It’s all very well to speak in abstractions about the state of the local jazz scene, but the proof, as they say, is in the playing. With talents like Ben Schachter, Tom Lawton and Bootsie Barnes keeping plenty busy in area clubs and recording studios, it’s clear that Philly and its extended environs have one of the most vibrant scenes around.
So it’s not only a pleasure but a vindication to find a recording by yet another stellar local talent, bassist Peter Paulsen. The Westchester University music professor heads up a quintet on his debut CD as a leader, Three-Stranded Cord. He’s joined by Lawton on piano, Joe Mullen on drums, Bob Meashey on trumpet and flugelhorn and Chris Farr on sax. The disc, produced by Harrisburg-based R&L Records (www.randlrecords.com) includes four Paulsen originals and two standards.
“Forza Blu,” a 6/4 blues inspired by Prokofiev (Paulsen is also an accomplished classical musician, and classical influences permeate the album) opens with a repeating theme that’s propelled by the more-than-able rhythm section. Meashey then cuts loose with an expertly crafted solo that’s followed by a slightly more relaxed improvisation from Farr. But it’s Lawton who shines here; after backing the horns, he takes flight in an extended solo of his own that allows him to demonstrate some real pyrotechnics on the keyboard.
The title track is an appropriately elegiac 29-bar waltz composed in memory of a friend of Paulsen’s who has died. Early in the track Paulsen takes his first solo, a restrained but heartfelt passage that evokes the sadness of his loss. Lawton picks up from there and executes a solo that’s technically pristine but also entirely organic in the way it hews to the heart of the melody.
Paulsen’s penchant for a melancholy take on things is also evident in a fascinating rendition of Bill Evans’ “Turn Out the Stars.” Paulsen leads into the piece unaccompanied, with a moody solo that harkens as much to the abstractions of modernist classical composers as to anything jazz has produced. Eventually he’s joined by his bandmates, but here again, the emphasis is on creating a mood; Mullen keeps the rhythmic pulse to a minimum, and the other players basically maintain a subtle support of Paulsen’s theme. Finally, the mood lightens as the horns (Farr is on soprano sax here) engage in some almost playful call-and-response dialog.
“Endless Mountains” is meant to evoke the Poconos and the music scene there, while “Reddish Blues,” a tribute to bassist Red Mitchell, conjures a New Orleans funeral march. This deceptively simple track begins with a muted Mullens drum solo. Meashey and the rhythm section follow with a somber reading of the dirge-like theme. But once again, Farr’s soprano sax brightens the proceedings with a lilting, lyrical solo that flits and floats over the bottom. Mullens’ restrained, atmospheric use of the cymbals is a real highlight here.
Paulsen’s classical training is evident in his tightly constructed compositions. And the compositions, in turn, are a real showcase for this band’s formidable technical prowess. But as anyone who’s heard Jacques Loussier’s attempts to mix baroque and bop knows, classical training can be a double-edged sword in jazz. Prodigious technical ability on an instrument is no substitute for soul. And if “Three-Stranded Cord” has a flaw, it’s that the tunes can sound a tad too neat at times.
But that’s a minor quibble on an otherwise fine album. And on Sam Jones’ “Bittersweet,” the album’s final cut, the band does get to let its hair down. With Paulsen’s bass and Lawton’s left-hand piano work driving the tempo, the soloists have a solid foundation on which to build some inspired, swinging solos. It’s a fitting tribute capped by Paulsen’s liner notes, in which he calls Jones “one of the swingingest bassists in jazz history.”