Neal Miner: Happy Hour (2009)
A thirty-two measure intro to "Bye, Bye, Baby" typifies the traits which animate Happy Hour, bassist Neal Miner's recent release on his Gut String Records imprint. After drummer Joe Strasser's snapping fingers establish a firm, uncluttered pulse, pianist Michael Kanan and Miner play a single chorus of eight-, four-, two- and one-bar exchanges. Their flawless execution of courtly, bebop-oriented lines simulates a continuous chain of thought. Like all of the tracks on the record, this neat prelude to Jule Styne's jaunty melody places equal emphasis on the trio's unity and the expression of individual voices.
Miner's five original compositions mesh with four choice items from the American popular songbook and one Charlie Parker tune. On several tracks he plays the melody or shares it with Kanan. Stylistically speaking, the music sounds familiar, yet there's nothing rote or predictable about it. The leader's ingenious arrangements offer something fresh at every turn while leaving the essence of each song intact. Short ancillary themes are often employed to introduce Miner's and Kanan's solos as well as Strasser's drum breaks.
Equally persuasive as an ensemble player and as a soloist, Miner handles both roles in a straightforward, almost unassuming manner. His four improvised choruses on "Doghouse Blues" feature neatly organized melodies and a sure rhythmic footing that never fails to swing. These elements are clothed in a full-bodied tone that lends itself to flexible phrasing. The weight of every note of the bassist's walking accompaniment to Kanan's solo moves the trio forward in a way that neither sags nor pushes too hard.
The exquisite tension generated by Kanan's "Boilermaker" improvisation doesn't emanate from velocity or showy gestures. He locks into Miner's and Strasser's Latin/Jazz/Funk bottom and finds abundant things to say amidst the busy, repetitive groove. The pianist's sparkling, tightly knit lines cleave to his mates' fluid swing throughout a single chorus on Charlie Parker's "Marmaduke."
Excepting the one instance of finger snapping, Strasser exclusively plays brushes. Readily adapting to the arrangements as well as the nuances of Miner's and Kanan's playing, his strokes offer a variety of timbres. A continuous hiss and the snap of the brush on the snare help Miner drive "Lullaby of the Leaves." Later on the drummer's two bar breaks are tied to the trio's variations of a two bar theme. Gradually ascending from a near whisper to a roar, he moves from wispy pats to the cymbal to abrupt, slapping hits to the snare and toms, tied to an emphatic, booting bass drum.
Don't be fooled by the record's relatively smooth surfaces, or its ostensible simplicity, as well as its brevity. Despite ten tracks in under forty-three minutes, Happy Hour is a rich listening experience that pays off handsomely, time and time again.
Track Listing: Doghouse Blues; Lullaby of the Leaves; Serenade in Blue; Boilermaker; At the Bistro; Bye, Bye, Baby; The Changing Scene; Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; Marmaduke; Happy Hour.
Personnel: Neal Miner: bass; Michael Kanan: piano; Joe Strasser: drums.