Originally recorded in 1999 and not released until this year, Once Upon A Reed
is a renaissance effort by West Coast alto saxophonist Ray Reed. At once a homage to the brighter side of '50s hard bop (think Pacific Jazz, Hi Fi or Savoy labels versus the deeper grooves of Blue Note) and a showcase for new compositions by Reed, these songs manage to swing in the modern tradition without drifting into mimicry. This is due in large part to the bold playing of Reed and trumpeter Carl Saunders, but also to the unerring momentum of a top flight rhythm section. With pianist Tom Garvin, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera locked into position, the horn men are free to swing with abandon.
The opening track, “Concentration,” carries a lot of momentum and features a breathless solo by Saunders. I especially enjoyed the echoing of horn passages by Garvin on piano. Songs like “Thank You, Mr. Clifford Brown” and the cleverly titled “Riddle Of The Mode” hum along in similar fashion with the polished swing of professionals. Saunders' bright open tones are consistently exciting throughout numbers like “Fantasia Bossa Nova” and he crafts a lovely passage on the carefree “Cooler Than Cool.”
As for the leader, Reed is strong on the swingers, but his best moments actually occur on the slow- to mid-tempo songs. A passionate bebop-driven improviser, Reed invests a great deal of warmth into “Darn That Dream” and an imaginative version of “You Make Me Feel So Young.” A veteran of many of the bands whose spirits he exhumes here, he has done stints with Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, Gerald Wilson, Stan Kenton and many other bands that walked the line between bebop and swing. But while he may salute '50s era cool swing, his playing is much more akin to the later work of heroes from that era like Phil Woods or Paul Desmond. Like those alto players, Reed knows how to design memorable solos within the conventions (and limitations) of the genre.
But what is most memorable about Once Upon A Reed is the infectiously catchy melodies. I couldn’t get “Stealing Home” out of my mind if I wanted to, especially with its teasingly slight suspension of tempo on the seventh measure. A nice compositional touch in a record that’s chock full of nice moments.
Personnel: Ray Reed: alto sax.
Carl Saunders: trumpet.
Tom Garvin: piano.
Tom Warrington: bass.
Joe La Barbera: drums.