In the Wild West, when a cowboy passed away while doing his job, whether herding cattle, branding a steer or engaging in a gunfight, the popular saying was that he "died with his boots on." The adage applies as well to renowned alto saxophonist Bud Shank, who recorded what was to be his final album, Fascinating Rhythms, at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, CA on January 29-31, 2009less than three months before his passing at age eighty-two after a long battle with emphysema. As it turns out, Shank not only had his boots on, he had them specially polished for the occasion.
There's no hint of Shank's illness here, only sublime music by one of the masters of his instrument leading a blue-ribbon quartet in front of a hip and appreciative audience. From the opening measures of his original bossa, "Chicane," it's clear that Shank is at the top of his game, as are the members of his regular working unit, pianist Bill Mays, bassist Bob Magnusson and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Together they traverse a variety of rhythmic paths, each of which is absorbing in its own way and always sagaciously underlined by Shank's indomitable alto. Mays provides a second stalwart solo voice, persuasive throughout and especially so on Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and his breathtaking duet with Shank on "Lover Man."
There's a second bossa, "Lotus Bud," written for Shank in 1954 by Shorty Rogers as a flute showcase. It's coupled with Antonio Carlos Jobim's "No More Blues," played in a more straight-ahead manner. Besides the tunes already noted, the quartet enriches the standards "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Over the Rainbow," Thelonious Monk's quirky "In Walked Bud" (written for Bud Powell) and Dizzy Gillespie's fiery "Manteca." Even though Shank's name is on the marquee, this is a group effort all the way, and his teammates comprise as harmonious a rhythm section as one could desire.
In his early years on the West Coast, Shank was known as much for the beauty of his tone on alto as for his singular improvisational talents. While the tone underwent a number of changes as time passed, evolving from beauteous to granular, Shank's potency as an improviser grew ever sharper and more emphatic, as can readily be heard on Fascinating Rhythms. Marveling at his intensity and enthusiasm, one would never surmise that Shank was ill, let alone an octogenarian. Brushing aside any such concerns, he gave the music he loved all he had to offer, and almost literally "died with his boots on" (in fact, he was recording again in Los Angeles the day before he passed away). And what a marvelous legacy he has entrusted to those who are now here and others yet to come. Fascinating, yes, and rhythmic as well.
Personnel: Bud Shank: alto saxophone; Bill Mays: piano; Bob Magnusson: bass; Joe La Barbera: drums.