Dan & Rob Hold a Block Party

D Block 300 dpi cover

BLOCK PARTY / CARR: Dinner for One Please, James. SPRINGER: No, No, No. MONK: Light Blue. GRYCE: Smoke Signal. GROFÉ: Wonderful One. DONALDSON: Changes. There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland. NOBLE: By the Fireside. D. BLOCK: Option Click. ARLEN-ROBIN: It Was Written in the Stars / Dan Block, t-sax/cl; Rob Block, gtr; Tadataka Unno, pn; Neal Caine, bs; Aaron Kimmel, dm / Miles High Records (no number)

I’m sure that, to the jazz populace of St. Louis, the names of Dan and Rob Block are pretty well known, but outside of that venue they don’t ring a bell. But that’s OK. I’m sure that no one much outside of Cincinnati would know who the heck Jimmy McGary, Ken Kresge, Frank Powers or Steve Schmidt were, but within the confines of the Queen City they were pretty well known.

As it turns out, the Brothers Block are good jazz musicians. Dan plays the clarinet with a wonderful tone and great harmonic imagination, sort of a cross between Artie Shaw and Art Pepper. His solo on Dinner for One, Please, James, a song I’ve never heard in a jazz context before (it was a hit back in the mid-1930s for Al Bowlly with the Ray Noble orchestra), is simply amazing, as is the group’s treatment I was a bit worried about brother Rob at first, since his background playing in the early part of the tune sounded low-volume, the kind of guitar style that jazz clubs and critics seem to adore, but when it came time for his solo he plays in a gutsier, sort of Barney Kessel style, which I liked very much. He’s also an interesting improviser.

I wasn’t familiar with either Phil Springer or his tune No. No, No, but it turned out to be a Latin jazz piece featuring Dan on tenor sax but playing more in a Sonny Rollins manner than like Stan Getz. Rob’s guitar solo is particularly inventive, skipping around the instrument with felicity, and I particularly liked the way Aaron Kimmel backed him on drums. The tempo shifts from Latin to straightahead 4 for Dan’s tenor solo, which was good but, on this tune, not quite as surprising in its turns of phrase as his brother’s. Tadataka Unno and bassist Neal Caine also play nice solos here as well.

The group also does a very nice job on Monk’s Light Blue. Dan is back on clarinet for this one. Both he and brother Rob are excellent, and I particularly liked the written-out clarinet-guitar duo towards the end of the tune. Another delight on this album was Gigi Gryce’s Smoke Signal, one of those ‘50s-style bop tunes that the quintet plays with a light, airy touch. Here Dan really flies on clarinet, showing a bit of Tony Scott in his playing. Ferde Grofé’s Wonderful One was another real surprise—this one, believe it or not, was a hit for John McCormack back in the early 1920s! The band changes the meter from waltz to 4/4 swinger, and here Dan shows his tenor chops to great advantage. Unno also flies very well on this one. Brother Rob is good here, too, particularly in the second half of his chorus where he heats things up. Not to be outshone, Dan and Rob them play a chase chorus, the kind of thing that has virtually disappeared from jazz.

The band apparently decided to stay in a ‘20s groove with the next tune, Walter Donaldson’s Changes (here titled Beautiful Changes for some reason), best know from Bix Beiderbecke’s recording with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. They slow the tempo down and rearrange the rhythmic beats for the opening, doubling the tempo on the bridge. Dan and the boys have also reharmonized it in more modern dress. For the tenor solo we get a nice, swinging medium tempo, which is kept up for Unno’s solo as well. Nostalgia for old tunes being the order of the day, we next get Ray Noble’s own By the Fireside, played in a surprisingly funky style at a ballad tempo. Here, at least in the first chorus, the band sticks to the original chord changes, with Dan sounding particularly relaxed on the tenor. Rob sounds laid back, as does Unno on the piano, with a nice key change at the end of his solo for the ride-out chorus.

Dan Block’s original tune Option Click also has a ‘50s feel to it, with a basic melody that starts-stops through its 16 bars. But there’s no stopping the group once the improv sections begin, with Unno first up on piano, followed by Dan and Rob in turn. Then another return to the ‘20s with Donaldson’s There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland (another Bix tune redefined), played as an almost-ballad. In his solo here, Dan almost seems to be combining a bit of Paul Desmond with R&B, if you can imagine such a thing. In the closer, Harold Arlen’s ballad It Was Written in the Stars, Rob finally breaks down and plays that wispy-soft kind of guitar style, but pretty inventive. This one is a duet just between the brothers, no outsiders allowed. It’s very pretty close to a fine album.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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