Michael Feinberg – The Elvin Jones Project (2012)

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For his third album Michael Feinberg originally sought to pay tribute to all the great bassists before him, but a funny thing happened on the way to making this record. Elvin Jones happened.

In researching the history of his favorite bass players, Feinberg made a startling discovery: at some point they all played with Elvin. Soon afterwards, his focus shifted from the works of these bassists to the musical relationship Jones had with these players. The Elvin Jones Project was born.

So who was going to play the part of Jones? Feinberg chose a living legend whose own stature as a drummer comes close to the icon: Billy Hart. Hart was also friends with Jones, and understood the slightly older master at a personal level, not just a professional one. Hart’s power and complexity stylistically puts him in Jones’ ball park (though I’ve always considered Hart very much his own man). Rounding out the quintet is a mixture of vets and young, eager talents: trumpeter Tim Hagans, keyboardist Leo Genovese and saxophonist/product George Garzone, who himself had performed with Jones. Alex Wintz fills in on guitar for a couple of tracks.

What Feinberg does with this tribute is not have Hart mimic Jones or have anyone mimic their respective counterpoints so closely. The point is to explore the relationship between drums and bass inspired by Jones’ chemistry with such bass masters as Reggie Workman, Gene Perla and George Mraz. Sure, there’s some Coltrane tunes in here (“Miles Mode,” “Nancy With The Laughing Face,” both from 1962), but Jones’ post-Coltrane solo period is also explored (“Earth Jones,” “Three Card Molly”), and various collaborations, too (Steve Grossman’s “Taurus People” and Frank Foster’s “The Unknighted Nations”). Feinberg dug deep to find the songs that best exemplify Jones’ rapport with his bass player.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With Many Hands might be only Michael Feinberg’s second album, but he has already found his footing. This record offers much hope that then next generation of jazz leaders are going to be just as exciting, dynamic and creative as the generations before them.]

“Nancy With The Laughing Face” wouldn’t seem as a natural choice; the rhythm section is subdued for this ballad. But there’s a subtle lift coming that area of the band that Feinberg spotted and exploited, after first performing a lovely bowed bass solo. Hart thrashes about on “Miles Mode” as Garzone belts out a meaty, swinging sax solo. “Three Card Molly” is a post-bop number coming from Jones’ Earth Jones (1982) solo album and here, Feinberg and Hart are cooking in lock step with each other as Hagan tears through scales; keep in mind these studio sessions are these two’s first encounter together. The title song from that album is a completely different animal, one where Genovese swaps the piano for a dusky, ominous Fender Rhodes. Feinberg’ staying acoustic, constructs a bass line that not only stay connected to Hart’s drums but also is responsive to Genovese’s electric tones.

“Taurus People” is the place where Feinberg and Hart’s meshing is more evident, as this complex, advance bop tune even begins with only them. “The Unknighted Nations” benefits from the addition of Wintz’ electric guitar and Genovese’s electric piano. Hagans’ trumpet is not electric, by his solo is pretty electrifying, and Hart follows with his own energetic solo.

Feinberg’s only original, the pastoral “It Is Written,” has a strong theme, and utilizes Wintz’s guitar much as Bill Frisell used his guitar in concert with Dave Holland and Jones for his summit meeting Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (2001), but the presence of Genovese — again on Rhodes — and Hagans, give the song an extra harmonic dimension.

In highlighting the musical accomplishments of Elvin Jones and his various bass partners, Feinberg revealed much about himself. He was meticulous in the material he chose and the selection of musicians who played these pieces with him. The Elvin Jones Project is ostensibly a look back at one career, but it’s just as much about the advancement of another.

The Elvin Jones Project comes out September 11, by Sunnyside Records. Visit Michael Feinberg’s site for more info.

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