Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ben Powell: New Street
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: New Street

This self-produced album comes from an artist who is a master of an instrument seldom used in jazz: the violin. Only a handful of jazz artists have made a name on that instrument, with Stéphane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith and Regina Carter among the most famous. Interestingly, the first three were born in the early 1900s, and were a part of the swing era from the 1930s to the ’40s. Carter, born in 1966, is the only one who has performed with modern jazz artists such as Ray Brown.

Powell was born in England, where he received his early musical training in the classics. After his senior year of high school, he moved to the States to take advantage of a scholarship at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. His major jazz influence was Grappelli, originator of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, a group that initially was quite the rage in Paris and, later, in the States. 

Powell is only 25, so his exposure to jazz has included all the modern genres. His style incorporates both Grappelli's swing/gypsy jazz “feel” and that of some modern artists. This album features two of Powell’s groups: the Stéphane Grappelli Tribute Trio and a quartet. The trio features icons Gary Burton (vibraphone) and Julian Lage (guitar); the quartet includes Tadataka Unno (piano), Aaron Darrell (bass) and Devin Drobka (drums). Interestingly, Burton performed with Grappelli decades ago, and the famed violinist composed the song “Gary” for him; it’s included in this release.

The playlist features tunes that Grappelli wrote or made famous (“Gary,” “Piccadilly Stomp,” “La Chanson des Rues” and, of course, “La Vie en Rose”); tributes to Grappelli (“Swinging for Stéphane”); compositions by Powell (“Judith,” “New Street,” “Monk 4 Strings”); and a couple of standards (“Sea Shell” and “What Is this Thing Called Love?”).

But is this jazz? 

I’ll give a qualified yes. It’s nice stuff that swings lightly, performed by some outstanding artists. About half of the tracks are done at balladic tempos; the rest are up-tempo. Perhaps the most cogent question concerns whether the music is enjoyable. 

My experience indicates that the average jazz fan either likes or hates the violin, with no middle ground. In all fairness, it’s a difficult instrument to use for jazz, even in the hands of a master; the tonal quality borders on shrill, particularly in the upper registers. (A cello, for example, produces a more mellow sound.) 

With respect to this release, I’m willing to admit that one can get jazz out of the instrument, but it’s a stretch; as an old saying goes, you can make love standing up in a canoe, but why would you want to?                    

This one depends on personal taste.

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