'Round Midnight-- Harry Allen & Scott Hamilton

Tenor saxophonists Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton have been prominent keepers of the mainstream/swing flame for decades now, Allen since the mid-'80's and the older Hamilton from the mid-'70's. Although both have recorded frequently and performed together periodically, this is only their third co-led CD and the first since Heavy Juice in 2004. Hamilton, who has lived abroad since the '90's in England and now Italy, and the New York-based Allen are supported for this session by Harry's solid regular rhythm section of pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Joel Forbes, and drummer Chuck Riggs. It's interesting in listening to try to discern the similarities and differences in Allen and Hamilton's styles, derived as they are from the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Zoot Sims, Illinois Jacquet, and Flip Phillips. The common denominator is always the two tenors' genuine commitment to, and unquenchable enthusiasm for straight ahead jazz, a category that will never lose its appeal when in the hands of talented practitioners such as these.

The leaders intertwine seamlessly on the melody of "My Melancholy Baby," with Allen then taking the first solo, which varies gratifyingly from silky to gruff in delivery. Hamilton follows in his economical manner, not a note wasted to leave his mark. Sportiello gives a gently swinging take before the horns trade, Allen more forceful than the level-headed Hamilton, but both communicating unmistakably in their own personal ways. "Great Scott" is an Allen tune with "Indiana"-like changes, based on a Hamilton riff. Scott's solo is absorbing from the start, as he builds gradually to a satisfying resolution. Allen's improv utilizes alterations in dynamics and vocalized, slurred inflections more than does his predecessor's. Sportiello offers up a captivating invention prior to Allen and Hamilton's exhilarating joust leading to the reprise. The harmonies of the two tenors on the theme of the Dorothy Parker/Jack King "How Am I to Know," along with Sportiello's sparse fills and subsequent solo make this one sound like a Count Basie small group number. You can hear Basie alum Lester Young's influence clearly in Hamilton's lucid, relaxed statement, with Forbes and Riggs in buoyant lockstep behind him. Allen's opening phraseology, however, is right out of an Ellingtonian, namely Paul Gonsalves, until he pontificates within his own swirling, never stagnant mindset. Forbes comes across a bit like a pizzicato Slam Stewart in his solo, sans any humming.

Bill Potts' "The Opener" comes fittingly from a 1960 Al Cohn-Zoot Sims album, the two-tenor team that Allen-Hamilton probably most resemble. On the chord changes of "Jada," the quartet bursts into high up-tempo gear. Scott's deceptively easeful essay is a slow burning marvel, while Harry ignites instantly and is exuberantly stirring. The leaders then converse with an animated Riggs, who is an inciting component throughout the track. "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" gets a low-keyed bossa nova treatment. Here Allen, as he's sometimes prone to do, sounds eerily like Stan Getz, and like Getz improvises radiantly on this kind of rhythmic framework. After Sportiello's lyrical outing, the ever versatile Hamilton shows his adeptness in this groove as well. The reprise, with its filigreed intricacies, is a delight to hear. Another two-tenor unit, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Griffin, used to play Davis' "Hey, Lock!." Allen and Hamilton take it at a sauntering tempo, injecting a little Davis-Griffin swagger into their rendition of the bright, riffing theme. Allen's vigorous solo mixes Hawkins and Davis aspects, while Hamilton exudes Webster and Sims. Forbes steadfast bass work is particularly noteworthy here, as is Sportiello's beguiling, dancing interlude. The horns' flavorful, friendly dialogue precedes a hearty reprise.

The simpatico twosome gives a fresh voicing to the standard "Lover," with a very stimulating take on the bridge. Their thrusting solos are endlessly vital and creative, easily among their best of the program, and most similar in both form and content. Sportiello swings out in the refined, lissome manner of Al Haig, and then Riggs joins the saxophones for an exciting interaction that raises this memorable interpretation of the 80-year-old tune to an even greater height. For "Flight of the Foo Birds," the '50's Count Basie vehicle by Neal Hefti, the tenors' blend is so warm and penetrating on the melody as to make one visualize the Basie sax section in torrid flight. Allen and Hamilton each romp spiritedly through the changes, and like on "Lover" are harder to separate stylistically than elsewhere on the CD. Once again, an irresistible Sportiello solo precedes the horns' trades, as they fluidly extend each other's expressions. The resounding theme revisit is capped by the pianist's Basie-like final tinkle. Surprisingly and regrettably, "'Round Midnight" is the recording's only ballad, with Allen's breathy Getz intonation again coming to the surface as a key variable distinguishing him from Hamilton. The rapport and sheer dedication to their craft that these two uncompromising artists share is nowhere more apparent than in this lovely and illuminating performance.

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Scott Albin