Whaling City Sound
Guitarist Peter Hand is both new to this writer and these pages even though he has issued three acclaimed big band recordings. Blue Topaz, though represents a new step forward for Hand, working with a surefire small combo to deliver his straight-ahead originals, jazz standard interpretations, as well as Latin and Brazilian offerings. Hand originally comes from a blues and R&B background, which is evident in this predominantly hard bop/soul-jazz repertoire. He’s connected with these vital collaborators – trumpeter Eddie Allen, saxophonist Don Braden, pianists James Weidman and David Janeway, bassist Harvie S, drummer Steve Johns, and NEA Jazz Master and tenor saxophonist Houston Person who appears on two selections.
Kicking off with the infectious swinger “Hand-Me-Down Blues,” Hand echoes the clean picking of early Grant Green, Jim Hall, and Pat Martino in the first solo as well as his blues/R&B background. Passing the baton first to Allen and then Braden and later to each band member, each picks up on the inspired groove, with the rhythm section remaining in-the-pocket sturdy and stepping forward confidently in their brief turns. “Cash or Change” heads in a more distinct bluesy direction, with Harvey S delivering a robust intro that yields to a deeply toned Braden tenor statement followed by Hand’s smoothly picking liquid lines that evoke Wes Montgomery, but in the final analysis the featured soloist is Braden who declaratively struts his stuff. Hand’s ballad “Bittersweet Morning” floats gorgeously with dreamy solos from Allen on flugelhorn, Braden on soprano, and a lush, Hall-like take from the leader.
Hand developed a love for Latin jazz while growing up in New York and broadened his tastes for Brazilian music while at Berklee and when living in St. Thomas where he had the opportunity to play that music in local bands. His “Pedro’s Samba” reflects his adept feel for this genre, with Braden excelling on flute. The oft covered standard “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)” is a showcase for Person, who is one of those saxophonists who is clearly identifiable in just the first two or three notes that come from his horn. David Janeway, who has a three -decade history with the bass-drum tandem of Harvey S and Johns, takes the piano chair, and proves the perfect accompanist for Person’s signature bluesy style. There is no pianist aboard for another recognizable tune, Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower,” a vehicle for trumpeter Allen in this modal 1967 gem where he’s joined up front with sparkling takes from Hand and Braden on tenor to a lightly tinged Latin rhythm.
Note that while Braden also plays unequivocally soulfully, it’ easy to differentiate him and Person. The latter shows that he’s adept at more than the mid-century standards with his take on Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” from 1980’s Hotter Than July. He begins in an unhurried, most relaxed fashion, clearly wringing out every note in the wonderful melody before growing more animated upon each entrance, spurred on by Hand’s equally tasteful and downright bluesy lines. As an aside, it’s a bit ironic that Hand covers a Wonder tune with Person in the tenor chair when Braden’s last two albums have been tributes to the Motown great. (See his Earth, Wind, and Wonder Vol. 2 on these pages.) Suppose we just chalk this up to pure coincidence.
Allen alternates liquid and fierce runs on the muted trumpet while Hand swings easily on “Rosalyn,” written for his wife. Careful listening though reveals `notable versatility in the rhythm section as Johns switches from brushes in the initial and closing sections to sticks midstream, accenting his ride cymbal in solos from Weidman and Harvey S, before the quintet (in this case) gathers for the unison melody to bring it out. The title track, a term that could easily describe the color of Caribbean waters (like those of St. Thomas where Hand was fortunate to spend some time) is a light, breezy romantic samba featuring fine takes from Allen, Hand, and Weidman again in a quintet rendering as Braden sits it out.
The album closes with a nod to Monk both in the title and tune itself in the hard swinging “Curioso” with the full sextet engaged in a series of turns from Braden’s tenor to Allen’s trumpet to Hand’s guitar and Weidman’s piano, highlighted by the trading on fours with drummer Johns. You can hear the enthusiasm of the players here as the track forms a kind of bookend to the hard bop opener.
Yes, Hand is supposedly a rookie in the small combo vernacular, but one would never guess it. Instead, he’s an instant winner (so tempting to say “Hands down” but let’s just leave that alone) with this uplifting session.
- Jim Hynes
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