Friday, August 30, 2019

Ronnie Cuber with His Trio and Straight Street

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Ronnie Cuber has appeared on more than 200 albums in a long and productive career that began back in 1959 with Marshall Brown’s Newport Youth band. In that time he has only made 20 as a leader which for those of us who feel him to be one of the greatest soloists to ever concentrate on the baritone saxophone is not nearly enough.”
- Gordon Jack writing in JazzJournal

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles continues its efforts at documenting the music of baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber - what’s it refers to as its CuberQuest - with a feature on his latest CD’s for Nils Winther’s SteepleChase Productions - Ronnie’s Trio [SCCD - 31848] and Straight Street [SCCD 31860]. Although the latter is a “live” recording, no locale is given and strangely, too, it was recorded in November 2010 but not issued until 2018.

As is always the case with Ronnie, he brings along a fine band on each of these discs, all the better to draw inspiration from one would think. Jazz musicians often “play off of one another” [i.e., feed each other ideas], so having other competent musicians becomes a source for more stimulating soloing.

But having creative musicians to blow with is only part of the process of making Jazz, another is selecting interesting compositions to blow on and Ronnie is a master at this as he always seems to put together the perfect combination of Jazz standards and choices from the Great American Songbook with a few originals thrown in occasionally for good measure.

Each of these CDs is 70+ minutes of exceptional performances by Ronnie and, in the case of the trio, with Jay Anderson on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums and, and on the in-performance CD with George Colligan on piano, Cameron Brown on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums.

Whatever the format, with each new recording Ronnie keeps getting better and better; his improvisations are so complete from every perspective that you just shake your head in amazement at the immensity of his talent and ability. He is truly a player for the ages.

Nils often relies on Neil Tesser to provide comments for the sleeve notes as he is an informed and knowledgeable observer of the music and its makers.

Such is the case here with Neil’s notes to Ronnie’s Trio [SCCD - 31848]:

“Ronnie Cuber has made a lot - a lot - of recordings. Perhaps 20 of them have appeared under his name; the hundreds of others form a panoramic array of genres and formats, sketching the history of American popular music in the second half of the 20th century.

He played in the 1960s big bands of Lionel Hampton and Maynard Ferguson, and in the explosive orchestras of Eddie Palmieri and Mario Bauza, where his embrace of Latin rhythms made him the first-call baritone man for dozens of Latin jazz dates to come. With George Benson in the mid-60s, he brought a unique heft to the organ combo by grabbing the role usually reserved for tenor sax, which propelled him toward rhythm-and-blues; before long he was touring and recording with Aretha Franklin and soul tenor sax giant King Curtis. His choc-a-bloc studio schedule placed him on sessions backing Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Curtis Mayfield, Steely Dan, Dr. John, and Eric Clapton. He has recorded with Horace Silver and Frank Zappa; he subbed on the Saturday Night Live Band; he even recorded disco, which at its mid-70s height had him "in the studio six or seven hours a day, and a minimum of three times a week" he once recounted.

But amidst all those sessions in all those contexts, Ronnie Cuber had never recorded in the stripped-down "power trio" configuration heard on this album.
Few baritonists have, actually: in the pantheon of jazz artists who have excelled on the big horn - a group that certainly includes Cuber - most have preferred a more traditional rhythm section that uses piano or guitar to fill in the harmonies.

Perhaps this has to do with the range of the horn, which at the bottom end has less contrast with the bass than you'd find in the other saxophones. Maybe it has something to do with the instrument's earlier reputation as a less-than-nimble, not-so-flexible beast -an image that first began to crumble in the hands of Serge Chaloff and Gerry Mulligan in the 40s, and which has been steadily pulverized by Pepper Adams, Cuber and his contemporary Nick Brignola, and by the host of mainstream players they influenced, a cohort epitomized by Gary Smulyan.

Whatever the reason, when it comes to such trios, tenor and alto saxophones rule; even among younger players, it's relatively rare to find a baritone saxist working with only bass and drums for accompaniment. (Keep in mind, however, that when you have Jay Anderson and Adam Nussbaum on hand, "only" becomes a relative term.)

