June 14, 2024

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CD review: The Kirk Lightsey Quartet – Live In Cologne – 2023: Video. CD cover

Eighty-five years old and still swinging, pianist Kirk Lightsey is the last in the line of great Detroit pianists that includes Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones – the guys who used to go and listen to Art Tatum in Toledo in the 1930s.

Kirk Lightsey, the lean, hawk-faced, giant-handed pianist from Detroit via Paris, but his talent for energising the players around him burns as brightly as ever, and his improvisations (which have paid respect over the years to inspirations from Nat King Cole and Thelonious Monk to Chopin) retain their cogency, colour and impatient elegance.

Lightsey came a little later, but he went to school with Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, recorded frequently with Chet Baker in the Sixties, and played with Sonny Stitt and Bobby Hutcherson. And now here he was at Ronnie Scott’s, courtesy of London’s own Alex Hitchcock, who secured the gig for him and his drummer, Sangoma Everett. They were wonderfully underpinned by UK bassist Steve Watts, whose playing has a beautiful melodic feel, and whose time and intonation are pinpoint accurate.

The opening Latin-jazz glide, and the counterpoint of Zauner’s soft trombone sound and the weightier tenor-sax tone of Klemens Pliem suggested subdued tastefulness, but the gloves soon came off.

It was a warm, old school mainstream jazz kind of evening, enlivened by the constant interplay between Lightsey and Everett. “Ahaaa! Aaaargh!” Everett would shout. “Yaaaah! Hahahaa!” Lightsey would reply. They sounded like a pair of old tomcats having their tummies tickled. The modernist Hitchcock had to adjust his usual style a little, but otherwise kept up admirably with these two veterans on standards like ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ and ‘Spring is Here’, which Lightsey introduced with a lovely solo piano passage.

Lightsey has been co-leading a European quintet with the Austrian trombonist Paul Zauner at the Vortex, and though the gigs’ declared intentions to honour his late sax-star employer Dexter Gordon weren’t borne out by the eventual repertoire of jazz evergreens, the band quickly stirred themselves from respectful homages into elated flat-out jamming.

On the Lightsey original ‘Heaven Dance’, Hitchcock sounded a little like Wayne Shorter, albeit with added vibrato. In fact, one of stand-out tunes was Shorter’s ‘Infant Eyes’, played in the even-eighths style of ‘Maiden Voyage’, while ‘Pee Wee’, a song Tony Williams apparently wrote for his dog, was a gentle waltz. There was an expansive feel to the set, most tunes clocking in at around 15 minutes. They ended with a rollicking version of McCoy Tyner’s ‘Blues on the Corner’, during which Everett attacked his kit like a fencer, all elbows, knees and shoulders, as Kirk Lightsey showed his appreciation with further volleys of “Hyaaa ha ha haaa…”

Pliem, an agile, Coltrane-inspired performer, was soon swerving through long double-tempo flights, all the more imposingly on an account of In Your Own Sweet Way that had similarly begun in a discreetly melodious murmur. Lightsey uncorked the first of a stream of superb solos – beginning in speculative probings, flaring into outbursts like multiple song-themes rammed together, skimming into fast bebop, baiting drummer Dusan Novakov with rattling chordwork – but his proddings and invitations behind his partners’ contributions was almost as irresistible.

Duke Ellington’s Creole Love Call drew cajoling, wah-wah trombone effects from Zauner, and at least a cursory nod to Dexter Gordon in Pliem’s quoting of the legend’s famous spooky low-toned trill.

Lightsey’s Heaven’s Dance mixed waltzing composure with postbop angularity, the classic Afro Blue stirred the saxophonist to ecstatic ferocity over a throbbing piano vamp, and Ellington’s Mood Indigo brought the best out of the contrast between Zauner’s cavalierly pitched but engagingly expressive tone-bending and Pliem’s controlled power.

It was a straightahead jazz gig that took off – particularly whenever the ageless Kirk Lightsey hit ignition.

1. Blues on the Corner (McCoy Tyner) 7:53
2. Lament (J. J. Johnson) 8:34
3. Throw It Away (Abbey Lincoln) 7:29
4. Pee Wee (Tony Williams) 14:40
5. Contemplation (McCoy Tyner) 8:47

Kirk Lightsey: piano
Paul Zauner: trombone
Wolfram Derschmidt: bass
Dusan Novakov: drums

Live at King Georg, Cologne, Germany, August 24, 2023.

The Kirk Lightsey Quartet - Live In Cologne (2023)

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