New Street-- Ben Powell

Powell's second CD is in part a tribute to Stéphane Grappelli, but also showcases the 25 year-old violinist's ability to play in more modern jazz styles. The wonderful "Stéphane Grappelli Tribute Trio," consisting of Powell, vibraphonist Gary Burton, and guitarist Julian Lage, plays on three tracks. Powell met fellow student Lage and faculty member Burton while studying jazz composition at Boston's Berklee College of Music, at the same time he was performing with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. It was first hearing Grappelli's music while a British teenager that inspired the classically trained Powell to explore jazz as well. The other seven selections feature Powell's quartet with pianist Tadataka Unno, bassist Aaron Darrell, and drummer Devin Drobka. Darrell and Unno appeared on Powell's delightful 2009 debut CD, Light, which if anything was as much of a salute to Grappelli as is New Street.

The trio tracks include "Gary," a tune Grappelli wrote for Burton after they recorded together in 1969 (Paris Encounter). It's given an MJQ-like intro before Powell plays the sentimental and captivating theme with a Grappelli mindset. His accompaniment for Burton's lyrical excursion shows great maturity and sensitivity, as does his own subsequent magical solo, with the vibist's focused support returning the favor. Lage plays the secondary part expected of a bass guitarist for the duration, unfortunately never surfacing to solo. "La Chanson Des Rues," a song from Stéphane's repertoire, is launched by Lage's lustrous guitar, after which Powell plays the melody with an all too obvious acknowledgement of Grappelli's sound and rhapsodic lyricism. Burton responds in kind, with a profound statement that is beautifully shadowed by Lage's comping. Powell's buoyant reprise and coda cap a trio outing to be savored again and again. Grappelli's "Piccadilly Stomp" is given a bracing treatment in a modernized Hot Club vein. The trio's interaction is exemplary, and the solos by Powell, Burton, and Lage are unrestrained technically and swing mightily. Powell's dialogue with Burton near the end only heightens the desire to hear more from this remarkable trio in the future, if at all possible.

The quartet's playlist starts with Powell's lovely "Judith," introduced enchantingly by pianist Unno. Here Powell sounds little like Grappelli, but rather more like a classical violinist with a tonal quality closer to jazz fiddlers Eddie South and/or Stuff Smith. The leader's solo is quite moving, as his prodigious technique is kept in service to expressiveness and creative substance. Unno's solo is acutely melodic and executed with a glistening touch. Powell's reprise is stunningly delivered. The near frenetic theme of Powell's "New Street," with its repeating figures, is insistently dramatic and tension laden. Once Darrell's pulsating bass line kicks in, Powell is literally off to the races, flying through a solo of post bop character and swagger. Unno's following improv maintains the determined drive. On this piece, Powell's playing is most similar to Regina Carter's, a violinist who happens to share his classical background.

"Monk 4 Strings" is Powell's joyful and clever Monk-inspired composition, with the violinist and pianist taking on the challenge of the dissonance-inflected style of Thelonious full throttle. Powell's solo throbs with an adventurous spirit as Unno plunks down forceful Monkish chords. Unno's easefully flowing essay is played in his own individual style. Darrell and Drobka then exchange brief but pertinent passages prior to Powell's soaring reprise. "What Is This Thing Called Love" finds young Gypsy guitarist Adrien Moignard joining the quartet. His engaging conversation with Powell begins this breakneck venture. The guitarist's passionate solo naturally owes a debt to Django, but exudes an individual personality as well. Powell's cascading flight of fancy is varied in attack and tonal modulations. The two then revisit their opening trades, which evolve into contrapuntal fireworks. When the theme returns, a motif from "Hot House"--Tadd Dameron's reworking of the standard--is added for good measure.

"Sea Shell" is a classical piece by Carl Engel from the early 1900's, written for violin and piano. It is performed simply as written, and Powell's rich, searing tone and Unno's delicate attack combine to bring out the full beauty of this composition in just over three sublime minutes. A version of "La Vie En Rose" features Boston vocalist Linda Calise. After Powell's romantic prelude, Calise sings the French lyrics with warm sophistication. Powell's solo displays his classical technique in tandem with the floating grace of Grappelli. Calise's reprise is enhanced by Powell's lithe obbligatos. Powell's animated "Swingin' For Stéphane" strongly conveys the essence of Grappelli. The violinist's improv contains a relentless, but seemingly effortless rhythmic drive, and a surging inventiveness. Unno's solo has a George Shearing-like nature in its phrasing and sound, and he and Powell embark on an exhilarating give and take.

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Scott Albin