[24 August 2006]
The downfall of jazz is often pure, high-powered instrumental skill. To play jazz well you have to have it, but maybe you also have to be immune to its temptations. With great power comes great responsibility. Brian Bromberg—a wizard of the bass—needs to learn much more responsibility. And some taste too.
Wood II (please note, already, the irresponsible use of Roman numerals) is the follow-up to a 2002 album that featured a trio with pianist Randy Waldman and drummer David Bromberg and several solo bass features. Although the drummer here is chop-meister Vinnie Colaiuta, the formula is otherwise the same. The result is a short collection of Everybody-Does-Them standards for jazz trio, interrupted by four of the most self-indulgent bass solos ever recorded. If you are a hardcore acoustic bass FREAK, then you must hear these solo tracks. Everyone else—may I recommend a Charlie Haden album?
The nut of Wood II is this: over 16 minutes of Mr. Bromberg showing off his chops by playing Kansas’s “Carry On Wayward Son”, Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star”, “Blue Bossa”, and Paul McCartney’s “Let ‘em In” all by himself. Did you catch that? “Somebody’s knockin’ on the door / Somebody’s ringin’ the bell”—plunked out in virtuoso fat acoustic bass tones. Nothing less ridiculous than KANSAS for solo bass. I mean, if I were Mr. Bromberg’s friend coming over to watch football and he was all, “Hey, man, you wanna hear me play ‘Wayward Son’ on acoustic bass?”, I’d be—YEAH! And then I’d start cracking up when he did it. Great bass/guitar riff before the verses, right? But: is he serious?
The answer is: kinda. Mr. Bromberg is seriously a great bass player. He can play and he chooses great notes, and he’s fast, and his intonation is spectacular. And he can create a groove (witness the opener, Ellington’s “Caravan”, which really hits a funky spot). And I think he’s serious about wanting to be taken very seriously as a jazz bassist, as much of this record is a bid for “real” jazz credibility. (Most of Mr. Bromberg’s other discs are of the Smoove Persuasion.) But given that Mr. Bromberg started out playing with Stan Getz, shouldn’t he, by now, already be a well-regarded monster? Why, then, does Wood II seem like the bass-playing equivalent of American Idol—all fast, fancy stuff and too little smarts?
The repertoire chosen for the trio is not chock-a-block with embarrassing pop tunes, but—nearly as bad—is a string of the most overplayed songs in the jazz canon. “Caravan”, “I’ll Remember April”, “Pensativa, and “Witch Hunt” are terrific tunes, but jazz fans OD’ed on them all decades ago. While I loved the funky start to “Caravan”, with a N’awlins groove giving way to the bass taking the melody and a swinging bridge, that was the disc highlight for me. It doesn’t take Mr. Bromberg more than a chorus to turn his solo into a high octane gymnastics routine. And Mr. Waldman, tasty enough on the acoustic piano, is neither an explosive nor a surprising player. All these guys are real professionals, but this is jazz record that is precisely that: professional. By the book. Except for the bass solos.
So what of the bulk of the trios? “Witch Hunt” has been reharmonized to remove the more mysterious, Shorteresque chords, and it comes off as flat and leaden. Mr. Bromberg’s “A Love Affair” is a tasty, Latin-ized ballad that gives Mr. Waldman his best feature. Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia” is my favorite—a great tune many don’t know and played here with verve. Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” is a great idea—a tune written for Herbie’s electric Headhunters, here rendered acoustically—but it amounts to not much, with the snap of the original pretty much gone. “I’ll Remember April” is very very fast. “The Four Brothers” features Mr. Bromberg whistling the melody and the saxophone solo and then harmonizing the whistling at the end (with some scatting?) in way that is best described as oddball.
The remainder are those bass solos—astonishing party tricks, to be sure, but not music most of you will want to hear more than once. “Shining Star” was a favorite with Philip Bailey wailing away in my Freshman dorm, but here it is little more than a chance for a very, very technically skilled bass player to strut his stuff in the extreme. He even has a little duel with himself (right channel and left channel bass)—proving that two heads are not necessarily better than one.
After absorbing Wood II a couple of times, I had to seek out some music featuring bass players with fewer chops but more taste. These other guys, total jazz musicians first and bass players second, almost never put Roman numerals in their album titles. What a relief.