Bands that stay together usually play together pretty well. And the Winard Harper Quintet, which opened a five-night run at the Jazz Bakery on Wednesday, is an impressive example of the music that can be produced by a collection of players who have spent enough time together to interact with an easygoing creative familiarity.
But that's not quite the way the evening opened. When Harper, a drummer, opened the set with a thunderous, drum-dominant number, the performance seemed destined to serve as the framework for an exercise in high-decibel percussion.
A few tunes into the program, however, the musical threads began to weave together. Pianist George Cables' "Helen's Song" started the process by laying down a solid groove, Harper's drums became better integrated into the mix, and the fabric of the band's togetherness began to unfold.
The result was a blend of relaxed ensemble playing and impressively forthright soloing. Cables, 53, is a veteran artist who has accompanied Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson (among many others), and his skills are first-rate. His soloing in an untitled, blindingly rapid number was extraordinary, combining bits of Art Tatum and Bud Powell into his own fast-fingered style. And he was equally impressive in his other improvisations, each a highlight, elegant on the ballads, crisp and hard swinging on the rhythm numbers.
The two horn players, trumpeter Patrick Rickman and tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen, also delivered well. Rickman, a virtuosic technician, is an entertaining stage presence. And Allen--with his warm tone and hard-edged drive--is yet another in the line of talented new saxophonists arriving on the jazz scene in the late '90s.
Bassist Eric Revis played a foundation role, soloing effectively here and there, but largely providing a firm rhythmic support. And Harper, to his credit, did not--beyond the opening numbers--make every piece a framework for drum solos. When he did take the spotlight, especially in a piece that featured his intriguing work with an African slit drum, he played with musical insight and intelligence.
* The Winard Harper Quintet at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday. 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. (310) 271-9039. $18 admission tonight at 8:30 and 10, and Sunday at 6:30 and 8 p.m.