Jon Ross | 11 FEB 2020
Drummer Emrah Kotan beat out a loud crash. Then he paused. This silence, in the middle of trading solos with tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer, lasted no more than a measure, but it felt almost uncomfortably long. Counting time, perched over the cymbals, Kotan’s calculated suspension showed the depth of his approach to the drums – and even seemed to surprise Mintzer, the guest of the evening.
On Friday, Mintzer – who is most typically heard with the Yellowjackets group – combined his tenor saxophone sound with the Gary Motley Trio during the first event of Emory University’s 2020 Jazz Festival. The next night, Mintzer appeared with the Emory Big Band in a program that drew from his compositions and arrangements, both for the band and the Emory Jazz Saxophone Quintet.
Motley, a pianist and Emory’s director of jazz studies, supported Mintzer with triomates Kotan and bassist Kenny Davis, opening the night with Mintzer’s arrangement of “When I Fall in Love.” Mintzer lead the band, playing on the back of the beat with an assured and relaxed swing, but the rest of the group appeared a little punchy. Mintzer soon worked to bring an overly zealous starting tempo back to a more languid pace. The rest of the band quickly yielded, and the ensemble locked in. For the remainder of the evening, the musicians traversed tunes of complex modern jazz as a polished ensemble.
Kohtan held the key to this tight musical interplay. His drumming had a joyful energy, whether he was splashing on the toms with vigor or delicately sweeping over his cymbals, his body in perpetual motion. Kohtan moved as he drummed — head bobbing in and out, constantly grooving, as his jittery legs kept time on the hi-hat and pounded out exclamations on the bass drum. His playing was intricate and forceful but also carefully crafted.
On piano, Motley was a smooth, delicate soloist and an attentive accompanist. On the opening tune, his rubato chords were followed by intricate melodic lines that collapsed into one another. While Mintzer brought some his own compositions for the band, and a reimagined Yellowjackets tune, much of the program came from Motley’s catalogue. Pieces like “Solstice,” “Time’s Up,” and “Sea Change” were heady and overflowing with pianistic erudition. In these piece, Motley has made musical misdirection and changes in groove the norm. The musicians were well matched for it. On the drums, Kohtan gave both shimmery ballad snare hits and waves-crashing-against-the-seawall cacophony.
Mintzer has a broad, encompassing timbre that is naturally dark but takes on a bell-like quality as he approaches the upper reaches of his horn. Throughout the evening, he used extended saxophone techniques sparingly, concentrating on creating detailed solos crammed with notes in the middle and upper registers of his saxophone.
The high-intensity bebop belied his presence in a hyper-literate modern band, and nothing of the fusion-based Yellowjackets crept up until the end of the evening. With a short explanation, Mintzer picked up the electronic wind instrument he often plays with the group for an improvised solo. The instrument itself looked like e a futuristic recorder with flashing lights, and while it was capable of producing a range of electronic sounds, activated by blowing into the machine, Mintzer primarily created a timbre reminiscent of a heavily programmed and modified steel drum.
“Anyway,” Mintzer said with modesty during his short explanation of the tool. “Either you like it or you hate it.”
The electronics, and the closing tune “Runferyerlife,” were a fitting nod to a musical association with the Yellowjackets that is now in its third decade. But in a quartet arrangement, and in a deeply resonant hall like the Schwartz Center on Emory University’s campus, Mintzer got a chance to unplug and create mesmerizing, acoustic jazz.
Mintzer will be back in the metro area this weekend with the Yellowjackets for a Valentine’s Day celebration at The Legacy Theater in Alpharetta. ■
Jon Ross writes about jazz, pop and classical music for Downbeat magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and other publications.