The success of Magic Dance is fueled by the capable execution of three brainstorms from Rhode Island hard-bop stalwart Greg Abate. The first was deciding to showcase his facility on a variety of wind instruments via overdubbing. The second was determining that the material should come from the consistently catchy but still relatively low-profile cache of tunes written by eminent pianist Kenny Barron. The third and most important was enlisting Barron himself to play on the project.
Abate clearly has a blast fattening the mix on the fleet, sturdy swing of Barron’s “Voyage,” which had already been rearranged for big band by John La Barbera. Abate’s version layers a robust head arrangement for his two tenors, alto, and bari sax while also allowing him to blow separate alto solos and affording plenty of space to each member of the quartet’s rhythm section: Barron, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Johnathan Blake. By contrast, Abate consigns himself to flute on the gently lilting waltz “Water Lily”—a beautiful rendition that still doesn’t probe the depths Barron and bassist Dave Holland achieved on the 1985 original.
Such changes in mood and instrumentation enable the 14 songs of Magic Dance (seven on each of two discs, for those with a hard copy) to unfurl like a resplendent spiral, at unpredictable speeds. Barron’s affinity for sambas, bossas, and pastel balladry is juxtaposed with touchstones of his debt to Monk, Parker and Gillespie, all conjoined by the extraordinary blend of elegance and innovation that are hallmarks of his piano style—and, only slightly less so, of his compositions.
Abate’s versatility and well-considered arrangements (which are neither slavishly imitative nor damaging to the integrity of Barron’s work) make his playing and the project greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a kick to hear him come back on alto after starting on flute to enliven “Cook’s Bay,” and to hear the alto and tenor twine and separate on “Lemuria.” He tweaks the bluesy bop of “And Then Again” (the most frequently performed tune in this collection) with some old-fashioned freshness: harmonizing his lead alto with the bari, letting Barron comp and Blake cavort to their hearts’ content, then returning to trade licks on bari and alto (Blake nudges in for some bars) in the stretch to the finish.
Barron, who didn’t hear any of the horn overdubs until after Magic Dance was finished, renders his verdict (“they are killin’”) in the liner notes and closes by thanking Abate “for doing such a masterful job of arranging my songs.”