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Tribute! / Artistry Jazz Group & Friends

Release Date: 07/31/2012 
Label:  Volenza   Catalog #: VMCD103  
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

TRIBUTE! Artistry Jazz Group VOLENZA 103 (70:32)

For those who missed my review of the Artistry Jazz Group’s previous release ( Too Darn Hot, Volenta 2010), it is a Swedish unit of musicians who play in a swing-bop mold. They are facile and fluent improvisers, if not the most startling or original, and they swing very well. The present disc is their tribute to “musical innovators” of the 20th century.

They get off to an excellent start with Read more Palo Alto , a Lee Konitz piece written at the time the alto saxist was playing with and learning from legendary pianist-educator Lennie Tristano. Pianist Jan Lundgren sounds much more like Nat Cole than Tristano, but the band swings and the overall performance is quite good. The second track, Shirley Steps Out , was written in the 1940s by Mel Powell, the jazz pianist and composer-arranger who came to fame with Benny Goodman’s big band and Glenn Miller’s AAF unit. The anonymous annotator (I assume it’s producer Torgil Rosenberg, who writes all the other notes) doesn’t say what year it was written but gives us an excellent if anonymous quote about Powell: “The contrast between his exuberant, sophisticated development of traditional jazz and the dry austerity of his non-tonal compositions and his experiments with electronic music seemed irreconcilable to many, but served to illustrate his multifaceted, almost quixotic musical personality.” I will go further. Ralph Berton once told me of the time he visited Powell, trying to get him back into jazz, and found the erstwhile composer staring at a TV screen filled with “snow” (static patterns). Powell said that he got many good musical ideas from studying TV static. Enough said. Luckily, Shirley Steps Out is a happy, upbeat, but subtly sophisticated piece, typical of the music he wrote for the Goodman band (and occasionally for Miller) in those years.

After this, however, the jazz group seems to veer off course insofar as jazz innovation goes. The next piece, Harold Arlen’s Last Night When We Were Young , is not a jazz piece at all, even though Arlen himself had been a jazz pianist in his youth (with a ’20s group called The Buffalodians) and was considered the hippest of all pop songwriters. In fact, this song was first recorded in 1935 by operatic baritone Lawrence Tibbett (his recording may be heard on YouTube). The Artistry group does manage to turn it into a nice little jazz ballad, but the word “innovation” doesn’t really fit here. Nor does it fit the contours of André Previn’s pop tune Lost in a Summer Night or another Arlen song, The Man That Got Away , sung in the film A Star is Born by Judy Garland. Possibly there is a disconnect between American and Swedish concepts of jazz, but Judy Garland never was and never could have been a jazz singer by any stretch of the imagination. Singer Vivian Buczek has a fine, clear, pure pop-jazz voice, and she does deliver both songs with some jazz inflections, but you’d never confuse these tunes for “innovation.”

Fortunately, we do get Ralph Burns’s unusual Bijou , subtitled “Rhumba à la Jazz,” which he wrote for the Woody Herman band of the mid 1940s (and which caught the imagination of Igor Stravinsky, who proposed writing the Ebony Concerto for Woody’s band). They also present us with an offbeat progressive swing number by Eddie Finckel, Up an’ Atom , written not for the Boyd Raeburn band where he got his start but a few years later for Gene Krupa’s semi-bop band. David Raksin’s The Bad and the Beautiful is yet another ballad gently coaxed into being a “jazz” piece via the performance of pianist Lundgren.

The band does pick up again for Chico O’Farrill’s Undercurrent Blues , one of several pieces he wrote for Goodman’s bebop band of 1948–49. I hadn’t been aware of this tune, or the others O’Farrill wrote, for that matter; Benny’s bop band is one of the semi-forgotten enigmas of the music world. Pianist Buddy Greco, who was part of it, said in later years that although Goodman deeply admired the musicianship of musicians like trumpeter Fats Navarro and tenor saxist Wardell Gray, he never really understood bop improvisation and in fact almost kidded some of his musicians when they went off on tangents. Eventually he gave up and disbanded. The irony was that this was the last regular working orchestra Goodman ever led. All his future bands were ad hoc ensembles, thrown together for TV specials, recording dates, occasional live appearances, or tours of Russia. Here, vocalist Buczek scats along with trumpeter Peter Asplund on the opening theme and then provides a solo chorus of her own, and she’s really good. Alto saxist Klaus Lindquist, whose solos are consistently interesting, plays a brief but very fine chorus on this one.

