I’m going to use a phrase I don’t often use.
This album rocks the house.
And I pick the words carefully. Swiss pianist/leader/arranger Gruntz’s piano playing itself reminds you of how thin are the walls separating jazz from rhythm and blues and rhythm and blues from rock: There are grooves here, particularly on “Bunauara” and “2nd Line Sally,” that with a bit more polished a surface would not sound out of place in a dance club.
On the other hand, the tendency to solos has an obvious connection with “progressive rock,” and mirrors that genre’s virtues and flaws. Much of the solo playing is impressive, with lead trombonist Marvin Stamm, drummer Raphael Wolf, and reeds (tenor and soprano sax, flute) player Larry Schneider standing out to my ears. But like the feeling you get when watching an overlong movie, you can’t help but itch for a better editor at times
If there is a real nit to be picked here, it is that occasionally the band seems to be less than the sum of it’s parts—the soloists shining, but the band as a whole less effective when playing together.
In the liner notes to this album, which presents music from two of the three versions of the band with whom he toured in 1998, Gruntz defines them this way:
“A conglomerate of improvisers who now and then want to get together to experience the fun of a larger orchestra.” For this reason, it is probably after all pointless to say that they do not swing as tightly as a great Basie or Ellington band, most of whose star players could and in more than one case did lead a band on their own, but who were undeniably part of an overwhelming “sound” when playing with their respective bandleaders.
The feel here is looser, and if the results never quite scale the heights of art, they deliver foursquare, solid entertainment that sounds as bright and airy as I imagine a pretty day in Switzerland to be. Which is no mean thing in any age.
The band, founded in 1970, is noted in jazz circles both for the quality of those who have and continue to play with it, and for the fact that until 1998 their repertoire was wholly generated “in house,” written by band members past and present and arranged by Gruntz.
Interpreting and reinterpreting a standard can produce some wonderful results—what Miles Davis did with “It Never Entered My Mind” enters my mind—but there can also come a time when it seems that any art form will be treading water if left in the hands of the “preservationists.” As the same Mr. Davis once observed, it’s already been preserved—that’s what the records were for. So even if I did not like the results, I would respect the decision to concentrate on originals.
That said, Schneider’s sensual saxophone solo, reminiscent of Johnny Hodges, on the album closing “My Foolish Heart,” shows that there’s some life in the old songs yet.
The original songs groove but do not quite swing. The difference defined for me as that between tapping your feet and having to get up and dance. When something has a groove, you sit there, you enjoy it, you tap and bob. When something swings, you gotta move.