Occasionally jazz repertory ensembles have been accused of substituting notation for inspiration. But that certainly wasn't the case last night when the Smithsonian Repertory Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Bob Wilber, performed the music of Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges at Baird Auditorium.
Probably no one is better equipped to examine the legacy of these musicians than Wilber. He studied under Bechet, who in turn had influenced Hodges. But, more importantly, Wilber plays the saxophone with the deceptive ease and naturalness common to both men.
Of the 10 Bechet tunes the young ensemble performed, Wilber was at his best working with trumpeter Glenn Zottola on some of the early Bechet-Armstrong collaborations, or applying a big, voluptuous tone to such sultry tunes as "Summertime." On the ballads, his soprano sax was always warm and personal, never once approaching the oboe-like stridency favored by many musicians today.
That special sensitivity was even more apparent when Wilber played alto and turned to Hodges for inspiration. Here, the addition of trombonist Tom Artin and saxophonist Bob Kindred fleshed out several vibrant and colorful tunes associated with Hodges, especially "Daydream" and "Prelude to a Kiss." In short, far from being a dry academic exercise, the concert was as enjoyable as it was instructive.