The Jonathan Taylor Quartet at the Blue LLama

Things are opening up this summer, and Ann Arbor’s Blue LLama jazz club and restaurant has now transitioned to a half-week schedule, almost equal to its pre-plague timetable. The program is quite varied with a new Wednesday Latin jazz feature.

One of the most promising offerings on the dock was Jonathan Taylor’s quartet, and on Thursday, June 10, I visited the club to hear the first set. The new multigenerational group, including Tim Haldeman on tenor saxophone, Ian Finkelstein on piano, occasionally moving to an electric version, and bassist Jaribu Shahid, had hardly played in public for more than a year, but even if they might have felt somewhat rusty, none of that showed throughout the five-tune set. To the contrary, they seemed fully in command of their art, focused, and clearly enjoying every moment of the performance.

SEMJA ReviewEven to someone who wandered off the street without hearing the introductions, it would be immediately apparent that this is a group led by the drummer, albeit not in the most obvious ways. Taylor has the rare ability to drive a band with constantly shifting rhythmic and melodic patterns, often layering them on top of one another, without ever overpowering the group, helping, directing, but never getting in the way. His strength is quiet power and he directs the group as an instrumentalist but much in the manner of a composer and arranger. The program was ambitious, combining well-known and rarely played pieces with one of the leader’s own compositions.

They opened with Mal Waldron’s “Fire Waltz,” still best remembered in the composer’s recordings featuring Eric Dolphy. This is a gentle 16-bar waltz, and the quartet took their time with it, slowly turning up the intensity, with solos all around. They then reached back six decades to take on Monk and Kenny Clarke’s quirky “Epistrophy,” in a brighter tempo than one is used to hearing, and the fires were burning. Haldeman, obviously inspired by the powerful work of the musicians behind him, took an extended solo, developing various patterns, exploiting the chromatic possibilities offered by the harmony of the tune and developing them rhythmically in Monkish ways, and Finkelstein followed suit, likewise impressively developing the composer’s methodology without attempting to sound like him, but when it came time for the leader to solo, he took it all down, contrasting with a slower, subtle, melodic outing on the drums. Taylor’s own “During,” the one ballad of the set then followed — a lovely tune that made one think of “Yesterdays,” with equally impressive, but more pensive solos. This offered the opportunity to appreciate the wonderful qualities of Haldeman’s multifaceted, highly individual tenor sax tone, with its many shifting colors so much a part of his musical persona. From there they moved into more modern territory, taking on two tunes with complex rhythms: Joshua Abrams’ “Equally Strong,” and “Three-Four vs. Six-Eight Four-Four Ways” a pseudo-waltz by Hassan Ibn Ali that felt like a perfect bookend to a set that began with a more straightforward one.

I reluctantly left the club as I could not stay for the second set, but nevertheless felt emotionally and artistically fulfilled, having heard a wonderful new band made up of some of the area’s most original musicians, led in a manner that offers them the freedom to express the more adventurous side of their art, with a challenging repertoire. We need to hear more from Jonathan Taylor’s quartet.