From left. Murray Wall, string bass; Steve Little, drums; Greg Ruggiero, guitar. Photograph by Gabriele Donati.
Maybe you wouldn’t connect those mostly-somber faces with a new CD of gorgeous music, but trust me. Perhaps this will help:
The roots of this delightful effusion of thoughtful, swinging adult music go back a few years. When I heard IT’S ABOUT TIME (Fresh Sounds / Swing Alley) for the first time, recently, I wrote this to Greg (who has a substantial sense of humor) as the possible opening lines of my planned blogpost: I’ve never met them, but I am seriously grateful to Camille and Lenny Ruggiero. For one thing, they are the parents of the wonderful guitarist Greg Ruggiero, so you may draw your own inferences. But there’s another reason: Greg says that “for the past twenty years they have asked me to record a Standards album.”
That CD is here, and it’s called IT’S ABOUT TIME, and it’s a honey.
I checked with Greg to be sure his parents wouldn’t mind seeing that in print and he wrote back, The CD release party is October 1st at Mezzrow. The folks are coming, maybe you can meet them then!
The Mezzrow schedule (they’re on West Tenth Street in New York City) has tickets for sale here for the two October 1 shows; I know this because I bought some.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, or of ourselves here. As a title, IT’S ABOUT TIME might refer to Greg’s parents’ two-decade long wait, but the title speaks to something fundamental about this CD, and about the music that Greg, Murray, and Steve make as a trio and on their own. “Time,” to them, is more than what someone’s Apple watch might say: it is their visceral connection with rhythm, with the deep heartbeat that we feel from the Earth and also from the Basie rhythm section. Fluid but unerring; sinuous but reliably trustworthy. They live to swing, and we can rely on how well they do it, and how well it makes us feel. Greg, Murray, and Steve are also reassuring in their love of melodies, and of melodic inprovisations. This isn’t — to go back some decades — “Easy Listening,” but it certainly is easy to listen to.
The repertoire is classic; the approach melodic and emergized. GONE WITH THE WIND is light and quick, a zephyr rather than a lament. APRIL IN PARIS doesn’t lean on the Basie version, but is a series of sweet chimes: I never got the sense of “Oh, this is APRIL IN PARIS again, for the zillionth time.” Sincerity rules, without drama. Steve starts off I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS with a small explosion, heralding a romp rather than a nap, and the trades between him and the other two members later in the performance have the snap of Jo Jones. Greg’s POLKA DOTS AND MOONBEAMS is respectfully tender but it never bogs down under the weight of the hoped-for pug-nosed dream, and Murray’s solo seems so easy but is the work of a quiet master. WHERE OR WHEN asks the musical question lightly and politely, without undue seriousness but with playful trades with Steve. IF DREAMS COME TRUE is easy in its optimism, and it avoids the cliches attached to this venerable swing tune.
It’s lovely to have a CD (or a gig) include a blues — some musicians shy away from them for reasons not clear to me — and this one has a strolling THINGS AIN’T WHAT THEY USED TO BE, fun in itself but also a nod to the most famous association on Steve’s vita, his time with Ellington. (Yes, he taught Bert and Ernie how to swing, but that’s another matter.) Gershwin’s LIZA, which is often played at a burning tempo, is a saunter here; DON’T BLAME ME is more cheerful than usual — perhaps this trio hasn’t been blamed for anything wicked recently? I’d believe that — and the disc closes with a just-right TANGERINE. Juicy, fruitful.
Greg’s playing is a delight, mixing single-string explorations with chordal accents for variety. He doesn’t overpower the listener with Olympian slaloms on the fretboard, but plays the song as if he were speaking affectionately to us. Murray Wall is one of the great warm exponents of logical improvisation, and Steve Little’s brushwork is a swing school in itself. (You won’t miss a piano.) The result is kind to the ears, with breathing room and ease — at times I thought these tracks a series of witty dances (there is plenty of good humor in this trio, although no joke-quotes). Delightful dance music even for people like me, who spend more time in a chair than they should. In the best way, this is an old-fashioned session, with musicians who know that there is life in the Great American Songbook, and that it is spacious enough to allow them to express their personalities. But there’s a refreshing homage to the melodies, first and last, that’s often not the case with jazz recordings.
You can hear substantial excerpts from the CD here, and download the music as well. You can purchase the CD here, and visit Greg’s website and Facebook page as well, all of which should provide entertainment and edification for these shortened days and longer nights.
Of course, the best thing for people in the tri-state area to do would be to show up at a Greg Ruggiero gig, such as the CD release one at Mezzrow, and buy discs there. But I don’t want to tell you what to do . . . or do I?
May your happiness increase!