, this year on Royal Music Ensembles Records. A couple of things separated the live performance from typical salutes to revered artists of the jazz tradition. Instead of offering lengthy monologues on the significance of Ellington and Strayhorn, Cutro let the material speak for itself. Most importantly, the leader, pianist Mitch Schechter, and bassist Rick Crane didn't treat the songs like museum pieces, or readily invoke the memory of other versions. Their renditions were living, breathing entities that stood on their own and resisted easy categorization.
Cutro did an admirable job of programming by juxtaposing three tracks from the recording with several other Ellington and Strayhorn songs. One of the most rewarding aspects of the set was the rapport between members of the trio. Individual efforts were always placed in the context of a balanced ensemble sound in which each voice was essential. The melodies of four of the set's eight selections were shared by Cutro and Schechter. There was a satisfying contrast between Cutro's relaxed horn and Schechter's rather stately take on the head of "Chelsea Bridge." During a luminous version of "Lush Life," both of them offered brief portions of the melody in less than predictable places, as if they were finishing each other's sentences.
On the record, the duo of Cutro and Schechter often evinces a floating, ethereal quality; whereas, throughout the live, set the addition of Crane provided a decided rhythmic thrust. Without a drummer's clamor, it was a pleasure to hear his every note clearly articulated. Crane did an admirable job of outlining the contours of "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart." During the medium and up-tempo numbers the bassist's vivacious walking line kept things moving. Crane also proved to be a first rate soloist. His "Caravan" improvisation featured long galloping lines, a brief articulate pause, some bent notes, and one tantalizing trip from the top to the bottom of his instrument.
Relatively brief solos by Cutro and Schechter fit nicely into the ensemble work, as well hosting other dimensions of the trio's rapport. Cutro had a way of getting around the horn in rapid fire fashion while staying in touch with the essence of every song. Amidst Crane's plucked bass and Schechter's firm harmonic support, on "Lush Life," Cutro sounded as if he was breaking out of confinement. Long showers of notes and reckless high note flourishes eventually led back to the tune's melody and ballad feel. Not unlike his solo on the record, during "Daydream" Cutro briefly quoted Bud Powell
's "Parisian Thoroughfare" while finding his own melodies. Schechter's chords jounced against the trumpeter's lengthy fluttering runs and singing phrases at various points in "Perdido."
Schechter often displayed a penchant for locking into Crane's pulse, or simply making the beat swell on his own. Even as his solos developed and strode forward, he stayed in a certain recognizable range that gave the work a very satisfying, holistic quality. Not content to merely offer a song quote and move on, Schechter found his own way of phrasing a part of "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart," and then deftly integrated it into another, closely related melodic line. Throughout "Caravan" there was a playful intelligence at work as he pieced together spiky, rollicking Latin-oriented scraps, and followed with a flowing stream of jazz-centric lines on the song's bridge.
Live performances in jazz clubs often include surprises that most recordings can't match, and Cutro's set was no exception. About 45 minutes into the performance, he announced "a little change in format," and invited Joseph Wolverton to the stage. Wolverton is a tenor who has sung with a number of leading orchestras and opera companies throughout the United States and Europe. Accompanied by Cutro and Schechter, he performed "Nessun Dorma," from Puccini's opera, Turandot. Although his interpretation was outside of the scope of this review, Wolverton's voice was very impressive. Undaunted by a classic piece of music outside of the jazz canon, Cutro offered a lyrical, impassioned interlude in between Wolverton's vocals. If enthusiastic applause by an audience that entered the club expecting to hear sixty minutes of jazz was any indication, then perhaps the distance between "Nessun Dorma" and the songs of Ellington and Strayhorn isn't as great as might be assumed.