February 6th, 2008 | by Stephen Marc Beaudoin Music | Posted In: Columns

Ben Darwish Trio and Trio Subtonic at Jimmy Mak's, Jan. 2, 2008

     
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darwish.jpg[JAZZ] There seem to be two distinct breeds of jazz musicians coming up today: the pretty-face jazz-lite players and crooners (Michael Bublé, Jane Monheit, Chris Botti), and the new jazz experimenters (sax goddess Matana Roberts or singer Luciana Souza, for example). Ben Darwish leans toward the latter group.

The Portland-reared pianist is, at all of 27 years old, already establishing himself as a player and bandleader of note. He's played with established jazzers like Kevin Mahagony, and partnered with another PDX-born up-and-comer, jazz bassist-singer-composer Esperanza Spalding. So his Saturday-night showing at Jimmy Mak's made good on the promise of the night's MC (venue owner Jim Makarounis): a chance to hear from the next generation.

And the next generation delivered. Sure, Berklee-trained Darwish shows shades of recent older jazz masters—Keith Jarrett or Fred Hersch, in particular—but his touch and voice are uniquely his own. He's also surrounded himself with two first-rate rhythm men—bassist Eric Gruber and drummer Jason Palmer—who met Darwish point for exhilarating point.

Opening with a gale of clattering sticks and cymbals (courtesy of the peerless Palmer), the trio soared into a set of mostly Darwish originals, with a few more standard tunes thrown in. (And, um, was that Green Day's “Longview” I heard?)

Long on lucid textures, tight ensemble work and virtuoso improvising, Darwish holds things close at the keys, alternating singing, dissonance-spiked fragments with feisty passagework. He has a way of hunkering down and locking into a tight polyrhythmic figure, then opening up into an expansive flight across the keyboard—he's a deeply impressive player. And Gruber, sweating buckets, skipped up and down his instrument's neck in joyful improvisatory abandon. Bring these players back, Jimmy Mak—but lock the tableful of obnoxious Greshamite girls out next time.

Opener Trio Subtonic is a similarly instrumented group—piano, bass, drums—but one that's still finding its footing. The band's set offered a clutch of new tunes by Galen Clark, Subtonic's pianist: swimmy piano textures or, in a high point, high-church jams on the Rhodes organ. Bill Atkins scored on the bass, but drummer Jesse Brooke's aggressive attacks too often got in the way of what sounded like sound intentions.

Photo: Darwish at his instrument of choice, taken by Brian Lee.
 
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