City Paper is not for tourists
The Symposium out of the way, the concert commenced: DC drummer, composer, and bandleader Nasar Abadey was premiering his three-part Diamond in the Rough Suite with a 12-member Supernova Chamber Orchestra. Included in the ensemble was a full string quartet —- this was Abadey’s first time writing for strings, he explained: “But be aware that it’s a lifelong dream in terms of orchestration, and it’s really a lifetime’s work.” The first section, “Eternal Surrender,” was a slow, lyrical melody that began with a short intro on the strings, then segued into thematic statements on trumpet (Donvonte McCoy), alto saxophone (Joe Ford), and trombone (Reginald Cyntje), first solo and then together, with the strings (violinists Waymon McCoy and Michele Ruiz, violaist Jonathan Jones, and cellist Denna Purdie) comping behind them all the way. Each horn player then took gorgeous and distinctive, and very long, improvised solos: McCoy sounding honeyed and gorgeous; Ford full-bodied, with a slight honk; and Cyntje delicate but intense. Pianist Richard Doron Johnson topped them all with a lithe, sweet solo before heading back into ensemble playing and a quick closing solo from bassist James King. Both group and solo passages, however, revealed a major problem with the performance: The accompanying arrangements on the strings were barely audible during the solos, and completely so behind the ensemble. And while the written section of “Eternal Surrender” was unquestionably lovely, it was perhaps the least memorable of the suite.
The most memorable part was the second, “Sacred Space,” whose title Abadey explained by analogizing Superman and his sacred space, the Fortress of Solitude. The strings again opened on a very slow waltz, violins and viola playing a luscious tune against Purdie’s plucked cello background. On Abadey’s 3-count, however, the strings fell away; King picked up the cello part on his bass, with Johnson comping on piano, and soon the horns entered playing what had been the violin/viola melody. This time Ford had the meatiest and most satisfying solo, playing his alto in the tenor register; McCoy’s was delicate, and also the most organic and cohesive—-at times impossible to tell that he wasn’t sight-reading; Cyntje’s was the sweetest, with his flowing legato phrasing alternating with high, fast intensity and loud growls. With this movement, the crispness of the rhythm section showed through: as he was Friday at Bohemian Caverns, King was consistently high-quality, and Abadey was doing remarkable things with lines on the snare, hi-hat, and ride cymbal. “Sacred Space” was incredibly moving, and even more incredibly catchy. After its final note from the strings faded away, the person sitting behind me kept whistling the tune through Abadey’s spoken interlude.
Part three, “Diamond in the Rough,” which Abadey called “the flagship” of the suite, was a kicky, danceable piece with a salsa groove, this time featuring flautist Jamal Brown and Abadey’s son Kush on percussion. Brown set the pace for all of the frontliners’ solos after him: relaxed, rhythmically in the pocket, melodically anecdotal, singsong, and carefully paced. The wellworn phrase is “telling a story,” and each successive horn continued the story where the last left off (although Ford’s sheets-of-sound approach was perhaps overlong). Kush Abadey was yet a particular standout with his percussive colors on cowbell and mounted tom-toms, and his father launched into his stunning first solo driven by spectacular kicks on the bass drum. But the string sections also finally came off with a completely audible and outstanding part.
The close of the movement, and the suite, merited a tremendous standing ovation, with Abadey bidding adieu with an important piece of advice. “As you drive home, just remember that the life you save may be the drummer’s.”
Diamond in the Rough Suite was impeccably composed and, for the most part, magnificently played; Abadey chose his ensemble well, and arranged for them even better, and the music has great beauty and merits serious attention and analysis. It was not without flaws, though. The inaudibility of the strings (which, in fairness, was likely due more to the theater’s acoustics than Abadey’s composition or arrangements) made them seem superfluous…but so did much of what could be heard; it was beautifully written and performed, but (with the notable exception of “Diamond in the Rough”) frequently seemed tacked on and even redundant. Abadey did give the caveat that this was his first time writing for them, and told an anecdote about Paquito d’Rivera admitting that it took him 30 years to figure out what to do with strings. Perhaps this was a cautionary tale.
Abadey’s spoken interludes were also very, very long; between movements two and three, he introduced the entire band and told stories of meeting and working with them. It was great for establishing rapport with the audience, but any cohesion between the sections of the suite were lost in the distance separating them.
Abadey promises that The Diamond in the Rough Suite will appear on his next album —- without the strings. It will be interesting to hear how this works in comparison to last night’s concert performance, but more to the point it will be a pleasure to hear it again.