Jim Witzel’s Trios and Quartets

Witzel cover

WITZEL: Feelin’ It.* Beyond Beijing.* Ms. Information.* ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN: Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise. LENNON-McCARTNEY: Norwegian Wood. G.&. I. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: I Loves You, Porgy. LERNER-LOWE: If Ever I Would Leave You. ADDERLY-LEWIS: The Old Country / Jim Witzel, el-gt; Brian Ho, Hammond B3 org; Jason Lewis, dm; *Dann Zinn, t-sax / Joplin & Sweeney 202

This is a rather strange album, occupying a somewhat awkward spot between entertainment and art. My first impression upon listening to the opening track, which sounds like a throwback to the soul jazz of the 1960s, was that it was not the kind of album that appealed to me, but the more I listened to the improvisations of the principal musicians, and the wonderfully intuitive way they interacted, the more impressed I was. Although most of these arrangements appear to be heads, Witzel and his talented group have a good read on each other’s musical ideas and bring them to fruition.

While my readers know very well that I am not a big fan of this modern trend towards soft-grained jazz guitar playing, it is what Witzel plays rather than the style in which he plays it that grabbed my attention. His solos are wonderfully creative, far better than the first “soft jazz” guitarists of the 1990s were. He does not play it safe; he jumps into the fire feet first, exploring extended chord positions and somehow landing on notes you’d never expect, giving one the thrill of hearing a master improviser in his element.

It also helps that tenor saxist Dann Zinn, who joins him on his three original pieces (which are not played sequentially as listed in the header, but sprinkled throughout the album), is also an exceptional improvising artist. In addition, Zinn plays some unusual notes and fills behind the leader, both during theme statements and later in these tracks. But there is a bit more. If you listen carefully to the opening track, Feelin’ It, you will note that it is somewhat irregularly composed; the second half of the initial chorus statement falls into an irregular rhythmic pattern that one seldom heard in the early ‘60s. And Witzel’s solo is an extension of that theme, using its harmonic base to improvise on but also extending the time—and the harmony—within his improvised choruses. In other words, the solo, too, is a composition, just a spontaneously created one.

This is not easy to accomplish. I assure you that I have heard literally hundreds of jazz soloists, on records and in person, who could not and did not improvise as an extension of the theme statement, but rather simply “took off” on rhythmic improvisations using the chord changes but not integrating them into the musical whole. Zinn’s tenor sax, in fact, does this; he is not really extending the composition in his solos; but since they follow Witzel’s, they almost sound like further variations on the theme, which is not altogether a bad thing.

Hammond organist Brian Ho, on the other hand, is just a rhythmic player who swings. He’s not as inventive as Jimmy Smith (old school) or Barbara Dennerlein (new school), who are the two best jazz organists of my lifetime. Were his bandmates not on such an exalted level, it probably wouldn’t matter so much, but since they are, my verdict is that he is OK but nothing to write home about.

And this is particularly noticeable in the many tracks in which Zinn does not appear, although in Witzel’s splendid rearrangement of Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise he introduces some fast, unwritten key changes not in the original song, which Ho also follows in his solo. This adds some variety to his playing that is most welcome. Ho’s finest contribution to this album, however, is in his providing consistently swinging and appropriate bass lines in the left hand, supplanting the use of either a string or electric bassist. He’s so good at this that, at first, I re-read the album cover to make sure that there wasn’t a bassist in the group. And he keeps this up even when he himself is soloing with the right hand, showing that he is a fine musician if not a soloist on Witzel’s or Zinn’s level.

I was just as delighted with the leader’s arrangements of other standard tunes in this album as I was with Morning Sunrise. In the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, he maintains the 3/4 time of the original song but displaces some of the rhythmic accents ever-so-slightly to create an entirely new feel, and on this track his ensuing solo is truly a gem, not just creating a variation on the original song but, as in Feelin’ It, creating an entirely new composition within the framework of the original—and here he stretches this out to two choruses, meaning that he creates two entirely different songs out of the original. I am completely in awe of his creative abilities. This man is a genius. Ho, rather inspired on this track, attempts to do the same. He does indeed create a new tune over the chords of the original, but doesn’t extend it to the degree that Witzel does, falling into the usual sequence-o-f-rhythmic-chords that most jazz organists use. I don’t wish to make this sound as if Ho is not a good jazz organist; he clearly is; he’s just not on the same level as the leader, Witzel.

Beyond Beijing is another original, this one in an upbeat 6/8 time. It’s more of a carefree romp, although the bridge uses rising chromatics which gives the tune an interesting shape. Here, Zinn is the first soloist up, and he does try to play Witzel’s game of creating an entirely new piece from the basic material. He comes close, but eventually departs from the structure of the first half of his solo to “take off” in his own angular style. As I say, he’s quite interesting and not really disruptive, but at times he does sound as if he’s playing with a different group. Then Witzel enters, bringing compositional order to the proceedings, and is again superb (despite the fact that I wish he would play the guitar with a little harder downstroke action, and not so softly).

I Loves You, Porgy was, really, the only track on this album that disappointed me somewhat, not for the playing of the musicians but simply because the tune itself is just so uninteresting (and always was to me…I am NOT a fan of Porgy and Bess except for Gil Evans’ rewritten version of it for Miles Davis in the late 1950s). Nonetheless, Witzel does what he can with it, playing solo throughout and improving its quality if not quite lifting it far enough out of its original form. But that’s the tune’s fault, not his. In his second improvised chorus, he resorts to some flashy triplets in lieu of his usual high-level creations. If he had wanted to do a song from Porgy and Bess, I wish he had chosen “It Ain’t Necessarily So” which is the best piece in the whole opera.

Witzel imparts a surprising, medium-fast Latin beat to Lerner and Loewe’s If Ever I Would Leave You although the middle eight, played by Ho, is in a straight 4, and it moves steadily into 4 once the initial theme statement is done and Ho begins soloing. We move back to the Latin beat for Witzel’s solo, here again at a high level, and again extended over more than one chorus. Ms. Information, another Witzel original, is not as fine a composition as the previous two, the melody line being vague and unmemorable, but again the solos are excellent.

The album closes with The Old Country, a song that Cannonball Adderly wrote for vocalist Nancy Wilson back in 1961. This is a nice, upbeat performance, and although the original tune wasn’t one of the strongest that Adderly ever wrote, Witzel again does wonders with it. In the context of Adderly’s soul jazz, Ho plays very well, but again it’s the leader who commands the most attention.

This is one of the few “standard jazz group” albums I’ve ever reviewed which held my attention not only from first track to last, but from chorus to chorus. Almost nothing played in these pieces is routine or predictable. Absolutely a wonderful set!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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