Just prior to kickoff for the Fiesta Bowl played the other day between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Connecticut Huskies, the sad story was told about the starting UConn cornerback who was senselessly stabbed to death during the prior football season. The night before to his murder, Jasper Howard and his teammates celebrated a big victory over conference rival Louisville and the following day, just hours before his death, the 20 year old junior left behind a quote to reporters that rang truer than he could have ever imagined: You have to play each play like it's the last play you'll ever play."
That's a lesson that applies to not just football, but every other worthwhile endeavor we take in life, including performing jazz music. That's why early on in this site's life we pondered if some of the idiom's best performers who have moved on to that Big Bandstand in the Sky played at the end of their lives like it was the last play" they would ever play, whether they knew it or not (Jazz's Greatest Last Recordings). I am reminded of that list as I sit here listening to an upcoming release credited to alto saxophonists Jake Fryer and Bud Shank, In Good Company, because the day after this album was recorded, bebop legend Shank passed away peacefully at the age of 82.
Jake Fryer is a rising talent on alto out of Britain, where he heads up The London Bebop Collective, and also plays the lead alto sax with The Four Tops. Fryer has an album out with them (On Our Terms), but the opportunity to play a date with one of his idols, the great Bud Shank, was an dream-fulfilling event for him. Bud brought his top shelf rhythm section with him to the studio: Mike Wofford (piano), Bob Magnusson (bass) and Joe La Barbera (drums). La Barbera, it should be noted, drummed for Bill Evans' last performance, too.
Now, I'm not going to claim this record is groundbreaking or even performed flawlessly. Shank was in failing health and his technique was faltering; even the liner notes admits as much. Not only that, but this was a first take" session, and purposely so to increase the spontaneity of the performances. The songs chosen were either familiar standards or Fryer originals that contain straightforward chord changes, so everyone could relax, not have to overthink the songs and just play. This is meant to be a feel record, not a precision one.
On those terms, this record is plenty effective, a reminder of the days when feel" in jazz ruled, and if this group sought to capture the spirit of a club date, it's fair to say they succeeded. A little of the preciseness and fluidity has worn off on Shank's delivery, apparent right from the opener, a straight-up rendition of Caravan," and the contrast between his alto and Fryer's smoother articulation underscores that. But Shank still plays with loads of character and sometimes, daring. On another standard, Speak Low," he blows with a bit of a rasp for an extended solo that's indicative of the fire still left in a soul that was set to disembark within a day. Fryer's originals take of the bulk of the repertiore, but could almost be mistaken for bebop standards themselves. Bopping With Bud" is essentially Fryer and Shank trading fours like two confident, laid back pros for a good seven-and-a-half minutes. The Time Lord" sizzles in the same style, but has the added bonus of being a showcase of La Barbera, whose had a long and illustrious career himself beyond the Evans gig. His eruptive and wide-ranging attack on this cut attests to his standing as one of the best straight jazz drummers alive today.
Bud Shank's last record won't go down as major piece of work for one of more significant and legnthy careers in west coast jazz and hard bop. But it does make clear that Shank gave it everything he had right to the very end. He got to exit the stage of life with a credible encore performance, the way I'm sure any great jazz musician would like to go out if they could write the script to their life. So long, Bud, and thanks for fifty-five odd years of some quality jazz recordings.
In Good Company goes on sale January 18 by Capri Records.
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