BARDFLY / ALLEE: Bardfly Blues/Samingo. Until the Break of Day. Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day. Philomel/Hold the Peace. Mistress Mine. Sigh No More. The Hungry Lion. Green Willow. Full Fathom Fivr. Heigh Ho the Holly. Come Away Death. Never Come Again. The Wind and the Rain / John Allee, voc; Matt von Roderick, tpt; Javier Vergara, sax; Mahesh Balasooriya, pno; Dominic Thiroux, bs; Aaron McLendon, dm / Portuguese Knees Music PKM 9413
John Allee is an actor best known for his role as Pasha on a Starz limited (whatever that is) series called “Flesh and Bone,” but he is also trained in Shakespeare and a firm fan of jazz. In this unusual CD, due out October 11, he combines both loves in a series of self-composed pieces in which he is backed by a solid jazz quintet.
Strictly as a singer, Allee doesn’t have a great voice, but then again, neither did Bob Dorough or Mose Allison. Like them, Allee comes across as very hip and at times very funny, spinning out verbal fantasies as well as sing-speaking lines from Shakespeare’s plays to a jazz beat. It’s difficult to exactly explain his style or how it fits into a jazz context; it’s not the same as Cleo Laine’s Shakespearean “Wordsongs” or Ottilie Patterson’s blues tunes using Shakespeare’s lyrics. As I said, Bob Dorough comes immediately to mind, but only if Dorough was also a Shakespearean, which unfortunately he was not.
The album opens with a long monologue (with music background) setting the scene for the rest of the set:
Now entertain conjecture of a time—maybe it’s 1958, maybe it’s 1598, maybe it’s today. The date’s ambiguous, but the locale is definitely seedy, and out-of-the-way jazz club called “We Three Kings,” about which the best thing you can say is that the piano is in tune and everybody’s been vaccinated. Dusty “The Barfly” Johnson has been holding court at a sit-down gig every Saturday in February. Two shows nightly. During Leap Year they make up for the lost time by playing all the tempos twice as fast. Sharing the elevation with a tight little combo he met when they were all working downtown at Jack’s Slacks-For-Less over on East Cheap Boulevard—free tailoring with every purchase. Hey, Jack! Take up the slack!
And so on for a while, before moving into a bit of Shakespeare. This sets the tone for the tone for all the tracks to come. Allee can swing; he has a good sense of time despite the fact that his voice is somewhat nasal. Luckily, his backup combo can carry the weight and help push him along, so that the overall effect is fun to listen to. In the Samingo bit, for instance, they suddenly swing into Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy for two bars, and somehow it fits. All of the players are good, but I was particularly impressed by trumpeter Matt von Roderick and pianist Mahesh Balasooriya.
I also have to give Allee points for having been able to construct good tunes around the Bard’s lyrics. This is not very common in the jazz world nowadays, when so many jazz composers seem to think that creating a “melody” out of two gestures or a couple of licks equates with creativity. Once in a while, as in the case of Until the Break of Day, the tunes seem to be more related to Broadway or MOR pop, but at least they’re real melodies with a real construction, and when Allee hits the nail on the head, as in Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day (which has a beat that sounds borrowed from the late Dr. John), the results are wonderfully refreshing. Trumpeter von Roderick is especially fine in this latter song, and Balasooriya is also quite good. The bassist and drummer are notable for their tasteful understatement in accompanying Allee and the band.
In Philomel/Hold the Peace, Allee presents his own spin on the poem from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Ye spotted snakes with double tongue,” giving it a medium-uptempo beat. On this one, tenor saxist Javier Vergara throws in a few good licks to complement von Roderick, and Allee scats in one chorus. Von Roderick plays a wonderful muted solo in Mistress Mine while Vergara has his best solo on Sigh No More.
The Hungry Lion is given a slow but bluesy beat, sounding a bit like the “hip detective” music from those late-1950s shows like M Squad and Peter Gunn. Allee allows the horns plenty of space to play and speaks rather than sings the lyrics. Green Willow is again given a ballad treatment, but this time closer related to conventional pop music while Full Fathom Five has more of a beat to it and a less regular, predictable melody (also with another excellent trumpet solo). In the second half of the song, the beat suddenly switches to 3/4, then back again for the last couple of bars.
Heigh Ho the Holly is hipper and more uptempo, which suits the lyrics, while Dominic Thiroux gets a rare bass solo in Come Away Death. We end our Shakespearean jazz journey with The Wind and the Rain, introduced by von Roderick’s hip, muted trumpet with the rhythm section underpinning both him and Allee. This, too, sounds like hip detective jazz of the late ‘50s.
By and large, this is an interesting and creative album, certainly something off the beaten track, well conceived by Allee and well executed by him and his pickup band.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)