A couple of enticing album-related events mark the next few nights in Chicago. One of them introduces a marvelous new disc from vocalist Jeff Hedberg (see below). The other, which takes place tonight (Thursday), offers you the chance to join in the process itself.
It’s a set by the Chris Greene Quartet, to be recorded “live” at Mayne Stage (1328 W. Morse in Rogers Park). This means that for once, no one will complain if you whoop and holler during the performance: almost nothing lights up a “live” disc like the sound of an appreciative crowd. William Kurk, a pianist deep into the fusion soul-jazz of the 70s, opens the show at 8 PM with his band, the William Kurk Enterprise.
Greene, a hard-working and still-growing saxophonist, has honed a simpatico working ensemble and polished a strong original repertoire aimed at infusing the jazz tradition with echoes of rock, pop, and hip-hop. He brings a smart musicianship and a savvy sense of extra-musical concerns to his band (along with electric piano), all of which makes them a band worth keeping an eye on.
I reviewed Greene’s last CD (a review you can read here); since then, he’s also issued a DVD recorded in performance at the Jazz Showcase — which for all the obvious reasons provides a truer approximation of what will take tonight place at Mayne Stage. The resultant album is due for release in the first part of 2012.
In the case of trumpeter and vocalist Jeff Hedberg, you don’t have to wait till next year: he’ll celebrate the release of his intoxicating new CD, Too Darn Hot, with two nights at Andy’s (11 E. Illinois) this weekend, starting at 9:30 both Friday and Saturday.
The album features the ensemble Hedberg calls “C11” (for Chicago Eleven). Together they re-create, with fidelity and precision, selections from several albums that the jazz genius Mel Tormé recorded in the mid-50s. Those discs paired Tormé with master arranger Marty Paich, whose ten-piece “Dek-tette” explored the cool translucency Miles Davis had introduced to jazz with his famous Birth of the Cool tracks.
Hedberg’s previous disc, The Summer Knows, was problematic. Released seven years ago, when the trumpeter-vocalist was just 25, it unveiled a musician much in the thrall of Chet Baker, whose laconic trumpet and androgynous vocals made him a jazz sensation in the 1950s. That’s hardly a bad place to start. But working with a drummerless accompaniment of piano, bass, and guitar, Hedberg failed to generate a compelling audio presence.
(By the time of his death, Baker had become a pale shell of the sensitive, delicate-featured artist whose hit records made him jazz’s equivalent of a matinee idol. But at Hedberg’s age, Baker’s relaxed romanticism still had a vitality that The Summer Knows begged for.)
Flash forward to today, and you’ll hardly believe the same singer (now 32) has produced Too Darn Hot. Responding to the irresistibly swinging Dek-tette arrangements – and putting down his trumpet to focus on singing – Hedberg has blossomed into a coolly powerful, fully swinging artist.
His light, airy tenor has almost exactly the same weight, even the same inflection, as that of Tormé – another Chicago-born tenor, who sounded very much like this in his younger years. Tormé’s voice, which earned him the sobriquet “the Velvet Fog,” quite naturally deepened and darkened with age, and that’s the instrument most people remember today. But those first records with Paich reveal a purity of timbre that Hedberg channels here (though with a bit less of Tormé’s youthful edge).
Hedberg’s band also lives up to its inspiration, reeling off Paich’s writing with exuberance as well as care. Spurred by the streamlined powerglide rhythm section of bassist Joe Policastro and drummer Darren Scorza – and sporting an elite brass section of two trumpets, trombone, tuba, and French horn – Hedberg’s C11 makes these charts sound nearly as fresh as they did six decades ago. And the singer recycles that punch into the crisp, snappy phrasing missing from his previous disc.
The material itself might surprise even those who consider themselves 50s aficionados. Some tunes – the title track, “Too Close For Comfort,” and “Lullaby of Birdland” – remained in Tormé’s book throughout his career, and those won’t surprise anyone. (Hedberg’s scat solo on the latter is a highlight, comparing favorably with Tormé’s own vaunted improvisations.)
But “The Carioca,” “Lulu’s Back In Town,” and “When The Sun Comes Out” have receded from familiarity; hearing them again, and in this context, offers yet another tier of pure satisfaction.
It’s an easy out for writers to say that an artist “leans heavily on the influence” of so-and-so, but “still manages to provide his own interpretation” of classic material, and I can guarantee you’ll see a few reviews like that of this disc.
That’s pretty much nonsense, I’m afraid. Due to his range, and to the fact that he has chosen to cover these very detailed and specific arrangements – in which Tormé’s voice was artfully woven into the horn textures – Hedberg sounds a great deal like Tormé on these tunes. To which I can only ask, “What’s wrong with that?”
At his peak, Tormé was the most artistically accomplished male jazz singer in history: he had perfect intonation, impeccable time, a solid feel for the blues, and an ability to improvise – using actual lyrics as well as scat syllables – matched among vocalists by only Ella Fitzgerald. Anyone who can reference that achievement, without wilting in the comparison, gets my vote; that Hedberg can place himself in the discussion without embarrassment is nothing to shy away from.