Album reviews

Blue Road Records Band – ‘Ira: The Tribute Album’

Blue Road Records Band Ira: The Tribute Album

(Blue Road Records. Album Review by John Arnett)

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The story behind this clearly heartfelt tribute album is a fascinating one. Blue Road Records Band are the house band of the eponymous Miami studio, founded in 2019 by Miriam Stone, one of three guitarists in the six piece ensemble here. The band are a veritable Latin American melting pot, as of course befits Miami. Stone and keyboardist/saxophonist Yainer Horta are both Cuban expatriates. Bassist Javier Espinoza and guitarist Leo Quintero hail from Venezuela. Drummer and percussionist Kevin Abanto is Peruvian by birth. Guitarist Brev Sullivan, son of Ira, was born in the USA.

Ira Sullivan, who died in 2020 age 89, was, unusually, equally adept on saxophone, flute and trumpet and had a reputation as a compelling soloist in the bebop idiom. In the 1950’s he worked mainly in Chicago, before moving to Florida, and over the course of a long career played with a dazzling array of jazz pioneers of the calibre of Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Art Blakey. He was also mentor to a younger generation of nascent stars such as Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. His entry in Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia makes the telling point that “Sullivan is almost a textbook example of a musician whose lack of support from record companies … has marginalised a fine player”. All the more reason to applaud this tribute album, which displays throughout a highly infectious energy, exuberance and musicality across a diverse range of moods and forms.

Guitar enthusiasts (I’m one) will find a great deal to enjoy here. Because there are three guitarists featured, part of the pleasure is trying to work out who is playing what, since there is no attribution or explanation in the sleeve notes – just distinct and distinctive voices. Frank Zappa disliked the sound of the conventional jazz guitar, describing it as “far too polite”. Not here. Track two, Ira Sullivan’s beautiful ballad “Monday’s Dance”, is perhaps the closest to this end of the spectrum, but is in no way bland or unassuming, rather a beautifully judged melodic exploration, full of character. Opening track “I get a kick out of you”, in complete contrast, gives the tune a boisterous quick tempo working over, with some spiky, slightly dissonant guitar interplay and with the opening theme leading straight into a manic drum solo, all great fun.

It is hard to pick out highlights – the album is full of them. Track 3 “Circumstantial” is a swinging guitar-led melody, with a beautiful resonant tone and deft changes of tempo. It also introduces the saxophone, soprano in this case, of Yaina Horta, bringing in a pleasing new voice. Ira Sullivan’s composition “Multimedia”, which follows, establishes a Santana-like uptempo Latin feel, with layers of percussion. This seamlessly switches into an altogether different tempo and tonality and back again throughout the tune, so that the title begins to make sense. Ira Sullivan devoted much of his time to teaching, and was one of the foremost jazz educators in the USA. Apparently the inspiration for the tune was his experience of walking down the corridors of his jazz school and registering the diversity of sounds coming out of the different rehearsal rooms.

Track 5 “Icarus”, the great Ralph Towner composition, is another real high point, with its haunting. shifting melody supported by subtle soprano sax and propulsive, metronomic rim shots on the drums. It has a restraint about it as well as tension and release that just add to the overall effect. Ira Sullivan’s tune “Ninevah” which comes next, again signals a complete change of mood, locality and tonality, with its sombre Eastern inflected electric guitar and drum introduction. This is a real guitar showcase and tour de force, courtesy (I presume) of Brev Sullivan, clearly adept and fluent in many different styles, with soprano sax coming in latterly to great melodic effect. The music is complex, but full of atmosphere and feeling.

Of the remaining tracks, a personal favourite is the Tadd Dameron composition “Our Delight”, a swinging and joyful bop rendition introducing an altogether different mood to its predecessor “Ninevah”, and with nicely contrasted guitar solos leading into a looping, bubbly bass guitar spot. These contrasts show very clearly that a lot of thought has gone into the overall conception of this highly rewarding album.

Blue Road Records Studios website

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