If this for the most part all-round nice CD turned out unexpectedly mellow, how come the first track, which is the title track, was part of the programme? Did it turn everything mellow, or was it recorded later and stuck in at the front? It might have been an afterthought, but it did involve substantial preparation.
Dave Liebman needn’t be wary; reharmonisation of existing standard themes is a jazz process at least as old as Ellington — and it maybe generated “In a Mellow Tone” itself. Ellington tended to reharmonise a tune, and find his own new tune within the new harmonies and then maybe reharmonise around the new line he had found. Dave Liebman here adopts the Ellington procedure — which was dedicated to creating melodic themes rather than the more complex frameworks beboppers found to improvise on — but then comes back to the original melody as centre of gravity. Add this to the select list of especially interesting things done with Ellington tunes.
He follows this with an especially sunny soprano feature, and then his guitarist Vic Juris’s “Chance of Rain”, which reminds me of “Lover, Come Back to Me” without suggesting (as the liner note claims) the feel of when it seems drops are about to fall from the sky. It is none the worse for that; programme music’s a rum business, and much more worth mention is the curious ensemble background to any front-line playing. It seems to suspend any determining harmonic structure. I was reminded almost of the sound of a tape being played backwards, except the phrasing is very musical.
The occasion of this recording was Jamey Haddad’s impending removal with his drum-kit to a more lucrative location. He shows what the other guy was getting by doing a tabla thing below Liebman’s wooden flute on “The Sun King”. That was initially conceived with tabla in mind (a phrase somebody might turn into a title). Here Vic Juris’s guitar turns Turkish, retaining, however, an ability to play blues licks, in a sort of raga into bebop and some way back performance. Liebman’s lovely flowing soprano saxophone playing is not concealed.
Retiring to a rural hinterland of New York, Liebman found — he says — a master of most bass trades in Tony Marino. The bassist manages a nicely darting effect on “Chant”, an impressive exercise in pianoless and serene treatment of hard bop ideas. There are no sharp or rough edges, the guitarist and drummer help foster an Art-Blakey-like drive and rhythmic texture — only softly, and lovingly sustained. I had thought the latterday Heath Brothers masters of serene bop, but this is an uncommonly nice approach which could be extended to some Charlie Parker classics, say.
In “My Heart Will Go On” any doubts Liebman maybe had when he thought to try that piece are dissolved by the command of timbre and tone throughout. Any hint of a wail would have killed the spell. None did.
The late Dick Morrissey once found a splendid tenor vehicle in the theme to Star Trek; the musicians might like to know who performed “Romulan Ale” as a new Trekkie-influenced composition here. This CD-reviewing Earthling, though fond of beer, finds the Romulan sort somewhat short of body and in this performance a little too long. In fact the tenor saxophone entry some way through provides a shot of juice that shouldn’t really have been needed, a measure of decision which ought not to have been lacking.
The theme statement of Lennie Tristano’s “Wow” has more interest, but without ever going into the chill of atonal outer space where Tristano and Billy Bauer used to float weightless with piano and guitar — and that could get cold — this performance drifts. The miraculous earlier focus isn’t there.
There’s something rather nicely of the nursery on “Change Up”, the soprano duetting with acoustic guitar and the bowed bass occasionally hinting at Adrian Rollini’s bass saxophone (which from the 1920s was a permanent influence on a lot of jazz phrasing, even among musicians who hardly knew his name). This is somewhere in a hinterland between free jazz and conservative but high modern European concert music, but with the same fun in it as in the CD’s second track, which I didn’t say is called “Child at Play”. The closing “Vamp to Life” is near to self-indulgence in letting itself spread, when after a very different beginning it starts to summon a concatenation of echoes from Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd, Gypsy Swing, fluctuating time signatures, country blues guitar. A bit too diffuse. Time to click back to the opener. Perhaps Romulan Ale makes the later part of the evening a bit longer-winded and less memorable. A Mellow Tone can still have its beautiful spells. Very good in large part.