If there is one complaint that can be made about Mark O’Connor, and more or less everything that he does, it is that he is too good, a perfectionist. The problem? A slight lack of personality. But that’s nitpicking, really.
O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio is comprised of O’Connor on violin, Frank Vignola on guitar, and Jon Burr on upright bass. Joining this crew on a few of In Full Swing’s tracks are the legendary and controversial, self-proclaimed voice of jazz, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, and the pure-voiced Jane Monheit. The album is comprised of standards and a few originals recorded, produced, and performed in the spirit of and as a tribute to O’Connor’s long time mentor, the late, hot jazz violinist, Stephane Grappelli.
On the opening cut and title track, a tune composed by O’Connor, Frank Vignola plays Django to O’Connor’s Grappelli. “In Full Swing” is a sprightly, melodic, uptempo and demanding tune that showcases the chops of these incredibly accomplished musicians. The other O’Connor original on the album is “Stephane and Django”, a minor tune, reminiscent of the Duke Ellington pieces often performed by Grappelli and Reinhardt in the heyday of hot jazz. O’Connor plays a commanding violin solo accompanied by the syncopated rhythms and lush harmonies of Frank Vignola on guitar. Vignola’s improvisation is relaxed and fluid. Jon Burr’s bass solo, accompanied by Vignola, gets down and funky.
Both Burr and Vignola contribute original compostions to In Full Swing. Burr’s “For All” begins with a hypnotic bass riff, bringing to mind Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, then launches into a standard-like melody. Vignola’s guitar solo is gentle, fun, and swinging. It’s refreshing to hear nothing more than a walking bass line and single note guitar runs. O’Connor’s violin solo on “For All” is one of the more intense on the album, and Burr’s bass solo, again accompanied by Vignola, flutters like a gigantic hummingbird. In contrast, Vignola’s “One Beautiful Evening”, also the last track on the album, begins with a mournful guitar introduction, interlaced with strains of classical music. O’Connor eventually takes over the melody,which has an Eastern European flair.
The standards on In Full Swing are performed with respect and honor. However, Grappelli never seems to leave the minds of the musicians, which is nice, if not a little musically timid, and the antithesis of the true spirit of jazz. There’s no struggle here, and, unfortunately, at times, these tracks tend to border on muzac. On “Honeysuckle Rose” O’Connor is joined by Wynton Marsalis on trumpet and Jane Monheit on vocal. The tune opens with Marsalis and O’Connor playing interweaving lines, neither musician stepping on the other’s toes, the result being a gratuitous lesson in musical manners. Marsalis’s trumpet solo is pleasant, but too polite, as if he is not quite sure what is expected of him on this recording date. If the musicianship lacks verve, though, Monheit’s vocal makes up for it and becomes the dominant force on this track. “Tiger Rag”, while not my personal cup of tea, comes off more as a meeting of minds and talents between O’Connor and Marsalis. They seem to have found something in common on this track. A joy and spontaneity is apparent not only in the arrangment but in each improvisation.
onheit also joins O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio on “Misty”, the Gershwins’ “Fascinating Rhythm”, and the classic “As Time Goes by”. It cannot be denied that Monheit is an incredible talent, however, her performances come off sounding a bit generic. She is young and has not yet made these songs her own.
The musical high point of the album comes on “Limehouse Blues”. O’Connor, Vignola, and Burr finally let their collective hair down on this one, and their musical personalities come out in full force. If only they’d done it sooner.