John Bunch Trio: Plays the Music of Irving Berlin (Except One) (Arbors ARCD 19376)
Johnny Varro Swing 7: Ring Dem Bells (Arbors ARCD 19362)
Ruby Braff: For the Last Time (Arbors ARCD 19368)
The Soprano Summit: In 1975 and More (Arbors ARCD 19328)
Lew Gren-Joe Muranyi: Together (Arbors ARCD 19377)
Based on the covers of pretty much every album put out by Arbors Records I just assumed they were all, 100%, en toto, scratch lame (as my sister likes to remind me: yes, I’m a snob). It seems like every Arbors album cover features the squarest of the squarest of the square musicians, suggesting a level of hipness and excitement that only Lawrence Welk or Andre Kostelanetz could provide (my apologies to all Welk enthusiasts, especially my S.O.’s parents). Know that cliché that you can’t tell a book by its cover? Well…..
I happened to be at a recent local music sale when it was 5 bones for everything you could put in a bag, so I figured I’d try out a handful of fairly recent releases by Arbors, because you never know, and because they were basically free. Turns out I really like the 5 discs listed above, and they have sparked my interest in the sub-genre I like to call Grandpa Jazz (for all you inquiring minds out there, Lawrence Welk would fall into the sub-genre of “Grandpa’s-in-the-ICU Jazz”).
For me, good Grandpa Jazz requires the following elements, all of which stopped being innovative about 1940-ish: solid and locked in the pocket swing; a reliance of tunes from the Great American Songbook and/or early jazz nuggets, such as Sidney Bechet’s “The Fish Vendor”; highly melodic and lyrical soloing that never ventures into the bebop realm; an emphasis on pretty instrumental tone; nods, however implicit or explicit, to New Orleans style collective improvisation; understated performances (no pyrotechnics needed) which exude charm, taste, honesty and maturity; and an overall mood which can range from joy to nostalgia, from melancholy to tenderness, and combinations thereof. In short, good Grandpa Jazz is music that is pleasant to listen to. It lacks pretense and all it requires is for the listener to relax and enjoy it.
So without further adieu, here’s a quick rundown of the albums listed above:
In addition to listening to each of these 5 albums individually I have dumped them all on my computer and made a 7.7 hour “Grandpa Jazz Marathon” playlist. That’s a whole lotta something nice to listen to.
Pianist John Bunch’s charming set of Irving Berlin tunes features guitarist Frank Vignola, bassist John Webber, and guest flautist Frank Wess, who appears on six of the twelve cuts. There’s something intimate about the guitar/piano/bass format, perhaps the lack of drums (which are always noticeable and can dominate the recording, no matter how they are mixed) forces the listener to not only focus on the bassist for the time, but the thinner texture allows the interaction between the three instruments to come to the fore. Bunch’s touch is light, clean, and his swing is impeccable. He prefers mostly single note lines and his chord voicings and overall approach is very open, using lots of space. Vignola’s guitar sounds more acoustic than electric – which I prefer in jazz guitar – and like Bunch he uses plenty of space, although his phrasing often betrays a little bit more blues influence. No matter who takes the head, solos or comps this band is rock solid and swings like crazy, yet in a completely relaxed manner. Wess is charming and melodic throughout and his flute fits perfectly into the group’s sound. Any disc that has a nice, swinging, sensitive treatment of “How Deep is the Ocean?” (Wess’ breathy tone is perfect here) is usually a winner for me, which this album is.
