Sunday, March 15, 2009

Walk On Up - Review

'Round Midnight by Pants *

I plan on devoting a substantial proportion of this post to reviewing Walk On Up, the new album by the Andy Young Quartet. If you don’t like jazz, now would be a good time to check out some of my earlier posts – as you’ve been promising yourself you would do for the last year, right? As I said about Andy’s debut album Downside Up, it’s wicked and you must immediately go online and buy it from Amazon. I declare an interest - Andy is the boofhead-in-law, i.e. the partner of Sis Pants.

I was thrilled when my copy of Walk On Up arrived in the post on Thursday and I’ve been playing it ever since. A friend who is highly musically literate, although not in jazz, asked me once when Downside Up was playing, ‘What’s this?’ I told her and she said, ‘Oh right. I thought it was some classic I should have known the name of.’ It sounded like lots of jazz classics but none you’d immediately recognise. You'll get the same again with this new album. If I had any sense I’d stop right here but, hey Pants by name - the boof-in-law deserves, as opposed to desires closer scrutiny.

Walk On Up, named for a chord progression found in some blues and gospel music, is subtitled ‘progressive jazz’ by record company Hardrush. Don’t let that put you off. When I think of progressive jazz, Stan Kenton or the Jazz Warriors spring to mind - neither comparison would accurately define the signature sound of this album. It contains neither the brittleness of the Kenton sound nor the brashness of the Jazz Warriors. Later on in the notes you’ll be informed that the AYQ sound incorporates the ‘swing, blues, ballad, bebop and bossa’ styles and this is much more helpful. It’s not fusion though. There are tunes in each of these styles but the styles are not meshed. They do however sit well together, mainly because of the very strong melodies which weave a cogent thematic thread. In the UK, this album would be categorised as smooth or cool jazz. The wonderful London-based radio station Smooth-FM would call it ‘dinner jazz’. Bear in mind, Kind of Blue would fall into that category. If you’re the type of person who occasionally finds yourself humming ‘Round Midnight in wistful moments, you’ll want this CD, and Downside Up too if you don’t already have it - and you’ll probably want to have a chic dinner party to show them off.

It’s unusual to find a jazz album where the playing isn’t superb - it's the nature of the beast - and here you'll be treated to some fine ensemble playing. Andy wears his influences proudly with a stylistic range that runs from Wes Montgomery right through to George Benson via Barney Kessel. For mine, Kelly Ottaway on piano and vibes is the tallest amongst some very lofty poppies. It’s almost like you’re listening to Bill Evans when he’s on piano and Milt Jackson when he’s playing vibes. I know I won’t be popular for saying this but the addition of Andrew Legge on piano and Fender Rhodes is a layer too far for me. Kelly has the lighter touch on piano and this makes a difference to the unison melody renditions. Even by Rhodes standards the sound is pretty naff and starts to grate after a while. It’s only a slight irritant though and it certainly doesn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the music.

Andy’s trump card in the world of jazz is that he is a composer of no small ability and versatility – a quality I’m guessing will make him extremely popular once more people get to hear his tunes. I’m sure there’s been a ton of theses written on the dearth of decent tunesmiths in jazz but I’m going to speculate totally off the top of my head and venture that the separation between players and tunes coincided with the demise of the American musical after the Rogers and Hammerstein era. Prior to that Broadway had supplied many of the staples of what we now know as the Great American Songbook. In my view the last great jazz translation of a show tune was John Coltrane’s sublime reading of My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music.

The sung-through musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Stephen Sondheim tended towards a more homogenous score and were less likely to contain tunes with enough elevation to interest jazzers. Around the same time many of the great player-composers who’d made up the other half of the book, died (Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Clifford Brown), or put their feet up (Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington) or gallivanted off in entirely new musical directions (Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus). Then in the sixties, the shift to Latin rhythms exemplified by the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, more or less closed the book on the jazz standard. Why would anyone want to invest in new tunes when they could play Ornithology, Joy Spring or Nica’s Dream? This legacy carried within it the seeds of its own destruction because no art form can suffer the finite indefinitely. At some point someone was going to have to start over, and many have fallen trying.

Now, forty or so years down the track, Andy Young appears with a big fat batch of meaty compositions that seem to me at least to slot right back into the grand tradition of the jazz tune. The format on this new CD mirrors the successful configuration on Downside Up. You’ve got ten substantial numbers nudging the content just over the hour mark with a mixed bag of up and down tempos and an impressive spectrum of moods. There is a much bolder emotional palette on display on this second album. The ballads are the best indicator of that maturing in confidence. Serenade on Downside Up, although slightly melancholic is carefree and somewhat restrained. My Joy on Walk On Up, on the other hand, exposes a genuine saudade of the type that truly haunts. I hope Andy records more ballads next time around.

So, music-loving readers, I urge you to purchase this collection – the quality of my Christmas present may depend on it…

* This is not the album cover - I tried to scan it but it's a bit fuzzy so you have instead some of my extremely bad art work.