Stephanie & Paolo’s New Double CD

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J.P. JOHNSON: Jingles. A Flat Dream. Ain’tcha Got Music. Caprice Rag. You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart.* Over the Bars [Steeplechase Rag]. Toddlin’. A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid.* Jersey Sweet [Just Before Daybreak]. Riffs. JOHNSON-SMITH: How Could You Put Me Down? JOHNSON: Carolina Balmoral. If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight).* Carolina Shout. Victory Stride.* Snowy Morning Blues. You’ve Got to Be Modernistic. Keep Off the Grass. JOHNSON-MACK: Old-Fashioned Love*  / Stephanie Trick, *Paolo Alderighi, pno / ALDERIGHI: I Love Erroll.* GARNER: Passing Through.* Paris Bounce.* Misty. Nervous Waltz.* Mambo Carmel.*+ CALLENDER: Pastel.* GARNER: Play, Piano, Play.* One Good Turn.* Something Happens. Trio.* Dreamy. That’s My Kick.*+ Dreamstreet / Paolo Alderighi, pno; *Roberto Piccolo, bs; Nicola Stranieri, dm/conga; +Stephanie Trick, perc / AT Music Productions ATCD006

The piano duo of Stephanie Trick and her husband, Paolo Alderighi, are back on silver disc with this new double CD devoted to two of their favorite pianist-composers, James P. Johnson and Erroll Garner. The twist is that they only play together on a few tracks, and it’s only on a handful of Johnson pieces that they play piano four hands, which is their trademark. On three of the Garner tunes, Stephanie plays percussion.

As one can see, the selection of Johnson songs includes several titles that only aficionados of the pianist would know, such as A Flat Dream, Over the Bars [Steeplechase Rag], Toddlin’, Jersey Sweet, Carolina Balmoral and Victory Stride, but I think I was shocked to read, in Stephanie’s liner notes, that James P. Johnson is “a name most people don’t recognize, despite his immense contribution to twentieth-century music.” Well, perhaps she’s right about the name, but most jazz musicians know him and I would think that the public at least knows the name of four of his most famous songs: If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight), A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid (his biggest hit during the Swing Era), Carolina Shout (played and recorded by both Duke Ellington and Fats Waller), Old-Fashioned Love and especially Charleston, the one monster hit by Johnson that does not appear on this CD.

The program opens with Jingles which, despite its ragtime form and title, is one of Johnson’s most swinging pieces. It was recorded in a late-1920s Brunswick session that also included You’re Got to be Modernistic. Trick plays it much the same way Johnson did on the record, with almost mindblowing swing and drive. It’s clearly evident from this piece that Johnson had formal training—in fact, even more and better formal training than Jelly Roll Morton. Like ragtime king Scott Joplin, Johnson grew up with a through immersion in composition, counterpoint and harmony, and in fact wrote what he called “a Negro symphony,” Yamekraw, in the late 1920s. As in the case of her Fats Waller covers, Trick sounds so much like her source that one could easily mistake these for really high-fidelity recordings by Johnson himself (he did live until 1955 and made quite a few recordings in the late 1940s and early ‘50s for such labels as Blue Note). And yet, she does throw in some licks of her own, inspired by Dick Hyman’s playing of Johnson’s music.

I was delighted by the descending chromatic passages in A Flat Dream, and there are also some felicitous passages in Aint’cha Got Music, one of his late-‘40s pieces. One thing Trick makes clear is that Johnson’s music was much richer harmonically and more difficult to play than that of his most famous pupil, Fats Waller. The lay listener may want to think of James P. as the “graduate course” version of Fats.

You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart, a medium-slow-piece, is the first of five in this program to feature the only (so far as I know) full-time piano-four-hands jazz duo as hubby Paolo joins in. They give the piece a rocking, almost funky beat with that little “push” on the first and third beats of the bar that creates swing. One can always tell Paolo’s playing from Stephanie’s if you listen very closely: he has a richer tone  but also a more legato flow to his playing whereas Trick has “the beat in her blood,” if you know what I mean. The slight contrast makes for interesting listening. I really loved the “slow drag” feeling that Trick gave to the bass part of Toddlin’, played as a solo, and in A Porter’s Love Song (one of the duets) Stephanie and Paolo depart quite a bit from the original piece, upping the tempo and imparting a Latin beat to it. In the improvised chorus, they break up the tune into little bits, shift the harmony around, and have a lot of fun. Stephanie, solo, also has great fun with her relaxed and inventive version of Jersey Sweet [Just Before Baybreak], and I was especially impressed by her tender version of How Could You Put Me Down?

