Eighty Eight’s / Columbia
Both So What and Love Letters are, as far as cover art goes, the most unattractive jazz albums I have ever seen, a statement that takes into account the sanguine artwork on Dizzy Gillespie’s fusion release Closer to the Source. The two newer albums are amateurish, ambiguous bruise-colored things, littered with a handful of monochrome photographs and liner notes that are shorter than the respective track listings. And speaking of the track listings, I should point out that they’re less dazzling than the artwork. There is one original tune among eighteen total songs. The rest are old standards and virtuoso vehicles.
But, to pervert the old adage, we ought not judge a CD by its cover art; and if we listeners all avoided the old standards, then the Deutsche Grammophon label for one would never sell another record again. What matters is the music. And this is where So What and Love Letters deliver.
On So What, Henderson’s band wastes no time with formalities or warm-ups, diving into the Wayne Shorter chart “Prince of Darkness.” Admirably, he passes off the first solo to pianist David Kikoski, himself one of the album’s highlights, and then Henderson allows tenor saxophonist Bob Berg to step forward. Around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, the bandleader finally introduces himself with a few mumblings and a staccato burst, later followed by a few awkward single notes. It’s the sound of a man who has figured out exactly what he wants from his instrument — and not a moment too soon, one might add. He repeats this declaration toward the end of the disc on “All Blues.”
Kikoski begins the slow, wistful Bill Evans-like transition into “On Green Dolphin Street,” soon joined by drummer Victor Lewis, who tries several excellent variations on the theme of bap-a-ding, bap-a-ding. Henderson is probably at his best here, wailing, grumbling and stuttering with the help of the mute. He breaks out the flugelhorn for “Footprints,” another Shorter tune — worth a mention for its intelligent arrangement and fine performances, not unlike “Old Folks” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Henderson and the band even do very well with Thelonius Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” which has long become either a) a musical rite of passage or b) merely a way of declaring, “This is a jazz album” for all musicians of the genre, young or old, established or up-and-coming. To eke something fresh out of it is a feat in itself.
I still have a few qualms. Henderson sprints through Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t,” losing the feeling that the song is a loping dialogue of shrugs and taunts. This rendition instead borders on the twee. Yet the rest of the band keeps time with him (it would have been disastrous if they had let him skip along at this pace without keeping even; merely following would not have done), and Kikoski makes some unexpected strides on his solo that save the tune. This makes it worth lingering over, even if Henderson seems to want to put it behind him. It’s also worth lingering over, if only to prolong coming to the love-it-or-hate-it cover of the title track that follows. Yes, I said “cover,” because this is not the arrangement Miles Davis’s mellow classic has been asking for. Henderson & co. have just given this one the methamphetamine treatment, too, as if it were merely an attempt by the bandleader to distance himself from debts and past mistakes, namely the rote memorizations of Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain solos that did little to raise his standing in Davis’ own eyes.
Roy Haynes, who would be Davis’s coeval were the latter still with us, is a different sort of bandleader altogether. A six-decade veteran of the jazz scene with a résumé the size of Kansas trailing behind him, he made his musical and stylistic declarations long ago, though he continues to be inventive and forward-looking. Love Letters has already had critics wetting their pants over its all-star personnel: Joshua Redman on tenor sax, John Scofield on guitar, Christian McBride on bass and even pianist David Kikoski (recognize the name?), who has worked with one Eddie Henderson; but a roll call isn’t a review, and even the jazz celebrities can have bad recording sessions and stale performances.
Fortunately, each one of these eyebrow-raising names was in top form for the recording of Love Letters. It is, quite simply, a superb album — far from cutting edge, but rather chock full of dizzying performances in the bop vein. What some might call quintessential jazz, in other words.
To glean some idea of the energy, talent and vibrancy of this cross-generation outfit, I’ll pick a track at random. The Johnny Mercer composition “My Shining Hour,” for example. Redman eases into it, rocking back and forth in time to McBride’s bowed lullaby. Then the whole thing springs off into a light swing, pausing for McBride to finger his way through every conceivable note at lightning speed, next gliding into a silky sax and piano dialogue. Haynes holds it all together with a cymbal ride and some understated snaps on the snare. The song spends the better part of a minute building to a raucous, ecstatic crescendo before ending.
The bandleader whittles his group down to a trio — sans piano: just drums, bass and guitar — for “Afro Blue” and “Love Letters,” and the result is sensual, controlled, intimate. He gives a deferential nod toward Horace Silver with “Qué Pasa,” although the tune takes on new life under Haynes’ guidance. The album closes with the four-minute-plus Haynes solo “Shades of Senegal 2,” and here he demonstrates just where he differs from that other legendary surviving drummer, Max Roach.
Love Letters is toe-tapping, breathtaking, flawlessly executed stuff. So What is perhaps less impressive, but still solidly done. The characteristic that they both share, apart from a skilled pianist and shoddy cover art, is that they are both on the relatively new Eighty Eight’s label, which has gone from strength to strength over the past year or so. It signifies a jazz revival in a way that even a revitalized, enthusiastic Verve or Blue Note could not. All we can hope is that it continues.