Various Artists: Telarc Jazz -- Celebrating 25 Years
There was once, many years ago, a television program hosted by Oscar Peterson. It was all rather well heeled and respectable and was thought by jazz buffs to be a little too timid and genteel, but when it disappeared there was a sudden realisation that much good music would no longer get an airing. This collection from Telarc reminds me of that show. In addition, the line-up and the material both look rather like examples of what (and who) were regularly featured. Fortunately, Telarc is in robust shape, and today's jazz fans are less likely to cast aside a good thing when they hear it.
This two-for-one sampler showcases the impressive catalogue that the Cleveland label has put together since the late '80s. The "25 years" is slightly misleading -- Telarc was a classical outfit for the first decade of its existence. Since it turned to jazz, it has specialised in quality recordings of established figures, who mostly stick, not unreasonably, to the styles that made them famous. Do not expect anything adventurous or avant-garde but do give a listen to a bumper harvest of well executed, "real" jazz, with equal emphasis on standards and sophistication.
A track for each year of the company's life means that this is more than just a teasing taster. The names involved are often those (like Peterson's guests) who have some purchase outside of the inner sanctum of jazz fans. Stephane Grappelli, Jacques Loussier, André Previn, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, and Mel Torme are good examples. If that list tempts you into a insider's sneer, then have a listen to Previn's charming reading of "I Only Have Eyes for You" and think again. Well-known and popular do not in themselves mean any absence of jazz sensibility. In any case, McCoy Tyner and Jim Hall should keep the more precious fans quiet while Hank Crawford, Jimmy McGriff, and Slide Hampton all add a welcome earthiness to the proceedings.
There is a surfeit of "inoffensive" vocal tracks, and none of the singers (who include Joe Williams, Freddy Cole, Jeanie Bryson, Bobby Short, Kevin Mahogany, John Pizzarelli, and Tierney Sutton) really deliver of their absolute best. Jazz singing is back in just now, but I think the general choice of tunes ventures a little too far down the middle of the road. Nothing dire of course, these are all too accomplished performers to be anything worse than pleasant, but all have better to offer.
On the other hand, if elegant and understated piano playing appeals to you, prepare yourself for a veritable feast. Apart from some surprisingly solid contributions from two of my least favourite pianists (a more than usually contemplative Brubeck and George Shearing in Manhattan dinner-jazz mood), there are several outings that would light up any collection. Benny Green (an encyclopedia of styles can be heard in his version of "Just You, Just Me"), Ahmad Jamal ("Skylark"), and Monty Alexander (so poised on "Trust") make the most of each of their moments in the spotlight and all leave you wanting more. The much-maligned Jamal is, if anything, the pick of the three. That Tyner is outstanding goes without saying, but Loussier is something of a revelation. The Bach-into-Jazz man became something of a joke some eons ago, but listening afresh I think the joke was on the critics. Loussier is into Vivaldi on this occasion and it actually works very well.
Group performances include the Ray Brown trio, who hurry nimbly if a little too rapidly through "Tanga" and amble more lazily through "But Beautiful". The latter includes the finest vocal performance of the set, by a barely mentioned Nancy King. There is also a classy reading of "Brother Blues" by the Gerry Mulligan Quintet. Oddly, one of the most memorable tracks is "Conception" by the George Shearing Quintet, whose piano-vibes interplay is unbelievably evocative of a world of Extra Dry Martinis and Avedon-Vogue covers -- all a million miles from Shearing's Battersea origins and (probably) the music's overt intentions.
That tune does seem somehow characteristic of all the pieces. This is a comfortable and comforting experience -- easy listening of a decidedly superior and tailored type. It all could be seen to belong to a lost age of American chic, somewhere between late '50s New Yorker book reviews and early-Hefner, Uptown penthouse suites. Dinner jazz, it is called these days. In certain moods it can irritate, in others it offers welcome respite from a too hectic world.
If a relaxed and relaxing evening is what is called for then the music here provides suitable accompaniment. More importantly, these are some of the most gifted players the jazz world can offer and if they are all in relatively undemanding mood they are not in any way in a slapdash or a lazy one. Therefore, as both a celebration of and a bargain introduction to some superb musicianship, this collection more justifies itself. Happy Birthday, Telarc.