is ample space for soloing by all of the horn players.

The band included Danny Jordan, Rex Wertz and David MacKenzie on a variety of saxophones and flutes, bassist Mark Neuenschwander and drummer Eddie Metz Jr. This was Neuenschwander’s first performance with the Saxtet. His distinctive, resonating bass line complemented the other players, and kept things swinging mightily in tandem with Metz’s always-solid drum work.

Roberts draws from many different areas in the jazz repertoire. This night featured 14 tunes including two originals. There were only four repeats from the Saxtet’s appearance three years ago.

Those gems, the adagio Joaquin Rodrigo’s from “Concerto de Aranjuez” (transformed into a jazz classic on Miles Davis and Gil Evans Sketches of Spainproject, Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil,” Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness” and Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside," which was the high-energy closer for the night. And even those sound freshened and updated, from Roberts’ arrangements, from the solo improvisations- or a bit of both.

The Saxtet’s 2016 appearance featured only Roberts’ artful arrangements of jazz chestnuts. This time out, he treated the audience to two of his originals, the beautiful waltz “Pretty Lady” featuring the flute chorus, and the more-up-tempo second-set opener, “Breaker.” He also shared a shimmering solo-piano version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”

Other treats: a blend of “What is This Thing Called Love” and Charlie Parker’s “Hot House,” which Bird performed over the former tune’s chord changes; Miles Davis’ “Freddie the Freeloader,” Herbie Hancock’s classic composition “Dolphin Dance,” and film and TV composer Lalo Schifrin’s exotic “Towering Toccata.”

There were three clear highlights to my ears:

  • The piano and flute chorus features that set the tone on the flamenco-tinged “Concerto de Aranjuez.”
  • The band’s romp through Sonny Rollins’ calypso “St. Thomas” was fueled by the Neuenschwander-Metz groove, with the drummer using hands but no sticks for a large portion of his spotlight solo.
  • Roberts’ creative arrangement of a medley of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” and “Donna Lee,” which was based on the former tune’s chord changes, weaved successively through three very different jazz styles. It started with a Dixieland flair, evolved into a Swing tune, then blossomed into a bebop burner. MacKenzie started out on his giant bass saxophone, then shifted to alto sax for the bop segment.
I’ve been fortunate to hear this band three times (2013, 2016, 2019) in the eight seasons I’ve been attending CCJS concerts, and this one was aces.

The concert at the Cultural Center of Charlotte County's William H. Wakeman III Theater drew a crowd of about 350 listeners.

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This story appears courtesy of Ken Franckling's Jazz Notes.
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