All bets are off for a jazz supergroup like Grand Slam. Audiences usually look for fireworks from the leader; knowledgeable fans might keep their eye on a key sideman. But when guitarist Jim Hall, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist George Mraz and drummer Lewis Nash unite — as they did at Blues Alley on Thursday — who’s the star?
Indeed, everyone onstage had something spectacular to contribute. Now 82 years old, the legendary Hall hunched into a small chair, causing several spectators to stand up for a better view. He didn’t disappoint, attacking the guitar aggressively. On his own “Calypso Joe,” he built his solo on streaks of bent notes that nonetheless functioned like a rhythm instrument, and on a (nameless) free-form piece he defied Mraz and Nash’s solemn march beat with hard, determined swing. But Hall was working in an unusual milieu: He’s known for clear, in-the-pocket, single-note lines, and Thursday night found him working in jagged, hard-struck chords. In the opening “Slam,” he reeled them off like a hitter swatting baseballs during batting practice.
Lovano was more in character, blowing blues and speed runs with brute force on “Slam” and “Bags’ Groove” (stacking the latter with passionate shrieks), and powering down into tasteful romance on “Body and Soul.” However, on “Calypso Joe,” Lovano seemed unable or unwilling to engage; his percussive tack remained, but he used it to recycle Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins licks. Still, he made up for it with the next tune, riding one note into a blues riff, then an avant-garde-ish line.
Mraz, meanwhile, was the stabilizing force, his deep, energetic walk supernaturally steady throughout. That was a near miracle on “Bags’ Groove,” when Lovano played the melody just behind the beat, followed by a chordal Hall solo that ran just ahead of it. Mraz stayed on track, one-upping himself in his solo by keeping a pulse on his instrument’s low end and a syncopated melody higher up. It capped a night of splendid moments, including a bravura performance with bow on the free-form piece and a mosaic of glosses and slides on “Body and Soul.”
Even among this stellar work, though, there was a clear star. Lewis Nash brought the house down with every solo — and even a quick fill in the middle of the set got people murmuring. He earned it. His work was tasteful and phenomenally clean but daredevil nonetheless: He even made brushes sound like cannon fire on “Slam,” with movements that would break the wrists of a lesser man. “Bags’ Groove” found him jumping the sticks from cymbals to toms and back like a stairway dance routine. Lovano introduced him twice at the start of the set and called his name perhaps four times at the close. Surely he knew: Grand Slam is a supergroup, but the night belonged to Nash.
West is a freelance writer.
Grand Slam performs at Blues Alley through Sunday.