CD review

John Bailey – “Can You Imagine?”

John Bailey – Can You Imagine?
(Freedom Road Records FRR 001. CD review by Leonard Weinreich)

No hidden sub-text here: the brand name on the label yells it shamelessly. Ever since the first jazz phrase took wing, the music has expressed the essence of freedom.

Not only does trumpeter John Bailey (who’s worked with Ray Charles, Ray Barretto, Woody Herman and Arturo O’Farrill) possess a pair of passions, on this album they’re interlinked for all to hear. Passion No 1 is a love of freedom. And passion No 2 is a lifelong devotion to John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie, the incandescent trumpeter and bebop founding father (Bailey’s car license plate even reads ‘DIZ4PRES’). Clearly, as a self-confessed patriot, Bailey regards the actions of the current U.S. Commander-in-Chief as running counter to the music’s spirit and has decided to make a creative political protest. In other words, as owner of the label, he’s placed his mouthpiece where his money is (trumpet v. Trump?).

Compulsory backstory: in 1964, against the background of raging Civil Rights’ struggles, Dizzy Gillespie announces his candidacy for the White House. With a sense of satire that matches his phenomenal technique, (“The White House? I’ll rename it ‘The Blues House’”) he nominates the most distinguished cabinet of all time (Duke Ellington as Secretary of State; Louis Armstrong at Agriculture and Miles Davis heading the CIA). Dizzy’s subversive humour masks genuine pain. And the issues he raises persist to this day.

So, on this album, Bailey imagines a freer, more liberated U.S.A. inherited from Diz’s enlightened administration. Wisely, he also surrounds himself with like-minded musicians to express this alternative world.

Listen how, on Pebbles in The Pocket, Bailey’s horn emerges optimistically from a dirge-like intro. The album’s central showpiece, President Gillespie Suite, has three parts: i: The Humanitarian Candidate (yearning tightly-muted trumpet a la Diz and plenty of horn interplay suggesting democratic discussion rather than authoritarian rhetoric), ii: Road To The Blues House (sterling work from guest Earl McIntyre on bass trombone) and iii: President Gillespie’s Birthday Song (incorporating fragments of Dizzy’s Salt Peanuts and Groovin’ High).

Distinguished drummer Victor Lewis sets the pace for his composition The Touch Of Her Vibe, a lament (state of the nation?) that offers Bailey the opportunity of an athletic solo followed by an intense conversation between Stacy Dillard’s tenor and Stafford Hunter’s trombone. The Blues House generates the power of a Blakey’s Messengers revival, funky trumpet, gymnastic trombone, strong support from bassist Mike Karn and a masterly display from Lewis. On Ballad From Oro, Incensio Y Mirra, composed by Chico O’Farrill (the Afro-Cuban pioneer responsible for Dizzy’s Manteca), the mood is sensuous and Latin with sensitive contribution from pianist Edsel Gomez.

Stacy Dillard wrote the thoughtful Elite State Of Mind which features his saxophone, Hunter’s philosophical trombone and the work of yet another guest, flautist Janet Axelrod as well as some handsome ensemble effects. Valsa Rancho features Axelrod’s alto flute whose contralto sound, sad and regretful, is well-suited to the elegiac waltz which is also explored by Dillard’s heartfelt soprano over virtuoso cymbal splashing by Lewis. From The Heart by Victor Lewis, is a defiant battle hymn studded with engaging riffs proclaiming hope over despair. Everyone in the band testifies and the performances shine courtesy of crisp audio engineering by Randy Crafton.

The final track, People by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne, once a saccharine smash for Barbra Streisand, is a duet by Bailey and Gomez invested with fresh meaning, totally stripped of sentiment and all the better for that.

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