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Never look a gift horse in the mouth the old saying goes, but pianist Larry McDonough's Simple Gifts is a record that needs careful deconstructing and critiquing.
The CD starts off with a smart arrangement of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," where Richard Terrill's soprano saxophone states the theme before the musicians take solo turns. They don't wander far from the melody, but they do go enough of a distance out to give the music a satisfyingly pleasant spin.
The recording closes with another solid arrangement, this time of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things," starting off with a repetitive introductory theme in a minor key, McDonough's melody and solos by the rest of the group. This track, however, ends rather abruptly and is not as satisfying as "Ode to Joy." These two tunes are testaments to the quartet's high quality musicianship, though, as both a group and individuals, in addition to McDonough's talent as an arranger.
The rest of the CD, sandwiched between these two pieces, is gooey fluff. The melodies, whether original or covers, are all of similar tempo and cadence, tending towards an unobtrusive sweetness as they blend into one another to create forgettable if pleasant monotony. While some of the solos are deftly improvised, they retain the same character, with the epitome of this sugary presentation being three vocal numbers sung by the leader in a Chet Baker-esque voice and style.
Masterful musicians? No doubt, but this record is not able to deliver on the first track's promise of being unique and substantial until the final six minutes. The remainder of it is a heavily sweetened confection that ultimately feels a bit hollow.
Track Listing: Ode to Joy; Tuscarora; Dame la Mano (Red River Valley); They Can't Take That Away from Me; Aja; Lady Day; Simple Gifts; Elie's Theme; My Favorite Things.
Personnel: Larry McDonough: piano, voice; Richard Terrill: tenor and soprano saxophones; Craig Matarrese: bass; Chaz Draper: drums.