Xiayin Wang and the Escher String Quartet
The Collegiate Chorale Presents "Beatrice di Tenda"

Gregg August at Birdland

by Nicholas Fernandez

Photo credit: http://www.greggaugust.com

Every now and then, Birdland jazz club offers a one-off 6PM show, allowing me to catch a set on the way home from work. The early-evening concerts typically showcase lesser-known performers with creative takes on the jazz tradition, and Thursday's album release celebration by bassist and composer Gregg August was no exception; his sextet delivered a sharp set of tight vamps, metric modulation, and careful attention to rhythm at all levels of orchestration. 

August is a multigenre talent, who has made a name for himself as a long-time member of tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen’s trio, and is currently touring in support of his new album, Four by Six. August displayed his composing skills with an eclectic, yet coherent, set of songs that felt as if they were composed from the bottom up. Almost every piece had intricate bass vamps that lined up with winding piano ostinati and drum patterns that prioritized rhythmic accents over timekeeping.

At times, the melodies appeared an afterthought; the horn trio of trumpet, alto saxophone, and tenor saxophone spent the majority of “Affirmation” articulating downbeats. Yet August’s innovative conception of form resulted in solo sections that traversed through multiple rhythmic and tonal environments, offering direction and development to the improvisations.

Even more interesting was August’s scoring for the horns. At first, the frequent unisons and rhythmic melodies gave off the impression of simplicity. But as the set progressed, August’s artistic vision became clear. By often placing the tenor and trumpet in unison, with the alto voiced an octave above, August elicited a haunting sound that exploited trumpeter John Bailey’s lower register.

Bailey was one of the evening’s standouts, channeling many aspects of Miles Davis' legacy and making extensive use of the lower range during colorful, expressive solos. But the night belonged to August. Between determining the harmonic language and offering virtuosic solos, August presented an unusual take on the bassist as leader.

Instead of a bright, treble sound that cut through the band like a horn, August embraced the natural full, woody tone of the acoustic bass. As a result, he was most effective when contributing to the rhythmic pulse of ensemble playing or when soloing unaccompanied. To end the concert, August gave us one such moment, an extended bowed cadenza that highlighted his significant classical chops. Combining double stops and harmonics, August celebrated the acoustic bass in all its glory.

The Gregg August Sextet performs at Brooklyn’s Shapeshifter Lab December 14th at 8 pm.