At one stage in a long, distinguished, and continuing career, Philip Catherine rescued the occasional gig as Chet Baker’s frontline partner, late in Baker’s life.
These days, he apparently favours work in quartet with bass, drums, and the trumpet of Bert Joris. Yet here he performs with a full big band of real accomplishment. For the most part, they play Joris orchestrations of Catherine’s guitar, with the occasional power flourish of trumpet section brilliance.
Guitar and big band is nothing new, one real historical curio and masterpiece being Django Reinhardt’s performance with large ensemble of a stunning “Bolero”, emulating Ravel’s very different orchestration. That band had reduced forces, while this full one performs with extraordinary dynamic control.
Catherine could be described as a current mainline guitarist, which is to say that he often sounds like yet another descendant of Wes Montgomery. He is also very closely integrated within this band. On “Happy Tears”, his role shifts between those of classy guitar soloist, band guitarist, and essentially honorary alto saxophonist among the reeds. Joris’s admirable solos are certainly more independent of the band.
Joris has written this programme in intimate relation to his longtime partner’s overall conception. It’s Catherine’s music and would still be so even if, say, a few more standards had been programmed. The tuba on “Letter from My Mother” seems to be playing a bass string line. No sooner has the guitarist got into the tune called (for no obvious reason) “Piano Groove” than the band takes over from him and the always lyrical Joris solos much as he would with just Catherine, bass, and drums. When Catherine has heated the performance with a bit more solo strumming, it simply summons the band again, though he does get to burn a bit with the brass before the drum solo and stunningly closely integrated band play-out.
“December 26th” comes in two versions, says the insert: ‘rubato’ as a dreamy combination of band and guitar, which is then followed by a flamenco-ish bout and some band-accompanied linear development on guitar, though the in-tempo version is really just a continuation. Catherine ups the pace and keys the band into a brisk performance in which his guitar remains resonant, with the band lightly riffing, and anchored by the exemplary propulsion of Joost van Schaik ‘s drumming.
“The Hostage” opens with more bendy and echoey guitar, gentle, until the band comes in. It’s nice, but more a tribute to latter-day Gil Evans, with its rock accent and what might have been Joris’s buried memory of an Evans performance (which I might, if allowed the time, even put a name to). Catherine’s back nearer to Montgomery territory, moving into Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” with again rather ensemble than solo interest. “Francis’ Delight”, composed for the label’s proprietor, is again a virtuoso big band number, with nice tenor solo and more Joris. Catherine contributes a churning guitar accompaniment that might be a special attraction this set could have for guitarists. Over the whole set, Catherine does almost everything short of playing any great number of extended solos. But on the gift to M. Dreyfus he does get to generate solo heat, albeit tantalisingly.
“Yellow Landscape” might sell this set—the intriguing harmonies and big band with tuba—guitar style Abercrombie and Metheny—but underlying the performance what sounds like—and maybe is—a Django Reinhardt theme. Joris opens the finisher with Catherine doing things in accompaniment not yet devised in Montgomery’s short lifetime. If he is, in a sense, relegated for much of this recording to non-soloist work, he’s a real standout in such business, none better or more resourceful. Now if M. Dreyfus could organise another of his stunning concerts with a handful of top-line soloists and with Catherine very active in the rhythm section, as well as sustaining a few improvisations, he would deserve another tribute. Here, Catherine strums nicely behind the brass, and after Joris’s inspired passage of alternation between boppish reeds and the brass, the guitarist moves to the fore, proceeding from blues march to loosening-up bebop, and executing some Montgomery octaves as invitation and prelude to another Joris solo.
This sort of transcription of a major jazzman’s vision played by other people has been a major consolidating contribution to jazz when bringing on-stream a development of a soloist’s contributions in more compositional form. See the review of Steve Turre’s J.J. Johnson memorial on this site. Philip Catherine is, however, very much with us, and after the experience of his filling so many other roles so creatively various here, I hope his yearning to play on his own or in quartet matches mine to hear him in such a formation. Here, for better or worse, he sets the stylistic pace on this brilliantly played, very nice, but relatively lighter and not very daring set.