Although he'll always be known as the first baritone saxophonist to adapt the notoriously obdurate instrument to the complexities of bebop, some of Cecil Payne's finest music has been made during the most recent decade of his distinguished, 50-plus year career. Inspired by tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and drummer Joe Farnsworth, two talented young players in the straight-ahead tradition, Payne came out of a premature retirement in the early 90s. Since then he has recorded six discs as a leader, and frequently toured with Alexander and Farnsworth in tow, calling the band "Bebop Generations.
The recently released Chic Boom, Live At The Jazz Showcase, Payne's fourth release on Delmark, documents his vitality as a soloist, composer, and bandleader. The title cut is a jubilant, medium-tempo swinger, penned by the leader. As he takes the first solo, there's two streams running through his playing: a searching, although not overly heated, quality which coexists with a feeling of relaxation, the result of placing a minimum of notes in the right places. Then trumpeter Jim Rotondi enters and, as the band temporarily lays out, blows a resolute, eight-bar break that hangs in the air like a threat, setting the stage for a brawny, extended declaration. The notes move by in a whirl during the start of Eric Alexander's turn, before he settles in and draws attention to his robust tone, and again gets energetic, utilizing superior chops which mask the repetition of some ideas. A key contributor to all of Payne's Delmark sides, veteran pianist Harold Mabern, quickly gets down to the essence of his style: left hand chords which seem to have a mind of their own, push things forward, while the right hand carries on an equally percussive monologue. Finally, John Webber's nimble yet deep-seeded bass solo leads back to the theme.
"Ding-A-Ling, co-written by the leader and John Farnsworth, brings to mind Payne's lifelong affinity for the Basie band. The cheerful, unadorned nature of the tune pervades his solo, which says a lot without any commotion, often instituting and succinctly resolving riff-like phrases. With the solid support of Mabern and Joe Farnsworth, this time Alexander's pyrotechnics are in proportion to firmly rooted exposition. Rotonti too thrives on the changes of Payne's tune, making another fervent, intelligently constructed statement. Controlled passion is also present in Mabern's solo, until he builds up to one of his trademark devices, eighth-note triplets played in unison with both hands, which gives the music a feeling of being abruptly shot off into uncharted regions. On the last of his eight bar exchanges with the others, Farnsworth takes the rolling motion of Mabern's humorous motif and runs with it, snapping his snare, bass drum, and cymbals against the beat before ending by mimicking a portion of Payne's composition.
One of two ballads on the disc, Payne's "You Will Be Mine Tonight (also co-written with John Farnsworth), begins a with refined introduction by Mabern and the leader's graceful reading of the melody, soon made even warmer by the background harmony of Alexander and Rotondi. With Mabern's bouncing chords signaling a slight change in direction, Payne stays in the romantic ballad mode but becomes more purposeful as he goes along. Rotondi's all-too-brief muted solo is a delight, as he plays mellifluously without entirely sacrificing the scrappy quality of his other work. Alternating between strolling and rapidly spitting out notes, Alexander uses part of Payne's melody as a reference point in the middle of an unsettled improvisation. Although he's limited to a single chorus, Mabern makes a frolicsome contribution the band's otherwise temperate performance.
An up-tempo tune with a commanding air, "Cit Sac is the kind of set-closer that leaves an audience clamoring for an encore. While once again making every note count, Payne nonetheless sounds like a dyed-in-the-wool bebopper, gleefully sailing over the changes while the rhythm section provides tremendous thrust. Rotondi's horn crackles with vivacity, playing long, complex lines without pause, and making it all sound like fun. Arguably one of the most inspired performances of a prolific recording career, Alexander's solo is unadulterated momentum, an intelligent, risky, deadly serious rendering of tightly knit ideas. Mabern plays with thunderous energy, inducing liftoff by a sequence of forceful chords. While the pianist's comments remind him of the tune's structure, Farnsworth unleashes nearly every weapon in his percussive arsenal, at first flying around the snare and tom toms, then using three consecutive bass drum beats to set-up brief, rocking passages.