Mort Weiss – Mort Weiss Is a Jazz Reality Show (2015)

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Mort Weiss is unique, and has a musical legacy which is the envy of anyone. Best of all, he’s still making important music. In fact, Mort Weiss Is a Jazz Reality Show is perhaps his best recording to date.

Weiss began his career in the era of true mainstream jazz, establishing himself as one of the great musicians of the jazz era before deciding to take a 40-year hiatus. Mort returned in 2001, and has since recorded many albums — the last of which was his superb A Giant Step Out and Back, a journey into free improvisation. Along the way, Weiss has been through many adventures — some good, some not so good — but Mort Weiss Is a Jazz Reality Show shows a man truly at one with himself, the world and the music.

The album begins with a verbal introduction — dedicating the album to Donna, the love of Mort’s life — that’s backed by soft, flowing lines from music by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach. The first full track, “The Lamp is Low” (by Peter De Rose, Bert Scheiffer and Mitchell Parish) is a revelling, joyful, lightly tripping track showing Mort Weiss’ dexterity on clarinet to the full as he travels up and down the scales and registers with classical style. There is a lovely piano section in the middle which reflects the themes set by the clarinet, and two drum solos from Shinnosuke Takahashi which transform the light, airy feel of the track and imparts weight and a ferocity.

This is followed by Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Like Someone in Love.” Featuring more than eight minutes of interaction between the instruments, it becomes a vehicle to show the prowess of Weiss, pianist Don Friedman and bassist Phil Palombi. The self-penned “Blues For Sandy” is a gorgeous bluesy number, with a theme set by the piano first and then developed and relished by the rest of the band in turn. Mort dedicated this piece to his daughter, whose life came to an abrupt end when at the age of just 32. She committed suicide by going out of a window from “a tall building in New York City, not too far from where we recorded this album,” Weiss said. The piece features Mort on clarinet and also on vocals.

An update of “Just Friends,” by John Klenner and Sam M. Lewis, features fellow clarinet player Michael Marcus and the interaction between the two is totally engaging. Their takes on Ned Washington and Victor Young’s “Stella By Starlight” and Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton’s “Body and Soul” are great tracks, with solos from every one and just good listening. “I Remember You,” composed by Johnny Mercer and Victor Shertzinger, is delivered with impossibly rapid changes from Mort Weiss on clarinet and more than decent support.

“Yesterdays (Donna’s Theme)” is of a different ilk, with a clarinet flowing over sonorous bowed bass lines. The Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach tune then develops into swinging, jazzy riffs and flowing ups and downs, with the clarinet leading the other musicians. The structure here is beautiful. “It Might as Well Be Spring” (by Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers) is given the Weiss treatment and the band make the most of the possibilities in the familiar theme. Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is a wonderful number in itself, but here it is augmented by the vocals of Carmela Rappazzo. Her sassy, smokey oice adds a certain je ne sais quoi, and is perfect for this number. “That’s All” (by Alan Brandt ad Bob Hayman) is led by the piano before the clarinet picks up the theme and is given enough twists, tweaks and changes to make it distinctive.

Mort Weiss Is a Jazz Reality Show concludes with “Avalon” (by Al Jolson and B.G. De Sylva), an almost perfect ending as it gives each musician a chance to add their own distinctive touches. Not least of them is an almost nihilistic, driven section from Mort’s trusty axe, in a turn that shows his unparalleled skills at getting the most out of each and every note — even though they are played at an almost ridiculous speed.

What comes across loud and clear on Mort Weiss Is a Jazz Reality Show is that Mort, though into his eighth decade — and probably the most cynical son of a gun I have ever come across — is born to play jazz music. He gets so much from the musicians he gathered in this recording studio somewhere in New York. He also allows them to take the themes, play with them and clearly relishes their musicianship, which supports his own.

Since his return, Mort Weiss has leapt upon the jazz scene, eaten and spat out many critics and continued doing basically what Mort Weiss does best: playing music he enjoys, seeking new challenges and throwing caution to the wind. However, Mort Weiss Is a Jazz Reality Show marks a return to his mainstream roots — albeit with a newfound sense of exploration, since his dalliance with free form in his last recording. Everything he does, he does because he loves and music, lives and breathes the music and for Mort, if one thing is true it is that he believes if you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all.

On this album, Mort not only shows he does it well, but he also gathered to himself a group of very special musicians in the Don Friedman group, along with guests Carmela Rappazzo and Michael Marcus. He clearly inspired them to lay it down, play their hearts out and aspire to so much more than normal. Mort Weiss Is a Jazz Reality Show is an album which is definitely mainstream but by no means run of the mill. It is mainstream Mort — the way he likes it.

Weiss has an uncanny interpretation of standards and an ability to listen for those small nuances which bring the music alive for the listener. He picks them up, develops them and tosses them to his musicians to let them develop a theme, a riff or a subtle undertone. There is no super ego here. He makes of the music more than ever was written in the first place. Mort Weiss, is can be said, truly knows his music.

The overriding message on Mort Weiss Is a Jazz Reality Show is fun. It was recorded in a five-hour slot at System Two Studios, Brooklyn and I had the privilege of not only being asked to the recording (I could not make that) but also was kept informed every step of the way so I could watch how this man cajoled, talked ’round, arranged everything (even caterers, with help from his son) so that everything would go smoothly. In the ‘warts and all’ recording Mort can be heard in the background at times, shouting words of encouragement, whoops and “yeah,” “go,” “bring it on.” It has the feel of a live recording.

There is a sense here of stepping back in time to a place where friends got together in a studio for a jam — and made some more than decent music. The only difference is, this time someone was around to record it. Delightful, lifting, energetic straight-ahead jazz, Mort Weiss Is a Jazz Reality Show is delivered by a tight, communicative cohort of extremely confident musicians. At the end of the album, Mort can be heard shouting, “Good idea!” I, for one, agree: This album is a very good idea.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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Sammy Stein
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