If today’s jazz musicians have one over-riding problem it is that everything seems to have been done already. The jazz vocabulary is pretty well complete. Some respond by looking to infuse jazz with borrowings from other genres—something that has always happened despite the purists’ hand-wringing. Those that stay within “the tradition”, no matter how broadly defined, have to find a way of carving their own identity within it but can never hope to be pioneers in the manner of their forebears. Pianist Kenny Drew Jnr. has a particular problem. One of those forebears was his father, who, of course, was also called Kenny Drew and was the most complete keyboard stylist of that gifted post-Bud Powell generation.The task is magnified by choosing to record an album of tributes to recently departed greats. How do you make a personal and distinctive statement in such a set of circumstances?
A technique that is as formidable as any might help. Drew Jnr. certainly possesses that—but great technique is not exactly at a premium on the contemporary jazz scene—although it is in short supply elsewhere. Such a gift, however, does allow you to traverse different styles to show that you have absorbed the history and then, through a series of juxtapositions, to both keep the flame alive and to produce a new synthesis. I think that is what is being attempted here. I am not sure it quite works but there is great pleasure to be had in following the attempt. The remembrance of the title refers to the passing away, in the same week of October 1999, of Milt Jackson, Art Farmer and Manfredo Fest. Jackson and Farmer were two of the most loved modern jazzmen—each the acknowledged king of their favoured instrument—vibes and flugelhorn respectively. Farmer was also a great trumpeter and Jackson an idiosyncratic piano player. Fest is a definite odd man out here—being a Brazilian of German origin who fused jazz and samba at the time of the bossa nova boom.The fact that his main inspiration appears to have been George Shearing is doubtless useful to a pianist like Drew but will not endear him to most fans of Jackson and Farmer’s work. Anyway, the deal was to produce an album that fondly remembers the three but functions as a unified work in its own right.
There is only one point where this falls apart completely. Best get it out of the way first because apart from this odd lapse in taste the project coheres very nicely. The augmented trio chose to record “Song For Manfredo”, a composition by Fest’s wife. This is the type of Palm Orchestra—Lift Music slush that gives Latin jazz a bad name. Shearing, by the way, was a master of this nonsense. No matter how magisterially performed, as it is here, and despite a bowed bass solo of exquisite charm—it remains a bad tune—sickly and full of easy sentimentality. I can only assume it has some personal meaning for the artist because it truly stinks.
Ignoring the above, this session represents small group jazz at pretty near its best. Drew, contrary to some reports is no clone of his father. Classical and sixties jazz influences set him apart. Throughout the set he plays with purpose and command. Yet the album’s real star—and to me a discovery—is vibraphonist Stefan Harris who although only on three tracks is worth the price tag alone. In fact all the players and guests are in top form and though Drew has the majority of solo time his is not always the most telling contribution. The level of artistry on show here is of the highest order—which is why that single fall from grace appears so surprising.
“Bag’s Groove” opens proceedings and I can hear those groans already. Groan not, oh goateed one. This has been done to death but here it is brought back to life. In as good a version as you will ever hear Harris makes his mark early on and Drew responds instantly. Vibes and keys conjoin. separate than hare off but never over-balance. Bass (Santo De Briano) and drums (Tony Jefferson) keep it all tight and the tempo changes are sublime. This quartet also tackles “Epistrophy”, the old Monk chestnut, with efficient and only marginally less scintillating results. The homage to Milt is completed by “Stairway to the Stars”, a ballad that is handled with precision and achieves a cool, clear beauty.
The Farmer offerings are “Mirage”, “With Prestige” and “Blame It on My Youth”. In demand trumpeter Wallace Roney replaces Harris and the results are less flawless but perhaps also less indebted to former glories than the Jackson section. For a start, Roney is from The Miles Davis school of playing and Farmer’s gentleness is replaced by a thinner,rather plaintive sound. Somewhat perversely in such a circumstance, the jaunty “With Prestige” is the pick of the three tracks.Maybe it’s the added interest that it was composed by Drew Snr.If the son is over-awed by this it doesn’t show as he sounds very relaxed even with the fast time signature. Again the rhythm section is sure-footed and succinct.
This leaves Fest. Happily both “Children’s Games” and “Bossa Blues” are fine, lilting pieces, which will still leave hard core jazzers a little doubtful but show a tender side to Drew’s sometimes classical loftiness. Jobim’s “Children’s Games” has more moods wrung out of it than is usually the case. There are two other tunes—one by Bill Evans and one by Gordon Jenkins. These are very much piano showcases and do just that. Accusations of technical skill over emotional depth surface here but not overwhelmingly so.
This album does not sound like a music that has boxed itself into a corner. It is familiar in form but the skill of the musicianship demonstrates that that form still leaves plenty of space for exploration. These guys are no mere copyists and do manage to impose their personalities on the material. Yes,tribute is duly paid, remembrance there is in abundance but the present tense is also in evidence. If it is gentle evolution rather than violent revolution there is no great harm in that.