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If there was one aspect of jazz combo and big band instrumentation that changed more than any other during the 1970s, it was the proliferation of drums. More and more groups fielded not just a drummer, but an additional percussionist Often, when one horn player was soloing, the rest of the band would pick up odd percussion instruments and shake them or bang them as if this added something of rhythmic value.
It is possible to prove, however, as this recording certainly does, that the removal rather than the addition of drummers can work as a plus factor. The instrumentation you hear on this disc - grand piano, electric guitar and upright bass - has a long and distinguished history, one that stretches back far beyond the lifetime of most jazz fans.
The name that comes immediately to mind is that of Nat King Cole. From the late 1930s, when he was best known as a jazz pianist in Los Angeles, through the late '40s, by which time he had achieved world-wide fame as a singer, Nat used piano, bass and guitar as the nucleus of his format, even when larger ensembles were built around the trio.
The sound, with its natural and logical blend, became one of the most popular and most imitated among 1940s combos. Ray Charles tried for a King Cole Trio sound in his early days. The Soft Winds, a similar group that included a young guitarist named Herb Ellis, made its recording debut in 1947.
Oscar Peterson took the format one step further when he decided on a trio, of which Ray Brown was a founding member in 1952, with Irving Ashby, then Barney Kessel, and then (from 1953-8) Herb Ellis. After Herb left, Oscar replaced him with a drummer, but from time to time he has reverted to the format that served him so well in the first years of his fame.
It would be an over-simplification to characterize the group you are about to hear (or are perhaps now hearing) simply as the old Oscar Peterson Trio with Monty Alexander replacing the leader. First and foremost, Monty Alexander has developed a fuller and firmer personality than he had in the days when some critics tended to compare him to Oscar. True, he has named Oscar as an early influence, but he also cited Nat Cole, Ahmad Jamal and, interestingly, Milt Jackson and Sonny Rollins. It is clear,
though, from the very first chorus of The Masquerade is Over, that Monty today is very much his own man.
The dispensability of drums becomes evident in this fiercely cooking opener. Monty tackles the song as a stomper rather than the ballad it used to be; moreover, no rhythm section with Ray Brown as a member need worry about achieving a potently swinging beat.
The subdued side of the trio is appropriately applied to You Call It Madness. This engaging melody, dating back a half century, was the theme song of an early radio singer. Russ Columbo.
The blues track, Blues for Junior, is just the timeless 12-bar formula, with echoes of a 1940s pianist names Charles Brown in Monty's tremolos. Ray and Herb, in their solos, flesh out the blues feeling established by the leader. (The term "leader" is hardly fitting, since this is essentially a three-way partnership.)
Sweet Georgia Brown is older than anyone in the trio; it has been around since 1925 and lends itself to any tempo as well as to musicians reflecting any idiom. Herb Ellis works with the old changes as if he had just discovered them and is happy about it; in fact, both on the slow and the later up tempo passages he reminds us here what superb control he has, along with consistent creativity.
Of roughly the same vintage, I Want to be Happy is mainly notable for the personal articulation and buoyant lines of Monty's solos, alternating with Herb's no less incisive statements.
The song Put Your Little Foot Right Out is of obscure origin. Said to have originated as Varsovienne, a French folk-dance melody, it was adapted and published by Larry Spier in 1939. and was sung by Ann Sheridan in a 1945 movie, San Antonio. Miles Davis, of course, established it as a jazz standard. This version finds Monty in a slightly more laid-back groove than is his custom, especially in the delightfully simple out-chorus.
The title of Captain Bill may seem mysterious until you notice that it is a blues modulating from F to D Flat The most famous blues in those two keys is "One O'clock Jump", the theme song of a bandleader often seen in a captain's yachting cap, and called Bill by his friends. But this is no Basie imitation; only the keys are the same.
The song To Each His Own always sounded to me like a barroom ballad, or something a tenor might intone in an operetta. It never struck me as much of a jazz vehicle until, in this incarnation, Monty upgraded it harmonically, melodically and rhythmically.
A fellow pianist, Horace Silver, composed and recorded Sister Sadie in 1959. Monty invests it with just the right tempo and beat, leaving room for splendid choruses by Ray and Herb (note the latter's frequent use of flat thirds for a true blues coloration).
This recording is something of a change of pace for all concerned. Monty Alexander has been associated with the Caribbean concepts of his native Jamaica, and with various other small band settings; Herb has been working mostly, these past few years, as part of a two-guitar set-up with Barney Kessel, and Ray has been into just about everything, though the chances to work with just piano and guitar are rarer than they were in the days before he left Peterson and settled on the West Coast.
Thus, if it is not (and isn't designed to be) typical of the recorded annals of these three compatible giants, it does give them an opportunity to interact with joyous and infectious abandon, and without the noisy or intrusive drumming that has robbed so many jazz performances of their subtlety. (Note to any drummer who happens to read this: of course I didn't mean you.).
- Leonard Feather