CD reviews

CD REVIEW: Ronnie Cuber – Straight Street

Ronnie Cuber – Straight Street
(SteepleChase SCCD 31860. Review by Peter Vacher)

US baritone-saxophonist Ronnie Cuber is a kind of first responder in jazz: up for anything, it seems. As likely to be seen fronting a quartet as in this 2010 recording or soloing with the Mingus Big Band at Ronnie Scott’s or, indeed, working with Latin bandleaders like Eddie Palmieri and making the New York session scene. He has toured with Aretha Franklin and the R&B saxophonist King Curtis and taken his place in big bands led by Lionel Hampton and Woody Herman. So, you could say, to paraphrase an old headline, that when Cuber plays, he embodies the totality of the jazz experience. All jazz life is here. In other words, he is recognized as one of the leading proponents of his sometimes cumbersome instrument, as good for a full-on live set like this one as for a stand-up solo in a big band.

Here he’s teamed with a very lively rhythm section starring the mercurial pianist George Colligan, on fire throughout, with bassist Cameron Brown, always steady, and drummer Joe Farnsworth, another luminary of the New York scene. They open with Groovin’ High, its familiar shape like a launch pad for an extended extemporization by the gruff-toned Cuber, then 69 years of age and full of vim as he doubtless is still, the flow of ideas quite unquenchable. Whether these are all cogent and pertinent is a matter of opinion, of course, his very prolixity as much a barrier as a benefit. Colligan, on the other hand, impresses at every point, with his exciting, Peterson-like facility, and a level of keyboard fecundity that explains his popularity with leaders like Cuber and so many others. They move on to Miles’ Mode by John Coltrane, a fast-moving post-bop piece that induces some of Cuber’s most adventurous harmonic forays and allows Colligan to unleash his inner-McCoy Tyner, the energy quite palpable, the outcomes exhilarating, as Cuber deploys the top end of the baritone’s range, nearer to Coltrane himself than Gerry Mulligan, say, ever was.

As sleeve-note writer Neil Tesser says, “the muse of Coltrane hovered close on this particular gig” with two more Coltrane themes each given a lengthy exploration. The counterbalance to all this advanced playing comes with a ballad reading of Summertime and the rather lovely Gloria’s Steps by Scott Lafaro.

So a strong set revealing Cuber’s mastery of the idiom and of his instrument, his harmonic propensities unfettered as is his technique. Clearly something of a SteepleChase favourite, Cook and Morton cite Cuber’s sound as ‘gruff and monstrous’ at times and I’d add porcine, too: Colligan, though, can do no wrong. Quite why it has taken nine years for the recording to emerge on to CD is unexplained. Good sound.

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