By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Red Sparkle
Unless you’re way out of touch, you know that the Jeff Hamilton Trio is the best small-jazz unit in today’s music world.
Not long ago, that accolade applied to groups headed by Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Gene Harris ... but since their passing, Hamilton’s trio stands alone.
Hamilton is the elder statesman, approaching 60. It’s almost impossible to find a jazz artist or group with whom he hasn’t played and recorded. He’s the “Hamilton” who co-leads the Clayton/Hamilton Big Band, which has existed for many years (and remains one of the best jazz orchestras playing today). Earlier in his career, Hamilton worked with all three of the top trios mentioned above, along with Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbara Streisand, Mel Torme, Diana Krall and oh so many others. Note, in particular, the top vocalists mentioned; they’re a key indicator of his “tastefulness.” (Singers want to be supported, not overwhelmed.)
Bassist Christoph Luty came to Los Angeles from Salt Lake City in 1990, so he could “play with the greats. He and Hamilton have worked with many of the same individuals and groups: a clear explanation for their close alliance.
Tamir Hendleman, a prodigious, Israeli-born pianist, is the relative youngster in the trio; he joined in 2000. Once again, an examination of his career experience reveals a path closely allied with his trio colleagues; all three are members of the Clayton/Hamilton band, and have been members of various groups that have supported icon vocalists.
What else do they have in common? They swing like crazy, yet it’s “different” in a wonderful way. Their absolute control of their instruments produces a preciseness that is beyond the sound and “feel” possessed by other groups. That, in turn, grants their performance a relative “softness.”
The 10 tracks here cover the jazz waterfront. Four are group originals: Hamilton contributed “Ain’t That a Peach” (a tribute to Snooky Young, who was part of the Clayton/Hamilton band for years) and “Red Sparkle” (the color of Jeff’s first drum set). Luty composed “In an Ellingtone,” and Hendleman and Hamilton produced “Hat’s Dance.” The rest of the menu consists of standards by Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Ray Brown and others. As arranged and delivered here, they’re all winners.
This isn’t the first album by this trio, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. And, like all the others, it’s a great keeper.