Thursday, July 30, 2015

Scott Hamilton With Strings

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“... With strings” recordings can be tricky for Jazz musicians. Some of the Jazz greats - Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and Chet Baker to name a few - have made the “With Strings” form almost immortal. Bird, Brownie and Chettie have pretty much set the bar very high for any other Jazz artist’s attempt at a “With Strings recording.

For the mere mortal who is your basic, everyday Jazz musician, playing with strings can be very intimidating, restrictive and down-right upsetting.

It seems that three things are almost prerequisite to a successful “with strings” recording: [1] the Jazz musician’s tone must be beautiful so as to blend in with the softer sound of strings, [2] the arrangements must be done by someone who knows how to voice for strings, especially how to make them sound fuller, [3] and the strings themselves must be trained to phrase in a looser, dotted eighth note style that is common to Jazz and not employ the stricter on-the-beat style of phrasing which is often heard in Classical music.

Tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton has a tone on tenor saxophone that is so fulsome, bright and unfussy that the collection of Great American Songbook and Jazz standards which make-up his Scott Hamilton With Strings Arranged and Conducted by Alan Broadbent CD [Concord CCD 4538] is just the sort of material which allows him to show off his strengths: harmonic subtlety at slow tempos, delicate, almost seamless transitions between ideas, and an ability to invest a simple, familiar melody with maximum expression.

Alan Broadbent may be the best things for string arrangements since Robert Farnon, the recognized master of voicing for strings, came along. And the twenty violins, violas, and cello on the date phrase, accent and accompany in the Jazz-trained manner of the string sections that make up the Netherlands Concert Jazz Band, The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw and The Metropole Orchestra under the direction of Dutch Masters such as Henk Meutgeert, Rob Pronk, and Lex Jaspers.

Richard Cook and Brian Morton in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD 6th Ed., shared these observations about Scott:

“Born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Scott Hamilton has helped redefine mainstream jazz for two decades. To say that he plays like Ben Webster or Don Byas is to miss the point, for Hamilton has always been more resolutely contemporary than conservative.

He doesn't double on soprano, bass clarinet or flute. He probably doesn't know what multiphonics are. He has never been described as 'angular', and if he was ever 'influenced by Coltrane' it certainly never extended to his saxophone playing. And yet Scott Hamilton is the real thing, a tenor player of the old school who was born only after most of the old school were dead or drawing bus-passes. His wuffly delivery and clear-edged tone are definitive of mainstream jazz, and the affection in which Hamilton is held on both sides of the Atlantic is not hard to understand. And yet what he does is utterly original and un-slavish, not in thrall to anyone.

Concord boss, the late Carl Jefferson, remembers Hamilton turning up for his first session for the label, looking 'like a character in Scott Fitzgerald', with a fifth of gin tucked into his jacket, and playing, as it turned out, like a veteran of the first Jazz Age, a style which drew on Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Lester Young, Don Byas and Zoot Sims, resolutely unfashionable in 1977 but completely authentic and unfeigned.”

And here are Peter Straub’s insightful insert notes to  Scott Hamilton With Strings Arranged and Conducted by Alan Broadbent CD [Concord CCD 4538].

“Two days before he made this recording, Scott Hamilton was sounding uncharacteristically anxious on the telephone - he was explaining various things he had to do, none of them any more stressful than picking up his laundry or deciding what kind of portable CD player he wanted to buy. "And then," he said, getting to the heart of the matter, "I have to go to Hollywood and face twenty strings." Said that way, it sounded more like an appointment with a firing squad than the fulfillment of a desire he'd had for years.

I guess it's axiomatic that virtually all great jazz musicians, especially horn players, yearn to make string albums. Ever since Charlie Parker's Just Friends magisterially redefined the notion of what sort of background suited a jazz soloist, string albums have appeared by Cannonball Adderley, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz (three times), Ben Webster (three times), Clifford Brown, Johnny Hodges, Warren Vache, Phil Woods, and Paul Desmond, among others. All of these are very good, and some of them are great. Scott wanted to make an album that would stand up to the best of these, and he wanted to do it the right way, by choosing some of his favorite ballads and playing them live in the studio with the string players, with no overdubs or laid-in tracks. When Carl Jefferson invited him to Hollywood for the fifth and sixth of October, 1992, Scott must have felt like a gifted and popular young RSC actor who learns that he's getting the lead in Hamlet.

There would have been an additional reason for pre-performance jitters. All jazz involves an intense degree of collaboration, but in albums with strings the soloist's collaborator is not his actual sidemen, the men and women staring at their music stands and wielding their bows, but the arranger. Scott had decided tastes in arrangers, and Carl Jefferson had paired him with someone he knew chiefly as a piano player. I don't think Scott knew what to expect when he walked into the studio and met Alan Broadbent in front of all those violinists. But I bet that two or three minutes into their first take, he was leaning backwards with his eyes closed, playing magnificently, both reassured and inspired by the amazing sounds coming from the orchestra. Scott is a very quick study, and it wouldn't have taken him any longer than a chorus or two to understand that Alan Broadbent had given him some of the most beautiful arrangements ever to appear on any soloist-with-strings recording.

When Scott got back to New York, I asked him how things had gone. Normally, Scott responds to dumb questions like this with a noncommittal evasion like "I suppose it was okay." This time, he was euphoric - he had loved the date. He was full of praise for the depth and originality of Alan Broadbent's arrangements, and it was clear that he was still hearing them in his head.

Now we can all hear what came to Scott Hamilton through his headphones, and listen to the way he responded to it. Throughout this recording, Scott Hamilton plays at the absolute top of his form. He says that the best thing on the album is Broadbent's arrangement of the verse to Young and Foolish, but I want to point out the eloquent authority with which he delivers the melody of every song here and the intensity of his soloing, especially on Goodbye Mr. Evans, The Look of Love, The Shining Sea, and Young and Foolish. He plays these melodies as freshly as if they'd never been played before, renewing their luxurious romanticism, tender regret, and sorrow by singing them with the flawless intelligence and grace of Nat Cole or Frank Sinatra; and then, as Broadbent's strings dart and hover, burnishing a chord before blissfully expanding it, touching the melody and swooping away from it, Scott Hamilton instinctively executes the essential miracle of jazz music by moving inside the song and cracking it open to let us know what it would say if it were given the power magically to recreate itself as passionately and expressively as possible.

Scott says that Alan Broadbent's writing gets even better the more he hears it, and anyone who buys this recording will discover that the same is true for his own part in it. Scott Hamilton With Strings represents a kind of perfection, and I can't imagine anyone ever making a better record of this kind.”

You can hear Scott with Alan broadbent string arrangement of My Foolish Heart on the following video.

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