Gary Bartz’s reputation is founded on playing alto saxophone with Miles Davis on some of the trumpeter’s more raucous fusion excursions and some airy, slightly meditative jazz-funk recordings in the 1970s. Tracks such as “Music is my Sanctuary”, which projects music as a cleansing force in an impure world, became iconic in club culture. Bartz succeeded because he never let the well-organised dance grooves drown his own jazz musicianship and he remained a free spirit, later recording excellent straight-ahead albums such as 1992’s West 42nd Street.
Although this short Ronnie Scott’s season presented him with his excellent acoustic piano trio, he still projects a slightly otherworldly bohemian stage persona. The opening mantric blues, a chant along the lines of “sadness leave this place, evil leave this room” found the band wearing theatrical masks. The bass player James King – introduced by Bartz with “See, good things can come out of Texas” – had a striking, wizened wizard number with a waist-length, snow-white beard.
It was soon clear, though, that behind the hokum was a serious jazz intelligence that has forged an individual voice by mixing different pieces of the jazz tradition into something personal. His warm tone has a slightly fruity edge, but is laced with split harmonics and impassioned cries. He captures the passion of modal jazz but eschews multi-noted pyrotechnics for a more measured, melodic approach.
The repertoire is also a mix, with Michael Jackson and Curtis Mayfield snuggling alongside a tribute that welds snippets of Coltrane themes into something new. A fresh composition for New Orleans with the vocal refrain “You Can’t Stop the Party” comes complete with rolling barrelhouse piano. Throw in a duet with the drummer Greg Bandy, foot-stomping modal piano and thumping walking bass, and even a lukewarm Ronnie’s audience finally succumbed.
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