Tuesday, October 6, 2015

New (Re)Issues: Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap; Erroll Garner; Jan Lundgren

Besides having just been released, the three CDs that we are reviewing today are linked by the fact that they feature three outstanding pianists. First of all, we take a look at Tony Bennett's recent collaboration with Bill Charlap in the manner of dates that the singer has cut in the past alongside Bill Evans and Ralph Sharon. Then, there is the fantastic reissue of Erroll Garner's Concert by the Sea, one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, offering now the complete concert in a deluxe package and with several unreleased performances. Finally, we discuss a career-long compilation of Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren's work for the European label Fresh Sounds, which is an excellent introduction to the man and his music.

Few singers have thrived at the intersection between jazz and pop, between Birdland and Tin Pan Alley, the way that Tony Bennett has. Frank Sinatra famously ranked him high among the small group of great saloon singers, and although Ol' Blue Eyes should know, what Bennett has always been is a jazz singer who imbues even the tritest pop material with an unequivocal jazz feeling. At 89, and after cutting some commercially successful albums of duets and a collaboration with current pop star and personal friend, Lady Gaga, Bennett has just released a new album that brings to mind former LPs of his such as The Tony Bennett / Bill Evans Album or his work with Ralph Sharon on, for instance, Tony Sings for Two. Entitled The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Columbia, 2015), this new CD finds Bennett in fine voice and still tirelessly championing the music from the Great American Songbook, in this case the works of Jerome Kern. In his well-written liner notes, critic Will Friedwald eloquently describes Kern as a transition figure in the world of musical theater, "a direct connection between Brahms and Charlie Parker." Similarly, Bennett is a direct link between jazz and pop, and so a collection of Kern's timeless songs—which seems to have been his idea—is definitely right up the vocalist's alley.

Besides the repertoire, the other one aspect that makes this project successful is the choice of accompaniment: pianist Bill Charlap is a sensitive accompanist who understands singers very well and who is consistently able to provide the kind of setting that Bennett's husky, rhythmic voice needs. Three selections ("All the Things You Are," "The Way You Look Tonight," and "Make Believe") hark back to Bennett's 1970s encounters with Bill Evans, as they are voice-piano duos between the vocalist and Charlap. These are, of course, among the most intimate tracks in the album, only rivaled by the four tunes ("The Last Time I Saw Paris," "Long Ago and Far Away," "The Song Is You," and "Look for the Silver Lining") on which Charlap is joined on piano by his wife, Renee Rosnes. Both pianos are perfectly intertwined here, and the overall result benefits from their mutual understanding and from the delicately lyrical way in which they accompany Bennett. The rest of selections ("Pick Yourself Up," "I Won't Dance," "Dearly Beloved," "They Didn't Believe Me," "I'm Old Fashioned," "Yesterdays," and "Nobody Else But Me") feature Charlap's trio, with the unrelated Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums. As always, Bennett feels extremely comfortable in this trio setting, and there is usually room for well-constructed solos by Charlap here and there. Tony Bennett is quite possibly the greatest jazz and pop singer currently still working, and albums like this new one show off his love for great music, as well as his willingness to improve his already vast and invaluable recorded legacy.

On September 19, 1955, pianist Erroll Garner cut a live album in Carmel, California, that, after it was released under the title of Concert by the Sea, was destined to become one of jazz's best-selling records ever. The original LP amply showcased Garner's dazzling pianistics in a trio setting, with Eddie Calhoun on bass and Denzil Best on drums, but it did not feature the complete concert. Now, sixty years after the event, Columbia-Legacy has finally made available the entire gig in a deluxe digipack three-CD set that includes eleven previously unreleased tracks, new essays by Dan Morgenstern, Geri Allen, and Robin Kelley, and a fourteen-minute interview with Garner and his trio taped right after the concert. In his new liner notes, Morgenstern observes that "Garner conceived of the keyboard as a combination of a band's horn and rhythm sections, rolled into a single voice. And his uncanny sense of time, his marvelous touch, and wide-open ears made that conception come alive."

The Complete Concert by the Sea (Sony / Columbia-Legacy, 2015) is one of the best examples of this, a magic night when all planets seemed to be aligned for the creation of unforgettable jazz. From the opening version of Cole Porter's "Night and Day," it seems clear that there is a special rapport between Garner and the rest of the rhythm section, and the audience is always appreciative of the band's efforts. Whether it is an uptempo number like "It's All Right with Me," a semiclassical treatment of a ballad such as "Spring Is Here," or a Latin-flavored tune "Mambo Carmel," Garner always feels at ease to experiment with the melodies, the harmonies, and the tempi, and throughout the concert there is a sense of excitement that is simply infectious. His readings of standard ballads such as "Autumn Leaves" and "Laura" are as lush and emotive as the uptempo numbers like "Red Top" and "Caravan" are surprising and exciting, showing what a master Garner was at the keyboard. This is a milestone jazz concert whose complete reissue was long overdue—too long, as a matter of fact—and it would be great news if it marked the beginning of a series of necessary Garner reissues.

And last, but definitely not least, we welcome the recent release of Jan Lundgren: A Retrospective (Fresh Sounds Records, 2015), a twelve-track compilation of Jan Lundgren's work for the Barcelona-based label, an association which goes way back to the very beginning of the Swedish pianist's recording career in the mid-1990s. On this retrospective album, we find the very talented Lundgren playing both as a session leader and as a sideman. In the former capacity, Lundgren always seems to feel most comfortable in a trio setting, driving the band forward with his characteristically classy swinging approach. As a leader, Lundgren is showcased here to great advantage via one track from his excellent album Cooking! At the Jazz Bakery (cut in Los Angeles in 1996), as well as two tunes from his tribute CD to songwriter Matt Dennis, which we have already reviewed in The Vintage Bandstand (you may find the review, along with our interview with Lundgren here). Lundgren has devoted several CDs to honoring the work of lesser-known composers from the Great American Songbook, whose compositions he reinvents from his own jazzy perspective, as in the case of Dennis's "Angel Eyes" and "Spring Isn't Spring Anymore." Retreating into the early stages of his recording career, this compilation also includes a track from his 1996 album, California Connection, a trio reading of Barney Kessel's "Swedish Pastry" with bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Paul Kreibich.

As a sideman, Lundgren has participated in countless sessions alongside well-known musicians who made a name for themselves mostly within the confines of West Coast jazz and who are caught here at the tail end of their careers but still sounding just as good as ever. That is the case of Herb Geller, Bill Perkins, and Conte Candoli. Trumpeter Candoli appears on two cuts, "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Rockin' Chair," which are among the best on this retrospective compilation. The track with Geller is a beautiful saxophone-piano duo on the little-known Sam Coslow number "Restless," which shows what an inspired accompanist Lundgren can be. In the early years of his career, Lundgren counted on the support and mentorship of the venerable Arne Domnérus, and the two of them do a clarinet-piano duo on "Barney Goin' Easy," a mid-tempo vehicle that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn originally fashioned for Barney Bigard. Two tracks come from a 2001 album that Lundgren made with pianist Pete Jolly: "I've Never Been in Love Before" and "You Stepped Out of a Dream" prove that Jolly and Lundgren are a perfect match and a sheer joy to listen to. In short, anyone who appreciates jazz piano needs to know Jan Lundgren, and this is undoubtedly the perfect starting point for those who wish to get introduced to his music.

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