My wife and I have been wanting to go to Ivories Jazz Lounge and Restaurant for some time now. The chance to see the Mike Progodich Group was the perfect opportunity. Seeing drummer Reinhardt Melz in yet another musical setting was reason enough but finally getting to see Mike Prigodich, Damian Erskine and John Nastos all together with Melz made the trip to Ivories a temptation not to be missed.
I have rarely been more surprised or satisfied. I went in with high expectations only to realize that, even then, I had set the bar far too low. These cats can play!
The surprise element was the unmitigated brilliance of the compositions. My expectations of hearing Chick Corea covers were upended by the realization that all of the evening's performed pieces were original compositions by Mike Prigodich himself. The tightness and precision of these pieces was amazing. Our sentiments camped around the thought of "Why have we not seen these guys until now?"
The truth is, I had met Mike at the "Victor Little and Friends" concert where he told me about his group which included Reinhardt and Damian and John. He invited my wife and I to his group's performance at Ivories' and we happily accepted. Again, the chance to see Reinhardt in another genre's setting was enough but Mike is such an engaging man that we wanted to hear him, too.
So, we arrived at Ivories just as the first number "Mexican Mocha" was taking off. When the opening piece concluded, Mike took the microphone and introduced the band: "On bass, Damian Erskine... on tenor sax, John Nastos...on drums, Reinhardt Melz." This was a Who's Who of Portland musicians. Meaning no offense to anyone else, these guys are simply the Golden Glove winners at their positions.
The first set continued with "At 6's and 7's" which highlighted furious runs and coolly weird time switches. Melz thundered forth with a demanding drum solo as Erskine accompanied with repeated glissandi on his Skjold "Erskine Model" 6-stringed bass.
I have heard Erskine on many CD's and have watched numerous YouTube videos of his performances but nothing quite prepares a person for the sight of him live and in action. There is plenty of justification for his reputation as Portland's premiere bassist. He is subtle then energetic, melodic then harmonic, lyrical then percussive. Damian Erskine is a superior musician.
"Play Structure" was the third composition heard on this evening. This was a cool piece with great structure. This was the piece that make me take special notice of John Nastos on tenor sax. He played tight and aggressive solos and was accompanied by Reinhardt's rim play. I try to be wary of comparing musicians with others but I must admit that watching the interplay of these guys and the tone and musicianship of John Nastos, in particular, on this piece had me remembering my old Griffith Park Collection records from...well, a long time ago. John was reminding me of Joe Henderson.
These guys, however, are their own. They are not imitators. They are world-class musicians.
This gem was followed by "Haiku." In Japanese poetry, a haiku is a poem of 17 syllables with the first line containing five syllables, the second line containing seven and the third line containing the remaining five syllables. 5-7-5. Mike explained that the time of the introduction was in 17 but then drops off to five. Mike then said from the piano bench, "I don't know how to count off 17." Reinhardt responded with, "Just count to four." Reinhardt then counted it off and the group jumped aboard.
Through all of these compositions, Mike Prigodich lays down beautiful piano work. As Reinhardt holds the band together, Mike offers melodic breadth with very defined piano craft. He is an astonishing musician and a brilliant composer. His original works are studies in precision. They are demanding and they require the very best of musicians to perform them. He has gathered the best of the best and the results are scintillating. Damian Erskine has even commented that he has "never had more fun or worked harder."
Mike comments that when Reinhardt Melz joined the band, he was afraid that Reinhardt would be "bored" with the material. In response to Reinhardt's joining, Mike composed "The Wizard of Odd" and on Mike's CD "A Stitch in Time," the song title parenthetically states "for Reinhardt Melz."
The tempo in this piece shifts from presto to andante back to presto. John offers a fluid sax solo with great swing from the rhythm section. Reinhardt and Damian have played together in other settings for a long time and their comfort with each other shows it.
However, it is the interplay of Mike and Reinhardt that is so lively. Once again, I was compelled to remember an old record from Patrick Moraz and Bill Bruford. Reinhardt's play drew smiles of appreciation from Damian while John kept a cool face. The piece marched toward the end in a cool corps progression. This was fusion at its best.
The second set opened with "Spice of Life" which showcased some of Damian Erskine's coolest bass work. His solo in the piece drew applause from band mate John Nastos. The song took on a sweeping and grand lyricism which came to a sudden stop. This may have been the highlight of Damian's work on Wednesday evening.
That lyricism was supplanted by a scorching pace in "Spanish Swordfight." The song was composed for Mike's son Adic. The quick tempo from Damian elicited a smile from John whose own solo literally took him to his tiptoes. Reinhardt's precision and pacing left Damian and John laughing in approval.
Meanwhile, seated near us was 72 year old drummer Rick Selleck. It was a treat watching him admire Reinhardt's drumming and the whole band, in general. In describing what he was witnessing, Rick also used the word "World Class." He should know, being world-class himself. Throughout his 54 year career, he has played with everybody, everywhere, including Gene Harris, Trini Lopez' Big Band and Paul Bley. Rick's assessment was that these guys would be fetching huge prices for their performances anywhere else and that Portland does not realize how lucky Portland really is to have musicians of this superiority here.
In the final set, George Colligan sat in, first, for Reinhardt at the drums and then at the piano for Mike. It was great fun watching Reinhardt admire his drum work and later watching Mike cheering him at the piano.
By this time, the audience had thinned out and it was "fun for the band" time. The musical chairs with George Colligan was amazing. All the while, John and Damian held their own positions and were working incredibly together. The final set concluded with back-slaps and cheers from the band for each other.
This is a group to be witnessed at any possible opportunity and as soon as possible. I took too long to see them live. Don't make the same mistake.
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