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Take A Bow: String Jazz

David Rickert By

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Cat On a Hot Fiddle
Stuff Smith

Back in the thirties Stuff Smith entertained crowds at the Onyx Club with a blend of artistry, entertainment, and goofy facial expressions, all this on an instrument whose jazz credentials have always been suspect. Fortunately, he was able to bring the same degree of wit and wizardry to his studio recordings two decades later, and Cat On a Hot Fiddle is a prime example of his work. Featuring backing by two different rhythm sections, Smith bows his way through a program heavy on Gershwin tunes with a few Ellington pieces and originals to round out the set, all of which swing like mad and feature some inspired improvising. Smith has a keen melodic sense and an arsenal of tricks like double stops and pizzicato that employ the noise-making possibilities of the violin and give the instrument a wider range of color than might be imaginable. Each solo is a grab bag of tasty riffs and nifty tricks and the other players seem positively invigorated by Smith, roaring out of the gate with a fiery "Undecided" and rarely letting up from that point on. Of course no Smith session would be complete without a few vocal numbers, and Smith takes "Oh, Lady Be Good" and "Somebody Loves Me" with tongue appropriately in cheek. Cat On a Hot Fiddle lives up to its name, and succeeds in presenting a mix of instrumental barnstorming and dexterous swinging.

I Love John Frigo, He Swings
John Frigo

While Smith at times approaches fiddling as if he was sawing logs, John Frigo takes a more subtle approach, preferring to explore the silky, romantic side of the instrument rather than indulging in hard-swinging acrobatics. Frigo switched to bass early on, presumably because he could find more work that way, yet never gave up in his efforts to present a program devoted to the violin. This session is his first effort in that vein, and finds Frigo exploring different settings to back his playing, mostly on ballads and mid-tempo tunes.

The violinist is joined in the front line by Cy Touff and Vic Val on a series of lush instrumentals like "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and switches gears for a couple of impressionistic pieces along the lines of Chico Hamilton on "You Stepped Out of A Dream" and the original "Blow Fiddle Blow" on which he is joined by Mike Simpson and Herb Ellis. A couple of soft duets with pianist Mike Simpson recall evenings at a European café, especially a lovely "Moonlight in Vermont". On the last track Frigo puts the cherry on top, duetting with himself on violin and bass on "Big Me-Little Me". Although not as satisfying song for song as the Smith record, Frigo turns in a satisfying and entertaining performance in a variety of settings. An obscure yet worthwhile session.

The Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet
Roger Kellaway

With his cello quartet Roger Kellaway fused his various influences into a new musical experiment, "something, hopefully that could encompass the spirit of 'jazz' along with the magnitude of 'classical'". Here's how it worked: the quartet - piano, bass, cello, and marimba - were given a lead sheet with chord changes and notes included. It was then up to the group to determine the tempo and duration of each movement and the A&M Symphony Orchestra was recruited to accompany most of the album. This was quite a tall order, but the results work extremely well: the end product is a little bit jazz, a little bit classical, and all of it beautifully expressed.

Most of the credit goes to Kellaway, whose songs feature lovely chord changes and the sort of light improvisation favored by Vince Guaraldi. But in another inspired move, Kellaway chose his favorite instrument, the cello, as the lead, which gives each track a haunting, passionate quality. Through swirling chord changes and gorgeous melodies, Kellaway and company explore multihued vistas that touch on Copeland, the blues, and chamber music, often in the space of the same track. For all the bad records that the third stream movement generated, it's refreshing to finally hear a work that combined the notion into a pleasant whole. On vinyl, this session has been a cult classic and much sought after. It's good to finally have it in print on CD.

Stuff Smith-Cat On a Hot Fiddle
Tracks: 1. Undecided 2. The Man I Love 3. Oh, Lady, Be Good! 4. Nice Work If You Can Get It 5. Take the "A" Train 6. Blue Violin 7. They Can't Take That Away From Me 8. Somebody Loves Me 9. 'S Wonderful 10. Nice and Warm 11. Strike Up the Band.
Personnel: Stuff Smith - violin, vocal; Paul Smith - piano; Red Mitchell - bass; Sid Bulkin - drums; Shirley Horn - piano; Lewis Powers - bass; Harry Saunders - drums.

I Love John Frigo He Swings
Tracks: 1. What A Difference A Day Made 2. Polka Dots and Moonbeams 3. Blow Fiddle Blow 4. Blue Orchids 5. Gone With the Wind 6. Squeeze Me 7. You Stepped Out of a Dream 8. Moonlight in Vermont 9. If Love Is Good to Me 10. Big Me-Little Me.
Personnel: Tracks 1, 2, 5, 6: John Frigo - violin; Cy Touff - bass trumpet; Vic Val - tenor saxophone; Dick Marx - piano; Ray Brown - bass; Phil Faieta - drums. Tracks 3, 6: John Frigo - violin; Mike Simpson - flute, tenor saxophone; Dick Marx - piano; Herb Ellis - guitar; Ray Brown - bass; Norm Jeffries - drums. Tracks 4, 8: John Frigo - violin; Dick Marx - piano. Track 9: John Frigo - violin; Dick Marx - piano; Ray Brown - bass; Norm Jeffries - drums. Track 10: John Frigo - violin, bass; Dick Marx - celeste; Norm Jeffries - drums.

Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet
Tracks: 1. Saturnia 2. Sunrise 3. Morning Song 4. Jorjana #2 5. Esque 6. On Your Mark Get Set; Blues 7. Invasion of the Forest 8. Jorjana #8.
Personnel: Roger Kellaway - piano, arranger, conductor; Ed Lustgarten - cello; Chuck Domanico - bass; Emil Richards - percussion; the A&M Symphony Orchestra; Tracks 4 and 8: add Joe Pass - guitar; Track 8: Erno Neufield - violin solo.

Verve on the web: www.vervemusicgroup.com


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