The Jeff Hamilton Trio Swings at San Pedro!

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LIVE FROM SAN PEDRO / HAMILTON: Sybille’s Day. BERNIER-SIMON: Poinciana. G. ROBERT: Hammer’s Tones. RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: I Have Dreamed. MONK: In Walked Bud. J. CLAYTON: Gina’s Groove. Brush This. HENDELMAN: Bennissimo. WILLSON: Gary, Indiana. LaBARBERA: Hoosier Friend / Tamir Handelman, pn; Christoph Luty, bs; Jeff Hamilton, dm / Capri Records (no number) (live: San Pedro, CA January 8, 2017)

Drummer Jeff Hamilton, who has worked with the big bands of Woody Herman and Count Basie, here leads a swinging piano trio in a live set from California early last year. The CD, due out in 11 days (February 16), consists of a few old standards by Buddy Bernier, Richard Rodgers and Meredith Willson in addition to an original by the leader and two by John Clayton, Monk’s familiar In Walked Bud and a few surprises.

The opener, Sybille’s Day, was written by Hamilton as a tribute to the mother of a German friend. It’s a nice straightahead swinger with a nice backbeat kick to it, played well by the trio. Pianist Handelman is fine player who, though not flashy and not indulging in outside or modern jazz, nonetheless plays well-constructed solos with little bluesy flourishes. And this trio most definitely kicks butt! They are as tight as any such trio you’re likely to hear in this genre.

I was particularly delighted to hear Poinciana, one of my all-time favorite tunes, in this set. Although written by Buddy Bernier in 1936, the song went nowhere until it was arranged by Glenn Miller for his Army Air Force Band in 1943, one of the few hits (along with St. Louis Blues March) scored by his wartime outfit, and was later picked up by Ahmad Jamal. Hamilton has his own version of it, with a running syncopated undercurrent that transforms the beat; in the middle it almost becomes a samba. Handelman’s solo on this one is really fine, with swirling double-time triplets thrown in for good measure. Luty plays a nice, tasteful bass solo as well.

Hammer’s Tones is a song written by Hamilton’s friend, the late George Robert. It’s a swinging, uptempo blues-type number of the kind that pianists like Horace Silver used to play so well back in the day. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s I Have Dreamed is a ballad that starts out with bowed bass, picked up by Handelman with Hamilton playing soft, rolling percussion behind him. It sort of meanders along in its ballad-y way. Happily, the trio picks up its swinging ways with Thelonious Monk’s famous paean to Bud Powell played in a very unfamiliar manner. Handelman suggests the melodic line, occasionally touching it here and there until it breaks out in the second half of the opening chorus—and then it’s off to the races with brilliant improvisation, throwing in some harmonic changes that Monk never thought of. Luty plays an outstanding bass chorus, picking his way around the contours of the tune without ever coming near it, followed by a tasteful chorus from the leader on drums that builds in volume and intensity. Handelman returns to ride it out, with explosive drum breaks from Hamilton.

Gina’s Groove is the first John Clayton piece, written for his daughter Gina who is Hamilton’s Goddaughter. It’s a really funky piece, full of brief licks that somehow stick to each other to form a theme before the trio runs away with it. The second Clayton piece, Brush This, was originally written for the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra; Hamilton condensed it into a trio version. Without knowing the original, I don’t know how they compare, but the piece itself is taken at a nice medium pace, what that used to call a “walking tempo,” played tastefully and with wonderful tension in the swing.

Bennissimo is Handelman’s tribute to Benny Green, originally recorded by the trio in 2000. It’s a wild uptempo romp filled with energy and inventiveness; Hamilton’s drumming almost explodes here, as does Handelman’s piano. If you weren’t awake before they started playing this, you’ll be fully awake by the time they finish! Hamilton give you his best Buddy Rich tribute in his solo. Gary, Indiana from The Music Man is pushed from the Hoosier state into a Latin sort of groove, shuffling its way along the catchy but simple Meredith Willson tune. The leader’s drum breaks are tasty and nutritious, good for what ails you, and Handelman flies over the keyboard with a fine single-note solo in the right hand before moving into a more driving rhythm in the middle eight.

We end the set with a Joe LaBarbera original, Hoosier Friend, written for Hamilton on the occasion of his 60th birthday. It’s another relaxed, middle-tempo swinger with an pleasant tune and lots of space for improvisation. Luty contributes a good bass solo here as well, with Handelman playing softly and minimal to limn the tune with his own special touch. It’s a nice finish to an excellent set.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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