Saturday, May 5, 2012

In review--Swinging French

Ben Powell
New Street
Independent/Ben Powell Music

Perhaps it is not too strange that an English child prodigy-turned jazz player interprets French gypsy jazz, aka French swing.  Violinist (both classical and jazz), Ben Powell pays tribute to the legendary French violinist St├ęphane Grappelli on his independent recording New Street.  However, New Street travels beyond a tribute album to French swing players, in that Powell honors American jazz legends too such as Thelonious Monk on Monk 4 Strings and adds classical music touches, such as the reference to Bach on the end of Judith.

Powell performs with his quartet (Tadataka Unno on piano, Aaron Darrell on bass and Devin Drobka on drums) and with a St├ęphane Grappelli tribute trio (Gary Burton on vibraphone and Julian Lage on Guitar) and by including both ensembles, Powell explores intriguing sonic territory.  One interesting side note, the trio performs Gary composed by Grappelli for Gary Burton who plays vibes on this version.  I imagine that these musicians have musical stories to share, but in the meantime, check out the opener Judith in which Powell’s violin takes on Hungarian gypsy strains or the closing track, Piccadilly Stomp, when Powell’s violin goes into full swing.

While Powell certainly bridges the gap between classical and jazz worlds, his playing at times sounds restrained to me.  Perhaps, this subtle approach deserves a few more listens so that I soak in musical nuances, such as the whispering of bow-hairs on the strings, and the silence between the notes.  The musicians seem inspired by jazz icons of the past, but I just wish they would turn it up a few notches.  They do on Piccadilly Stomp, as mentioned earlier, and guest vocalist Linda Calise’s cabaret vocals add charm to Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose.

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