Note to self: Taking notes during a Dwayne Adell set is a losing strategy. By the time you get the hang of one idea, he’ll have moved on to the next — and the next, and the next. By that point you’ll just be staring at the bandstand, mouth agape, wondering how this is possible.
Adell is the kind of genius you only read about, and even people skeptical of the word “genius” wouldn’t hesitate to apply it to him. He has no formal training and reads no music, yet as a teenager he won a classical piano competition by playing Rachmaninoff from memory. He’s like Art Tatum or Bud Powell, a virtuoso of the highest order — higher than that. On Tuesday night at Blues Alley, he was working his favorite milieu: bebop, performed with a trio (bassist Michael Combs, drummer Lee Pearson) and caution thrown to the wind.
Adell is no navel-gazing, thoroughly cerebral prodigy, though. Beginning his set with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Birks’ Works,” the pianist unleashed an astonishing avalanche of the blues. It was not astonishing just for its virtuosic torrents of melody and embellishment (though that would have been enough), but because Adell’s knowledge and feel for the blues was real and it was deep, going on for chorus after sonorous chorus without resort to cliche or empty runs. On “Blue Monk,” played later in the set, Adell not only evidenced more of that same feel but decorated the song with ripples of gospel music and the swagger of Harlem stride. (It contained echoes of pianist Wynton Kelly; Adell may not have studied at the conservatory, but he’s studied the jazz canon.)
The night’s swing was mighty, and for that Combs and Pearson share some of the credit. “Birks’ Works” found the bassist dancing along his fingerboard with stout but lyrical phrases. On the bossa nova “Manhã de Carnaval,” Adell pulled back from his impossible cascades and settled into an Afro-Latin vamp, letting Pearson — who switched just then from brushes to sticks — make an extended explosion on top. (As if three impeccable swingers weren’t enough, Adell even brought up a guest, Pearson’s uncle Vincent, to do a hair-raising vocalese version of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time.”) Then again, Adell could have swung as hard by himself, too: During the piano solo on “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” Pearson simply put down his sticks and clapped on the two and four, letting Adell carry the rhythmic weight.
Absurdly, this spectacular talent had perhaps 40 people in the audience for his early set. Tuesday nights are never blockbusters, of course, but one would think Adell’s reputation would better match his phenomenon. Spread the word.