Last January, Susanne and I went to Philadelphia for the first night of LABLove. Gordon Webster played both Friday and Saturday night, recording the evenings for a live album. Neither of us had heard of Gordon Webster, but we both fell in love that night. I bought his previous CDs, and pre-ordered my copy of the live album.
When I got home and listened to Gordon’s earlier works, I felt a little disappointed. There were some good songs and everything was well polished, but the albums lacked some of the joy and vitality I experienced dancing to his band that night. It was like putting a true jazz cat in a tuxedo with a starched collar; the lines were too clean and the band was too tight. Clearly, a live recording to capture the energy of the band at its best is the right vehicle for Gordon’s crew, and I got excited when the new album, Live from Philadelphia, landed on my doorstep last week.
Listening to the album, I thought, “This is the band I remember.” The band sounds loose and comfortable, even on the more uptempo numbers, and there’s a great playfulness between the members of the band. On “Honeysuckle Rose,” Gordon starts off with the melody, a light and delicate meandering through the tune with a carefree attitude. Before its over, Adrian Cunningham adds his clean clarinet to the mix, punctuated by Jesse Selengut’s full bodied work on trumpet. But the real star is always Gordon on piano.
Gordon’s piano work channels the hot jazz of Fats Waller while simultaneously capturing the easy, blues infused sounds of Gene Harris and Junior Mance. And Gordon’s piano chops are on par with all of these stand out pianists. Even when the trumpet or clarinet play through the head, Gordon’s piano sits in the background and quietly comments throughout. If you listen carefully, you can hear him encouraging the band along. . .”Sweet lick!,” “Is that all you got?,” “Oh really?,” “Where are you gonna go with that?,” “See what you can do with this!” At every moment, Gordon is a well-edited leader. Listen to “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” or “Joshua Fit the Battle,” and you’ll hear what I mean.
When Gordon does step out to the forefront, its magical. Looking at the tracks released on the album, I was surprised to see the Fats Waller tune “Twenty Four Robbers” on there since he released that on a previous recording. Then I listened to it. It’s ripping fast, a good forty beats per minute faster, but more relaxed. And the solo work. . .as Gordon tears through the tune, all I could think is “DAMN!” As a pianist, Gordon makes me want to lock myself in a room with my piano until I no longer have to hang my head in shame.
My one criticism of the album comes from some of the vocals. Jesse Selengut has a rough voice, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. On tunes like “Milenburg Joys” and “When I Get Low,” his voice is well suited and brings out the joy in the songs. But on more tender songs like “Honeysuckle Rose” where the band’s work has been delicate, his voice lacks the tenderness and warmth that, for me, the tune deserves. While I was there dancing, I didn’t noticed it, but it seems more jarring on the recording. Still, its a small quibble on an album that shines.
One last thought, I want to thank Gordon for thinking of dancers. On the back of the album, song lengths are listed in parentheses while the truly important information of beats per minute take the prime spot! Thanks for making my job so easy, Gordon! Seriously, though, the tempos are all well suited for dancing, and his solid rhythm section (Cassidy Holden, Guitar; Rob Adkins, Bass; Jeremy Noller, Drums) are emminently danceable. I expect this album to become a staple in the swing community, and look forward to a long and celebrated career for Gordon and his crew.