You have to like a CD whose cover puts the players — at their ease — in a Rousseau painting.
But the charms of this disc go deeper than the cover, because the music is stylish and lovely. The CD appeals in so many ways.
For one, it is Mainstream jazz of a kind not always encountered in recordings and performances. Although the four players are often spotted at “traditional” “jazz” events — whatever the words in quotation marks mean these days — this is a session that celebrates the music, affectionate, melodic, with rhythmic lilt. No tricks, no gimmicks, just feeling and mastery.
For another, the cost-conscious almost-purchaser can know that (s)he is getting good value. Although this is billed as a FOUR, it is one of those magician’s tricks — a quartet that seems infinitely expandable.
Consider: two men, two women; two singers, four instrumentalists, string bass, piano, trumpet, clarinet, C- melody sax, tenor sax (with friends stopping by to offer the appropriate percussion). I grew weary just typing (or is it “keyboarding”?) all of that.
And the four players / singers are marvelously first-rate jazz stars who know how to blend, to be supportive, to create delicious ensemble traceries. Dan Levinson plays all those reeds; Bria Skonberg the trumpet; Gordon Webster, the piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass — and Bria and Nicki sing, together and singly.
I couldn’t fit that foursome in my car, but their expansive music fills the room very sweetly. And that music! I call it “Mainstream,” thanks to Stanley Dance, and although I distrust all of those boxes and labels — the critical blurt we call DixietradNewOrleansbigbandbeboprevivalisthardbopswingretrofreenewthing — “Mainstream” still has a good deal of validity. You’ll know it when you hear it, and only obsessive classifiers will say, “Is this hot jazz or cool?” “Is that modern or traditional?” “Is that a terrifying be-bop phrase I just heard?”
What is immediately audible on this disc is a deep love of melodic improvisation over swinging rhythms, with lyricism allied to an unhackneyed harmonic awareness. To put it another way, although there are Twenties tunes here — THE ONE I LOVE and I WISH I COULD SHIMMY LIKE MY SISTER KATE — the approach is free and friendly, detached from the shackles of convention and cliche, but not attempting to “freshen up the old stuff.” No striped vests but nothing self-consciously esoteric, either.
The spirit I imagined most frequently as the spiritual overseer of this music was Ruby Braff: lyrical, surprising, imaginative, someone who made great creative use of “unorthodox” combinations. (No drums, no trombone — just four pals floating along happily down the Main Stream of jazz.) And there’s a certain witty lightness animating everything but we are always in touch with the deep feeling beneath the notes.
The CD has all the right elements: a variety of songs and approaches (essential to make it into a concert rather than a test of stoic endurance); lovely recorded sound, thanks to Peter Karl; nifty liner notes from Will Friedwald and Jon Hill. The latter fellow deserves truckloads of credit: the M4 played at a private party of his in 2011, and he thought, “Wow, let’s make a record!” And he did. (You can find Jon to congratulate and thank him at Jazz_Rules@yahoo.com.)
I’d buy / play this CD for someone worried about THE DEATH OF JAZZ or THE VANISHING AUDIENCE. I’d also be delighted to play it for someone who looks at me quizzically when I suggest that “my” music is not rooted in KIND OF BLUE.
You can check out the CD in all the usual places. Hear samples here.
May your happiness increase.