It is a sad fact that women in jazz, especially if they want to get famous, are still supposed to be singers not players. Despite the now well-researched history of female musicians’ considerable contribution to the art, they remain under-represented, numerically and critically. It is unlikely that this small label release from bassist/composer/arranger Mary Ann McSweeney will change the world, but the more people that get to know about this talented performer the better.
Not that there is anything radical or innovative about this set. It is firmly “in the tradition”—late fifties hard bop, some nods towards a Dolphyesque sixties and a distinct emphasis on “groove”. Ideal small club jazz, in fact. Nor is McSweeney a soloist to change the course of history. She is a competent bass player, but it is as band leader that she excels. This is a recording where the whole is much greater than any of its parts. The parts are all OK, but the overall sound is as satisfying as any you will hear in the current jazz mainstream. Promoters take note: book this act and your standard modern jazz clientele will thank you for it.
It is not immediately apparent why this record works so well. On first hearing it seems to consist of an amiable but perhaps over-familiar blend of ingredients. After a while you realise why your attention is so strongly held. McSweeney has a sense of song and melodic structure that is a true gift—both on her own compositions and on some inspired arrangements of standards. The many moods of “Nana’s Tempo”, from the melancholy to the liberatory—all built around a Latin influenced bass pattern—is the finest example of her self-penned numbers, but “Winter in the Bay” and the title track also have the sureness of touch of the genuine tunesmith. “Amazing Grace” is given a real work over, and its tempo lifted considerably, yet its lyricism shines through. The lovely, timeless ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is accorded reverence but comes across as fresh and engaging. The interplay between bass and piano (Henry Hey) is exquisite on the slower tunes and sufficiently robust when the pace increases although such is the delicacy and precision of the playing that you almost don’t notice their individual roles.
This is not the case with the horns. Trombonist Mike Fahn on valve and slide trombone stands out as a player of superior gifts and makes the most of the many opportunities he is given. I am less sure about Donny McCaslin on saxes. He is a fine player, but his soloing does appear a little derivative. It in no way detracts from the general tonal integrity, but does not yet mark him out from the crowd. Drummer Tim Horner and percussionist Joe Mowatt are present but in no way overbearing. As a group, all contribute to the collective success and the session leader herself does enough on her solos to prove herself worthy of the spotlight.
There is an attention to shade and texture that again attests to a concentration on ensemble rather than individual effect. The autumnal “Stillness” is perhaps the most moving although “Thoughts of You” runs it close. Not that the downbeat dominates, “RB’s Tribute” (for the great Ray Brown—a major influence and what better one could there be?) and Wayne Shorter’s “Yes and No” motor along most efficiently while each time Hey switches to Fender Rhodes the “groove factor” of the track is guaranteed. The balance is just about right—nothing too hectic, nor too sepulchral.
The rhythmic control McSweeney exercises is also impressive and her enthusiasm for exploring mood, time-shifts and a fondness aural impressionism are all sure signs of a composer of ambition and stature. I hope a certain low-key, lack of histrionics does not cause this to be overlooked. This is not just another adequately played modern/conventional set, even if it works admirably at that level. There is depth and definite substance here, even if it is so graceful and easy on the ear that it does not seem capable of bearing such heavyweight notions. Thoughts of You won’t start a revolution, it won’t even affect jazz’s considerable but generally ignored chauvinism. It will make you feel glad you now know the name of at least one female bass player.