Flutology: An Inspired Flouting of Jazz Expectations

Monday, March 13, 2006

A jazz ensemble led by a flutist? Uncommon. A jazz ensemble led by three world-class flutists, including 84-year-old, Washington-bred, Count Basie band veteran Frank Wess? Put it this way: Jazz master Billy Taylor, Wess's old neighborhood chum, wasn't the only listener at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club on Saturday night who clearly found Flutology's odd configuration inspired and invigorating.

Wess had little to say except when he was playing, in which case he was his eloquent self. He sailed across swiftly shifting harmonic waters on Charlie Parker's "Bebop," brought soulful lyricism to a quartet arrangement of "The Very Thought of You" and contributed to the opening set "Equal Parts," an original composition based on John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" that made ingenious use of the late saxophonist's harmonic innovations.

Wess's great artistry, however, was primarily displayed in settings that elegantly balanced his gifts with those of fellow flutists Holly Hoffman and Ali Ryerson. Lee Morgan's "Ceora," for example, was one of several pieces enlivened by Hoffman and Ryerson's colorfully improvised turns. Ryerson's alto flute, prominently featured, added shadings and textures to the frontline's now swinging, now seductive allure.

Though bassist James King was subbing for Peter Washington, Flutology projected a fully integrated sound. King was nimbly resourceful, and drummer Victor Lewis never seemed at a loss for ideas when imaginatively accenting the ensemble work or creating an atmospheric prelude for Don Grolnick's "Rainsville." As for pianist-arranger Mike Wofford, his affinity for Latin grooves and the traditions of both blues and bop underscored a simple fact: Flutology is not for chamber-jazz fans only.

-- Mike Joyce

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