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Ronnie Cuber: Ronnie’s Trio (SteepleChase)

Review of the baritone saxophonist's trio album with Jay Anderson and Adam Nussbaum

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Cover of Ronnie Cuber album Ronnie's Trio
Cover of Ronnie Cuber album Ronnie’s Trio

It’s easy to play standards, but damned difficult to play them well. The problem is one of familiarity: How does one take a tune that’s been played literally a million times and find something fresh in it? Some younger musicians deal with this problem by avoiding the familiar tropes of straight-ahead playing (Tom Rainey’s Obbligato does this extremely well), while their elders often burrow deeper into the music’s harmonic possibilities (Lee Konitz and Keith Jarrett spring to mind here).

Baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber’s solution here is simpler: Get rid of the piano, and use the added space to free things up rhythmically. Obviously, there have been piano-less trios before, but Cuber benefits from the approach both by working up some simple but memorable arrangements and having two tremendously simpatico sidemen in bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum.

One acid test here is “Bernie’s Tune,” which would inevitably invite comparison to the piano-free Baker/Mulligan version. Cuber’s trio sidesteps that by having Anderson play a harmonized line with Cuber on the head, giving a harmonic twist to the tune that makes it entirely theirs. Then there’s “What Is This Thing Called Love,” where it’s Nussbaum’s cymbals, not the bass, that dominate the pulse; this lightens the groove, and lets the three play more freely without sacrificing the rhythmic drive that typically characterizes the tune.

Best of all, there’s Cuber himself, whose playing has, incredibly, grown more authoritative with each passing year. His sound, huge and affable, brims with personality, and it’s hard not to be awed by the freshness and wit he brings to chestnuts such as “St. Thomas” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” or the lyricism with which he imbues “All the Things You Are.”

Preview, buy or download Ronnie’s Trio on Amazon!

Originally Published