Dr. Gordon Vernick, Associate Professor and Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Georgia State University, takes a break from the teaching role, steps into the studio and delivers a fine example of his composing, arranging and playing with his latest release "The Strangest Thing." Important to note is that each artist joining Dr. Vernick is an active jazz educator in the Atlanta community as well. They are doing their part to keep jazz alive and developing.
The opening composition, "In the Dark" written by pianist Kevin Bales, swings from the "get go" and includes ample leg room for developing powerful, expressive solo arguments. Creative improvisation by Dr. Vernick, Sam Skelton, Saxophone and Mr. Bales on piano says "listen, this is how you do it". Just smokin’!
Moving on, we get Dr. Vernick’s ballad and title composition, "The Strangest Thing". This CD delivers several fine original compositions which show that the "standard book" is not always as a requisite for a jazz recording. These two opening compositions should join the playlist for artists looking for new and fresh compositions.
Floating lightly over the subtle bass and drum current, Herbie Hancock’s "Dolphin Dance" comes next. Dr. Vernick and Mr. Bales start playfully as one would imagine two dolphins playing in a sun-drenched cove, building intensity by keeping a manageable pace and providing the perfect effect for an intoxicating ebb and flow.
Tim Hagans’ composition "For the Music" keeps the session floating in a 6/8 meter which only subtly delivers a wave-like movement. Mellow is synonymous with Flugelhorn and Dr. Vernick lays on the mellow with a spatula. Mr. Bales takes over next, no rush, just building a solo full of color and expression.
There is something that just feels right about leaving some imperfections on a jazz recording. The occasional note missed, one that searches a while for its home is what delivers the "real" feel of the project and the musicians on it. It is what comes out in most live settings. Thank you Dr. Vernick for sprinkling a few misses into the project. It is what makes it a hit and keeps it real.
Next up is "High Drama" written by Guitarist John Hart and recorded on his 1996 project of the same name. Soloing to this listener should have a starting point of introduction, some kind of opening statement or premise. Expression and intensity should continue through the soloist’s message, ending with a bold exit/closing message/statement that is also a queue for the next soloist to take over and start anew with an introductory point which is the basis for the build up again. Supporting musicians listen for ways to support the build, showing a respect for the soloist’s direction and helping build intensity at a pace that is comfortable and subtle. Done well, the listener sees and feels the outpour of energy. Listen to "High Drama", the ensemble delivers a nice example of this kind of soloing with group support.
The imagery created by the CD’s artwork is a perfect visual with the last four selections. The consistency of ambience and mood produced among these compositions is magical and make for perfect companions. Take a look at the brick buildings with strong archways. The dimly lit spaces produce more shadow than light. Embrace the possibility of a late night. Street musicians gather and have more to say than words can express. They gather and just play.
The 1930 Paramount Pictures release "Playboy in Paris" produced the beautiful ballad "My Ideal", music by Richard Whiting and Newell Chase and lyrics by Leo Robin. The song tells the story of a man who in his mind creates the picture of his ideal girl. He is stricken by the quandary of not knowing if she will ever appear and if she does, will he recognize her or will he just pass her by. Now listen as Neal Starkey introduces the story with his heartfelt bass line. Enter next, Dr. Vernick and one can only ponder that he is thinking the same only through his trumpet while on a Parisian side street, leaning on the bricks, playing under the shadows of the far off street light. Mr. Bales then gets his chance to answer the question through his piano voicings. The tune circles back one more time but still with no clear answer.
"Pour toi, Monsieur Cote’", was written by Dr. Jared Burrows. Loosely translated means "for you Mr. Cote’." Dr. Burrows is an educator, composer, musician living in Vancouver, British Columbia and wrote this song for a fellow Canadian jazz drummer named Francoise Cote’. When asked, Dr. Burrows commented, "the tune has a kind of dark/bright, major/minor moody quality which reminded me of Francois, but mostly the title is there simply because I like to write tunes for my friends. The opening of cymbal and piano musings create a fog-like setting out of which emerges the trumpet melody. Behind Dr. Vernick, the supporting musicians continue to splash sounds illustrating the constant droning of the heavy night air. Mr. Bales then takes over and explores what might lie among the dark and damp back allies. The stage is dusted sparingly by Justin Varnes choice of cymbal tones. Visibility seems to improve and Dr. Vernick returns as if the sun begins breaking through and the street lights up.
Some of the best jazz standards are titled in the past tense, so true is "I Thought About You". Initiated as a piano/trumpet duo, the comfortably loose trumpet fingering on the melody, supported by the clean, driving lines of Gary Motley on piano provide subtle contrast that makes this work. The attentive listener will then notice as soloing moves to Mr. Motley, he is complimented by the base playing of Mr. Starkey. When the piano solo comes to closure, the Piano Bass and Trumpet trio takes the tune out.
"Blue Notes" by Bill Cunliffe, Jazz Pianist, Composer and Educator takes us home with a lazy but steady groove which promotes interplay among rhythm section and horns. A fine selection to close out the project.
What jumps out after a careful listen to Dr. Vernick’s project "The Strangest Thing" is the real sound of the music and the players. He does not try to over produce or engineer the CD. The songs are real, the music is real and the players are real. The feeling is like being in the room with it and this feeling is rarely captured with today’s projects.
Well done. What you hear is what you get and you get a lot of good music.
Bruce Pulver, December, 2008