Some outdoor summer music series are better than others, but not everyone would agree on which are the good ones. Personally, I most like those that have an eclectic mix of musical genres and that also avoid tribute bands. Luckily for me and my tastes there are a number of summer series in the Philadelphia region that hire the kinds of acts that I’m a sucker for. One of those is Cheltenham Township’s Concerts In The Park, whose shows are staged in the sprawling and meticulously maintained Curtis Arboretum. There, a mile or two from Philadelphia, musicians mount a modest stage at 5 PM on five summer Sundays. They and their audiences are surrounded by, and are under, many large trees.
I’ve been impressed for years by some of the Cheltenham bookings. In 2014 my wife Sandy and I, accompanied by two of our friends, went to the Curtis Arboretum to see and hear Geoff Muldaur, who has been crisscrossing the USA and other countries as a musician for decades. Geoff began to make his name in 1963 as a member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. And there he was, so many years later, performing his folky-bluesy-jazzy repertoire on acoustic guitar at the arboretum.
On a recent Sunday, Sandy and I, with the same two friends, sat beneath some leafy limbs at Curtis to take in another example of thinking-outside-the-box scheduling, the Duane Eubanks Quintet. This jazz outfit is more commonly witnessed in clubs. Somehow I didn’t hear Duane say from the stage that he wasn’t used to playing at settings such as Curtis, but my friend assured me that he did. Eubanks, a suburban New York City-based trumpeter with a first-rate résumé, brought along with him four fine and established members of the jazz world.
Duane Eubanks comes from a very musical family. He grew up in Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy section, so his Curtis gig wasn’t far from his childhood home. His pianist mother, who gave lessons to prominent jazz players, helped spark a musical flame in some of her children. Look at the results: Duane’s oldest brother, Robin, is a well-regarded jazz trombonist. Duane’s second-oldest brother, guitarist Kevin, became famous as the band leader for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Of the four male Eubanks offspring, only Shane, Duane’s twin, is not motoring on the professional musician highway.
Duane plays trumpet really well. Throughout the Curtis show I gave a mental thumbs-up to his imagination and clean lines. He wasn’t flashy, didn’t spend inordinate amounts of time swirling around in his instrument’s nosebleed zone. What he did was this: He spun worthy tales with his horn, filling his solos with strong ideas, and balanced that with terrific technique. I don’t think I had ever seen him in concert before. I was impressed.
Eubanks and company primarily stayed in the hard bop bag, with two excursions, which I wasn’t crazy about, into the borders of smooth jazz territory. The tough and driving stuff and the one unadulterated ballad, though, were terrific and had my head swaying. On board with Duane was tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton. Burton’s robustness and energy owed debts to John Coltrane, his more meditative moments to Dexter Gordon. David Bryant was a whiz on electric keyboard, an attentive musician filling spaces deftly when Duane or Abraham soloed, his fingers flying fast and furious when he himself took the lead. Corcoran Holt, on upright bass, helped power the band with notes that sometimes boomed, sometimes cooed. I thought that he was great. And the in-demand drummer, Eric McPherson, was all over his kit, rat-a-tat-tatting on his snare drum, whacking à propos accents on his cymbals. I didn’t particularly enjoy his work on the two aforementioned smoothed-out numbers, but let’s put them aside. I already have.
The tune I maybe liked the best was the first set’s opener, a Eubanks original titled Slew Footed. It went on for 20 minutes. Slew Footed was a hard romp, a controlled yet convulsive affair. Each musician took long propulsive solos. Each listened carefully to what the others were saying. The onstage musical conversations were animated and keen.
Halfway through the second set Eubanks brought to the stage a guest vocalist, TC III. I used to see him perform at venues all over Philadelphia, but hadn’t in 20 or more years. He sang on two songs. TC III took hold of the first tune, Moanin’, from its opening notes. I had forgotten just how fine a singer he is, bluesy and direct. Think Eddie Jefferson. Think Joe Williams. Moanin’, a gutsy marriage of the blues and gospel, was a staple of Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers. I loved the way that TC III and the Eubanks group belted it out.
I’m a stickler for good audio projection. Too often at concerts, in venues small to enormous, the sound quality doesn’t cut the mustard. At Curtis the sound guy got it right. Every instrument, and TC III’s vocals, came through loud and clear. There was no muddiness in the mix. All of this added to my enjoyment of the show. As did the weather. For much of the late afternoon and early evening, dark clouds massed and inched along far overhead. I was certain that a downpour was in the works, especially after a dozen or so raindrops plunked me around 6:30 PM. Amazingly though, not another drop fell after that.
(Photographs by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)
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