Here’s a concept album with a fun concept: a melodic bassist playing the compositions of other bassists. Richard Simon has surrounded himself with top West Coast talent (Buddy Collette, Al Viola, Art Hillery) and made a session that shows the group as well as his technique.
It’s a broad spotlight, and everybody gets to shine. Simon’s “Melatonin” uses the chords on “In a Mellow Tone”, and is a relaxed swinger of the old school. Collette struts his confident sax through the chords, guided by bright piano and the gentle nudging guitar. Fitting the mood, Simon’s solo is the good old fat walkin’ variety, asserting itself with gentle force – a stringed version of Collette’s solo. Collette and Gil Bernal trade fours with joy, like the Bean-Lockjaw duel on – what else? – “In a Mellow Tone”.
“Theme from ‘Poultry-geist’” continues Simon’s penchant for puns. He sounds active and modern as he opens the mystery’s slow theme. Art Hillery lays on the smoke with his organ. Bernal’s forceful solo tops his effort on Melatonin”; Hillery shows who’s boss in a very understated way. Simon has no solo; it’s a showcase for the band, and quite a show.
The tributes have their own flavors, and mix the woods well. “Ray’s Idea” sounds like a ‘Fifties date for Contemporary Records – Collette, who played on a lot of those records, gets pretty on the flute while Simon puts steady rhythm beneath. Viola’s solo has a light twang, a nice contrast to this smoothness. Sam Jones’ “Unit Seven” is a funky blues with gentle organ (think Mel Rhyne on Wes Montgomery dates) and a dancing flute from Collette. Simon is livelier here, but again he stays in the background – he stirs the pot, and the others get cookin’.
“What’s New” has a great opening – Simon bounces in on electric bass, and the organ traces his footsteps. He also gets a brief solo, full of movement and snaky fingers. And “Detour Ahead”, one of the best sad songs ever, gets a late-night solo from Bernal; Hillery's organ is loneliness itself. There are many shades here, but the color is always beautiful.
The homestretch is loaded with bass features, and they sparkle. Christian McBride’s “In a Hurry” has a lovely call-and-response between Simon and the band. Simon has a very fat sound, and Viola churns a lonely blues, heavy on the barbecue sauce. Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism” is just as active, with Viola and Hillery the focus. Simon is deep here, and hard to make out (Viola parallels him for most of the theme.) And “Blues for Stephanie” is Simon’s highlight: a greasy bowed solo with a sly edge – Stuff Smith with an upright. I wonder how Simon got the bass under his chin! Collette chirps merrily – a bluebird, of course.
Butch Warren’s “The Backbone” describes the bass as well as anything; Simon slides on the theme. Walks on the solos. And he bows mournfully on a fantastic “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”. Collete and Bernal lead the funeral procession, and Hillery gets very churchy. This is a perfect mood to conclude, and it lays the album to rest.
This feels like an old-style swing session, and the players clearly had a good time. If you like this style of playing, so will you.