By Jeff Cebulski
Please bear with me on this one.
This new theme incorporated into my column is initiated by my wife Barb’s recent birthday gift to me, a wall shelving unit, a gesture that influenced me—no, inveigled me—to alphabetize my fairly large jazz CD collection, which in the process “reminded” me that I have albums I hadn’t listened to for a while. Given that, after placing the CDs into the unit I realized I am running out of space, and I wondered if it was time to filter out unwanted/unneeded albums. So, I began to pull out recordings that might fit that new category.
The backstory is that I hosted a jazz radio program on three separate stations for nearly thirty years. A lot of the music I played came from my library, which largely consists of albums I bought at a used store or online or at library sales, since record companies don’t like to deal with small potatoes like me who play jazz only three hours a week and want the music they send to more notable radio stations, music those stations don’t play and end up selling to used record stores where they are illegally sold to people like me. (Grrr . . .)
I harbor a desire to do some sort of program again. My friends encourage me, but streaming one’s own program is a bit costly. Perhaps. Nevertheless, if I am going to do that, I have to have music, and I have music. Putting all of it on a hard drive makes sense if I invest in professional programming software, but the horror stories about failed hard drives necessitates maintenance of hard copy. Hence, I keep my CDs.
My decision to keep an album is based on two factors: (1) I like it. (2) I would want to play music from it on my show. In this series, I will ascertain whether or not I (1) still like it and (2) would want to play from it on a show. Maybe you will be informed or entertained by my discussion. I agree that, as we age, we need to reassess our connection to things, to downsize if possible. Sometimes that process is very difficult. At least I am trying, right?
The Brian Melvin Trio. Standards Zone. Global Pacific, 1990.
Brian Melvin – drums
Jaco Pastorius – electric bass
Jon Davis – piano
Once upon a time, probably in the early ’90s, I received this album in the mail while I was hosting a show on a school district radio station. Back then, we were able to report playlists to CMJ, a college radio marketing rag. Hence, aggressive music hawkers would occasionally send us music. A quick reading of the album’s media guide made evident that I held in my hand the last studio recording of the troubled, acclaimed electric bassist, Jaco Pastorius. Later, when I was checking the stacks of used albums at the then-downtown Jazz Record Mart, I stumbled upon the CD and bought it for my personal collection.
The main attraction is, of course, Pastorius, even if he is playing within a more conventional grouping and format. Given that he had struggled over the past decade with erratic behavior and drug/alcohol abuse—and needed work—perhaps Jaco was motivated to demonstrate his facility with that material. Like many such troubled musicians, he was generally able to contribute stable, lasting, inventive playing to any configuration.
That sentiment remained through the first three entries: a breezy Bill Evansesque “Morning Star,” a Pastorius-led “Days of Wine and Roses,” a fairly prosaic “Wedding Waltz,” and a Latin-tinged “Moon and Sand” (where Jaco’s playing seemed to rise above the proceedings, leading to a loquacious solo by Davis). Then—the one take that grabbed me this time—the trio’s treatment of Miles’ all-time classic, “So What.” Like several other songs on the album, Pastorius was given the real leadership, establishing the familiar melody while demonstrating his astonishing fretless technique. On this cut, both Davis and Melvin seemed invigorated and motivated to build upon the bassist’s energy. Melvin played the first, and better, of two prolonged solos on the album. Here, generally, I feel that Melvin, a certified fusion drummer, was caught between his wanting to be Joe Morello or Elvin Jones, or something in between. On this version, he won more than lost.
Next, “Fire Water,” a funky selection that carried further the invigoration of the preceding piece, with more bite in each player’s contribution. An eloquent opening from Pastorius highlights “If You Could See Me Now,” before a deep-cut choice, Joe Henderson’s post-bop blues “Out of the Night,” where Davis and Pastorius combine for a tasty duo that is unembellished by an understated Melvin. Jaco’s solo here is a marvel, a point where the juxtaposition alluded to earlier makes total sense.
Two well-known classics, “Tokyo Blues” and “Village Blues,” round out the album. “Tokyo” has Japanese touches—the obvious theme and Melvin’s cymbal-laden prelude—that do not distinguish this version much more than the original: pleasant, yes, and Davis sounds like Silver. Pastorius’ solo is dropped in, almost as a second thought, perhaps as an abstract moment in contrast to the established bluesy palette. As for “Village,” the Coltrane composition jumps right into the melody. Davis seems to relish his opportunity to demonstrate a Tyner influence, which gives Melvin a chance to bang more than usual on this song. Pastorius seems to be in a reactionary mode, tested by a change of pace three minutes in (well performed by Davis), leading to Melvin’s second solo, where he tries some Elvin moves—and does succeed at times. Jaco feeds a few notes toward the end, but disappears, waiting for Davis to reestablish the theme; no solo this time. From there it’s high energy until the end, making this listener wonder if maybe they should have revisited some of the other pieces.
After listening to this album again, I was pleasantly surprised that I found moments of rediscovery in Standards Zone. If I had a show, I would easily consider “So What,” “Fire Water,” and “Out of the Night” for airplay. But I couldn’t go wrong with “Moon and Sand” and the more fiery “Village Blues,” even if I wish Melvin would have cut that solo in half.
And the dramatic subcontext to it remains; Pastorius, the troubled genius, was still on top of his game one year before his tragic, brutal passing.
I’ll keep it.
"Jazz with Mr. C" is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org