Jon-Erik Kellso Quartet stays true to classic jazz

Monday, January 8, 2018 - 2:38pm

Modern jazz audiences rarely get the chance to hear early 20th century jazz. While many ensembles play pieces from this time period, few remain authentic to this style of playing. Fewer, still, perform concerts entirely devoted to music of this era and its many subgenres.

Jon-Erik Kellso, however, is not your average jazz musician. His performance with his namesake quartet at the Kerrytown Concert House last Saturday was comprised entirely of early jazz by notable greats, such as Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin. His knowledge of these early jazz musicians was on display throughout the evening, and it was a pleasure to watch this master go about his craft.

Kellso began the evening with a couple of slower pieces such as Louis Armstrong’s “New Orleans Stomp.” Kellso’s simple, relaxed playing style during these opening numbers set the mood for the rest of the evening — this concert was about four extremely talented musicians playing together for fun. The intimacy of the Kerrytown Concert House also gave this performance an unassuming and light nature. It felt as though one was witnessing a dialogue rather than attending a concert. The talents of the musicians were almost swallowed by the intimacy of the experience, almost as though one were listening to a recording of early jazz music and not witnessing a live performance.

As Kellso explained it during the show, this was a concert of four musicians that he had played with since the ’80s. As the night progressed, the complementary skills of these four musicians continued to exceed expectations. They were obviously enjoying each other’s company, pushing one another in every piece to perform better than the last.

The abilities of pianist Jim Dapogny, for example, were on display in solos throughout the night. Dapogny is known as being among the foremost experts on Jelly Roll Morton, and his performance of Morton’s “Good Old New York” was unsurprisingly authentic and enjoyable. At another point, Kellso asked Dapogny to perform a piece “without the trumpet.” Dapogny improvised an impressive five-minute blues piece that modulated between five different keys.

Bassist Kurt Krahnke and drummer Pete Siers also shone in solos throughout the night. Krahnke, in particular, seemed right at home while soloing, at one point over four or five choruses. Siers excelled during the many sections of trading fours (short solo passages of four measures traded between the trumpet player and the drummer) throughout the night, particularly during “I’m Sorry That I Made You Cry.” While delegated to a background role during this concert, these two could, and did, hold their own throughout the night.

The ensemble also switched between different early jazz styles, playing ballads, standards and blues charts. Kellso’s love for the New Orleans style of jazz was another frequent feature of the night. Provided mainly by Siers, this New Orleans feel was given to many of the Armstrong tunes that Kellso chose. At one point, Kellso even explained his love of New Orleans culture, explaining that he visits New Orleans nearly every summer and that it feels like “another home” to him.

Later in the set, Kellso demonstrated his skills with faster swing pieces from the early 20th century jazz idiom. Irving Berlin’s “My Walking Stick” felt quite relaxed despite being played quickly. The fast tempo was barely noticeable given the comfort that the ensemble seemed to possess playing at any tempo.

At no point throughout the night did it seem as though the musicians were falling behind the music, though there were some brief moments of confusion and misdirection, particularly at the ends of a couple of the pieces. These moments, however, were handled with grace — a slight hesitation at the end of “Hindustan,” for example, was quickly seized by the other musicians as a repeat of the last portion of the melody. Occasional spoken directions from Kellso demonstrated the improvised nature of this concert and the ensemble’s almost uncanny ability to work together and anticipate each other’s moves.

The ensemble’s easygoing, humorous atmosphere made the night quite enjoyable. Kellso offered background information before almost every piece, occasionally adding jokes and puns, as well. Before “Hindustan,” for example, Kellso quipped that “hopefully it’s not somewhere we’re invading anytime soon.”

Unlike many other musicians, the quartet resisted updating the rhythmic and harmonic language of this time period to meet that of today. This concert was nothing more than early jazz played very well by a group of immensely talented musicians.