Over the course of several years, with little fanfare, Joe Magnarelli produced a pair of distinctive small band recordings, each of which exhibited craft and artistic license in equal measure.Why Not
, andAlways There
, both issued on the Criss Cross label, were not merely vehicles for the trumpeter’s full, burnished tone and patient, thoughtful way of developing a solo. These superb discs also reveal Magnarelli as a composer of genuine merit, an arranger who fashions the music in terms other than a predictable, head-solos-head format, and a leader concerned with presenting the talents of his peers.
Released in 1995,Why Notmatches Magnarelli’s less-than-flamboyant manner of playing with the power and over-the-top intensity of tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. More likely to explore the lower register then the upper extremities of the range of his instrument, throughout the record Magnarelli never sounds like he’s struggling with the horn, imbuing solos with subtle, intricate design, and speaking his piece without ever getting long-winded. His originals, especially “Bella Carolina,” and “Blues For B.G.,” go well with inspired treatments of “After You’ve Gone” and “When Your Lover Has Gone,” two choice tunes from the American Popular Songbook rarely played by contemporary jazz musicians.
Dedicated to the memory of Magnarelli’s beloved canine companion, the 1998 releaseAlways Therebegins with a sleek and stunning version of another chestnut, “I’m Old Fashioned.” Sharing the front line with alto saxophonist/flutist Jim Snidero and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, he offers attractive themes such as “Allison’s Welcome,” “J.J.’s Busride Blues,” and “Waltz For Aunt Marie.” During one standard, “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” Magnarelli reveals a poignant, romantic streak; on another, “Put On A Happy Face,” following a deceptively quiescent introduction by pianist Larry Goldings, the wickedly fast tempo of his arrangement serves as a challenge met by the rhythm section and soloists alike.
The factors that made his first two recordings indelible listening experiences also come into play onMr. Mags, the trumpeter’s latest release for Criss Cross. Magnarelli assembles a crack ensemble of New York-based artists and creates a setting in which they all flourish. One of his five original compositions on the disc, “Our Song,” is an elegant jazz waltz in which the melody is divided between the leader and Jim Snidero’s flute. To fully appreciate its inventiveness and subtlety, Magnarelli’s solo merits repeated listening. He unhurriedly begins by gracefully placing notes against the pulse established by the rhythm section, and then gradually starts inserting rigorous phrases into the flow, purposefully building to a point where his melding of circuitous and straightforward strains propels the music onward.
Beginning with drummer Tony Reedus’ kicking break, Snidero’s exquisite bebop etude, “Passage,” serves as launch pad for the record’s three primary soloists. The composer’s alto saxophone falls squarely in the lineage of Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley, blowing a combination of sharp, jouncing lines over the bed of John Webber’s walking bass and the chords of pianist David Hazeltine. While one might expect Magnarelli to emulate this sustained outpouring, he does just the opposite. With Hazeltine dropping out and Reedus switching to brushes, the muted solo is full of abrupt turns, playfully lingering on a few notes as if in slow motion, then driving forward. Hazeltine then enters with an immediate sense of urgency. Almost exclusively using his right hand, he plays in the bop mode but with a singular intensity, sometimes hammering out notes without pause, while still staying in complete control and fully cognizant of Webber and Reedus’ (back to sticks) support.
During Magnarelli’s ballad feature, the standard “I Should Care,” he nearly makes time stand still by tenderly caressing the melody with almost no embellishment. With Reedus doubling the tempo and using his brushes, the trumpeter’s improvisation retains the feeling of yearning but is more expansive. Once again, Magnarelli proves to be a master of pacing as he eases into the solo, briefly reaching peaks with notes tumbling out of the horn, then retreating into wistful interludes.
At nearly 11 minutes, Magnarelli’s two-part composition “Blue Opus” is by far the longest track on the disc. The opening section, “The Last Goodbye,” begins with Reedus on mallets and a brief, rousing fanfare by the composer and Snidero, stated three times, followed by the trumpeter and alto saxophonist playing an abbreviated ballad. With little variation, the sequence is repeated, segueing to a deliberate, brooding turn by Webber, who starts to walk, introducing the second section, “Mr. Mags.” The sprightly, medium tempo blues is stated twice, then Magnarelli takes the first solo and plays with carefully considered bluster. Snidero circumspectly enters, and proceeds to make his strongest pronouncement of the set, matching keening cries with lines that burst with energy because he makes every note sound clear and full, as if reluctant to let each one end. Hazeltine brings up the rear with his customary incisive manner, swinging in concert with the bass and drums, executing terse double-time passages, and settling into a final chorus consisting mostly of chords before yielding to the return of the theme.