The fact that Ronnie's Trio is his first album in this format doesn't mean that Cuber has ignored it during his long career. "Yeah, I've done it many times live" he says, "but mostly on gigs that weren't paying much"; with three instead of four on the bandstand, short bread can stretch a little further. Like all saxophonists of any ilk, Cuber took his cue from Sonny Rollins, whose famous 1958 album Way Out West introduced the pianoless trio to jazz: "I remember that great trio, and it made an opening for a lot of guys like me to play with just bass and drums, no piano or guitar." (Also keep in mind that when it comes to the baritone sax, there aren't "a lot of guys like" Ronnie Cuber.)

So when the time to record this date arrived, and without any particular keyboard player coming to mind, Steeplechase producer Nils Winther suggested the opportunity for Cuber's first trio disc. "And I said, Yeah - I don't see why not." Maybe the real question should have been - " What took so long?"

For material, Cuber turned to the jazz tradition, choosing classics from the Great American Song-book and jazz tunes that have become repertoire standards. He reached as far back as 1928 - when Lover Come Back To Me first appeared, followed within a couple years by Honeysuckle Rose and Body And Soul - on up to later and enduring jazz standards by Rollins and Horace Silver. 

One of those, the album-opening Silver's Serenade, could serve as a calling card for Cuber's style. The upper-register notes that mark the theme combine vulnerability and grit; taken together with the cavernous lower register he exploits soon into his solo, they illustrate the tonal majesty he commands throughout the instrument. Straightforward lyricism alternates with quick passages of muscular power before Anderson swings his way through a typically cogent bass solo; behind that, Nussbaum offers an unassuming clinic on the use of cymbals to both drive and accent the music.

In another vein, check out Jean-Marie, the one selection here that resists quantification as either a standard or a classic (although the trio's rendition might change that). The loping rhythm and the spacious harmonic structure, with comparatively less chord movement, places the song closer to the open-ended vehicles that John Coltrane favored in his great quartet. And that frees Cuber to worry less about "spelling out" the chords during his improvisation - which, along with Nussbaum's soulful drum solo, makes this an especially captivating track.

Throughout Ronnie's Trio, Cuber did make an adjustment or two, not for himself but for his audience. An improviser of his stature doesn't need to hear an accompanist stating chords or suggesting harmonies in order to construct a solo; as he explains, "When it comes to tunes that I record, I'm on top of that situation. But in a trio setting, I tend to 'spell out' the chords a little more. I'm hearing the chords in my head, but for the audience, there has to be some kind of clear path that I 'm taking, leading from one chord to the next." That's a succinct description of the process Sonny Rollins used when he first jettisoned piano. Like Rollins, Cuber uses tones that sit squarely within the song's written chords; he does this more than he would in other contexts, and it helps to guide the listener from one harmonic center to the next. And like Rollins - to whom he nods with a bright take on the latter's St. Thomas - Cuber can make that adjustment in a flash, because the harmonies of these songs have taken root deep in his consciousness.

"The playing has to be a little more sensible to the listener," he concludes. So I chose tunes that were not so complicated, and that didn't really need piano or guitar. I mean, listen to Just Squeeze Me." He sings the first few bars - which contain only three tones - with exaggerated emphasis. How simple is that?" he says with a laugh.

As simple as one, two, three.”
- Neil Tesser, February 2018

Straight Street [SCCD 31860] finds Neil sharing these observations about Ronnie and his music.

“"Live" albums are like Forrest Gump's famous box of chocolates: you never know exactly what you'll get.

On the one hand, artists and producers give up a great deal of control (aesthetic as well as technical) when they move from the studio setting into "the wild." Unless they judiciously cull the results, you can end up with something long-winded and forgettable - an album that leaves you wondering whether you "had to be there" in order to actually absorb what the disc did not.

On the flip side, though, jazz history teems with "live" recordings that capture not only a memorable performance but also a luminous intersection of artist and audience. On such albums, onstage adrenaline and offstage energy meet headlong, and the immediacy of improvisation contrasts with and highlights the setting in which it occurs. On albums such as those, you don't have to puzzle over whether being there would have helped. In effect, you're there already.
Guess which kind of "live" album this is.

