In an orchestra, the leader of the first violin section has the privilege of taking the stage after every other musician is seated and just before the arrival of the conductor. In Charenée Wade's stellar band, that privilege goes to saxophonist Bruce Williams. Judging from Wade's show Saturday night at the Cistern, it's clear Williams has earned that privilege. His work on the alto sax has been described as "comprising Charlie Parker's buoyant tone, Hank Crawford's edge, and Jackie McLean's dexterity." All that high praise aside, what he and his bandmates bring to Ms. Wade's audience is much more than the sum of their technical chops. Fact is, more than a few people left Wade's performance commenting that her band stole the show.
There are lots of ways a performer can connect with an audience. Self-assurance helps, along with a dash of honest gratitude and humility. Even funny stage banter can win over an otherwise skittish crowd. But the most fundamental way to forge that audience connection is to be fully present and engaged. And here, Wade may have undermined herself on Saturday night. She is, perhaps, gracious and generous to a fault, ceding too much of the audience's attention to Williams and bandmates Oscar Perez (piano), Dezron Douglas (double bass), and Alvester Garnett (drums). No complaints there, honestly. We could have listened to those guys play well into the wee hours and would love one day to do just that. But Wade is the headliner. Talented, versatile, capable of creating gorgeous, inventive arrangements for venerable standards like "Blue Moon" — one of the triumphs of Wade's set list — but the vocalist inadvertently made herself something of an also-ran in her own show. By stepping aside too often, she helped leave the impression she was phoning it in for this gig.
There was plenty to like. Even to be impressed by. Wade kicked off the evening with the title cut from her album, Love Walked In, a lively, smooth-as-single-malt opening number. "Blue Moon" followed it and established itself as the benchmark for the rest of the show. On this tune, the vocalist and her accompanists seemed particularly well balanced and favorably represented. The set downshifted a little with "Softly as a Morning Sunrise." Wade's work on this tune emphasized the reach and control she's been noted for throughout her career. Later, her take on the Thelonius Monk tune "Ruby, My Dear" proved to be solid, wonderfully expressive, and revealing of why Wade deserved those top honors in the Thelonious Monk International vocal competition.
It would have been difficult to come away from the show without being blown away by the band's contributions. These musicians have their own projects and impeccable credentials in their own right. Look at any of their CVs and you'll find a Marsalis connection or endorsement in there. It's fair to say that in the modern jazz world, the name Marsalis and any link to it, is just about the closet thing to the Good Housekeeping seal of approval as you can get.
Oscar Perez impressed us with his classical music/Cuban flavored improvisational runs on the keys. Beyond technical prowess, a particularly seductive sense of rhythm marks him out as a jazz man to watch. We got the same stellar vibe from Dezron Douglas on double bass and to his left onstage, drummer extraordinaire Alvester Garnett. On "Mood Indigo" and later "Essex," Garnett pulled off some of the sweetest collaborations between a percussionist and a pianist we've heard in a good long while. These guys seemed to be inside one another's heads, with both Douglas' bass and Williams' sax urging them along, teasing, supporting.
The show closed on a strong note with the Cole Porter number "So Nice To Come Home To." Fresh, light-hearted, and winning, the tune brought everybody back up to a level playing field. That's how we'll choose to remember this show.