I know Chris Tyle as a wonderful hot cornetist, a superb drummer, an affecting singer. What more would anyone want?
But Chris is a splendid clarinetist as well — and I’ve just been reminded of this by one of the most consistently stirring new CDs to burst out of its mailer. It won’t be out until mid-October (so says Amazon) but this will give you time to get excited, to anticipate, and (if you like) to pre-order. It’s a honey of a session!
Since the photograph is a bit small, I will offer subtitles: the band is CHRIS TYLE’S PACIFIC PLAYERS, and the disc is “TRIBUTE TO PEE WEE RUSSELL” (Jazzology JCD 378).
The Pacific Players are Chris, clarinet, vocals; Katie Cavera, solo guitar, bass, vocals; Ray Skjelbred, piano; June Smith, rhythm guitar; Hal Smith, drums.
Most CDs by one jazz group — even the ones I earnestly yearn for — begin to seem long. Maybe it’s my late-life-attention-deficit-disorder, but it’s more the unintentional lack of variety on those discs. Seventy-five minutes of the same thing can get monotonous.
Happily, I listened to this disc all the way through, delighting at the varied tempos and instrumental textures this little group accomplished with great style and knowledge.
Creating a tribute to someone whose sound and approach were so distinctive could pose its own problem for a musician less intuitive than Chris Tyle. Russell’s twists and turns, his mutters and wails have tempted less gifted clarinetists to attempt to “be” Pee Wee for a day. And since Russell’s vocabularly was always vividly aduible, from his talking-to-himself chalumeau musings to his out-and-out arching hollers, lesser musicians might simply offer almost-identical collections of gestures within familiar repertoire. The result, a shadow Pee Wee.
But Tyle, rather like the late Frank Chace, knows better. We have the original recordings, and someone attracted to a Russell tribute is likely to know them well, so imitation is suicide, to reiterate Emerson.
Tyle has some of Russell’s characteristic phrases under his fingers and in his emotional library, but he blends his own left-handed approach with the Master’s. If I heard this CD in a Blindfold Test (or a CADENCE “Flying Blind”) I would say, “That’s someone who loves Pee Wee but has his own musical identity.” Chris has an innate rhythmic energy (he is a hot player even when purling his way through a ballad) and his own sound, both within and enveloped by Russell’s.
And the CD — wisely — roams throughout Russell’s career and wide range of musical situations: there’s a WILD MAN BLUES that suggests the 1957 performance on television on THE SOUND OF JAZZ, a number of songs associated with Russell’s late quartet with Marshall Brown (MY MOTHER’S EYES and HOW ABOUT ME), some Condonia (MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND and SAVE YOUR SORROW) and homages to the Rhythmakers among others. This multi-faceted approach — without making the disc a chronological tour through Pee Wee’s recordings — adds a great deal to its charm and vitality. I heard the rhythm section taking on some of the characteristics of Russell’s later recordings with Nat Pierce, Jo Jones, and George Wettling, and they manage to make SHINE ON YOUR SHOES and HELLO, LOLA romp with one horn only.
Chris would have had a steeper uphill climb with a lesser rhythm section, to be sure. The first sound I heard on this disc was the joyous swish of Hal Smith’s hi-hat, and I will say only that his drumming through this session is supportive and exultant: he uses every part of his drum kit in the most swinging ways. Katie Cavera adds her girlish singing (very sweet indeed) to a few numbers, her solo guitar most effectively, and her solid bass work throughout — sounding much like Walter Page, no small compliment. June Smith is a wonderful guitarist with an authentic rhythm wave that can echo Freddie Green or Condon most delightfully. And Ray Skjelbred is just invaluable — his rocking accompaniment and brilliant solo playing do honor to Hines and Frank Melrose, to Stacy and Sullivan . . . boiling away through the ensembles.
I think this is a thrilling CD. Hail Chris Tyle and his mighty colleagues!