3.5 stars *
Blues in America: Tom Vincent piano, Branford Marsalis soprano and tenor sax, Leigh Barker & Matt Clohesy double bass, Alf Jackson drums
I have not reviewed albums for a long time, for a few reasons, but that may change. Let’s see how this turns out.
If I were a musician it’s fair bet that I’d be anxious about not being inventive enough and being caught out repeating phrases that I’d used in previous solos — worried that I may not be keeping the improvisations fresh and always different. That kind of concern is in the back of my mind whenever I write reviews of albums or live performances — my version of the goalkeeper’s fear of the penalty kick is the fear that I’ll keep repeating words and phrases, thereby revealing an inability to do more than trot out a standard set of reactions to the music. With that goes a worry about my lack of musical training or knowledge, and my limited knowledge of the American songbook and the deeply embedded lore of jazz.
When I read, for instance, Paul Grabowsky‘s words about music and musicians, I’m inclined to think that if the people who play so well and compose music so well can write about it so eloquently, why not leave it to them.
Another reason for avoiding CD reviews is that I slipped so far behind in delivering them that it became an obligation not met and therefore the joy of listening slipped away a little. Why was it hard to just pop out a review? Well, partly for the reasons expressed above, but also because music is, I believe, not easy to write about. I have long yearned for a feed from the brain to the screen (or paper) so that my experience can be delivered directly to the reader, without interference. In that way, when I’m in the moment listening at a live gig or to an album via headphones, the intensity of that experience could be delivered undiluted. It would still, of course, be one person’s experience, as is any reviewer’s.
So, with that palaver out of the way, what can I say about Tom Vincent‘s Blues in America? First, the mechanics. Blues in America was recorded in October 2015 at Sound Pure studio in Durham, North Carolina and at Big Orange Sheep in Brooklyn, New York City. Vincent is joined on the Durham tracks — one, three and five — by Branford Marsalis on soprano and tenor saxophones and by Leigh Barker on double bass, and on the Brooklyn tracks —two and four — by Matt Clohesy, who has lived in New York for many years, on double bass. Hobart drummer Alf Jackson plays on all tracks.
The title track is a Tom Vincent original. The others are composer Donald Kahn’s classic A Beautiful Friendship, the Bernie, Pinkard & Casey standard Sweet Georgia Brown, Russian-born composer/songwriter Vernon Duke’s Autumn in New York and Jimmy Hanley’s hit (Back Home Again in) Indiana.
When Vincent launched his Pozible campaign to fund Blues in America, he said, “This is going to be a swingin’ album”. He’s not wrong. Swing and propulsion are evident throughout, and that’s not so common in a lot of improvised music these days. Much of the drive comes from Barker and Clohesy, of course, but the rhythmic thrust shown in Sweet Georgia Brown, along with varied dynamics and nice chordal contrasts, provides a great paradigm of a rhythm section in top form. This Georgia is one toe-tappin’ gal.
The opening A Beautiful Friendship — featuring wandering, exploratory and at times embroidered piano soloing followed by tenor musings and some interplay from Marsalis — is well laid back, yet ends with a heightened sense of swing.
Vincent’s original Blues in America is pretty jaunty for a blues and much faster, with lots of rapid and intricate repartee between piano and soprano sax, Marsalis being more agile than the nation Malcolm Turnbull once dreamed about. The exchanges make this a favourite for me.
Much slower is the Autumn in New York ballad and the mood change conjures images of leaves drifting down from the trees in Central Park, with maybe a sprinkling or two of drops after a shower. Put your feet up for this and let the thoughts drift past.
Indiana is bright and jaunty, Barker taking us on a fast walk as Vincent treats us to expansive vistas with gentle swing and Marsalis floats out easy tenor notes over the brush work of Jackson. The ending is tight and punchy, with a final “parp” from Marsalis.
Tom Vincent’s Blues in America is further confirmation — as if we needed it — that Australian jazz musicians can seamlessly team with those in the New York scene and produce a fine result. It also provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate just how good Vincent is at the keyboard, delivering fluidity and swing in a way that draws on what I think of as older traditions or roots of jazz.
* Stars? I’m not so keen on the star ratings, mainly because they can be used so differently by reviewers. In the tradition I was taught by Kenny Weir at the Sunday Herald Sun, where 4.5 or 5 stars were reserved for albums that had survived the test of time and had probably been re-released, I’d say this is a 3.5 plus, which is a definite recommendation to buy. If you want to, go to Tom Vincent’s website.