Bob Ravenscroft's elastic new trio live date sets some of my old memory cells into overdrive. From 1990 to 2003 my company did electronic security contracting for the redoubtable Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue in NYC.
A formidable space, I always got a kick out of walking through its main sanctuary and viewing with some satisfaction the front dais from which Duke Ellington conducted his orchestra through the gospelly and passionate cadences of his First Sacred Concert at the Church in 1965.
Thankfully most of us have forgotten how few critics at that time dug the idea of Jazz returning from whence it would seem partially to have sprung (that old blues/gospel dichotomy). "Sophistication!" they trumpeted at that time. "More sophistication! We're beyond all that." Or whatever it was.
But to what end, anyway? Do those of us who saw the coming of the modal and the chromatic in the late fifties through the midsixties ever wonder what might have happened if Jazz had continued headlong into impressionism with nothing to hold it back? Can you say "America's classical music"?
I have to stress right here that the chromatic school lives on, and happily, thanks to Andreas Altmann, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Colin Stranahan, and Mark Turner (all artists we've reviewed here at Jazz Now, and it's time you picked up on them), while there are a lot of good records out on Manfred Eicher's label.
But Duke was, as usual, right to take a turn back along a way Jazz had paralleled from, because he knew we had to keep all the influences in balance to move forward and come up with something compelling, If not always new.
Bob Ravenscroft's trio recording from a recent live gig at Jazz Vespers at the Ascension Lutheran Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona, is compelling in a different way; it combines the idea of the sacred space with the chromatic approach's elegant, cool lines of melody via a look back to Bill Evans, the man who arguably helped kick such methods into the popular sphere in the 1950s. It's more a juxtaposition of attitudes than tone worlds, but no less entertaining for that.
A bouncy "The Opener" brings us into the date first, Evans's reassuring, head-nodding melody as run through Ravenscroft's very able fingers which clearly articulate the thought, "These things have a way of working themselves out, don't they." Very Evans.
I note some well-placed rough edges in Ravenscroft's breaks and grace notes, little splinters of tone left hanging out to trip you up. His piano's well-tuned but just a bit hard on the decay, akin to how you might expect a church piano to sound. It's a good antidote of sorts; I always appreciated Evans, I just used to wish sometimes he wouldn't play everything like it was a Gershwin concerto. And yes, I am probably the only scribe who ever admitted that. My bad, probably.
Kudos to Rob Schuh for some wild trading of fours between himself and Ravenscroft before the "Opener" theme returns. Schuh's use of bell tree is also tasty and not gratuitous.
Steve Millhouse's bass livens the slow ramp-up in the middle bit of a perfect take of Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" from the Comden-Green musical On the Town, a plucked solo having a thoughtful Ron Carter sort of aura. His bowing on "Improv 5" is a treat as well.
It would be very unfair to leave out the other six very witty improvisations that Schuh, Millhouse, and Ravenscroft course through on this date. Very in, they usually feature the musicians defining a sort of continuum and then painting colors onto or about it for whatever period of time seems proper.
The miking on this CD is crystal clear; one doesn't miss a thing. Ravenscroft's original "Fire in the Soul" is well placed since it would appear to occupy the space between middle-period Bill Evans and early Herbie Hancock (a nice take of "Speak like a Child" can be heard three tracks later, as if to bracket the comparison). And I haven't even touched a lovely "Blue in Green" that would wow anybody.
We cover those not yet well known at Jazz Now because we need new voices. Always.
Bob Ravenscroft has been around the block any number of times, and his trio is very worth your time. And he reminds us that prayer takes many forms too, something Duke implied more than once. Three times, as a matter of fact.
By Ken Egbert