“People keep coming up to me and saying 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for coming to Bend, Oregon,'" trumpeter Jeremy Pelt said (OK, I'm paraphrasing him) shortly into his matinee show Saturday at the Oxford Hotel. “Like this is some terrible place to be."
He laughed. And so did I and 110-ish other folks in the sold-out room. Because we knew what those people were really saying to him. Something along the lines of: “Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing righteous, super-skilled, real-deal jazz all the way from the dimly lit clubs of New York City to our little burg."
We get live jazz here in Central Oregon, but not a ton of it. And what we do get is almost always provided by fine players with a passion for the genre and enough skill to pull it off in front of an audience.
But it's not often we get a player in town at the level of Pelt, a Berklee College of Music grad and celebrated contemporary trumpet player whose 2012 album “Soul" is already appearing near the top of critics' lists of the year's best jazz recordings.
Indeed, in my mind, this was the marquee headliner on the 2012-13 schedule for Jazz at the Oxford, a 3-year-old concert series that endeavors to bring big-time regional and national jazz artists to a basement hotel ballroom in downtown Bend.
It seems to be working. As of last weekend, the series had sold out all of its shows.
So the local jazz fans are happy, and the artists appear to be happy, too. During one of his booming between-song soliloquies Saturday night, Pelt talked of the pressure of performing in New York, where lovers of live jazz have solid options every night and you “have to work hard" to win 'em over. And he talked of the warm, fuzzy feeling he got from Bend, where it was clear that our jazz fans hunger for world-class entertainment.
It sounded like a backhanded compliment, and it was. Pelt recognized that immediately. But it's also true. We're not the Big Apple.
It kind of felt that way Saturday, though. Backed by the Portland-based Mel Brown Trio (with whom the star of the show had only a day or two to rehearse), Pelt moseyed through around 90 minutes of music, clearly investing himself in his work, but in an enjoyable, easygoing way.
He closed his eyes while playing, but rarely furrowed his brow. When he sauntered off stage to let another guy solo, he did so at a snail's pace. And once, when he returned to his spot to rejoin the fray only to find pianist Tony Pacini extending his solo, he just smiled and watched his band mate's fingers fly.
In other words, this was a working vacation for Pelt, one without a plan in advance or the stress of an East Coast gig.
The night's two sets jumped around the jazz songbook. The band — which also included its namesake Brown on drums and Ed Bennett on bass — began with the Latin-tinged hard bop of Cedar Walton's “Bolivia," featuring a Pacini solo filled with rhythmic eccentricities. Just before he attacked the keys, the pianist shook his arm a bit, as if warming it up for a stint on the pitcher's mound.
Later, Pelt led the group back into world-beat territory with Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo's “Tin Tin Deo," a slinky Afro-Cuban jazz standard that sounds like it could be the theme song for the coolest spy show on Telemundo. Under Pelt's guidance, it crescendoed into a frenzy of high-flying jazz acrobatics.
After an intermission, Pelt and the band played more Dizzy and some George and Ira Gershwin. They rollicked through a samba and closed with a Christmas song. Brown took a couple of eye-popping solos, proving once again that (1) the drums can be a melodic instrument, and (2) he alone is worth the price of admission.
But the highlight of the night came midway through that first set, when Pelt stepped off the gas and took center stage for an achingly beautiful version of “We Kiss in a Shadow," a ballad from the musical “The King and I."
It was here that the nuances of his playing really stood out. Against the gentle sibilance of Brown's brushwork, the timbre of Pelt's trumpet seemed to light up the dark room, and the silence of the audience provided ample opportunity to watch a master blow and breathe and bend notes in a way that left even the more seasoned jazz fans around me shaking their heads in awe.
It was a sight to see, and so, so easy on the ears. Just as world-class jazz is supposed to be.