This is the type of mainstream, straight-ahead jazz that is apparently selling well in the wake of Ken Burns’ “controversial” history of the subject. Lively, live and essentially honest, it will appeal to those who like their music upbeat, acoustic and unadulterated. No generic disruptions or avant-garde atonalities here. This is modern jazz the old-fashioned way—if that makes sense.
And very acceptable most of it is too—in a toe-tapping, get-another-round-of-drinks-in, none too demanding fashion. But there is one drawback—and it’s quite a big one. Cecil Payne plays baritone sax and he is now 78 years old. Now, the baritone is an unwieldy instrument at the best of times and this does not appear to have been one of those occasions. To be blunt, Payne’s soloing is sometimes awkward and clumsy. The Lester Young-inspired extended lines still impress but are also part of the problem. In his younger days, he was the first to honour the monster sax with the intricacies of bebop. Those same complexities now occasionally trip him up. There are plenty of compensatory elements, but whether one can find totally satisfying an album whose central figure is not on peak form is open to question.
Those compensations fall into two distinct categories. Firstly, the rest of the band are solid, down to earth players who motor along efficiently and occasionally sparkle. Secondly, Payne as composer is a figure if some substance. All but one of the pieces belong to him and his reputation as a tunesmith, hitherto limited to the Latin-bop milestone “Cu-Ba”, should be greatly enhanced by this release. Nothing overly innovative mind you, but after listening to this set, and given the obvious enthusiasm that the players show towards the material, it is a surprise that some of the songs performed here do not feature more often as part of the small group repertoire.
Cecil Payne is one of those names that crop up as a footnote to standard bebop histories. Surfacing first as an altoist, on the famous J.J.Johnson/Bud Powell release “Jay Bird”—way back in 1946, he switched to baritone and worked with Dizzy Gillespie for two years. One outcome of that gig was the collaboration with James Moody and Chano Pozo that saw “Cu-Ba” make its first appearance. His career from then on was secure rather than spectacular and in the ensuing years he played with Illinois Jacquet, Woody Herman and innumerable other bands.He was responsible for some of the music in Jack Gelber’s groundbreaking play “The Connection”, with which he toured extensively. For all this time his rough-edged but surprisingly light, agile sound was the main alternative in modern jazz baritone to Gerry Mulligan’s cooler approach. The 1960s saw the Cuban link restored through a stint with Machito and then he got to play with another key influence, Count Basie. The next years saw a rather premature retirement. He re-surfaced for the occasional work-out at Augie’s in New York in the early nineties where he caught the eye of rising tenor star Eric Alexander. A couple of discs followed and Payne was tempted to Chicago and Delmark Records, for whom this is his fourth album.
Alexander features strongly on this recording. Some 40 years Payne’s junior, as are all the band with the exception of pianist Harold Mabern, he is a hard-blowing, no nonsense player who thrives in the live setting. His solos are probably the most consistently well organised and he is at his best on the opening cuts “Chick Boom” and “Ding-a-Ling”, ironically the two numbers whose pace defeat Payne the most decisively. Trumpeter Jim Rotondi is equally muscular, but his Harry James-meets-Lee Morgan approach to the quicker pieces wears thin pretty rapidly.The other main soloist is Mabern, a veteran of many outfits and an old friend of Payne’s. He has a distinctive technique—that or the mikes exaggerates it—where the left hand dominates the right. Intentional or not the result is warm and rhythmically appropriate—though unlikely to appeal to perfectionists. Drums and bass, Joe Farnsworth and John Webber, make no attempt to hog the limelight but function well. Farnsworth, in particular, impresses as a tight and authoritative sticks man.
After the qualified success of the early songs comes the first ballad. “You Will Be Mine Tonight” shows the sensitive and more appealing side of Rotondi who puts in some good mute work. Next up is the Latin-flavoured “Bosco” which survives a shaky start to show off some smart ensemble playing with all the participants in good shape. Alexander and Mabern sound especially compatible. Payne switches to flute for the other slowie, “Here’s That Rainy Day”. The change of instrument produces some of his least troubled contributions to the set, which only adds to one’s unease about the rest of his performance. Worryingly, the rest of the group seem to drift off during this gentle item and a real opportunity is missed. By contrast the closing section, the extended jam “Cit Sac”, sees everybody wide awake and working hard. A classic storming finish of a tune, this rocks along joyously. Both saxes really swing while the combination of gruffness and agility that Payne brings to the baritone finally gives us a true picture of the man.
I don’t doubt that a good evening was had by all, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this set, given how much of this type of thing is currently available. Even if you don’t mind the fluffed notes, you have a likeable enough, but hardly stunning album. Alexander and Mabern are worth checking out and it is good to know that Payne is held in high enough esteem to remain on the scene. An Alexander-organised tribute to the music of Cecil Payne with perhaps the odd guest slot would have worked much better. Maybe next time—the potential is there. Catch this sextet live by all means, but better to dig out some of Payne’s back catalogue before investing in this album. It unfortunately gives only brief glimpses of a genuine and historically significant talent.
// Notes from the Road
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