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This month's Jazz Avenues column 

by Steve Monroe


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Carl Grubbs Coltrane Concert Sept. 2014


Grubbs and Shaw at Annual Coltrane Celebration

By Steve Monroe


On that warm late summer afternoon, with sunlight splashing over the landscaped lawn outside the War Center for the Arts at St. Paul’s School in Brooklandville,the artistry of the Carl Grubbs Ensemble and specialguest Jaleel Shaw perfectly matched the natural beautyof the rolling hills and lush trees surrounding the venue.

The occasion on September 20th was the annual John Coltrane Celebration Concert. A large, capacity crowd gathered in the Ward Center to hear saxophonist and senior jazz statesman Grubbs, who led off each set playing with his St.Paul’s Jazz Band students.A Philadelphia native who settled in Baltimore in the early1980s, Grubbs received lessons as a youngster from Coltrane,who was married to Grubbs’s cousin, Naima. Grubbs went on to make his own name in the music and earn laurels as an educator as well as a dynamic musician, composer and bandleader.He has taught at St. Paul’s since 1994 and has beenDirector of Jazz Studies since 1997. He has also been an instructorat summer jazz camps for many years, both in Baltimoreand elsewhere in Maryland.Grubbs received a 2014 Ruby Artist Award from theGreater Baltimore Cultural Alliance earlier this year to workon his current project, “The Inner Harbor Suite: Revisited,”an audio tribute to Baltimore, featuring saxophones, strings,group improvisation and ensemble performances.



That night in September, after the young folks played smartly with Grubbs on a few mainstreamtunes, they gave way toGrubbs’s group, comprising Shaw, EricByrd on piano, Blake Meister on bass,and drummer John Lamkin III. Shaw,who has played with Jimmy Cobb,Orrin Evans, Robert Glasper and is currentlya member of the Roy HaynesQuartet, was named a Rising Star on alto saxophone in the 2014 Critics’ Poll in DownBeat. He and Grubbs often led off a tune with rousing harmonies on their alto saxophones, then soloed, and then gave ample space for their band members to display their improvising talents.Byrd is a veteran Baltimore pianist who leads his own group and is activein both the jazz and gospel worlds. Meisteris a rising star bassist who teaches atthe Peabody Institute in Baltimore.Lamkin III has been one of Baltimore’s,and the industry’s, top drummers forseveral years and almost stole the showwith his bristling work during theGrubbs Ensemble’s February Black HistoryMonth concert in Randallstown.

On the standard, “Four,” Shaw deliveredwinding, fluid lines on his alto,while Grubbs answered with searing,shimmering lines of his own. Meistergrooved solidly on bass, spicing hisplaying with inventive licks; Byrd rippledwith charm on piano and Lamkinpowered things along all evening withcrisp, efficient raps and rolls and symphoniccymbal work.Shaw was featured on “My One and Only Love,” blowing golden melancholia that evoked longing and need and desire.


On Joe Henderson’s “RecordaMe,” Grubbs and Shaw were at it again,leading off the tune with ripping, roaring harmonies, before the group romped through the tune for one of the evening’s highlights, with Lamkin again dazzling on drums.During each set Grubbs would pauseat some point to talk about how farShaw had come since Grubbs met himin Philadelphia many years ago whenShaw was a teenager. Shaw in turn saidwhat an honor it was to come to Baltimoreand play with Grubbs.As night fell in the hills surroundingSt. Paul’s and the darkness outside thewindows lent a more traditional jazzclub feel to the proceedings,

Grubbs and company kept delivering solid readingsof songs associated with Coltrane, such as “Blue Train,” “Lonnie's Lament,”“Autumn Leaves,” “Bessie's Blues,” “26-2” and others.On the night’s final tune,

Grubbs and Shaw and friends closed out the enjoyable jazz family night with an impressive“Giant Steps.” Shaw was again fluent and intense, and Grubbs showed his mettle by providing the “bite” with his soaring solo, at times seeming still to be giving lessons to his young charge—and reminding him that while he has come a long way, he has a ways to go to match his mentor in complexity, lyrical innovation and dramatic tension.


Steve Monroe is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at steve@jazzavenues.com.



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