Joe Magnarelli & John Swana: New York-Philly Junction

David A. Orthmann By

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New York-Philly Junction is co-led by trumpeters Joe Magnarelli and John Swana, both of whom have recorded as leaders and sidemen for Criss Cross since the early nineteen-nineties.
Joe Magnarelli & John Swana
New York-Philly Junction
Criss Cross

During the course of nearly twenty-five years, the Criss Cross imprint has sustained an enviable reputation for recording promising talent from the East Coast (particularly New York City) jazz mainstream. Some of the music's rising stars, such as Chris Potter and Seamus Blake, made their debuts as leaders for Gerry Teekens' venerable Holland-based label. Even more impressive is Teekens' willingness to document the progress of some of the artists on a continuing basis, from their days as young lions and into middle age, when the years of persistence and hard work begin to pay off in significant artistic dividends.

New York-Philly Junction is co-led by trumpeters Joe Magnarelli and John Swana, both of whom have recorded as leaders and sidemen for Criss Cross since the early nineteen-nineties. The session is a reprise of a 1998 date (released as Philly-New York Junction ) that included four other of the label's regulars, pianist Joel Weiskopf, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Kenny Washington. The material is well chosen, the ensemble playing leaves nothing to be desired, and the rhythm section stays alert and unobtrusive; however, it's the four primary soloists (three horns and piano) that makes the new recording top drawer.

The three choruses he takes on the title track are quintessential Magnarelli. The trumpeter moves from one short segment to another, occasionally emitting sounds like long sighs. He frequently starts to develop a line, goes off on a convoluted tangent, and then comes back as if suddenly remembering to finish the original thought. Though the first three notes coming out of his horn are plump and certain, his ballad rendition of the standard "My Old Flame" sounds emotionally vulnerable. He's played the tune countless times, yet Magnarelli remains enamored of Johnson and Coslow's ode to a lost love, and takes liberties without violating its essence. During the eight measures preceding the bridge, he flashes a number of brief, pointed asides before once again finding the heart of the song. Magnarelli's solo on "Eagles" is firmly based in a recognizable, bebop-oriented vocabulary, but is nonetheless very personal. Listen closely and he gets under your skin. As the solo progresses changes in emphasis and direction are constant; however, he's very organized, the ideas fit, and he leaves nothing to question. In an instant, lines move from skittering this way and that to sounding decidedly pronounced. The rhythm section wisely stays out of his way. Weiskopf, in particular, comps sparsely and lays out altogether for a long stretch.

John Swana's solo on his spry, medium tempo composition "Eagles" is one of those marvelous instances in which everything coming out of the horn makes perfect sense and feels just right. The path of the solo is so clear that it almost doesn't sound improvised. Spinning witty and inventive melodies, Swana's totally at ease with the horn, the tune's changes, and the rhythm section. Spurred by Kenny Washington's snare drum accents and varied cymbal textures, his forward drive never sounds forced or labored. Even several sixteenth-note runs (something that, in his earlier work, Swana often overused) come off as playful instead of contrived. The first seven bars of Swana's wistful improvisation during Tom Harrell's "From Now On" are blissfully devoid of any tension. Working different registers of the horn, he juxtaposes long tones and pregnant pauses. Just when it seems as if Swana is simply going to fade away, he begins a series of winding lines (none of which last very long) that all gradually slow down to a standstill.

In addition to his sensitivity as an accompanist, Weiskopf is a confident, orderly soloist who never sounds rushed or labored. During "New York-Philly Junction" the pianist has something different to say on each of three choruses. He begins by gracefully sliding from phrase to phrase, evoking blues locutions without becoming excessive. During the second chorus persistent clumps of chords jounce against Peter Washington's irregular bass line and Kenny Washington's patchwork of beats. In the last chorus, Weiskopf unleashes a whirlwind of precisely executed single note lines that wind down, as if he's trying to reverse direction and back out of the solo. His wonderful introduction to "My Old Flame" doesn't contain any hint of the melody; he nonetheless graciously guides us to the song. Melding single notes and chords into a dreamy perfection, the four measures are both purposeful and timeless. The chords ring a little; there's a brief, telling silence after the second bar; and despite the brevity Weiskopf's around long enough to allow us to admire his firm touch. The four choruses he takes during "Eagles" constitute an extended burst of creativity in an unassuming guise. Weiskopf refrains from pounding the keyboard; his changes in dynamics are both subtle and effective. He becomes marginally more assertive as the solo progresses, but the degrees of emphasis aren't dramatic. As he knits together themes with ease, the pianist is clearly interested in the solo as a whole rather than reaching for affected climaxes. The performance comes off as one continuous chain of thought. He strays briefly from Peter Washington's stalwart pulse, and then comes back into the fold without any loss of continuity.

There's an epic quality to Alexander's seven choruses of saxophone athleticism on "Giants," Swana's variant of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." It's good to hear him temper a tendency to squeeze too much information in a single presentation. In this case he's a methodical thinker, in complete control of his emotions as well as the instrument. Tightly woven variations of a handful of motifs display a balance between rigid discipline and finesse. Alexander pauses a few times in the first chorus, then stays in constant forward motion. His eighth-note lines become increasingly dense in texture despite their rapidity. By the sixth chorus the grand sweep of his blowing is nearly overwhelming; he then downshifts and concludes with a quote from "Giant Steps."

Tracks: 1. New York-Philly Junction, 2. Giants, 3. My Old Flame, 4. Lou Ann, 5. From Now On, 6. Eagles, 7. They Say It's Wonderful, 8. If Ever I Would Leave You

Personnel: Joe Magnarelli—trumpet; John Swana—trumpet; Eric Alexander—tenor sax; Joel Weiskopf—piano; Peter Washington—bass; Kenny Washington—drums.

Visit Criss Cross Jazz on the web at www.crisscrossjazz.com .


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