Keyboard Bonanza: Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Smith, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis

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The Oscar Peterson Trio
A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra
Verve
1959

Like many of us, Oscar Peterson is a huge Sinatra fan. Along the way he decided to record an album of songs as a portrait of Ol' Blue Eyes, featuring renditions of songs like "Witchcraft" and "Love Is the Tender Trap" that even to this day are still associated with him. It's a good idea, but when it's all said and done with, any Sinatra tribute is just going to be just another album of standards.

Fortunately Peterson can work his way through a song better than just about anyone else, and in trying to capture the Sinatra magic, ironically it's the Peterson magic that makes the album work. The pianist is at his most relaxed and debonair, leaving behind the fireworks that one can usually expect. The end result is a classy, genteel album that, while not exactly calling Sinatra to mind, certainly evokes the spirit in which the singer went about his work.

The rhythm section assumes the same restrained sense of cool, and the end result is a three-piece suit of an album - formal, yet with the feel of a night out on the town. Peterson has certainly crafted plenty of albums that stand up just as well, but this one has a unity in presentation that makes it a little more special.

Jimmy Smith
The Boss
Verve
1968

Jimmy Smith made a career out of perfecting an approach to an instrument and delivering album after album of reliable organ jazz that broke absolutely no ground whatsoever. It should come as no surprise then that The Boss is no better or worse than any Smith album out there. Like the rest of them, this one features a few burners, a few slow blues, and a standard, all played with the appropriate amount of soul and grit, but since this is a live recording, the energy level is kicked up a notch.

In most cases, once you have a few Smith albums in your collection, the only reason to buy any more is based solely on who the sidemen are, and in this case George Benson may be enough of a reason to give this one a listen. Back in the sixties Benson showed a lot of promise as an up-and- coming guitarist who could give Grant Green and Kenny Burrell a run for their money. He displays an enthusiasm and ingenuity that he would later abandon in his seventies work, yet his earlier recordings showed a nimble spirit of adventure and knack for digging into the blues that allowed him to hang with the heavyweights.

There is a large cadre of Smith enthusiasts who will snatch up anything he put out, and they aren't likely to be disappointed in this offering. For the rest, if you already own any of Smith's Blue Note albums, you may feel like you're paying for something you already have.

Bill Evans
California, Here I Come
Verve
1967

Bill Evans' first recordings from the Village Vanguard were, on one hand, landmarks of piano jazz that redefined the trio, and on the other, absolutely beautiful records. It should come as no surprise, then, that a return to the Vanguard almost ten years later doesn't quite live up to the past. Keep in mind, though, that Bill Evans is largely incapable of turning out a bad album and his mediocre recordings are frequently better than those of others at the top of their game. It's just that California, Here I Come lacks the freshness and vitality of those previous recordings, or much of Evans' other work.

All the Evans trademarks are here, including a knack for reworking well- known songs with different tempos and reharmonizations to take them into areas previously undeveloped. But Evans seems to bang away at the piano with a force not seen since his earliest recordings. The appealing grace and majesty we can usually rely on is gone, replaced by a rugged charm that is more domineering than we've come to expect. Perhaps some of the fault lies with Philly Joe Jones, a fantastic drummer who gigged with Evans when he was with Miles Davis. However, Jones lacks the nuance and color that Paul Motian was able to bring and is a more propulsive drummer than Evans needs.

While not essential, Evans was still doing pretty good work in the late sixties and California captures it.

Ahmad Jamal
Chamber Music of the New Jazz
Verve
1955

Despite the fact that Miles Davis claimed him as an influence, Ahmad Jamal remains a marginal figure in the jazz world; many more people have heard Jamal's "New Rhumba" on Miles Ahead than actually know who Jamal is. But how could Miles be wrong? This recent reissue proves that Jamal is an artist worth checking out, a pianist with something quite original to say.

Chamber Music of the New Jazz is a landmark recording that, true to the title, emphasizes composition and performance in an almost baroque setting much like what the Modern Jazz Quartet would soon perfect, where emotion gives way to technique and form. Unlike the later trios, Jamal was using a Nat King Cole style setup with bass and guitar and no drums, which further emphasizes the understated quality of the performances. But what makes this album truly unique is the emphasis on subtlety and economy, the traits that really inspired Davis and are instantly recognizable as trademarks of his work.

