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Lew Soloff: With a Son in My Heart

Before he had his 30 bars of pop fame on Blood Sweat & Tears’ 1968 hit record of “Spinning Wheel,” Lew Soloff was seasoned in the bands of Machito, Maynard Ferguson, Gil Evans, and Clark Terry. Since, he has developed steadily and often played rings around better known trumpeters (see Trumpet Legacy, Milestone 9286). There is no doubt-certainly none among trumpet players-that Soloff is one of the greatest trumpeters alive. Still, the general jazz audience is likely to think of him as a section player or a high-note specialist. There is plenty of evidence of his ability as an improviser, but until now it was scattered through other people’s albums or in expensive imported CDs. Soloff’s recordings with the Manhattan Jazz Quintet on Japanese labels contained some of the most impressive trumpet improvising of the 1980s. The challenge is to find them.

Given the distribution and promotion power of the Fantasy group, With a Song in My Heart may bring Soloff into the consciousness of listeners who have overlooked or underrated him. They will have to settle for beautiful music-making because the CD does not contain a shred of brass exhibitionism or bravura display. He shows his technical command and experience by melding rhythmic force, lyricism and the wisdom of quietness. Even at the brisk clip of the title song, he refuses to fill every available space with the grace notes, triplets, filagree and bric-a-brac that clog the work of so many trumpeters. Passing notes and turnarounds count for something or he does not play them. One of several stunning examples of his restraint and thoughtfulness comes in bars 13-17 of his solo on “The Way You Look Tonight,” in which he galvanizes attention by playing a total of only four perfectly placed notes separated by silence.

Further emphasizing his decision to play music, not to show off, on every track Soloff uses a Harmon mute. Rather than homogenize the album, the intimacy of the mute draws the listener in and Soloff keeps us interested with the content of his solos. If Miles Davis comes to mind because of his indelible identification with the Harmon, Soloff’s phrasing and note choices make it plain that Davis was an influence but does not dominate him. In addition to four standard songs, the compositions are an adaptation of the andantino from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony; “Deguello,” a theme by Dmitri Tiomkin from the movie Rio Bravo; a piece of minor key-but not minor nostalgia-by Hubert Giraud, “Mea Culpa”; a Soloff original, “One for Emily;” and “Istanbul” by Soloff and arranger-composer Rob Mounsey. An evocation of the Middle East, “Istanbul” lacks the harmonic interest to sustain its nine minutes and ends up as standard meet-me-at-the oasis atmospherics. It is weak only by comparison with the rest of the material.

Soloff’s perfect rhythm section is pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist George Mraz and drummer Victor Lewis. Harpist Emily Mitchell (Mrs. Soloff) assists on two pieces. A brilliant accompanist, Miller also plays solos that are in a league with Soloff’s. His improvisation on “With a Song in My Heart,” as Lewis and Mraz supply irresistible propulsion, is as good as anything I have heard from this masterful pianist. If this gem by Soloff, a musician at the peak of his maturity and expressiveness, is not one of the best records of the year, we have a surprising few months in store.

Originally Published