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First Takes by Shelly Berg and Frank Potenza

With so many big time record labels putting together super groups for a record, the end result is not exactly all that super. The playing from the individuals is outstanding, but the whole album is missing something. You wonder if that artist would have sounded different if they recorded with say just their friends. Guitarist Frank Potenza and pianist Shelly Berg did just that and the end result is one of the finest duo albums to of come out in a long time. First Takes is a collection of standards and originals the two recorded at Schoenberg Hall at the University of Southern California. Frank and Shelly are both professors at the Thornton School of Music. They set up a digital 2-track and just started laying down favorites from concerts the two perform together. The end result is simply fantastic.

There are not many guitar/piano duo albums out there that are really great and it usually takes a pair of really great musicians to make it happen. Jim Hall/Bill Evans, Joe Pass/Oscar Peterson and Bill Frisell/Fred Hersch are name a few names that come to mind. The piano and guitar are so similar that many times they will conflict tonally, rhythmically and even harmonically. The skill it takes to blend the similarities but ascent their individuality is a difficult task.

The album starts with a solo introduction by Frank to the tune "Wonder Why." Shelly joins him at the top of the head. The two lock into a really fine swing and continue to let that ride through the whole album. During Frank’s solos, Shelly will comp chords with the right hand and walk a bass line in the left. When Shelly solos or takes the melody, Frank will walk a bass line and comp chords. They do this so fluently that there is never a moment of dead swing. They continue with a wonderful version of Fats Waller’s "Jitterbug Waltz." This is very swinging stuff.

The lone original on the album is a tune by Shelly Berg called "Oil and Water." What holds true throughout the entire album is how nicely the two compliment each other, while never dropping the intensity of the music. There are actually times where you would swear there was a drummer playing and he was just not mixed. What is also refreshing is their choice of tunes. It is a mix of familiar standards ("Yesterdays," "Driftin’," "Virgo") with some tunes you don’t hear as often ("Tonk," "Three in One," "Tristeza").

First Takes is album for the fan of the straight-ahead and swingin’ jazz. There isn’t anything on this album that is warrants just one listen. It is two very fine players doing just what two friends do...making great music together. Let us hope we will see a Second Take from the duo sometime soon.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Shelly Berg and Frank Potenza
  • CD Title: First Takes
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2005
  • Record Label: Azica
  • Rating: Five Stars
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