Tony Campbell – Leader, alto and soprano sax
Lou Stellute – tenor sax ****
Delano “Volcano” Choy – trumpet ***
Sonny Barbato – acoustic and electric piano
Mark Strickland – guitar *
Dwayne Dolphin – acoustic bass
Paul Thompson – acoustic and electric bass **
Greg Humphries - drums
If you like blues, you’ll love this CD. If you like straight ahead jazz, you’ll love this CD. In fact, if you like smooth jazz, funkadelic, R & B, ballads, avant-garde, hard bop or odd meter, you’ll love this CD. Why? Not just because it is all there and then some, but “Cause Mama Said!” **** The opening track is dedicated by the musicians to their mothers. We may not know specifically what Mama said to each of her own, but from the sound of this offering, it is likely she said, “Don’t be jiving!” Campbell borrowed the changes on the opening track from Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’” but I suspect that Mama didn’t allow no moanin’ ‘round here. The quintet consists of Tony Campbell on alto sax, Lou Stellute on tenor sax, Sonny Barbato on piano, Dwayne Dolphin on bass and Greg Humphries on drums. These musicians are seasoned veterans experienced in many genres of presentation. Their deep blues roots afford the listener the pleasure of repeated listening, since no one gets tired of the blues. The interplay between them extends right out of the studio and into your presence as you hear them converse about various musical subjects. There is no overdubbing here… no sampling... nothing synthetic... just “pyo nat’chel” cats blowing from the soul of their experience. Art Blakey was fond of saying, “This music comes from the Creator, through the artist, to the people directly. There is nothing you can do that is higher than that.” He would have been proud of these disciples.
Next in quartet format they emerge as hard core boppers with Paul Thompson replacing Dolphin on bass to shine along with drummer Humphries on a blazing rendition of Thelonius Monk and (fellow Pittsburgher) Kenny Clarke’s “Epistrophy” ** with a 7/4 twist. Here Campbell establishes his place in the alto saxophone lineage as a unique voice, energetically and melodically, his cursor running along the inside edge of Eric Dolphy. Barbato is ever vigilant as he confidently dances between the raindrops and lightning around him with delicate sophistication.
Mark Strickland’s guitar groove immediately puts you in a dancing mood on
“T.C.’s Groove” *-** as the menu changes to a quintet gathered around a soul food table while Mama “passes the peas,” a nod of respect to one of Campbell’s influential friends, Maceo Parker. Thompson, lines up for his helping followed quickly by Humphries who brings the fatback. Campbell offers grace to the Godfather before Barbato digs into a scrumptious mound of mash potatoes and gravy with ever greasy fingers. Don’t even try to sit still on this one. It’s too funky. You can dance off the calories anyway.
How about some romance for dessert? The versatility of the previous quintet permits an easy transition into a sophisticated tryst enhanced by fine wine, soft lights and Thelonius Monk. The muse must be ready as she suggestively says, “Ask Me Now!” *-** Campbell’s response is a clear indication that he knows his way around his horn and Monk’s changes with poetic fluidity. You ladies can take your pick here as Barbato’s smooth talk melts your mind, Strickland’s guitar tickles your fancy and Thompson’s bass solo warms your oven. Need no more be said?
Alas! Trane may be smiling from beyond the veil at this tribute to his influential sojourn among us. “Lastrane” ***-**** is a masterful Campbell original based on an unusual A-A-B-A structure in 4/4 time that can be conceived either as
28-20-12-28 in beats or 7-5-3-7 in bars. Here is where avant-garde meets hard bop superimposed on a basic 16-bar minor blues that is obscured by the thematic pedal tone vamp until they first modulate into the straight ahead mode on Campbell’s solo. Tony restates the theme to complete his statement passing the baton to Barbato who stays with the 16-bar blues pattern for two choruses while the bass and drums subtly revert to the thematic vamp rhythm. On the third chorus Sonny keeps swinging while the bass and drums join him. Then he ends with the thematic motif to set up the out chorus for Campbell. You may notice that the trumpet and tenor sax only peep their heads in on the bridge of the opening and final chorus… another subtle nuance that lets you know they were listening the entire time. The pedal vamp tags out the track as you hear the rhythm caboose follow Campbell toward the horizon. Alas!
Ready for some R & B? Here comes Strickland’s guitar setting up a stop-time pedal vamp that launches another Campbell original, “Mr. C”.* Although it’s a 12-bar blues reminiscent of the Treniers, Campbell seasons it with a descending chromatic chord pattern on the last four bars that sets it apart from the down-home harmony one might expect. To make it even more intriguing for the listener he uses an 8-bar pedal vamp interlude for his solo take-off before diving into the 12-bar straight away. This composition again demonstrates Campbell’s ingenuity in mixing the simple with the complex and making it feel so natural. Dolphin, Barbato and Humphries play the supporting cast for Strickland and Campbell on this danceable track.
You needn’t switch your CD changer to get a taste of smooth jazz. This Campbell original, “Rain at the Game” *-** has it right here. Thompson returns with his electric bass as the T.C.B. II guitar quintet configuration features Campbell lyrically on soprano sax and Barbato playing raindrops on electric piano. The melody is one that will sing in your mind throughout your daily activities long after the CD is over. The mark of a skilled composer is evident in a melody that can lodge itself surreptitiously in your memory until you find yourself humming it unconsciously. This track has the same magical attraction as The Theme from Taxi by Bob James and could perhaps itself become a TV theme song someday. An avid sports fan, Campbell portrays a lazy summer afternoon at a baseball park with scattered showers coming and going just often enough to cool off the field.
Delano “Volcano” Choy contributes the next composition/arrangement that recalls the hard bop tradition of the 1960s. This track features Campbell on alto, Choy on trumpet, Stellute on tenor and Barbato on piano respectively. It is a hard blowing straight ahead piece with a driving rhythm section featuring Dolphin on bass again. This is a sextet sans guitar with a well-constructed and harmonized horn-ensemble head and tail. Choy is Hawaiian and this is a hot one, hence its title, “Cinder Cone.” ***-****
Another Campbell original, “Lou Sweeter’s Theme” ***-**** is a tip of the hat to a colorful character known to the musicians. Its bluesy melody is so basically vernacular that it will have you shaking your head from the first two bars. It may seem simple musically but it takes an experienced attitude to phrase this one right. The soloists take turns stating a personal story while the others nod their heads with understanding beginning with Choy, then Stellute, Campbell and Dolphin respectively, each making his point in two choruses. Barbato comps amen choruses through its entirety. T.C.B. II most definitely cops the right attitude throughout this one. There are certain adages in the jazz tradition that express this kind of phrasing. Saxophonist Bill Easley once said to me, “The notes have never been the problem. It’s the space between the notes that kick most people’s a_s!” I was tempted to lyricize this one in the appropriate vernacular but instead, I’ll just give a hint. “Play the alto… Tony Campbell!” This one got so good that the engineer couldn’t let it fade without bringing it back up for more… maybe appropriately because the story is never really over is it?
How many ways can one play Gershwin’s “Summertime”? Apparently there is one more way and T.C.B. II in alto sax quartet formation found it. Opening with
a New Orleans street beat, the rhythm section modulates through a palate of rhythms. Each chorus mixes and matches rock ballad, straight ahead and street beats while Campbell struts his stuff through it all. These men listen to each other and hear every note that is played enabling them to react accordingly at all times. They each speak the language with authority. This is a live recording with you as the audience. Hearing it will prove beyond doubt that the Tony Campbell Band II takes care of business too. Mama knows best.
Nelson E. Harrison, Ph. D.
Composer, lyricist, author, trombonist veteran of the Count Basie Orchestra