Flower By The Dry River
The double LP set is but one of many DirectGrace D2D records produced by Sound-Smith's founder Peter Ledermann to benefit a charity dedicated to helping some 215 million exploited children around the world enduring child labor, or abandoned to the streets due to the AIDS epidemic and other public health catastrophes.
All of the money collected as a result of the sale of this double record set pressed at RTI goes to the charity. The album was produced by (which is to say funded by a generous contribution from) Robin Wyatt, a dedicated audiophile and importer of brands including the Miyajima Labs phono cartridges.
So you have two competing cartridge "interests" combining forces with the help of an exceptionally talented Afro-Cuban influenced jazz pianist and his ensemble to save the lives of children in need. How can you go wrong?
Mr. Villafranca, influenced by Duke Ellington—particularly his very first ensemble "the Colored Syncopators" formed in 1917— has written seven tunes for the album, all of which are moody, melodic and of course heavily syncopated. He's arranged the tunes for his group The Jass Syncopators, an extraordinarily talented septet heavy on percussion.
The group include Vincent Harring on alto sax (Nat Adderley, Wynton Marsalis, Art Blakey, Carla Bley, Larry Coryell etc.), JD Allen on tenor sax (Lester Bowie, Betty Carter, George Cables, Ron Carter, David Murray, etc.), Bruce Harris on trumpet (Curtis Fuller, Billy Taylor, Dave Brubeck), Gregg August on bass (Ornette Coleman, Arturo O'Farrill, James Moody, Ray Barretto), Victor Lewis on drums (Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Art Farmer, Duke Ellington, etc.) and Juango Gutierrez and Camilo Molina Giatan—a pair of red hot Barril players (the Barril is a barrel like drum used mainly for Puerto Rican "Bomba").
So Villafranca brought an "A" team of great musicians more than willing and able to work under nerve-wracking Direct to Disc conditions: one "clam" and the lacquer is ruined. No editing, no "gimme's".
The set begins with "The Unspeakable" an Afro-Cuban bop number dominated by the brass, with Villafranca comping behind the melodic line taken by the tenor sax. The progression is reminiscent of Coltrane's "Giant Steps". Combine a lilting melody, great solos from the brass and reeds, and Villafranca's elegant solo plus the fiery percussive backing and we're off to a great start!
The ensemble resets while the lacquer spins and returns with the moody, sensuous "Two to Tango" that magically transports you to a pre-Castro Havana nightclub.
Side two opens with "Last Train to Paris," a slow, moody, cinematic, rainy day piece featuring a gorgeous arrangement for reeds and brass behind which Villafranca lurks with a haunting four note repeated motif. A sinewy sax solo adds elegance. The hard driving "The Big Plus" has a decidedly mid-sixties New York City feel propelled by Villafranca's uncharacteristically simple two chord piano vamp ramped up at the end by a scorching solo. A nice mood changer to end the side.
All of side three is the title tune, "Flower By the Dry River" another slow burner that produces tension with open spaces. Lewis expertly sustains the mood and flow aided by the Barril players while the brass and horns fill in the spaces. Unfortunately, this ambitious, though spare piece threatens to fall apart because of the one aspect of this project that does go wrong and that is the live recording and mix.
While the live sound direct to disk is immediate, transparent, direct and dynamic, the sonic picture is often messy with indistinct and/or inappropriate imaging and instrumental accentuation. On the title tune it is particularly troublesome, with an overly large drum kit spread across the state dominating the picture. The horns get lost, sounding at times as if they are in another room. The track does come together before the end and is saved.
Side four's opener is "Caribbean Tinge," another uptempo, heavily syncopated Afro-Cuban bop number that could have been time machined in from the 1950s. The set's closer is the slow, smoky "Blues For Paula".
A great deal of modern jazz is neck up. This album is mostly neck down—intended to move your emotions and set the mood. It does that as well as adjusting the lighting and the temperature too! Musically it's 90% successful, which is saying a great deal for a direct to disc recording of a large jazz ensemble performing complex arrangements. You don't get the sense that any of these veterans held back. If there were ruined lacquers along the way, that was DirectGrace's and Robin Wyatt's loss. Our gain is this sublime, often fiery music.
I wish I could say the recording quality was commensurate with the music but it's not. Duke Markos is a talented engineer who has recorded many superb sounding records but recording and mixing complex arrangements live to disk got the better of the team here.
The drum kit often predominates to an overwhelming degree, spread across the stage. Villafranca's piano occasionally does likewise and it often abruptly changes perspective when he solos, which can be distracting. Instruments sometimes sound watery and indistinct. There's way too much mike leakage to produce distinct images and solid instrumental timbers.
Yes, the perspective and the picture are sometimes disorganized and inappropriate but not the music. Everyone worked hard for a great cause and all of the money goes to a worthwhile charity. I feel obliged to be honest about the recording quality but I hope many of you will find it in your heart to support the cause by buying this musically worthwhile album recorded Direct-to-Disk.