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Challenge Gets the Mainstream Groove: Harry Allen & The Pizzarelli Boys

C. Michael Bailey By

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Challenge Records put their corporate foot down and said, "Enough of this noisy progressive jazz. Let's have the real thing. Echoing the immortal words of jazz writer Martin Williams in the title of his book Where's The Melody? (Minerva, 1966), Challenge is, er, challenging labels like Arbors Jazz and Nagel-Heyer in their own "classic jazz backyards—with the release of tenor saxophonist Harry Allen's Hits By Brits and the Pizzarelli Family's Sunday At Pete's.

While having a little fun at progressive jazz's expense, in no way are these comments intended to disparage superb-going-on-sublime new music like ECM Bass Summit: Eberhard Weber & Miroslav Vitous. It's a big tent and we can all fit under it. Think of these two Challenge recordings as visits to two very different clubs performing before two quite different crowds.

Harry Allen
Hits By Brits
Challenge Records

Harry Allen is the Frank Sinatra of the tenor saxophone. He is 100% old school and makes no apologies for it. He is and has been a straight-ahead-down-the-middle mainstream devotee throughout his career. Nary a John Coltrane-squeal is heard from his impeccably played horn on any of his recordings, including this one. Hits By Brits is Allen's hommage to composers, all with personal connections to Great Britain. Allen surrounds himself with John Allred's round-toned trombone, buoyed by Joe Cohn's guitar as rhythm support. The section is rounded out by the rock-steady capabilities of bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Chuck Riggs.

The global sound of Hits By Brits is that of expatriate Americans playing jazz in a post-World War II French bistro, the environment infused with aural aromas of Fonseca 1922 and a neatly ignited Cohiba Robusto. While Allen's tenor lacks the vibratoless, cool character of Lester Young's, it perfectly captures Young's spirit in all of its laconic certainty—allowing the listener to take for granted that this is music produced by exceptional artists, being consumed whole, no digestion or explanation required.

The band plays as if they are either perfectly familiar with one another or just met that evening. That is what jazz is all about, after all. It is about musicians possessing a rarified musicianship allowing them to play whatever with whoever whenever. Ballads like "These Foolish Things and "The Very Thought Of You are served up medium rare and played with a buzzed relaxation, both tenor and trombone breathy and warm. Cohn's guitar makes this recital perfect, replacing the more assertive and boisterous piano. This is cocktail jazz at its best and that is no slight. Allen produces a relaxed recording that can be worn like an old coat, the feel and smell familiar in a comfortable and intimate way.

Hits By Brits is a guarantee, a sure thing, a recording impossible not to like, if not love, and to play many, many times.

See Harry Allen on the web.

The Pizzarelli Boys
Sunday At Pete's
Challenge Records

Where Harry Allen's sound is expatriated in Western Europe, the Pizzarelli family is playing an older set at their favorite restaurant in Little Italy. The genius of Sunday At Pete's is the local, earlier sound of simple jazz performed quietly while bathtub gin is served to a very special clientele, whose entry into the club is gained by the inspection of a very large man peering through a very small sliding door before flipping the deadbolt and letting you and your twist in. Father and Son play a rhythm and lead guitar format respectively, effecting Eddie Condon jamming with Eddie Lang after hours in the back room: the smell of juniper strong, coming from the sink.

John and Bucky Pizzarelli pluck and strum their way through 1920s' chestnuts like "Sweet Sue and "Alabamy Bound, the listener envisioning both guitarists tapping their respective right feet keeping time. "When You're Smiling, "In The Good Old Summer Time, and "Yes Sir! That's My Baby are all familiar, my Depression-era parents humming those timeless tunes while working around the house.

Bassist Martin Pizzarelli and drummer Tony Tedesco keep the rhythm simple and in the family, while two generations of signature seven-string guitarists weave a magic with the soundtrack of the "lost generation" 1920s barreling toward the oblivion of the Great Depression. The Pizzarellis obviously are having a good time: old school rhythm guitar soloing meets new school single string plectrum-driven jazz in a speakeasy while the bartender sings "You're My Girl.

See Bucky Pizzarelli and John Pizzarelli on the web.

Tracks and Personnel

Hits By Brits

Track listing: Cherokee; Roses Of Picardy; Just In Time; These Foolish Things; I Hadn't Anyone Till You; You're Blasé; Limehouse Blues; A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square; I Got A Date With an Angel; The Very Thought Of You.

Personnel: Harry Allen: tenor saxophone; John Allred: trombone; Joe Cohn: guitar; Joel Forbes: bass; Chuck Riggs: drums.

Sunday At Pete's

Tracks: Sweet Sue; Alabamy Bound; Whispering; When You're Smiling; Bye Bye Blues; When The Blue Of The Night; In The Good Old Summer Time; A Little World Called Home; Red Wing; You're My Girl; Rosetta; Dardanella; Yes Sir! That's My Baby; Night On Garrett Mountain.

Personnel: John Pizzarelli: guitar; Bucky Pizzarelli: rhythm guitar; Martin Pizzarelli: bass; Tony Tedesco: drums.


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