Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Buddy DeFranco: 85 and Swingin'

In keeping with Marian McPartland's poignant and adventurous 90th birthday celebration, "Twilight World," clarinetist Buddy DeFranco's recent album "Charlie Cat II" contains a few surprises. Unlike McPartland on "Twilight World," however, DeFranco barely moves out of his bop-era comfort zone, but that's okay; still at the top of his game at 85 years old, Buddy DeFranco breezes through this set of standards and reminds us that not only is he still around, but he's still a force of nature. Granted, this music could have been made in 1950 and it wouldn't sound any different. But honestly, with a musician of DeFranco's caliber, who cares?

It helps that he has a horde of completely indispensable sidemen, with trumpet veteran Lew Soloff, young guitar gun Joe Cohn and subtle bassist Rufus Reid making up the back-bone of his band's most recent incarnation. Cohn plays burning solos every time he touches his guitar, but of particular note is his turn on Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring," a simple, old-school cool bop solo reminiscent of Lennie Tristano's old cohort Billy Bauer. Soloff, who has worked for everyone from Joe Henderson to Blood, Sweat and Tears, also works up a sweat on every number, hitting high notes like an old Jazz at the Philharmonic screamer while managing to sound beautiful and melodic at the same time. Reid, drummer Ed Metz Jr and pianist Derek Smith have the most thankless job of anyone in the band- playing in the rhythm section- but they do it so brilliantly that when they aren't soloing you barely notice them. With the exception of a few moments of brilliant comping and interplay with the various soloists, the three of them are a well-oiled machine; the beat never moves, but somehow in spite of that they manage to keep it interesting.

And, of course, I haven't even gotten to Buddy DeFranco himself yet. At 85 years old, the clarinet player (who, in spite of his elder statesman status, barely even cracked the top 5 in this year's Downbeat Critics Poll) sounds as good as ever. He burns through up-tempo runs through "What Is This Thing Called Love" and "Joy Spring," and kills an absurdly fast take on the Charlie Parker stalwart "Anthropology," but the best stuff here are his ballads. "Once More With Feeling" shows DeFranco's indefatigable tender side, and doesn't have a single bad note. Recommended for those who play the clarinet or love bop music.

Next time I think I'll have a review of Bill Stewart's "Incandescence," but don't hold me to that. Also, on a random side-rant, why on earth are Return to Forever on the front page of BOTH JazzTimes and Downbeat this month? Are they worth this much attention? Can't they give a cover to Esperanza Spalding or Jenny Scheinman or Bill Frisell or someone else who's actually, you know, done something this year?

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