Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton – ‘Round Midnight (2012)

A couple of guys about a half generation apart but both a full generation or two after the ones who created the sweetly swinging jazz they thrive on, Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen carry the torch for the original great tenor sax masters like Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and their immediate successors. For the third time, they pool their collective prowess together for an album in tribute to the songs and style they were played in of that long-ago time. Done up with such care, personality and facility, it matters none at all that they’re practicing classic jazz with such close fealty because they’re such skilled practitioners.

Hamilton, the elder of the two, has been an fervent evangelist of pre-modal jazz since the mid-70s, instrumental in starting a revival movement that precipitated and culminated in the reverberating emergence of Wynton Marsalis. Allen, born a dozen years later, learned about Hamilton shortly after starting out on tenor at twelve and eventually followed a career as a jazz musician that led him to New York and opportunities to play alongside his early inspiration starting shortly after his move to NYC in the late 80s. The two still continue to perform together, occasionally even touring together, and the empathy and telepathy built up over the years show. “We have a pretty good blend together and it is always a great experience,” notes Allen about their musical encounters.

That’s in plenty evidence on ‘Round Midnight, too. On this date, Allen’s rhythm section of Rossano Sportiello (piano), Joel Forbes (bass), Chuck Riggs (drums) are utilized, who obviously work well with the younger tenorman, but also adapt seamlessly to the addition of an extra sax player in Hamilton.

Figuring out when Allen is playing and when Hamilton is playing is often challenging because they aren’t assigned to their own left-right channel and their styles are so similar. Even an extremely knowledgeable and perceptive jazz listener like Scott Yanow admits it’s “tricky” but adds in the record’s liner notes that “Harry has a bit more of Stan Getz in his tone while Scott leans a little more to Zoot Sims, but their influences and inspirations are very similar, and of course Getz and Sims were both inspired by Lester Young.” Trying to solve that puzzle for each song doesn’t diminish the listening experience at all, it all sounds good regardless of where it’s coming from, and they sound great together. But I might be guessing a bit on attributing who plays what and apologize in advance where I got it wrong.

“My Melancholy Baby” does definitely begin with Allen peeling off to solo first, and while he plays with the Getz sweetness, there’s also a bit of a rasp in his tone, immediately establishing himself with a style that might be heavily influenced by old icons, but it’s not hackneyed, either. Hamilton’s notes roll off smoothly like a warm maple syrup. When the two combine to harmonize together, it’s comparable to two vocalists in a duet, and the band offers up terrific support swinging with authoritative grace. Allen is old schoolin’ it with ease and confidence on “How Am I To Know,” but it’s Sportiello’s relaxed Sonny Clark styled piano solo that grabs most of the attention. Allen uncorks a burning sax solo on “The Opener,” while Hamilton again strings together a benign set of notes. Both practice the fine art of pacing an extended solo, keeping it interesting and not revealing his whole bag of tricks at once.

Often, however, most of the sparks fly when they’re playing together. On both “Hey Lock!” and “Flight of the Foo Birds” they blow together first in smooth unison and then harmonize with a big band crispness. For a brief spot toward the end of the former song they’re trading fours in a way they really reveals the subtle differences in their styles. For the latter, Hamilton is the “sweet” counterpart to Allen’s “sour” sax. “Lover” is a finger-snapping take on this Hart-Rodgers standard, and both deliver first-rate solos.

Allen wrote “Great Scott” in homage to his older partner, and here Hamilton’s progression and cadence of notes are flawless. Allen likewise swings with soul and precision. Hearing the two swap statements makes you understand how these cats are not mere derivatives. The whole program ends on the famous Monk ballad “‘Round Midnight,” where Allen’s sax is lustfully breathy while Hamilton is more circumspect, and each are handing off to the other after only a couple of bars as opposed to the extended solos of the other performances. Both are reverent and true to original spirit of song.

All told, a flawless set of performances of small combo jazz of the classic post war era as carried out by two of the best revivalists of the form currently working.‘Round Midnight was released September 11, by Challenge Records.

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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 him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews.com.