Here’s an embarrassment: it took a Japanese producer to create a new jazz label that records jazz records the way that they used to be done. What veteran jazz producer Yasohachi “88” Itoh (his first name is the Japanese character for 88, hence the name of his label) has done is collect some great jazz veterans and some of today’s best younger players, put them in a studio for a couple of days, and let the tape roll while they play. This is how classic Blue Note records of the ‘50s and ‘60s were made, as well as a lot of great recordings at labels like Impulse!, Verve, Prestige, and the like. Somewhere along the line, that idea disappeared, and a quick survey of recent titles from some of the largest jazz labels reveals a lot of over-planned recordings that feature ponderous string arrangements and often fail to live up to their hype. Sure, recordings such as those Itoh is making sometimes miss the mark, and often they are merely “good” instead of “great”, but if jazz is primarily an improviser’s art, aren’t the vast majority of performances going to be solid and good, and shouldn’t we be satisfied with that?
Roy Haynes’ Love Letters is more than just solid, actually. It’s an exceptional session that allows one of the best jazz drummers around to play with, and impart his knowledge and inspiration to, a group that includes some of today’s best young jazz talent. At 78 years, Haynes is an elder statesmen, but like Art Blakey before him, he never tires and always seems to be able to provide fresh energy at any session he’s involved in. Having worked with Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Pat Metheney, and others, he’s been involved in almost every major jazz development since the development of bebop. On Love Letters, he works with two groups-one featuring saxophonist Joshua Redman, the other with guitarist John Scofield. He works with two different rhythm sections as well: pianists Kenny Barron and David Kioski and bassists Dave Holland and Christian McBride. Haynes becomes the thing that holds the whole CD together with his often understated, but always driving drumming.
Listening to the version of “Afro Blue” included here, one is struck by Haynes’ emphasis on the relationship between the bass drum and snare. There is little of the standard “ride” cymbal pattern, and that allows Haynes to be both tasteful and powerful at the same time. On this track (featuring Scofield) and “Que Pasa” (featuring Redman), Haynes tailors his attack to the group he is interacting with, providing a more muscular series of fills behind the tenor sax than behind Scofield’s quieter guitar. But at no time does he overpower either player-a lesson many young drummers should take to heart.
As for the supporting players on this date, they all rise to the occasion. Kenny Barron offers a swinging, concise rendition of “How Deep Is the Ocean” as well as displaying his dazzling yet effortless sounding technique on “Que Pasa”. Both McBride and Holland are worthy collaborators with Haynes, whose ability to keep the rhythms fresh and non-repetitive allow both bassists to transcend the “anchor” role. Redman offers a strong, workmanlike presence, while Scofield abandons the jam-band heroics that have been hallmarks of some recent recordings to demonstrate that he is one of the best practitioners of straight-ahead jazz guitar around today. And Dave Kikoski lends his forceful swing to a very solid rendition of “Stompin’ at the Savoy”. Haynes ends the set with a drum solo entitled “Shades of Senegal 2”, on which his tightly tuned snare sometimes sounds like bongos or congas. It’s a rhythmically imaginative solo that holds the listener’s attention for all of its 4’17” playing time.
With elegant, distinctive cover art outside and plenty of great music inside, Itoh’s Eighty-Eights is off to a great start, as Love Letters demonstrates. Too bad somebody here in the States doesn’t trust that getting jazz musicians into the studio and letting them play without elaborate arrangements or production will interest listeners. Fortunately, these recordings will be available here as well. Ignore them at your peril.