Jamal strips the Gershwin and Porter tunes down to the studs and, with an almost stingy note choice, nevertheless constructs marvelously intricate solos. Jamal clearly developed a technique that many jazzmen would do well to learn: the notes you don't play are just as important as the notes that you do. Ray Crawford, whose lines are only slightly busier that Jamal's, gets plenty of opportunity to solo or provide tic-tac rhythm in the background.

Simply put, Chamber Music of the New Jazz is a stunner, a classic, an influential album whose quiet pleasures unfold with surprising force. It's good to have it back in print and it deserves a home in every jazz collection.

Ramsey Lewis
Another Voyage
Verve
1969

Ramsey Lewis always approached jazz from a pop angle instead of the other way around, a method that became increasingly prevalent after rock and roll edged out jazz for an audience. Despite the worthlessness of much that followed, Lewis's albums were always more reliable than others who scrambled on board his train once it left the station. The classic, The In Crowd , is probably all the Lewis anyone needs, but Anther Voyage isn't all that bad either.

Lewis sure knows how to create a funky groove, and when you've got Maurice White (who would later go on to found Earth, Wind, and Fire) in the drummer's chair, certainly there's plenty of opportunity to let 'er rip. To further emphasize the party atmosphere, there's a lot of hooting and hollering in the background from an uncredited crowd as if to suggest that if we were in the studio too, we would have been similarly compelled to whoop it up. We also have an early appearance of the Fender Rhodes which, while instantly dating the recording, nevertheless contributes a hint of soul rather than staleness.

Lewis was always willing to give any song a shot, and has been criticized for squandering his talents in the pursuit of hits. On these early recordings, though, he was likely to still include free jazz flourishes or at least beautiful runs that hint that he could have recorded a terrific album of standards if he tried.

Like many artists who successfully chased fame in the jazz world, Lewis may eventually become an unknown figure. Until then, albums like Another Voyage will remain a guilty pleasure for all of us.

Oscar Peterson - A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra
Tracks: 1. You Make Me Feel So Young 2. Come Dance With Me 3. Learnin' the Blues 4. Witchcraft 5. The Tender Trap 6. Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week 7. Just In Time 8. It Happened in Monterey 9. I Get A Kick Out of You 10. All of Me 11. Birth of the Blues 12. How About You?
Personnel: Oscar Peterson - piano; Ray Brown - bass; Ed Thigpen - drums.

Jimmy Smith - The Boss
Some Of My Best Friends Are Blues 2. The Boss 3. This Guy's In Love With You 4. Fingers 5. Tuxedo Junction.
Personnel: Jimmy Smith - organ; George Benson - guitar; Donald Bailey - drums.

Bill Evans - California, Here I Come
Tracks: 1. California, Here I Come 2. Polka Dots and Moonbeams 3. Turn Out the Stars 4. Stella By Starlight 5. You're Gonna Hear From Me 6. In A Sentimental Mood 7. G Waltz 8. On Green Dolphin Street 9. Gone With the Wind 10. If You Could See Me Now 11. Alfie 12. Very Early 13. 'Round Midnight 14. Emily 15. Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams.
Personnel: Bill Evans - piano; Eddie Gomez - bass; Philly Joe Jones - drums.

Ahmad Jamal Trio - Chamber Music of the New Jazz
Tracks: 1. New Rhumba 2. A Foggy Day 3. All of You 4. It Ain't Necessarily So 5. I Don't Wanna Be Kissed 6. I Get A Kick Out Of You 7. Jeff 8. Darn That Dream 9. Spring Is Here.
Personnel: Ahmad Jamal - piano; Ray Crawford - guitar; Israel Crosby - bass.

Ramsey Lewis Trio - Another Voyage
Tracks: 1. If You've Got It, Flaunt It (Part 1) 2. Wanderin' Rose 3. How Beautiful Is Spring 4. Do What You Wanna 5. My Cherie Amour 6. Bold and Black 7. Opus #5 8. Uhuru 9. Cecile 10. If You've Got It, Flaunt It (Part 2).
Personnel: Ramsey Lewis - piano, electric piano; Cleveland Eaton - bass, electric bass; Maurice White - drums. On 2, 5, 6 add Phil Upchurch - guitar.


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