John McNeil/Bill McHenry

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Sunnyside SSC 1268

With ensembles of different sizes regularly paying tribute to modern Jazz giants such as Miles Davis, Stan Getz and Charles Mingus, why not a Russ Freeman revival band? Well, that’s what trumpeter John McNeil and tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry do in part on this inspiring CD.

Pianist Freeman (1926-2002) – not to be confused with the contemporary Fusion guitarist of the same name – was a West Coast Jazz mainstay who gigged regularly with then likes of trumpeter Chet Baker and drummer Shelly Manne, and had such a gift for melody that his career after the Cool Jazz boom turned to film scoring. McNeil, who has shown affinity for this style in the past – celebrating the sound of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s 1950s quartet with 2006’s East Coast Cool – teams up with much younger mainstreamers McHenry, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Jochen Rueckert to resurrect a trio of Freeman compositions. Additionally, this live New York club date finds the quartet also working out on three standards and more classic compositions by Miles Davis, Thad Jones and Wilbur Harden – trumpeters as well known in the 1950s on the East Coast as Freeman was in the West.

Simultaneously swinging and subtle, the Freeman lines – “Batter Up”, “Maid In Mexico” and “Bea’s Flat” – move along in happy jolts, with the horns often riffing in double-counterpoint behind a low-key bass solo or drum break. Most strategies involved double tonguing from the saxophonist and sharper slurs from the trumpeter. Featuring a staccato dual horn intro that soon gives way to lyrical grace notes from McHenry and moderato slurps from McNeil, the third is the most memorable of the Freeman pieces. Finally a series of controlled triplets from each man are put into good use as they trade fours with the drummer.

Correspondingly vital is “Maid in Mexico”, a bebop rumba that gives Rueckert room to spatter and bounce a Latin rhythm, while mellow saxophone tones and popping vibrations from McNeil’s horn advance the theme. Before concluding with chalumeau runs, McHenry employs split tones and extended tonguing without upsetting the mood. At the same time, horn riffs behind the drummer’s pops and bounces reference contemporary pop-mambo tunes of the Eisenhower Era.

These aren’t the only quotes and semi-quotes exposed on the date either. On Harden’s “Wells Fargo” – initially recorded by the composer with John Coltrane – McNeil’s half-valve and hand-muted variations are studded with split-second allusions to other songs. With the polyphonic rendition including an interlude of tongue fluttering, note-shaking and overblowing from McHenry, this near-blues is reconstituted. Taken at a steady pace throughout, there’s room for showy arpeggios from Martin before the head is recapped.

Skirting recreation for revivalism, McNeil and McHenry have produced a CD that courses along in a reserved fashion exposing sonic gems without shouting arranging smarts from the bandstand. Top-drawer Jazz and improvised music can easily include admirable rethinks of classic material as this disc demonstrates. Since different McNeil aggregations have shown an aptitude for rethought revival projects like this, there’s plenty more neglected 1950s material from Jazz composers available. Trumpeter Shorty Rogers and saxophonist Gigi Gyrce, to take two examples of many, penned enough originals to easily benefit from similar tone investigations like this one.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Moonlight in Vermont 2. Batter Up 3. Aren’t You Glad You’re You 4. Maid In Mexico 5. Bea’s Flat 6. Three and One 7. Carioca 8. Wells Fargo 9. No Blues (Pfrancing)

Personnel: John McNeil (trumpet); Bill McHenry (tenor saxophone); Joe Martin (bass) and Jochen Rueckert (drums)