The Kareem Kandi Band
Thurs Oct 18 at the Hopvine.

I don't like the saxophone, and the 1980s are to blame: what's-his-face from the E Street Band; Huey Lewis and the goddamned News; Wham!'s "Careless Whisper"; and worst of all, players of jazz standards. The reeded devil always squeaks and squawks its way through too much showing off for my taste. There are too many notes for every phrase, and I can't help but go red. People often call standard jazz "wallpaper," but I'm too sensitive, I guess. If standard jazz (especially played through the saxophone) is wallpaper, then it's wallpaper with a really loud print. It's bright orange and green, and it makes me insane after extended periods of exposure. You may adore the saxophone, which is your right. But if that's the case, then be advised: This is a biased review.

There are four players in the ensemble at the Hopvine tonight, three of whom perform together regularly: Kareem Kandi on tenor sax, Willie Blair on upright bass, and Jacques Willis on drums. The trio is joined by a second tenor saxophonist, Alexey Nikolaev. Kandi and Nikolaev mostly alternate solos while Blair and Willis create a solid foundation over which the other two can show off.

Willis is a definite presence back there on the drums. He looks like a Muppet when he plays--skinny arms loose, as if ready to fly off his body at any moment--and while he's not the most daring and confident member of the ensemble, he keeps tricky beat patterns flowing gracefully, without excess wankery. He seems genuinely happy to just be playing. This was most evident late in the group's first set, when he and Blair repeatedly missed a transition together and laughed conspiratorially.

It may not sound like much--two people laughing together during a performance--but it's the little things that matter when you're listening to Cole Porter's flashy "What Is This Thing Called Love?" at the Hopvine. Nikolaev rises to the occasion of the flash, and while his flourishes convey genuine feeling, for the most part they are gratuitously busy. Kandi is simply weighed down by the cluttered improvisations he blows into his instrument. His playing is precise, but stiff. Later on, Nikolaev will become more adventurous. He is most captivating when he plays in his upper register, tearing into notes with real vigor. On a few of these occasions, bassist Blair voices his own approval of Nikolaev's efforts by actually shouting "Yeah!" in response.

And by that point in the set, Blair is on fire. His face registers actual physical pain and his notes bend and wobble furiously. I am impressed by Blair's dexterity, and my interest in his abilities falls just behind the pleasure of watching him perform, hunched over his instrument and dancing with it. He's a superstar as bass players go, filling the room with his excitement.

I realize it's unorthodox, but I want the sax players to let Willis and Blair lead the performance. The most gratifying of the show's moments happen when the rhythm section is at the fore. But like I said, I'm biased. The reeded devil wins because the world seems to want it that way, from jazz at the Hopvine to Huey Lewis' "I Want a New Drug."

And if that's the case, I'm pleased that the aural wallpaper of the tenor sax was at least offset by a rhythm section that makes a beautiful floor design.

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