Pianist Walt Harper, who makes his home in Pittsburgh, PA, took Horace Greeley’s advice eight years ago and went west to record this splendid album with a group of all-star sidemen from Southern California. It was good advice. Those who appreciate big-band jazz that strives to blend Ellington’s unrivaled ingenuity with Basie’s elegantly swinging groove will surely dig West Coast Online, whose perceptive charts by John Clayton uphold the classic tradition while at the same time expressing an agreeably contemporary point of view.
Four of the album’s ten selections were written by Clayton, two others by the late great Ray Brown (also from Pittsburgh) whose resonant bass governs the band’s marvelous rhythm section (Harper, drummer Jeff Hamilton). It’s reassuring to have horses that sturdy pulling the wagon, nor does it harm the cause to have a stable of thoroughbreds that includes Conte Candoli, Rick Baptist, Pete Christlieb, George Bohanon, Kim Richmond, Charles Owens, Oscar Brashear, Charlie Loper, Jeff Clayton and Jack Nimitz taking care of business on the front line.
There’s a lot of Basie and John Lewis in Harper’s spare, well-drawn piano voicings but not nearly enough Nat Cole or Ray Charles in his plain-spoken but amiable vocals, on “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” and “Georgia.” Soloists aren’t listed but that’s definitely Christlieb backing Harper on “Walkin’ My Baby,” Candoli (muted), Harper and Owens on Brown’s “Two RB’s.“ Brown also wrote the tasty “Custard Puff,” which features his walking bass and spiffy statements by Christlieb, alto Jeff Clayton (I think), Harper and Candoli (again muted). The session opens with John Clayton’s clever “Blues Under the Influence” and closes with his playful “Grizzly.” Loper (?), Harper and Brashear (?) are showcased on “Blues,” Brown, Harper and (another guess) Candoli (but it could be Brashear) on “Grizzly.”
Clayton also wrote the Latin-inflected “You Move You Groove,” the handsome ballad “Sweet William,” and arranged Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” (tailor-made for Brown’s metronomic bass) and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive.” That’s Richmond’s alto (I surmise) and Harper’s tasteful piano enlivening “Sweet William,” Harper and Brown (with Hamilton on brushes, then sticks) amplifying “How Insensitive.” Bohanon (muted), Harper, Christlieb, Owens and Hamilton have their say on “Mellow Tone,” Brown, Jeff Clayton (?), Christlieb, Harper, Candoli and Brown on “Custard Puff.”
There’s nothing special or showy here, simply a durable, hard-working big band absolutely nailing some wonderful charts and that’s good enough for me.
Contact: Walt Harper, 412-361-7417.
Personnel: Walt Harper, leader, piano, vocals; Rick Baptist, Oscar Brashear, Conte Candoli, Delbert Jenkina,
trumpet; George Bohanon, Charlie Loper, trombone; Jeff Clayton, Kim Richmond, Pete Christlieb,
Charles Owens, Jack Nimitz, reeds; Ray Brown, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.