Three Reliable Vets from HighNote Records: Joey DeFrancesco, Houston Person and Cedar Walton (2009)

by S. Victor Aaron

This installment of Quickies takes a glance at three new offerings from HighNote Records. HighNote Reocrds, in case you didn’t know, has been around since 1996, a creation of former Muse Records founder and Prestige Records exec Joe Fields. As a longtime veteran of the whole jazz record biz, Fields had been able to stock his roster with proven and promising talent alike. Kenny Barron, Larry Coryell, John Hicks, Etta Jones and Harvie S are just a small sample of legends who have at one time or another made records for either HighNote or Fields’ sister label, Savant. This outfit has also been the home to some of the more notable newer players, too; Revival Of The Fittest by tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander will get a hearing on this space later.

In recent months, HighNote has put out some records by some of the biggest stars on its current lineup: Joey DeFrancesco, Houston Person and Cedar Walton. As one of the smaller labels, HighNote gives its artists much leeway to just “be themselves” and that’s precisely the quality shared by all three of these records. As is the case for guys who have been playing the sportlight as long as these cats have, their paths have crossed at one time or another (although not on these records). Houston Person, for example, appeared on DeFrancesco’s first album twenty years ago, when Joey was just seventeen. Walton was a sideman on some Person records going back to at least 1967.

I’ll say up front that fans of these three musicians will want to add these new releases to their collection. None of these represent the pinnacle of their output, but are plenty close enough to it and would even make good entry points. Because when these three are just “being themselves” it makes for some rather pleasing listening.

Joey DeFrancesco Snapshot

Joey DeFrancesco is largely credited with the revival of Hammond B-3 jazz in the nineties, a status bolstered by the fact that he’s often the first organ player a top guitarist thinks of whenever they are looking to groove up their sound (John McLaughlin, Pat Martino, Dave Stryker, Lee Ritenour). I didn’t imagine that when I first heard his records in the early part of the decade, when he was still singing and playing trumpet, too, and doing both rather competently. But it’s clear from his robust, flamboyant and intricate style, Joey D. went down the right path.

Snapshot is latest in a long line of records he’s cut for HighNote, and this time, the master organist takes his show on the road, literally. This live engagement out of Scottsdale, Arizona earlier this year is a no-frills delight by a standard organ/guitar/drums combo. For the show, DeFrancesco got support from guys who he has trusted for a couple of decades. Guitarist Paul Bollenback had toured with him for fifteen years starting in 1990 and reunited for this recording. Byron Landham goes back even further, having played for J.D. since the tour supporting his first album. Both appeared on DeFrancesco’s third album in 1991 and have graced many of his records since then (Bollenback boasts more than a half dozen records under his own name, as well).

This stage date runs through five standards and two originals (“Songline” by Bollenback and “Whichole” by DeFrancesco), and does it with much fire and little fuss. As is the case in these settings, the leader gets the most solo spotlight, but leaves plenty of room left over for his bandmates. The standards are given treatments that tends to accentuate the format and it’s clear that these dudes read each others minds very well with the subtle touches done on many of these songs. My personal faves are the Miles Davis/Ron Carter stalwart “Eighty One,” the mood-shifting rendition of “Fly Me To The Moon” and Bollenback’s own “Songline.”

The mission of Snapshot is straightforward and it accomplishes that mission well. For live, burning B3 trio jazz in the honored tradition of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Charles Earland, it can’t be said that it can be done better these days by Joey DeFrancesco and his two old friends.

Houston Person Mellow

Houston Person is one of the last in a long line of swinging, soul-jazz tenor sax giants going back to Ben Webster. The generation of saxophone players that have come after Person have generally patterned themselves after the more modern sound of Coltrane, Rollins and Shorter, so it’s a real treat to hear Houston’s pure and straightforward old school style. Person’s long possessed a big, warm tenor voice that’s as soulfully tough as Gene Ammons and as sultry as Ike Quebec.

After a long series of good-to-great records for Prestige and later Muse, Person followed Fields over to HighTone and still makes music the way he’s done so for a long time: honest, fresh small combo interpretations of time-honored standards with an original thrown in here or there. For Mellow, Houston employs a quintet that includes John Di Martino on piano, James Chirillo on guitar and an unbeatable rhythm section of Ray Drummond (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums). Staying true to the title, Mellow is a sentimental, soulful affair: even the toe-tapping “Sunny” is bathed in an aura of velvet. “In A Mellow Tone” might be mellow, but it still swings like a pro. But the familiar ballads are the main draw on this outing: “What A Difference A Day Made” is so pillowy soft, but Person’s flawless sax lines saves it from the Muzak playlist. “God Bless The Child” is ultimate retro baby-making music. The album does end on a more dynamic note, though, with a short, fast-paced version of “Lest
er Leaps In” featuring Nash’s combustible drums.

To top it off, Mellow was recorded, mixed and mastered by the indefatigable Rudy Van Gelder (as was Cedar Walton’s new record), and the quality shows. Which means that for the criteria for making a choice jazz record—good song selection, standout performances and quality recording—are all met. You have to be in a mellow mood to appreciate Mellow, but don’t say you weren’t warned. Or invited, rather.

Cedar Walton Voices Deep Within

Cedar Walton made his mark mostly as a sideman pianist, participating in all those great Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers albums of the early-to-mid sixties and later, classics by Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan and Eddie Harris. But while Walton has produced a string of good records under his own name, his greatest strength may lie in his composing. He doesn’t get the notice for that enjoyed by, say, Benny Golson, he’s made some nice additions to the jazz fakebook: “Bolivia,” “Mosaic,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Mode For Joe.”

At seventy-five years old, Walton isn’t nearly done yet. Like Person, Walton reunited with Fields from the Prestige days and the release of Voices Deep Within last September marks his sixth disc for HighNote. This time, only three of the eight tracks come from Walton’s own pen, but it’s not because he’s lost his mojo; “Voices Deep Within” has a fine-tuned melody that’s just as compelling as the solid performances offered up by saxophonist Vincent Herring and Walton. On Eubie Blake’s elegant “Memories Of You,” it’s bassist Buster Williams who gets to resonate with a note-perfect solo. “Naima” has been covered exhaustively, but it has a unique meaning for Walton, who played on the first known recording of this song, which eventually ended up in CD form as an alternate version for John Coltrane’s Giant Steps masterpiece. For this rendition, Herring sits out and Walton displays a good mastery of feel, modulation and emotion. For the more obscure cover, Walton tackles Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star” and gives it plenty of oomph while making it swing with some Latin flourishes.

In Doug Ramsey’s well done liner notes (a lost art, it seems), Cedar Walton plainly opines that Voices Deep Within “is a good album.” As far as I’m concerned, he is plainly right.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

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