by David Reed
Katy Roberts Quintet
Friday, Sep. 2, 2011
Katy Roberts took up jazz piano after studying African music in Ghana, and she has lived in France since 1990. Given that the French jazz scene is hip to the crosscurrents of world music, I was expecting some kind of global fusion at her quintet’s Twins Jazz show on Friday night. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. This was a hard-driving master class in straight-ahead jazz.
The early set started with a martial drum riff, the opening of Woody Shaw’s “Zoltan.” Over the course of the night, Roberts proved herself to be a major fan of Shaw, that final figure in the lineage of great hard-bop trumpeters. The set included “Moontrane,” also by him, and Roberts’ tribute, “Waltz for Woody.” These tunes all showcased her piano style — bright cascades strategically punctuated with chords, all applied with a sound rhythmic judgment. She swung on “Zoltan,” but switched to a propulsive, high-energy groove for “Moontrane.”
Reedist Salim Washington was featured prominently, playing saxophone on most of the set’s six songs, including a great, boppish turn on “Moontrane.” He switched to flute for his own composition, “Blossom,” an easygoing number reminiscent of West Coast cool jazz. His flute portrayed the blossom, while Tom Williams on a buzzy, muted trumpet played the bee. Cute, sure, but more impressive was the sophisticated polyphony between the two near the end of “Zoltan.” For Charles Mingus’ “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” Washington used an oboe, recalling certain serpentine clarinet solos from the swing era.
As a leader, Roberts didn’t hog the limelight. On most tunes, solos were spread evenly between her, Washington and Williams. She seemed to enjoy the passages when she was just part of the rhythm section, along with James King on bass and Joe Link on drums.
King took some bass solos, but he really shone when playing in counterpoint to the piano and drums, as on “Waltz for Woody,” and especially during a soulful passage of “Self Portrait in Three Colors.”
Similarly, Link was best when playing against the others, and when he opened and closed “Zoltan.” During Link’s solo on Joe Henderson’s “A Shade of Jade,” I missed the interaction between drums and the rest of the group.
The Katy Roberts Quintet showed that there is still excitement and creativity in straight-ahead jazz. They did not rely on the nostalgia and familiarity of standards, but instead picked less-performed works that deliver the “sound of surprise” to today’s listener, to quote Whitney Balliett. The original compositions from Rogerts and Washington were just that: original creations within the straight-ahead style, not imitative or quote-laden retreads.
Roberts has gone home to Paris, but she has been coming to D.C. every September, so we can hope to see her here again.
And Twins Jazz, it bears noting, isn’t going anywhere — and it’s open almost every day of the week. Any jazz fan who hasn’t been is missing out. It doesn’t have the history of neighboring Bohemian Caverns, but it does have Joseph Beasley, who mans the soundboard with friendly efficiency, warms up the audience à la Garrison Keillor, and gives a no-nonsense “jazz police” speech if talking in the audience starts to compete with the music.