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Saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III echoes Coltrane, but he resounds elsewhere

By Michael J. West,

“At the Touch,” the opener of Kenneth Whalum III’s Friday night performance at Bohemian Caverns, was nearly a dead ringer for the work of John Coltrane’s classic mid-’60s quartet — the most imitated saxophone group in jazz history. The modal tune found Whalum doing a Trane-like slow burn on his tenor saxophone (and a bit of soprano, Coltrane’s second ax) while drummer Jamire Williams and bassist Burniss Travis gave an Elvin Jones-Jimmy Garrison avalanche. Though Lawrence Fields went his own way when he soloed, he dropped McCoy Tyner fills during his piano accompaniment of Whalum. The tune even veered into the changes of “My Favorite Things.”

Excellent imitation, but imitation nonetheless: It seemed to promise a night-long homage.

But Whalum wouldn’t be so easily pigeonholed. For the next hour, every tune went a different direction than the last. His second tune was a Radiohead cover (“Give Up the Ghost”) that wiped out the hypnotic repetition of the original. Thereafter came fervent, offbeat gospel; declaratory, soulful funk; and two pieces of idiosyncratic, hook-laden postbop, one ballad and one riff-based tune. Coltrane still echoed through Whalum’s horn in his phrasing and virtuosic technique, but was tempered by a smoother feel, heartier tone and shorter lines that refined the sound into Whalum’s own.

He wasn’t the only one staking out an individual path. Fields, the lone dissenter from the Coltrane pastiche, spent the evening exploring his role in the ensemble. On “Actually,” the funky piece, Fields followed Whalum with a keyboard solo that picked up the saxophonist’s cadences and phrasing, slowly leading them back to a more pianistic attack; on the closing “Through Hell or High Water,” he veered purposefully and almost immediately off the collective harmonic track and stayed there. As for Williams, whose masterful drum control could be seen in the smallest movements of his wrists, he reimagined much of the set’s rhythmic space. “Actually” held firmly to one beat, albeit one with a unique 16th-note accent, while his gospel-drenched tune “Reverence” routinely shifted meter — first between 3/4 to 5/4, then 3/4 and 7/4.

Travis was the least showy member of the group, but it’s hard to overstate how his rock-ribbed bass held these motley adventurers together. “Give Up the Ghost” and “Through Hell or High Water” gave him particularly meaty licks — the former on upright, the latter on five-string electric — that he delivered loudly, with relish and impeccable time. He was the mortar in Whalum and company’s ingenious construction.

West is a freelance writer.

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