Clarinetist Mort Weiss, who turns 76 years young tomorrow, is ten years into a remarkable comeback after laying off working as a musician for four — that’s right — four decades. Last year, both Mark Saleski and totally dug Weiss’ solo clarinet opus, Raising The Bar. Making up for lost time, Weiss is now nine albums in his remarkable renaissance with today’s issuance of Mort Weiss Meets Bill Cunliffe. Weiss also continues with a string of albums that features some pretty high profile special guests. In 2006, he released two records that paired him with organist Joey DeFrancesco and flautist Sam Most, respectively (The B3 And Me, Mort Weiss Meets Sam Most). This time, the guest of honor is top shelf pianist Bill Cunliffe.
Cunliffe co-headlined some recommended CD’s we covered back in 2009 and . As this latest project of his makes clear, he’s a natural for a set list full of bop and post-bop standards. Like Kenny Barron, Cunliffe is an highly amenable accompanist and a flawless soloist, full of taste and a reverence for bop tradition. Rounding out this crack quartet are proven veterans in Chris Conner (bass) and Roy McCurdy (drums).
The album gets off to a rousing start with a blistering run of “The Theme” (recording documented in video below). It becomes immediately apparent why Weiss wanted to do a record with Cunliffe, whose left handed chords work together in perfect tandem with his thoughtful and dynamic right-handed single note ruminations:
Weiss himself shines brightest on the ballad and mid-tempos numbers like “Who Can I Turn To,” because he’s a master at the almost-lost art of caressing a good melody. You can find some other great examples of his expressive style on “For Heavens Sake” and “Who Cares.”
Mort includes a few special guests with which he’s had on his records before. The great Sam Most sits in for a couple of cuts (“Indian Summer,” “The Gentle Rain,” “My Ship”), and rapport between the flute and clarinet is so tight, they’re practically finishing each other’s sentences. L.A. seven-string guitarist Ron Eschete’ (Gene Harris, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Diana Krall, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown), a mainstay on Weiss recordings, steps into Weiss’ spot as primary soloist for “If I Should Lose You,” displaying the smooth, fluid lines that won him so many coveted gigs over the years. Noted jazz critic Scott Yanow was asked to lead with his own clarinet for the swinging “The Sheik of Araby” and while he’s nowhere near Weiss’ league or needing to quit his day job, he acquits himself well. It can now be said that this critic put his money where his writing pen is.
A couple tracks are detours: “Readings of Kerouac 1″ is a bang-on recital by attorney and jazz enthusiast Peter Marx, this reading being a hilarious account of jazz performer Slim Gaillard. The other change of pace is a piece written and performed by Mort’s grandson Anthony Weiss. “Awaken,” containing Anthony’s vocal and guitar, won’t necessarily speak to the same audience as the rest of the album, but Mort’s introductory words preceding the performance makes the point: music universally aims to speak the truth; sometimes the truth has to be conveyed in different ways to connect to different generations of audiences.
Perhaps the biggest treat on the record is a bustling rendition of “What Is This Thing Called Love,” as performed solely by Weiss and Cunliffe. You can almost feel Cunliffe’s notes jump off the sheet music and he doesn’t ever seem to run out of ideas. Inspired by the pianist, Weiss likewise rains down a mellifluous sequence of sweet sounds at rapid speed, attacking it like Coltrane attacks Giant Steps. Man, I could stand for an entire album with just these two.
On the whole, Mort Weiss Meets Bill Cunliffe come across less about selling some records and more about enjoying friends, family, art and life itself. If the truth of Mort Weiss’ music reaches out to people beyond his circles, so much the better. With proficient and earnest performances by him, Cunliffe, Most and others, I don’t see how it couldn’t.
At 76, Mort Weiss will have accomplished much more since he turned 66 than a vast majority of musicians have attained in a lifetime. Young at heart? Perhaps. But there’s no substitute for being a great player at heart, and ultimately, that’s what makes Weiss records like this one succeed.
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