Mark Whitfield – Live and Uncut (Chesky)
Since graduating from the Berklee College of Music 30 years ago, guitarist Mark Whitfield has built a solid career. He can list a dozen recordings under his name, plus sessions with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and George Benson. Yet his latest release, Live & Uncut, comes across as a better idea in theory than practice.
The six-song disc, recorded with bassist Ben Allison and drummer Billy Drummond at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City, contains no Whitfield compositions. Rather, the trio interprets four standards — the best of which is a reading of Bronislaw Kaper and Paul Francis Webster’s “Invitation” — and two Drummond originals. What’s more, the musicians lack chemistry. Whitfield admits in the liner notes that he had limited musical interaction with Allison, although he’s played for years with Drummond, and that the rhythm team had been hand-picked by Chesky Records. “All I was being asked to do,” he relates, “was show up and play the guitar!”
At times, that fact is made all the more evident by Whitfield’s insistence on an unedited live recording with no “cuts.” The guitarist’s Benson influence, so prominent on previous recordings, is frequently absent. His solos on the opening chestnut, “Without a Song,” lack imagination and come across as rote. Ditto Thelonious Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” on which his ideas fall short of Monk’s model. Whitfield’s brightest moments come early with his warp-speed opening chords on “Invitation” and his swinging, evocative flights on Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me.
As both soloist and accompanist, Allison is in fine form throughout, while Drummond effortlessly switches between drumsticks and brushes, including an impressive unaccompanied break on his “Changes for Monk and Trane.” But another drawback is Chesky’s “Binaural+ Series” format, in which a recording is captured through a single binaural microphone. On paper, it’s supposed to put the listener in the middle of the audience. Through speakers, it’s distractingly closer to mono than stereo sound.
— Bill Meredith