Jazz has been considered “the devil’s music” at times. More in distant decades and in some places more than others, and even among random people today. So it is ironic when we get to hear it performed in church. I’m not talking about St. Peter’s (the “jazz church” in midtown Manhattan) or other ministries that offer jazz vespers on a regular basis. But places we don’t expect it for one reason or another.
So what a pleasant surprise last night when saxophonist Harry Allen’s quartet performed in a quaint little church in Warwick RI. Allen’s appearance was the jazz segment of Warwick Central Baptist Church’s six-concert music series to mark its 175th anniversary. He was supported by his regular New York rhythm section: Rossano Sportiello on piano, Joel Forbes on bass and Chuck Riggs on drums.
The setting was intimate and the sound was pure: acoustic jazz in a setting that felt like a living room, from the standpoint that people in the first few pews could have literally reached out and touched the musicians.
Allen has absorbed his influences well in his development into one of today’s finest swing saxophonists. You hear a lot of Ben Webster and a tinge of Stan Getz on Brazilian bossa nova balladry, but he shapes the music into something fresh and memorable.
Highlights: Allen’s reading of Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” a blistering romp on Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail” and the ballad “Misty,” as well as Sportiello’s Stride piano segments on “The Lady’s In Love With You” and, later, his showcase on “Honeysuckle Rose.”
The concert was a reminder that Riggs is one of today’s masters of the brushes, a skill polished by his years listening to and hanging out with the late Jo Jones.
One doesn’t expect to hear Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” in a church, but Allen presented it with some irony. He also offset it by including a couple of hymns into the program.
Allen introduced Thomas A. Dorsey’s 1930s composition “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” as “Precious Lord Thou Art So Hip,” telling the audience members they could sing along to No. 678 in their hymnals if they wished.
“But we’re gonna swing it,” he cautioned.
And they did.