Despite an extraordinary discography over the last 55 years - which includes participating in virtually every flavor of jazz, Latin music, pop, and rock, and on the days when he saw sunlight only while racing from one studio session to the next - Ronnie Cuber has always cut a powerful figure on club and concert stages. Albums recorded under his name at the Blue Note in New York, Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen, and the Berlin Jazz Festival attest to that. And this one, recorded six weeks before Cuber's 69th birthday, should take its place alongside the best of those dates, with the burly-toned baritone saxophonist at the top of his game and an incendiary rhythm section to stoke the fire.

They blast off with Groovin' High, Dizzy Gillespie's ingenious contrafact of the long-forgotten 1920 standard Whispering. It's a bop-centric performance of an enduring bop classic. Cuber peppers his galvanic solo with melodic reprises and sparkling double-time stretches; then pianist George Colligan grabs the baton, packing pyrotechnics into a solo that climaxes in blistering doubled-octave lines halfway through his last chorus. Cameron Brown adds his own solo, deep-hued and melodically rich as he channels the boppers' best bassist, Ray Brown (no relation); finally, drummer Joe Farnsworth engages Cuber in a brief set of bop-spawned trades, culminating in a thoroughly modern re-creation of "the way it was."

Later in the set, Cuber sets an even faster pace in launching All The Things You Are. It may take you a moment to gauge the tempo, because he has camouflaged it in this spare arrangement, which first restricts the piano and drums to stop-time downbeats, and then dispenses with them entirely as his solo unfurls. Catch the allusion to Charlie Parker's big-band recording Repetition at about one minute in; Colligan raises the stakes 90 seconds later, interpolating a brief snippet of Sonny Rollins's Pent-Up House. The track closes with a particularly melodic drum solo from Farnsworth, in which he outlines the song's theme through a bracing combination of tonal color and percussive ingenuity.

While these two tracks fully embrace the bop aesthetic, Cuber's heart really lies in the post-bop period, as underscored by the next two tracks. On Miles' Mode, usually attributed to John Coltrane (but quite possibly composed by Eric Dolphy), the rhythm section sets upa rollickingenergy wave in the style of Coltrane's legendary, force-of-nature 1960s quartet. Colligan rides that wave and ratchets it up as he explores one harmonic byway after another; Cuber barrels through a solo that quotes Duke Ellington's Take The Coltrane at the top and touches on Trane's Impressions toward the end, finishing with a thrilling descent from the bari's altissimo range to the lustrous bottom notes.

Cuber introduces Gloria's Step, introduced in 1961 by the Bill Evans Trio (and written by that band's bassist, Scott LaFaro), as "one of my favorites"; his lovingly textured evocation of the melody bears that out, as does the emotional range of his solo. Even so, and befitting the song's provenance, it's Cameron Brown who truly defines this performance, as he propels the piano and saxophone solos with gorgeous backing lines that could easily be elevated to center stage. To hear what I mean, listen to the whole track once, then go back to focus on just the bass - and that's even before his solo spot, a paragon of refined lyricism.

With regard to the remaining tracks, you'll notice that Coltrane's muse hovered close on this particular gig. In addition to Miles Mode, he wrote two of the remaining compositions heard here, Spiral and Straight Street; and Cuber's take on the one time lullaby Summertime directly echoes the juggernaut arrangement Coltrane used on his transformative 1961 album My Favorite Things. All these tunes had appeared on Coltrane recordings that were released during Cuber's formative years, and you can scarcely imagine any young saxophonist at the time - especially one with Cuber's improvisational fire and fleet-fingered technique - would have failed to take notice.

Nonetheless, his invocation of Coltrane on this disc is something of an outlier, because Cuber plays the one horn that has remained largely untouched by the iconic saxophonist's influence. Coltrane started out on alto, launched his reputation on tenor, and then reclaimed the soprano saxophone in the half-dozen years before his death, and you can hear his innovations on a slew of subsequent practitioners of all those instruments. But the baritone? Not so much; of Cuber's contemporaneous baritonists, and those of the generation that followed, only the late HamietBluiett might qualify as a true stylistic descendant of Coltrane.

But still - the emphasis on Trane's repertoire at least prompts us to listen with new ears. And while you won't hear a clear throughline from Trane to Cuber, you will hear this: a baritone style informed by the complexity of line, the power of tone, and the sheer swagger that marked the first phase of Coltrane's career. Those attributes have long constituted Cuber's wheelhouse, and he puts them on full display in this disc - as "live"ly a recording as any in his well-documented career.”
- Neil Tesser, October 2018

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