To followers of jazz in general and West Coast jazz in particular, the late alto saxophonist Herb Geller
should need no introduction. Geller, a master of his horn, was a fixture on the West Coast scene and elsewhere in the States until he moved to Germany in 1962 and spent the last half-century of his life there, performing and recording with groups large and small and imparting his wisdom to a younger generation of musicians.
On An Evening with Herb Geller,
recorded in concert in November and December 2009 in Serbia and Vienna, the saxophonist is backed by the splendid Italian pianist Roberto Magris
and his working trio (Nikola Matosic, bass; Enzo Carpentieri
, drums) on what may be Geller's last recording (he died four years later, on December 19, 2013). On it, you will hear and be enthralled by someone who is far more than an "old man" playing out the string or a "living legend" profiting from his name. In point of fact, Geller plays like a musician many years his junior; the technique is as clean and sharp as ever, the intonation strong, the flow of ideas fresh and abundant. For example, you will seldom hear the Zoot Sims
classic "The Red Door" played with more awareness or enthusiasm than here.
The same holds true for the remainder of this invariably charming program, which opens with Cole Porter's "After You" and ends with Stephen Sondheim's "Pretty Woman" (which, like Jimmy Rowles
' "The Peacocks" is listed as "bonus track," as they were recorded in Vienna, the others in Serbia). Another bonus is Geller's spoken introduction to several of the selections, which include Johnny Mandel
's "El Cajon" (a tribute to and takeoff on the name of the great tenor saxophonist Al Cohn
), Benny Carter's alluring "Lonely Woman," Earle Warren
's buoyant "9:20 Special," Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell," two songs by Billy Strayhorn
("Orson," "Upper Manhattan Medical Group") and Geller's upbeat composition "Celebrating Bird."
While Geller swings throughout, he is shadowed closely by Magris whose nimble approach to the keyboard is equaled by his exemplary sense of time and large reservoir of engaging ad-libs. The trio as a unit is similarly polished and never disappoints. Nor does Geller whose playing was enterprising and virtuosic almost to the end of his long and productive life. For undeniable proof of that, lend an ear to (and be astonished by) An Evening with Herb Geller.