The Rajiv Halim Quintet challenged your ear.
The Isthmus Jazz Festival began Friday afternoon under blue skies, with sailboats drifting behind the UW Terrace stage. It's hard to be in a bad mood in such conditions, and the Ladies Must Swing big band made it even harder. They hark back to the mid-century "girl bands" that challenged jazz's male dominance, with women in the unconventional roles of trombonists, trumpeters, saxophonists and drummers.
These local Ladies set out to have fun. They affix their LMS logo on the music stands, and I spotted a Billie Holiday-style white flower in a musician's hair. You might have wished for more snap in the solos and ensemble parts, but you couldn't quarrel with a set list that featured ecstatic Duke Ellington numbers, along with lesser-known gems by Mary Lou Williams and Harry James. For me, the highlight was Marilyn Fisher's vocal on "I'm Beginning to See the Light," complete with scatting that would make Ella Fitzgerald tap her toes.
I also appreciated the group's shout-out to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, one of those old girl bands you don't hear much about anymore. Ladies Must Swing are quite the sweethearts themselves.
Madison's Rand Moore Quartet have a regular gig at Liliana's restaurant, where, according to pianist Paul Muench, "our responsibility is to play great jazz really quietly." At the Terrace, they relished the chance to play great jazz really loudly. They began their set in preaching mode with Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'," featuring a big, bold solo by Muench.
These guys swing powerfully, with Muench, bassist John Schaefer and drummer Rand Moore locking into a groove and saxophonist Bill Grahn channeling their momentum. Each tune feels carefully shaped, rather than just serving as a set of chords to jam on. Moore makes you feel the transition points right in your solar plexus, which is exactly where you should feel them.
I was sad to miss most of the set by local singer Gerri DiMaggio (yes, jazz critics have personal lives to deal with, too) but returned just in time to hear her harmonizing beautifully with Milwaukee's Donna Woodall on "Many Rivers to Cross." She was followed by Chicago's Rajiv Halim Quintet, made up predominantly of college kids. But what college kids.
They announced their presence on the first tune, "The Wise Men," taken at a gale-force tempo. Halim is an alto saxophonist who's clearly in thrall to Miles Davis' 1960s quintet, with its ever-shifting rhythms and subtle interplay. That's an ambitious standard to shoot for, and Halim's group proved technically up to the challenge. The players took long, intense solos on every tune, flirting with dissonance and chaos but never losing their bearings.
Those long, intense solos sometimes felt too long and too intense. You yearned for more contrasts in tempo and tone, as well as a composer's sense of shaping. But remember, we're talking about 21-year-olds who are already playing well beyond their years. I can't wait to hear what they sound like at 22.
If the Rajiv Halim Quintet challenged your ear, the closing act lovingly stroked it. Chicago's Modern Sounds brought the dancers out of their seats with a tribute to 1950s jump blues and rockabilly -- styles best played in suits and ties. The lineup of twangy electric guitar (Joel Paterson), standup bass (Beau Sample) and drums (Alex Hall) let the good times roll with novelty numbers like "Stomp Stomp," which exhorted the crowd to "jump into the boogie."
As the sun set over Lake Mendota, we did just that.