JACK WALRATH & LARRY WILLIS:
Portraits In Ivory And Brass
Mellow jazz and my favorite mood CD: lyrical and powerfully moving. I hear a warm, dark-toned, soulful trumpeterMingus last trumpet starmaking magic with the master of romantic jazz piano. Steve Novosels rich-toned, every-note-counts bass solidly anchors both the groove and the harmonies. Waitll you hear the soaring passion of their Bess, You Is My Woman. TAS says Walraths horn radiates a burnished bass warmth you can practically see the overlapping overtones rising above the Steinway perhaps Spreys best engineering work to date. A Fi Super Disc. (#02032)
Mapleshade is known as an audiophile label and, like AudioQuest, records everything direct to two-track analog tape. It makes a difference. This is an uncommonly natural sounding recording, especially the bass and trumpet. You won't find a CD with brass overtones better conveyed than on this one. Musically, it's a satisfying, often surprisingly adventurous outing. Willis can generally be relied upon to deliver the goods and Walrath's excellence, especially in big band settings, is well-known. Here they tune into each other in a responsive give-and-take manner that gives the duets life and depth. The ballads (e.g., Shadows) are especially evocative but everything works like a charm. Also, the occasional addition of bassist Novosel helps flesh out the sound.
Producer/engineer Pierre Sprey's involvement and dedication to this project is everywhere evident, from the lovingly detailed recording to the thoughtful, and often passionate, liner notes. In sum, it's a uniquely excellent CD which serious listeners should seek out. It's hard not to recommend a disc with this much attention to detail.
The Absolute Sound:
Walrath, once with Charles Mingus' band and now leader of the Mingus Dynasty, is that rare trumpeter who can blow with both clarion boisterousness and lilting lyricism, often at the same time. Willis coaxes the lushest chords from the keyboard without sacrificing a whit of rhythmic complexity. Together, they unfurl here an album of fine-champagne spirits, mainly ballads, half of them duets, the other half joined by bassist Steve Novosel, an unsung staple of the Washington, DC jazz scene. This is a cozy but still harmonically eye-raising disk; the back jacket goes too far in saying that it "redefines jazz lyricism," but it does deserve a place in the genre's pantheon.
What makes Portraits truly special, especially for this magazine's readers, however, is its sonics. Walrath's horn radiates a burnished brass warmth. When Willis holds down the pedal, you can practically see the overlapping overtones rising above the Steinway in a piquant bouquet. When Novosel's bass comes in, you can feel the wood vibrate without missing a single pluck on the fingerboard. Mapleshade has been singled out by other reviewers (including MF) for its obsession with capturing natural sound. Pierre Sprey uses just two mikes, the finest cable, an analogue deck, and no mixers, with results as pure and natural as anyone has a right to expect. (Chad Kassem should contract to put some of them out on black vinyl.) This disk captures perhaps Sprey's best engineering work to date.
Volume 19, Issue 98
Willis's improvisations virtually glow. Portraits in Ivory and Brass begins with his velvety introduction to Jack Walrath's beautifully expressive playing of Bess, You Is My Woman Now. Walrath sings this one, sliding up to held notes, flaring suddenly, and falling gently away. Willis's solo is more withdrawn and delicate „ even romantic. One also hears romance in Willis's compositions, including Shadows, for Miles Davis, and Green Eyes. Left to his own devices, he's given to slow tempos „ some of the performances on his last disc, Steal Away, fairly dragged. Walrath's clear-toned trumpet and tart, tightly organized solos are good counterweights.
Walrath's intriguing compositions include the exotic Epitaph for Seikolos, which begins with a knock on the inside of the piano and choked trumpet sounds „ sounds that evoke an eerie echo; is Walrath playing into the piano body? The Road to Sophia is more traditional, Monk's Feet more playful. The musicians respond to the challenges of each piece with intelligently nuanced playing. Although both Walrath and Willis have recorded frequently „ Walrath recently with his own groups and Willis as a leader and as a sideman „ neither has sounded better individually than they do together here. They're helped by the natural, ungimmicky recorded sound: close, but with enough space around them to support the illusion that they were playing in my living room.