Liner notes by John Mosca:
One of the benefits of hanging around in this endeavor, outside of the retirement
package, is the chance to see the next generation come up and join the fray. Of
course there are those who arrive with publicists, recording contract, high profile
gigs and unlisted phone numbers. Others seem to have been here all along.
Mature musically and personally they show up as a substitute, (a tougher role
than headliner), totally take care of business, get paid and go home. Someone
will ask “Who was that masked man?” and a reputation begins that may one day
lead to those good jobs and tax problems.
To this second group, welcome baritone saxophonist Frank Basile. Firmly rooted
in the school of seminal baritone Pepper Adams, he was brought to my attention
by the principal of that school, Gary Smulyan, as someone who would share
Gary’s chair with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, a position also held by Pepper.
Being talked about in this company does create a lot of expectations. That are
met to such an extent is really startling in a first recording.
The first clue that we’re following Mr. Basile down the right road is the offbeat
choice of standards, particularly You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me. Written
by Harry Warren and featured as a soft shoe number in the Broadway musical
42nd Street, it’s given a total renovation as a bright jazz waltz. A Certain Smile
from Sammy Fain (I’ll Be Seeing You, Secret Love) was the Oscar nominated title
track from a 1958 movie, a hit for Johnny Mathis and has been virtually
untouched since. Frank said he got comfortable playing it on a regular dance gig
he was doing and thought it would go well on the record. This makes the point,
however obliquely, that a literate popular culture makes better art happen. It’s like
campaigning for lower rent but we try. This Could Be the Start of Something
Big from Steve Allen, a staple of lounge acts in the 60’s and 70’s is another tune
you wouldn’t expect to see here but when asked, Frank said “I heard Ella sing
it…” – five words that have been synonymous with inspiration for a long time.
The standards are well balanced by Frank’s original compositions, which provide
a little more rhythmic and harmonic complexity. A bit of challenge for the listener,
but if you weren’t up to it would you be buying baritone sax recordings?
Noteworthy also is Frank’s decision to write the ballad himself. Normally this is
when you bail out and ask Tin Pan Alley for help. This original, A December to
Remember, uses wide intervals in a way that really shows the beauty and
rugged delicacy of which the baritone is uniquely capable. It had to be written by
One jazz standard rounds out the set and it’s by Thad Jones one of the true
standard bearers of this art form and frequent employer of Pepper in a wide
variety of musical settings. This decision alone endears Frank to what Bob
Brookmeyer called the “secret society” of Thad and Mel alumni, and is yet
another mark of maturity and erudition. Lady Luck is based on the chords to
Taking a Chance on Love and is given a beautiful reading here at what is known
as the “adult” tempo. This medium slow beat usually speeds up unless handled
by seasoned players, hence the name. This brings us to the other big choice
along with what material to do – whom to do it with.
When did this rhythm section land in New York? You know you have to get out
more when guys who play this well are new to you. They obviously have played
together a lot – that is they’re a bona fide trio. That first difficult tempo is held yes,
but is buoyant and it sounds like they’re happy to be there. The drum fills on the
melody are beautifully subtle, the bass solo a model of clarity in conception and
execution, and the piano solo is two choruses of harmonic and rhythmic
development so that they have it six feet off the ground before the first horn solo.
Letting the rhythm section set the table (another savvy move from Frank) is a
time honored technique from Basie to Coltrane but you have to have total
confidence in the players. Such faith is well placed here. Pianist Adam Birnbaum
and bassist Mile Blanco were schoolmates of Frank’s while drummer Mark
Ferber hooked up once they all hit Brooklyn earlier this century. On the second
track Rabp’s Delight Mark shifts up from elegant to get a great rumble going
underneath and comes up top for a solo right in the context of the tune. Adam
has another gem – see if you can catch the slick little contrapuntal move between
the two hands at the start of the second chorus. Bassist Blanco gets to stretch on
A Certain Smile and sustains the melodic horn – like conception through a
longer statement. No talking during these bass solos. They continue the great
work through all the different meters and tempos but by the end of the third tune I
was sold and wanted to go back to the record store to see if they had a trio CD
out. One problem – the store was gone.
If you have the luxury of a rhythm section like this as your regular band, the only
decision left is the front line partner. Frank couldn’t have chosen better than Joe
Magnarelli. The deft lyricism he brings to every gig has made him an
indispensable part of the New York scene and a favorite of fans and musicians
both. A good example of where to be mid-career, Joe has that winning
combination of intellect and soul reminiscent of his early influence Kenny
Dorham, but has continued adding and refining his vocabulary and is very much
his own man easily distinguishable from the platoon of serious trumpet players
out here today. Without pointing to any one example, there’s a consistency here,
and in Joe’s work generally that while his solos are his own (as in “taking” a
solo), he intuitively gives the music what it needs, informed by the immediate and
prior playing. This falls into the “you can learn it but can’t teach it” category.
Frank is the leader, perhaps not obvious, as there aren’t many who would give
away that first plum solo spot to the other horn. This kind of generosity, along
with his stellar musicianship, is what keeps a high quality band like this involved.
I’ve enjoyed the music so thoroughly it’s hard to single out one solo but I guess
I’m drawn to the two ends of the spectrum here. The ferocious long lines on
Rabp’s Delight really pull the already cooking rhythm section up another notch.
And the old-timers were right, ballads do tell the tale. Just the way Frank plays
the melody on A December to Remember gets my vote. On the title track
Thursday the 12th, the rhythm section provides another great set-up. This time
Frank gets it, and while tearing it up reaches for and achieves that quality that
eludes so many jazz saxophonists – brevity. He knows that Magnarelli’s entrance
will be the payoff, it’s called a group ethic and is rare in someone with good
Pepper Adams keeps coming up in this assessment since in conception and
execution, even instrumentation this CD brings to mind the great records Pepper
did with Thad, Donald Byrd and Stu Williamson. The question inevitably follows –
is that a criticism? On the contrary, it’s high praise. Besides, it’s a question never
raised by musicians who A. can hear the distinctions and B. know what it takes to
penetrate this music and make it your own. Suffice it to say there are a lot of .250
hitters who would love to be compared to Ted Williams.
As this music unfolds with its challenges and resting places, it made me think of
a great set in a club. The effects are immediate but also cumulative and if you
were planning to leave after one set, that plan would be changed. In the case of
this recording that means anxiously awaiting the next one. I think I’ll try to sneak
into the studio for that.
December 7, 2006