John Kocur offers smoking instrumental jazz at Twins

June 15, 2012

It’s no sin to regard a concert called “Songs of Hope and Love” with some skepticism. It’s a moldy old trope, for one thing, and songs about hope and love are hardly novel. For John Kocur’s Thursday night performance at Twins Jazz, though, it’s dead on. The Northern Virginia alto saxophonistled a quintet (and occasional sextet) through a set of music as nakedly emotional as instrumental jazz can get.

Kocur, a saxophonist so admired in the D.C. area that he’s nicknamed “The Smoker,” dominated the bandstand with his passionate playing. He remarked before playing his “Hope for a New Year” — written in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election — that things felt different four years later, but the shining hope he blew through his horn was as potent as ever. Even more poignant was “The Touch of Her Hair,” as much for Kocur’s powerful composing as for his sax work. The song’s theme was reflective and wistful, the stuff of tender memories; Kocur played it with a guest, trumpeter Steven Gill, and together they tapped into a reservoir of romance that Kocur then capped with an intense, roiling coda.

That intensity was contagious to Kocur’s band. Its radiant interpretation of “Defying Gravity,” from the musical“Wicked,” was distinguished by a joyous opening from pianist Gene D’Andrea (overcoming Twins’ notoriously ill-tuned piano) and a classically flourished solo by guitarist Christian Perez, whose ardor showed in his face and sounded in his fingers. Bassist Karine Chapdelaine’s playing was also emotionally resonant, whether in the gymnastic figures she added to “Hope for a New Year” or the spare sobs of her bowing on Josh Groban’s hymnlike “You Raise Me Up.”

It may have been too contagious in the case of drummer Russell Lucas. A player with unquestionable chops, he is also relentlessly forceful: His deafening solo on Kocur’s “Warrior’s Call” was only slightly harder hit than his accompaniment throughout. (Even Lucas’s brushwork on “The Touch of Her Hair” and the closing “Everything” was emphatic.) Still, in the impassioned context Kocur provided, it worked.

West is a freelance writer.

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