DOM MINASI

Quick Response
CDM Records CDM 1005

AL ASHLEY
These Are Them
Jazzand 1001

Blues and funk don’t have to be the only music played by an organ combo as these sessions led by veteran jazzers demonstrate. If anything, both are reminiscent of the pre-Jimmy Smith sax-guitar-organ dates that were more concerned with swinging than sounding churchy. Certainly both dual keyboard men — Kyle Koehler on QUICK and Oliver Von Esson on THESE — seem to relate more to Swing era organists like Wild Bill Davis or post-boppers like Larry Young than the funk crowd.

Another link between the two CDs is that while another instrumentalist is the leader, much of the attention relates to the sax chair. QUICK is another session by guitarist Dom Minasi, whose spectacular comeback in the late 1990s sometimes obscures the fact that his fine mainstream picking is a logical extension into freebop of the subtle experimentation Jim Hall and Tal Farlow were fiddling with in the 1950s and 1960s. His reed partner here is Mark Whitecage, a seasoned outcat more often found in the company of German vibist Gunter Hampel or in so-called downtown groups with the likes of trombonist Steve Swell.

A journeyman, who backed a clutch of Swing and Bop greats from pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Louie Bellson to vibist Milt Jackson and saxophonist Al Cohn, THESE is drummer Al Ashley’s long overdue debut CD that features heavyweight help from first-class reedist Dave Liebman. The soprano and tenor saxophonist is now known as much for his incisive teaching skills as his earlier stints with the bands of Elvin Jones and Miles Davis among others. Young guitarist Rick Stone fills out the Ashley aggregation and young drummer John Bollinger is the fourth member of the Minasi mob.

Both discs are pretty good, but neither rises to top rank. QUICK is hampered by the inclusion of too many standards and Minasi’s inexplicable decision to follow jam session convention and give every player a solo on every track. Made up of all original material, THESE could easily have been recorded by jazz/studio pros in the 1960s. This isn’t a knock, for playing as if smooth jazz and fusion never existed is a good thing. What isn’t a good thing is on many tracks Stone’s guitar is under-recorded, nearly vanishing beneath organ chords. This is doubly puzzling since Stone also engineered, mixed and mastered the session — you figure he would have punched up his sound in the mix.

Unlike Minasi’s earlier discs no one track on this CD really stands out. If you want to hear his deliberate debt to Wes Montgomery, there’s “I Who Have Nothing”, where he knowingly replicates a version of Montgomery’s signature octave work on the old Ben E. King R&B classic, while Koehler produces double-times high frequency accompaniment.

“When Your Dreams Come True”, written by the guitarist, is a mellow ballad which sounds as if it could have been recorded by Johnny Smith 50 years ago. Studio musician Smith, who more-or-less retired in the early 1960s, was known for smooth recasting of jazz and pop standards. His best-known playing partner was Stan Getz, and in a move that might shock the altoist’s avant-garde followers, here Whitecage roll out a vocalized melody line sounding for all the world like Getz or Paul Desmond.

The organist backs both soloists with billowing absorbent chords, turning to throbbing cadences on the title tune to match Minasi’s speedy chromatic runs and slurred strumming. Altoist Lou Donaldson — in his bop days — appears to be the model for Whitecage here. Meanwhile Bollinger’s breaks are made up of restrained flams and bounces.

Then there’s “Dizzy Lizzie”, a contrafact of “Take the A Train”, which follows a pleasant unison head from the guitarist and saxist with shifting single note reverberation from Minasi that lets notes quake and echo. Koehler’s double-timing licks on two keyboards move this old-fashioned, but exciting swinger along. There are more outside touches in other places, including Morse code-like comping fromthe organist, irregularly vibrated trills from the reedist and chromatic picking from the guitarist.

Ashley, who has waited all his life to make his record debut, doesn’t overpower the others with percussion work. As a matter of fact some of the most impressive soloing comes from Von Esson whose unforced touch suggests pianistic roots.

This is most apparent on “Fats Write” and “Blue Note”, both Ashley originals. Named for a friend and mentor of the drummer, keyboardist Fats Wright, the first tune rides on Von Esson’s flowing, high frequency touch and sense of circumscribed dynamics. While he can play double counterpoint from the two keyboards, the organist never resorts to full-bore climatic excesses. Liebman’s lighter-than-air approach helps make the tune a bit more than a mid-tempo bop line as do the drummer’s rebounds and drags.

“Blue Note”, named for that record label’s 1960s heyday, actually sounds both more modern and more antique than the music being recorded at that time. Von Esson’s straightahead bobbing glissandi resembles what Wild Bill Davis would have produced on a pipe organ on a Swing Era session, while the saxman’s light tenor tone recalls Charles Lloyd mixed with Lester Young. Again the composer confines himself to cymbal snaps and press rolls. Other pieces range from a waltz to a samba to a couple that boarder on funk. Meanwhile, except for extended obbligatos at points, Liebman perfectly integrates himself into the quartet.

More extensive reed showcases appear on Stone’s “Relative Minority” and the reedist’s own “Look At What We Do To Ourselves”. Few audible pauses for breath are noticeable in Liebman’s flowing run through of the former on tenor. Relying on reed biting and emphasized tones he crams many more notes than seem possible into every bar. Finale is a series of breaks, linking Ashley with, in sequence, the saxist, the composer — who can’t be heard very loudly — and finally the organist before the head is reprised.

““Look At What…” the CD’s final and longest piece at almost nine minutes, finds Von Esson contributing cascading arpeggios to match the low-key theme mostly expressed in unflamboyant sluices by its composer. Tempo picks up when Liebman introduces some multiphonic squeals in its final couple of minutes, but the track fades out before a true resolution.

Listeners impressed by unconventional organ combos would be wise to seek out these discs. Just realize that the quartets haven’t yet realized their full potential. Happily, it seems that might happen next time out.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Quick: 1. What Is Thing Called Love 2. Feels Like Rain In China 3. For My Father 4. Quick Response 5. I Who Have Nothing 6. Into The Night 7. Dizzy Lizzie 8. When Your Dreams Come True 9. Softly As In A Morning Sunrise

Personnel: Quick: Mark Whitecage (alto saxophone); Dom Minasi (guitar); Kyle Koehler (organ); John Bollinger (drums)

Track Listing: These: 1. Blue Note 2. These Are Them 3. Perfect Day 4. The Other Time 5. Relative Minority 6. Fats Write 7. Look At What We Do To Ourselves

Personnel: These: Dave Liebman (soprano and tenor saxophones); Rick Stone (guitar); Oliver Von Esson (organ); Al Ashley (drums)