The impressive vita and discography of Don Friedman are but touchstones to the musicianship of this pianist who, like Kenny Barron and Hank Jones, navigates the jazz mainstream while remaining perpetually fresh if not cutting edge. On Waltz for Marilyn
the seasoned veteran is joined by three like-minded, proven young musicians who bring the leader's conceptions to realization while making strong statements of their own. It's as though the pianist's flowing inventiveness has been magnified by four.
The program is practically a cross-section of jazz styles from the past sixty years, striking an optimal balance between ensemble cohesion and individual expressiveness. None of it strays far from swingnot merely a group "vibe" but a deep and infectious groove.
The set opens irresistibly with Friedman's "Theme for Cee Tee," a blues variant with a harmonically-adventurous bridge. Friedman and guitarist Peter Bernstein play as one on the melody while bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tony Jefferson summon up the two-beat feel of Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones respectively, before laying down a 4/4 carpet for the solos. If the reminder of Miles' first quintet were not already firmly implanted, Wind clinches it with a bowed solo that goes one better than Chambers: alternating between arco and pizzicato he plays two choruses of call-response with himself! Even to listeners not familiar with Clark Terry's two-horn routine, it's one bass solo guaranteed not to go unnoticed.
Friedman's arrangement of "What Is This Thing Called Love?" is a nod to the Lenny Tristano school of extemporaneous counterpoint and validation of Lee Konitz's apparent unwillingness to stop playing the tune. Friedman builds a dramatic solo, climaxing in ascending thirds topped off by block chords. For once, Cole Porter's anthem to harmonic ambivalence is no split decision but an incontestable victory.
The deceptively titled original, "Summer's End," is no languorous tone poem but a rhapsodic piano aria, with scarcely detectable entrances and exits by the rhythm section. "Autumn's Colors" exchanges elegy for a mesmerizing beat, requiring Friedman to double the bass' pattern in his left hand while simultaneously coupling the guitarist's in his right.
The chimerical "Waltz for Marilyn" is no less kinetic for being understated. Bernstein's always fat-toned, non- processed guitar stamps some soul on the samba, "Vocé E Eu, then does the same for Wind's tongue-in- cheekish "Early Morning Blues," driven by the funkiest-sounding acoustic bass in recent memory. "Never Let Me Go" and Mancini's "Two for the Road" receive spirited interpretations, the latter a tad fast for its finely- tempered moving harmonies.
Friedman's extended, Flamenco-flavored "Delayed Gratification is well worth the wait, featuring show- stopping solos by all, including Jefferson, whose infrequent solos are as melodically-attuned as his ensemble work is musically-attentive.
The audio, from the natural sound of Wind's bass to the forward presence of all instruments in the democratic mix, is state of the art. It's doubtful that 2007, which has already seen some blockbusters, has produced a recording of new music more worthy of a listener's valuable time than this one.
See Victor Schermer's fascinating photo-journalistic account of the making of Waltz for Marilyn.