Tom Scott has been that rarest of saxophonists: a guy who brings guts and oomph to the sticky-sweet realm of smoove jazz. In the 1970s, Mr. Scott accompanied Joni Mitchell on great records like Court and Spark and make soulful fusion records with his band, The L.A. Express. Over the next couple of decades, he was a studio musician and a smoove pioneer, but his weight and grit on tenor saxophone usually lent his projects a certain heft. Though “real” jazz was only a part of his past, you would hear Coltrane in his tone or Dexter Gordon in his attack.
In 1992, recording for smoove-machine GRP Records, he surprised his fans with Born Again, a straight-ahead date featuring strong peers such as Kenny Kirkland, Randy Brecker, Pete Christleib, and John Patitucci. Now, a decade-plus on, comes this live follow-up, a concert date from 2002 at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a non-profit arts center in Pittsburgh. Using half of the Born Again arrangements for septet or octet, Mr. Scott again steps up to the jazz challenge, and quite well indeed.
This is another strong band, though only Mr. Brecker is carried over from 1992. New are Ronnie Cuber (muscular on baritone sax), Jay Ashby (colorful on trombone), Gil Goldstein (holding it all down on acoustic piano), Duane Burno (thanks very much on bass), and Willie Jones (drums, straight up and tasty), and a genuinely tight band it is. Also guesting on several songs is the alto player Phil Woods, a man with jazz purity credentials aplenty but—like Mr. Scott—an affinity for pop solos on records by Billy Joel, Steely Dan, and the like. The concert band arrangements—creative and sprightly if not innovative in any way—are all by Mr. Scott and do a fine job of setting his tenor in leading role that he is more than prepared to handle.
On Wayne Shorter’s “Children of the Night”, the opener, Mr. Scott carries the melody over the horns’ pianistic statements, then he uncoils s solo with a pair of impressive opening runs that start from the bottom of his horn. He knows how to use repetition and blue tonality to bring the statement to a climax, and he does so. On “The Song Is You”, Mr. Scott plays nicely just with the rhythm section for the theme and solo (particularly in a brief duet passage with Mr. Goldstein), acquitting himself reasonably well until the horn arrangement enters on the out-theme. That said, Mr. Scott sounds much better when cloaked in the ensemble, which is usually the case on Bebop United. On his original, “Silhouettes” and on Chick Corea’s “Tones for Joan’s Bones” (strangely misspelled here as “Jones Bones”, BTW), Mr. Woods’ solo statements are most convincing, the alto tone being absolutely distinctive and tart, filling the air above the piano, bass, and drums with a whole personality in music. Mr. Scott doesn’t own the solo space as completely, and I suppose you wouldn’t expect him to, what with years of studio work compelling him to blend.
But this album is at its best when the whole ensemble is sparking together on something finger-lickin’, like Cannonball Adderly’s “Sack O’ Woe” or the original, “Back Burner”, where Mr. Cuber and Mr. Brecker get lovely workouts over several choruses. Not many of these tunes are, in fact, what you would call straight “bebop”, despite the album’s title. “Close View” has the no-nonsense tempo and tangled melody line to bring to mind Bird and Diz, however, and its string of solos is the most show-stopping, with Woods seeming Parker-esque, Cuber rumbling and quoting Cole Porter, Brecker tart and tasty, and the leader taking the last horn statement, as is proper. This is an interesting moment, as the bass and piano cut out and let Mr. Scott go mano a mano with the drummer, Coltrane-style. And while this is the most harmonically “out” the album gets, the opportunity is squandered, with Mr. Scott taming himself quickly and the rhythm section back in before you know it.
Not that this is a huge problem. Bebop United is an admirable straight-ahead album—skillfully composed, arranged, and performed. Given the scarceness of quality octet dates, it’s even a rare treat, in total. And certainly in the context of Mr. Scott’s otherwise mushy discography, it stands out. But it also remains something basic and plain—a creamy vanilla shake or a solid steak dinner. Not headline-making, but you need one once in a while. Maybe now?