JOE BARNA & LEE RUSSO The Abenaki (LRS)
by J Hunter
Did you ever spend weeks or months on tenterhooks, hoping against hope that you'd get this REALLY way cool toy, game, or book for your birthday, only to have it turn out to be a total dud when you finally get it? I've been experiencing the tenterhooks portion of the equation for about six months, waiting for Lee Russo's follow-up to his outstanding debut disc Trading Off (LRS, 2006). Well, I finally got it, and there was good news and a surprise. The good news is The Abenaki simply rocks (in a jazz sense of the word); the surprise is that Russo's name is not alone on the masthead.
This disc is a collaboration between Russo and Joe Barna - one of the most consistently interesting percussionists in the Capital Region, and a major reason why Trading Off was as bewitching as it was. Barna was Russo's primary foil on Trading Off - a necessity on a trio date: Russo's alto-saxman father Leo guested on two tracks, but other than that, it was just Lee and his rhythm section, bringing the West Coast to the East Coast with stripped-down, unapologetic aplomb. Someone else plays the foil on The Abenaki (More on that in a moment), but Barna's got plenty more irons in the fire.
First, Barna is credited with playing drums and cymbals. That may seem redundant, but it's not. Barna plays them as two separate instruments - the cymbals being the second voice and driving force behind all the music, and the drums used to add flashes of drama or tension. It's the bebop theory of drumming taken to the next level, and it's both amazing and effective. For one thing, whenever Barna does drop a bomb or play an extended flourish or crescendo, the effect is twice as big as it would have been if he'd been hitting it all night long. His solo on Mobleyisms literally makes you jump, and the thunder he brings to the title track makes you want to close the windows to shut out the storm.
Second, we get to experience Joe Barna as a composer. He wrote three terrific pieces for this date, all of them interesting for different reasons: Carros-Elle is a light, sweet, almost-classical waltz that swirls around your head, with Russo's sweet, substantial tenor sax in one ear and Barna's hissing brushes in the other; Ryan Berg (another holdover from Trading Off) contributes a resonant bowing bass solo that adds to the classical subtext. Lady Like is an out-and-out bossa ballad, straight out of the Stan Getz School of Romance, and as touching a tune as you'll hear all this year. Swingin' Lee is just what it says: A chance for Russo to just stand up and play swinging tenor blues over a meaty beat.
And let's talk about Russo's tenor for a moment: I've seen Lee play with his father since Trading Off, and it's obvious the fruit does not fall far from the tree, at least as far as the elder Russo's love of the sub-genre that gave us Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz. That said, Lee Russo's music is not simply mashups of solos we've come to know and ignore; his writing and playing is all contemporary and all him.
Lightning-fast cuts like Expedition and Emily's Shake remind us West Coasters knew how to wail, but Russo never sacrifices substance or quality in these uptempo moments. You won't be able to stop yourself from smiling at Bossa for the Ornithologist and Natalie's Lullabye, particularly when you hear Russo with another primary instrument to bounce off of. Dave Solazzo's lyrical piano really lets Russo expand his color palate. Solazzo's solos can dance or roar or purr like a kitten, but it's his brilliant comping that brings a divine context to the proceedings, letting Russo weave gorgeous solos that combine a velvet texture with a blade-sharp edge.
The exploratory title track (which seems to use Miles' So What as a takeoff point) is named for a Native American tribe indigenous to the New England/Quebec region. Whether the track is a homage to the tribe or a representation of their story is unknown; either way, it's a fine place for all four players to extend their reach and see where this matrix can take them. The key for me is that the Abenaki called themselves Alnôbak, meaning Real People. Joe Barna and Lee Russo are decidedly the real people - that is, they are the real thing, making jazz without pretensions or compromises or the need to be anyone else but themselves. Separately, they're a handful; together, they're an awesome force that shows subtlety is a martial art, and is a beautiful thing when performed by black belts.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.