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The title Eighty Nine refers to saxophonist and clarinetist Charlie Gabriel’s age at the time the record was cut, and his vintage makes him easily the oldest signee to Sub Pop, a Seattle imprint known for nurturing the grunge movement beginning in the late 1980s, not its devotion to jazz.
Still, the match makes sense. Sub Pop has always championed individuality rather than mimicking trends. As for Gabriel, who joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 2006 after stints with legends such as Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, he’s clearly at a point in his life when he’s beyond trying to prove anything to anyone. The result is a masterful set brimming with relaxed confidence.
Accompanying Gabriel are his Preservation Hall bandmate, bassist Ben Jaffe, and guitarist Joshua Starkman, both of whom eschew anything that smacks of showboating. Their mission is simply to support Gabriel, and the gentle way their sounds envelop his lines is charmingly simple yet beautifully poignant.
The repertoire includes a couple of originals, including the sassy Gabriel/Jaffe tune “Yellow Moon.” But it’s dominated by standards whose renderings feel fresh in part because of how deeply Gabriel understands them. The opener, Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You,” is achingly lovely thanks to Gabriel’s unhurried clarinet melodicism. Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” which follows, finds Gabriel creating a midnight mood by way of a sax tone so ripe it drips, and his take on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” positively sparkles.
Even better are the three numbers on which Gabriel sings. He delivers the Jaffe co-written “The Darker It Gets,” the swinging Jule Styne chestnut “I Get Jealous” and Chris Smith’s warm, wonderful “I’m Confessin’” in a voice that distills his decades of experience into pure joy and is capable of putting a smile on the face of the grungiest rocker. — Michael Roberts