It’s easy to assume A Swingin’ Session is more of what comes naturally to Duke Robillard, an expert exploration of forties-era sophisticated blues grooves. He’s the master painter in that regard, starting with Roomful Of Blues and groups like the Pleasure Kings and Fabulous Thunderbirds and, of course, he’s also collaborated with countless legends. Perhaps it’s familiar territory to Duke, but he’s not standing still. This swinging set is of a different cloth with a special vibe that’s transfixed this reviewer.
The artistry of his backing combo shines like twinkling stardust and the arrangements are exquisite. Every participant has space to improvise and stretch out and never disappoint. But the secret ingredient is Duke’s musical imagination. He’s found the mother lode of blues-tinged jazz classics, songs with witty lyrics blessed by unforgettable melodies. He makes them soar and rekindles that delight experienced when they were first heard. Here’s some of the titles: "Deed I Do," "Them That Got," "The Lonesome Road," "Meet Me At No Special Place," "Just Because" and "The Song Is Ended."
Check out the fabulous horn section, which features such long-time musical cohorts as saxophonists Doug James, Scott Hamilton and Sax Gordon, plus Carl Queforth on trombone and Al Basile on cornet. These multi-talented gents provide impeccable contributions to each song, such as "Deed I Do," which harks back to the 1930’s. Originally popularized by the orchestras of Ishan Jones and Tommy Dorsey, it’s my guess that Ray Charles’ soulful take (circa 1958) provided the ammo for Duke’s muse. It swings most elegantly. Duke fashions another immaculate tribute to Charles with "Them That Got" and makes the telling point that this nugget may just be Brother Ray’s most under-recognized contribution to the R&B lexicon. "The Lonesome Road" takes things into Overdrive City. This chestnut’s been adapted and shaped by a "who’s who" in the Country, Gospel, Blues, and Jazz fields. But here, the guys give it a Duke Ellington feel. Not bad company!
Surprisingly, given it’s more of a lilting ballad than a swinging romp, I found "When Your Lover Has Gone" the show stopper. It’s another endurable from the early 30’s when it was synonymous with crooners like Bing Crosby, Gene Austin, Rudy Vallee, and Al Bowlly. It’s been taken up by countless others, but Robillard seems particularly indebted to Billie Holiday’s dream-like version. Never one to flinch from a challenge, Duke delivers the goods with an amazingly sultry vocal performance that’s respectful to the song’s richly melodic underpinnings while allowing each member of his gifted crew to add superb flourishes. Jazz at its best!
"Meet Me At The No Special Place" is exceptional in myriad ways and special commendation to Basile’s evocative cornet. Duke was made to sing this one. I’ll make a mental note to put it atop my request list next time I see him perform. "The Song Is Ended" is a timeless standard from the Irving Berlin songbook and another immensely satisfying tour de force. There’s two instrumentals, "Red Dog" and "Swinging With Lucy May," and like they say around Christmas-time, they are gifts that keep giving. Both are scrumptious desserts which perfectly complement this multi-course feast for the ears.
His crisp and always super-tasty guitar forms the linchpin to this immensely satisfying release. Few band leaders are as gifted as the Dukester and he always gets the best sounds possible from his gifted crew. Somehow Duke Robillard manages to defy Old Man Time by getting better and better with age, much like boxer Bernard Hopkins. A Swingin’ Session is a classic. It belongs in the library of any jazz or blues lover.