Friday, January 4, 2013

Review: Hart-beat - Stephen Riley

Stephen Riley’s Hart-beat has gotten some acclaim, having attained a four-star review in 2012 in Downbeat magazine.  The recording is comprised of standards and well-established jazz tunes.  It begins with “Just You Just Me,” and Riley plays this one a cappella through its entire length.  Riley plays with a big, breathy, old-fashioned sound, though one of its striking characteristics is its low volume; Riley consistently plays softly, though he still conveys fullness in his tone, like he’s using every square inch of the horn.  His phrasing on this first tune is primarily in early Sonny Rollins territory, very bop-ish, and his skillful phrasing easily holds the listener’s interest even without accompaniment. 

“Isotope,” Joe Henderson’s tune, is next up, and after a quick a cappella statement of the melody, Riley is joined by his regular partners on this recording, Neil Caine on bass and Billy Hart on drums.  Riley sounds here like the early Joe Henderson, employing edgier phrasing than on the previous cut, though, again, at a softer volume.   (Of course, Henderson was never exactly a “shouter” on the sax.)  After a fleet and melodic Caine solo, Riley trades fours with Hart.  Then comes “Lonnie’s Lament,” beginning with a strumming intro from Caine by himself.  Riley takes Coltrane’s song at a nonchalant middle tempo, making the tune sound truly like a lament; there’s no self-pity, just a bland acceptance of sadness, and it’s a very effective approach.  It strikes me that this treatment of “Lonnie’s Lament” would be good accompaniment for a modern dance piece.  Riley again sounds a lot like Joe Henderson, employing fast phrases, trills, and upper register cries.  Caine plays another artful a cappella solo, and the group restates the theme, this time without meter, an even wearier capitulation to grief (though there seems to be a touch of defiance in Hart’s drumming).

Things lighten up with a strolling “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” something that would have fit well on a Scott Hamilton recording.  For this older-style, swinging tune, Riley is once again in Rollins mode, and the cut is simply comprised of Riley’s opening statement of the melody, his solo, and his closing statement of the melody.   Then the group takes on Monk’s “Ba-Lou Bolivar Ba-Lous-Are,” a bouncy blues along the lines of “Billie’s Bounce.”  Riley plays a swaggering, playful solo.  Caine takes a solo, lighthearted as well, then Riley and Hart trade fours again, the saxophonist and drummer really working well together.  Next up is the lovely song “The End of a Love Affair,” which the group takes as a slow ballad, Hart on brushes and Riley coaxing breathy, melancholy notes out of his saxophone, virtually channeling a quiet Sonny Rollins.  Caine adds a brief, relaxed solo before Riley plays the melody and a brief cadenza to end the cut. 

Then Riley takes on “Mr. Sandman” (yes, that “Mr. Sandman”) solely as a duet with Caine, beginning with a strumming intro from the bassist and moving into Riley’s strolling, swinging statement of the melody.  Riley this time sounds a lot like Stan Getz, his quiet tone used to great advantage with just the bass as accompaniment.  Caine really shines in his unaccompanied solo, using double stops, strumming, and bluesy lines.  This duet works very well and suggests that Riley could easily pull off an album with just himself and a bass player.

The group then does a hazy, dreamy version of Henderson’s “Black Narcissus,” Riley playing swirling phrases, Caine then digging in for a serious solo.  Riley and Caine then play the melody in unison, and Riley adds a bit more Henderson-like trilling to close the cut.  The recording ends with a fast version of “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.”  Riley fires off clipped and longer phrases in his solo, and then trades fours again with Hart before playing an abrupt closing statement of the melody. 

I think Greg Simmons hits the nail on the head in his review of Hart-beat in All About Jazz when he notes that it brings to mind Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West and Joe Henderson’s The State of the Tenor, both pivotal tenor sax/bass/drums recordings.  The overall feel of Hart-beat, being so understated, is more like Henderson’s recording, but Riley’s phrasing and energy are more frequently like Rollins, though Rollins playing like he’s trying not to disturb the neighbors.  Riley’s approach on Hart-beat is firmly oriented toward the past, somewhat like Scott Hamilton’s music, but Rollins and Henderson deserve this kind of veneration, especially since Riley does it so well and with such integrity.  In my view, Hart-beat has earned its Downbeat four stars and then some.

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