Pee Wee Russell: Ask Me Now! (2003)
Who says you can't teach an old dogor an old clarinetistnew tricks? Approaching his 60th birthday in the early '60s, Pee Wee Russell, long associated with Dixieland and traditional jazz, formed a new pianoless quartet with trombonist Marshall Brown and started exploring the more modern sounds of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and even Ornette Coleman.
The finest fruit of that collaboration was Ask Me Now!, an exceptional 1963 session for Impulse! that seamlessly mixes the old with the new, and certainly makes the case for Russell as a progressiveand the bigger case that great artists can often transcend genres and stereotypes.
Russell is at his best on ballads, including two by Monk (the title tune and "Hackensack"), for whom he shows a real affinity. On Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss," Russell's lyricism and wonderfully expressive, sometimes breathy tone evoke a clarinet version of Johnny Hodges or even Ben Webster. He also tackles an up-tempo Coltrane blues and, most impressively, takes on Ornette Coleman's "Turnaround," which he harmonizes and renders as a fairly straight-ahead blues romp.
Marshall Brown, Russell's chief compadre and an inspiration in the leader's modernist move, is showcased on the gorgeous chestnut "Angel Eyes." The mood throughout is relaxed, patient, even languorous, as Russell, the veteran who'd jammed as a kid with Bix Beiderbecke and spent 30 years with Eddie Condon, shows himself undaunted by the '60s radicals. A brave and bravura performance.
This review originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of All About Jazz - New York .
Track Listing: 1. Turnaround - 4:14 2. How About Me? - 4:16 3. Ask Me Now! - 2:30 4. Some Other Blues - 3:16 5. I'd Climb the Highest Mountain - 3:26 6. Licorice Stick - 3:36 7. Prelude to a Kiss - 2:41 8. Baby, You Can Count on Me - 5:01 9. Hackensack - 3:37 10. Angel Eyes - 2:51 11. Calypso Walk - 2:34
Personnel: Pee Wee Russell - Clarinet, Ronnie Bedford - Drums, Marshall Brown - Valve Trombone, Bass Trumpet; Russell George - Bass.