The group launched the set with "Tune Up," an obscure Coltrane song that's like a snifter of ether: woozy, aimless, and inexorably dreamy. The group wafted on instrumental noodling for about five minutes before Smith, whose organ tones entered into the tune on cat's feet, suddenly unloaded a church or two's worth of pipe organ sound and brought the place to life. Next up was the Hendrix classic "Purple Haze," teased into a frenzy without the emotional payoff. A string of six solos twirled, twisted, and restated the opening 4/4 rhythmic riff, without ever plunging into the churning section that immediately precedes Hendrix's vocal shout ("Purple Haze!/Cloggin' my brain.") For Hendrix fans, it was love unconsummated.
Dispelling any remaining doubts that this was a jam session and not a homage, Smith then called out a standard blues, followed by some standard funk, with solos predictably divided almost equally between self-indulgence and spontaneous inspiration.
Throughout most of "Purple Haze," Berg, a middle-aged white guy and stone hard-bopper, looked around uncomfortably as his bandmates reveled in the song's opening riff. Finally he pulled out his pocket soprano sax (his lone departure from the tenor) and literally tried to horn in on some promising interplay between the two guitarists, only to find that he was ruining the mood. When Smith called out the blues, he snatched up his tenor and almost immediately began pouring out his frustration via a torrid four-minute solo that was as linear and purposeful as a jet on a runway.
At its very best, a jazz gig gives you the chance to catch a titanic innovator like Parker or 'Trane, or, yes, Hendrix, in the midst of making history. But even when the circumstances are predominantly dire, there are almost always brief sparks of creativity that Rahsaan Roland Kirk once referred to as "bright moments." Christian McBride's massively authoritative initial bass solo and Berg's breakneck spew are the two I'll remember from Wednesday night.