Jazz Lions Roar As Washington Rucker Leads the Pride!
Washington Rucker’s homecoming to the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame was a concert to remember. The Booker T. Washington graduate and 1998 inductee into the Jazz Hall clearly demonstrated why he holds a special place in Oklahoma jazz history, as well as among national jazz giants.
If you’ve ever heard recordings from Minton’s, or Small’s Paradise, or any “Swing Street” venue in New York City, you have some idea of the high level of Rucker’s appearance in Tulsa.
The July 7 performance at the Jazz Depot could be called a gathering of the Lions—the Old Jazz Lion Rucker, and the Young Jazz Lions Steven Schrag and Jordan Hehl. That pride showed there is no generation gap when it comes to classic jazz.
From the first measures of Miles Davis’s “All Blues,” the three musicians meshed like a well-oiled and highly rehearsed jazz trio—belying the fact that, as pianist Schrag noted in a conversation prior to the performance, due to scheduling problems the three never had a full rehearsal together as they coordinated their production.
If they had rehearsed, maybe the top would have blown off the Jazz Depot. Maybe not. As it was, it clearly levitated a few feet Sundayevening.
“All Blues,” a classic from Davis’s remarkable Kind of Blue album, can — in the wrong hands — become a repetitive nightmare. But the bass vamp, which is endlessly repeated throughout the song, seemed to take new life in Hehl’s hands. As a matter of fact, all six hands acquitted themselves well.
In the language of bop, drummer Kenny Clarke introduced what came to be known as bombs—accents that helped shape the genre as well as enhance the music. In Rucker’s hands, the bombs became a full-scale and well-aimed artillery attack that gave what can be a tired jazz warhorse a brand new and exciting run for the roses.
Schrag’s piano found new avenues throughout his improvisational tour of the number and the audience was nearly brought to its feet by the time every nuance of Davis’s composition had been explored.
No rehearsal? You have to be kidding!
As Rucker, who acknowledged his Tulsa and BTW heritage early on, explained, “We speak the language of jazz.” Indeed, despite their youth it was clear that Schrag and Hehl were well-versed in both the language and protocols of jazz as they joined with Rucker into Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.” This jazz classic shows both Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban experience, as well as his firm grounding in swing prior to becoming a bop pioneer. The trio smoothly moved from the Latin rhythms to swing and back and forth with Rucker frequently introducing the changes with one trick or another on his drum set. Always fresh, always innovative. And each musician’s break blended as smoothly as a 12-year-old bourbon.
The first instrumental portion of the show closed with Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” the pianist-composer’s tribute to jazz legend Bud Powell. On this, the slowest piece of the first set, the trio proved its ability to play as superbly subtly as it had previously shaken the rafters.
Rucker then introduced singer Cynthia Simmons by saying he’d thought his days of accompanying vocalists had ended (Rucker’s credits include Nancy Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Linda Hopkins) until he heard Ms. Simmons. Between “Lullaby of Birdland” which opened her first set, and “Mood Indigo” in her second, Ms. Simmons showed why she is such a favorite by not only respecting the melody, but also putting her personal stamp on each song she performed. It’s a trick few vocalists can accomplish.
After a break, the three instrumentalists continued along the same terrific lines, and Simmons returned to perform a knock-out encore set. The trio’s second-section highlight was a rousing performance of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” that brought the house to its feet—raising the Jazz Depot roof even higher.
Schrag and Hehl, two of the finest young jazz musicians around, are well-known to Jazz Hall patrons for their numerous appearances on the Jazz Depot stage as well as in the class room. Their sterling performances, in tandem with the brilliant work of a jazz legend three times their age, will go down in Tulsa music history as one of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s finest concerts ever.
— John Hamill and John Wooley