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An Intimate Evening by Dave McKenna

In the true spirit of erudite elitism, I could open this review by stating that I knew what I would say about Dave McKenna and this CD well before I had listened to it. For anyone unfamiliar with this outstanding artist, he is truly one of the masters of traditional jazz piano, and a superb solo player in the tradition of Fats Waller and Art Tatum.

McKenna began his career in his late teens with the big bands of Charlie Ventura and Woody Herman. After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, McKenna toured with traditional jazz greats including Bobby Hackett, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims. He was a long-time member of the Concord Records 'Super Band' with Warren Vache, Scott Hamilton, Jake Hannah, and Phil Flanagan. He is recognized as one of the premier traditional solo jazz pianists in the world today, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the American standard library and a remarkable command of every piano style from stride to boogie to bebop.

"An Intimate Evening" presents him in solo piano format, recorded live at the Sarasota Opera House in November 1999. A superbly recorded concert was the result, and McKenna's magical treatment of standards will reward those who listen to this outstanding effort. Without a band working with him, McKenna is free to interpret the tunes as he hears them. McKenna demonstrates his love for the American popular song by assembling a program entirely of standards, with no original compositions or jazz tunes.

"Fidgety Feet", the Original Dixieland Jazz Band tune that became a traditional jazz standard after Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines recorded it some 78 years ago, opens the set. McKenna begins the tune (not usually associated with solo piano!) in a stride style, effortlessly moving to boogie and then into a swing feel with intricately woven walking bass lines supporting his improvising. The piece moves back into the song melody in stride, finally ending with a whimsical coda.

McKenna constructs the bulk of the program out of lengthy medleys of 'thought' tunes ("I Had The Craziest Dream", "Thinking of You", etc.), 'change' tunes ("Change Partners", "You've Changed", etc.), and 'street' tunes ("Easy Street", "Broadway", "Forty-Second Street", etc.), leaving us mere mortals to wonder how one could work through so many tunes and their subtle transitions in key, style, and harmony without making a mistake. (One minor error in the liner notes - "Broadway" in McKenna's "Street Medley" is the familiar Byrd-McRae-Woode tune made famous by Count Basie, not the 1927 DeSylva-Brown-Henderson tune.)

Two other tunes that receive solo treatment are "Tea For Two", and Cahn and VanHeusen's lovely ballad "It's The Last Dance". Again, McKenna's ability to seamlessly shift between time, tempo, style, and key within each tune, building his solos and then returning safely to the melody, is wonderful to behold.

It goes without saying that this CD is a must for anyone who is a fan of the traditional jazz piano style. Dave McKenna provides a perfect lesson in the treatment of jazz standards as solo piano vehicles, while remaining true to the original style and composition of the songs.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Dave McKenna
  • CD Title: An Intimate Evening
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: Arbors Jazz
  • Rating: Five Stars
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