Down Home
Joey Baron

Befitting its title, Down Home is a surprisingly soulful set by four pros who live up to their promising intrigue as an all-star quartet. Arthur Blythe, Bill Frisell, Ron Carter and leader Baron combine forces and the result is not what you’d expect. Such a quartet may suggest a hip trip through the downtown avant-garde, with Carter, whose playing has tended more toward classical these days, something of an afterthought. But all four have exceptional musical versatility, so any preconceptions are unwise.

Smart and sassy soul is what’s on the menu here. There’s the gut-bucket R&B of old Prestige records ("Mighty Fine"), the Meters beat of "Wide Load" (featuring a gem of a Carter solo), the James Brown funk of "What" (with the funkiest Frisell solo ever) and the lively bar band blues of "The Crock Pot" (showcasing Baron himself).

The tunes, all Baron originals, seem to pay homage to the other players as well; especially Baron’s former boss, Frisell. There’s the Frisell-like ballad of "Little Boy," the all-too brief guitar-bass duo of "Listen To The Woman" (which, surprisingly, suggests Gabor Szabo) and "Supposing," a short recollection of Jerry Granelli’s A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing (another Frisell project). "Aren’t We All" is prototypical Arthur Blythe. And "Wide Load" is reminiscent of Carter’s CTI days.

The spotlight, however, shines on Blythe and Frisell. Blythe – whose style is never less than distinctively his own – strikes a balance somewhere between David Sanborn and Hank Crawford in these environs. And Frisell, who sticks to his electric guitar throughout (no synth), is outstanding; giving at least two solos ("Mighty Fine" and "Wide Load") that are worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with Baron’s previous solo work with unusual trios like Baron Down. But anyone who’s seen Baron in performance (with Frisell or John Zorn) knows the drummer likes to have fun when he plays. Here, the listener joins the joyride too. Down Home, despite its brief 45-minute running time is, indeed, mighty fine; a hearty menu with plenty of meaty playing.

Tracks: Mighty Fine, Little Boy, Wide Load, The Crock Pot, What, Listen To The Woman, Aren’t We All, Supposing

Players: Arthur Blythe: alto sax; Bill Frisell: guitar; Ron Carter: bass; Joey Baron; drums.

Gone, Just Like A Train
Bill Frisell

It's hard to reconcile guitarist Bill Frisell's music to easily definable categories like jazz. Even if it's possible for others, Frisell adds much more dimension, musical and extra-musical, to his conceptions. Take Gone, Like A Train for example. Musically, it picks up pretty much where Frisell's last outing, the superb Nashville (Nonesuch), leaves off. He's working with a standard guitar trio here, highlighted by Viktor Krauss on bass and the subtle, intuitive superdrumming of session master Jim Keltner (who's played with George Harrison, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon and the Traveling Wilberrys to name a few). There's a sincere country twang to most of the pieces here: the rural funk of "Verona" (with Frisell on acoustic and excellent Keltner percussion touches), the Tennessee waltz of "Godson Song" and the weird backwater blues of "Pleased To Meet You." But Frisell also visits sounds and spectrums that seem incongruent. Influences like film, art and people seem to inform much of his music. And, still, he manages to make sense of it all. There's the grunge noir of "Blues For Los Angeles," the painfully slow thrash of "Lookout For Hope" and the perfectly lovely lullaby, "Lonesome" (the other track from Frisell's 1987 ECM disc, Lookout For Hope).

One thing that's evident here, and Nashville too, is Frisell's outstanding flair for the melodic, despite whatever axe he's grinding (pure guitar with acoustic and electric variations). In his compositions and improvisations, he explores interesting thoughts and ideas that form fully considered sentences and paragraphs. His nearest rival here is the altogether different and equally excellent guitarist John Scofield. But, as far as Gone, Like A Train goes (and it reaches depths that can be enjoyed as well as studied)...there seems to be an overall theme of awkward love; evident in the disc's most brilliant passages: the slow-dance anthem of "Egg Radio," the near-classical "Nature's Symphony," the fool's funk of "Gone, Just Like A Train" and, of course, the achingly beautiful, "Lonesome." But Frisell gives the impression of the brilliant geek who feels and loves deeply, yet only his technique and talent get any respect. Gone, Like A Train is the geek's revenge. Moreover, it's a wonderful, thoughtful 70-minute triptych of one of today's most innovative musical artists. Recommended.

Tracks: Blues For Los Angeles; Verona; Godson Song; Girl Asks Boy (Part 1); Pleased To Meet You; Lookout For Hope; Nature's Symphony; Egg Radio; Ballroom; Girl Asks Boy (Part 2); Sherlock Jr.; Gone, Just Like A Train; The Wife And Kid; Raccoon Cat; Lonesome; (untitled).

Players: Bill Frisell: electric and acoustic guitar; Viktor Krauss: bass; Jim Keltner: drums and percussion.

Satan In High Heels
Mundell Lowe

Mundell Lowe (b. 1922) is a low-profile guitarist with a cool, casual style somewhere between Kenny Burrell's witty bop and Jimmy Raney's sophisticated cool. He's been heard with the greatest singers (Billie, Ella, Lena, Sarah and Carmen) as well as Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, Ben Webster and countless big bands. When he became a staff musician at NBC in 1950, he also supplemented his jazz roles (he recorded with Mike Wofford and Bob Magnusson for Jazz Alliance several years ago) with plenty of TV work, eventually relocating to California where he began to be heard in many films, TV shows and commercials.

