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Charlie Mariano: The Great Concert

John Kelman By

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When expat American woodwind multi-instrumentalist Charlie Mariano passed away in the summer of 2009 at the age of 85, his death—like much of his life—seemed sadly lost in the shuffle in North America. The expat American—who relocated to Europe in the early 1970d— should have cemented an international reputation with his early alto work with Stan Kenton and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi; all the more his tenure in German bassist Eberhard Weber's Colours group and Pork Pie, a fusion group with Danish keyboardist Jasper Van't Hof and British-born guitarist Philip Catherine, responsible for Transitory (MPS, 1974). Mariano's large and varied discography more again, including the lost fusion classic, Helen 12 Trees (MPS, 1976), which—like Colours—demonstrated Mariano's considerable acumen on soprano saxophone, flute and the Indian nagaswaram.

That the undervalued Mariano ultimately found an audience everywhere but North America remains more than a mystery; based on The Great Concert—a live trio date featuring the saxophonist's Pork Pie mates van't Hof and Catherine—it's a crime. That this collection of six originals was recorded in Stuttgart, Germany's sumptuous Theaterhaus and not a small club only goes to show how successfully this fine trio created a sense of intimacy, despite a large audience physically distanced from the trio.

The program provides plenty of solo space for all, with a pervasive gospel tinge that nevertheless demonstrate the trio's inherent breadth and virtuosity—two qualities that don't deter from a collective reverence to the demands of the music, rather than individual needs. Clearly, this is a trio with nothing to prove and its ego fully checked at the door; the relatively straightforward changes of Mariano's lyrical opener, "Crystal Bells," could turn into a mere exercise of instrumental gymnastics, but instead it's a mid-tempo opportunity to demonstrate Mariano, van't Hof and Catherine's shared attention to dynamics. With two chordal instruments there's always the inherent risk of harmonic train wrecks, but it simply never happens; instead, van't Hof and Catherine lock in tightly yet flexibly, intuitively moving with Mariano's ebb-and-flow.

Catherine—whose Guitars Two (Dreyfus, 2008) was an outstanding solo effort—provides the greatest textural variation, ranging from the tart electric timbre of "Crystal Bells" to the more muted acoustic on van't Hof's gypsy-tinged "The Quiet American"; even a bit of dirt on Mariano's "Randy." Van't Hof, another unsung piano hero, plays with equal breadth, pushing Catherine's solo on "Randy" to greater heights while engaging lithely with the guitarist on the pianist's "Mute," whose sophisticated lyricism recalls bassist Steve Swallow, and on which van't Hof delivers his most unfettered solo of the set.

As for Mariano, whether it's on Catherine's "L'éternal Désir" or his own closing "Plum Island," the altoist combines elegant melodism with evocative phrasing that constantly pushes and pulls Catherine and van't Hof. This may have been recorded a scant year before his death, but The Great Concert—great, indeed—finds Mariano and his mates at the height of their improvisational powers, in a set that only makes the void left by the saxophonist's departure all the greater.

Track Listing: Crystal Bells; The Quiet American; Randy; Mute; L'éternal Désir; Plum Island.

Personnel: Charlie Mariano: alto saxophone; Philip Catherine: guitars; Jasper van't Hof: piano.

Title: The Great Concert | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Enja Records


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