In describing his project on his website, composer Randy Simon characterizes his entry into the world of jazz composition as the result of a "midlife crisis." A lifelong jazz fan, Simon began taking piano lessons as an adult. Finding improvisation to be a challenge, he found that he could write down the melodies in his head, at which point his "piano lessons became composition lessons."
As it happened, Simon's teacher was a performing musician, and through connections forged through that association, Simon began to find musicians who could turn the notes on the page into full-fledged jazz performances.
Connections are helpful, of course, but it also helps to have a tremendous amount of native talent. Awakening, the third recording of Simon's compositions, not only features outstanding performances by the cream of New York's Capital Region jazz scene, but also well-written, memorable tunes that make this album an exciting listening experience.
The extraordinary group of musicians who appear on Awakenings include pianist Adrian Cohen, guitarist George Muscatello, bassist Mike DelPrete, drummer Danny Whelchel, saxophonist Kevin Barcomb, and trumpeter/flugelhornist Peter Bellino. Simon has the musicians perform in varying combinations, ranging from sextet to trio, giving each number a distinct identity. Standing out particularly is the rhythm section of Cohen, DelPrete, and Whelchel. Having performed together on both of Cohen's own albums, this group plays together with ease, their communication subtle and natural. Guitarist Muscatello appears on three of the nine performances, adding his understated but clear tone to the proceedings. It comes as no surprise to learn that Muscatello has performed with this rhythm section on numerous other occasions.
Saxophonist Kevin Barcomb plays on six tracks, alternating between soprano and tenor sax. His light tone is pleasant and enlivens each number he plays on. Pete Bellino adds his distinctive trumpet and flugelhorn sound alternately on four tracks.
Each performer contributes equally to the overall success of the album, but it would all be for naught if it weren't for Simon's excellent compositions and arrangements. Under ordinary circumstances his work would be outstanding. Given that music is a second career, Simon's work becomes all the more remarkable. Each tune has a memorable melody and provides ample space for the soloists to stretch. The moods range from the sprightly title track to the meditative closer, "Woodlands." The cleverly titled "Cinco-Pation" plays with a tricky time signature and features a bold horn line during the head. The bouncy "On a Lark" (perhaps a tribute to Albany's Lark Street) features magnificent solos from Bellino and Barcomb, while the two trio numbers feature beautiful work by Cohen, DelPrete, and Whelchel. Drummer Danny Whelchel deserves special mention; an incredible drummer who plays with great skill and subtlety, he is heard all over the Capital District, and deserves to be heard more widely.
Randy Simon's Jazz Project is a rousing success. Hopefully, there will be more of Simon in years to come.
Personnel: Randy Simon: composer, arranger; Danny Whelchel: drums; Adrian Cohen: piano; Kevin Barcomb: saxophones; Mike DelPrete: bass; Pete Bellino: brass; George Muscatello: guitar.