DOM MINASI

Goin’ Out Again
CDM 1002

PAOLO BIRRO
Live at Sienna Jazz
Splasc (H) CDH524.2

Now that so-called modern jazz has a history of more than half a century and the music has had to put up with the indignity of the neo-con revival movement for at least a decade, facing an all-standards program isn’t the most enviable of tasks.

While new versions of old favorites may provide a basis to compare younger player with established masters, hearing those tunes restated yet another time just goes one step further in codifying jazz as another snore-inducing so-called classical music where interpretation fidelity is more important than improvisation. However creating a new dish out of old chestnuts can still be palatable. And that’s why guitarist Dom Minasi’s CD is that much more memorable than the session by pianist Paolo Birro.

In a program of classic jazz standards, a couple of Great American Songbook ballads and one original, Italian pianist Birro has still produced a superior version of this type of neo-con recreation. Recorded at the Sienna Jazz Festival a couple of years ago, the pianist and his trio offer clean, clear renditions of the compositions in any easy-going swinging manner. Sounding like a slightly spunkier version of the Bill Evans trio, the band will probably appeal to piano fancier and those who prefer their music smooth, foot-tappable and understated. Trouble is, as engaging as the performance might be, it doesn’t sound if anyone is playing anything that wasn’t already in wide circulation circa 1964. Red Garland, André Previn, Oscar Peterson and Evans himself among very many others went over this territory many times.

Noventa Vicentina-born Birro, who is barely 40, may want to offer nothing more in a performance. Considering that some of his other projects have included an all-standards CD with a singer; a band performing Brazilian ballads; another called SING WITHOUT WORDS featuring American trumpeter Kyle Gregory; and the recent HIDDEN SONGS session where he and tenor saxophonist Emanuele Cisi masked standards within their own “originals”, perhaps this is all he aspires to.

“Alcool”, his sole original here, for instance, has little that distinguishes it from the other tunes, except maybe longer bass and drum solos. And while he appears to introduce some stride into Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad” and doubles up the rhythm on Miles Davis’ “Little Willie Leaps”, most of the time this set sounds like nothing more than yet another evening at a local jazz club. Pleasant and swinging this disc is. But as the words of another standard scan: “Is that all there is?”

Even though half the tracks on his disc are hoary standards along the lines of “Autumn Leaves” and “Well You Needn’t”, unlike Birro, New York guitarist Minasi sets out to subvert and reharmonize them.

Old enough (59) to have heard distinct “straight” versions of these tunes — the others are “All Blues” and “On Green Dolphin Street” plus four originals — the guitarist radically rethinks and reconstructs them from scratch once the initial head is sounded. He has excellent help as well. Drummer Jackson Krall is a member of pianist Cecil Taylor’s trio, while bassist Ken Filiano has worked with everyone from cornettist Bobby Bradford and multi-reed player Vinny Golia on one coast to drummer Lou Grassi and trombonist Steve Swell on the other.

Educator and author of three books on guitar technique, during his 44-year career, Minasi has worked nearly every gig there is in the jazz trenches, from playing casuals to writing music for off-Broadway shows. After a disastrous major label experience in the 1970s, he avoided the jazz business for years, only returning to active playing with experimenters like alto saxophonist Blaise Siwula and bassist Dominic Duval in the 1990s. Now he’s making up for lost time.

Unlike neo-cons who play tunes as conventionally as they can, or musos who think they impress the cognoscenti by burying allusions, substitutions and tricky chord changes in odd corners of a contemporary performance Minasi and his men have another strategy. They showcase their inventiveness on the originals and leave enough of the standards intact and the themes reprised, so that listeners can follow what they’re doing. With his emphasis on pointed, high-pitched note bending, Minasi recalls two other veteran guitarists who are experimenters in a mainstream setting: Chicago’s George Freeman and Montreal’s Sonny Greenwich.

Usually with the standards, the guitarist will toy with the familiar theme, playing around it and then finally exposing it in a blaze of finger picking. “On Green Dolphin Street,” for instance, the head is initially buried beneath busy, bluesy slide work. Clinks and clunks from the guitarist, matched by an ostinato bass line and tiny percussion asides show up before the theme makes it appearance.

Eerie electric guitar effects sliding back-and-forth over the fretboard characterize “All Blues”, which is taken at a quicker pace then the original. Besides the familiar bass intro, Filiano contributes multi-string arco considerations, while Krall’s alternates between what sounds like cymbal shimmers and hand drum accents. Crystal clear cymbal work and African style reverberations on what appears to be an attached set of tuned drums, characterize the percussionist on “Well You Needn’t”, which is also given an abstract hell-bent-for-leather treatment.

As for the originals, “Trane’s Lament” is all flamenco stylings and speedy runs, more like John Coltrane’s Spanish-themed tunes that his ballads. Too angular to be smooth or mainstream jazz, it still shouldn’t frighten those who fear terms like avant garde or experimental. Oddly enough Jimmy Garrison-like bowed work figures into Filiano’s solo on “The Day After Next”. That is, after the bassman has exhibited some soaring cello-like arco chording and Minasi has managed to produce something that sounds like dobro fingerpicking.

Midway between abstract experimentation and standards recreation, Minasi is using his plectrum like a shovel to carve out his own niche. This session should appeal to audiences who appreciate either of those genres.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. I’m Getting Sentimental Over You 2. Stablemates 3. Alcool 4. Lament 5. You Do Something To Me 6. I Got It Bad 7. Little Willie Leaps

Personnel: Live: Paolo Birro (piano); Aldo Zunino (bass); Alfred Kramer (drums)

Track Listing: Goin’: 1. Autumn Leaves.2. All Blues 3. Dumpie 4. As The Spirit Moves 5. On Green Dolphin Street 6. Trane’s Lament 7. The Day After Next 8. Well You Needn’t

Personnel: Goin’: Dom Minasi (guitar); Ken Filiano (bass); Jackson Krall (drums)