WHEELER, Kenny. Six for Six. CamJazz. 2008. KW, tpt, flglhorn; Stan Sulzmann, ten, sop sx; Bobby Wellins, ten sx; John Taylor, p; Chris Laurence, b; Martin France, dr.
HERSCH, Fred. Live at Jazz Standard. Sunny Side. 2009. FH, p; Ralph Alessi, tpt; Jo Lawry, voc; Richie Barslay, dr.
These two albums are proofs that good modern jazz is still being produced in the mainstream tradition. Neither album creates new territory but neither is either of them cookie cutter jazz. Rather, these two albums present superior, intelligent, lyrical modern jazz, drawing on the resources of a still vibrant tradition. Neither points to a new direction in jazz. Rather, they express eloquently the good that already exists in the music.
Wheeler is amazing. At the time he recorded this album, he was 78, the age I’ll be in two more months(!) and he was still turning out first class, probing music that ranged from free jazz to just plain lyrical jazz. Who, having heard it, can forget his album, Angel Song, recorded in 1996 with saxophonist Lee Konitz, guitarist Bill Frisell, and bassist Dave Holland? Six by Six is more overtly up tempo and bop than Angel Song but it has many of the same virtues: even up tempo, there is a lyrical quality to Wheeler’s trumpet and flugelhorn work and the compositions and arrangements, all by Wheeler, are imaginative vehicles for intelligent, exciting soloing by everyone involved. Lastly, Wheeler produces ensemble albums, not vehicles for himself with accompanying cast. Saxmen Sulzmann and Wellins, pianist John Taylor and drummer Franc are all first rate; better yet, they are treated as equal partners in this collaborative, joyous enterprise. I have always been impressed by Taylor’s piano work. Both of the sax players are good --Sulzmann stands out more maybe just because it’s easy to identify the sound of his soprano sax. The drummer is perfect for the group, charging and strong but able to switch gears and provide a more laid back beat when one is called for. Laurence’s bass doesn’t stand out but Wheeler hasn’t asked it to: the bassist does what is needed, and that’s enough. This is another fine album by a distinguished player, a triumph both for Wheeler as horn player and Wheeler as composer/arranger.
I have favorites among the several albums by Fred Hersch that I listen to: tops is his solo tribute to Monk, Thelonious (1997); but also there is the lovely Passion Flower (1996), tunes by Billy Strayhorn and his three record release, Songs Without Words (2002). Live at Jazz Standard, recorded in 2008, doesn’t match up to these three in my opinion but it’s another exemplary album by another artist who never lets us down. It’s also interesting because of the way Hersch has shaped his group. There’s no bass player –Hersch moves his own music along fine with just drum support; when called for, he lays down a bass line and provides almost-stride-like support for trumpeter Alessi and singer Lawry. The tunes and arrangements are by Hersch, who, like Wheeler, is an intelligent, lively, and often lyrical crafter of melodies and harmonies. Lowry, who hails from Australia, does words and vocalese equally well on this album. Her voice is not especially big or rich –my model singer would be more like Fontella Bass, Anita O’Day or Norma Winstone—but she has chops. The addition of her voice to this somewhat unorthodox ensemble (Hersch calls it his “pocket orchestra”) expands the range and expressiveness of the songs. Trumpeter Alessi is a gem, as always: a player with big ears, who listens to what his partners are playing alongside and around him and responds to it. That’s a decided plus here because the description I just made of Alessi describe Hersch too. Some of the best parts of this album come when Hersch leads and Alessi joins him, or plays around behind Lowry, just stirring the pot a little. It makes for fun music.
So, here are two very good albums that show that jazz is alive and well today, and still can bring a great deal of pleasure to our listening ears.