I’ve been meaning to catch Curtis Taylor in action since the Grammy Award-winning trumpeter moved to San Diego two years ago. Thursday night’s performance at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla represented my chance for redemption as the musician debuted a quartet featuring pianist Eric Reed, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Richard Sellers before an enthusiastic, at-capacity crowd.
Opening with the episodic “Motion,” Taylor revealed a warm, centered timbre that balanced gorgeous held tones with chains of trills over the relaxed pocket created by Shepherd and Sellers. Reed followed, a cappella, with a dazzling display of multiple moods and rhythms.
The pianist also led off a wickedly uptempo version of “Blue in Green” with action-packed, melodically effusive commentary while Shepherd strummed and pedaled with rope-thick bottom end. Taylor carved wide melodic contours with piercing punctuation and some dramatic half-valve slurs.
Horace Silver’s “Peace” was next, performed as an aching ballad propelled by Shepherd’s groaning whole notes and the whispered brushes of Sellers. Taylor built layers of velocity that strained against the pensive textures of his colleagues, who wisely resisted the temptation to respond in kind, creating some delicious tension only mitigated by Shepherd’s languid, wood-toned solo.
Reed also figured prominently on “Whitney” with bluesy ornamentation that seemed to cascade into reflective pools of melody, often delineated by the clarity of Sellers’ ride cymbal. Taylor can blow with unfettered velocity, but it’s never just to show off. Almost everything he plays reveals deeply soulful motives.
My favorite moment came at the beginning of the second set with Taylor’s original, “On This Day,” a post-Wynton burner that leaned heavily on Shepherd’s hypnotic ostinato and the dark, elastic fireworks from the trumpeter. Reed became an amazing fountain of infinite, blue-hued melody that had me leaning forward to appreciate the beauty of the moment. Sellers had been stoking the pianist’s fire with relentless cowbell commentary, which eventually erupted into a full-blown, architecturally brilliant drum solo that had the crowd screaming.
This was the final night of the summer series of concerts at the Athenaeum Library, and I’m going to miss the intimacy and pristine acoustics. Most of all, I'm going to miss the quality of the performances, which have been a joy to behold.