Continental Jazz Express
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Few and Far Between: Live at Tonic
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Realistic as well as descriptive, the titles of Bobby Few’s two new discs succinctly sum up his position in the jazz firmament.

Although the Cleveland, Ohio-born pianist initially made his name recording with childhood friend Albert Ayler as well as other less experimental types like saxophonists Booker Ervin and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, lack of work for progressive stylists convinced him to move to Paris in 1969. Since then, his visits stateside have been “few and far between”. Furthermore, his long-time association with the bands of fellow American expats, first in a co-op band with saxophonists Frank Wright and Noah Howard, then for more than a decade with soprano saxist Steve Lacy, meant that he has long known the ins-and-outs of express train traveling on the Continent.

The two CDs offer two complimentary views of the now 67-year-old keyboardist’s talents. CONTINENTAL JAZZ EXPRESS preserves his triumphant solo piano recital at New York’s Vision Festival in 2000, while the other disc was recorded eight days later on a club date, featuring the pianist and two Americans who have Continental experience as well: tenor saxophonist Avram Fefer and the late bassist Wilber Morris.

On the whole, the solo disc is a stronger statement, simply because the years have allowed Few to polish the parts of this — his major compositional statement — to a high sheen — on the CD. Throughout Few’s references seem to be both pre-modern and post-modern, with blues, gospel, Free Jazz and mainstream romanticism making their presence felt.

Reminiscent from the beginning of the relentless steam engine ostinato of performances like boogie-woogie specialist Meade Lux Lewis’ “Honky Tonk Train”, this tune soon picks up the syncopated beat of early gospel numbers like “This Train”. Not that rhythm is the only construct of the tune however. Train movement or not, when Few solos he sounds a bit like a less aggressive and more conventional Cecil Taylor, heavy on the right hand trills, or when his cascading waterfalls of notes tend to get out of hand, like an overly decorative Art Tatum. Perhaps because of his semi-mainstream background, and long European sojourn, Few seems most comfortable when he’s least avant —whatever that term means today. In fact, on “En Route”, he seems determined not too neglect any of the keys or pedals, as his output moves from Tatumesque decorations to romantic 19th century impressionism to harp-like glissandos and to embellishments that seem to be leaning into the pop instrumental territory of Roger Williams or Frank Mills.

Even in the last section, before formally reprises the main theme — it was referred to obliquely several times during the other sections — his random-note playing and seemingly “outside” efforts soon begin building towards a semi-classical, pedal-heavy sound. You can even hear a bit of Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” in there.

Overall the piece, despite what he may think, confirms his very Americanism. His “Beautiful Africa” section relates little to that continent’s sounds. It’s really nothing more than him vocalizing that phrase a few times. As well, unfortunately, his very brief (1:24 minutes) “China” skirts racism, with him emphasizing the sort of cliched repetitive notes in the treble clef that are supposed to sound “Chinese” to Occidental ears. In truth, the music is about as Oriental as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Hong Kong Blues”. Luckily his legitimate American roots sensibility soon saves him.

A fine achievement, you can also tell by its breakneck speed that the railway honored is no Amtrak or Via Rail special. It’s certainly a lot closer to a speedy TGV journey.

In a way, the other CD is partially a Greatest Hits collection. Not only does Few reprise “Continental Jazz Express” once more, but Morris contributes his “Chazz”, first recorded by the composer in 1988 with David Murray on tenor saxophone and Dave Burrell on piano, and Fefer weighs in with “Loss (for Flo)”, which he not recorded with his trio in 1999, but would record again in early 2001 in a quartet featuring Morris. The only composition not from a band member is Charles Mingus’ “Nostalgia In Times Square,” which ends up being the most problematic number anyhow.

Each of the originals is blusey and has a strong melodic component, so much so that each could seduce those mainstream fans that claim to abhor non-traditional jazz. “Chazz”, for instance has a lazy, loping theme that’s first stated and then embellished by Fever at a pitch that’s as often in mid-range Ben Webster-Sonny Rollins territory, as it is emphasizing multiphonics. During their turns in the spotlight both Few and Morris also emphasize the line’s bedrock bluesiness.

“Loss (for Flo)”, the longest piece at almost 20½ minute, is a modal number that, in truth, almost wears out its welcome at about seven minutes in as Fefer spins out seemingly endless variations of the main theme. Thankfully Morris interposes a new beat at about that time, giving the saxophonist some leeway to add some foghorn-style tones. With Few too holding to giusto tempo, only some spectacular note bending and bodywork from the bassist keeps things on proper rhythmic keel until the hornman takes the tune out.

Unison playing by Few and Fefer differentiate the pianist’s tune here from other versions. Again though, Few’s basic conservatism prevents the saxist’s experiments with glossolalia and overblowing to go too far. When the reedman begins to develop a slower counter melody with Trane-like honks and smears, the pianist’s basic blues and gospel orientation leads him back to theme restatement at the end.

That end should have come at lot sooner on the Mingus tune, which featured tenor man Booker Ervin and pianist Richard Wylands in its most famous version in 1959. Sounding more disorganized than Mingus — a man who knew a lot about bass and piano playing, and frightening tenor players — would have allowed, the piece is as about twice as long as it should be. Fefer’s double-tonguing and honking overtone, Morris’ bass-vocalizing and Few’s modest thematic embellishments could have made this a fine nine-minute version. Unfortunately all three musicians seem compelled to try out what they probably imagine are avant-garde experiments for almost another 10 minutes. Few exploring the insides of the piano is in variance with his circular, romantic playing elsewhere; as are Morris’ high-pitched screeches and Fefer’s sax neighing. Let’s just say that the three are lucky that the famously bellicose Mingus is no longer alive to see what they did with his composition.

A few fanatics — or followers of the players — may want to use the program function of their CD players to eliminate this miscue, for the rest of the disc offers up some pretty good music. But for the best example of the pianist’s art, the solo CD is preferable.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Continental: 1. Continental Jazz Express 2. Beautiful Africa 3. China 4. The Journey Continues 5. Like A Waterfall 6. En Route 7. Continental Jazz Express

Personnel: Continental: Bobby Few (piano)

Track Listing: Few: 1. Continental Jazz Express 2. Chazz 3. Loss (for Flo) 4. Nostalgia in Times Square

Personnel: Few: Avram Fefer (tenor saxophone); Bobby Few (piano); Wilber Morris (bass)