If I Could Be With You is taken at a real ballad tempo, with the duo emphasizing the lovely melody in the opening chorus, then rewriting it in the second, playing the chorus as the bridge, transposing it upwards and adding richer chords in the second go-round. It almost becomes a concert piece in their hands. Then Trick takes Carolina Shout places that Johnson, Waller and Ellington never did.

Victory Stride was an orchestral piece by Johnson; I’ve never heard it in that context, but the Trick-Alderighi duo really make something magical of its minor-key tune, playing a sort of modified boogie beat behind the second chorus. They then play it softly and plaintively before bringing in hints of the boogie beat into the full-stride improvisation. This is a real masterpiece. So too is Trick’s extended version of You’ve Got to be Modernistic, one of Johnson’s trickiest chromatic pieces. (He recorded it twice, as a piano solo for Brunswick and in an orchestra; version for Victor.) Old-Fashioned Love is also taken wistfully as a duet, while this program ends with a solo version of Keep Off the Grass.

The second CD features Paolo playing a tribute to Erroll Garner, whose music came out of stride piano but morphed after World War II into an idiosyncratic style of its own, using the left hand to strum chords like a guitar while the left played asymmetrical, swinging figures. Although this program opens with an original by Alderighi in tribute to Garner and includes Red Callender’s Pastel, he managed to come up with a dozen pieces written by Garner himself including the overplayed chestnut Misty. The others, however, are scarcely overplayed, and in fact a few were new even to me. Passing Through is probably the most stride-like piece on the disc, but in each and every number on this CD Alderighi channels Garner while adding ideas of his own. And does he swing here! It’s particularly nice that he includes bass and drums on most of the set. As much as I enjoy hearing either Stephanie, Paolo, or both playing without accompaniment, I’ve long wanted to hear either or both play with a rhythm section, as Stephanie did at certain jazz festivals during her Fats Waller period. It not only adds a new dimension to their playing, but it puts their swinging into sharper focus. I was particularly impressed by drummer Nicola Stranieri, evidently a big fan of Buddy Rich; he has much of the famed drummer’s technique as well as his swing and drive. In most of these performances, he eschews his sometimes classical approach to give out with some really hard swinging. In Paris Bounce, he captures Garner’s quirky style perfectly. All that was missing was Garner’s humming along with his own playing to sound authentic. (The Beatles did a perfect Garner imitation on their record of You Know My Name (Look Up the Number), on which they also parodied Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.)

Misty is modeled after Garner’s original solo recording of it on Mercury, but with some twists of his own, while Nervous Waltz turns out to be one of his quirkiest tunes, undoubtedly written with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Roberto Piccolo plays a nice bass solo on this one as well. Stephanie drops in to add a little extra percussion (it sounds like a tambourine) on Mambo Carmel as Stranieri switches to conga drums for the first section of this tune. He plays drums on the second section, but then takes an extended conga solo with Algerighi dropping a few notes in here and there.

By and large, however, this is less a set for analyzing than for just leaning back, relaxing, and enjoying. It’s almost like finding an unissued Erroll Garner record in digital stereo; it’s that good. Stephanie returns to add her tambourine to One Good Turn, a piece that sounds like a combination of Johnson’s Old-Fashioned Love with the blues.

I think the main thing that struck me about this 2-CD set was that, had they not been a married couple, each CD could have been issued separately as a showcase by each pianist to one of his or her favorite jazz composers of the past, but as a package it gives one a chance to compare and contrast the styles of each pianist as well as Johnson and Garner. The history of jazz, though it passed through several generational styles fairly quickly and one style seemed to feed into the next, is not so much a continuum as a mosaic. It almost boggles the mind to consider, for instance, that at the time when Jelly Roll Morton was performing on NBC’s Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street radio program in 1940, Thelonious Monk was playing at Minton’s Playhouse in those evening jam sessions that led to the birth of modern jazz, and that James P. Johnson was still playing in the early 1950s when Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Horace Silver ruled the piano roost. Stephanie and Paolo have snap-frozen two piano icons in time and given us recordings to treasure, showing us the richness of each of these two titans’ legacy while adding to their own as performers.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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