Listening to a new CD, my desires are simple. Swing, lovely sonorities, collective empathy, improvisation that sounds easy and natural but is really expert, good recorded sound, respect for melody, an avoidance of cliche, variety in repertoire, approach, tempos.
I’m really easy to please. It should sound like music. And STRAIGHT AHEAD, by the Don Stiernberg Quartet (the leader on mandolin, Andy Brown, guitar, Jim Cox, drums, Phil Gratteau, drums) gets all the checkmarks and more. I was in the middle of the second track when I started writing this post, which says something about the pleasure these four players create.
The only thing missing — a matter of economics, I am sure — are liner notes, so I hope that my words will fill the gap. The press-release cliche might be, “Four Chicagoland veterans of the swing scene get together for a session, hitting all the marks from Ray Noble to Jacob do Bandolin and late Django, with affectionate glances at the Great American Songbook.” I am satirizing the language of the emails that come to me introducing a variety of artists, but the substance is true.
Perhaps the place my press release would have as a headline would be NOT FAKE, NOT SHOWY. Not tremolo-laden Come Back To Sorrento, not burn-the-fretboard-look-how-fast-I-can-play, but music. I can’t overemphasize that: not overproduced product, but the real sound of people playing together with affection for the art, and affection for the listeners.
I also want to point to a freshness in the group’s melodic inventions. A dozen times through my first listening, I was dreading the expected quote or cliche — the Wedding March, LOVE IN BLOOM, I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT — and these blessed fellows had their own sweet ideas, instead. How very refreshing! And while I was admiring the ease and pace of Don’s inventive lead, I kept on getting distracted by Andy — rhythm and solo; Phil and Jim’s great pulse and subtle sonic variety . . . hear Jim’s arco on ANOUMAN — that’s the way it’s supposed to sound, and Phil’s varied brush sweeps are a delight.
All I can say is that when I finished my first playing, all I wanted to do was hear it again. And I’m now on my fourth go-round. It’s not “Easy Listening” (does anyone remember that record-store category, which, translated, meant Inoffensive Aural Pillow?) but it certainly is easy to listen to. And for me, there was no faux-astonishment: “Isn’t it wonderful he plays just fine jazz on a mandolin?” It all sounds good: Don and the instrument are one: the quartet is a soulful sweet entity.
You can hear more here — and you can purchase a download or a disc. The music is also available at Amazon and iTunes. However you find it, it’s really worth finding.
May your happiness increase!