Untying the Standard Review By Michael Steinman

Years of listening to Jazz, on disc and off, have apparently made me a more finicky reviewer. Occasionally a new CD makes me silently mouth what Sidney Bechet told Yank Lawson after they had played “Jazz Me Blues” and Yank was looking for the master’s praise: “Young man, you played that song too fucking fast.” Words to live by.

But I have no such philosophical struggles with “Untying the Standard”, a rewarding series of duets between Boston reedman and deep thinker Joel Press and pianist Kyle Aho–both of whom I remember with affection from a previous CD, “How’s the Horn Treating You?”. These two players have the remarkable ability to play a ballad as if their lives depended on it–which, in some ways, they do–but also to embark on adventurous musical conversations that go “outside” with vigor and delicacy. The first two tracks–a “conservative” exploration of “You Do Something To Me” and a “free” original, “Help!”–show the duo’s range, wider than the terms I have whimsically used to describe the performances. What follows–brave, questing improvisations on standard themes–sounds like two thoughtful friends following the conversation wherever it might lead.

Press is devoted to an older conception of the saxophone as an instrument that must produce beautiful sounds; he is a delight to listen to purely for the aural caress his playing affords. Aho views the piano as an orchestra full of surprises, and he is exceedingly versatile, a wonderful initiator and responder. If he were a painter, we would marvel at his blending of “abstract” and “representational”: listen to what he does on “I’ll Remember April”. These duets are never formulaic, with Press “playing the melody” and Aho “comping”. Rather, they are mutually exploring, truly “playing”. This CD is joyous in its creativity, whether it’s a spiky, percussive “It Don’t Mean A Thing” or a tender “Lover Man”. The disc took a long time for me to listen to, because each track provided so much sensation–emotional and intellectual–that it wasn’t the usual pleasing Jax to play in the car on the way to work. That’s high praise.

Slim’s Pick of the Week Review By Michael Steinman

This New Release is in every way hot off the PRESS!

There is some PRES in Press and it is apparent from the opening blowing on “You Do Something to Me”. Also apparent after a bar or two: this is not your grandfather’s Pres. With wonderful phrasing, pianist Aho adds aha! moments from the get-go. He pushes the envelope, quirkily but logically striding his way through stops and starts. What you have here is two guys obviously mindful of both the canon and the fact that that’s been done. So it is not just that they’ve taken great lengths to untie the Standards (You Do Something to Me/It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got that Swing/Lover Man/Cherokee/Not So Lucky/There is No Greater Love/Softly as in a Morning Sunrise/I Mean You/There Will Never Be Another You/I’ll Remember April) but they’ve also creatively tied them back up. And the listener benefits greatly from their completed task! It’s all in the details! February 2006


I Never Knew / Love Letters / Is What Is / Lover Man / Four* / Dream Dancing / Blues for Willy / Like Someone In Love / Groovin’ High / How’s The Horn Treating You?* 65:17. Press, ts, ss*; Kyle Aho, p; Jeremy Allen, b; Richie Barshay, d. 7/8/04, Westwood, MA.

It would be overestimating my power to sway readers if my review of this CD read only: “Spectacularly rewarding in every way. Buy it now!” so I may have to explain. Jazz CDs sell poorly, and if the players aren’t well-known even in the smallest circle, the CDs sell even fewer copies. But who
can blame prospective buyers for artistic conservatism; “Spend twenty dollars on someone you know nothing about” or “Find someone obscure to gamble on” makes me uncomfortable as well. But when listeners back away from anyone who isn’t familiar, they do an injustice to fine musicians who have not got publicity machines working for them. Someone who wants a new tenor CD will gravitate to the bins with familiar names, thus the new Joe Lovano or an Al Cohn reissue edges out one by Joel Press. Without taking anything away from Lovano or Cohn, this would be a genuine mistake, for Press is a head-turning tenor and soprano player.

He is one of those musicians—and they are rarer than you might think—who has digested the history of the music and the instrumental tradition that has come before him without parading an assortment of favorite phrases from his five tenor idols. Yes, he has a purring, mellow approach reminiscent of Harold Ashby, but he is no easy-listening recreator: he knows Rollins and Lacy as well as Hawkins and Young. But Press sounds so much like himself that you cannot predict what his next phrase will be – and he is worth championing just because he does not think in four or eight-bar modules. To add to this, his melodic lines are logical, they are rhythmically intriguing, and he has a wonderful respect for songs, savoring their emotions. His version of “Lover Man,” for one example, will make it hard for me to listen to anyone else’s. And he is not harnessed by “Swing” conventions: the repertoire moves easily from classic Bebop to the much more abstract “Is What Is” (based on “What Is This Thing Called Love”). Even better—he plays soprano with fervor, accuracy, and beautiful intonation, no sourness, no intentional harshness. Although the repertoire is primarily standard material, the performances are original—not in some self-consciously radical way, but they encourage listeners to forget how well-worn they might have thought “Groovin’ High,” for instance. On this CD Press works with a young rhythm section, and they form a truly creative quartet—the listener’s interest never flags. Aho is a brave harmonic and spatial explorer in his solos (as on “I Never Knew”). A spare player, he doesn’t rampage up and down the keyboard, but he always gives Press solid support; Allen plays intriguing notes with a beautiful tone, and Barshay (who can whisper with his brushes) is both thoughtful and propulsive. I find it odd, though, that liner note writer Charles Farrell, who values Press as I do, emphasizes the stylistic gap that Press must bridge working with younger players, as if this CD captured Bud Freeman meeting Andrew Cyrille. I would never have known that this wasn’t Press’s working band.

I apologize to Joel Press for my previous ignorance of his work, but will attempt to redeem myself by urging listeners to get this CD without fail.

All About The Jazz Review by Vittorio Lo Conte


Vittorio Lo Conte

How’s the Horn Treating You?

Joel Press (2005)

Here’s a recording that can excite, even If on first hearing (glance) it might not seem to have anything new: a series of too well known standards played by a well known quartet with tenor sax and rhythm section. Once placed on to hear, nevertheless, one can understand immediately that this group has a very personal stylistic identity.

Joel Press is a pioneer saxophonist who has certainly been down the vanguard path, as he demonstrated in his recording MUSIC FROM A PASSIONATE TIME: a collection of pieces played with a noteworthy interpretation of music from some decades ago, when the first multi-track recordings appeared. Today he has accompanying him a group of most able young players, very well prepared technically and who keep up with the currents of modern jazz.

Press expresses himself in a language that recalls those tenor players, most all Caucasian, who learned their lessons from Lester Young. His phrasing is very sensual, winding, captivating and seductive, but especially precise in its accent (singular voice) and modern harmonies that the rhythms propel.

Kyle Aho is a very intelligent pianist, who, along with the trio, wins one over thanks to his capacity to listen and create what happens during the improvisations. He plays in his own way and does not come off like a Red Garland spring chicken, but rather takes advantage of everything that could be considered the domain of contemporary pianists, and does it with such discretion and will to participate in a dialog that one remains intrigued to follow this quartet, heterogeneous in as an organization but coherent in its execution.

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