Famed jazz horn man Clifford Brown must have foreseen his own death. How else do you explain his magnificent turn on the trumpet at a Philly jam session hours before the car crash that claimed him? Starchy pedal points, impossible trills within trills, staccato-drenched sleights of hand and melody: On June 26, 1956, the 25-year-old Brown left his body before the accident, possessed perhaps less by his music than by the premonition of its finality.
If you see Bang! Productions' Side Man, you'll hear a recording of that gig, and you will not believe your leaf-like little ears. Neither did the play's motley jazz quartet when they listened for the first time, their awe mixed with a healthy dose of nostalgia. They'd known for a while that their art form was on the way out of the mainstream as guys named Presley and Lennon and Jagger came to call—and what with its solid ensemble culture and its playwright's adeptness, the Tony-winning Side Man is a terrific depiction of that decline, a decline compounded by circumstances in and out of the characters' control.
As narrator Clifford (named after Brown) hints, these four aren't exactly pretenders to their trade. Names like Gillespie and Parker peppered their conversations in the early '50s, and not just amid wishful thinking; when trumpeter Gene (Eddie Yaroch) says Sinatra looks him up when he's in town, we're not quite sure he's pulling our legs. It would've been easy for playwright Warren Leight to simplify his characters by making 'em totally eat at music, but he's thought them through more insistently than all that.
We care about these men because we relate to them; they're as bad and as good as we are, even as their obsession invites chronic unemployment and wholesale dysfunction. Gene's wife Terry (Amanda Cooley Davis) is a case in point—she's a danger to herself amid her alcohol-fueled benders, but her cries for help are always a step behind the music in Gene's single-minded head. Drugs, women, poor health, the road: Thirty years later, the guys are bloodied but unbowed by everything their craft can throw (although Tom Hall's Jonesy, roughed up in a heroin deal gone awry, has to switch from horn to piano). Offstage, they're bad at life—but as resolute Clifford (Brian Mackey) notes, strike up the band, and they're the masters of all they survey.
Director Scott Striegel has an unerring handle on the guys' interactions. They walk the musician talk almost to a fault, one's face brightening in comprehension before the other can finish his thought. What seems like a lifetime of togetherness has unfolded onstage over mere weeks—a cadre of soulmates has lived and died by its unheralded calling, even as a young, unassuming trumpet player headed onto a rain-soaked Philadelphia freeway en route to a date with immortality. Very, very good.
This review is based on the matinée performance of Oct. 3. Side Man runs through Oct. 11 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $25-$33. 619-220-0097, www.sidemansandiego.com. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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