Ever since he arrived in jazz in the late '50s, pianist Gene Harris has known how to get a crowd going. That hadn't changed on Saturday, when he played to a sold-out house at Ambassador Auditorium.
Appearing first with his ace quartet and later with an all-star big band, Harris cannily employed well-worn, blues-based cliches that he dropped--usually judiciously, occasionally excessively--into almost every number. At times, these ideas--three- and four-note phrases delivered again and again until the notes blurred, the same chord whammed repeatedly--worked wonders. Sometimes, enough was enough.
But Harris is no schlock bluesmeister simply using tricks to garner applause. He's a hearty swinger with an elegant touch, particularly at soft volume, when he makes the piano seem to whisper. And he artfully uses dynamics, letting his numbers rise and fall, creating delicious contrast.
Harris has used Ron Eschete (guitar), Luther Hughes (bass) and Paul Humphrey (drums) for close to 20 years with good reason: They accompany the pianist superbly, giving him a fat cushion of sound on which to play. In his solos, Eschete offered spirited inventions that evoked a natural bluesiness and displayed an affinity for more complex, artful be-bop phrases.
The pianist began with Thad Jones' tender "To You," included both rousers (an upbeat "Meditation") and jazz classics (Milt Jackson's "Bluesology") and climaxed the first half with a calculated-to-please "Summertime." The expected standing ovation followed.
The much-anticipated inclusion of an all-star big band for the concert's second half surprisingly fell somewhat flat, mostly due to a two-fold sonic problem. The quartet was set up in front of the horns, muffling the larger ensemble; simultaneously, merging with the band detracted from the quartet's distinctive, first-half sound clarity.
Still, hearing Harris in the big band context was enjoyable, and witnessing vibrant solos from the likes of Herman Riley and Pete Christlieb (saxes), Thurman Green and Garnett Brown (trombones), and Conte Candoli and Bobby Bryant (trumpets) is always a plus.