By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Two heads better
I've got about 40 CDs in the drawer next to my computer. I listen to them when the guy at the desk next to me gets too loud or the construction crew across the street starts blasting. But sometimes when I'm lucky, a special disc finds its way into the drawer, one that calls out to me. Then, even when it's quiet or I should be doing something more productive, I plug in my headphones and hope the phone doesn't ring.
"Strange Happy" is that kind of special recording. I may be biased, because I like the guys at Leaning House Jazz. Then again, I think the reason I like them is that they make beautiful albums that provide tasteful showcases for musicians whose work might otherwise go unrecorded.
Harvin is one of my favorite drummers in any city. He can play powerful, wake-up-call solos and silky-smooth brushes with equal taste. Palmer is a gifted pianist who knows how to write and caress good melodies. He composed all the songs but one on this disc, and he pays tribute to them with solos that travel logically to and from their source. Harvin and Palmer are joined by bassist Fred Hamilton, who not only keeps the rhythm snappy, but turns in a couple of outstanding solos himself. Chris Maguire plays a haunting bass clarinet on "Genocide Lament," though Hamilton's subsurface string bass gives the song its real power.
The musicians have technique to spare, but are cool enough to play demurely, although they do get to flash their substantial chops on "Ripped Apart." The listener is left with subtle solos, smart accompaniment, and sophisticated interplay, the musicians not only hearing each other but feeling each other as well. You sense it in tiny moments, such as the fade-out on "Genocide Lament," the whispering end of "What I Want to Do to You," or throughout "Caught Looking."
Even on a recording of fine original compositions, it's always a treat to find a familiar tune. The first standard offered here is "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love," one of Charles Mingus' sweetest ballads. Maguire plays tenor on this tune with a gentle tone and large vibrato, letting the melody resonate without excess ornament.
The second standard, Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," is not listed on the liner notes but pops up as a reward if you let the disc spin a minute after its purported end. The tune, recorded live, is a showcase for Palmer's fine arsenal of swing, speed, and emotional power. "Strange Happy" makes for great jazz, a nice example of the payoff possible when recording musicians seem to know and like each other. It's also what you get when you hear these musicians live in clubs around town. By all means, check them out.