Get Happy lives up to its title in every way, from its selection of cheerful, major-key tunes to its insert photos of smiling musicians. Violinist Joe Kennedy looks especially impish and good natured and that’s the way he sounds too, in spite of deteriorating health that made this a memorial album. Kennedy passed away at the age of 80, not long after the recording was completed.
"I want to Be Happy" is a logical start to the session. After Royce Campbell’s brief guitar intro, Kennedy plays a pizzicato version of the melody and an improvised chorus before Campbell takes over at greater length. Kennedy returns for a plucked restatement of the melody then the trio vamps out. In the unlikely event the listener remains less than happy, track two says, "Pick Yourself Up." Kennedy introduces the melody again, but on this and most of the remaining eight tracks, he sticks to the bow.
He has been described as the first violinist to fully absorb the bebop style, but you wouldn’t guess that if you’d only heard this release. The style here is swing and Stéphane Grapelli is the name that comes to mind, though Campbell and Langosch have a more contemporary, mainstream sound. Langosch gets his first bass solo, and it’s a tasty one, on a blues tune. But not to worry. It’s called "Joyous Blues." Wouldn’t want to need a reprise of "Pick Yourself Up."
The happy theme continues with the sprightly waltz, "I'm On a Cloud." Campbell, who organized the session, was intentionally going for a different, notably drumless sound and the interplay among the three stringed instruments is especially attractive in ¾ time.
The title track is up next with solos for all. And so it goes until Campbell winds things down with a gorgeous solo version of "Beautiful Friendship." If you don’t know the lyrics to that old standard they include, "This is the end of a beautiful friendship," and the performance is an affecting tribute to Campbell’s old friend.
Okay. Name five jazz violinists. Even knowledgeable jazz fans probably have trouble once they get by the legendary Grapelli. And, in the interests of full disclosure, I need to admit a bias about why that’s so the violin isn’t a great jazz instrument. Maybe that’s because jazz violinists often start with classical training (both Kennedy and Grapelli did) and the cross-over is difficult. (That’s not an unfounded bias. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis says it takes months of practice when he switches from one genre to the other.) Classical training makes many who attempt jazz too self-conscious. They seem to be thinking, "OK, I’ll syncopate here, and now I’ll run an A major scale," etc. They have the mechanics but not the spirit.
Kennedy, and even Grapelli, is no exception. The playing is a little square. But in spite of my bias--I did "Smile" (another tune on the album) fairly often while listening to Get Happy. I recommend it to non-violinophobic fans of traditional jazz. It’s a genial and tender testimonial to a fine musician.