Hammond Organ Hard-Bop with Horns, Portland Style
Hammond Organist Steve Hall graduated from Berklee College of Music and is a West Coast jazz veteran of more than 40 years. The Steve Hall Trio was formed in 2001, but was recently upgraded to a quintet. Well into his accomplished career, The Steve Hall Quintet serves as Hall's first major release as leader.
This untitled CD comes in a sleek but unimaginative package: a web address across the spine, a simple sans-serif font and no picture. It would appear The Steve Hall Quintet was intended just as a no-frills promotional tool, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But as it turns out, there is much more to The Steve Hall Quintet than meets the eye.
Hall’s quintet is rounded-out by proficient Portland players. Trumpeter and native Texan, Richard Watson studied under Don "Jake" Jacoby, a veteran player with Tommy Dorsey and Les Brown. Pete Schwimmer's guitar-work occasionally belies his other musical pursuit: bluegrass banjo and mandolin. The stellar "What You Say To That?" makes full use of this effect. Saxophonist Cal Hudson does justice to Coltrane’s "Moment’s Notice" with a pronounced, lyrical tone. He turns in a strong solo, then hands-off to Jacoby and Schwimmer, each exhibiting a proficient bop sensibility. Kenny Morse’s drumbeats propel the others forward, particularly with his imaginative fills and turn-arounds.
Seven of these twelve tunes are Hall originals, inspired by the hard-bop likes of Horace Silver, Charles Earland and the Jazz Messengers. The other five are well-loved standards by Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, DeLange/VanHeusen, Horace Silver himself, and Wayne Shorter.
The first track, original "On a Scale of One to Five," takes right off with standard organ-led hard bop fare. The song format is pretty well-defined, a conscious decision with nostalgic effect. The next original, "Blue Sky and Black Coffee" brings to mind Hall’s Pacific Northwest surroundings. The quintet preserves Thelonious Monk’s unique composed spontaneity on "Monk’s Dream," and features several brilliant solos. "Rasta Turtle" features a smooth but funky organ timbre, complimented by a nice horn arrangement. Schwimmer’s staccato chord-comping sets up more nice solos.
Composers Eddie DeLange and Jimmy Van Heusen's sentimental "Darn that Dream" is often considered the low-point of Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool, but Hall brings it alive in a brand-new musical context, thankfully sans vocal. These five bandmates demonstrate a full dynamic-range and sense of timing, from the groovy ballad "Thursday Strut" to the off-beat blues and reggae infused "Steamy Night Shuffle."
Hall’s organ sounds are pleasing and full-bodied throughout. The CD is well enough recorded, though it bears a somewhat stilted studio sound. The musicians’ personal timbres are well represented and differentiated (possibly from overdubs). Unfortunately, the rhythm section tends to sound overly compressed and the horn tracks can turn thin and remote at times. It’s a matter of taste, but some purists may wish for an "all in a room for one live take" quality.
By and large, The Steve Hall Quintet is a high-quality, sincere effort by life-long musicians with even more potential. Despite any minor flaws typical to independent artists on a limited budget, there are more than enough inspired moments to justify this purchase. Recommended listening, especially to fans of organ-led bop.
For more hard bop organ trio music, check out this month's review of The Hook Up by The Kyle Asche Organ Trio (with special guest Scott Burns).
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.