The Bistro does call itself a listening room -- not a club -- a place where besides a few aspiring players and Webster jazz students, the listeners are what the jazz demographic has become over the years: people interested in what they call culture, dressed on the conservative side, listening quietly, one glass of red deep, and sometimes a little tired.
And there's Willie Akins, one of the greatest active tenor players of his generation, sitting wide and stately in a small chair onstage, his eyes deep and distant. He and the band surrounding him represent all that is real and good in St. Louis jazz -- no-bullshit, solid stuff, rooted in the blues.
It's a multi-generational and undeniably great band made up of elite, St. louis-grown (though not all-born) players: co-leader and drummer Montez Coleman, bassist Bob DeBoo (who you can see every Friday night playing at Mangia with the Dave Stone Trio), vibraphonist Peter Schlamb, and guitarist Eric Slaughter. With Akins blowing the sole horn in the group, the sound is spaced-out and dynamic, not so different from the musical effect of a trio.
This spacing also allowed each member ample room to open up and find the grooves in their solos. They started with a busy Victor Feldman tune (didn't catch the name) that Schlamb carried with his brainy, more-is-more approach to the vibes -- angular showers of notes punctuated by weird rests and sudden chordal counter-melodies. The crowd got into it.
Next, the group shifted fluidly into a funky Yusef Lateef tune called "Nubian Lady." Coleman settled way deep in the backbeat, sometimes stretching the straightforward 4/4 groove to its extreme limits and driving it home with lightning handwork. Here, it became clear that the rhythmic chops of Coleman and DeBoo were at least as important to each tune as Akins' solid swing. Slaughter, who's made a name for himself playing with Bobby Womack and the O'Jays as much as in jazz, complemented this and every tune of the night was his jabby rhythmic riffwork.
On Errol Garner's ballad, "Dreaming Over You," Mr. Akins found his best solo of the night. Akins seems to favor the roominess of more straightforward compositions for soloing, which allow his dry, bluesy tone to resonate, his strong harmonic ideas to take shape even over Schlamb's sometimes meandering vibes-accompaniment. I could finally confirm the critics' comparisons of Akins to Coltrane in that he is a comfortable master-balladeer. Coleman and Schlamb put down there sticks, allowing DeBoo's tender, tune-closing solo to hang soulful over the room.
During the last few tunes, Montez Coleman invited various buddies onstage to sit in, including an incredible, ambidextrous, 15-year-old drummer named Christian McGhee. What the set lost in momentum, it gained in making the room more friendly and loose.
All the players, foremost Mr. Akins, are humble men and great teachers, perhaps the two most valuable and respected aspects of great jazzmen: the elite who welcome everyone onstage, no room for stuffiness.