The Fantasy-Prestige-Milestone-Contemporary group continues as one of the most dependable purveyors of honest, no-frills, straight-from-the-heart jazz. Eschewing gimmicks, fads and heavy-handed production, the Berkeley, Calif.,-based family of labels kicks the new year off with a quartet of great dates headed by tenor titan Sonny Rollins.
HERE'S TO THE PEOPLE, Sonny Rollins (Milestone MCD-9194-2): Rollins, the 61-year-old "Saxophone Colossus," along with John Coltrane and Stan Getz one of the three most influential post-World War Two tenor saxophonists, forges ahead with another compelling session laced with wit, wisdom and kind of weltschmerz whose angst is tempered with affability, and even affection for the quixotic aspects of the human condition.
Indeed, the upbeat nature of this 1991 date, though alluded to in the project's title, is most evident in the ever-swinging, ever-twisting inventions spun by the legendary Rollins. "Doc Phil," for example, travels over challenging harmonic terrain staked out by pianist Mark Soskin, guitarist Jerome Harris, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Jack DeJohnette. And in the inimitable Rollins' tradition, the tenorist's lines run ahead, then behind the pulse, eventually piling up in wonderously free-form agglomerations of Calder-esque stature.
THE SAXOPHONIST'S wistful melancholia palpitates as well. In his ballad treatment of Gershwin's haunting "Someone to Watch Over Me," Rollins' heart-on-sleeve meditations are stated with gut-wrenching openness and artistry a point worth making because like Getz, Rollins is a player who emerges from realms where "fools rush in and angels fear to tread" without ever descending into bathos or self-pity.
There's also a rousing Rollins' original, "Young Roy," penned for the young trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who makes an impressive front-line foil for the leader's horn. Also memorable are the tenorist's reframings of the Jerome Kern standard, "Why Was I Born?," and Harry Warren's philosophic rumination, "I Wish I Knew."
The keynote, though, is sounded in the title track, the exuberant "Here's to the People," a Rollins' line whose celebratory swingingness is a downright delight and another "Sonny" flight.
TIME AFTER TIME, Oscar Peterson (Pablo PACD-2310-947-2): Pianist Oscar Peterson, the 65-years-young Canadian gift to American jazz, like Art Tatum (during Tatum's reign from the 1930s to mid-1950s), is one of improvised music's rare players in that he enjoys virtually unanimous approval from fans and critics, as well as from fellow musicians. Indeed, he's a players' player whose prodigious technique, comprehensive grasp of traditional jazz styles and indefatigable sense of swing never fail to amaze.
Here, in a concert setting recorded in 1986 at the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles, Peterson is teamed with long-standing colleagues, guitarist Joe Pass, drummer Martin Drew and bassist Dave Young. Along with the simpatico of like-minded musical souls, there's the patented Peterson brio in evidence on such foot-tappers as the pianist's bouncy "Cool Walk" and the breezy classic by Benny Goodman, "Soft Winds."
There's also a lovely example of Peterson's lyricism, "Love Ballade," whose writing and playing exhibit an oft-ignored side of the pianist's persona. Also notable is an evocative essay based on Anthony Newley's "Who Can I Turn To," as well as a galvanizing trek "On the Trail," an excerpt from Ferde Grofe's programatic tone poem, "The Grand Canyon Suite."
9 BY 3, Joshua Breakstone (Contemporary CCD-14062-2): Joshua Breakstone is a gifted, thirtysomething guitarist whose modern, bop-based style, infallible sense of swing, and penchant for standards and standard-form originals put him in the vanguard of the contemporary mainstream.
His loping version of the Rodgers and Hart chestnut, "Where Or When," illustrates his "just-right" approach. There's a deft balance, for example, between smart single-note and rich melody-and-chords forays. There's also his attractive sound whose mellowness still had edge and bite. Perhaps most telling is Breakstone's ability to construct a solo that builds tension and develops its materials with wit and architectonic rigor.
ULTIMATELY, what separates Breakstone from most other guitarists of his generation is his sense of proportion. He knows when enough is enough. Indeed, in this day of aesthetic overkill, Breakstone's spartan sense of economy is rather remarkable.
Throughout, whether a jazz standard like Monk's "Pannonica" or an original like the dynamic "KIS-3444," Breakstone gets perfect support from bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Kenny Washington. In all, a solid, satisfying outing from an excellent player imbued with great spirit and taste.
FINE AND MELLOW, Ruth Brown (Fantasy FCD-9663-2): Singer Ruth Brown, one of the most celebrated of rhythm-and-blues divas, is in top form in this loving tribute to musical friends, colleagues and influences. Accompanied by two superbly rollicking ensembles (one from the West Coast, the other from the East), and buoyed by effectively limned charts by Frank Owens, Brown leans into her disquistions on life's vissitudes with aplomb and poise.
Most appealing is Brown's restraint. In a genre that too often degenerates into hysteria, the exquisite Ms. Brown manages to distill the emotion of such plaints as Ellington's "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues" without undue histrionics or hyberbole. Another plus is the contrast provided in the tasteful breaks by Hammond B-3 organist Bobby Forrester and saxophonists Jack Nimitz, Jeff Clayton, Herman Riley, Victor Goines and Bill Easley.
Whether waxing on the languid lament of Brook Benton, "It's Just a Matter of Time," or cooking on the Jackie Wilson hit, "I'll Be Satisfied," Brown commands attention with performances rich in musical as well as dramatic detail.