Sound of silence

It was not without concern that I followed Tim Metz’s advice. Metz is a professional jazz drummer, and a strongly opinionated one at that. When he tells me there’s a good jazz show happening in town, I feel I should listen, even if that show is at a way-off-the-grid Caribbean restaurant I’ve never heard of.

Of course, Metz is never wrong. The quartet he led me to see at Gwen’s Caribbean Cuisine, located at 2355 Arden Way, was one of the better quartets I’ve seen in this city. Its leader, tenor saxophonist Jeff Alkire, had a subtle understanding of silence that was simply remarkable. With a top-notch band including drummer Tony Austin (currently touring with soul giant Solomon Burke), keyboardist Benny Lackner and bassist Gus Seyffert, Alkire’s open-form jazz bordered on modal ideas and on free-jazz exploration without being a tuneless atonal blow-fest.

What made it all work was the material’s relatively slow tempo. While the music had an exploratory sense, there was enough understanding of understatement (particularly from Alkire’s playing and Austin’s drumming) to keep it rooted in the familiarity of rhythm and melodic progression.

Case in point: During one original composition, Alkire’s solo consisted of a single note, followed by a pause lasting a measure or more, followed by a slightly higher tone, followed by another pause, and then another slightly higher note and another pause. This went on for the duration of the solo section, and it was masterful—proving that it’s often not the notes a musician plays that are effective, but the notes a musician does not play. This instance of not playing was so effective that it gave me goose bumps. (I found out later that Alkire’s skill has allowed him to share the stage with Ray Charles, Charlie Haden, Tony Bennett and John Lee Hooker, to name just a few.)

The other star for me was drummer Tony Austin, who provided just the right level of swing without becoming redundant or ridiculous. Austin took the drums right where they needed to be: grooving the moment without relying on standard jazz-drumming clichés. Like Alkire’s, his playing was understated—up until his solo, which was wonderfully overstated.

Alkire’s new CD, Another Day (a collaboration with guitarist John Stowell), is intriguing but not quite as interesting for me as the live set was, in part because Stowell’s playing fills up too many of those empty spaces that Alkire leaves. I’d like to just hear Alkire playing solo, or perhaps with a drummer and little else. Open it up, let the air in and listen to what he doesn’t play. It’s worth it.

Alkire’s Web site, at, doesn’t list any upcoming live performances, but hopefully he’ll fix that soon. Alkire is a jazz musician well worth seeking out, and preventing Sacramento audiences from finding him would be a crime.