The 1961 exploitation thriller, Satan In High Heels, offered Lowe one of his few moments in the spotlight as a film composer (later he scored Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex). For an idea of what to expect, parts of this music, originally released in 1961 on Charlie Parker Records, were also released on an album called Blues For A Stripper. The film's producer thought his raunchy themes (drugs, crime and evil lesbians) made for "art" that could compete with the French New Wave. And since it was all so perverse, it should, of course, be set to jazz.

Lowe, for his part, fashions expert arrangements for such cheap scenery. The whole brassy (read: sleazy) atmosphere is, of course, indebted to Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn. But Lowe twists the knife with a bit of Basie and Ellington and gets expert playing from an incredible cast of top-flight New York studio musicians. Oliver Nelson and Clark Terry are spotlighted on the title theme (Terry's also featured on the cool "Pattern of Evil"). Fleet-fingered baritone player Sol Schlinger takes a nice spot on "Montage." The great Eddie Costa (who was killed in a car crash the following year) takes a hard-driving piano refrain for the exciting "The Long Knife" and mallets up for swinging vibes solo on "East Side Drive" and "The Lost And The Lonely." Lowe himself takes several tasty spots in "East Side Drive," "Coffee, Coffee," "From Mundy On," "The Lost And The Lonely" and "Blues For A Stripper".

All of Lowe's compositions are surprisingly well-conceived and memorable (especially "Satan In High Heels," the Bewitched cha-cha of "From Mundy On" and "The Long Knife"). If it hadn't accompanied such a low-budget film, this music would certainly be better known today and Lowe's prominence would have increased too. He seems to have quite a talent for evoking moods and atmospheres, and a (brassy) gift for orchestral coloration. But, all in all, Satan In High Heels is great fun. Those who dig 50s-era TV jazz and solid big-band swing won't be disappointed.

Tracks: Satan In High Heels; Montage; The Lost And The Lonely; East Side Drive; Coffee, Coffee; Lake In The Woods; From Mundy On; The Long Knife; Blues For A Stranger; Pattern Of Evil.

Collective Personnel: Joe Newman, Doc Severinson, Clark Terry, Ernie Royal, Bernie Glow (trumpet); Urbie Green, Buster Cooper, Jimmy Cleveland (trombone); James Buffington (french horn); Ray Beckenstein (alto sax, flute); Walt Levinsky (alto sax, clarinet, flute); Phil Woods (alto sax); Oliver Nelson, Al Cohn, Al Klink (tenor sax); Sol Schlinger (baritone sax); Eddie Costa (piano, vibes); Mundell Lowe, Barry Galbraith (guitar); George Duvivier (bass); Ed Shaughnessy (drums).

Head And Heart
Pat Martino
(32 Jazz)

Pat Martino is a frighteningly good mainstream guitarist. As the title of this excellent disk suggests, he creates mind-numbingly intricate passages with intelligent dexterity but his agility is tempered with a vocabulary of original expressions and thoughtful considerations. Like Larry Coryell, he's one of the few guitarists of his generation that have something to say. He is brimming with impressive ideas that are hardly ever repeated and, as a result, his music, like good storytelling, is easy to appreciate (but difficult, I imagine, to study).

Head And Heart, his third 32 Jazz release following the reissue of the excellent Footprints (1972) and the needless compilation, Cream, is a perfectly-conceived combination of Martino's two best Muse LPs: 1972's Live (his sixth LP and first for Muse) and its follow-up, 1974's Consciousness.

Prior to Head And Heart, both discs were available as separate CDs. But it makes good sense combining these two sessions. Both contain similar quartets (featuring the rhythm section of the jazz-rock group Catalyst) performing challenging, mostly up-tempo pieces. Like Wes Montgomery did in Grooveyard (a significant influence on the younger guitarist), Martino builds the foundation of his quartet with a supportive keyboardist. In this case, the two players on each session are on electric piano; a sound which offers a nice contrast to Martino's mellifluous guitar and one, that surprisingly, has dated quite well.

Martino waxes Wes-like on his own pieces, "On the Stairs," "Special Door" and "The Great Stream." But Martino's ideas don't explore the same places. His are a bit more surprising. There's a little less crowd pleasing here and a bit more inward thinking. That is especially evident on the ostinatos (which always test how interesting a player can be) of Eric Kloss's long and worthwhile "Consciousness" and Martino's hypnotic "Willow." Martino and company also offer a thrilling performance of "Impressions" that would certainly catch Coltrane's attention -- exciting, exploratory and never pretentious or showy. The guitarist alters the program with lovely solos on both his beautiful, insightful "Passata On Guitar" and Joni Mitchell's melodic "Both Sides Now." Never once veering toward sentimentality, the solo Martino is a quiet force to be reckoned with.

The three long tunes which comprise Live are all interesting (even the corny "Sunny" sounds meaningful in Martino's hands). But the program, as intense and fascinating as it is, does not offer the rewarding variety (or, at only 39 minutes, the length) of the 45-minute Consciousness program. Still, it's a minor quibble. Pat Martino has created excellent music here that can be appreciated in artistic terms or simply enjoyed as great guitar jazz. Recommended.

Tracks: Impressions; Consciousness--1; Passata On Guitar--1; Along Came Betty--1; Willow--1; On The Stairs--1; Both Sides Now--1; Along Came Betty (Alt.)--1; Special Door--2; The Great Stream--2; Sunny--2.

Collective Personnel: Pat Martino (guitar); Eddie Green--1, Ron Thomas--2 (electric piano); Tyrone Brown (Fender bass); Sherman Ferguson (drums).