Gypsy Jazz and Beyond with Ben Powell
Jazz violinist Ben Powell has an impressively diverse new album out, New Street. Pitched as a tribute to Stephane Grappelli, it’s exactly that, not a homage, a mix of originals and gypsy jazz classics. Powell has a distinctive sound, a glistening, pure tone and the precision of a classical player whether he’s spinning off glissandos, bending blue notes or going way up into harmonics and shows off an impressive command of a lot more than just gypsy jazz. The big news is that a handful of tracks feature Gary Burton and Julian Lage: the rest of the band includes Tadataka Unno on piano, Aaron Darrel on bass and Devin Drobka on drums, along with Adrien Moignard guesting with some aptly Django-esque guitar, and Linda Calise singing in fluently nuanced French on an imaginatively reinvented samba version of La Vie En Rose.
The album opens with a rather counterintuitive choice, an expansively reminiscent Powell ballad, Judith, done as a violin/bass/piano trio with a Georgia on My Mind vibe and a glistening piano solo from Unno. The carefree, dancing title track is a two-parter, beginning with a trip to Brazil via Joe Jackson and then morphing into a briskly swinging gypsy tune that ends up looping a phrase out of Grieg. They follow that with Monk for Strings, vividly evoking that composer but with an animated, scurrying rhythm and a playful series of gypsy swoops and dives at the end. Cole Porter’s What Is This Thing Called Love is transformed into gypsy jazz, Moignard adding spiraling, spiky energy on the frets, Powell’s penetrating, intense solo taking the energy up even further. They do the sentimental old ballad Sea Shell as a jazz waltz, Powell’s flights to the uppermost registers so clean and fluid that it’s almost as if he’s playing a saw. The most intense number here is Swinging for Stephane, a Powell original that recalls Grappelli but doesn’t ape him, with a couple of absolutely searing, bluesy violin solos and a neat false ending.
The cuts with Burton and Lage here are also choice. Interesting, Lage seems largely relegated to rhythm, which he keeps simple and elegant. Grappelli’s Gary – a gesture of appreciation from the late violinist to the vibraphonist – has a bucolic, summery sway, silky violin and smartly judicious, warmly bluesy work from Burton. Next is a steady, bittersweet take on La Chanson Des Rues, seemingly a prototype for Just a Gigolo (which Jenifer Jackson once covered and knocked out of the ballpark). Burton’s artful interpolations, peeking from behind the guitar and violin here, are absolutely luscious. The trio wind up the album with a richly sonorous romp through Grappelli’s Piccadilly Stomp, vibes and electric guitar blending into a lush bell choir, Lage showing off an impressive fluency in Django-style spirals: who knew he was also into this kind of music? It’s a treat for anyone who loves gypsy jazz (meaning pretty much everybody).
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