Ring Dem Bells, by the Johnny Varro Swing 7, recalls the early swing units of Basie and other Kansas City style groups. For me the highlights are the solos by Ken Peplowski on alto and clarinet and from Scott Robinson on tenor. So what if lots of earlier saxophonists perfected the style? I still like to hear new melodies. Peplowski has an incredibly sweet alto sound and his clarinet growls and swings with ease. Robinson has the triadic soloing approach down, and had he a hot tub time machine he could sit in with any swing group from the ’30s and kill it. There’s nothing particularly Earth-shattering about Varro’s arrangements, but they do include well done background parts and written sections that are interspersed between the solos. Tunes include “Corner Pocket,” Ellington’s “Stompy Jones” and “Come Sunday,” “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” and two Jelly Roll Morton tunes. Varro even includes an arrangement of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” which although it hints at polka it largely works. The band isn’t quite as tight as it could be – I heard at least one botched early entry – but it still swings and nails the genre. This isn’t on the level of the Basie small groups from the 30s (there’s only one Lester Young), but it’s a fine album nonetheless.
It doesn’t get much more straight up Dixieland than cornetist Lew Green and clarinetist Joe Muranyi’s Together. Filling out the sextet is pianist Jeff Barnhart, Bob Leary on banjo and guitar, Vince Giordano on tuba, bass and bass saxophone (talk about an old school double, and dig his bass sax solos on “Oriental Man” and “Four or Five Times”) and drummer Danny Coots. Plenty of oom-pah, interweaving collective improvisation, chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk four to the floor rhythm playing, and spirited, old-fashioned good times here.
Ruby Braff’s For the Last Time is just that, the recording of his final performance, which took place August 7, 2002 at the Nairn Jazz Festival. This two-disc set features Scott Hamilton on tenor, Jon Wheatley on guitar, the aforementioned John Bunch on piano, Dave Gree on bass, and Steve Brown on drums. Most of the set’s tunes, which are primarily well trod standards such as “Just You, Just Me,” “Yesterdays,” and “Sometimes I’m Happy,” well exceed ten minutes, giving each soloist lots of room to stretch out. Hamilton’s playing, which reaches deep into the Lester Young bag, is lovely throughout and he manages to conjure numerous surprising turns of phrases, usually to Braff’s very audible approval. Even though this was Braff’s last performance he sounded great, and in full control. I love his sound: so warm, so soft, and one can’t help being drawn to him by the way he uses space between his notes and phrases. His every statement reassures and comforts.
There is a whole lot of great music The Soprano Summit’s In 1975 and More, which not only showcases the group live, but the second disc includes performances by The Blue Three from 1979 and a 1976 session by the Ruby Braff/Bob Wilber quintet. After hearing this I need to check out more of soprano players Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber. I’m always weary of tenor players who pick up a soprano and suddenly become soprano players, even if they have terrible sounds and sketchy intonation (too many of these cats on the annual critics and readers’ polls). But Davern and Wilber are killer soprano players, and damn good on clarinet too. The Soprano Summit’s sets are a kind of trad jazz/early swing hybrid – with plenty of collective improv from Davern and Wilber. Grosz plays his guitar more like a banjo, so much so that I thought it was a banjo until I checked out the liner notes. In 1975 and More features romping fun and jazz playing at the highest level. The Blue Three, featuring Davern on clarinet, pianist Dick Wellstood and drummer Bob Rosengarden, have four cuts, which by way of the instrumentation and style recall Bennie Goodman’s small groups, although the Blue Three play in a slightly older swing/trad style than Goodman. Braff and Wilber’s group (more interweaving lines here too) gets the last five cuts of the two-disc set, of which “When You’re Smiling” is a standout for me.
So there you have it, five excellent albums in the Grandpa Jazz mold from Arbors Records, a label against which I no longer hold a silly snobby bias (although it wouldn’t hurt for them to update its oft-cheesy covers). There’s nothing innovative or risky on these albums, just a lot of high quality swinging jazz that gives a nod to earlier styles. With the over-abundance of fairly generic and formulaic bebop playing out there (ugh, I’m not going to tackle college jazz programs, at least right now) it’s great to hear extremely well done jazz that features players with original things to say, even if they are playing in what are now considered out-dated styles. I’ll take these over un-original, tired, poorly executed (just because there’s lots of notes doesn’t make it good) bop playing any day of the week.