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Alvin Queen

I Ain't Lookin at You

(Justin Time; US: Available as import; UK: 3 Apr 2007)

I’m not aware of Alvin Queen having made that many appearances as a leader, but there’s no doubt he’s the boss on this set. He began his drumming career as something of a child prodigy, recording first at the age of twelve. He was nineteen when he began what would be a total of about seven years as drummer in Horace Silver’s group. His temporary departure from Silver’s band was in a group led by the trumpeter Charles Tolliver, touring Europe with definite ambitions to impress.


Tolliver, incidentally, has latterly had something of a public comeback, playing and recording very impressively with the late Andrew Hill. Beside the usual crop who get hyped, there are these young guys around, brilliant technically and with things to say. Hill observed that Tolliver was musically up with the best of them, and booked him just to underline the real thing, which can also be heard in a big band Tolliver’s been running of late.


The reason Tolliver hadn’t been heard so widely is the same deaf fashion which led to Alvin Queen upping sticks and settling in Europe in his late twenties. He’s remained for almost thirty years, lives in Geneva, runs his own modest recording company, and has played with both fellow-exiles and touring Americans, as well as native Europeans, not to mention a regular gig with Oscar Peterson.


Peterson contributes a little written testimonial to Queen in the inlay to the present set. I like Peterson’s reference to (my italics) “our group.” Peterson expects a lot within the trio which bears his name, his fame has never obliged him to make do with less than the best, and he doesn’t believe that members of his groups should give each other an easy time. Since he started out in duo with Ray Brown’s bass, his approach has always been competitive. Brown recommended the native-born Danish resident Nils-Henning Orsted Pedersen to succeed him in Peterson’s trio because of the ‘trouble’ Pedersen would give the pianist. That’s the spirit on this set.


The dynamism runs all the way through, beginning with a number very much in the Peterson bag, and continuing very much under the sign of Silver, for all that there’s no pianist. There isn’t even a bassist! Beside Queen, the other two guys who have to keep playing for most of the time are Mike LeDonne on organ and Peter Bernstein on guitar, imaginative accompanists and seriously creative soloists. It’s not quite right to apply the term rhythm section to them, because this is a drummer-led band. The rhythmic propulsion and control come direct from Queen, rather than from a standard piano-bass-drums team. Piano and bass would have compromised Queen’s lead, and his conception. The organist and guitarist are there for blend and texture, to contrast with the horn soloists, and for their own soloing. 


The hornmen are about as powerful and versatile a pair as ever played jazz. Terrell Stafford isn’t a loud trumpeter, he just has a massive sound. In ensemble he’s worth at least two normal trumpeters for sheer body of tone, and an ability to combine with an alto saxophonist to suggest there are four rather than two horns. On alto, Jesse Davis is normally a very powerful player, capable like the trumpeter of playing anything between mainstream through Charlie Parker to hard bop. Davis was certainly not in subdued form here, soloing sometimes with a Parkeresque intensity, though occasionally overblowing. 


Queen delivers a massive backbeat on the opener, which suggests Oscar Peterson’s Count Basie bag. Other than when accommodating the quieter solo work of Bernstein and LeDonne (an organist in the subdued mode of the paradoxically named Wild Bill Davis—another sometime Queen employer), the drummer is distinctively to the fore here.


He stays at the fore on most other items, and these are mostly out of the classic Horace Silver bag, with strongly rhythmic riffs and repeated figures. Even on a number entitled “Contemplation”, and indeed even on the comparatively quiet and balladic “Shirley’s Song”, Queen’s more than merely audible. There’s also an air of informal jamming, where on “Shirley’s Song” Stafford’s melodious subtlety is followed by a very forceful antithesis from Davis (had he been eating raw meat?) before Bernstein’s solo brings back the quiet business.


Since most numbers begin with Queen drawing up firm rhythmic lines, the unaccompanied organ opening to the venerable standard “Old Folks” is even startling. On that one, Davis overblows somewhat, definitely on the raw meat. Stafford does need to bring things back down, his huge tone tightly muted before Bernstein comes in. The guitarist is especially sensitive here, and so is the organist. I had started making a note to praise the bassist on this one, before I remembered there was none. LeDonne had been refining down his support to the essential.


“Nutville” is bang back in the Silver bag, following Queen’s most expansively virtuosic solo work of the set. The closer is called “Mellow Soul”, and it needed a lot of work from the band to make things mellow, after Queen starts things off with the same strong backbeat he applied on the opener. He does develop a remarkable implied shuffle beat when he gets down to supporting Bernstein’s solo with proper subtlety. This last number is very reminiscent of the sort of thing to be heard at the end of a good live gig, when everybody’s taken his bow, and gone offstage, and come back on for an encore.


The whole set sounds much more like a live gig than the painstakingly programmed balance of numbers Blue Note tended to produce during Horace Silver’s high heyday. Silver was always exciting, and clearly excitement was what Queen was after here. He and Davis might have used a little more restraint at times, but restraint can be overpraised.

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