To the band’s credit, it does much more with The Man That Got Away than with the other two vocal ballads in this set, and I give a huge part of the credit here to vocalist Buczek. She is one of those singers who hangs back on the beat rather than pushing it, and in this song, especially, she is very effective, almost sounding like a jazz horn. Another reason for this tune’s success is that it’s one of Arlen’s hippest melodies, easy to improvise on and swing. Stan Kenton’s Fantasy , an uptempo piece based loosely on the Adagio from Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, is not a piece I was previously aware of, and here Lundgren surpasses the tune’s creator in his ability to swing—and swing lightly, riding the beat rather than aggressively pushing it as Kenton often did. Guitarist Jacob Fischer is absolutely scintillating here, introducing harmonic changes into his solo that lift it from the matrix of the tune and give his solo an independent identity. Alas, this is followed by yet another ballad, the Nils Lindberg-Red Mitchell As You Are . Despite the fact that both Lindberg and Mitchell were genuine jazz musicians, nothing really happens in this tune or its performance other than a truly beautiful bass solo by Hans Backenroth.

On the other hand, I am quite pleased to see the group include a tune by Horace Silver, whom I’ve often felt was one of the most underrated pianists in jazz. Undoubtedly, this came from his later identity with hard bop, when his improvising skills became more predictable, because earlier in the 1950s he was one of the most exciting and interesting young players on the scene. The St. Vitus’ Dance is fairly typical early ’50s bop, but played with lightness and a touch of humor by the group. Needless to say, since this tune was written by a pianist, Lundgren is quite fine here, again spinning out his single-note right-hand solos with finesse and great taste. Bassist Backenroth is also excellent here, spinning out a high-lying pizzicato solo with outstanding tone and great musical fecundity.

Apparently, the Artistry Jazz Group and its producer take George Gershwin’s pop tunes much more seriously as jazz than most others do, but like Arlen, Gershwin at least appreciated the real thing and encouraged jazz musicians to improvise on his material (unlike Irving Berlin, who tried as often as he could to ban jazz recordings of his songs). The only jazz association with Changing My Tune was a 1946 recording by Artie Shaw with Mel Tormé and the MelTones on vocals; it actually made its first appearance in a film called The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, sung by Betty Grable, who was about as far from jazz as a three-eyed Martian. But here, due to the nice medium tempo, Buczek and the band really do make it swing, with good results.

Billy Strayhorn’s Lotus Blossom , a subtle yet excellent tune, is again given a fine performance by Lundgren. The program closes with the Miles Davis-Gil Evans piece Boplicity , written for the trumpeter’s “Birth of the Cool” band of 1949–50. The instrumental version is well known, but I had no idea that lyrics were ever attached to it. Apparently they were written by the last two names attached to this tune, Ray Passman and Holli Ross. Buczek sings, and swings, them beautifully.

Overall, then, a mixed bag. I could have lived without all the ballads, particularly the non-jazz ballads, but as a whole it’s an interesting CD that does pull together various threads of those jazz and pop composers who at one point or another studied classical music and tried to achieve some sort of fusion of the two, long before it became fashionable to do so. I am particularly indebted to this disc for opening my ears to the music of Goodman’s bop band as well as Swedish clarinetist Åke “Stan” Hasselgård (1922–48), who Goodman actually hired as second clarinetist in his band. Much of Hasselgård’s playing, as well as many of the Goodman bop-era performances, are to be found on YouTube as well as on Sony-BMG’s “freegal” site, which they run in conjunction with most public libraries. I strongly urge you to investigate this treasure trove; it will surprise you and open your ears.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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