All-star collaborations are commonplace in jazz, but the results are frequently less than stellar. Too often the albums either take the form of hastily produced blowing sessions, the offshoots of some concert or festival that drew the musicians to one location in the first place, or collapse under the weight of their own ambitions.
Happily, neither is the case on "Over the Rainbow" (Musicmasters), a superb recording by the Benny Carter All Star Sax Ensemble. But then, perhaps that's to be expected. Carter's writing for sax quartet (and his collaborations with Coleman Hawkins), after all, helped develop and popularize reed ensembles 50 years ago, and if this album proves anything it's that his swirling, sonorous, swinging creations are still a delight to hear.
In some ways the album brings Carter's illustrious career full circle, for it features two newly orchestrated themes that he composed a half-century ago, including the blues-tinged "Out of Nowhere." However, you don't have to get beyond the opening tune, a brisk and richly orchestrated reading of "Over the Rainbow," to be aware of the album's exceptional merits.
First in unison, then in lively succession, the saxophonists parade by -- Jimmy Heath, Herb Geller, Joe Temperley, Frank Wess and Carter -- followed by pianist Richard Wyands, bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Ronnie Bedford. Veterans all, the musicians quickly establish their own voices in dovetailing half-choruses -- save for Carter, who elegantly goes the distance -- but it's the unusual depth and warmth of the ensemble passages that ultimately give "Over the Rainbow" (and the balance of the album) its great character and charm.
The arrangements consistently make imaginative use of tonal colors and combinations, with Temperley's dark baritone sax often anchoring the keening altos, Wyands's piano peaking during the sax clusters, and Hinton and Bedford providing an irresistible pulse. When the horns embark on a series of concise solos, as they often do, there's a sense that each player is building on the previous chorus, improvising logical extensions rather than unrelated tangents.
The reeds are particularly expansive during a languid reading of Quincy Jones's "The Pawnbroker," and sound regally sumptuous when introducing "Ain't Misbehavin'," a performance that ultimately weds Fats Waller's familiar theme to some darting surprises. But choosing highlights isn't easy -- not when the music is as uniformly pleasurable as this.
The Paris All-Stars: 'Homage to Charlie Parker'
The Paris All-Stars' "Homage to Charlie Parker" (A&M), on the other hand, starts off sounding like a blowing session, which isn't all that surprising since the album was recorded live in Paris in 1989. The lineup consists of Parker's colleagues and disciples (to one degree or another): trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Max Roach, saxophonists Phil Woods, Stan Getz, Jackie McLean, vibist Milt Jackson, pianist Hank Jones and bassist Percy Heath.
The saxes are featured on the opening cut, a vigorous, freewheeling romp through "Birks Works" that warrants its 11-minute length. But the album has more to offer than the kind of vitality one can always expect from Woods and McLean, both of whom are in fine, virile form, or from Gillespie, whose irrepressible showmanship ignites the crowd's cheers on the finale, "Oo Pa Pa Da."
There are, in fact, several thoughtful and lyrical performances that elevate this album above the ordinary all-star date. Among others, Getz contributes in a gorgeous version of Duke Ellington's sensuous ballad "Warm Valley"; Roach's "Drummer Sweet" is a beautifully structured three-tiered solo, built from the bass drum up; and Jackson's playing on "Old Folks" balances the sparkling lines of his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and the bluesy accents that often color his own recordings.
Gillespie and Woods also pop up on "Rhythmstick" (CTI), by far the most contemporary, accessible and uneven album of the lot. Inspired by Gillespie's championing of Afro-Cuban rhythms, the album features an impressive cast, including trumpeter/fluegelhornist Art Farmer, saxophonist Bob Berg, guitarist John Scofield, singer Flora Purim, percussionist Airto and organist Jimmy McGriff, with arrangements by Benny Golson.
Golson deserves credit for trying to appeal to fans of light and Brazilian jazz without undermining the talent of Woods and Berg. Their insistent tones and driven improvisations provide a welcome contrast to the album's glossy veneer, and much the same could be said for McGriff's Hammond B3 organ and Scofield's ice-blue guitar solos. Of all the musicians, though, none shines brighter than Farmer. His samba version of "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" is a beauty -- warm, eloquent, tenderly poignant. Fans of Purim and Airto aren't likely to be disappointed either; both musicians are generously showcased, and much of the album radiates a sunny and festive sound similar to their own recordings.
On the downside, Gillespie's contributions (apart from his inspirational role) are largely incidental, and the arrangements are sometimes compromised by synthesizers and intrusive effects.