Ben Powell – New Street: including a Tribute to Stéphane Grappelli – Ben Powell Music, 55:34 ****:
(The Ben Powell Quartet (tracks 1-3, 5-8): Ben Powell – violin, producer; Tadataka Unno – piano; Aaron Darrell – bass; Devin Drobka – drums. Stéphane Grappelli Tribute Trio (tracks 4, 9, 10): Ben Powell – violin; Gary Burton – vibraphone; Julian Lage – guitar. Special guests: Adrien Moignard– guitar (track 5); Linda Calise – voice (track 7))
Anyone who decides to pick up the violin and play jazz can hardly ignore the influence and inspiration left behind by Stéphane Grappelli. Grappelli was one of the top three, pre-bop violinists, along with Stuff Smith and Joe Venuti. Following strongly in Grappelli’s pioneering steps is British-born Ben Powell (not to be confused with trombonist Benny Powell). If you want to hear a contemporary version of Grappelli’s esteemed Hot Club era, Ben Powell’s latest self-release, New Street, is a natural winner. There isn’t much guitar on the nearly hour-long album, but it sure swings.
The ten tracks are split between Powell’s quartet (who perform on seven) and the Stéphane Grappelli Tribute Trio (Powell, vibraphonist Gary Burton and guitarist Julian Lage) on three cuts. There are also two guests on two separate numbers. Powell opens with the longest tune, the beautiful ballad “Judith,” where Powell’s sweet violin rides atop contributions from his quartet, which consists of pianist Tadataka Unno (a new addition to Powell’s group), bassist Aaron Darrell and drummer Devin Drobka (the drummer and bassist also worked on Powell’s 2008 solo debut, Light). The arrangement brings together Powell’s classical and jazz training. “While the album is predominantly jazz-orientated stylistically,” Powell explains, “I’ve tried to access that world where jazz and classical music merge sonically.” That balance is perceived in Powell’s approach to the violin’s tone, which masterfully moves between jazz and classical vernaculars. It’s also reflected at the end of “Judith,” where a Bach reference can be heard in the final bars. The classical/jazz bridge is even more notable on pianist Carl Engel’s “Sea Shell,” written as a classical piece for violin and piano in the early 1900s, and which was inspired by Amy Lowell’s poetry. Powell’s violin ascends over a lush lyrical harmony played by Unno. Hearing this, it’s easy to forget “Sea Shell” is notated and not improvised music.
On the jazzier side, sheer exuberance is found on several cuts. For example, it’s wonderful to listen to Powell and guest guitarist Adrien Moignard as they energetically rip through Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love,” which Grappelli recorded with Django Reinhardt. Moignard proves why he is regarded as one of the top young artists on the World Gypsy jazz scene, and who draws on the past but also utilizes contemporary influences. Anyone who appreciates the repartee which Grappelli and Reinhardt gave the world will enjoy this violin and guitar collaboration. Grappelli also performed the French classic, “La Vie en Rose,” made famous by Edith Piaf. Powell imparts the song’s romantic realm while providing a mid-tempo swing, supported by guest vocalist Linda Calise (the track can also be found on her debut CD). Concerning this rendition, Powell states, “I don’t often hear jazz violin and voice together, so I wanted to celebrate this combination.” Another combination, the union of vibes, violin and guitar, is also memorable. Burton, Lage and Powell are engaging on the tender “La Chanson Des Rues,” a popular French melody Grappelli often played. The trio displays a plucky temperament on a rousing interpretation of Grappelli’s “Piccadilly Stomp,” which Grappelli wrote on his first visit to London before World War II. Powell discloses, “I thought it would be quite fun because of the British angle.” Powell’s reworked version integrates modern lines into the arrangement, yet retains the definitive Hot Club character. The standout trio number is an intimate chamber jazz cut which sensitively melds violin, guitar and vibes, called “Gary,” which Grappelli penned for Burton after their 1969 Atlantic album Paris Encounter. As the tale goes, Burton hung the score on his wall but never performed it. When Powell revealed he was interested in recording a tribute to Grappelli, Burton mentioned he had an arrangement of “Gary,” but said his copy had faded over the years. Fortunately, Grappelli had recorded “Gary,” and Powell had a cassette which included the piece, although there were no titles, so he had no idea he was already familiar with the same tune. The result is a sublime item of beauty which hopefully will find its way into the repertoire of other musicians. On New Street, Powell proves pre-bop and pre-fusion jazz violin remains a stimulating and enticing undertaking. With any luck, Powell will consider similar future ventures: would it be too much to wish for a Venuti or Stuff Smith tribute as well? For those who need further information, there is a short online promotional video which includes interviews with Powell, and filmed excerpts of the studio sessions for both the quartet and trio.
TrackList: Judith; New Street; Monk 4 Strings; Gary; What Is This Thing Called Love; Sea Shell; La Vie en Rose; Swingin’ for Stéphane; La Chanson de Rues; Piccadilly Stomp.
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