THE DOZENS: 12 ESSENTIAL BARITONE SAX PERFORMANCES by Eric Novod



                   Gerry Mulligan, by Ray Avery


Whenever I told people I was preparing a baritone sax dozens, I got a similar half-joking, half-serious response:

“A baritone sax dozens, huh? So you’re going to do six Ellington tracks and six Mulligan tracks?”

For better or worse, a lot is revealed in this response. To look at the bright side first, it is indeed true that Duke Ellington’s baritone-centric arranging, and Harry Carney’s execution of that arranging, remains one of the more valuable relationships throughout jazz history. Gerry Mulligan’s hand in the creation of the cool jazz style, on a non-dominant lead instrument no less, is arguably as significant.

But as much high praise as Carney (or Ellington, more likely) and Mulligan receive is as little recognition that most every other baritone saxophonist does. Yet breezing through the recorded histories of swing, bop, cool, soul-jazz, free jazz, and modern post-bop reveals other significant figures who have widened the scope of each subgenre with their baritone sax playing.

While the instrument itself is conspicuously dark and assuming, it turns out that the development of the soloing baritone saxophonist often reveals characteristics quite the contrary. Across subgenre lines, baritone saxophone solos are consistently witty, colorful, and occasionally even light – bookended by a musical genuineness and a consummate sense of humor.

This issue of The Dozens surveys the baritone sax throughout jazz history. It presents 14 leading exponents over a span of 60 years, and omits (without meaning to slight) another Dozens-sized list of honorable mentions: Danny Bank, Charlie Fowlkes, Jerome Richardson, Joe Temperley, Sahib Shihab, Jimmy Giuffre, Pat Patrick, John Surman, Denis DiBlasio, Kenny Berger, Howard Johnson and Frank Basile.


Sidney Bechet (featuring Ernie Caceres): What a Dream

Track

What a Dream

Artist

Sidney Bechet (soprano sax)

CD

Classic Sides 1937-1939 (Jsp Records: CD B)

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Musicians:

Sidney Bechet (soprano sax), Ernie Caceres (baritone sax),

Dave Bowman (piano), Leonard Ware (guitar), Harry Turner (bass), Zutty Singleton (drums)

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Composed by Sidney Bechet

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Recorded: New York, November 16, 1938

Albumcoversidneybechet-classicsides1937-1939

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

November 1938 was a standout in the career of Sidney Bechet. Mid-month, he recorded "Chant in the Night," "Hold Tight," "Jungle Drums" and "What a Dream" (all on this CD) with the unique support of Ernie Caceres's baritone sax and Leonard Ware's electric guitar. Two weeks later, Sidney and Mezz Mezzrow shared reed duties on a Bluebird date for the Tommy Ladnier Orchestra that resulted in "Ja Da," "Weary Blues" and "Really the Blues" – all classic Bechet recordings (and all also on this CD). While the latter session may be better known, the earlier soprano/baritone hookup yielded some of Bechet's more remarkable recordings.

Bechet and Caceres are involved in a direct dialogue throughout much of "What a Dream." Caceres answers Bechet's calls throughout the first statement of the melody, with Bechet delivering the goods and Caceres improvising in and around him. The two then engage in a brief trading session, featuring an impassioned Caceres doing his best to keep up with the master. Guitarist Ware then temporarily takes Sidney's solo position before a high-voltage Bechet returns and handles the concluding improvisation himself. Up until that point, though, this track had consistently highlighted the powerful possibilities of the baritone sax as both a refreshing voice in a supportive role and a commanding voice in a lead role. It's a somewhat unanticipated and altogether enjoyable performance: a shining moment in the recorded history of both underdog saxophones represented.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Duke Ellington (featuring Harry Carney): Frustration

Track

Frustration

Artist

Duke Ellington (piano)

CD

Duke Ellington Presents (Bethlehem 5019)

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Musicians:

Duke Ellington (piano), Harry Carney (baritone sax),

Clark Terry, Willie Cook, Cat Anderson (trumpets), Quentin Jackson, John Sanders, Brit Woodman (trombones), Russell Procope, Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves (reeds), Jimmy Woode (bass); Sam Woodyard (drums)

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Composed by Duke Ellington

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Recorded: February 1956

Albumcoverdukeellingtonpresents

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Harry Carney played the role of personal driver, trusted confidant and all-around best friend to the Duke throughout the majority of his career. Their strong extra-musical relationship extended to the bandstand, where Ellington's baritone-centric reed arranging propelled Carney's rich, round tone into the forefront of the world's finest big band. After Ellington/Carney, it was possible, and more importantly, desirable, to view the baritone sax as a legitimate frontline instrument perfectly appropriate to carry the lead. And just as Ellington himself did for the entire big band genre, Carney provided a beacon to successive generations of baritone saxophonists.

