The first song on Embrace is “Something to Live For”, the exquisite Billy Strayhorn composition that was purportedly Ella Fitzgerald’s favorite. What better melody and lyrics to kick off a tender, expressive, intimate date of eight standards, led by the wondrous trombonist Roswell Rudd. Singer Fay Victor brings a sympathetic wisdom to every song, and pianist Lafayette Harris and bassist Ken Filiano are an ideal rhythm section. No drums. Less is more. But there is much here.
Rudd is a singular musician is so many ways. He was educated like the most elite Connecticut kid of the 1950s: at the Hotchkiss School (an elite boarding high school) and Yale University. Playing in Eli’s Chosen Six—a traditional, New Orleans-style jazz group—in New Haven and then, after college, on Columbia Records, would not seem to have suggested a future in avant-garde art music.
But that’s what happened. Rudd’s work with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Pharaoh Sanders, and Steve Lacy seemed to bypass any kind of long apprenticeship as a bebop guy, and Rudd brought the rhythmic attack, joyful shout, and melody-first sense of counterpoint to his “free” playing. He is a supremely curious musician—and so he wound up as a college professor at Bard as well as a world music experimenter, famously recording with African musicians to great success.
Today, Rudd is an elder statesman and lives with Stage 4 cancer, but the sounds on Embrace could have come from a joyful singer of songs of any age: 20, 35, 50, you name it. These are songs that cross generations, coming from jazz musicians (Strayhorn, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk), from Broadway (“Can’t We Be Friends”), Tin Pan Alley (“I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” by Ray Noble), the movies (“Too Late Now” from Royal Wedding), and from the folk tradition (“House of the Rising Sun”). Nothing weird or kooky here, just joyful singing and swing, a set of reasons to listen, to play, to rejoice. To live.
“I Look in the Mirror” is a playful original by Rudd’s partner Verna Gillis that laughs a bit at the aging process. “I’m not as I was, I am as I am / It’s all about acceptance, the best that I can”—you bet. Victor sings the tune with joy, then the trio takes over, Rudd playing a solo that incorporates tailgate slides, blue tones, shouts, Harris sounding like an old-school piano man from the ’30s or ’40s, and Finiano filling up the bottom and the rhythmic flow from one broad shoulder to another. Even Victor’s scat chorus is welcome because she doesn’t sing even one cliched phrase. What a gas.
“House of the Rising Sun” might be the one outlier here, as it doesn’t trade in the classic jazz/Tin Pan Alley harmonies. But it fits perfectly. Harris and Filiano handle the song’s simplicity at the start with a combination of playfulness and gravity. The bass glides and squiggles, with Filiano mainly using his bow to avoid sounding too “folky”. Victor sings the words like they were an autobiography, feeling every one of them but never dressing it up too much in bullshit ornamentation. Throughout, she achieves the perfect balance between art and storytelling—attentive to changes in sonority as much as her notes. After a couple of choruses, Rudd enters, plunger mute in hand, Filiano drops the bow, and the tune starts hopping a bit, Victor remaining in the conversation around the edges. After her last verse, she does some astonishing stuff with her voice as the band goes into a yearning out-chorus, and you almost forget that you’re still inside a “folk song”. Brilliant.
The “standards” are also fairly non-standard, in the best ways. “Something to Live For” begins with the instrumental chorus, bringing in Victor mid-performance the way Teddy Wilson used to bring in Billie Holiday—and she starts with the rarely heard verse too. Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” is almost invariably played as a mournful ballad, so the sound of Victor scatting playfully over a grooving turnaround is a welcome introduction. Rudd joins her, then he takes the melody and a chorus of improvisation in a new key, still jaunty, before Victor reenters with the lyrics penned by Rahsaan Roland Kirk: expressed so joyously and freely that you truly do forget that the song is an elegy. Just as charming is the romantic tale of disappointment, “Can’t We Be Friends?” on which Rudd’s muted solo is fun, games, and smirks. “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” starts with that muted sound and Victor’s unsurpassable mutable voice imitating each other, in unison, in harmony, in counterpoint. You could listen to them, together, for a week with happiness.
“Too Late Now” is a tune I don’t know well—and Filiano starts it with an arco bass solo that reminds you what a huge (and classically capable) tone and technique he has. The band has a field day here, each in turn, strong on a ballad whose changes and pathways you don’t have memorized. Nice.
The song choice that is most brilliant, however, is Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica”. That is one of the master’s most beautiful but structurally interesting tunes, built on a set of descending figures that are tricky but inevitable. The lyrics are as good as any in the American canon, written by the recently passed Jon Hendricks. Rudd plays obligato around Victor’s singing, winding his tender but complex sound around hers, constantly finding space and opening up new feeling. The duo section featuring Harris and Filiano is masterful, with Filiano’s sound rich and vocal and Harris keenly in touch with each little rhythmic opportunity. The whole thing seems to be over a few times during the last chorus, as the band breathes with Victor, taking emotional pauses now and again. Her voice and Rudd’s horn sound like a couple of best friends or lovers (or, best, both), and they end the tune in tender harmony that plays out in a short burst of atonal freedom that—because they are both exceptional improvisors—turns perfectly tonal again.
Embrace is one of the most delightful and fresh collections of “jazz” standard performances I have heard in recent years. Each voice is wisened and wry, constitutionally incapable of singing or playing a cliche. If a band is going to take on songs we have often heard before, this is the way to do it: with a few formal innovations and a slew of feeling—both light and heavy.
Long live Roswell Rudd. And Fay Victor, Ken Filiano, and Lafayette Harris.