Franck Amsallem: A Week in Paris: A Tribute to Strayhorn

Forty years after his death, fresh passes at Billy Strayhorn’s imperishable songs are not in short supply. But Franck Amsallem’s bold, brightly colored interpretations are unique. He keeps finding new hard edges in pieces known for their poetry and mystery, like “Isfahan.” Amsallem’s perspective on Strayhorn is highly percussive, subtly dissonant and entirely unsentimental. He likes “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” as a melodic/harmonic design, but likes it even more as a stimulating framework for his band’s improvisation.

There are actually several bands here. A Week in Paris uses seven players in configurations that vary track by track, from duo to sextet. What gives the album unity is the common denominator of Amsallem and his strong, forthright pianistic personality. Trumpeter Stephane Belmondo also contributes interesting concepts. His solo suggests swooning intoxication on “Absinthe.” Vocalist Elisabeth Kontomanou is less successful. With her bellowing on “Lush Life” and “Something to Live For,” she creates the only moments when the album’s aggressive approach to Strayhorn feels heavy-handed.

It is significant that Amsallem the composer is able to blend three of his own pieces into a Strayhorn program without compromising it. “Paris Remains in My Heart” and “Montmartre” are Strayhorn-esque in their slightly decadent elegance.

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.