Just a note to say that while wandering through iTunes the other night I stumbled across a truly extraordinary album released two years ago by the cornet and trumpet player Warren Vaché, called Don’t Look Back. I recommend it very highly.
Vaché is a truly mighty jazz trumpeter (I use the term generically; his weapon of choice is usually the cornet, which has a conical instead of a tubular bore and therefore a softer, more diffuse tone), but since he favours the harmonies and structures of pre-Charlie Parker jazz, he doesn’t often get mentioned as one of today’s more significant jazz musicians. He was one of a handful of largely white young players who rose to prominence in the 1970s playing old-style swing jazz — Scott Hamilton on saxophone was the star of the group, and Howard Alden on guitar was another prominent figure. It was Vaché who taught Richard Gere to play cornet for Francis Copolla’s highly unconvincing movie Cotton Club. But let’s not hold that against him.
I ignored Vaché for most of my life, preferring trumpeters with a harder edge and tunes with more dissonance and odd phrase lengths (basically, Woody Shaw). But after a while, quality tells, and I got tired of penalizing Vaché just because anyone can enjoy his music. I’ve seen him twice in concert, in Ottawa with Bill Charlap and in New Orleans with a George Wein all-star band. Both times he was unflappable, lyrical, an unabashed romantic and a peerless professional in one package. With Wein’s crew he called apt and witty riffs for the horn line, chewed gum through the whole concert and fired off concise solos almost no living trumpeter could have hoped to match for their dexterity and logic.
On Don’t Look Back he plays ballads with a string section (as it happens, a Scottish one). It could be sappy, especially given Vaché’s sweet tone, but there is something tougher-minded, not weakly sentimental, about the range of wistful-to-tragic emotions on display here. As a result of Vaché’s stark delivery, and string arrangements that are far more sophisticated than you usually get on sessions with pop soloists, Don’t Look Back winds up being incontestably a classic of the genre. There’s only one tune at a bright tempo, a reel called Molly On The Shore (played on trumpet, if I’m not mistaken; the way Vaché makes the high notes ring out is breathtaking). Most of the other tunes are obscure but lovely. The arrangers (including the semi-legendary big-band experimentalist Bill Finegan, who died this week) never simply lard the strings on top of everything like an undifferentiated lump of Dream Whip (as even Eumir Deodato did on kd lang’s otherwise career-topping Hymns of the 49th Parallel); instead, the instruments in the sessions’ tidy little chamber orchestra are deployed in smaller groups on arrangements that develop and evolve intelligently, as classical compositions do. The title track, featuring an understated and persuasive vocal by Vaché (“Sooner or later,” he said before the Charlap concert in Ottawa, “every trumpet player will do anything to get that mouthpiece off his face”) is just about the prettiest little gem I’ve heard all year.
I know that when I write about music only a tiny fraction of this blog’s audience follows along. But those who do this time are lucky, because this is memorable work by one of the finest musicians now working in any genre.