Recent Listening: Lundgren Trio, Rollins

I voted for these albums in the recent Rhapsody jazz critics poll and wrote a feature story about one of them, but have not previously reviewed them.

Jan Lundgren, Chuck Berghofer, Joe La Barbera: Together Again…At The Jazz Bakery (Fresh Sound)

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, I concentrated on the surprise discovery and audio rescue of the recording that resulted in this CD by pianist Lundgren, bassist Berghofer and drummer La Barbara. Toward the end of the piece, I wrote, “Mr. Lundgren’s clarity of execution matches the clarity of his ideas. He is at the top of his game in all of the elements of jazz pianism: touch, dynamics, harmonic imagination, swing, power and delicacy.”

Lundgren’s playing is glorious throughout, but what entices the listener—this one, at least—to play the album repeatedly is the power and subtlety of the interaction among the three. The CD’s title alludes to the trio’s 1996 encounter at the Los Angeles club. Together Again happened at a Jazz Bakery gig during a break from preparation of the trio’s 2008 album of film music of Ralph Rainger. Despite an interlude of 11 years, their empathy was in play from the start of the concert. Indeed, if anything, it ran deeper. The performance is characterized by the trio’s close listening to one another and their immediate responses to twists of harmony and rhythm, however spontaneous and understated. With his canny accents, quick rejoinders to Lundgren’s turns of phrase, faultless partnership-in-time with Berghofer and mastery of melodic drumming, La Barbera is remarkable. His exchanges with Lundgren in “Have You Met Miss Jones?” demonstrate those attributes and more, including faultless work with wire brushes.

For all of his success as a first-call studio musician, Berghofer remains at heart the stompin’ bassist who initially became well known with Shelly Manne in the 1960s. When he is simply (ha) walking time, the purity of his lines and note choices is one of the album’s great satisfactions. Significant Berghofer moments: the depth of his rubato bowing as he introduces “Yesterdays;” his joyful skipping behind Lundgren in the final chorus of “I’m Old Fashioned;” the thematic development in his solo on “Blues in the Closet;” the chromaticisms in his “Rhythm-a-ning” solo.

Impressive from his early days with Arne Domnérus and other Swedish jazzmen, Lundgren in his maturity is one of today’s most consistently rewarding pianists. In this recording, he emphasizes his Oscar Peterson influence in an unaccompanied performance of “Tenderly.” There are also bows toward Bud Powell, Ray Bryant and Bill Evans, among others, but Lundgren has become an original. The originality is underlined nowhere more dramatically than in the trio’s lightning “Rhythm-a-ning,” in which his Powellisms are not merely quotes but integral parts of the musical story. Lundgren has been recorded in a variety of situations lately, some less than suitable to his great talent. He does his best work with trios. This recording with La Barbera and Berghofer is a milestone in his career.

The 32-page CD booklet written by album producer Dick Bank is loaded with information about the music and the musicians, photographs, even the reproduction of a love letter to Lundgren from Steinway & Sons. Bank announced that this album was his last production before retiring. It’s a fine parting shot.

Sonny Rollins: Road Shows, Vol. 2 (Doxy)

This is mostly the 2010 Rollins 80th birthday concert at New York’s Beacon Theater, where Ornette Coleman was a guest soloist. The encounter was the first between Rollins, an audacious giant of mainstream tenor saxophone, and Coleman, the alto saxophonist who 50-odd years ago brought near-respectability to the idea of playing jazz outside the mainstream; ‘way outside. The meeting between the two youthful octogenarians is fascinating.

Rollins introduces Coleman not by name, but as someone backstage “who’s got a horn, and I wish he’d come out—NOW.” The predictably unpredictable surprise guest keeps his host waiting. Rollins has already played two solos on his famous blues “Sonnymoon For Two” by the time Coleman makes his fashionably late entrance to raucous applause and cheers. Coleman skates into his solo with a phrase that hints at the melody before he dekes the tune into a zone where no one but he can get at it. Bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes keep the changes and time going while Coleman dangles, squeaking and honking, before he backhand-passes to Rollins. (All right, enough with the hockey metaphors.) The two then alternate solos, each complimenting the other by reshaping his partner’s closing phrases. There are moments when Coleman is his young self just out of Texas R&B, others when he seems to be approximating Rollins’s 1950s style, still others when he’s in low earth orbit, ever the iconoclast space cadet. Rollins matches him in the far-out department. When the rambunctious collaboration ends, he has equaled his most powerful and inventive work of the past two decades.

Another guest in the Beacon Theater concert was Jim Hall, the guitarist with whom Rollins made so much stimulating music in the 1960s. I don’t know what they did at the concert, but on the record Hall plays a lovely “In a Sentimental Mood” with Rollins’s rhythm section—bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Kobie Watkins and percussionist Sammy Figueroa—and nothing with Rollins. Not hearing these brilliant collaborators together is a disappointment. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove joins Rollins and the rhythm section for “I Can’t Get Started,” whose melody he gives a delicate reading. Hargrove’s ballad playing, always his strong point, is exquisite. They also play “Raincheck,” a highlight of Rollins’s great 1955 album Work Time. In their long exchange of four-bar phrases on the Billy Strayhorn tune, Hargrove is now brilliantly original, now searching for his inner Roy Eldridge. Rollins is relaxed, reflective and witty.

The CD opens with a 15-minute exploration of “They Say It’s Wonderful,” recorded at a concert in Japan a month before the Beacon birthday party. Rollins’s guest there was guitarist Russell Malone. Not to put too fine a point on it, Rollins plays the hell out of the Irving Berlin tune, injecting little obbligatos during the beginning of Malone’s solo, as if he can’t wait to dig in. When it’s his turn, Rollins plays a chorus, then, in a long exchange of fours with Watkins and another with Malone, grows increasingly more resourceful and whimsical. He quotes up a storm, everything from “Hey Bob-A-Rebop” to “Fools Rush In,” “It’s You or No One” (three times) and “There Will Never Be Another You.” The quotes are fun, but it’s his original stuff, as the old-timers called it, that inspires wonder at Rollins’s ceaseless gusher of inventiveness. The closer, a brief “St. Thomas,” gives him an opportunity to say goodbye in their language to his Japanese audience. He is enthusiastic with a wistful tinge, as if he didn’t want the evening to end. Neither did the audience. Neither did I, and I was only listening to a record.

Next time, the final two of my critics poll choices yet to be reviewed on Rifftides.

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