The show last night at Blues Alley was like a fire waiting to ignite -- and ultimately fizzling.
The musicians were more than capable, and their material -- while essentially bland -- was nonetheless an adequate jumping-off point for improvisation. There were sax solos aplenty, nifty vocals and thumping bass lines, all like dry kindling waiting for a spark.
That spark should have been supplied by pianist Lonnie Liston Smith.
Instead, Smith (who will be appearing there through Sunday) chose to maintain a low-key presence. He breezed through the Latin-flavored material offering only fleeting pianistic flourishes and an occasional lackluster solo. An accomplished technician, Smith never unleashed the energetic, muscular phrases that have marked many of his records. His work was smooth and melodic, but also somewhat monotonous.
Given the reticence of their leader, Smith's musicians acquitted themselves admirably. Drummer Tommy Harris and bassist Al Anderson moved from bossa nova beats to funky rhythms with ease, while percussionist Keith Rose added several high, sweet vocals. Dave Hybbard's reed work was a constant delight; his sinewy soprano sax lines had the crowd yelling for more.
Hopefully, Smith will thaw a might before the end of this engagement. The results could be quite hot.