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Tribute albums done right put a new shine on the jazz canon.
The tribute album impulse might seem a bit suspect and, by definition, unoriginal. But when done right, paying respect to a bygone and influential master from personal interpretive angles, the format can be a win-win relationship for the artist and the revered tribute honoree. Such an effective/affectionate tribute album model is well-represented by four recent releases honoring Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Ennio Morricone and especially the insiders’ homage to drummer-composer Paul Motian. Consider them musical love letters.
As much as Once Around the Room: A Tribute to Paul Motian (ECM) is a powerful and poetic musical statement in its own terms — and one of the best albums of 2022 — the indelible imprint of its tribute focus is never far from the surface or the roots of the project. Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Jakob Bro were important allies of Motian’s bands. As an intriguing strategy for the tall order of filling Motian’s drum chair, Joey Baron and Jorge Rossy — each blessed with Motian-like sensitivity — provide a deft doubled-up force and grace, which is beautifully complemented by bassists Thomas Morgan, Larry Grenadier and Anders Christensen.
Motian, as composer, player and bandleader, honed a magical blend of melodicism, lyricism and abandon — sometimes echoing similar qualities in Ornette Coleman’s expansive sound world. That indelible yet flexible character is intact here, through originals by the leaders, Motian’s own signature “Drum Music” and the collective improvisation “Sound Creation,” built up into a captivating homage to a great American jazz poet.
Puckish British keyboardist Fergus Quill reportedly fell into a “Spaghetti westernized” state of mind during the pandemic, and dove into the concept album ¡Blamo! (Tight Lines Music), a loose-fitting tribute to the great Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. Leading his trio through a set of vaguely Morricone-ish tunes on his saloon-y, out-of-tune piano, Quill weaves a mischievous, Monk-spiced song set, with the occasional gunshot and tender female vocal-enhanced tune in the mix.
Ace trombonist and bandleader Conrad Herwig has made a satisfying habit of paying tribute to jazz greats, living and otherwise, but with a twist — a Latin twist. Now comes another ripe honoree, boldly ventured on The Latin Side of Mingus (Savant), through which Mingus’ innate Latin side is ushered to the surface. Elements of surprise, sophistication and Latin-jazz energies are embedded in Herwig’s charts, with enticing fresh takes on Mingus classics “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” “Better Git Hit in Your Soul,” and an adrenaline-spiked spin on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” It’s a welcome addition to the tribute projects celebrating the iconic bassist’s centennial this past year.
Arriving a couple of years after Charlie Parker’s 100th birthday, amidst a flurry of Bird tributes, the scorching and sophisticated big band homage Bird Lives: The Charlie Parker Project (ACT Music) rises above the pack. Bold keyboardist and big band shaker-upper John Beasley — known for paying respect to another jazz legend with his group MONK’estra — leads the charge in collaboration with Magnus Lindgren and the taut SWR Big Band. The heady festivities leap out of the gate with a fast and feisty take on the early Bird vehicle “Cherokee,” in a medley with “Koko,” and other high points include a sneaky “Scrapple From the Apple,” a gorgeous “I’ll Remember April” and a funky 7/4 take on “Confirmation.” Less impressive is the distracting electro pop/jazz spin on “Summertime.” The starry guest list includes ever-captivating tenor saxophonists Chris Potter and Joe Lovano, and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón (with serpentine riffing on “Donna Lee”), lending muscle to this love-and-heat-filled tribute. - Josef Woodard
Featured image by Lena Semmeloggen.