SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY — Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius has always had an ear for the innovative and spontaneous in performance — when she’s playing she’s also listening — and remains alert to those magical, unscripted moments when something “clicks.”
What a delight, then, to see her at the top of her game, stepping out not merely as a keyboard musician and composer but as a compleat entertainer making everything look easy as she led her chart-making World Jazz ensemble, Heard, in a generous set of lively, complex, and intriguing sounds that combine the best of both World Music and jazz.
That’s what greeted a standing-room audience at Skidmore College’s Tang (art) Museum rooftop concert facility on the very pleasant evening of June 10. The concert served as both a highlight of the Saratoga Arts Festival and a launchpad to this season’s “Upbeat on the Roof” concert series.
From the tiniest gesture — waving her hand to playfully swivel a microphone on its stand from its service as her vocal mic at the keyboard to position it in front of clarinetist/alto sax player Jonathan Greene — Woodbury Kasius showed grace and mastery of her craft.
She gracefully transitioned from the keyboard to hand percussion, danced across the stage to share a vocals with lyricist Zorkie Nelson (who also provides a beat with his kpanlogo drums). She glided through these transitions as easily as she shifted keyboard sounds from traditional piano to Rhodes to something like a Hammond organ, or picked up the melodica to play alongside Greene.
Greene was impressive in an understated way, adding just a touch of blue, improvising when called up for something new. With Heard, the audience is seated not only in a West African setting but in St. Louis, in Kansas City, in Chicago and in Brooklyn. Greene’s solos seem to be “out of time” … there’s never, ever, a sense that one of them is either too short or too long. None of them are grating to untrained ears, as some postmodern sax music can be, and yet none of them are boring.
Arriving early and ahead of the band, at least one audience member expressed quite clearly out loud that the word was that this band was “out of this world.” Indeed it is. This music that is deep and compelling while accessible, energetic and uplifting.
One would be tempted to say that Woodbury has really found herself in West African and Caribbean settings, that these rhythms absolutely compliment her piano style … maybe because American jazz roots are not so distant from West Africa in the first place and vice-versa. More to the point is how the audience relates to this musical setting. Right place, right time, right?
Zorkie Nelson’s presence, then, is almost like a sort of musical forest in itself. Bringing serious musical credentials, he not only provides rhythmic foundation, lyrics and vocals but adds other instruments and does some serious jamming with fellow Ghanian Dived Lokko, who plays a box drum with the heels of his feet while he simultaneously plays talking drum with its built-in sort of “Doppler effect” or “bend.”
John Menegon’s bass provided significant tone color, as well as rhythm, to a combination pleasing and organic and therefore, generous sounds. We’re lucky to have such an ensemble in the area.
Songs like “O Fecha” and “Malaika Mlongo (Angel Door)” brought the complex rhythmic patterns of southern Ghana and the melodic pathways of contemporary jazz together in compelling fashion. It’s music that makes you move but it’s enough to just watch, listen and enjoy the magic. The band also brings a Latin jazz flavor to the mix with songs like “La Lluvia.”
If you get a chance to attend a live performance by this ensemble, take it. Otherwise the new CD is called, Karibu.