Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Aaron Diehl: The Bespoke Man's Narrative

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Bespoke Man's Narrative

During the period from the early 1950s to the early ‘90s, the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) was one of the most famous and influential jazz groups. Their elegant musical style — which combined blues, bop, cool and third-stream genres with the classics — was unlike any other unit in the music world. The MJQ’s discography was huge — almost four dozen albums during this period — and that long career was an indication of excellence. Fans wept when they left the scene.

Well, cheer up! The quartet featured on this album won’t merely take you back to the joys of the MJQ; this new group goes beyond them. This band’s instrumentation is identical: piano (Aaron Diehl), vibes (Warren Wolf), bass (David Wong) and drums (Rodney Green).   

Their styles aren’t identical, but the results are marvelous. Diehl plays piano more softly and eloquently than John Lewis’ funky melodic line; Wolf’s vibes are right on the beat, where Milt Jackson was looser and a little “behind” the beat. Wong and Percy Heath are two of a kind, stylistically, as are Green and Connie Kay. 

Most important: Both groups create beautiful music. 

Back in the days of the big bands, many groups would open their shows with a theme: Then the curtain would roll open, and they’d swing into an up-tempo tune. The show would conclude with a repeat of the theme, or the band might go out with one of its famous hits. Diehl uses that technique here; he opens with a short “Prologue,” grooves into a program of eight featured tunes, then closes with a short “Epilogue.” The technique remains just as effective today.

I thoroughly enjoyed the inclusion of several jazz standards that are seldom recorded by other artists: Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose,” Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is My Woman” and Blackburn & Suessdorf’s “Moonlight in Vermont.” They’re all done beautifully. The rest of the menu features originals from the group, along with Milt Jackson’s “The Cylinder.” The latter chart and “Generation X” produce a sound that perfectly clones the MJQ.

One disappointment: Wolf isn’t utilized on about half of these tunes, which turns the group into a trio. That’s a shame, because he’s a key figure in the group’s sound.

That said, these guys are a splendid addition to the jazz world. I hope we hear a lot more from them.

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