Not to confuse you, but The Elvin Jones Project is an album by a bassist paying tribute to a drummer. And it’s not just any jazz drummer, it’s the late great Elvin Jones. This is an album that pokes in and around Jones’ career, focusing on his relationship with many notable bassists. Michael Feinberg is a bassist after all, and many players he looks up to have collaborated with Jones in the past—including Dave Holland and Jimmy Garrison. The material on The Elvin Jones Project includes covers of Elvin Jones and John Coltrane tunes, numbers originally covered by Jones, and one original by Feinberg. Taken as an overall unit, this album is a snug fit for the current tastes of homages to bop. The risks are few, and the swing is plentiful, never making Feinberg out to be either an attention-hog or a hopeless recycler.
So who do you get to play drums on an Elvin Jones tribute project? Good question, but for Feinberg, it’s an easy one to answer. Bill Hart spent a great deal of his professional career drumming alongside Jones and knew the man well, both musically and personally. Elvin Jones was fond of the downbeat and that seems to coincide nicely with Feinberg’s observation that Hart “can bang the shit out of a drum.” Rounding out the ensemble is George Garzone on sax, Tim Hagans on trumpet, Leo Genovese on piano and Fender Rhodes, and a guest appearance by guitarist Alex Wintz. From this rock solid foundation Feinberg builds his shrine to Elvin Jones.
Its opening bars are the most daring The Elvin Jones Project gets. “Earth Jones” has more in common with In A Silent Way-era fusion than it does hard bop, and Genovese’s electric piano tingles do more to please the ear than foreshadow the album. The band does a bang-up job of capturing the atmosphere of Jones’ 1982 recording (A UFO enters the picture, inhales something, and just hovers for nine minutes and 43 seconds). This mood isn’t recaptured until track four with Feinberg’s original “It Is Written”. Less harmonically vague and more reliant on a soft rhythm from Hart, the inspiration for this track is supposedly cribbed from the sessions that brought about Bill Frisell’s 2001 album with Holland and Jones. Considering a friend of mine said that Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones was “trippy”, this feels appropriate. But just so you are aware of what you’re getting into, Alez Wintz plays more like Tal Farlow than Bill Frisell.
The set is tightened up considerably by the other numbers like “The Unknighted Nations” by Frank Foster” and “Miles Mode” by John Coltrane. Garzone takes many wonderful solos, but they never threaten to make The Elvin Jones Project a sax-centric album. In fact (and predictably, I might add), it’s the rhythm sections that really shines here. Michael Feinberg and Bill Hart lock together like a nut and a bolt. Hart also gave Feinberg some encouraging words by saying that, had Elvin Jones been alive today, he would have enjoyed playing with him. This probably pleases Feinberg to no end.
The Elvin Jones Project is fueled by a relaxed desire to play it like it is/was. No game changing, no idol worship, just imagining Jones in the room and letting things roll. When it comes to albums that pay tribute to a certain subject, they are considered successful if they encourage listeners to seek out the original recordings of that subject. Time will tell if this album actually accomplishes that. If it doesn’t, it’s certainly no fault of Feinberg’s.