While Ellington classics such as "Sophisticated Lady" and "In a Mellotone" feature Carney's baritone in a leading role, "Frustration" is probably the strongest start-to-finish feature Ellington/Strayhorn wrote with Carney in mind. ("Sono" and "Agra" are two other fine examples.) Even though this is a rather late example, the smooth, just-right tone heard here had been Carney's strongest asset since the 1930s. Note how he chooses to suppress the instrument's power during the middle of his phrases in order to provide an unparalleled low-end punch to conclude (or sometimes, to begin) a powerful line.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Count Basie Orchestra (featuring Jack Washington): Somebody Stole My Gal

Track

Somebody Stole My Gal

Artist

Count Basie (piano)

CD

Count Basie and his Great Vocalists (Legacy/Columbia 66374)

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Musicians:

Count Basie (piano), Jack Washington (baritone sax), Jimmy Rushing (vocals),

Buck Clayton, Ed Lewis, Al Killian, Harry Sweets Edison (trumpets), Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Dan Minor (trombones), Earle Warren, Lester Young, Buddy Tate (reeds), Walter Page (bass), Freddie Green (guitar), Jo Jones (drums)

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Composed by Leo Wood

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Recorded: March 20, 1940

Albumcovercountbasieandhisgreatvocalists

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Jack Washington stands with Harry Carney as one of the first featured baritone saxophonists in jazz. Performing in Bennie Moten's Orchestra in Kansas City before joining the Basie Orchestra following Moten's death in 1935, Washington set the standard for the more traditional role of the baritone sax as a foundational force and harmonic colorist. While not featured in the front line nearly as often as Carney was in the Ellington band, Washington's rare opportunity to solo was approached with a youthful, crowd-riling vigor. As "Somebody Stole My Gal" begins, Washington immediately makes his presence felt (though barely heard) with fills between the trumpet melody. After Jimmy Rushing's vocal, Washington plays one of his longest and strongest documented solos. Note how the beginning of his solo is grouped into lyrical 4-bar phrases, and as the solo progresses he develops his lines into sharp 2-bar phrases in order to increase the drama and bring his solo home. A common yet vital improvisational tool perfectly executed here.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Dexter Gordon (featuring Leo Parker): Dexter's Riff

Track

Dexter's Riff

Artist

Dexter Gordon (tenor sax)

CD

Dexter Rides Again (Savoy MG 12130)

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Musicians:

Dexter Gordon (tenor sax), Leo Parker (baritone sax), Tadd Dameron (piano), Curly Russell (bass), Art Blakey (drums).

Composed by Dexter Gordon

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Recorded: New York, December 11, 1947

Albumcoverdextergordon-dexterridesagain

Rating: 86/100 (learn more)

Performing with Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Illinois Jacquet in the 1940s, Leo Parker looked to be prepping for a leading spot in the evolution of the modern baritone saxophone, but a drug habit halted his progress. Nonetheless, this defining track features extended trading between the gritty, rhythm-and-blues-infused Parker and the big-toned tenor legend-to-be Dexter Gordon. Both young guns are overflowing with (borderline sloppy) energy here, and the matchless rhythm section of Dameron, Russell and Blakey is simpatico to the proto-hard bop that these men were experimenting with. Note Parker's amalgamation of brief, bluesy riffs, longer bebop lines, and repeated single-note runs throughout his solo – all of which have come to spell out the modern baritone saxophone vocabulary.

