STEVE LAMBERT May (PlanetArts)
by J Hunter
With a lineup of horn player Steve Lambert, tenorman Brian Patneaude, altoist Keith Pray, piano man Dave Solazzo, bassist Mike DelPrete and drummer Joe Barna, it would be easy to call the group on May “the all-star team of the Capital Region jazz scene.” Two problems with that low-hanging hyperbole: First, no all-star roster in any undertaking has ever satisfied every member of its fan base, and this one would be no exception (“Where’s Lee Russo?” “What about Lee Shaw?” “There’s no guitar player!” “There’s no trombone player!” And so on…); second, it’s been my experience that the only thing all-star teams specialize in is screwing around – not to be confused with “having fun” – and technical excellence or teamwork aren’t part of the overall plan.
The musicians on Lambert’s debut as a leader certainly have Big Fun, but they’re also serious as a heart attack about making Lambert’s music jump and shout while maintaining discipline and direction. It’s fair to say a sense of discipline is necessary when confronted with compositions that are as much of a challenge to the player as they are a feast for the listener. Anyone who attended the JAM concerts at Revolution Hall and Proctors, respectively, got a taste of what Lambert’s horn charts can sound like when played through a championship-quality front line like this one. Now the rest of the world gets a shot!
Split-seconds after Barna sets the beat, the front line is in full cry on the opener “Double Tough”, flying formation on the melody before breaking into thick-but-quick three-part harmony. The melody doesn’t last long, as Lambert launches the first of a series of bracing solos that introduces the members of the band while getting everyone loosened up – the listener included. Solazzo’s fills have their trademark elegance, even as Barna and delPrete keep the train rolling at top speed. If each soloist were given room to roam in their respective sections, “Double” has potential to be a major long-form work. As it stands, Lambert’s composition is kind of like the Navy SEALs: It moves in fast, hits like Brock Lesnar with ‘roid rage, and then is gone in a flash of light and heat. As Jackie Gleason once said in that timeless classic Smokey and the Bandit, “That… was an attention-getter!”
Not everything on May moves at warp speed, though. The title track – dedicated to Lambert’s grandmother, whose evocative folk art graces the CD booklet – has the essence of a ballad, particularly Patneaude’s marvelously expressive tenor solo. However, Barna and delPrete’s foundation moves just a little too quickly, while Solazzo’s piano is just a little too bright; the result is a mid-tempo tune with real love at its heart. “Bellicose Belle” has some mid-tempo to it, as well, but it’s also got this cool serial soul-jazz groove that makes a great contrast to its initial statement. Mind you, if it’s ballads you want, go directly to “Yearning Lost” where Solazzo’s in-the-clear intro is an upper-deck homer.
Although it’s Lambert’s name on the marquee, the front line is the collective star on every tune. When they play unison on “Steve’s Tune”, they’re a physical force; when they nail complex trade-offs on Jimmy vanHeusen’s “Like Someone in Love”, it just crosses your eyes. Pray’s alto is as passionate and powerful as ever on “Double”, and even though Barna only really gets to go off on Jule Styne’s “It’s You or No One”, he’s a constant driving force, whether it’s bringing the timbale sound to “Steve’s Tune” or painting with brushes on “Like Someone in Love.” DelPrete’s longtime rhythmic partnership with Barna serves May in good stead here; unfortunately, none of the bass mater’s solo moments are far enough forward in the mix to achieve the effect they could have.
Lambert closes May with “Mack the Knife.” Rendered into a piece of Old Vegas cheese by Bobby Darrin, Kurt Weill’s ode to a spree killer was also covered by Luis Armstrong, and Lambert’s take restores the sense of intimacy Satchmo’s version had. Patneaude & Pray’s fills behind Lambert’s opening melody are both simple and playful, and offer the barest hint of the devastating three-way vocalization that waits on the closing chorus. The music is old, but it’s pumped full of life by a young leader full of talent and passion, and by a white-hot band that can show respect while they’re having fun – not to be confused with “screwing around.”
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.