By Damani Malcolm
On February 21st, I settled into a seat at the Cat in the Cream to watch Ben Oglesby’s Quintet play what will probably be Stolof’s final Jazz Forum. I was hoping the group — composed of himself on guitar, Matt Stolof (drums), Gervis Myles (bass), Abe Gold (piano), and Max Schlenk (tenor saxophone) — would take the opportunity to make a statement, and I was not disappointed.
The Quintet opened with an original work by Gold who brilliantly alternated between, leaving huge swaths “noteless” of space and conjuring powerful energy with his left hand. Stolof drove the piece forward, propelling the otherwise sparse composition with an authoritative, Elvin-inspired, bounce. Though slightly disjointed, it was clear the group was still shaking some cobwebs from between their ears while something formidable was being assembled on the stage.
They hit their stride with their second offering, Envisionings by Gerald Clayton. Oglesby’s guitar solo was beautiful. His lilting runs led the listeners through green pastures and lens flares, recalling the revitalizing energy of a sumptuous spring afternoon with his floral language. The tightness the group lacked on the first song began to materialize as Envisionings developed, but the swing the group aimed for truly fell into place as the rhythm section kicked into the melody on the last time through the chart.
The final chorus was rousing— the swelling of Schlenk’s tenor sound fit excellently with the shape of the melody, expanding and contracting as the band took turns riling him up and leaving him to his own devices. Some of Schlenk’s best playing of the day came in his soloing on Clayton’s piece. He called a primal offering out of his horn, marking the canvas of the song with sorrowful lines that left me shivering.
During Geri Allen’s Your Pure Self, the musicians pirouetted through the space the tune’s simplicity afforded them. The song features a tricky melody, and with Myles playing it instead of settling right into walking, Gold and Stolof had a little trouble getting in sync. The song was lovely and spacious, but compared to the others in the set, not particularly memorable. The only thing that stood out was the beauty of Myles’ improvisation. Leaning over the bass and reaching down to the bottom of the fretboard, he began to crisscross notes and double stops, treating the instrument as a loom and weaving an intricate harmonic tapestry.
Schlenk Low is a Schlenk original and the group played every inch of the song as though they knew it as well as he did. The arrangement was excellent. The tune started with the feel of a click-clacking Blakey shuffle, dictated by Stolof on the snare. The swing didn’t mesh as well or quickly as it had on the previous two songs, but by the end of the first chorus the group had gathered their composure, and the timing was together. By the end of the second chorus, Stolof and Myles were in lockstep, swinging harder than Tiger Woods on the PGA tour. As soon as Schlenk began playing I could tell it was his song. He lived on it, transferring those same swelling crescendos from Clayton’s piece over to his own offering.
Gold’s piano comping was excellent. It supported Schlenk’s style perfectly, clearly defining the harmonics of the tune and steering the soloists towards experimental ideas, while avoiding being so heavy as to dominate the space. His solo was equally formidable. Oglesby’s ideas frequently led him to play across chord changes, but it felt as though he always landed right where he wanted to be. He strode forward with a clarity that can only be achieved through extensive practice. Stolof also took an excellent solo, stamping his foot to end the set.
Appropriately, the set ended in sheets of sound hurled at the audience by Schlenk, Oglesby, and Gold. While there were certainly times throughout the set when the ensemble was tighter, and other times where the timing or ideas weren’t entirely aligned, the performance felt like a well-reasoned declaration by some of the top jazz musicians at this school along the lines of “catch us if you can.”