Editor's Note: Lest anyone surmise that the cover photo of Dexter Rides Again scooped Sonny Rollins's Way Out West as the earliest image of a jazz tenorman posed as a cowpoke, be advised that Savoy's compilation of three sessions from 1945-'47 was issued in 1958, a year after William Claxton's classic shot for the Contemporary label, posing New York City slicker Theodore Rollins in a Brooks Brothers suit 'neath the blue sky in California's Mojave Desert. Moreover, the horseman pictured on Dexter Rides Again, reconnoitering Manhattan's Central Park on an overcast day, is not even Dexter Gordon, who was then reconnoitering San Quentin on a heroin bust. If anyone knows the story behind Jos. Bottwin's cover photo (click here for a larger view), please fill us in. – Alan Kurtz

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Kenny Dorham (featuring Cecil Payne): La Villa

Track

La Villa

Artist

Kenny Dorham (trumpet)

CD

Afro-Cuban (Blue Note BLP 1535)

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Musicians:

Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Cecil Payne (baritone sax), Hank Mobley (tenor sax), Horace Silver (piano), Percy Heath (bass), Art Blakey (drums).

Composed by Kenny Dorham & Gigi Gryce

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Recorded: Hackensack, NJ, January 30, 1955

Albumcoverkennydorham-afrocuban

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

As time goes by, multi-reed specialist Cecil Payne is increasingly recognized as the foremost originator of the bebop style on the baritone saxophone. And rightly so: his bebop agility expanded the improvisatory possibilities on the instrument. In 1946 he played baritone in Roy Eldridge's band, which in turn led to his participation in some of the most influential bebop recordings with Dizzy Gillespie, including the classic "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop." From there, Payne worked with Woody Herman, Tadd Dameron, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Illinois Jacquet, John Coltrane and many others.

Highlighted here on Kenny Dorham's "La Villa," a track from the mid-'50s, Payne flexes his baritone muscles among an all-star bop lineup. His solo statement near the end of the tune provides a powerful lift after already powerful solos by Dorham and Mobley. Note how Payne stumbles upon a brief line he likes (03:39-03:42) and masterfully weaves it into the remainder of his solo. A perfect example of using just the right amount of lyrical repetition.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Gerry Mulligan: Jeru

Track

Jeru

Artist

Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax)

CD

The Best of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker (Blue Note)

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Musicians:

Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Chet Baker (trumpet), Carson Smith (bass), Larry Bunker (drums).

Composed by Gerry Mulligan

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Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, April 27, 1953

Albumcoverbestofgerrymulliganquartetwithchetbaker

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Gerry Mulligan's immense talent as a performer, composer and arranger were so significantly impressive throughout the mid- to late 1940s and early '50s that he managed to not only reinvent the possibilities of the baritone sax, but concurrently had a hand in developing the entire cool jazz aesthetic – a rare occurrence for a non-dominant lead instrument. While the original "Jeru" from the Birth of the Cool is better known, this 2˝ -minute version by the influential Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker pianoless quartet is just about as close to perfect as a recording can get. Mulligan solos first, and the stunning weight of his beginning statement (00:31-00:39) opens the door for subsequent generations of baritone saxophonists to consistently and inventively "kill it" with the opening line of their improvisations. Also note Mulligan's sensitive comping (no guitar or piano, remember) under Baker's story-time solo. The two then engage in collective improvisation before a brief bass solo ushers in the final cadenza. Definitive West Coast jazz.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Quincy Jones (featuring Lars Gullin): Sometimes I'm Happy

Track

Sometimes I'm Happy

Artist

Quincy Jones (leader)

CD

Jazz Abroad (EmArcy MG 36083A)

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Musicians:

Quincy Jones (leader), Lars Gullin (baritone sax), Art Farmer (trumpet),

Jimmy Cleveland, Ake Persson (trombones), Arne Domnerus (alto sax, clarinet), Bengt Hallberg (piano), Simon Brehm (bass), Alan Dawson (drums)

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Composed by Irving Caesar, Clifford Grey & Vincent Youmans; arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones

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Recorded: Stockholm, Sweden, November 10, 1953

Albumcoverroyhaynes-quincyjones-jazzabroad

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

Jazz Abroad presents the first recording sessions led by, respectively, Roy Haynes and Quincy Jones. Don't be confused by the album cover: the two sessions were separate, and the two artists do not appear together. Haynes, while on a European tour with Sarah Vaughan, recorded in Stockholm in October 1953, while Jones, who was on tour with Lionel Hampton, combined some of his fellow Hampton bandmates with the top Stockholm musicians for this November '53 date.

