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Larry Young's best jazz recording
on 9 March 2011
'Unity' is generally considered to be Larry Young's best recording as a leader in a purely jazz context. The personnel are first-rate and the compositions - three originals by Woody Shaw, one by Henderson, a Monk tune and a standard - are an interesting mix.
The recording kicks off with Shaw's 'Zoltan', which apart from its march-like intro is typical of the three Shaw originals which I find to be the strongest material here. Then Young takes an immediate step sideways (and backwards, into boppish territory) with a duo take on 'Monk's Mood' with Elvin Jones. It's a competent but unremarkable performance, and for me it temporarily breaks the mood. Ironically, the duo format allows one to hear Young's playing clearly as nowhere else. The Henderson original 'If' and the Shaw tune 'The Moontrane' get the session back on track, but the mood is then broken briefly by the corny melody of the only standard - 'Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise' - fortunately abandoned almost immediately for spirited improvisation. Shaw's closer, 'Beyond All Limits' is well up to the standard of his earlier contributions and ends the record on a high.
Aficionados of Young's playing represent him as the premier post-Jimmy Smith jazz organist, but to be frank that makes him number one in a field of one. What this recording does is to point up the sheer difficulty of integrating the Hammond sound into a modern acoustic jazz ensemble. Your take on this album may well depend on your liking for Young's comping sound, which is forward in the mix and shows the characteristic warm, soft Hammond attack that makes it so different from the piano in the performance of the accompanist's role. Young is not a greedy or bullying player - his comping is quite spare - but his presence is unavoidable on this record even when he isn't soloing, and he takes very little advantage of the organ's variety of sounds.
The natural tendency of the Hammond to dominate its setting is the reason why organists are so often soloists, and why successful organ-led groups have tended to be trios. The absence of the distinctive voice of the bass player is in my view not compensated for by the organ's bass pedals. 'Unity' integrates the organ into an acoustic group about as well as one can imagine; but the session indirectly supplies evidence for why it was to be the Rhodes electric piano and not the Hammond that became the characteristic electric keyboard in late-'sixties and early 'seventies jazz.
Nonetheless this is an interesting recording, made at a transitional point in the evolution of jazz from hard bop to post-bop and from fully acoustic to at least partly electric. Young would continue to push forward on that front. His recordings with Lifetime show why the Hammond found its more natural home in rock, where electric bass and guitar could give it a run for its money. In some ways the later 'Lawrence of Newark', for all its faults, gives a better idea of what the fuss was about, and why Young's early death was so lamented. But on 'Unity' he demonstrated that he could hold his own with the best in contemporary jazz. Rather than exaggerating its claims, 'Unity' is best appreciated not as an unsurpassable pinnacle of mid-'sixties jazz - it wasn't - but as a fine Blue Note session of the period featuring committed performances from four important musicians.