Trombonist Jimmy Knepper was a jazz legend who performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Evans, Herbie Mann, the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra (he’s on Carla Bley‘s Escalator Over the Hill), the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and many others. Sadly, he’s probably best known for losing a tooth and his embouchure thanks to a punch in the mouth from Charles Mingus, with whom Knepper worked throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s (he can be heard on Tijuana Moods, The Clown, Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Dynasty, Blues & Roots and more). After the bassist’s death, he joined two other Mingus alumni, saxophonist George Adams and drummer Dannie Richmond, for two terrific early ’80s albums, Hand to Hand and Gentlemen’s Agreement. He recorded relatively few albums as a leader, but has nonetheless retained a strong fan base within the jazz community and among his fellow trombonists. One such player, Reggie Watkins, has recorded Avid Admirer, an album of Knepper’s compositions. (Get it from Amazon.)

The band is a strong one—it includes Matt Parker on tenor and soprano saxophones, Orrin Evans on piano on the first six tracks, Tuomo Uusitalo on piano on the remaining three, Steve Whipple on bass, and Reggie Quinerly on drums. All the pieces are by Knepper except the album-closing “Goodbye,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Watkins has a smooth and full-bodied trombone sound—he never honks or gets too much into that wah-wah “Charlie Brown” sound. Parker’s tenor solo on “Noche Triste” has a harsh bite reminiscent of Archie Shepp, but when he harmonizes with Watkins for the melody, their horns blend smoothly. Evans’ piano work has an almost Thelonious Monk-ish disruptiveness at times, though he never steps too far out of a supportive role. Similarly, Whipple and Quinerly are a solid rhythm team, driving the music forward and never dragging it off on weird tangents or subverting the leaders’ work.

Some of the compositions on Avid Admirer are reminiscent of Mingus at times, particularly the off-kilter ballad “Cunningbird,” but others are fairly straightforward hard-bop tunes. The title piece, for example, is an uptempo swinger; Watkins’ solo is energetic and good-humored, while Parker, who follows him, opts for a bluesy approach that almost recalls foot-stomping players like Red Prysock or Don Wilkerson. When Evans gets his turn in the spotlight, he maintains the hard-charging feel, pummeling the keys as Whipple and Quinerly gallop along behind. When the two horns close the piece out, they’re in raucous polyphonic form, almost talking past each other as they sprint toward the finish line.

This is jazz at its most mainstream and traditionalist—young(ish) players honoring their forefathers in a way that’s much more than just homework, and doesn’t demand an in-depth knowledge of the past on the listener’s part. You can come to Avid Admirer cold and still have a blast listening to the music, because the tunes are good and the performances are skillful and vibrant, filled with a contagious pleasure. If you want to hear the original tunes first, though, you can check out the Spotify playlist below.

—Phil Freeman

 

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