Scandinavian cool baritonist Lars Gullin begins the soloing on "Sometimes I'm Happy." Given his penchant for floating, experimental lines, it's easy to see how he hooked up with American cool and/or Tristano school musicians such as Chet Baker and Lee Konitz. Gullin has a well-defined cool jazz aesthetic under his fingers here, only months removed from the seminal Mulligan/Baker quartet sessions. He and Art Farmer play the finest solos, backed by Alan Dawson's crisp, clean brushwork.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Serge Chaloff: A Handful of Stars

Track

A Handful of Stars

Artist

Serge Chaloff (baritone sax)

CD

Blue Serge (Capitol Jazz CDP 7243 4 94505 2 3)

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Musicians:

Serge Chaloff (baritone sax), Sonny Clark (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums).

Composed by Jack Lawrence & Ted Shapiro

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Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, March 14, 1956

Albumcoversergechaloff-blueserge

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

The best baritone saxophonist most listeners have never heard of: Serge Chaloff, whose rather incredible talents combine Harry Carney's tone and Cecil Payne's vocabulary. After early runs with Boyd Raeburn and Jimmy Dorsey, Chaloff teamed with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward to form Woody Herman's "Four Brothers." There was quite a buzz surrounding his playing after those performances, but Chaloff failed to capitalize, in part due to a serious drug habit that frequently interrupted his recording career. In the early to mid-'50s, however, Chaloff managed to kick the habit and release a handful of outstanding recordings as a leader, before tragically suffering from spinal paralysis and an untimely death.

Blue Serge, the highlight of these late-career sessions, features consistently inspired playing from Chaloff and the superb rhythm section Clark, Vinnegar and Philly Joe Jones. Note how amazingly hard Chaloff is swinging right off the bat during his expressive statement of the melody, while maintaining a light, "is-this-really-a-bari?" tone. The intensity spikes as soon as his solo starts, utilizing the full dynamic range of his horn with a blistering run of 16th notes supported by a double-timing Philly Joe. Vinnegar's solo and the trading among all four members at the tune's conclusion also distinguish this exceptional track.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Donald Byrd (featuring Pepper Adams): Jeannine

Track

Jeannine

Artist

Donald Byrd (trumpet)

CD

At the Half Note Café, Volumes 1 & 2 (Blue Note 57187)

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Musicians:

Donald Byrd (trumpet), Pepper Adams (baritone sax), Duke Pearson (piano),

Laymon Jackson (bass), Lex Humphries (drums)

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Composed by Duke Pearson & Oscar Brown, Jr

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Recorded: Live at the Half Note Café, New York, November 11, 1960

Albumcoverdonaldbyrd-atthehalfnotecafe-volumes1and2

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

From 1958-'63, Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams combined to form one of the most appealing hard-bop partnerships. Byrd's carefully developed lyrical improvisations were greatly contrasted by the sheer intensity of Adams's "Knife"-like improvisatory onslaught. An alumnus of the groups of Charles Mingus and (later) Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Adams's work with these famed artists and as a leader and co-leader in his own right warranted his reputation as the leading purveyor of the aggressive, post-bop baritone sax style.

His solo on this hard-grooving Duke Pearson composition has it all: a forceful sound that will knock you to the ground, a multitude of satisfying vertical leaps and bounds (none more amusing than the perfectly placed accidental squeak near the end of his first line at 5:08), and most importantly, brilliantly executed connecting threads that lend his improvisations a tangible storyline. The entire span from 6:00-7:00 is special playing indeed.

Quick sidebar: In his extended improvisation on this track, Donald Byrd returns to the same (rather long) motivic theme no fewer than 9 times over the course of the solo. Is this variation-on-a-theme lyricism an example of giftedly constructed motivic development? Or does he cross the line and deliver a phoned-in, planned-from-the-start performance?

