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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 7

Tributes to the Masters

by Alain Londes / April 1, 2011

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Jazz artists often favour standards penned by those artists who inspire them most, and some even record complete tribute albums. But it's not easy to give well-worn vehicles a new spin, even with the best of intentions. An artist has to make his or her own voice heard in order to effectively interpret a piece, while maintaining some connection to the original material. Not an easy task, but it's possible, as evidenced by the following releases. 

Joe Lovano | Us Five: Bird Songs 
Blue Note 2011 
In terms of melody, rhythm, and harmony, Charlie Parker was a key influence on Joe Lovano. His late father, a tenor player as well, was a faithful bopper. In his notes to this latest release of his, Lovano claims to have been preparing for this project all his life. With Parker now gone for over 50 years, it is fitting to revisit his music in a deeper way than with a mere tribute album. Lovano attempts this with the help of James Weidman on piano, recent Grammy Award winner Esperanza Spalding on bass, and both Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela on drums, both of whom add complexity to the overall sound without becoming overbearing. The saxman is the dominant player throughout the proceedings. “Barbados”, for one, is an island-inspired piece with subtle rhythmic interplay anchored by the bassist and drummers.  The US Five stretches  “Ko Ko”  to provide more space for Lovano to juxtapose a collage of riffs around the elongated melody; in that short piece, lasting barely two minutes, the band seamlessly weaves together “Carving the Bird,” “Bird Feathers,” and “Bloomdido.” All in all, Lovano's interpretation is both a relaxed and relaxing musical outing. 

The Microscopic Septet: Friday the Thirteenth 
Cuneiform Records : 2011 
According to a recent New York Times article by Larry Blumenfeld, pianist Joel Forrester knocked on soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston's door one day, thus initiating a long lasting collaboration between two Monk lovers. The present album is their band’s testament to their main influence, both in inspiration and style. This New York septet consists of a saxophone quartet backed by a standard rhythm section, an instrumentation that gives a very clear picture of what Monk was all about. On “Brilliant Corners,” the theme is played slowly at first, and then repeated at twice the tempo. The musicians will at times dance around the melody without straying too far, as in the title track with its basic 4-bar structure, though piano and bass contribute subtle solos for just the right balance. “Teo” features a vibrant, even cacophonous frenzy from Dave Sewelson’s ballsy baritone, followed by a more soothing tenor interlude from Mike Hashim. In a few instances, we hear two musicians toying around with a melody to great effect, such as the soprano and piano pairing on “Worry Later.” This sterling and sometimes quirky horn section affords the listener a good opportunity to rediscover Monk's offbeat melodies. 

Géraldine Laurent: Around Gigi 
Dreyfuss Records 2010 
In this new release French alto-saxophonist Géraldine Laurent has slipped in four of her originals between numbers by Gigi Gryce, Art Farmer, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, whose “Black And Tan Fantasy” she plays with great aplomb as an opener to this disc. Gryce, an alto player, is a forgotten figure now, yet in the 1950s he composed such hard bop classics as “Minority,” “Nica's Tempo,” and “Smoke Signal,” all of which Laurent includes here. “Nica's Tempo” is an easy ballad moving through a series of minor chords outlined by pianist Pierre De Bethmann's lyricism. Subtle African rhythms support Farmer's “Mau Mau,” named after the guerrilla movement in Kenya during that period. Monk's “Gallop's Gallop” is the shortest track, clocking in under two-minutes. Laurent's own tunes blend in well with the rest of the tracks; “Smash,” the tenth track, moves steadily over a 6/8 time signature, a prelude of sorts to the next piece, “Smoke Signal,” where she kicks it up a notch with some fleet fingering.

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