Jazz with Strings Attached: Bucky Pizzarelli, Tyrone Brown, Kenny Wheeler, Quinsin Nachoff and Ben Wolfe
Bucky Pizzarelli and Strings
Tyrone Brown String Ensemble
Jazz and the string section have had a long and often uneasy relationship, strings often signaling a selection of lachrymose ballads suited for consumption as easy listening. Despite critical opprobrium, however, the thought of strings have often been close to the heart of some great musicians, especially since the significant success of Charlie Parker's 1949 venture. Since then, serious string projects have matched improvised and composed elements in varied proportions, usually placing improvising jazz musicians among score- reading classical players. What's striking about this recent collection of jazz and strings projects is the frequency with which the string players demonstrate fluid improvising skills.
Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli's So Hard to Forget is the most traditional-sounding of these CDs, a lyrical effusion that matches great songs with a fluid swing-based musical conception. Bassist Jerry Bruno first worked with Pizzarelli in 1949, while Frank Vignola has often joined him in duets. The string quartet here includes two violinistsSara Caswell and Aaron Weinsteinwho are adept improvisers, able to shift from a carpet of melody to idiomatic solos that show some passing relationship to Stuff Smith and Stéphane Grappelli. Pizzarelli sometimes goes it alone on theme statements, drawing warm, singing tones from his lightly amplified seven-string, acoustic and classical guitars, finding grace and emotional resonance in songs like "Laura" and "Last Night When We Were Young" and some brief classical pieces by Torraba and Castelnuovo-Tedesco. The swing is strongest on Ellington's "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me" and the robust "Boot's Blues". Few musicians make better swing records and this is a genuine treat.
Tyrone Brown's roots are definitely in a later style; witness his long association with Max Roach and a tribute here to McCoy Tyner. Moon of the Falling Leaves is the third outing for his string ensemble and it's a well-conceived project, both for the richness of its textures and Brown's compositional interests. Anchored in the leader's rich bass sound, the five bowed strings (two violins, two violas and cello) sound like a much larger group and the frequent use of sustained chords and dense harmonies combine with Craig McIver's drums to create complex multi-dimensional music. Several additional percussionists turn up, including vibraphonist Randy Sutin, to create music that's as much about rhythmic specifics as textural generalizations. The drifting tones of Coltrane's "Giant Steps" are as mysterious in this forum as they are familiar. Brown is to be applauded for finding an approach to strings that's so distinct and yet so natural and he's aided tremendously in this by violinist John Blake's gifts as a soloist.
Trumpeter Kenny Wheeler is both a major improviser and a memorable composer. On Other People he presses his vision far into the territory of classical chamber music in the company of long-time associate pianist John Taylor and the Hugo Wolf String Quartet. Wheeler has developed his own harmonic language in the combination of wide intervals and compound chords with close voicings, creating intriguing tension. His thoughtful concern with characteristic overtones was apparent in his work with a brass choir a decade ago on A Long Time Ago (ECM) and here he's continued his preoccupations with voicings and overtone patterns with strings. While Hugo Wolf is a traditional string quartet, it's a brilliant one and it's remarkable to hear how closely their phrasing is continuous with Wheeler's own. The biggest surprise here may be the pieces on which Wheeler isn't performing, marking his first forays into through-notated composition with the richly textured, deeply evocative "String Quartet No. 1".
Quinsin Nachoff is a young Canadian saxophonist now residing in Brooklyn. He can create striking contrasts between the dry clarity of his soprano and the raw, R&B-derived honk of his tenor. His Horizons Ensemble combines two veteran improvisers, Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger and English pianist John Taylor, with violinists Nathalie Bonin and Parmela Attariwala. There are moments of angular composition and extended improvisation within each of the saxophonist's suite-like pieces and the exploration of heritage ranges from spiky composed approaches that touch on bop and School of Vienna with improvised passages that invoke meditative Eastern approaches. Reijseger is a bridge between many musical worlds and he makes a key contribution to Nachoff's success.
Ben Wolfe finds yet another approach to the merging of jazz and strings on No Strangers Here, working from the combination of two quartets, one jazz and one strings, to create a kind of compound musical space. Wolfe's jazz approach runs to the modern mainstreamhis notable soloists include Branford Marsalis and Marcus Strickland on saxophones and Terell Stafford on trumpetand the sustained string sounds provide a striking backdrop. They seem to fix the jazz approach in time with an almost cinematic clarity, creating a mood of urban romance akin to film noir. Pianist Luis Perdomo combines with the strings to create a strikingly lush ambience on the title ballad, while Marsalis solos across the strings and rhythm section to achieve a striking complexity on "The Filth".
Tracks and Personnel
So Hard to Forget
Tracks: Laura; Slow Burning; Duke Ellington Medley: Do Nothin´ Till You Hear From Me/In a Sentimental Mood/Satin Doll; It´s Easy to Remember; Sonatina in A First Movement; Sonatina in A Second Movement; My One and Only Love; Prelude To a Kiss; Wabash One More Time; Tarantella Opus 87a; Test Pilot; Boots Blues; Last Night When We Were Young.
Personnel: Bucky Pizzarelli: seven-string and acoustic guitar, Jerry Bruno: bass (tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 7); Martin Pizzarelli: bass (track 9); Sara Caswell: violin; Aaron Weinstein: violin (except track 11); Valerie Levy: viola; Jesse Levy: cello; Frank Vignola: guitar (tracks 8, 12).
Moon of the Falling Leaves
Tracks: Moon of the Falling Leaves; A Prayer for the Healing; Blues 4 Pair Extraordinaire; Matador; Out of Darkness; Not Yet Night; Giant Steps; USQ; The McCoy; Such Is Autumn.
Personnel: John Blake: violin; Melissa Locati: violin; Beth Dzwil: viola; Michael Ireland: viola; Ron Lipscomb: cello; Tyrone Brown: bass; Craig McIver: drums; Randy Sutin: vibraphone; Jim Miller: drums; Pheralyn Dove: poetry; William "Duke" Wilson: percussion; Daoud Shaw: percussion.
Tracks: Other People; Some Days Are Better; Win Some Lose Some; More Is Less; Nita; String Quartet No. 1; The Lucky Lady; The Unfortunate Gentleman.
Personnel: Kenny Wheeler: trumpet, flugelhorn; John Taylor: piano; Hugo Wolf String Quartet (Sebastian G?rtler: violin; Régis Bringolf: violin; Wladimir Kossjanenko: viola; Florian Berner, cello).
Tracks: Bogardus Place; Desert Landscape; A River Remembers Rain; Cartoon-Scape; Glacial Lake; African Skies.
Personnel: Quinsin Nachoff: tenor & soprano saxophones; John Taylor: piano; Ernst Reijseger: cello; Nathalie Bonin, violin; Parmela Attariwala: violin.
No Stranger Here
Tracks: The Minnick Rule; No Strangers Here; Milo; No Pat No; The Filth; Circus; Blue Envy; Rosy & Zero; Jacky Mac; Groovy Medium.
Personnel: Ben Wolfe: bass; Marcus Stickland: tenor and soprano sax; Branford Marsalis, tenor and soprano sax; Terell Stafford: trumpet; Luis Perdomo: piano; Greg Hutchinson: drums; Jeff "Tain" Watts: drums; Victor Goines: bass clarinet; Jesse Mills: violin; Cyrus Beroukhim: violin; Kenji Bunch: viola; Wolfram Koessell: cello.