by Nick Stubblefield
Last Sunday at the Jazz Standard, drummer Brian Blade’s current project, the sextet “Life Cycles,” took the stage and played a forty-five minute set of rapturous, original jazz tunes to an enthusiastic sold-out house. At least, I thought we’d just heard an original set of compositions. As the last note finished ringing, Blade stood up, lightly bowed, and with the soft-spoken cadence of a late-night jazz radio DJ, thanked us for listening to a live performance of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s entire Now! album, originally released in 1970.
Blade made a bold choice by omitting that important context until the very end, and he surely knew that while some of his audience might have recognized the compositions, many of the the casual jazz-listener tourists that often populate the club would not. Assuming I was hearing new compositions, I listened intently to an ensemble that was actually infusing an older set of music with an electric and modern energy.
Blade, positioned at the back of the stage, was the most dynamic and expressive performer to watch. His whole body was an extension of his drumsticks, his wiry frame leaning into the bountiful crashes and fills. Right from the start, his charismatic grin and infectious head bob set the tone for the night — it was okay to think and feel, and to have some fun too. While Blade held court in the center, he also gave his fellow players plenty of room to shine.
The opening two numbers, “Slow Change” and “Hello to the Wind,” featured vibraphonist Monte Croft’s skilled hands while also showcasing his lead vocals. On the lengthier “The Creators,” guitarist John Hart seared through Latin-infused textures with fuzzed out guitar leads reminiscent of the fusion-jazz language of Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew.” He even grooved along with a taste of wah-wah pedal here and there — now I wonder how I wasn't able to tell this music was from the 1970s!
On “Now,” the slowest tune of the night, Myron Walden stirred the soul with deep, airy low tones on the flute. He played alto saxophone and bass clarinet throughout the night’s program.
Finally, “Black Heroes” provided the up-tempo swing tune of the night, with some stellar turns from pianist Jon Cowherd and bassist Doug Weiss. Throughout the tune, the lyrics echo “Freedom, now!”— still a very relevant rally cry in 2018.
While it was surprising to learn that the music I’d just heard hadn't been composed by Blade, what was truly startling was that the Now! album and Hutcherson’s political lyrics still feel fresh today. In Brian Blade’s Life Cycles, Hutcherson’s material has found new expression in capable hands.