Live review | Tim Warfield: God bless this merry jazzman

Saxophonist Tim Warfield performs at Bohemian Caverns with pianist Neil Podgurski, bassist Madison Rast and trumpeter Philip Dizack. Giovanni Russonello/CapitalBop

by Giovanni Russonello
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Tim Warfield’s Jazzy Christmas
Bohemian Caverns
Sat., Dec. 22, 2010

Saxophonist Tim Warfield is aggressive, he’s pensive, he’s tirelessly inventive and given to smoothly, cleverly changing paths in the midst of a solo.

And he puts on one heck of a Christmas show.

Christmas albums and concerts are perennial, and they can give a serious jazz fan reason to long for January. But God bless this merry jazzman — the genial and dapper Warfield took his Saturday night performance in so many directions it was easy to forget he was running through the same old tunes you’ve heard 101 times in CVS since November.

For the second year running, Warfield performed his “Jazzy Christmas” show at Bohemian Caverns. He brought along vocalist Joanna Pascale, his frequent collaborator on the Philadelphia scene, and the rest of his sextet: trumpeter Philip Dizack, pianist Neil Podgurski, bassist Madison Rast and drummer Chris Beck.

To start Saturday night’s second set, Warfield harmonized on soprano with Dizack over the half-timed melody of “Joy to the World.” Their modal rendition stretched to languorous but not lazy lengths. Dizack made the strongest statement in his solo, sparring with himself as he repeated passages until they folded into new ideas, always leaving ample space in between.

Then Pascale made her entrance with “Oh Christmas Tree,” the most confounding moment of the night. Why the slow, melodramatic take on this innocuous carol? Her voice was strong as ever, but as she and Warfield’s tenor did their best to pour earnestness into the piece (“Oh Christmas tree / how lovely are your branches”), the whole effort came off feeling misdirected.

Thankfully, the group’s high-flying, raucous, Latin-inflected rendition of “Let It Snow” picked things up and took them ten levels higher. After Pascale sang an impassioned and faithful theme, Warfield again took a soprano solo, as he often does. He’s right up there with Branford Marsalis, as one of the players best able to reclaim the soprano from the smooth jazz musicians who absconded with it more than two decades ago. So it was thrilling to hear Warfield work his magic; his wildly melodic flights had the audience hooting, and brought Beck’s clattering energy into full-throttle abandon. But equally enthralling were Warfield’s startling quacks of percussion, indifferent to melody and blasted from the horn in syncopated stabs. Smooth, no – infectious, yes.

Podgurski, who up to this point had hung back with more than due deference, zipped and shot through his solo like a mad genius, oozing with inspiration and precision. He traveled further and further out, then tumbled back into his key – “Let it snow acid snowflakes,” seemed to be the refrain.

Pascale sang an articulate rendition of “Snowfall,” the lesser-known classic, before the set concluded with a deliberate and forward-charging, instrumental “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that found Beck blowing up the almost fastidious dynamic with critical bouts of syncopation.

All in all, Warfield’s post-bop ensemble rose above the tame, rote feel of so many “jazz Christmas” offerings. It was a fitting way to cap off Bohemian Caverns’ jazz calendar for this year – the club’s best in recent memory. Through December’s snowy haze, there appears to be a bright future for Warfield, and for this venue.

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