XRIJF Day 5 – Karl Stabnau Quartet
During a week when all kinds of acts come to town, from indie rockers, to Cuban percussion dynamos, to genre-bending vocalists, it’s nice to take in a great show that unabashedly plays the standards.
These tunes, from plays, movies, and Tin Pan Alley, wfrom minds like Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, to Cole Porter, melded the sound of European pop in the 30’s and 40’s and blues played by African Americans in the streets of Harlem, and created the seminal works of jazz and swing. It would become known as the “Great American Songbook.” Karl Stabnau, local baritone saxophonist and arranger, plays the standards with respect and understanding of the tradition, while applying his own personal touch.
He and his quarter set up shop at the Central Library of Rochester, underneath the gazebo, thankfully on a warmer day than yesterday. The quartet, led by Stabnau, features his longtime friend and collaborator pianist Matt Valerio, rising star Rochester bassist Danny Ziemann, and Eastman faculty and Count Basie Band veteran Rich Thompson.
They started off with a cookin’ version of “Bolivia,” a perfect way to settle into the humid day. Stabnau, who was mic’d up in front of the rhythm section, showcased his smooth sound and light touch through his interpretation of the melody. Thompson also came out during the and let loose a long solo before the melody came back.
Next they switched the groove to a lesser-known bossa nova by Sergio Mendez, “So Many Stars.” Stabnau was easy and flowing over the groove, in which Thompson used one stick and a brush. Throughout the tune, Valerio substituted chords and extended chromatic harmonies over the changes, creating a nice mix between bebop and Latin flavor. Stabnau’s excellent middle and high register sang through a series of sequenced descending lines during his solo.
Before the next tune, Stabnau introduced a charming anectode about what Sundays meant to him as a kid; church, brunch, long drives, and Sinatra Sunday. In tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes, they opened “One For My Baby” with an excellent rubato bass solo from Ziemann, in which he showcased the range of his bass and his technique, going through single-line licks, chords and double stops, and thumb position. He transitioned into a groove reminiscent of Nelson Riddle’s and Sinatra’s take of “Witchcraft,” which remained througout the tune with walking lines as well. The decision to interpret it as a mid-tempo swing with classic Great American Songbook harmony was an excellent one, as Stabnau provided an interesting interpretation, while keeping the melody to the line of “one for the road” clear, using it a distinct marker to the end of the phrase.
Cole Porter’s work came up next, “Just One of Those Things.” I’m always intrigued when arists play Porter, as he has such a unique take on the style, and it needs to be both accenuated and interpreted. Stabnau and the guys did it justice, and Thompson flahsed his inner big band drummer, playing actively throughout the kicks in the arrangement, as well as highlighting solos.
Continuing with Stabnau’s informed and modern takes, they broke out an arrangement that Stabnau had just finished, Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean,” done in three. It was so smoothly crafted that it sounded like the original, yet kept the melancholy question-and-answer ethos of the tune. Valerio’s tight chords and Ziemann’s diverse solo pulled it together.
Stabnau then took the opportunity to give a nod to one of the great bari sax players, Harney Carney, the longtime member of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. Doing his own arrangement of “Sophicated Lady,” a tune Ellington arranged to feature Carney, Stabanu opened it up with a duet between him and Valerio. Throughout the piece, all members did an excellent job of incorporating ideas and quotes from Ellington’s style and songbook, and weaving them tastefully into the song, from Valerio’s voicings to Ziemann’s Jimmy Blanton inspired licks.
To end the set, Stabnau took a moment thank the crowd for its support of him, the Jazz Fest, and the Library before playing Porter’s “All of Nothing At All.” A faster tune that combined Latin, swing, and double time. Stabnau expertly let the melody breathe, and Ziemann highlighted the solo section with a blistering arco solo.
Stabnau is an expert peformer on the bari sax, and an informed and passionate interpreter of the Great American Songbook. If you’re looking to hear some standards in Rochester, he’s your man.