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Nate Chinen’s The Gig: On Set

To wait to review or not to wait: good question

Nate Chinen
Nate Chinen

One night last spring, I took my notebook and my good set of ears to the Village Vanguard for that week’s first performance by the Bill McHenry Quartet. McHenry, a tenor saxophonist with a dry but inviting tone and a history of calmly intrepid lyricism, was working with several assertive partners: Orrin Evans on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums. He’d written some new music for the group, which had only ever played one other gig, in the same room, about four months prior. One of those sets had been broadcast on WBGO 88.3FM and npr.org, and I thought it sounded hugely promising; surely this repeat engagement would be even deeper and more accomplished.

I’d come expecting to be bewitched, in other words. But when I left the Vanguard just over an hour later, I was, with apologies to Lorenz Hart, only bothered and bewildered, puzzling over what I’d heard. McHenry played reasonably well, bringing his unhurried wit to a pair of mid-tempo swingers. And there were certainly moments when his rhythm partners brought the coal-burning locomotion I wanted from them. But whenever the musicians pulled away from known parameters-and under McHenry’s guidance, this was often-the focus slackened and the fires ebbed. Oddly, given that Evans and Revis are regular partners (two-thirds of Tarbaby, a slashing postbop band), and that Cyrille is conversant in propulsive abstraction (an acknowledged master, in fact), the band seemed adrift. “The set’s more open-ended moments felt hollow, as if lacking a motive,” I wrote the next day, in a slightly pained, decidedly mixed review for the New York Times.

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