by Will Friedwald
July 5th, 2013
"Mr. Carlon's treatment is the best kind of fresh take on classic material, rendered with a perfect balance of adoration and irreverence that never misses the mark..."
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Saxophonist Paul Carlon's new album, "La Rumba Is a Lovesome Thing—Tribute to Billy Strayhorn," opens with "Johnny Come Lately," the 1942 jazz standard played as if the title were actually "Juan Come Lately." Apart from playing the familiar melody in a Cuban "clave" rhythm (rather than the expected swing-style straight four), Mr. Carlon reworks the piece from top to bottom, as if it had been a staple of the Tito Puente bandbook rather than that of Duke Ellington.
He spices it up and makes it mucho caliente with Latin percussion and a quartet of singers chanting en espanol—an especially inspired touch to a tune that was always an instrumental. Often a songbook package is the most basic, plain-vanilla way to perform the works of a given composer, but Mr. Carlon's treatment is the best kind of fresh take on classic material, rendered with a perfect balance of adoration and irreverence that never misses the mark.There are musicians out there who are hostile to the very idea of songbook albums. "There should be a moratorium on songbook, 'concept,' and tribute albums," they cry. Still, nearly anybody besides the musicians themselves welcomes the idea. Why not organize the music with an idea that's larger than a single song? Why not give an album some kind of idea or theme to distinguish it from every other show out there?
Mr. Carlon's project also follows a series of well-conceived "Latin Side" albums by the trombonist Conrad Herwig, among them "The Latin Side of John Coltrane" (1996), Miles Davis (2004), Wayne Shorter (2008), and Herbie Hancock (2008). There have also been several "Latin side" approaches to Ellington, notably a concert by Latin American trombonist Steve Turre honoring Ellington's Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol (an event that was, unfortunately, not recorded), and "Afro-Cuban Suite for Duke Ellington" on Bobby Sanabria's current album "Multiverse."
So how do you turn a Strayhorn tune into a mambo or cha-cha? In Mr. Carlon's arrangement, "Chelsea Bridge" becomes a bolero romantico, with that iconic melody phrased on flutes; it's now a slow, erotic dance. As an arranger Mr. Carlon sustains interest by phrasing the tune two ways, with rubato, out of tempo phrases alternating with sections in a firm clave dance beat. "Upper Manhattan Medical Group" is perhaps hardest to recognize, but the Strayhorn tune is there in the mix. "Sweet and Pungent" is the rarest tune in the stack, being a one-shot number from the Ellington album "Blues in Orbit." Trombonist Britt Woodman moaned like crazy on the 1959 original, as trombonist Ryan Keberle does here, yet though it's in Latin tempo, it's no less bluesy.
In his liner notes, Mr. Carlon describes "Tonk" as the "Holy Grail" of Strayhorn works. Most famously heard as an infamously tricky four-handed piano duet between Ellington and Strayhorn, it's a keyboard tour de force somewhere inbetween Art Tatum and Rachmaninoff. Mr. Carlon describes his reinterpretation as fitting the form of the Puerto Rican bomba, but to my ears the piece has now become a choro in the best Brazilian tradition, a close relative of the archetypical choro "Tico Tico."
One of the most successful of Mr. Carlon's transformations is actually Strayhorn's single best known work, "Take The A Train': the Latinized reading, which features a Spanglais choir including Christelle Durandy and Pedrito Martinez, shifts the rhythm from 4/4 to 6/8. The only change that Mr. Carlon neglected to instigate to make the piece any more convincing would have been to re-title the piece "Take The Number Six Train." After all, that's the quickest way to get to Spanish Harlem.