Alvin Schwaar & Company Are “Travellin’ Light”

Travellin' Light

G. & I. GERSHWIN: Someone to Watch Over Me. HANCOCK: I Have a Dream. ELLINGTON: Heaven. Prelude to a Kiss. KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: All the Things You Are. CHASE-ROBIN-WHITING: My Ideal. EVANS: Very Early. COLTRANE: Big Nick / Travellin’ Light: Alvin Schwaar, pno; Bänz Oester, bs; Noé Franklé, dm / Leo Records CD LR 875

Those readers familiar with the type of music usually released on Leo Records will probably have question marks going through their heads after seeing the above header. Not ONE original piece by a group member or the whole group? An ENTIRE program of pop music classics and pieces by earlier, established jazz musicians? Yes, indeed.

The answer is that “Travellin’ Light” (spelled with two Ls…after all this is a British label!) so completely deconstructs these pieces that they range from barely recognizable to, as John Cleese used to say, “something completely different.” A perfect example is the opener, George and Ira Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me. To begin with, the tempo has been brought way down, almost to a crawl. Secondly, the melody is played in such a way that the notes are spaced out differently from the way a normal jazz pianist would play them. And thirdly, within that spacing-out of the melody, the rhythm is shifted around so that the tune is stretched out over more measures than would normally be the case. It’s almost in the realm of “ambient jazz,” but not quite, because there is quite a bit going on in terms of rhythmic displacement throughout this performance. The trio was wise to open with a familiar song that everyone knows, because it gives the listener a guidepost by which to judge their approach to music.

I admit to not knowing Herbie Hancock’s I Have a Dream, Bill Evans’ Very Early or Coltrane’s Big Nick, so I can’t comment on how these performances compare to the originals, but of course I know all the other pieces played here. I can say, however, that I Have a Dream opens with sparse bass notes before the piano enters, lightly playing a few licks, before entering into the tune proper. I would assume that the same tricks with rhythm and time are played in this selection as well. One difference in this track is that both the tempo and volume increase to a grand climax before falling away, back to quietude.

Heaven is an Ellington piece that is almost never played by jazz groups, due to its being written for his Second Sacred Concert with a simple melodic line that doesn’t lend itself well to improvisation. Once again, Travellin’ Light slows it down, but since it was a slow piece to begin with the difference here is not as marked as in the opening track. Much of this performance shows off drummer Noé Franklé’s quiet virtuosity and his ability to create numerous brush effects while bassist Bänz Oester picks his way through the upper reaches of his bass. Eventually Franklé becomes somewhat more aggressive on the drums, upping the temperature level as pianist Schwaar picks his way through variants on the original theme.

Yet none of this prepared me for their extraordinary treatment of All the Things You Are, probably the most famous song written by Oscar Hammerstein II before he teamed up with Richard Rodgers (well, next to Ol’ Man River, anyway). In their fast-paced, almost chaotic treatment of it, the original tune is never stated fully until the middle of the performance (about 5:14 in), but rather in short, percussive jabs at the keyboard and with the notes very much out of order and even transposed to atonal realms. This is truly one of the most astounding transformations of an established tune I’ve ever heard in my life.

My Ideal opens with a surprisingly strong atonal, upper-register chord on the piano, followed by the bass moaning and groaning against sporadic percussion accents. This, too, is a fairly radical rewriting of the original tune, and again unrecognizable in the opening minutes. Indeed, the bass’ improvisations seem to be the driving force of this performance, with the pianist assuming the role of a background player.

As mentioned earlier, I’m not really familiar with Bill Evans’ Very Early, but can attest that Schwaar plays his instrument here very much in the Evans manner, and bassist Oester sounds quite a bit like an Evans bassist. Franklé sits the opening out, not coming in until after two minutes have gone by, and then he is very busy, upping both the tempo and the pace, forcing Schwaar and Oester into rapid double-time figures that become increasingly hectic and even percussive at times. By the four-minute mark, the band is really swinging.

Coltrane’s Big Nick is next, and here the trio opens it as a late-bop swinger, with a regular 4 rhythm and plenty of energy. Before we reach the two-minute mark, however, the drums are already breaking up the time in unusual ways as well as spurring the piano and bass into ever more frantic figures. There’s also an extraordinary bass solo in this one, just before the close.

The disc ends with another slow ballad treatment of a pop classic, in this case Ellington’s more famous Prelude to a Kiss. Here, the melody is played slowly but in a fairly straightforward fashion, with no really radical beat, note or pitch displacements.

Overall, this is a really fascinating recording that takes all of your powers of concentration to appreciate, but the results are well worth the effort.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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