Fantasy has been doing the "Plays for Lovers" series since the mid-60s, and reissued several in 2003. Before I get to my impressions of Kessel, Mitchell, and Coltrane, I'd like to spend a moment on the whole idea.
Obviously the goal is to assemble romantic tunes from legendary discographies, but that doesn't mean they're all ballads. I'd always assumed these CDs were designed to be backdrops for lovemaking, or aids to seduction, but given the occasional jaunty tempo and interlude of boisterous improv, that mood is likely to be broken unless leaping up to dance is part of the program. Perhaps they're better-suited to a long, romantic dinner for two than anything more, well, athletic. But the players are legendary and the music superb; these disks will delight lovers of classic jazz for more than a full hour each, whatever their plans for the evening.
Barney Kessel Plays for Lovers
This CD spans Kessel's career from the 1953 to 1988 on the Contemporary label. Highlights include anything with Ray Brown, including "Satin Doll," "You Go to My Head," "It Could Happen to You" and "Angel Eyes," all from a 1958 trio recording with Shelly Manne; the swinging "Just in Time," and a sweet Kessel arrangement of "My Reverie" with oboe, bassoon, flute, and clarinets. Two duos with Red Mitchell "Laura" and "You Go to My Head" are sigh-inducing, and Kenny Barron has some splendid commentary in "I'm Glad There is You." Kessel sets up several tunes with thoughtful solo intros, although I suggest skipping "This Guy's in Love With You," which is not as successful (and see above comment about boisterous improv). This release is especially precious since a stroke ended Kessel's performing in 1992.
Personnel: Barney Kessel (guitar),with Kenny Barron, Jimmy Rowles, Arnold Ross, Hampton Hawes (piano); Al Hendrickson (rhythm guitar); Victor Feldman, Bobby Hutcherson (vibes); Elvin Jones, Shelly Manne, Ben Riley (drums); Ray Brown, Red Mitchell, Rufus Reid, Henry Babasin, Leroy Vinnegar, Monty Budwig (bass), Ted Nash (flute), and others.
Track Listing: Embraceable You, I'm Glad There is You, What is There to Say?, Satin Doll, My Funny Valentine, This Guy's in Love with You, Angel Eyes, Just in Time, My Reverie, Love is Here to Stay, Tenderly, It Could Happen to You, My Old Flame, Laura, You Go to My Head
Blue Mitchell Plays For Lovers
This one spans Mitchell's Riverside output with producer Orrin Keepnews from 1958 to 1962. I enjoyed this more than the Kessel for several reasons: I prefer trumpet to electric guitar as a lead instrument, the selections were more interesting to me, and many of them are either Tadd Dameron or Benny Golson arrangements (with Golson conducting Dameron). This means, among other things, that the strings are gorgeous rather than gloppy, as in "But Beautiful" and "The Nearness of You," two of the CD's highlights; happily, Golson takes "I'm a Fool to Want You," which is often played like a dirge, and leavens it with some gentle swing. Jimmy Heath also contributes a lush arrangement of "I Can't Get Started," and Cedar Walton's "Turquoise" thrives as a waltz; there's a pretty, less-covered ballad called "Missing You," and the closer is Horace Silver's "Peace" [we can never get enough of that these days [for a sterling vocal on this one, see Ian Shaw's A World Still Turning, 441 Records, 2003]. Mitchell, who died of cancer in 1979, is in typically lyrical form, with a warm and soulful tone.
Personnel: Blue Mitchell (trumpet) with Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Charlie Persip, Roy Brooks, Albert "Tootie" Heath (drums); Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, Gene Taylor, Wilbur Ware (bass); Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Junior Cook, Johnny Griffin (tenor sax); Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, Cedar Walton (piano); Jimmy Cleveland, Urbie Green, Curtis Fuller, Julian Priester, Britt Woodman (trombones); Jerome Richardson (alto sax), Clark Terry (trumpet), Julius Watkins (French horn)
The Nearness of You, When I Fall in Love, Why Do I Love You, Polka Dots and Moonbeams, But Beautiful, I Can't Get Started With You, There Will Never Be Another You, How Deep is the Ocean?, I'm a Fool to Want You, Turquoise, Missing You, For All We Know, Peace.
John Coltrane Plays for Lovers
Coltrane's early sessions as leader are collected here, with eight gems from his Prestige recordings from 1957 to 1958. The longest of the three CDs at 72:12, there are three tracks of over 10 minutes each: "I Want to Talk About You," "Invitation," and the definitive "Lush Life," clocking in at 13:53. This reissue has no liners, just a paragraph on the cover with the following advice: "if you're looking for music that will put you in the mood, this is the place to start." I disagree, mostly because Coltrane's power has always grabbed me by the collar and demanded my full attention. Your mileage may vary. In any case, this is stunning and haunting music, with a positive pantheon of bandmates.
Personnel: John Coltrane (tenor sax), with Red Garland, Mal Waldron (piano), Paul Chambers, Earl May (bass); Arthur Taylor, Albert "Tootie" Heath, Jimmy Cobb, Louis Hayes (drums); Donald Byrd, Johnny Splawn (trumpet), Wilbur Harden (flugelhorn)
Track Listing: I Want to Talk About You, Violets for Your Furs, Invitation, Slow Dance, Lush Life, Like Someone in Love, Stardust, While My Lady Sleeps, You Leave Me Breathless
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And one more, not explicitly but truly "for lovers"...
Jacintha - Jacintha is Her Name
Subtitled "A Tribute to Julie London," I believe this is the seventh Groove Note release from Jacintha, the sultry singer from Singapore. It falls into the category of aphroCDsiacs because the material is romantic and the arrangements cool and mellow. Jacintha's voice is pitch-perfect, lovely, and intimate without contrived breathiness or melisma. Her direct and uncluttered delivery works well with every tune except "Light My Fire," which to a 60s veteran requires a bit more heat, and "God Bless the Child," which is similarly over-elegant except for the bluesy, wonderful Harry Allen. He also enhances "Willow Weep" (which is quite effective with just guitar and sax) and the menthol-torchy "Something Cool" (just sax and piano). There's also an intriguing Willard Robinson tune I've never heard, "Don't Smoke in Bed," which definitely conjures thoughts of that location.
Arranger Bill Cunliffe uses some intriguing instrumental combinations while keeping the band low-keyed for example, Jacintha starting "Round Midnight" with just Darek Oles on bass is a moody, late-night touch, and his own solo is superb but his excellent playing only appears on four cuts (he's busier on Jacintha's "Lush Life" [Groove Note, 2001], where he even manages to make something new out of "Summertime.") Judging from the reaction of my spousal unit, Jacintha is a sexy singer, and so her new one fits nicely in this grouping. For further romantic explorations, her "Here's to Ben" tribute to Ben Webster (1998) is also recommended.
Personnel: Jacintha (vocals), Bill Cunliffe (piano and arrangements), Harry Allen (tenor sax), Ron Eschete (7 string guitar), Larry Bunker (vibes and congas), Holly Hoffman (flute), Darek Oleskiewicz (bass), Larance Marable (drums)
Track Listing: Willow Weep for Me, The Thrill is Gone, Something Cool, Don't Smoke in Bed, Light My Fire, I'm in the Mood for Love, God Bless the Child, Round Midnight, I'll Never Smile Again, Gone with the Wind, Cry Me a River
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