Two years ago, Willard Jenkins hipped me to the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival and helped me get a gig there, documenting the event on video. At the heart of festival was tenor saxophonist Paul Carr, who was both producing the festival, and closing it with his Quintet. At that time, I didn’t know Paul’s music, but noted that he was playing in a band with Terell Stafford, Mulgrew Miller, Michael Bowie, and Lewis Nash. That’s rather fast company so I had to assume that Paul could really play, otherwise he wouldn’t be on the stage with those cats.
A few weeks later, in Rockville, Maryland, where the Festival is based, I heard Paul and his group burn through a set. Paul’s playing was right in the pocket, his saxophone an amalgam of the Texas tenor thing (he’s from Houston), some Trane, and some Joe Henderson. I was impressed. (Check out the YouTube videos.)
What I also noted about Paul was his humility. In addition to his obvious devotion to Jazz and the tenor saxophone, and now his work putting together the Mid-Atlantic, Paul founded and runs one of the DC area’s best programs for teenagers, the Jazz Academy. But when we did a wrap-up interview, he didn’t bra, about who he is and what he’s done. Instead, he talked about the volunteers who make the Festival happen, and the musicians who make it matter.
He sent me home with “Musically Yours,” his Joe Henderson tribute, and I’ve been following his music seriously since then.
“Standard Domain” is Paul Carr’s fifth recording as a leader. The session was done just before Christmas, 2011. Nine tracks in one day? The Houston native and mainstay on the Washington, D.C. Jazz scene was quick to acknowledge the challenge of recording this way: “You’ve got to be a little delusional, especially not rehearsing first. When you’re going through nine tunes in six hours, that’s rough. The trick is to have the right guys.”
Paul has done a lot of playing with bassist Michael Bowie and trumpeter Terell Stafford. He’s also played and recorded with Lewis Nash. The newest member of the ensemble is pianist Joey Calderazzo, best known for his work with Michael Brecker and Branford Marsalis.
“Standard Domain” includes an engaging mix of the classic American songbook, Jazz standards, and Paul’s own compositions, focusing on songs with memorable melodies because “they usually produce great development sections and great improvisations.”
“For this CD,” he explains, “I wanted to revisit great melodies, some known and some not so known. The goal was to find new melodies within, adding our musical perspective, while at the same time, considering what each composer had in mind for that particular tune.”
There were no rehearsals for the session, or “conversations about how we were going to approach this material,” Paul reports. “Nobody asked, what’s the concept, or what’s the vibe. I wanted them to bring their own voice and vibe to the project.”
Paul wrote the title track, “Standard Domain,” especially for this group of musicians. “That melody had been going around in my head,” he remembers. “I wanted to write a melody that people would remember. When I sat down to harmonize it, I realized it had very traditional changes like the songs from those Blue Note sessions, so I included an interlude so people would realize this was written today, in the twenty first century.”
It was the first track they recorded and on the playback, Paul remarked, “Lewis just hit it out of the park.” If Lewis Nash were a baseball player, he’d be an MVP, many times over. There’s a reason he’s been on over four hundred recordings. “What do I like about his playing? Everything! He interprets the music in his own way. You hand Lewis a piece of music and that’s it. You don’t have to say anything, except maybe to discuss the tempo. He brings so much to the table, he has so much game. He’s wonderful to play with, and wonderful to be around. He definitely makes me raise my game, that’s for sure.”
Once the solos begin, it’s obvious that these talented players were in the zone that unusually warm December today. I love hard-bop rooted jazz and as soon as Paul played his solo, it was obvious he really knows his way around the horn, playing as authoritative and inventive as anyone else on the scene today. There’s an urgency to his playing that presents in all the great tenor voices, that sound that so closely parallels the human voice, an emotional resonance that really grabs a listener.
Cole Porter wrote “Dream Dancing” for the 1941 film, “You’ll Never Get Rich.” Paul likes the melody. “Sometimes when I’m listening to music, I think about what makes a tune stick in your head, what makes me remember it. A lot of tunes have cool beats, the rhythm is great but strong melodies are what stand out. I wanted this recording to be about melodies and ‘Dream Dancing’ is a very strong melody that we reharmonized. We achieved a different vibe by using soprano sax and muted trumpet.”
The vibe is enhanced by the sinewy interplay of the musicians, who play together like they’re dancing, weaving in and out of the music. They can do this so well because they really listen to each, one of the keys to creating memorable Jazz.
“Bye George” is a Joey Calderazzo composition originally written for Michael Brecker’s “Two Blocks from the Edge.” The title is for George Benson, who was supposed to appear on that recording but never did. It gets a different treatment that the original recording with two horns, and a slightly faster tempo.
Once again, Terell Stafford shows us that his adventurous trumpet is among the most prominent in Jazz today, and for good reason. His playing is based in the rich tradition of his predecessors, combining lyricism and deep love of melody with a spirited, rousing edge.
“I’m just slightly older than Terell so I remember when he first started playing Jazz,” Paul recalls. “I’ve seen him grow and grow and grow. He’s a monster player and great educator, but even when he was young and first started playing Jazz, he had that intellectual curiosity. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions, because he wanted to know. He already had the chops so I knew then, he was going to be one of the greats. And now he is.”
As for Mr. Calderazzo, Paul believes that “very few people play the piano like Joey. It’s got that authoritative energy and with the intelligence and the way he interprets music, his vision, how he hears the music, how he conceptualizes, well, you hand him eight measures and the next thing you know, you’ve got an orchestra. He is totally amazing.”
And of course, this group wouldn’t be complete with the foundation of the music, the superb bass playing of Michael Bowie. “I just love to play with Michael,” Paul reveals, “because of all the different influences that come through in the way he plays. He’s just so musical, that’s what you need from a bassist. When he walks on the bass, notes just seem to fall out of his pocket. He’s another astounding player.”
