Sax Greats Heat Up Regattabar Crowd

Boston Globe, November 30, 2004

The legacy of John Coltrane contains multitudes, and when two of his devotees take the stage together, there is no predicting how their musical approaches will meld. The prospect of this creative interplay drew a sellout crowd to the Regattabar Friday night to watch saxophone masters of two generations, Pharoah Sanders and Kenny Garrett, open a weekend stand with their gifted quintet. A dense, rewarding show ensued, roaming the Coltrane universe with ballads, loping blues, and furious sheets of sound.

Still, fans seeking the mystical sound Sanders pioneered in the master’s late years, and still explores today, may have been disappointed. Instead of cowbells and ecstatic shrieks, Sanders, in elder statesman mode, supplied the essential tenor grounding for Garrett’s ferocious alto attack. Resplendent in purple velvet, Sanders’s beard a shock of white on dark skin, he looked more the griot, the messenger of the music’s history, than the avant-garde crusader some expect (or want) him to be.

Garrett’s virtuosity and feeling make him something of a musician’s hero; he never loses track of the melody nor drifts from the audience into his own technical labyrinth. Still, the cascade of riffs he emits, his body arching and swaying feverishly, can risk overwhelming the proceedings. He needs a special rhythm section to clue the audience in to what’s going on, to establish a mood and a framework.

The blues, perennial fertile ground for jazz encounters, helped unlock the evening. Stretching out on “Pharoah’s Blues,” David Kikoski, a pianist as expressive as he is unsung, displayed intensity and drive while keeping a deft, assured touch. Instead of thundering, he swung. And Jeff “Tain” Watts, on drums, employed syncopation and silence as effectively as he did clashing cymbals and rolls.

The heat rose in the second set, with a fiery “Impressions” and a mischievous Garrett composition, “Wayne’s Thang.” By now the pieces were clicking: Nat Reeves, on bass, and Kikoski delivered the swing, while Watts stoked the engines, a beatific smile lighting his face. Garrett riffed harder and harder, drawing hoots and amens from the usually staid Regattabar audience. The band hollered back: a cooking session was on.

As for Sanders, he basked more than he blew; his solos worked the sinews of the melody, expanding its emotional reach. Though he retreated to the rear wall, he remained the room’s obvious spiritual anchor. The closing honors were all his: He reduced the melody into soft, warbly phrases before landing with a set of valedictory honks.