Various Artists – Disney Jazz Volume 1: Everybody Wants To Be A Cat (2011)

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from the Disney animated feature, "The Aristocats"

by S. Victor Aaron

For a lot of us, our first exposure to jazz was those Charlie Brown TV specials featuring the piano trio music of Vince Guaraldi. Then again, some Disney films like 101 Dalmations, Lady And The Tramp and especially The Aristocats contained jazz or jazz-y tunes. In any case, songs first introduced in Disney films from Snow White all the way to Cars added greatly to The Great American Songbook, and we know that this hallowed canon of music is mostly exploited—and played best—by jazz musicians. That’s precisely why although Disney has put together compilation CD’s of various interpretations of classic Disney tunes in the past, one that’s done in the jazz idiom as performed by jazz musicians makes the most sense. Recognizing (somewhat belatedly) such a great fit exists, the entertainment giant’s record company arm organized the project, and last February 15, the product was made available to the public. It’s called Disney Jazz Volume 1: Everybody Wants To Be A Cat.

The striking thing about this CD isn’t just about the flexibility of the timeless songs to conform to the style and idiosyncrasies of just about any jazz artist, but the range of the contributing artists themselves. Very talented specimens from ages 15 (Nikki Yanofsky) to 90 (Dave Brubeck) are represented, spanning some four or five generations of musicians who command an equally wide array of instruments. The task of deciding who would play on this record and how each song was presented fell on former Verve A&R rep Jason Olaine. Actually, Olaine wasn’t even asked by Disney to make a jazz record per se, just a record performed by established musicians each performing a Disney class in their chosen style. But Olaine quickly zeroed in on jazz as the overarching music form, and who would be performing in that form: “I wanted to get a group of people together who would represent the many styles of jazz, such as getting The Bad Plus for an adventurous take, Regina Carter for a world music-oriented rendering and Joshua Redman for a well-rounded sound,” he notes. “We wanted to get the breadth and depth of what jazz is, as well as represent the generations of players.”

Recorded mostly in New York over the course of a week, Olaine was bringing in jazz luminaries to lay down a track a piece at the rate of about two a day. Here are some of the project’s highlights:

  • Grammy winner (damn, it sure feels good to say that) Esperanza Spalding “la-la’s” her way through “Chim Chim Cher-ee” which gets really interesting when she vocalizes  alongside Gil Goldstein’s accordion. With the only other accompaniment being Goldstein’s piano, Spalding’s pristine bass playing comes shining through, too.
  • Brubeck’s “Someday My Prince Will Come” of course invites comparisons to Miles Davis/John Coltrane’s more famous 1961 version, which is the gold standard jazz version. But Brubeck and his classic Quartet actually had this song in their repertoire years before then, and they recorded it in ’57 for the Dave Digs Disney lp. It’s amazing how consistent Brubeck’s playing style has stayed in the fifty-three year span between his two recordings of the same song.
  • Regina Carter’s violin with Gary Versace’s accordion behind her creates a soothing sound on “Find Yourself” that isn’t overly syrupy. But it’s Yacouba Sissoko’s aggressive kora toward the end that steals the show.
  • One of my favorite tracks comes from The Bad Plus, a bit surprising to me since I never fully bought into the hype about this band. Perhaps this time it has to do with the context that they are placed in, but “Gaston” sticks out here for the wild abandon they put into the song. It’s starts out innocently enough, until about fifty seconds in, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King lunge into their own brand of acoustic speed metal, with pianist Ethan Iverson barely managing to keep up, but always staying slightly behind the wobbling beat. Though they stay faithful to the melody, they play it entirely on their own terms, taking listeners through a roller coaster of tempo peaks and valleys. It’s a gas.
  • Another abstract interpretation comes from pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, who takes on “The Bare Necessities” solo and unlike The Bad Plus, barely hints at the melody for most of the song.  It’s a virtuosic performance, though, and the stride piano section—which does stick close to the melody—closes the piece by symbolically taking the jazz piano from advanced modernism back almost to ragtime. This one cut was produced by none other than Quincy Jones.
  • Even a self-avowed instrumental jazz guy like me can’t help to get slack-jawed over the teenaged vocal jazz sensation from Canada, Nikki Yanofsky. The album’s liner notes compares her to early 60s Ella Fitzgerald, but she’s got a spunk that’s all her own that’s evident on the horn-charged “It’s A small Word.” She zips through the verses with ease and then launches into a scat where she executes some pretty impressive vocal acrobatics. Just her ad libs at the end (“it ain’t too big,” the “Blues In The Night” quote) reveals a confident command of a song that’s well beyond her years. Take it to the bank, you’ll be hearing a lot more from this little lady.

Other guest performers include Roy Hargrove (who performed the title song), Joshua Redman, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Roberta Gambarini (backed by the Dave Brubeck Trio), Gilad Hekelsman and Mark Rapp. Though some performances shine over others, none of them are bad in the least. Olaine chose a rich cross section of talent that, put together on one record playing great songs, illuminates how wide, diverse and deep the talent is in the not-so-small world of jazz. That, I think, is where the real success of this album lies.

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