Joe Magnarelli + Strings – My Old Flame – Give@Go Records, 55:59 ****½:
(Joe Magnarelli, trumpet; Dick Oatts, alto sax; Rick Germanson, piano; David Wong, bass; Peter Bernstein, guitar on tracks 2 & 9; Vince Cherico, drums on tracks 1,3,5, & 9; Jimmy Wormworth, drums; Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, percussion on “the Duke”; Daniel Sadownick, percussion on “Highbridge”; Orchestration by Marty Sheller)
It is the dream of many established jazz artists to have a “with strings” recording. Jazz legends like Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Art Pepper, Ben Webster, and Donald Byrd have among their most well known albums those made with string backing. There is something about a trumpet or saxophone backed by strings that is deeply moving, both lyrical and relaxing. When it is done right – and the string section does not sound saccharine – the sound becomes magical.
Joe Magnarelli, better known to jazz fans as “Mags”, has gone first class with putting together My Old Flame. He not only uses Dick Oatts on alto sax, but adds a superb rhythm section of pianist Rick Germanson, bassist, David Wong, and splitting drum duties with Vince Cherico and Jimmy Wormworth. Peter Bernstein, in the top five of jazz guitarists on the scene today, adds his classy touch to “I’ll Be Seeing You” and Magnarelli’s composition, “McChesney Park.” However, the biggest reason that this is a first class production is that Marty Sheller has done the orchestrations. Sheller is known in Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean circles for his music scoring and has had heavy involvement with Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, and Sabu Martinez. Formerly a trumpeter himself, Sheller has been active on the scene since the late 50s. I do not know if he has orchestrated many strings albums, but based on his orchestrations on My Old Flame, he was the right man for the job.
Six of the nine tracks on this gorgeous-sounding CD feature the jazz combo playing with a sixteen piece string section. Song selection is a mixture of four well known numbers along with five tracks written by Mags. The sound mix, engineered by ace Mike Marciano, is crisp and clean with the neither the strings nor the trumpet or sax overwhelming each other.
The title track right off the bat sets the stage for near an hour of perfection. Mags’ well-known lyricism is matched by the strings backing. Joe must have been in heaven listening to the master tape. “I’ll be Seeing You” follows and its highly recognizable melody jumps at you. I can just imagine this track being played in a symphony hall with full orchestra. The addition of Bernstein’s guitar adds fills that bring even more interest to Sheller’s orchestration. (My only greedy regret is that Peter did not play on more than two numbers.) Rick Germanson’s solo is spot on with a bluesy tinge. Rick never gets enough credit as one of the brightest lights among today’s new generation of piano greats.
“Highbridge” has Latin overtones which are perfect for Sheller’s background. The quintet sans strings does Joe’s waltz, “Eracism. Here the blend of Magnarelli and Oatts is highlighted as the two are locked in a groove. Hearing Oatts solo is a pleasure as the notes float over you like a cool breeze on a hot day. Brubeck’s “The Duke” follows and again Sheller is the right man for orchestrating the Latin beat laid down by Wilson Corniel.
Another quintet piece is Mag’s “Blues for Skee” written for the late bassist, Dennis Irwin. Germanson has a probing solo here before Joe steps up for some extended blowing as does Dick Oatts. “When Your Lover Has Gone” lends itself beautifully for strings and lyrical lines from Mags and Oatts. The strings dart in and out behind the front line.
I really dug “Bilbao” written by Joe for the Spanish city. Its bright melody is quite catchy. “McChesney Park” closes the CD with muted trumpet and a welcome visit with Peter Bernstein again. Its relaxed groove mixes funk with a side of strings.
I hope that My Old Flame gets the radio airplay it deserves. The only issue radio programmers will have is which tracks to feature. That won’t be an easy task from this superlative effort from Joe. I know it’s getting a lot of air time in my stereo…
TrackList: My Old Flame, I’ll Be Seeing You, Highbridge, Eracism, The Duke, Blues for “Skee”, When Your Lover Has Gone, Bilbao, McChesney Park
— Jeff Krow