After brief performance under the band name “Cloning Americana,” Billy Drewes and his bandmates have assumed status as the Billy Drewes Quartet (with new pianist David Berkman). Despite a shift in name, the group still sets its sights on outspoken symbolism through hearty jazz composition. Drewes’ “Exploration into Wide Open Space Peace Project”—a descendant of the politically-charged album For Which it Stands, released in mid-2011—blossomed to full resonance in the cozy confines of the Cornelia Street Café.
Today’s jazz climate, despite all of its offbeat, experimental glory, rarely sees a band with an overtly sociopolitical message—or at least a band of such sort that isn’t overly subliminal. But this quartet’s style evokes a certain something: a fiery spirit of uncanny innovation, made all the more charming by occasional subtle swing undertones. Drewes played the instrumental wildcard throughout the evening, switching from alto saxophone to flute to bass clarinet to soprano saxophone. On a flute tune, bassist Scott Lee plucked with a brightly assertive virtuosity, tinged with a folk country lilt. Intertwined with Berkman’s light, crystal piano taps, drummer Jeff Hirschfield’s bell jingles, and Drewes’ lyrical flute extensions, the delicate but substantial piece evoked a saga-like aural melancholy that lingered long past its short duration.
In keeping with the “space explorations” theme, an offbeat tune named for a black hole delved into livelier camaraderie. Hirschfield’s rough-around-the-edges drum style lent the piece a bold, flippant disposition, grounded into firmer seriousness by Drewes on buzzing bass clarinet. Though abruptly closed at a mere few minutes, a choppy technique infused the tune with a zestful rebelliousness. The quartet interrupted their musical flow with curt half-second pauses, quickly reshuffling and again proceeding with edgy propulsion.
“Thang Part 2” cinched the first set on a playful note, led by a soprano sax echoing the lyricism of Drewes’ earlier flute. Initially deep swells of sax quickly lightened into the effusive bubbliness characteristic of songs entitled “Thang”; Berkman’s fluid, deep piano underwent a similar shift into slightly romantic undertones. Though Lee and Hirschfield spent most of the concert on the subtler sidelines, their shrugging, swing-like touches lined the piece with a necessary depth of tone and rhythmic progression. Short saxophone slurs evoked a curious light jazz appeal to unite the instrumental affair. But even between Drewes’ intermittent, fierce soprano sax jolts, the band lost not an ounce of their thoroughly lively spirit—truly indicative of skillful, soul-inspired collaboration.