Israeli-born pianist Ehud Asherie‘s latest Posi-Tone release (his fourth) is a collection of standards arranged for piano and tenor saxophone, the latter instrument played by Harry Allen, who previously worked with Asherie on 2010’s Modern Life, a quartet album that also featured bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Chuck Riggs. That disc was recorded in June of 2009, and ended with a duo rendition of Billy Strayhorn‘s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing”; this disc, possibly inspired by that performance, was recorded in October 2009.
Upper West Side (buy it from Amazon) is an extremely conservative, genteel album; it would sound perfect playing in the background of a Whit Stillman movie. Asherie’s piano playing is very much in a stride style, reminiscent of Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith and other figures of similar vintage. Allen’s saxophone sound meshes perfectly with this old-style approach, flowing thick and romantic like Ben Webster, Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins. Everything is very well played, and the album glides smoothly from one appealing, familiar standard to the next—”It Had to Be You,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” “Our Love is Here to Stay”…it’s dinner music, basically. Which is fine. Every jazz album doesn’t have to be a tiny revolution. But from a player as young as Asherie (he was born in 1979), this insistence on wearing his grandfather’s clothes, so to speak, is a little disconcerting. It starts to make you wonder if he listens to any new music, or if he has any interest in jazz of the post-swing era. Perhaps he should record something a little more out next time, if only to avoid being pigeonholed as “that old-timey guy.”
Here’s a video of Asherie and Allen performing “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” at Smalls in 2008:
Also in 2009, on April 24 to be precise, saxophonist Doug Webb went into Entourage Studios in North Hollywood, California with bassist Stanley Clarke (yes, that one) and drummer Gerry Gibbs. Three different pianists—Joe Bagg, Mahesh Balasooriya and Larry Goldings—stopped by for a few hours each. The trio and its guest pianists recorded nearly 40 songs that day, many of them standards but others written by Webb or Clarke. Eight were released on 2009’s Midnight, eight more on 2010’s Renovations, and six more (one of them the 22-minute “Patagonia Suite”) on Swing Shift, the fiercest and most free of the series to date. (Buy it from Amazon.)
Webb may not be particularly famous, but his saxophone sound is one of the most widely heard on Earth: you see, he’s the “voice” of Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons. All those little solos in the opening credits? Webb. (I’ve thought for years that someone should string all of those together into one long piece—call it the “Lisa Simpson Concerto for Saxophone” or something similar. Now that I know who played them all, the idea seems even more appealing.) The first two volumes in this apparently ongoing series were much more romantic and relaxed than this one; they featured renditions of dusty relics like “Fly Me to the Moon,” “You Go to My Head,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Satin Doll,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and the like, all swinging with great power and grace but little fervor. Indeed, at their mellowest moments, these albums would fit comfortably alongside the work of Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. But Swing Shift is a very different animal. It’s got the shortest track of the trilogy, “Rizone,” a 2:40 sax-and-drums workout somewhere between John Coltrane‘s “Countdown” from Giant Steps and Charles Gayle‘s Touchin’ On Trane, but it’s also got the longest by far, the aforementioned “Patagonia Suite,” on which Webb starts out playing soprano, but after giving Clarke and Gibbs a moment or two to express themselves, the latter man heading into almost William Parker-ish string-yanking territory, returns on tenor with some fierce, even discordant blowing that would make even David S. Ware lift his head and take notice. This is no mere post-bop collection of standards; Swing Shift proves that Webb and his bandmates can speak any dialect of the family of languages known collectively as jazz, and do so with fluency and undiminished expressive power. Highly recommended to those who want to witness real adventure, paired with undeniable swing.