MARSH: Background Music. KYNER: ‘Teef. TRISTANO: Lennie’s Pennies. 317 East 32nd Street. ARLEN-MERCER: Come Rain or Come Shine. HAGGARD-BURKE: What’s New? KONITZ: Subconscious-Lee / Gary Foster, a-sax; Mark Turner, t-sax; Putter Smith, bs; Joe La Barbera, dm / Capri 74156-2 (live: Claremont, CA, February 8, 2003)
The liner notes for this double-CD set claim that “This music and vibe come from the world of Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh with Lennie Tristano nodding in approval.” That is indeed true of the cool timbres of our two sax players, but clearly not in the beat. The rhythm section in the first three tracks plays very much in the swing school, albeit in a swing mode if one had Kenny Clarke or Roy Haynes on drums. Joe La Barbera, a superb veteran percussionist, keeps the beat a bit looser than it might have been by constantly fracturing the rhythm with little off-the-beat snare drum accents. I also reject the notion that Tristano is much of an influence here because there’s no piano on this date and the group doesn’t come close at any time to approximating the complex chord positions that Tristano would feed his musicians from the keyboard except for Lennie’s Pennies which has to use them because they’re part of the composition.
But the improvised sax solos are clearly well-structured and interesting. You’d never know just from listening that Gary Foster was almost 67 years old at the time of recording, although the little Bird licks he throws into his solos give his proclivities away. Foster has spent a lot of his career playing pop and film music in addition to jazz and classical to keep his rent payments up, the modern-day equivalent of paying your dues, but he clearly has never lost touch with his jazz side.
Mark Turner, on the other hand, was only 38 years old on this session, but he evidently enjoys the same models as Foster. One little problem with this live set is that Turner plays such a light-toned tenor that it’s sometimes difficult to tell his sound apart from Foster’s. For me, personally, the one offputting quality of these performances is Putter Smith’s awful-sounding electric bass. It has no color and no dynamics inflections; the playing is completely flat and two-dimensional. He keeps good time but sounds like something piped in from a short circuit in the wiring system.
The music also has a nice cozy or “coochy” feel to it. Foster and Turner really listen to each other and either juxtapose or build on what the other has just played, with the result that, although there are no real arrangements here to give a framework to their solos, they don’t need that kind of a safety net to fall back on. They are both master musicians. Neither one plays the convoluted, screeching and sometimes incomprehensible outside licks that many modern players seem to think are so avant-garde. They don’t have to. They’re not just playing their horns, they’re playing music.
In addition to Konitz and Marsh, I also hear some influence in their playing from Paul Desmond and early Sonny Rollins. Nothing wrong with that; they, too, were iconic improvisers on their instruments, and a little taste of their styles adds flavor. Turner is at his very best on the afore-mentioned Lennie’s Pennies, taking the advanced changes in stride as if he could improvise on them in his sleep. La Barbera also has a subtle but excellent drum solo in this one.
But clearly, the outstanding track in this set is Come Rain or Come Shine, where Turner’s opening a cappella solo completely rewrites the famous Harold Arlen tune and sets the stage for what comes next. The liner notes compare it to something by Aaron Copland, and for once I agree—but surely not an “Aaron Copland improvisation,” since Copland never improvised any of his music. Nevertheless, this track is a precious jewel, some of the finest playing I’ve ever heard from a jazz musician in my life. Putter’s bass solo again lacks a good tone, but his ideas are excellent, which feed into Foster’s ensuing alto solo in which he uses some whole-tone scales. All in all, this is some fabulous jazz by any standard. Even Turner’s final chorus, in which he fragments the original tune and displaces the rhythmic accents, is simply brilliant.
Tristano’s 317 East 52nd Street is the most complex tune played in this set, a real bop twister with an unusual line and harmonies, and the group (particularly the two saxists) handles it well, particularly Foster, who plays a nice atonal 8-bar phrase after Putter’s bass solo. La Barbera also has a nice off-rhythm drum solo here. Bob Haggart’s classic ballad What’s New? is quite lovely and contains a nice improvisation by Foster to lead it off.
Next up is Lee Konitz’ Subconscious-Lee, and by this time the band seems to be in a deeper state of musical meditation that in the first three tracks of CD 1. Perhaps Turner’s virtuoso turn on Come Rain or Come Shine was the catalyst, but whatever it was that moved them deeper within themselves, it is by this time a richer and more meditative state without resorting to that innocuous “soft jazz” that permeates too many albums nowadays. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it also sounds on this track as if Putter is playing acoustic bass, which is all to the better tonally, and his solo, too, is deep and rich. Finally, at the 6:10 mark, La Barbera kicks the tempo up and they play the tune proper (but here, Putter’s bass again sounds electric and hollow). The last chorus, though quite fine, is more like a recapitulation of the theme than an expansion of it.
Perhaps the biggest mystery, to me at least, is why this session had to wait 16 years to be released on record. Nothing in the liner notes or publicity blurb that came with this album gives an explanation for this. One would think that playing of this high a level from two well-established jazz names would have prompted someone to take a chance on releasing this sooner. This is generally a fine set, though it really becomes a great one from Cone Rain or Come Shine onward.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)