Gene Harris & The Philip Morris Superstars: Live (2002)
If aliens landed in my front yard tomorrow and demanded to hear a quintessential jazz recording, I might offer them Live. This is the sort of smooth mainstream effort that originally turned me on to jazz. The music is hardly cutting-edge, but it's accessible, swinging, and thoroughly drenched in the blues.
Live was recorded on April 22, 1995, and features seven distinguished jazz elders who gathered at San Diego's University Club for a performance that closed out a seminar on free speech.
Gene Harris is arguably the bluesiest jazz pianist alive. His playing here is typically nimble and a bit flamboyant at times, but that's his style. The soul factor jumps off the scale when Stanley Turrentine blows his big-toned tenor sax. Joining them are fellow heavyweights Kenny Burrell (guitar), Harry "Sweets" Edison (trumpet), George Mraz (bass), and Lewis Nash (drums). Last but not least, vocalist Ernie Andrews steps up to the mic and steals the show on two tracks.
Experience hasn't diminished these players' enthusiasm. They clearly had fun entertaining the herd of freedom-loving highbrows in San Diego.
Three of the seven cuts are medleys, one an Ellington tribute, the others a couple of animated blues excursions featuring Andrews' charismatic vocals. On "Low Down Blues Medley," the CD's closer, Andrews imitates Charles Brown, Jimmy Rushing, Ivie Anderson, Al Hibbler and Walter Brown in a performance that's funny, respectful and heartfelt all at once.
Besides Ellington, the medleys borrow from Charlie Parker ("Parker's Mood"), Count Basie ("Goin' To Chicago"), Miles Davis ("All Blues"), Jay McShann ("Confessin' The Blues"), and others. The classic tunes "Bag's Groove" and "Cottontail" positively smoke in these capable hands. Burrell plays with style and flair on the Ellington medley. Mraz and Edison team up beautifully on "I Wish I Knew." A swinging version of "Time After Time" rounds out a very satisfying collection.
In effect, the Philip Morris All Stars deliver an hour-long history lesson in blues-derived jazz. The mainstream has seldom sounded better.
Rating ***1/2 (out of ****)