The Kenny Drew Trio
Recorded in New York; October 15, 1957.
It seems strange that (with the exception of a 1960 session for Blue Note) this would be pianist Kenny Drew's last session as a leader until 1973. With bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Philly Joe Jones, Drew interprets eight Rodgers and Hart tunes, five written for the play Pal Joey and three of their earlier hits that were included in the film version. Drew contributes swing and subtle bop-based improvising to these superior melodies (which are highlighted by "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "I Could Write a Book," and "The Lady Is a Tramp"), and the results are quite memorable.
All Music Guide
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The musical score for "Pal Joey" was the next-to-last created by the extraordinary team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. In the opinion of many, it was their very best joint effort. That is a very high appraisal indeed, for it is no exaggeration to claim that the best of Rodgers and Hart is just about as good as American popular music is ever likely to be.
Among those who long have ranked Rodgers and Hart at the top are jazz musicians, who are well aware that a Rodgers melody and chord structure are almost foolproof as a jumping-off place for effective improvisation. (And even when, as on this LP, you deal only with the music, you can't slough off the late Larry Hart. For the words usually came first with this partnership, so that the music tends strongly to take its character and even at times its rhythms from the literate, witty, most often sardonic but sometimes quite genuinely tender lyrics.)
Thus, by taking five selections from the original Broadway score of "Pal Joey," and adding three other R & H classics that are incorporated into the 1957 movie version, Kenny Drew has provided himself and his associates here with some extremely meaty and rewarding material to work with.
"Pal Joey" is one of the legends of American theatre. Quite a few people will argue that it's close to being the Lest musical play ever produced. This brash, tough tale of a brash, tenth-rate night club performer has already had a more active career than most. It first exploded on an unsuspecting world late in 1940 (opening, rather inappropriately, on December 25th, day of peace and good will). Its straight-out-of-the-side-of-the-mouth story, primarily concerned with how Joey won and then lost a rich, middle-aged meal ticket named Vera, was at the very least a shocking departure from Broadway musical-comedy tradition. (Noted author John O'Hara, who wrote the book, reputedly described it, simply and aptly, by stating: "It ain't 'Blossom Time.") But the public took Joey-originally played by Gene Kelly-to its bosom for more than a year. It was revived in 1952 and even though Broadway was by then less easily shocked, Joey (dancer Harold Lang had the role this time) and company still bowled them over, accomplishing the rare theatrical feat of a revival that matched the success of the show's first run. In 1957, the world's greatest heel emerged on the silver screen. Somewhat laundered, but still incredibly cocky and wonderfully vulgar, the story, the songs and Joey (this time alias Frank Sinatra) racked up another hit. The odds are good that "Pal Joey" will be with us as long as the character seems true to life. That is: forever.
A Rodgers and Hart score was never just tacked on; it was always an integral part of the story. The team had many big individual hit songs, but it's unlikely that they ever merely set out to write a hit. They wrote material that belonged, so that the score of "Pal Joey" possesses exactly the same lusty, jaggedly alive qualities that distinguish the show as a whole. It is unfortunately true that when music is that thoroughly integrated, some of it cannot carry on away from its full original context. There are, for example, a couple of songs in "Joey" designed to indicate just how lousy the floor show is at the club where Joey works: they succeed so well that you couldn't play them on their own. A couple of others are ruled out because they are patter songs, with the music deliberately subordinated to the lyrics. From the rest of the score, Kenny Drew has selected five tunes:
Bewitched is Vera's account of the pleasant and unpleasant effects love has on her. (It's a sardonic, charmingly vulgar song, although most people have never known this, since paternalistic censorship usually erases such lines as ". . . I'll worship the trousers that cling to him" and "Romance finit, / My chance finit, / Those ants that invaded my pants finit") I Could Write a Book was written as a ballad, but the fact that Joey doesn't honestly mean one single sweet word of it gives point to the briskly swinging treatment the tune gets here. These two have been hits; the other three have remained undeservedly rare. What Is a Man? (" ... Is he an animal? / Good for the heart, / Bad for the nerves") is Vera's knowledgeable question. Happy Hunting Horn announces that Joey is on the hunt for "mice" and "quail." Do It the Hard Way is a bit of irony dedicated to the proposition that "only the soft way has a chance of failing."
Of the three added starters, The Lady Is a Tramp (originally in "Babes in Arms") is, as the title suggests, in a gaily-bitter vein suitable for inclusion in "Joey". The other two are among the very best tender ballads in the Rodgers catalogue, and it's a pleasure to have still another chance to hear them.
Kenny Drew, born in New York City in 1928, is among the most incisive and skillful of current jazz pianists. He can be grouped with the so-called "funky" school of modernists, and in his case this sometimes misleading term serves to point up the deeply rhythmic traits in his playing and the fact that, although his approach suggests such influences as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, he is almost unique in also acknowledging and utilizing the heritage of such able pre-modernists as Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. Wilbur Ware is an astonishingly inventive bassist from Chicago who has performed impressively on several recent Riverside LPs. Philly Joe Jones, best known as a key member of the Miles Davis Quintet, is rapidly gaining recognition as among the freshest, strongest and most tasteful drummers around. The three are thoroughly at home together. In addition, the aural evidence here makes it clear that all three recognize the excellence of the material they are working with, and the validity of "jazz impressions" of these numbers.
For there is actually much more than a casual tie linking jazz with Rodgers and Hart music in general, and "Pal Joey" in particular. The qualities of toughness, wit, and frank realism, the brash, free-wheeling virility and sometimes-shocking disregard for the conventional that characterize the music-and-story unit that is "Joey" are certainly all among the more important qualities belonging to jazz. As seized upon and underlined here by this Kenny Drew Trio, they help to create a sharp-edged, exuberant, thoroughly outstanding jazz album.
- Orrin Keepnews