CD review

Cory Weeds (with Mike LeDonne, Peter Bernstein, Joe Farnsworth, Eric Alexander) – ‘O Sole Mio’

Cory Weeds – O Sole Mio
(Cellar Live. CD Review by Sebastian Scotney)

A reviewer settles down to the task of reviewing an album…and up pops a sentence seemingly from nowhere, which doesn’t just fly directly in the face of accepted wisdom, it also shows how little the particular reviewer knew before embarking on the task. And, more importantly, reveals the inspiring levels of determination which can exist in jazz:

“Cellar Live[…] marks its 20th anniversary in 2021. With more than 200 albums in its catalogue, Cellar Music Group will have its biggest year yet in 2021 — the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding.” (*)

O Sole Mio, then, is the first album in the Cellar Live label’s release calendar for this anniversary year… and that fact sends this reviewer down the first of several inviting internet research rabbit-holes before the actual review starts…..

The label proprietor is Cory Weeds. He is a saxophonist born in 1975 in Burnaby in the metropolitan area of Vancouver. As a teenager, I read, he won a scholarship at North Texas University, but walked away from studies there after just one year. He found that the post-Brecker orthodoxy of that time, of that place and of almost all of his cohort of students were inimical to him, and he promptly returned north. Back in British Columbia, and with the support of family, and later of a group of financial partners, he bought/opened a jazz club at the age of just 26. The Cellar Jazz Club at 3611 Broadway West took the name of a legendary club which had operated in Watson Street in the city from the mid 1950’s until 1964 – the subject of a fascinating recent book. Then, after fourteen years, The Cellar in its second incarnation closed. In addition to the normal impossible odds against keeping a club open, an article from 2013 marked its closure with these wry remarks:

“He [Weeds] is feeling the strain of keeping a small business quite literally above water. Vancouver’s incessant rain means the club routinely floods.” (**)

For the past five years Weeds has been the booker at another club, Frankie’s, and also presents music at other locations.

The existence of the club from 2001 did lead directly to the label. According to the label’s website:

“Cory Weeds started the label by rolling the tape at his Cellar Jazz Club in Vancouver, Canada to capture the city’s fine jazz musicians and visiting players live on the bandstand.”

As regards the label’s ethos when it comes to Weeds making recordings of himself as musician, Cory Weeds has been disarmingly modest in interviews:

“I like to surround myself with people that are better than me. I thrive in that environment. I don’t want to be the best musician on any of my record dates!” (**)

That spirit of venerating the people he works with is evident when one looks at some of the albums that have led to O Sole Mio, recorded at Armoury Studios in October 2019 . Previous important landmarks in his own trajectory and that of the Cellar Live label have been marked by teaming up with the same stellar organ trio of Mike LeDonne on B-3 organ, Peter Bernstein on guitar and Joe Farnsworth on drums . Weeds’ debut album as leader, Big Weeds from 2008 had them on it. And the 100th album to be released on the label, Condition Blue from 2015, a recording of music by Jackie McLean, brought them back again, And here they are on the new album, with the addition of an additional sparring partner on saxophone, the redoubtable and consistently impressive Eric Alexander.

REVIEW: There is an over-arching theme dictating the choices of tunes on this album which suits Cory Weeds well: O Sole Mio is subtitled “Music from the Motherland” and also as “A hip heritage homage”. It features music with direct or indirect – or even downright tenuous – connections with Italy. Part of the background here is that a friendly sponsor, Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre, got behind the project. Happy accidents seem to have a way of happening to Cory Weeds.

For Weeds himself, his persuasive way with a ballad is very much to the fore on an Italian classic, Bruno Martino’s Estate. There are recordings of this tune which cam make one realise it can take a while to get round its long song-form, but with Mike LeDonne’s atmospheric introduction and Weeds’ melodic sense it never outstays its welcome.

A significant, recurrent and thoroughly enjoyable feature of this album is the way in which all of its participants can suddenly turn a page and take the listener into new territory. The Henry Mancini Tune Mr Lucky, for example, features energetic workouts as each of the saxophonists takes his solo. Then comes one of the best moments on the album.  Peter Bernstein takes us to a wonderful and very different place of spacious serenity and simplicity. It is a gem, worth the price of the album on its own. And there are others: the last soloist on the Neapolitan song Torna A Surriento is Mike LeDonne, and he starts of with a series of questioning, probing irregular-length phrases which then give way to something much warmer calmer and friendlier. Joe Farnsworth is impeccable throughout. Particularly notable is the way he keeps an infectious liveliness in a counter-intuitively effective cha-cha version of the theme from The Godfather. And his punchy, forceful yet crisply impeccable drum solo on Chick’s Tune is a reminder of what a fine drummer he is.

The final track is teasingly entitled Capricci di Camere. It is, in fact, the 1956 Paul Chambers tune Whims of Chambers which, despite not having any known or ostensible connection with Italy whatsoever, has found itself here flying a flag of convenience. And anyone who wants to know what the satisfaction of a job really well done – over a period of twenty years – sounds like, then listen to the final bar of this last tune, as Mike LeDonne leads a crescendo by the quintet into a resonant, large-scale, deservedly triumphant big band-style ending.

(*) Source : Interview by CBC from 2021

(**) Source: Newspaper interview from 2013

(***) Source : Youtube interview from 2017

LINK: O Sole Mio on Bandcamp

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