By Edward Kliszus
The Maurizio Spista Groove Jazz Funk Organ Trio was tonight in the Birdland Theater.
Bringing a rhythm section to the stage is a commanding statement. After all, the rhythm section powers and supports a big band or other jazz combos. A virtuoso rhythm section is unleashed when performing as a unit without regard to singers, brass, and wind players.
Spista began with a shuffle beat for a blues number. The guitarist played the head, and each trio member soloed and traded with the others. For laymen, the “head” is the tune’s melody following the song’s form. The form or structure is a tune’s verses, chorus, and sometimes a transitional “release” section that restarts the song from the beginning. With its rich blues and medium shuffle beat, this tune provided the base for a rich, extended organ solo.
With her Viscount organ, Tsurugas showed the expressive power and versatility of the instrument. With her lightning speed on the keys, Tsurugas dexterously manipulated volume, glissandi, organ stops, and vibrato. I imagined the magnificent Hammond B-3 organ with its Leslie spinning to create the classic soulful sound heard in jazz venues for decades. I recall men straining to lug the large, heavy B-3 into clubs for protegees of famed jazz organists like Jimmy Smith or Dr. Lonnie Smith. Modern keyboard technology saves the backs of jazz roadies.
In describing most of what we heard this evening, as is customary, a song or tune is played with the melody intact from beginning to end before the musicians take turns improvising through the song’s complete form. They sometimes improvise through the entire form one or more times before sharing improvised song segments. The band leader can determine the length of their solo, but the soloist frequently follows a spontaneous logical scheme in developing a solo. In jazz vernacular, the soloist may say she’s “feelin’ it” and needs another turn through the form. They may also trade briefer segments as they follow through with the song’s structure. A fun and challenging device is to share 12 bars (measures) and successively reduce the section to 8 bars, 6, 4, 2, and even 1. A fast tune requires an exceptionally sharp mind and lightning reflexes. A member of the ensemble notices immediately if a performer gets lost or misses a chord change.
The sensitivity in how the three musicians communicated was remarkable. It’s as if three artistic minds became one in creating a sonic masterpiece. The slightest nuance of each soloist was supported in real-time by the other two, and one can see and hear their intense visual and aural focus. This three-way focus provides continuity and structure through the complexity of improvising through a given song’s form. At the same time, the song’s character is expressed and enhanced in multiple ways through the beauty and mystery of improvisation.
Maurizio Spista – Superb Sense of Time
Spista provided a solid rhythmic kaleidoscope. His sense of time is superb, and he frequently uses his high-hat cymbals on beats two and four or one and three (in duple time) as a foundation for the colorful, varied mix he provides.
The next song was a surprise as Spista began with a 60s pop-rock beat. It was a fresh departure from the bluesy shuffle and signaled the start of a tour through the 1960s. The trio performed the soul standard “Sunny,” written and recorded by Bobby Hebb in 1963, and it provided for an extended virtuoso organ solo.
And if “Sunny” wasn’t enough of a sentimental journey in time, the trio performed the upbeat song L.O.V.E. by Bert Kaempfert and Milt Gabler and famously recorded by Nat King Cole in 1964.
Wes Montgomery’s song “Full House” from 1962 followed, giving the trio a straight-ahead jazz classic with which to improvise and express the mystique of the cool jazz era frequently attributed to Miles Davis.
We traveled south to Brazil with the bossa nova “So Nice,” written by Marcos Valle and Norman Gimbel and recorded by Astrud Gilberto in 1966. In this song, Tsurugas and Spista playfully improvised in extended and two-bar trades.
A fusion, avant-garde work by Spista exploded into a fabulous virtuoso guitar solo by Bollenback. Powerful, busy drums with walking bass and chord changes from Tsurugas supported him.
It seems we needed to travel back in time, so with the enthusiastic audience catching its breath from fusion energetics, Tsurugas played an extended, pensive introduction for Erroll Gardner’s ballad “Misty”, which became Johnny Mathis’s signature song after he recorded it in 1959.
Funk and Virtuoso Guitar by Paul Bollenback
The session closed with a funk guitar feature, a bluesy organ, and virtuoso drums. Tonight was not just a show; it was an authentic jam session of virtuoso artists guiding their listeners through time and continental travel, gospel, blues, jazz, cool, fusion, bossa, and funk. They clearly enjoyed performing with each other, spoke little, charmingly kibbutzed just a bit on stage (colleagues noted Spitsa as bashful), and gave us a night of great jazz.