Last Friday night, Lawrence students and Appleton residents filed into the chapel in eager anticipation of the Jeremy Pelt Quintet concert. The concert was not as well attended as last term’s John and Gerald Clayton concert, — which attracted an audience that nearly filled the chapel — but the relatively small audience was still enthusiastic.
In addition to Pelt, a trumpet player, Friday’s quintet featured four well-established jazz musicians — tenor saxophonist JD Allen, pianist Danny Grissett and bassist Dwayne Burno — as well as the younger and lesser-known drummer Jonathan Barber.
This lineup nearly replicates that of Pelt’s newest album, “Soul,” with the exception of drummer Gerald Cleaver.
But the slightly-modified quintet that played Friday still seemed in its element. The quintet members were clad in black suits as they fashionably strolled on stage and quickly began the first tune of the night, titled “Second Love.”
“Second Love” was surprisingly relaxed for an opener. Barber sensitively used brushes throughout, and the tune’s melody and slow tempo evoked flavors of cool jazz.
They followed “Second Love” with “Tempest,” a song Pelt wrote about Hurricane Irene. The quintet channeled this inspiration during their performance, which was loud, fast and chaotic.
Barber’s playing was exceptionally busy; sometimes it was a bit much given the chapel’s unforgiving acoustics. Pelt, Allen and Grissett each soloed on “Tempest,” and Allen’s solo was especially long and intense. He built the solo slowly and played expressively — he was never gimmicky or superficially impressive.
Pelt finally introduced the band after “Tempest,” and the audience seemed to appreciate his haphazard humor — he sarcastically described Appleton as a “wonderful jazz metropolis” and cleared his throat before pronouncing the title of his album in a smooth, low voice.
The band was at its best when it played slowly and quietly. It played two fairly slow pieces consecutively — the fourth and fifth of the concert — and while the dearth of in-your-face note barrages may have frustrated some audience members, the calmer environment allowed the band to thrive.
“The Story,” the first of the two quieter pieces, began with several bars of a slow, heavy-swinging ride cymbal beat. Pelt and Allen then entered with the harmonically luscious melody, which flowed into another commanding Allen tenor solo.
Allen left the stage after the tune ended, and the remaining quartet played the Shirley Horn ballad “You Won’t Forget Me,” which Pelt later dedicated to Whitney Houston. It proved to be a spectacular tribute.
Grissett took a short and sparse solo, but the song featured Pelt’s playing. He restrained himself, venturing into his higher register to add emphasis, but never for too long. Pelt’s complementary band members also played minimally and allowed his beautiful sound to resonate throughout the chapel.
Burno’s playing was particularly noteworthy; he had a remarkably solid, but not mechanical, grasp of the slow pulse and added delicate embellishments that kept the lengthy ballad interesting.
But while it was great to hear Burno during the ballads, he and Grissett were virtually inaudible during some of the louder pieces. Sometimes it was even hard to hear the sax solos.
These kinds of balance issues regularly plague chapel performances, but Barber’s occasional acoustically-insensitive playing aggravated the problem.
The other problem with the concert was the chapel’s awkward vibe. This was a result of the quintet playing intimately in a room that is the antithesis of intimacy, particularly when it’s only partially filled.
Although certain groups and individuals — such as the Claytons or Kimberly-Clark Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies Fred Sturm — can make the chapel feel warm, Friday’s concert sometimes felt a bit distant.
Despite these basically unavoidable problems, the quintet played intensely. This intensity was most impressive on the quieter tunes, when the band allowed its collective sound to shine.