There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of soprano saxophone in jazz circa 2016: languorous, long-note introspections and Kenny G. But Jane Ira Bloom is neither of these. Her sound gathers in a gruff tone, a bit of dissonance, knotty-yet-memorable melodies — and, most important, an emphatic rhythmic signature. She demonstrated Friday night at the Kennedy Center that it’s just the means to bring the pithy verse of Emily Dickinson to life.
Called “Wild Lines,” Bloom’s new work featured her quartet (pianist Dawn Clement, bassist Kent McLagan, drummer Bobby Previte) along with actress Deborah Rush, who recited Dickinson passages between (and at times beneath) the musical pieces.
Any thought that this would be a mannered sort of poetry recital, however, was dispelled before Rush had said a word.
As soon as the performers came onstage, Bloom — who, instead of counting off, uttered a simple “here we go” — launched the band into an unmetered but energetic fantasia that found the saxophonist playing her instrument into the innards of the grand piano.
That energy didn’t abate when Rush began her recitations, which balanced stately presentation with remarkable warmth and feeling. As she read Dickinson’s “Alone and in a Circumstance,” Clement crept along in a syncopated vamp that Previte, on mallets, transformed into a strut. Bloom picked up on that strut immediately. The piece was shaped by a recurring rhythmic landing of sorts, a punctuation that refused to be ignored.
Clement’s own solo used it to divide up her phrases. Previte used it to communicate with Clement in a sort of tap-dance routine.
Bloom, however, didn’t make the landings so much as acknowledge them — pausing here just before the beat, there just after, elsewhere a full measure later. Like Dickinson, it was quirky and often irreverent, but effective.
Previte may have been the most important sideperson in the concert. He tended toward a thudding sound that suggested an acid-rock upbringing. This was true even with his mallets — offsetting “I Lived on Dread” with a tribal sort of chant on the toms — and the triangle he used to play off Rush following “A Murmur in the Trees — to Note.” (The tunes were not named, per se. I’m identifying them by the Dickinson pieces that accompanied them.) Bloom exploited his rhythms, and he hers, to great success. Still, the rhythmic matrix of the music was hers, not Previte’s.
Her complex melodies on “One Note From One Bird,” for example, were dependent on her own rhythmic accents and spaces. On “Over and Over,” the whole ensemble was dependent on them, Clement showing a knack for making them her own, in this case with a wonderfully clumpy, Monk-like gregariousness.
“I Never Felt at Home — Below,” finished Rush with a smile. “I don’t like paradise because it’s Sunday all the time.” It was all too appropriate: ending with an emphasis on Dickinson’s oft-overlooked playfulness.
Bloom and company had, of course, been capturing that playfulness all along.