Several jazz albums of local interest have been issued recently, but none more rewarding and revealing than saxophonist Lester Young's "Prez" Volume II (Pablo 2308-225).
This is the second album culled from the tapes that Bill Potts (then a pianist, now a band leader) made of Young's performance with a local trio at Olivia's Patio Lounge here in Washington nearly 25 years ago. Like the first, it has been painstakingly remastered by Jack Towers and is filled with gentle reminders of Young's genius, even though it was recorded well past his prime.
Much has been written about how Young's tragic experiences in the army, culminating in a court martial, left him a broken man. And certainly there is nothing in his recorded legacy to compare with the lyrical strength of his pre-war sessions reissued recently on Columbia.
But as the "Prez" volumes clearly demonstrate, Young's decline wasn't as abrupt as many believed. Even in 1956, less than three years before his death, Young on occasion was surprisingly alert and assertive on tenor sax.
Perhaps it was the combination of working with a young eager trio (Bill Potts, piano; Normal Williams, bass; Jim Lucht, drums) and the cozy familiarity of his mid-'50s repertoire, that made Young's stay in Washington so enjoyable and productive last week.Whatever the reasons, Young was in fine form, weaving delightful arabesques around Lucht's breaks on "Lester Leaps In," playfully recasting such gems as "These Foolish Things" and "Three Little Words" to include an outside quote or two, and swinging with the effortless ease that marked his best work on "I'm Confessin'."
Friends of the Potomac River Jazz Club will find the new albums by two club regulars -- the Hot Mustard Band and the Buck Creek Jazz Band -- worthwhile. Hot Mustard has even gone so far as to divide its reputation into Dixieland and swing styles. Both albums, "Dixie Dance" and "Society Swing," are available through Dave Burns Music (1712 19th St. NW).
"Dixie Dance" is the better buy. Soloists Dick Mains and John Skillman are consistently sharp in their attack, pianist Charlie Howze strides right into Fats Waller territory, and Charlie La Babera's banjo is richly evocative of the early New Orleans sound. The ensemble playing, too, is crisp and infectious, except for a rather muddled medly ("Limehouse Blues," "China Boy," and "Chinatown," complete with a gong) that probably has to be seen to be appreciated.
On the other hand, the problem with "Society Swing" is that the accent is on society, not swing. It's a sweet nostalgic look at the swing era, rhythmically stiff and better suited to the ballroom bandstand than the turntable.
One of the highlights of the PRJC picnic last fall was the performance of the Buck Creek Jazz Band. The group's debut album ("The Buck Creek Jazz Band" -- Buck Creek Records 101) is an innovative look at traditional jazz. Again, clarinetist John Skillman's contribution is considerable. He has a precise, insinuating tone, a talent fully revealed in the striking arrangements the band has compiled.
Live is just about the only way you could hear Baltimore's Ethel Ennis perform in recent years. That situation has been remedied, though, with the release of "Ethel Ennis Live at the Maryland Inn" (ENE Productions 3113).
There are some problems with the album: Shel Silverstein's "Freaker's Ball" already seems dated, and the sound quality of the recording is uneven. Nonetheless, Ennis' marvelous presence on stage prevails. It is a measure of her vocal gifts that she can make a song as familiar as Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are" worth hearing again. The album's highlights include a high stepping, unexpurgated "Empty Bed Blues," the Latin-tinged "Deja Vu" and a look at the lush exoticism of Chick Corea's "Close Your Eyes, You Can Fly." Also featured are a number of fine area musicians including pianist Charles Covington and guitarist O'Donel Levy.
Finally, Tim Eyermann and East Coast Offering have chosen to play it safe on "Aloha" (Inner City IC 1095). There's no denying the appeal and sheer accessibility of Eyermann's music. He and guitarist Phil McCusker have written several inviting melodies and equipped them with a light, breezy pulse.
Unfortunately, Eyermann's current strategy doesn't seem to extend beyond those goals. As a result, "Aloha" may succeed on its own terms, but is likely to leave anyone not already disposed to fusion music looking for something less calculated.