If it takes a while to notice that there's no drummer on The John Bunch Trio Plays the Music of Irving Berlin (except one)
, that's OK. Recalling the classic Nat "King" Cole
Trio, Bunch's music embraces the same combination of tradition and freshness, of rock-solid technique and flight-of-fancy exploration.
Tradition might be the watchword for this 12-song set from the American songbook, but how then could the austere yet fervid playing of two jazz veterans in their late 80spianist Bunch and flutist Frank Wess
(who sits in for half the album)be accounted for, alongside the workmanlike rhythm section of bassist John Webber and guitarist Frank Vignola
, both half as old as their counterparts? Tradition, yes, but tradition set in relief by solos that stretch and circumnavigate these old standards with wide-eyed curiosity, sureness of vision and coherence of execution.
From the moment when Bunch strikes the first notes of "Soft Lights and Sweet Music," it's clear who's in charge. Whether he's soloing or sitting back to let his band mates shine, Bunch remains the guiding star in this miniature solar system. His almost-not-there accents anchor each song even as Wess, Vignola and Webber meander down the path. And what meandering: Webber's chunky, thrumming bass solos redefine what it is to break from the mainstream, while Wess's assertive attitude on "How Deep Is the Ocean?" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and Vignola's lively, spidery chords and runs of quiet fire push and pull the melody in several directions at once.
"Change Partners," the last song on the album, really takes off; embodying the taste and texture of the set. As he does on several tracks, Wess takes the melody (and the rest of the band, right under his wing), producing several lovely tremolo moments and some exquisitely soaring passages. Bunch fires off a series of lightning runs, while Vignola keeps time like the brushes from an invisible drummer. Webber's stentorian bass pulses underneath and breaks the surface with a fluttering solo.
The "except one" from the album's title is the slow and easy "Coquette," by Gus Kahn, Carmen Lombardo and Johnny Greena freely maneuvered exchange of solos that would make a superb encore after an evening of music.
Whitney Balliet once described Duke Ellington
and his cohorts as "gentlemen of genius." The phrase fits John Bunch, Frank Wess, John Webber and Frank Vignola like a glove.