Thursday, August 21, 2008

Straight Ahead: New Ones from John McNeil and Bill McHenry, Scott Hamilton, The Harry Allen and Joe Cohn Quartet

The year is 2008, and everywhere you turn you hit a brilliant new jazz record built on some sort of innovative concept, whether it's the pointed math-jazz of Vijay Iyer's "Tragicomic," the Copland-esque strings of Jenny Scheinman's rural jazz masterpiece "Crossing the Field" or the latin-inflected contemporary R&B of Esperanza Spalding's "Esperanza." They're all over the place, the landscape this year just seems filled with young people whose main interest is in moving jazz into territories it hasn't gone before, and who seem to be heaped with adoration from the press for it. But where are all of the old-school bop records? Granted, there have been some great straight-ahead records from really old people- Buddy DeFranco and Marian McPartland come to mind. But what about newer musicians who want to swing without any pretensions; people who want to play music you can jitterbug to? Well, here come Joe Cohn, Harry Allen, Scott Hamilton, John McNeil, and Bill McHenry to fill that void.

Granted, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton has been on the scene for more than thirty years now, but he's never really reached recognition beyond that of a cult musician, and he hangs out with Cohn and Allen, so I guess he belongs here. Hamilton's newest offering, "Across the Tracks," is a lot like all of his other offerings, but a little bit bluesier; that is to say, he swings like it's a 1950 Jazz At the Plaza recording, but with a couple more blue notes than you're used to from him. You can probably blame this on Duke Robillard, who plays bluesy guitar here, but this preoccupation with the 12 bar form is hardly a problem. When the band does play standards, they tend to be ballads; Hamilton's reading of "Sweet Slumber" is lovely, but his version of "Memories of You," which closes the album, is a little too wooden to stand up next to other tenor players' classic takes on the song- just compare it to the Roland Kirk/Jaki Byard version from 1968's "The Jaki Byard Experience."

Hamilton is a guest of the Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet on their recent release, "Stompin' the Blues," and is more fun to listen to in this context; Cohn is a far more subtle and wide-ranging guitarist than Robillard, and it shows in his comping when he interacts with Hamilton and the other tenor player, co-leader Harry Allen (no really). Allen himself is also in fine form here, tackling some lesser-known standards. All in all, the musicians party like it's 1948, and they're all playing at a Norman Grantz-lead Jazz-At-The-Plaza session. Granted, there's nothing at all innovative or challenging about this record, but I suppose there are times when that's just what the doctor's ordered. Did I mention that Joe Cohn kills it? Recommended.

For those who like a healthy dollop of Ornette Coleman with their obscure cool-jazz/mainstream jazz standards, John McNeil and Bill McHenry have created "Rediscovery," an odd little release of west-coast tunes on which co-leader McNeil plays his trumpet in a fashion that somehow finds touchstones in Chet Baker and Lester Bowie. The two lead a piano-less quartet, like those lead by both Coleman and Baker, but mostly give a sort of free-bop treatment to esoteric works by Gerry Mulligan and Russ Freeman. The best tune in this collection is also the most famous: Mulligan's "Godchild." Both McNeil and McHenry play coolly blistering solos (I'm aware that that is an oxymoron, but you'll have to hear them for yourself) before allowing their rhythm section to take the reins. Also recommended.

I think next time I'll post a lengthy series of gripes about the new Downbeat (the best part is the Blindfold Test, where Robert Glasper thinks that every piano player he hears is Gonzalo Rubacalba- including Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus), but that won't be at least until Monday, as I'm going to be without an internet connection this weekend.

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