Concerts at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library have always carried a potential for magic: The space itself is intimate, and the acoustics are sublime.What really maximizes the potential, though, is the inerrant taste of Jazz Programs Coordinator Daniel Atkinson, who consistently draws world-class talent into the small La Jolla venue.
On June 12, Atkinson may have outdone himself. It’s hard to imagine a concert more inspiring than the one by drummer Jeff Ballard’s trio, featuring guitarist Lionel Loueke and saxophonist Miguel Zenon. I’m always nervous about groups without a bassist, but in this case, that apprehension was groundless, because Ballard’s group packed a devastating sonic punch -- the absence of a dedicated bass player was never an issue. Indeed, the remarkable Loueke’s custom-made, specially tuned guitar and multi-effects rig covered an incredible range of the frequency spectrum, and, as the three musicians lit into "Happy Later," the aural swirl of Zenon’s honeyed alto, the intense polyrhythms of Ballard and the gargantuan coverage of Loueke’s guitar conjured up a much larger group.
The trio achieved maximum ecstasy on the second tune, a wildly kinetic version of Eric Dolphy’s "Gasseloni," powered by the wicked flow of Ballard’s ride cymbal beat, which shifted directions more often than a weathervane in a cyclone. Zenon’s snarling lines twisted like DNA strands loaded with recombinant squeals, and Loueke’s guitar evoked the sounds of flute and cello -- all delivered with a singular logic.
Personally, I didn’t think that performance could be topped, but when Loueke began "Vi Vi" alone, with masterful finger-style harmonies eking lush textural swells, the room transformed into a cathedral. When the guitarist, (who has the voice of an angel) added wordless vocals, the melange had me floating, and Zenon’s impassioned cries with the organic bed of Ballard’s percussion took on an orchestral reverie that felt like going to heaven without dying first.
Ballard played a hybrid drum set that combined a traditional snare and floor tom with a 16-inch Columbian kick drum, and floor-mounted Indian and Pakistani drums. It was his cymbals, however, that seemed to be possessed by the spirits of Jack DeJohnette and Ed Blackwell. Those are just ways of expressing admiration for his singular concept, though.
Ballard sounds like Ballard -- I heard traces of everything from Art Blakey to Rashied Ali, including South American dance beats and African drum choirs -- sometimes in the same song. If swinging and irresistible motion were crimes. then the Ballard trio would all be on death row.
If you weren’t among the folks who packed the Athenaeum to the rafters, I extend my sympathies. I don’t think anyone who was there will ever be the same. I know I won’t --early candidate for concert of the year.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.