For jazz fans, the prospect of hearing band members can be every bit as stimulating as the prospect of hearing the leaders. There’s an inherent democracy in a well-functioning band that the term "sideman" obscures. And there’s also a round-robin quality to the jazz scene. Today, it’s the drummer who gets his name listed, hires three other cats and calls the tunes; tomorrow the bassist has the gig and the drummer gets the call.
With that in mind, here are just some of the sub-marquee names to watch for on the jazz festival stage.
• Mulgrew Miller wowed packed houses at the Harlequin Café earlier this month, and if you don’t agree with the proprietor that Miller is the greatest pianist out there today … well, you could see how he got carried away. Miller hits with drummer Carl Allen and New Spirit on Friday, a group that also includes noted trumpeter Eddie Allen and saxophonist Donald Harrison. Harrison has been both a festival leader and sideman (with Eddie Palmieri, for instance) in years past.
• Pianist George Cables was nicknamed "Mr. Beautiful" by the late saxophonist Art Pepper. Along with masterful work on his own, he’s worked with leaders from Art Blakey to Freddie Hubbard, and contributed mightily to Pepper’s final and finest comeback in the late ’70s and early ’80s. On Saturday, he’s supporting saxophonist Frank Morgan in a group with Carl Allen on drums, and then hitting with saxophonist Sonny Fortune.
• Guitarist David Gilmore, who puts a spiky, twisted funk in his instrumental lines, has played a big role in recordings by members of the New York M-BASE collective, appears with drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts on Saturday. That’s just before Watts’ makes his own sideman gig with longtime musical companion Branford Marsalis.
• It seems hard to imagine D.D. Jackson performing music from his last record, Sigame (Justin Time), without the same musicians: bassist Ugonna Okegwo and, particularly, the almost hyperkinetic drumming of Dafnis Prieto. A New York Times profile of Prieto earlier this year set him in the tradition of Cuban drummers "who hit New York like asteroids — powerhouses … who spur on everyone around them."
• Three bassists to watch for: A veteran of star bands back to the 1960s, Buster Williams, with pianist Geri Allen on Monday; Santi Debriano with pianist Mike Longo on Sunday; and John Benitez with the aforementioned Watts group on Saturday.
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