Friday, October 23, 2020

A Review of “Something For Pops” (Harold McKinney & Wendell Harrison)

Back in the late ’80s and into the ’90s I wrote for the quarterly Midwest Jazz (originally called The Arts Midwest Jazzletter). These were my first paid writing gigs — indeed, this was the first time it occurred to my that I could make a (little) bit of cash flinging words around on a page.

Because the scope of the journal was the regional jazz scenes within the territory covered by Arts Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin), I’d often come across some really great records that maybe escaped the attention of the national jazz press.

I’m proud of my work there, and I’m collecting some of my articles and reviews from that period here on my jazz blog. Many of the recordings I’m reviewing here are actually more widely available now (via streaming) than they were back when I wrote about them, so you (and I!) have a chance to see if you agree with the know-it-all punk who wrote these reviews back then! 

This article appeared in the
Arts Midwest Jazzletter
Winter 1993/4 (Vol. 12, #1),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.

One of my favorite recordings of the ’70s was the Enja label’s Dynamic Duo, featuring George Coleman on tenor and pianist Tete Monotoliu. With no bass or drums to share the musical burden, these two men displayed a solid musical rapport in a sparse setting, playing up the harmonic and melodic aspects of the jazz language while still swinging like hell. It worked because Coleman and Montoliu were enormously talented and very sympathetic to each other, with Montoliu shining as a highly rhythmic and responsive pianist.

The horn-piano duo is a bit of a rarity in jazz recordings, and only a few others come to mind: another release by Coleman a couple of years ago, this time with pianist Richie Beirach; Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond cut a duet album in the mid-70s; and Frank Morgan regularly tours and records in this format, usually with George Cables. But Something For Pops, a new Detroit release featuring clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Wendell Harrison and pianist Harold McKinney, is for me hands down the most satisfying work I’ve heard in this intimate format.

Without diminishing Harrison’s vital contribution here, I think McKinney shoulders particular responsibility in pulling off this performance. His soloing and sensitive accompaniment display an astonishingly supple and formidable grasp of the wide-open possibilities available to the well-read pianist, evoking such disparate keyboard voices as McCoy Tyner, Bud Powell, Chopin, and Liszt. His “Chromo II,” the solo composition opening this impressive disc, is a sophisticated, harmonically progressive piece nodding equally to Ravel and Debussy and to modern jazz. McKinney’s other originals are the exquisite “Threes And Fours,” fusing boppish and classical elements into an unforgettable musical set piece, and “Stitch In Time,” featuring his expressive (if a little unpolished) baritone voice.

Harrison’s compositions charmingly evoke Louis Armstrong and the New Orleans school. On the sentimental “Rampart Street,” featuring a nice strolling gait, his clarinet surges, bubbles, and teases, tossing off corny quote punch lines to musty jokes you’ve already heard, while McKinney scolds with incongruous whole-tone interjections and peckish phrases. The rapport displayed here is witty and engaging.

“Festivities” and “Sir Oliver” offer McKinney’s modern take on stride accompaniment, citing Fats Waller one moment and Bach the next, beneath Harrison’s fine melodies and soloing. “Pops” is a soulful, well-crafted tune with Harrison’s singing clarinet getting down in a quiet way. He picks up the tenor for the alternately poignant and wild “Armstrong Park”: his opening cadenza starts off high in his clarinetish altissimo register before giving way to a distinctive dark and intense tenor sound.

McKinney’s brother Kiane Zawadi penned “Like, What Is This?,” a bop line fused to the changes of the similarly-titled Cole Porter number, featuring Harrison’s probing clarinet over McKinney’s jabbing cross rhythms. McKinney’s solo is a funky, bluesy, contrapuntal gem.

Something For Pops captures two justly-acknowledged Arts Midwest Jazz Masters from Detroit creating a jazz chamber music epitomizing empathy, communication, and interplay. This disc is as good as it gets.

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