The Lex Jasper Trio Plays Again

Lex Jasper Trio

NOTES FROM THE NETHERLANDS / ARLEN-MERCER: Come Rain Or Come Shine. PORTER: Soon. JASPER: Sweet Seventy. ANDERSON: Serenata. STRAYHORN: Take The “A” Train. JASPER: Letter to Alissa. SCHERTZINGER-MERCER: Tangerine. JASPER: Song For Emil. LOESSER: On a Slow Boat To China. RONELL: Willow Weep For Me. WESTON-CAHN-STORDAHL: I Should Care. WOOD-MELLIN: My One and Only Love. McHUGH-FIELDS: Don’t Blame Me. HEFTI: The Odd Couple Theme / Lex Jasper, pno; Vincent Koning, gtr; Edwin Corzilius, bs / Challenge Records CR 73498

The Lex Jasper Trio, in various permutations, has been around since the 1970s but apparently only records intermittently. They last spate of seconds came around 1994, when they made three albums. In recent years, however, there have only been two: Happy Days Are Here Again from 2016, and this one.

One unnamed online critic has written that “This recording includes the important features required to make this piano, bass, guitar combination operate as smoothly as it should. They are all accomplished musicians who listen to each other, play to make each other sound as good as possible, they are sensitive to each other’s’ dynamic and intensity ranges, and you hear the joy they have while playing this music.” The thing that struck me, too, is how much this group sounds like some of Erroll Garner’s trios, which followed the same aesthetic. The entire rhythm section is “bound” in the same way that the best swing orchestra rhythm sections (Basie, Miller, Norvo and Hines) were bound together, with everything functioning as a unit rather than the every-man-for-himself aesthetic that we’ve had since the first Bill Evans Trio in the early 1960s.

Since I was not provided a CD back cover or liner notes—Challenge Records really is a chintzy little outfit—I had no idea who the guitarist in this trio was until I was informed by my media contact at Naxos. Neither their own website nor has any personnel listing, so your guess is as good as mine. By and large, Jasper doesn’t do a lot with his piano; his playing is even less “busy” than that of Garner and many other pianists you can name; but the overall effect is so enjoyable that you just let it all soak in and enjoy the whole rather than the parts. Despite the strong traditional bias of his playing, however, Jasper does use some altered chord positions borrowed from the likes of Nat Cole, Garner and Bud Powell in his playing. The unnamed guitarist gets a few nice little solo peek-ins, but bassist Corzilius just sort of chugs along to help bind the rhythm feel with just a two-bar break until we hit Tangerine, where he all but takes over the number from the leader.

One of the most remarkable of all Jasper’s transformations is, oddly enough, Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train, which he plays for half its length as a slow ballad before ramping up the tempo—yet never once does he touch the melody, and there is not only a nice guitar solo in this one but also a remarkable passage in which Jasper plays simultaneous single lines with both hands, just before slowing down the tempo yet again.

There are also some surprises here in the choice of repertoire. I can’t recall too many other jazz renditions of such songs as Leroy Anderson’s Serenata, Victor Schertzinger’s Tangerine or Frank Loesser’s On a Slow Boat to China, though all were big pop hits in the 1940s, yet Jasper does a fine job on all of them, particularly on Tangerine which can so easily sound like a piece of pop sludge. Slow Boat to China, by contrast, I’ve always liked for its tune construction with those rising chromatics in the chord sequence under the simple but attractive melody. An interesting tidbit about this song: it was the very last number recorded at the last 1947 studio session by the Kay Kyser Orchestra, trying to beat the deadline before another of Musicians’ Union chief James C. Petrillo’s recording bans took effect. They just sort of shoved it in as an afterthought, but when it was released the next year it took off like a comet, climbed the charts and stayed in the Top Ten for weeks, as well it should have. It’s one of the great yet lesser-known tunes in the Great American Songbook. Jasper’s arrangement alters the chord positions to the point where a certain amount of harmonic dissonance replaces the climbing chromatics. It’s an interesting take on the song, but between you and me, I liked Loesser’s original harmony better. By contrast, however, I did like Jasper’s reharmonization of Ann Ronell’s classic Willow Weep for Me, on which Koning gets an entire half-chorus solo.

By contrast with “A” Train, which was taken as a slow ballad, I Should Care, normally a ballad, is taken as a medium-uptempo number, with excellent results. And surprise of surprises, both the bass and guitar get solos on this one! Following each other, no less! Don’t Blame Me is also taken out of the ballad category by upping the tempo a bit. The latter tune also has, oddly, a George Shearing kind of feel to it.

The album wraps up with another oddity, The Odd Couple Theme written by Neal Hefti for the hit TV comedy show of the same name—yet another tune that one seldom hears played by jazz groups. Jasper elevates it quite a bit, particularly in his chord-laden improvisation in the second chorus.

A very interesting and enjoyable CD, then.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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