Here’s a new, quite extraordinary compact disc:
ENGELBERT WROBEL’S SWING SOCIETY featuring Dan Barrett: 20 Years
Click Records (Recorded 11.08.09 – 12.08.09 in Bonn, Germany)
Engelbert Wrobel – Clarinet, Soprano, and Tenor / Chris Hopkins – Piano / Rolf Marx – Guitar / Ingmar Heller – Bass /
Oliver Mewes – Drums. Special Guest: Dan Barrett: Trombone, Cornet (Titles 1, 2, 5, 8, 10, 13)
Titles 4, 10 & 14 plus String Quartet (arranged by Dan Barrett): Nathalie Streichardt (violin), Maria Suwelack (violin), Martina Horesji (viola), Ulrike Zavelberg (cello)
Wang Wang Blues / Blues For Ben / Pick Yourself Up / Estrellita / Long Live The King / Opus 3 /4 / Cachita / Medley: Take Me In Your Arms – And The Angels Swing / After You’ve Gone / Serenade in Blue / Tricotism / It Might As Well Be Spring / Way Down Yonder In New Orleans / Danny Boy 61:01.
Those are the facts. What distinguishes this disc from twenty others by living jazz musicians considering many aspects of an older style?
Expertise, originality, passion, and precision for starters.
I don’t ordinarily comment on the cover pictures of compact discs, but this one is a good guide to what’s inside. My discerning readers will notice that it places he band, smartly dressed, with their instruments, in an older color picture. And the blending is seamless, which isn’t a tribute to someone’s mastery of Photoshop, but an indication of how beautifully this small group melds the eternal Present and the hallowed Past. That Past, in jazz terms, is the Benny Goodman small groups, the Keynote Records sessions created by Harry Lim, the Kansas City Six [Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones], the Lucky Thompson – Oscar Pettiford – Skeeter Best trio, and more.
But this CD isn’t a repertory exercise: the Swing Society would think it an impiety to copy recorded solos off the records. And although the musicians in this band admire and revere Benny Goodman, Dave Tough, Sidney Catlett, Charlie Christian, Johnny Guarneri, Teddy Wilson, Vic Dickenson, Shorty Baker . . . and on. But they don’t imitate. The closest they come is an occasional note or gesture, beautifully executed, in a solo of their own. So, listening to the swinging drummer Oliver Mewes, I would say, “Damn, that Chinese cymbal of his sure sounds as if he admires Dave Tough,” but you know it’s Mewes making his own delighted way upstream.
In fact, the whole rhythm section works together in a way that would surely guarantee them a long run on Fifty-Second Street if Swing Street were still musically thriving. Listen to their seductively nudging playing behind Barrett on TAKE ME IN YOUR ARMS — at the kind of medium-tempo most bands find it hard to sustain for long. In fact, it would be both instructive and uplifting to listen to this whole CD just for the rhythm section — their groove, their sonorities. The padding momentum of Mewes’ brushes; the togetherness of Marx and Heller, their ringing solo lines; the just-right accompaniment and romping solos of Hopkins.
But to listen only to the rhythm section would be to ignore Barrett and Wrobel. For me, Barrett’s name on a disc is a guarantee of swing, wit, and taste. His trombone sound — so creatively varied — is beautifully captured here, and his trumpet playing (one of the wonders of the age, I think) is as well — although only on WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS. When will someone get Dan into a studio with just his cornet or trumpet and a sympathetic pianist? I’m waiting. His string-quartet arrangements are a revelation: who knew? And there’s the famous Barrett sly wit, as in the interpolation of A BLUES SERENADE into SERENADE IN BLUE. Dan also contributes delightful arrangements and a tribute to Benny — LONG LIVE THE KING — that improvises on some of Mr. Goodman’s favorite chord changes.
That fanous name brings us to the brilliant intelligence of Engelbert Wrobel, who has absorbed the whole reed-playing jazz tradition, digested it, and made it his own. He is a marvelous player with more than enough technique, but he’s never swallowed up by his own abilities. Many clarinetists who revere BG spend their lives tossing off one calculated phrase after another, often at a high volume and with a shrill tone. Not Wrobel: his tone glistens, his fingers fly, but you immediately listen to the music he’s making, the beautiful phrase-shapes and how they add up to cohesive statements. And he’s a compelling yet understated soprano player (on CACHITA), too; turning to the tenor with great effect on TRICOTISM.
The sum of these parts is a band, mellow and rich — on a compact disc that glides from one rewarding performance to another, with a few surprises along the way. It’s a wonderful musical banquet.