Review: The Gary Bartz Quartet at The Kennedy Center Jazz Club

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The KC Jazz Club opened its 14th season last Friday with a soul-tossing river of jazz.

Gary Bartz. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
Gary Bartz. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Gary Bartz starts the evening with a prayer: “Sadness must leave this room,” as Paul Bollenback’s guitar, James King’s bass, and Greg Bandy’s drums accompany in the background.

We listen to his summons. We’ve been told that the evening depends on us, because once this quartet starts playing, it–like the river–won’t stop until the sea appears.

So we do our best to comply. We let sadness and evil say their goodbyes.

And let the waters roll.

The Gary Bartz Quartet is jazz at its purest.

As I listen at the intimate KC Jazz Club I could have sworn that I had been invited to a jam session. Four gifted musicians gathered on a stage, riffing on each other’s gifts.

The only difference, as I later realized, was that I and my fellow listeners (and watchers) were a part of that river of sound.

When Bartz stepped away from his saxophone a little more than midway through and launched into a spirited rendition of Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” I could feel the currents in the room.

As an actor I understand the connection between audience and performer. The audience radiates its presence in ways none of its members fully appreciate. The performer absorbs whatever that presence manifests.

Friday night we witnessed that river:

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

With his cascading white hair, Bartz stands before us like the ferryman on the River Styx. His sax, whether the roughest rapids or a soft, gentle rivulet over rocks and ridge, immerses us in its renderings. We surrender to that river.

King’s bass, deep as Hughes’ soul, in solo or in duet with Bollenback’s guitar, explores the nooks and crannies of the otherwise forgotten. We listen as each note takes us deeper.

When Bollenback finally lets loose, his fingers dancing on the strings, we step closer to the edge. When the high notes come, our ears reverberate; when drummer Greg Bandy joins in and then turns solo artist, applause fills the room.

Some of the grandest moments of the evening were not the solos, grand though they were, nor were they the orchestrations, even grander though they were. No, the grandest moments were the transitions between pieces, when Bartz, sax in hand, took account of the river around him.

“Indelibly You” comes to mind as the sax slows, down shifting, down shifting, down shifting, before soaring upwards and aloft into the next number, conjured out of currents in the room.

To quote another poet, one Wallace Stevens, and his poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier:”

Music is feeling, then, not sound.

And, indeed, the hour plus stream of musical consciousness flowing over and around us was pure feeling.

But not the feeling that so often accompanies our daily life, particularly here in the Nation Political Circus.

The feeling that washed over us had none of that sadness or bitterness or viciousness or evil. The feeling had only that cleansing one associates most frequently with baptism, when the waters wash away what the body cannot.

The KC Jazz Club is now open and ready to receive you. Do yourself a favor, and plan a trip. The community it inspires, however temporal in nature, lasts a lifetime.

The Gary Bartz Quartet performed on Friday, October 7, 2016 at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Gallery – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For the full season at the Jazz Club go online.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.