Though long retired from his day job, Washington-based saxophonist Buck Hill is still known to jazz fans as the "wailin' mailman." Now, at 77, he doesn't blow his tenor with the great wind and stamina that inspired his nickname. But as he demonstrated at Blues Alley on Monday night, Hill continues to deliver the goods.
Familiar swing, blues, bop and pop tunes dominated his quartet's opening set, featuring pianist Jon Ozment, bassist James King and drummer Jerry Jones. Hill began by infusing "Tea for Two" with a mellow tone and a jaunty air before warmly reviving and neatly embellishing "All the Things You Are." Because emotion and lyricism distinguish his performances these days, not intense drive, Hill never sounded better than when eloquently interpreting "In a Sentimental Mood" or playing blues-tinted clarinet on "Lover Man."
He still enjoys bop-inspired romps, though, and it was fun to hear his big tenor tone dart across the chord changes to "Billie's Bounce."
Unfortunately, Hill didn't spend much time showcasing another aspect of his talent; he's a fine composer. But "Minor Mode Blues" created a poignant, clarinet-shaded interlude.
Ozment, King and Jones offered close-knit support throughout the set. The pianist was in particularly in fine form, whether subtly underscoring a mood with bluesy accents and lightly fingered chords or devising harmonically sophisticated improvisations. When Hill sat out for a couple of tunes, Ozment turned in a vibrantly colorful performance of "Poinciana," while King fashioned a novel and nimble take on "So What."
-- Mike Joyce