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Dave Brubeck Quartet and Bill Smith at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Buster Williams (photo by Alan Nahigian)

From leader Buster Williams’ unaccompanied, opening bass rumination, which clued and cued drummer Lenny White into some shimmeringly rhythmic cymbal sounds, the attention of the near-capacity audience was whetted. With the entrance of Eric Reed’s piano and Javon Jackson’s tenor saxophone the theme of the burner “Dual Force” (formerly “Firewater”) was introduced. By the time it ended that attention was rapt and wrapped up for the rest of the set.

Jackson’s horn catapulted out of the song’s head with fluidity and tenor toughness. Like so many players who came of age in the ’80s Jackson was influenced by Coltrane but more so by Rollins and there is some Dexter Gordon in there as well. Now he is a seasoned, young veteran who, in his maturity, has integrated his main men within his own personality.

Reed has also grown greatly since first impressing people as a member of Wynton Marsalis’ septet in the early ’90s. In his solo he flashed straightahead, single-note skeins but alternated them with two-handed, rhythmic bursts worked obliquely against the main pulse.

Williams, always a highly articulate soloist with a not quite twangy but certainly tangy, resonant sound, used elements of the theme as catalysts.

White’s authoritative brushes set “All of You” in motion for the trio with Reed sketching in Cole Porter’s melody with splashy patches. Then Williams restated it with his hornlike lines before Jackson’s expansive and eventually airborne solo took off. Once more the theme emerged. For a moment I thought it was going to be the last chorus but instead of taking it out, Javon and Eric took it “out,” bending the harmony a bit. Then along came Buster to reinterpret theme again and engage in further, creative deconstruction with Reed. The final statement of the theme came only after some eloquent rumbles by White set in the contrast of acceleration and deceleration. Sitting in the hallowed Vanguard put me in mind of Bill Evans’ classic reworking of “All of You” but this one accomplished reinvention in its own, ingenious ways.

Quiet as it’s kept, Williams’ talent also runs to writing. His “Christina” is a thoughtful ballad he has recorded several times. This version, with the sensitive Reed at its center, was contemplative and calming, capable of sucking anxiety out of the air, if it had existed.

The second of Buster’s solid staples, “Tokudo,” was set up by the leader-writer’s sonorous strumming high up on his instrument’s neck. The intriguing, serpentine line of “Tokudo,” reflecting Williams’ link to Oscar Pettiford, blossomed further in the solos by Jackson and Reed, both beneficiaries of White’s benevolent bombing. Lenny is such a relaxed, in-control driver. If he were behind the wheel of a car I’d gladly go cross-country and back with him. Here he also supplied scenery.

Rodgers & Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” was treated in and out of tempo, beginning with Jackson’s playing of the head and continuing through his improvisation and Reed’s. Eric did his right-hand-swift swing and riffed rhythmically-in its original jazz meaning, not the one co-opted by film, drama and literary critics-which became a dynamic duet with White. Then Lenny soloed, a model of enlightened interdependence, marked by Javon and Buster with periodic, four-note figures.

For the record, Reed’s latest CD is a trio outing on Savant entitled From My Heart, and Williams’ is Joined at the Hip on the Swiss TCB label. Over the years Buster has led many different groups, all of which he calls Something More. He is a resourceful leader in both the way he varies the personnel of his groups and the way he programs his sets. There always seems to be something more.

After the set I went back to the Vanguard kitchen to visit with the quartet. I was wearing the jacket of my hockey team, Gitler’s Gorillas. Lenny, after explaining that he was not a hockey person, asked me about the team and was amazed to learn that I was still playing, and in Hackensack, N.J., close by Teaneck where he lives. “I got to come and see you play,” he said in parting.

When I got home I turned on ESPN’s NHL 2Night to find out what had happened in the evening’s games. At the very end of the program host John Buccigross was naming the three stars of the games. He closed by lauding Chris Pronger of the St. Louis Blues, who had registered a goal and three assists. “Pronger, he announced, “is as important to the St. Louis Blues as Lenny White was to Return to Forever.”

I called Lenny the next day to tell him of the coincidence. At first he didn’t believe me. I told him, “You may not be a hockey man but they know you.”

Originally Published