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Published: 2004/07/24
by Dan Alford

Sam Kininger and Friends, The Blue Note, NYC- 7/10

Sam Kininger is just what the Blue Note wants. In October 2003, the venue initiated a late night new groove series with a pair of shows from Project Logic (now an extremely rare event). Since then, in the wee hours of every Friday and Saturday night the Blue Note hosts full two set gigs from the hottest young jazz leaning acts for a ten dollar cover. Robert Walter, Josh Roseman and a variety of collaborative acts, among others, have all shared in the series. Admittedly, the series is just another aspect of Blue Note's campaign to win back some street cred after losing most of the young jam super stars like Charlie Hunter, Karl Denson and Soulive, who signed to the label in the early days of the decade, and further ostracizing of more traditional fans by releasing works by Van Morrison and Norah Jones. Now they have a tee shirt line designed by Ropeadope, a flood of compilations including a funk collection and even nicer two disc chilled groove set, as well as Blue Note Revisited, a loungey remix disc released in direct response to the wild success of Verve's Remixed series. None of this is criticism really- I'm perfectly happy to have a label cater to my tastes- but it's worth understanding, if only superficially, the business end of things. Plus if there are true late night gigs and good gin and tonics involved, more power to em.

But Sam Kininger covers all Blue Note's bases, not just their groove. The fact is the venue is a tourist destination, generally with tourist trap prices. An artist like John Scofield will put on a lengthy set of grindingly crazed playing at Irving Plaza for twenty dollars, but at the Blue Note, a forty-five minute set of his more staid "real jazz" with Stewart and Swallow can easily run fifty dollars. Yet that is often what the tourist come to hear- not rockin' beats, but something in a decidedly jazzier vein. And Sam can certainly deliver serious jazz. While his reputation was formed with Soulive and Lettuce, his solo work includes bold covers of Coltrane and Billy Cobham pushed up alongside the funk. When his band, as it did on Saturday night, includes young lions like James Hurt and Adam Deitch, the music is all but guaranteed to be engaging and innovative on all fronts.

Sometime before one in the morning the group, which also included Lettuce band mate Adam Smirnoff and, during the second set, Ryan Zoidis, began its lush, weighty performance. There were certainly some breathtaking solos, especially from Hurt, whose faze warped keys screamed through PA near the end of the opening number so that he literally jumped away from his instrument at the end; but it was the deft interactions of the musicians that was most impressive: the circular movements of Deitch and Hurt as they chased each other around an idea, or the oscillating rhythm/lead matrix where Sam and Smirnoff meet.

Each tune was somewhere in the fifteen minute range- only four songs in the first set- giving the ensemble ample time to explore the back chambers of songs and cultivate their nuances. There was a certain degree of majesty to the performance, tempered only by the playfulness of friends gathered to groove. Grins, smiles and shouts decorated the stage and music during games of catch the rabbit. Knowing glances marked the boundaries of the long, low open places, the smooth zones that spread across the room like real, slow sex.

Sam has been working the solo scene for a couple of years now and I've watched his band(s) move from what was very nearly free bop to funk to heady jazz to slick groove, and around and back again- never has one show been like another, except that each one was better than the last.

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