Nathan Hubbard, the master drummer/composer/percussionist wound up the final concert of his five-part series (each celebrating its own CD) of five months in style, on May 25 at the Taoist Sanctuary on Park Boulevard -- with the group the Scorpion Decides, a crew of Arizona improvisers he assembled while living in the Phoenix area in 2011.
Hubbard’s time in the Grand Canyon State was obviously well spent. The Scorpion Decides are a killer ensemble equally adept with written material and exploratory procedures. The lineup consisted of Branson NeJame on Fender Rhodes, Keith Kelly on woodwinds and Jerome Salazar on double-bass.
Indicative of additional reasons to celebrate that included Hubbard’s birthday and the arrival of newborn son Henry 12 days earlier, the concert also featured special San Diego guests Nina Deering on vocals, Matthew Smith on drums, Kris Apple on violin and Lou Damian on alto saxophone.
The music had a strong ECM vibe, albeit with much sharper forays into free aesthetics. Salazar opened "Apparations, Ghosts and an Old Man" with a languid, bluesy vamp, while NeJame’s stabbing harmonies set the stage for Kelly’s soaring, chirping soprano saxophone, which broke into fractal multiphonics, pulling everyone into a free squall. Apple joined the group for "Across the Bridge," layering a soulful vibrato on the Chick Corea-like theme, which really gelled from the accompaniment and soloing of NeJame. Deering took the stage for "Hummingbirds, Geraniums and Honeysuckles," nailing it with precise intonation and emotive articulation against the chocolate backdrop of Kelly’s bass clarinet. She stayed on for crowd favorite "Walled Garden," joined by Smith on drums, soaring into the ether as NeJame and Kelly geared up into a higher plane with risk-taking solos.
Kelly morphed from Steve Lacy into Evan Parker on "Once More Around This Burning Sphere," growling with grainy altissimo screams. All of Hubbard’s compositions have compelling melodies and intricate substructures, and the interlude unisons between keyboard, bass and bass clarinet took the tune into a hypnotic dynamic.
The concert concluded with Hubbard’s "Remembrance (for Diane Hubbard)," an aching, pensive ballad that managed the delicate balance between grief and celebration with Apple’s violin and Damian’s alto locked into a three-way embrace with Kelly’s soprano.
Compelling and evocative, celebratory and mournful, illustrating the struggle to find beauty and meaning in life’s epic tragicomedy, Hubbard gave us all a lot to think about.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.