Rod McGaha – A Gentle Man – Nick-E-Nick

by | Sep 6, 2009 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Rod McGaha – A Gentle Man – Nick-E-Nick, 64:54 ***:

(Rod McGaha – trumpet, producer; Jeff Steinberg – piano, arranger; Chris Walters – organ, Wurlitzer; André "Andy" Reiss – guitar; Roger Spencer – bass; Marcus "Stix" Finnie – drums; David Davidson, David Angell – violin; Kristin Wilkinson – viola; Kristen Cassell – cello; Roy Agee – trombone; Denis Solee – saxophone)

On his latest venture, A Gentle Man, trumpeter Rod McGaha proves at least two things: there is much more to Nashville than country music; and standard romantic jazz – particularly a trumpet-led ensemble backed by a string quartet – has lost none of its appeal.  

On previous outings McGaha has tried his hand at Christian music (he was nominated for a Dove award for his 2003 release The Trumpet Sounds), soul-jazz, bop, blues, funk and other genres. This time around McGaha focuses on standard ballads. He explains his approach was a simple wish: "I wanted to pay tribute to a lot of the old songs," which in this case means well-worn but still comfortably familiar ones by Bacharach, Gershwin, Victor Young and likeminded pop songsmiths. McGaha selected specific material that, he says, "Have honesty in common, a certain integrity of character," and songs that could adhere to a preferred mood and a state of unhurried spontaneity.

To accomplish his mission, McGaha carefully gathered Music City’s finest jazz players: instrumentalists who labor in Nashville’s country and pop studios by day and perform in the after-hours jazz haunts at night. McGaha comments that "I try to choose musicians like Duke Ellington did, each one for his or her own individual character." It is obvious listening to the contributions of guitarist André "Andy" Reiss, pianist and arranger Jeff Steinberg, keyboardist Chris Walters, or rhythm aces Marcus "Stix" Finnie (drums) and Roger Spencer (bass) that McGaha chose well.

The twelve tracks share an easygoing elegance and intimacy that evokes antecedents such as Clifford Brown with Strings, Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, or the recent Tom Harrell project Paradise, to cite just three examples.

Despite the dominance of standards, McGaha elected to use a Steinberg composition as the title track, which is a consummate summation of McGaha’s gentle and expressive emotional commitment, and also helps describe the record’s frame of mind as well as McGaha’s general personality. The group furnishes a sympathetic reading to the ballad that conjures but does not copy McGaha’s mentor, Clark Terry. McGaha takes his time and develops his solo, and his fortitude earns accolades. On this and many other tunes, McGaha shows his increased trumpet facility with sustained notes, which is a hallmark of the ballad format. While McGaha’s solos seem relaxed, any player can tell you that this kind of intent is physically demanding, and McGaha’s technical skills are adept enough that listeners never notice the effort.

McGaha understands the foundations of jazz. On opening number "Honeysuckle Rose," he reveals his adoration for Louis Armstrong by imparting the enduring classic a Crescent City touch. While McGaha purposefully employs a muted wah-wah to invoke a bygone age, he slips in a few postwar riffs into his solo to move beyond mere nostalgia. Meanwhile, Reiss and Spencer foster a supportive and charming rhythm background. McGaha replicates this mannerism later in the program on a sentimental adaptation of the Depression-era oldie "Sunny Side of the Street." As an entertaining contrast, McGaha re-examines "Honeysuckle Rose" as the album closer, but converts it into a Kansas City-flecked design complete with his scat vocals, a swinging arrangement, and some witty piano/trumpet dialogue.   

Chet Baker is another influence who is posited by way of McGaha’s cozy rendition of "When I Fall In Love." Baker, of course, showcased Victor Young and Edward Heyman’s anecdote of amour with a large string orchestra in the late 1950s. McGaha, though, demonstrates a smaller string quartet is more personal and enhances the number’s inherently efficient affection. Anyone acquainted with McGaha’s back catalog might recognize "When I Fall in Love," since a previously recorded shorter version can be found on his 1999 undertaking, The Preacherman.

McGaha discloses some Southern style during an extended performance of "Loverman" via some lightly spiritualized blue notes and a laid-back disposition. The modest arrangement provides plenty of room for McGaha to display his technique and  virtuosity. McGaha and company head even further south with a Latinized treatment of the celebration-of-Spring missive "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." Arranger Steinberg supplies a mambo-moderated realization that calls to mind Pérez Prado’s mid-’50s translation.

While most cuts are faithful to what has come before, Steinberg refracts The Turtles’ pop hit "Happy Together" into a soulful romp that balances a George Martin-inspired string arrangement with McGaha’s bright tone and Chris Walters’ bluesy organ. McGaha lays out an impulsive, contemporary solo bridge reminiscent of when he was in Max Roach’s touring band. On the other hand, an added sixties pop tune, Burt Bacharach’s "The Look of Love," does not possess anything original or interesting to make the oft-covered chart-topper stand out from the rest of the dozen cuts.

Although not wholly essential, A Gentle Man is an admirable offering that McGaha can be proud of.

TrackList:

1. Honeysuckle Rose  
2. A Gentle Man
3. The Look of Love
4. I’m Confessin’ That I Love You
5. When I Fall in Love
6. Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White
7. Happy Together
8. Never Let Me Go
9. How Long Has This Been Going On
10. Sunny Side of the Street
11. Loverman
12. Honeysuckle Rose (Blow Out)

— Doug Simpson

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