Paul’s solo is also striking and what really jumps out is how he ends the solo and goes back to the melody, a good example of what New Yorker Jazz critic Whitney Balliet dubbed “the sound of surprise.”
“Cheek to Cheek” written by Irving Berlin and first heard sung by Fred Astaire in the 1935 film, “Top Hat,” is a duet featuring Paul and Joey. Paul first for enthusiastic about the song when he heard his friend Branford Marsalis play it. Joey suggested it for the session and it works perfectly in the duo context. Paul remembers, “it was fun to play. We did three quick takes and I could actually have played a couple more,” Paul remembers.
Although this was their first recording together, Paul and Joey locked up from note one. Musicians of this caliber, who share a common repertoire, can do this rather quickly, and rather memorably as heard here. Paul’s playing is really soulful here, it’s like he’s channeling the history of the tenor through the Texas tradition.
Paul unaccompanied tenor opens Duke Ellington’s “Warm Valley.” A Johnny Hodges feature in the early 40s Ellington band, it hasn’t been recorded very often. “I don’t hear the tune played a lot,” Paul reveals. “Joe Henderson recorded it, but I really it’s one of Ellington’s more memorable melodies and it would be nice to have different treatments of it out there.” Paul’s rendition is both melodic and playful.
“I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” was made famous by Tommy Dorsey and his arrangement is the best known version. Paul always felt it was be the perfect tenor sax vehicle. “It just feels like that. It’s in the key B flat and just lays so perfectly on the horn.” Here’s, it’s given a brighter feel thanks to a faster tempo. A particularly dynamic drum solo utilizing brushes adds an element of excitement and once again, provides a brilliant showcase for the musicality of Lewis Nash.
For me, one of the most-mind boggling elements of a Jazz solo, and it can be heard quite clearly here, is how musicians can improvise on faster tempos without missing a beat. It takes a natural gift, and a lot of shedding to do this. When I hear Paul’s solo here, Johnny Griffin comes to mind. Talk about fast. Griff was formula one race car driver. Paul’s also driving a Ferrari.
Speaking of classics, just about everything Thelonious Monk played and wrote, falls in that category. One of his under recorded compositions is “Sixteen,” from 1952’s “Genius of Modern Music, Volume 2.” “I just love Monk’s harmony,” Paul explains. “It’s bebop, but it’s also Monk, and you can hear that immediately. He’s a very soulful composer and player I just love all of his music. The original chat had three horns, so when I knew Terell would be on the session, I decided to include it.”
“Sixteen” showcases another side of the trumpeter’s playing, demonstrating that in addition to his ability to play with an intensity and spirit that few horn players can match, his arsenal also includes wit and subtlety. And after a very tasty bass solo from Michael Bowie, Lewis Nash shows us that the drums can be a melody instrument.
During Paul’s solo, I couldn’t help but flash on Monk’s other sax players (Rouse, Coltrane, Griffin, Jeffrey), and how Paul is so much a part of that tradition. If Thelonious was still with us, Paul Carr could easily be his tenor player.
A particularly moving version of “Till There Was You,” from the 1956 Broadway hit “The Music Man,” is also a duo feature, this time soprano sax and piano, and, “another suggestion from Joey,” Paul reveals. “I’ve heard this tune done many many ways and here, we took a slow and airy approach. Accordingly, it was kind of a fresh reading for me. Joey threw in a few beautiful colors along the way.”
There’s something inspired about this rendition that’s both romantic and life affirming. Recording an album like this in a small studio in just a few hours is rather challenging, and when I listen to this track, it’s just amazing how Paul and Joey can produce music with such emotional depth, seemingly instantaneously. The beauty of this music serves as further testimony to the elevated level of their artistry.
The closer is a “Tetragon” written by Joe Henderson. Paul’s third recording, “Musically Yours,” was a tribute the late tenor player. “This is one of my all-time favorite tunes by one of my all-time favorite musicians,” Paul reveals. “Joe recorded it, and so did Woody, but for some reason no one else did. I really wanted to do it with this band.”
Sadly, Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw are no longer with us, but if they were to hear this recording, they’d quickly realize that their music lives so strongly in players like Paul Carr and Terell Stafford.
As for his devotion to the music of the great American song book, and Jazz standards, Paul comes back to his original point: “It’s because of the melodies. These songs are ingenious and speak to a particular time in our collective history, a very particular spirit of humanity. They capture those feelings so well, and so universally, that they’ve managed to endure. That’s why people are still recording them. I ‘d love to hear musicians write more tunes like that today. But, as we know, it’s not as easy as it sounds.”
There always seems to be a discussion about what defines jazz or "old “jazz verses" new" jazz. I think those discussions are mostly good because they give energy and life to this wonderful art form called Jazz. But history has shown us that the study and performance of standards is indeed the gateway to the new music. One can learn a lot about an artist by their interpretation and treatment of standards. There are certain musical reasons why songs are standards and those elements should be considered when exploring and writing new jazz music. Songs with great melodies usually produce great development sections and great improvisations.
For this CD, I wanted to revisit some great melodies, some known and some not so known perhaps. I wanted to find new melodies within these standards while considering what each composer had in mind for that particular tune. I think we accomplished that while leaving many ideas on the cutting floor. Joining me on this disc are some the greatest voices on their instruments in jazz today Joey Calderazzo, Terell Stafford, Lewis Nash, and Michael Bowie. I had no conversations about how we were going to approach this material. There were no rehearsals for the session and nobody asked, what’s the concept, or what’s the vibe. I wanted them to bring their own voice and vibe to the project.” I think result is very special. I hope you enjoy.