Lou Volpe – Hear and Now – Jazz Guitar Records 070, 55:21 ****:
(Lou Volpe – guitar, producer; Onaje Allan Gumbs– piano; Bob Cranshaw – bass; Buddy Williams – drums)
Most people love an underdog, someone who gives 110 percent but somehow never gets success, attains achievements or finds deserved recognition. New York City guitarist Lou Volpe qualifies as an underdog. He is a veteran of the Big Apple studio scene, has supported numerous musicians from Herbie Mann to Peggy Lee and along the way Volpe has built a small but appreciative fan base. But he remains a secret to most jazz listeners. Volpe’s recordings are infrequent, so it’s a joy to catch him on his new mainstream jazz quartet outing, Hear and Now, containing nine Volpe originals and one jazz/pop standard.
Volpe plays with verve and swing, shifting from jazz overtones to blues licks, and includes a few pop contours. A guitarist could not ask for greater assistance than pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs – whose long credits could stretch to the moon and back; drummer Buddy Williams – who has an equally impressive résumé; and bassist Bob Cranshaw, who is best known for backing Sonny Rollins for five decades. Together these four artists cover all the bases.
The opener, the pop-tinted “Astral Island,” is probably Volpe’s most familiar composition, since it is the title track on Herbie Mann’s 1983 release, Astral Island, which featured Volpe in an auxiliary role. Not to mince words, this rendition is far superior to Mann’s tepid version. The rhythm section keeps the tune moving at a refreshing pace; Gumbs supplies a vamping solo; Volpe showcases his warm style which echoes Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery; and there is no one better than Cranshaw when it comes to bubbling bass lines.
Volpe directly reveals some of his influences on three appealing tunes. One cut particularly personifies Volpe’s enviable chops and composing skills. “Coltrane of Thought” features a rushing Volpe solo followed by a dynamic Gumbs piano foray, and Volpe enters again with a bluesy vamp which slips into a bop impression. When “Coltrane of Thought” fades near the five minute mark, it feels too soon. Volpe crafts a homage to another hero on the glowing ballad “One for Wes,” which has an emotive Volpe improvisation which evokes Wes Montgomery’s melodic accessibility and bluesy fluidity. Volpe heads into different directions on the sophisticated “Blue Boppa,” which employs block chord melodies akin to those popularized by George Shearing’s quintet. While Volpe solos with a blues voicing, he also utilizes colloquial movements which furnish unique harmonics.
Volpe has a way with romantic sentiments as well. During the upbeat blues undertaking “Prince Charming” Volpe throws in fret runs suggestive of Herb Ellis but Volpe adds enough of his own melodic elements that the number never seems like a pastiche. Especially noteworthy is the juxtaposition between Gumbs’ sprightly keyboard work and Volpe’s darker six-string sound. The foursome lay out a placid bossa nova design for “If You Should Leave,” a poignant ode to Volpe’s wife. The band sustains a gentle groove which stays shy of being too near to light jazz. The closing “Love Dance” also flirts with pop sensibilities, but Volpe’s flair for energized elegance and the manner in which he and Gumbs trade lines back and forth makes this track – and this album – a real winner. Good news for fans: Volpe is already working on his next project, a solo guitar record of Sinatra material.
1. Astral Island
2. Hear and Now
3. Prince Charming
4. Coltrane of Thought
5. One for Wes
6. Live Wires
7. Blue Boppa
8. Softly As in a Morning Sunrise
9. If You Should Leave
10. Love Dance
— Doug Simpson