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Hamiet Bluiett & Concept: I'll Close My Eyes

Track

I'll Close My Eyes

Group

Hamiet Bluiett & Concept

CD

Live at Carlos I: Another Night (Just a Memory 9136)

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Musicians:

Hamiet Bluiett (baritone sax), Don Pullen (piano),

Fred Hopkins (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums), Chief Bay (African percussion)

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Composed by Buddy Kaye & Billy Reid

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Recorded: New York, August 1986

Albumcoverhamietbluiettandconcept-liveatcarlosi-anothernight

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Hamiet Bluiett, a co-founding member of the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis, alumnus of the bands of Charles Mingus, Sam Rivers, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, and a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, was once asked what drew him to the baritone sax. "I just fell in love with the instrument from the sight of it. That was it," he responded. "I think it can stand toe to toe with you like Shaquille O'Neal and take you out." Later in the interview, Bluiett went on to state that his major influence, once the "love at first sight" wore off, was Harry Carney, and it is indeed a combination of the classic Carney sound and Bluiett's own confidently forceful, avant-garde experimentation that makes Hamiet one of the more exciting and original baritone saxophonists of his generation. Bluiett and pianist Don Pullen, who are both perfectly comfortable at balancing the frenzied and the beautiful, participate in restrained, sophisticated interaction throughout "I'll Close My Eyes." Two underrated masters in fine form.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Three Baritone Saxophone Band: Line for Lyons

Track

Line for Lyons

Group

Three Baritone Saxophone Band

CD

Plays Mulligan (Dreyfus 36588)

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Musicians:

Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax), Nick Brignola (baritone sax), Gary Smulyan (baritone sax),

Andy McKee (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums)

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Composed by Gerry Mulligan

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Recorded: May 21, 1997

Albumcoverthreebaritonesaxophonebandplaysmulligan

Rating: 78/100 (learn more)

You'll get no argument from this quarter If you conclude from this disc that "the more the merrier" is perhaps not the best philosophy to apply to the baritone saxophone. A small dose of this record, however, or large doses of any of these saxophonists' respective solo material, will reveal some of the strongest post-bop baritone voices. Originally assembled to pay tribute to Gerry Mulligan at the 1996 Jazz and Image Festival in Rome, the Cuber-led Three Baritone Saxophone Band recorded for the first and only time on this similarly intentioned studio date.

"Line for Lyons," the album's opening track, works best, featuring careful arranging from Cuber that creates a colorful illusion of a wider instrumentation. While it's sometimes tricky to tell the impressive modern sounds of Brignola and Smulyan apart in this context, Cuber's individual personality shines through, remaining the most expressive and comfortingly straight-ahead of the three. It's apparent that Cuber's long history of juggling jazz, soul and rock/pop gigs has yielded a universal approach, one that has influenced many modern baritone saxophonists.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Maria Schneider (featuring Scott Robinson): The Willow

Track

The Willow

Artist

Maria Schneider (leader)

CD

Days of Wine and Roses: Live at the Jazz Standard (ArtistShare 0017)

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Musicians:

Maria Schneider (leader), Scott Robinson (baritone sax),

Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), Laurie Frink, Greg Gisbert, Tony Kadleck (trumpets/flugelhorns), Larry Farrell, Rock Ciccarone, George Flynn, Keith O’Quinn (trombones), Rick Margitza, Rich Perry, Charles Pillow, Tim Ries (reeds), Ben Monder (guitar), Tony Scherr (bass), Tim Horner (drums)

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Composed by Maria Schneider

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Recorded: live at the Jazz Standard, New York, January 2000

Albumcovermariaschneiderdaysofwineandroses-liveatthejazzstandard

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Beginning in the early 1990s, Maria Schneider has emerged as the strongest modern-day baritone-centric big band arranger, offering nods to Ellington/Carney with both baritone features and arrangements with the bari on top. Throughout much of her career as a big band leader, Schneider's Carney has been multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, who according to his web site "has been heard on tenor sax with Buck Clayton's band, on trumpet with Lionel Hampton's quintet, on alto clarinet with Paquito D'Rivera's clarinet quartet, and on bass sax with the New York City Opera."

He's actually recorded most often, though, and especially more recently, on baritone sax, and some of his finest playing can be heard on Maria Schneider's recordings. The delicate melody and radiant colors in Schneider's baritone feature "The Willow" make the bari sound as refined and mature as it ever has. For a musician so experienced and adept at playing multiple instruments, Robinson's improvisation here is filled with historical awareness and a distinct, tender personality.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


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