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Tennis balls through a brick wall: (l-r) Labarbera, Calarco and Shew at Justin’s.

photo:Chris Shields

On the Track
By Tom Flynn

Dave Calarco and the Very Special Quintet

Justin’s, July 2

The first two words that come to mind are restraint and democracy. Because I and many of you know damn well that Dave Calarco is an almighty jackhammer. He can throw a tennis ball through a brick wall on a whim, again and again. The man is a sheer monster and clinician behind the drums. He can scorch relentlessly with the feistiest. But on this night, the DC gusto was wrapped in silks and grooving like a well-hydrated horse on a fast track. There was almost a tenderness and vulnerability to Calarco’s rhythmic appeal this night. Not shocking, but certainly a surprise and a delight.

Calarco held court on his drums and cymbals while Bill Cunliffe squeezed all the juice out of Justin’s recently acquired baby grand Yamaha piano. Shouldn’t a fine piano always be active on Lark Street? The interplay of Pat Labarbera’s tenor sax and Bobby Shew’s three-valve brass was almost too good to be true. Most critical to the nutrient-rich balance was Otto Gardner on upright bass, totally locked in to Calarco and the time, milking the low-end theory, allowing pianist Cunliffe to seem at times to have two right hands.

What amazed me as well was the near-capacity, very attentive and mindful crowd that turned out for this intimate gig. I could list the tunes they played, from “Skylark” to “Nostalgia”; whatever peak the band sought to ascend was claimed with ease. It quickly became irrelevant what “number” was at hand because the collective poise of the quintet was bigger than tunes. Not one solo was tedious, not one. Period.

It is hard to articulate how much we need this sort of crisp, fresh and vivid jazz. But I remember in years past expecting weekly the kind of stuff this quintet pulled off with ease. Now, these are rare moments when the established cats, really solid players, are clicking in some higher sphere in a little room like this. Whether they were ciphering the nuggets of Thelonius or Fats, it was clear there was no monkey on anybody’s back. Just 8, 16, 32, 64 and so on, to such a degree and with such pep, no stone was left unturned.

You pretty much know when your photographer sits with you and gets mad into the show that all is chiming on stage. And that happened. Squinting with our ears for every drop, we were all so lucky this night to sip from the spring of the quintet.



Mahaiwe Theater, Great Barrington, Mass., July 2

An unscientific study per- formed last week reveals this: Mention Donovan, and the most common response among men of a certain age is to crank out a hyper-ventilated version of “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”

Donovan has been so low-profile for so many years that it was thrilling to see him (looking easily 20 years younger than his 60 years) at the top of his game and cranking out a nearly three-hour show laced with some of the oddest Top 40 hits ever to grace the charts.

Going back and forth from acoustic to electric a couple of times, the show loosely ran as an ode to beat society, to the cafes and dive bars where bohemian poets and artists would gather, smoke, and discuss important things. This provided a running narrative into which Donovan would insert his songs, and a glimpse into just where all this weirdness came from. He soft-peddled his upcoming autobiography (which should itself be a fine trip), and told a few delicious stories, like when Joan Baez insisted on introducing the 17-year-old Donovan to Bob Dylan because “she thought it a hoot that there was another Woody Guthrie clone on the planet.”

For the electric portions of the show, Donovan was backed by a facile and superb jazz trio, stand-up bass, drums and keys-woodwinds, that followed him like a silver shadow, and provided the perfect amount of push on the more psychedelic songs. The band subtly recalled the manic sparks of the strange old singles, no mean feat when you consider those sparks originally came from the likes of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and, as is widely rumored, the Beatles. “Season of the Witch” was flecked with darkness, mystery, and a droning bottom; “Lelana” had its ineffable sadness; and “Jennifer Juniper” its Carnaby Street lightness and whimsy.

Basically, the show was so uplifting because Donovan clearly still believes. Exactly what it is that he believes is an interesting question, but suffice it to say that one doesn’t lay down a compelling version of “Goo Goo Barabajagel” while faking it. His beat-poet reading of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into the Good Night” was way over the top, but nonetheless very, very real, and loads of fun.

And his version of “Hurdy Gurdy Man” buried every other version I’d heard last week. As the late Bert Sommer would have said, “You just gotta respect that, babe.” Hail Atlantis!

New Paltz-based singer-songwriter Vicky Russell opened the show. Her occasionally pedestrian lyrics were more than compensated for by her finely crafted tunes and her relaxed, confident, big-voiced delivery.

—Paul Rapp


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