|Nelson Rangell. Photo Credit: Brian Nott|
(Pizza Express Jazz Club. 24th January 2014. Review by Geoff Eales)
Nelson Rangell is so much more than a superb practitioner of radio-friendly smooth jazz. Whilst his credentials in this area are impeccable (you only have to survey his extensive discography), his live performances reveal the Denver saxman to be a serious jazz artist who has a much deeper message to convey.
Rangell didn’t start his career as a saxophonist. His first loves were the flute and the piccolo, and what a phenomenal flautist he is! Many sax players dabble with the flute with, at best, pretty mediocre results – and vice versa, of course. Nelson happens to be a virtuoso on both instruments.
Accompanied by a roaring rhythm section comprising Pete Adams on acoustic piano, Phil Mulford on bass guitar and Louie Palmer behind the drums, Rangell began the opening set like a hurricane. It was fast, furious, alto-led fusion, the title of his original, The Red Pill, most apposite. The audience was taken on a red-hot roller-coaster ride, replete with unexpected melodic, harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns, the music ebbing and flowing ecstatically.
Point of Departure, another Rangell original, was an object lesson in groove playing. All four musicians were “in the pocket” from start to finish, this slow burn of a number featuring a stunning solo from Adams. Nelson talked eloquently about the importance of “grace” in one’s life. It is refreshing to hear a person opening up his heart. We are not on this earth just to play or listen to music. We are human beings first and foremost – but a soul nourished by great music can only be a good thing. Some Next Grace turned out to be the most wonderful Rangell ballad.
The three tunes that formed the remainder of the first half were all covers. First up was Pat Metheny’s glorious Say The Brother’s Name, Rangell playing flute for the first time. Joe Sample’s Rainbow Seeker was a highly charged opus, Adams thrilling the audience with a double-fisted extended solo full of edgy polyrhythms, Rangell scaling new peaks on flute. The set concluded with a rumbustious version of Ray Charles’ Hallelujah, I Love Her So. This was music more for the body than the mind. A couple near the front of the stage couldn’t contain themselves any longer. Leaping from their table they proceeded to grind to the sax-driven greasy groove of the music. Fantastic.
It was more of the same in the second set. The flute danced over a lilting Latin beat in Vince Mendoza’s Ao Mar, Rangell staying on the instrument for his jaw-dropping arrangement of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. And then it was down and dirty again on Another Way. It was the world première for this sax-led funk original – but the band performed it as if they had been playing it forever.
Rangell is an exquisite whistler – and when he whistles it’s always perfectly in tune. His treatment of Hampton Hawes’ jazz waltz, Sonora, was delicious. After an improvised section on piccolo, the piece ended magically, as it had begun, on a whistle of the human-kind, but not before referencing My Favourite Things. The words : “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes…snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes…silver white winters that melt into spring…these are a few of my favourite things” kept echoing in my mind.
And so it was back to earth with a bang. The evening ended (or so it seemed) with a breathtaking rendition of Michel Camilo’s Not Yet. The audience erupted and bayed for more. They were not disappointed. There was a brief postlude where Nelson and Pete improvised very quietly from a blank canvas.
Rangell says : “I am more sure than ever that for all that is different from place to place, and for all the different things people are going through, within people there are many essential constants in need of being nourished and fortified. Music is one of the best tonics for our soul and is a reminder of the thread of our common humanity”.
He’s right: the music left me, for one, thoroughly nourished and fortified.