(Mystic Lane, 2007)
West Coast jazz: three little words that bring back echoes of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck, and thoughts of driving along the Pacific Coast Highway at twilight. Very Early brings the cool school back for listeners who might wonder if those mellow sounds and gently swinging tempos had long disappeared. They've never left. Here's proof the sound is in good health and in good hands, West Coast jazz for a new generation.
Those more familiar with the current sounds of "smooth jazz" will be comfortable with the brand of jazz that developed on the west coast in the late 1950s, and performed by Octobop on Very Early. Cool, relaxed tempos with brief but dynamic solos were just the opposite of the harder, extended jazz that was happening in New York and elsewhere. Many "cool jazz" musicians, like Miles Davis, would improvise around popular songs. Today those songs and improvisations themselves are considered jazz standards.
Very Early recreates this West Coast feel. Fresh arrangements amid the classic charts keep the album from being just nostalgia, although many familiar names are represented. Tunes by Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan and even that consummate swinger, Mel Torme, are here. Anyone who knows Sweets Edison's familiar standard "Centerpiece" (once recorded by Joni Mitchell) may be surprised to hear the melody in its original incarnation as Johnny Mandel's "Keester Parade." Many of the arrangements are by group leader Geoff Roach, who gives a nod to his hometown in a sweetly sad "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," with an evocative vibes solo by Bill Hazzard.
The group's ensemble playing is just great. The horns are warm and satisfying, and there are strong melodies here -- these aren't just chord changes, they're real tunes. Second arranger, Octobop's guitarist Jack Conway, stays close to the melody line. The soloing is to the point (as the liner notes say, concise) and it's a wonderful surprise to hear Henry Mancini among the heavy-hitters like Bill Evans -- "The Pink Panther Theme" is a bit of serious fun. Roach's arrangement keeps it solidly in the West Coast school, with his own alto flute solo echoing Herbie Mann.
The long-time listener can take heart that West Coast jazz is alive and well. For those who are looking for something new and yet familiar, Very Early would be a good introduction to some classic sounds.
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