by Damani Malcolm
[originally published spring 2020]
Last Friday, I settled into a seat at the Cat in the Cream to watch some of my favorite musicians perform. Ben Oglseby’s Quintet, composed of himself on guitar, Matt Stolof (drums), Gervis Myles (bass), Abe Gold (piano), and Max Schlenk (tenor saxophone) got together last week to play what will probably be Matt Stolof’s final Jazz Forum. I was hoping the group would take the opportunity to make a statement, and I was not disappointed.
The first tune the group played was an original composition Gold himself wrote. It was obvious that Gold had written the tune himself because of the way he approached his piano solo, creatively carving out huge swaths of space while still creating powerful energy with his left hand. Stolof drove the piece forward, propelling the otherwise sparse composition with an Elvin-inspired, authoritative bounce. The time and feel of this piece were slightly disjointed, but it was clear the group was still shaking some cobwebs from between their ears while something formidable was being assembled on the stage.
The group hit their stride with their second offering, “Envisionings” by Gerald Clayton. Oglesbey’s guitar solo was beautiful. His lilting runs led the listeners through green pastures and lens flares, recalling the revitalizing energy of a sumptuous spring afternoon with his floral language. The tightness the group lacked on the first song began to materialize as “Envisionings” developed, but the time and feel truly fell into place as the rhythm section kicked into the melody on the last time through the form. The final chorus was rousing—the swelling of Schlenk’s tenor sound fit excellently with the shape of the melody. It expanded and contracted as the band took turns riling him up and backing off to leave him to his own devices. Some of Schlenk’s best playing of the day was his soloing on Clayton’s piece. He called a gutteral offering out of his horn, marking the canvas of the song with stern and sorrowful lines that left me shivering.
On “Your Pure Self” by Geri Allen, the musicians were pirouetting and skipping through the space the tune’s simple harmonic composition afforded them. The song features a tricky melody, and with Myles playing it on bass instead of settling right into walking, the pianist and drummer had a little trouble getting in sync. Stoloff used brushes, adding a lightness and fleet-footed gait to the affair. The song was lovely and spacious, but compared to the others in the set, it wasn’t particularly memorable. The only thing that stood out was the beauty of Myles’ improvisation. Leaning over the bass and reaching down to the beginning of the fingerboard, he began to crisscross notes and double stops, treating the instrument as a loom and weaving an intricate harmonic tapestry. In classic jazzist fashion, he audibly signaled dissatisfaction as he concluded. The crowd certainly did not.
Schlenk Low, a Schlenk original, and the group played every inch of the song as though they knew it as well as he did. The arrangement was excellent. The tune started with a Blakey-esque click-clacking shuffle feel, dictated by Stolof on the snare. The swing didn't mesh as well or quickly as it had on the previous two songs, but by the end of the first chorus the group had gathered their composure, and the time was together. By the end of the second chorus, Matt and Myles were in lockstep, swinging harder than Tiger Woods on the PGA tour. As soon as Max began playing I could tell it was his song. He lived on it, transferring those same swelling crescendos from Clayton’s piece over to his own offering. Gold’s piano comping was excellent. It supported Max’s playing perfectly, clearly defining the harmonics of the tune and steering the soloists towards new and experimental ideas, while avoiding being so heavy as to domineer the space. His solo was equally formidable. The impressiveness of the ease with which Gold flitted between the other musicians, expounded on their ideas and demanded respect for his own, and code switched between modern jazz language and the bebop of eras past, cannot be overstated. Oglesby’s ideas frequently led him to play across chord changes, but it felt as though he always landed right where he wanted to be. He strode forward with a clarity that can only be achieved through extensive practice and a love of the music. Stolof also took an excellent solo, stamping his foot to end the set.
Appropriately, the set ended in sheets of notes from Schlenk, Ogelsby, and Gold that pelted the listener, as Stolof and Myles made a ruckus for the three to roar over. While there were certainly times throughout the set when the group was more tightly tied together, and other times where the time or ideas weren’t entirely aligned, the performance felt like a well-reasoned declaration by some of the top jazz musicians at this school along the lines of “catch us if you can.”