[1 April 2004]
It’s not so certain that the real merits of this CD were wholly intended. It’s all the better for its diverging from the routine of the stable it comes from, except in its playing time of less than forty-five minutes—and to say the least ultra-conservative choice of repertoire.
The star is a magnificent trumpeter called Wendell Brunious, a powerful player with a big beautiful tone, lyrical phrasing and individually brilliant melodic invention. The co-star may well be Ben Jaffe, with a big but not heavy sound on bass, and a wonderful New Orleans lilt like that of the great Wellman Braud, whose early and longtime presence was surely a sine qua non of the early greatness of Duke Ellington’s band.
Don Vappie plays a sort of chorded guitar Marty Grosz has kept going, and which is part of the repertoire of Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden. He seems also to have learned from Herb Ellis. Thadeus Richard is a very efficient modern mainstream pianist who knows how to combine his left hand with the bass and cymbal-effect guitar in what’s anything but an anonymous drummerless rhythm section. I want neither to belittle nor to inflate, but: however any of these guys might be ranked individually, as a rhythm trio they do something else.
A serious stroke in the 1990s robbed Harold Dejan of the ability to play his alto saxophone, and his prominent billing is rather as dedicatee of the CD than as a major performer. He sings on only four of the ten titles. He was a genuine jazz singer, with a powerful voice not in itself attractive, but with an authentic capacity to phrase individually. Nobody ever claimed him as a major jazzman, far less improviser, but he simply takes a tune and casts or sets it—marks it up, if you will, beyond what’s possible to pencil-notate on a printed score. His main workout in musical terms is “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)”, which in places demonstrates kid Brunious’s close affectionate acquaintance with Louis Armstrong’s discography, in places his own distinctive way as an accompanist. The closer “If I Had My Life to Live Over” further demonstrates Dejan’s talents as a mood setter. I’m not much into taking gestures as seriously as sheer music, but this is a nice thumbnail of the general approach.
Von Vappie sings opening and closing choruses on “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”, the former not unusual here in being programmed to allow Brunious to take a second solo. I’m not overwhelmedly enthusiastic about jazz singers at all, and thus appreciative when one enables the music to take a further direction. I was a great admirer of Doc Cheatham (you don’t need to have absolutely every one of his recordings, but if you cherished him I can’t think why you wouldn’t love this).
Brunious sings very well on “Corrina, Corrina”, but it’s his trumpet which catches the ear. The quartet suffers no vocal intrusions on “Lady Be Good”, “Red Wing”, and “Dinah”, but they have real fun on a “Basin Street Blues” with Dejan’s talking vocal. He moves the whole performance along.
Brunious has been cited as somehow a combination of Clifford Brown and Louis Armstrong, but there are reasons to recoil a little at that. Hardly anybody would agree with the late Don Goldie, another of the very great lyrical masters on cornet and trumpet, that Brown was the only postwar jazz trumpeter of real worth. The singularity of Brown should be emphasised, the final recordings before his heinously early death continue to astound. Taken literally, the citation elevates Brunious above the believable. Taken loosely, it misses him altogether, for he’s not a combination of any number of others, however much he has learned from others and however much he continues a sort of dialogue with them.
There certainly is an aspect of dialogue in the asides or oblique references to Louis Armstrong phrases which Brunious applies for additional colour in his solos. This is delightful if you know your Armstrong—and Armstrong’s public American image is one of several huge cultural lies. It is delightful even if you don’t know your Armstrong, for Brunious works in a remarkably fruitful context of musical ideas.
In “Dinah”, the rhythm has a wonderful Latin-tinged lope behind him. If there’s small basis for a claim that these men are of the highest class, they have a fresh way of alternating accents which probably owes something to the other work they do in New Orleans. I may be too excited by Brunious and too interested by the prospect of what he’ll do next when he comes in again, but listen to the lovely business in the transition from the pianist’s solo to the guitarist’s. Some ensembles clear out the employment office and the hardware shop to assemble crew and equipment in the cause of such rhythmic complexity as these guys just play. Where does the piano solo end and where does the guitar solo come in? It’s orchestration.
The discovery of a mainstream or swing trumpeter of this class is not, it seems, an entirely past experience, though it is unlikely to be a common one. Brunious is a joy; he doesn’t sound like anybody else and he sounds like somebody in ways none of his contemporaries I know of does. Here he is, with a big sound like Harry Edison, and lyrical potential to soothe the soul of those sorely pained by the loss of Ruby Braff. There are some people who never heard Braff in his collaborations with the late Ellis Larkins, or the late Mel Powell. I am wondering whether such a setting would be available for Wendell Brunious, who in this by and large cheerful and medium tempo set doesn’t however get tested either in delicate ballad lyricism or in the expression of intense passion. If you know him so much better than I do and have heard him extended in those directions, you are one privileged human being.