A Sign of Spring

Posted By on February 12, 2007

I went to Howie Smith’s latest Work in Progress at Cleveland State University Sunday night and, as usual, absorbed a multiplicity of fresh sounds. Smith, who heads the jazz studies department at CSU, is a master saxophonist and composer whose Works in Progress date is a harbinger of spring. It takes place the second Sunday of each February, and some such days are warmer than others. Feb. 11, 2007 was one of the colder ones.

Nevertheless, Smith’s work warmed up Drinko Hall, which was populated, as usual, with CSU students, jazz fans and appreciative musicians. Smith is a wonderful musician and a fearless one. This night, he performed with two reel-to-reel tape recorders; with the Cleveland State University Chorale; and with keyboardist David Thomas (on Hammond B-3) and percussionist/drummer Bill Ransom.

I went with a friend who leans to folk-rock more than jazz; he liked some of the performance and considered other parts mere squawk. Perhaps my company led me to think some pieces seemed just the least pretentious, and the first half of the show dragged somewhat – until Ransom, a mighty drummer indeed, joined Smith in a wild duet spanning African percussion, eerie bass clarinet gurglings and some incredible grooves.

The second set fared better, particularly the last two tunes. These featured Smith, Thomas and Ransom, and they were straight-ahead. They rocked, they grooved, they burned, they prompted standing ovations. Too bad Smith doesn’t take this trio out on the road, at least locally.

It’s rare to hear such seasoned musicians work well-worn grooves so freshly. That they did suggested a rebirth, a reimagination, a reanimation. Like the season that’s just around the corner even though there’s chill in our bones today.


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I'm a veteran critic and business writer who reads and listens and writes about music, books, hotels and travel. I've been in the business for many years and still enjoy it. My pride and joy is my book, Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories. Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CarloWolff