Listening to the Christopher Bakriges Quartet on Clear & Present is literally like dropping in on a favorite late-night jazz gig at your nearest club. You can hear the love of jazz with every note the bandleader plays on his piano and in the interactions of his quartet’s vibist Jay Hoggard, bassist Avery Sharpe, and drummer Billy Arnold.
A proud Detroit native, now based in Vermont, Bakriges wrote every one of the eight instrumentals for the occasion. There isn’t one minute of lag time, either. Whether it’s a profound, unfurling bass solo (“Door Of No Return”), or a feeling out on Bakriges’ set of keys, the quartet plays with a constantly moving ulterior motive of swing, as if playing the last gig of their lives, unwilling for the night to end.
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Like any good jazz quartet, everybody makes an appearance, using solos as perfunctory and sometimes lavish, thoughtful introductions. Vibist Jay Hoggard throws a quilt of familiarity in his comfortable landing on “Litima,” a constantly moving, medium tempo number that seems as if it’s being transmitted from your grandfather’s old radio up in the attic from the 1950s — thanks to the muted tones on bass, and a static electricity feel in the overall production. Then, there’s Sharpe’s sad, symphonic parting of bow on strings, breaking up at the edges. It’s a little of everything, lasting a little too long, as if friends at a reunion are about to take their leave for the last time.
Throughout the solos, Bakriges maintains a level of musical gamesmanship that keeps the less jazz-inclined in the audience tuned in. He provides for the other musicians in the quartet a kind of home base, a welcome, refreshing return they can count on with loads of melodic quality.
The melodic quality is clear and present on “Primary Colors,” perhaps Bakriges’ most multi-generationally pleasing. Encompassing a bit of nostalgia from your grandparents’ radio-friendly days, with none of the melancholy, the pianist touches home base frequently, even as he roams on his own curtain-call-worthy solos, all manner of R&B funk vibrancy.
At times, the tunes blend into one another. “Primary Colors” turns into “Curious Birds,” with an uplifting twist farther down the introductory scale. The difference is bassist Sharpe turning up his solo notches, as if searching for the right modality to swing from. When he swoops down on those strings loose and low, it’s quite moving.
Nothing is too melodramatic or heart pounding. The music also doesn’t fall too far into any self-possessed power plays, as is the tendency of so many modern, post-bop-heavy quartets on many a late night gig.
These musicians are happy to engage in light, lively, mostly frivolous conversation, with occasional detours into serious mode, not fancy, not extraneous.
Bakriges’ story is similar to that of many working musicians. Jazz discovered him in high school. But he dutifully went to the University of Detroit to get a liberal arts education, maybe pursue law, as his Greek father wanted for him, and spent his summers working at a Chrysler Plant.
The strong Motown Detroit music scene had a huge effect on Bakriges, through several more degrees and jazz workshops.
“We lived for a time a stone’s throw from the original Motown studios. I crossed many borders, culturally, racially, and socially, to live and perform. It showed me that not only Detroit matters everywhere, but that I carry my Detroit-ness within me wherever I go… I let everything wash over me,” Bakriges said in his bio. “Detroit allowed me to understand music in culture and music as culture — and my work with Anthony Braxton, Alvin Lucier, James Tenney, Nadi Qamar, Jimmy Giuffre, Billy Taylor, Jaki Byard, Harold Danko, Fred Simmons, and Oscar Peterson allowed me to cut across the fertile ground of contemporary world music, creative improvisation, and nearly the entire spectrum of jazz history.”