This is a brilliant collection of nine songs associated with composer Stephen Sondheim and delivered by the estimable pianist Bill Mays and excellent bassist Tommy Cecil. Cecil, who initiated and produced the project, is well-known in Washington, D.C., but his huge talent should bring him much wider attention. As for Mays, there's always the sense of a quick intelligence and ready humor behind those formidable chops; no pianist currently plying the trade makes more thoughtful and satisfying choices.
The party begins with a rousing version of "Something's Coming" that hints of what's to come: great technique, playfulness and witty quotes, full-out swing, intimate, pitch-perfect sound, and the kind of empathic interplay that it usually takes years to develop. Moreover, their mutual time is so good that a drummer is never missed. Each player has his say with full space and support from the other, while interest is sustained by the imaginative arrangements, wide variation in mood and feel, and clever reimagining of Sondheim's harmonies, which were never particularly jazzy to begin with.
Other highlights include the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd," where Cecil leads over Mays's suggestive harmonies and the tune soon gets deranged (much like Sweeney himself); the gorgeous lyricism of "Not While I'm Around" and "Small World"; and the full-out fun of "Broadway Baby." The solos are consistently intriguing and melodic, and the session ends with a delightful take on "Comedy Tonight" and a final surprising but relevant quote.
In a world where record labels implode every day, and the survivors increasingly cling to some pandering pop hybrid or other, it's reassuring that a project of this quality can still appear. True jazz fans will find much to savor here, from beginning to end.
Something's Coming; Not While I'm Around; Broadway Baby; Every Day a Little Death; Ballad of Sweeney Todd; Small World; Side by Side by Side; Anyone Can Whistle; Comedy Tonight.
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Author of "The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius," now in its updated second edition,Dr. J combines her love of jazz and her fascination with psychology, focusing on where they overlap: in celebrating the individual spirit.