Scotty Barnhart: Say It Plain (2009)
Jazz tradition is a tricky thing. Play too far within it, and there's the risk of being called limited or unimaginative. Venture too far away, and critics worry more about finding a label than hearing the sound. It leads to headaches and debates, which trumpet player Scotty Barnhart avoids completely with a debut album that is unquestionably listenable, superbly technical, and, without a doubt, jazz.
Anything that turns Coltrane's "Giant Steps" into a bobbing New Orleans second line march, complete with street whistles, deserves props. When combined with "Say It Plain," a tune full of growling, testifying trumpet and allusions to the rich canon of jazz gospel, it's raw fun. "The Burning Sands" then delves into more progressive territory, with a mix of easy swing, rapid tempo shifts, and dark undertones that evoke classic Blue Note.
If the music seems almost like a mini jazz history, that's because Barnhart is a scholar of the music. A professor at Florida State University, as well as the author of a book on jazz trumpet, he's also a 17-year veteran of the Count Basie Orchestra. His work here is steeped in the blues, soaked full of soul, and simmering with chops. He also brings out great guests like Marcus Roberts, Clark Terry, and Wynton Marsalis. But despite the many quality cameos, Barnhart has himself to thank for the infectiously joyful quality of Say It Plain. His potent mix of vocal effects, finger pyrotechnics, and sultry balladry, matched with his gorgeous, soaring tone, provide the fuel for a thoroughly enjoyable album.
It sounds like the cool brass fire of Freddie Hubbard really influences the sound here. But there's also a lot of Wynton in Barnhart's playing, which makes their encounter on Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" something of a trumpet extravaganza. Amidst Latin percussion and Bruce Barth's fine piano work, the tune develops a call-and-response between the horns. And while both guys show off their 24-karat tones and flawless technique, the improvisation never spirals away from the warm lyricism that's the backbone of the album.
As a whole, there's a great sense of balance on display. The ballad "Haley's Passage" has just the right warmth, and never turns too smooth. "Put On a Happy Face" fits some upper register squeals and groovy runs into the classic upbeat swing. And the up-tempo "Jnana" moves from a simple, bluesy horn figure into a wailing, talkative solo from Barnhart. He gives way to an exultant, foot stamping statement from Roberts, and the track closes with high octane stuff from tenor player Todd Williams.
"Pay Me My Money," with Terry, serves as a great coda. It's full of late night road house blues, from Terry's growling vocals and talkative muted trumpet, to the euphoric shouts of Barnhart's squawking horn. It's the sound of tradition parading downtown, fresh and lively as ever.
Track Listing: Giant Steps; Say It Plain; The Burning Sands; Haley's Passage; Dedicated To You; Dedicated To You; Put On A Happy Face; Con Alma; Jnana; Young At Heart; I've Never Been In Love Before; I'm Glad There Is You; Pay Me My Money.
Personnel: Scotty Barnhart: trumpet, flumpet (4); Clark Terry: trumpet and vocal (12); Wynton Marsalis: trumpet (7); Todd Williams: tenor and soprano saxophone (1, 3, 4, 8); Ellis Marsalis: piano (5, 11); Marcus Roberts: piano (1, 3, 8); Lindsey Sarjeant: piano (4); Bill Peterson (2, 6, 9, 10, 12); Bruce Barth (7); Rodney Jordan: bass (all except 7); Greg Williams: bass (7); Leon Anderson, Jr.: drums, whistle (1); Herlin Riley: tambourine (2); Etienne Charles: percussion (7); Marion Felder: percussion (7); Rock Lollar: guitar (2, 4, 12); Jamie Davis: vocal (9).