A performance in recognition of the release of its album Codex (Self Produced, 2017), The Brian McCarthy Quartet effectively transposed the sparse, spacious quality of the recording to this intimate venue adjacent to the Queen City’s Performing Arts Center.
In keeping with the stoic, scholarly demeanor of the leader, the celebratory air of this milestone event was subdued, but not so much there wasn’t a discernible element of relaxation and satisfaction in the air once the music stopped and the houselights came up. Wholly in keeping with the holiday season, the cozy confines of FlynnSpace have rarely seemed so warm.
To its great credit, McCarthy and company navigated the transition from recording studio to stage in the same relaxed fashion with which the album’s nine tracks unfold. Shuffling the cuts out out of sequence from the record allowed the ensemble to imbue a wholly different logic to the approximately ninety- minute set. So, after swiftly assuming a brisk pace via the variation on Claude DeBussy’s “Sarabande,” the closely-knit unit then bravely chose to explore and expand upon the more vivid material of Codex such as “Commonplace.”
Granted the group might’ve been a bit less polite in the transitions from one soloist to another— just as the leader might’ve relaxed a bit more rather than force such a jocular tone speaking between songs—but that might well have detracted from appreciation of the subtlety in such originals as “Acoustic Shadows.” Its subject an allusion to McCarthy’s previous release this year, the Civil War-themed opus Better Angels of Our Nature (Truth Revolution, 2017)-which garnered four-and-a-half stars in Downbeat Magazine-the mystery inherent in the number hung in the air because foursome was sufficiently restrained as they played it.
Keeping with the latest album’s concept of musical introspection nurtured the flow of this performance. Homage to venerated pianists Mulgrew Miller (“Miller Time”) and James Williams (“Elder Lion”) drew vocal acclamation from an audience which, with FlynnSpace’s festival seating floor plan, was fittingly positioned around the stage to comfortably envelope the players. The conventions of this pair of tunes provided a welcome respite from the challenging structures of McCarthy’s own compositions, but, more importantly, reaffirmed how deeply learned is he regarding jazz tradition.
Attentive as it was, the crowd was as deeply invested in this concert as these musicians (even apart from the apparent presence of more than a few of McCarthy’s students from the University of Vermont and St. Michael’s College). If ever-so-nonchalant drummer Jimmy Macbride almost stole the show in his second gig with this group (despite the fact he was often reading music as he played?!), pianist Justin Kauflin’s rigid posture at the piano keyboard belied his occasional reflexive vocal exhortations. Meanwhile, bassist Evan Gregor might’ve earned the tag of the Brian McCarthy Quartet’s unsung hero: he is the one who, on the closing number of the set proper, drew his three comrades into the sole sustained collective improvisation of the night.
Introduced by the saxophonist as an original written by his spouse, inspired by one of their favorite geographical spots in the greater Burlington area, McCarthy then did full justice to his manager (and producer of Codex) Linda Little’s tune, “Causeway.”: his playing this super-moon lit night was always engrossing to follow, but never more so as he unfurled vivid schematics of melody while Kauflin, Gregor and Macbride remained in parallel motion with him; in so doing, the four together extracted, then put on display, the picturesque imagery at the source of the song.
That might well have been a fitting conclusion to the show, albeit perhaps one a bit too melodramatic given the friendly atmosphere in the room. So it was wise on multiple fronts for the musicians to, in fact, place final punctuation to their collective statement of the night with a literal tribute to trumpeter Clark Terry in the form of his own “One Foot in the Gutter.” Thereby book-ending the selection of material with covers and restating their shared devotion to the great tradition of jazz music, the Brian McCarthy Quartet was equally emphatic in underlining the intent of their concept as well as the proudly exhibiting their execution of it.