THE DOZENS: WEST SIDE STORY by Ed Leimbacher

West Side Story

Scads of Broadway show tunes have become jazz standards, but probably no single musical proved more popular with improvisers and balladeers than West Side Story (excepting Porgy and Bess, which Gershwin hoped was an opera). Looking back on 1957, the creative talents involved – savvy composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim (his debut), choreographer/director Jerome Robbins, jack-of-all-theatre Arthur Laurents, actresses Carol Lawrence and Chita Rivera, not to mention William Shakespeare parting sweetly with his Romeo and Juliet (one good W.S. story leads to another) – that gathering of folks practically guaranteed “something good was coming.” But the muscular result became a musical blockbuster: romantic, comical, hyper-energetic, tragic; sarcastic and streetwise, socially conscious and compositionally adroit.

As Tony is rumored to have said to his Maria, “If Jazz be food of Love, then hit it, Jets!” And hit it they have, over a dozen albums to date (including acknowledged classics by Oscar Peterson, André Previn, even Stan Kenton and crew), and scores – nay, hundreds – of individual recordings. From Johnny Mathis to Buddy Rich, Sir Roland Hanna to Fatha Hines, and Maynard Ferguson to Arturo Sandoval, Bernstein’s lovely melodies and jazzy riffs have readily lent themselves to musicians’ reshaping and reharmonization.

Out of a hundred heard, what follows is one listener’s particular Dozen. If not the best of West, these at least offer one solid Side of the Story.


Cal Tjader: Prologue / The Jet Song

Track

Prologue / The Jet Song

Artist

Cal Tjader (vibes)

CD

Cal Tjader Plays Harold Arlen & West Side Story (Fantasy FCD-24775-2)

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Musicians:

Cal Tjader (vibes), Paul Horn (flute), Clare Fischer (piano, celeste),

George Roberts (trombone), Vincent D’Rosa, James Decker, Richard Perissi (French horns), Red Callender (tuba), Lonnie Hewitt (piano), Red Mitchell, Victor Venegas (bass), Shelly Manne, Milt Holland (drums), Mongo Santamaria (conga), Willie Bobo (drums, timbales); string orchestra

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Composed by Leonard Bernstein; arranged by Clare Fischer

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Recorded: probably Los Angeles, CA, October 18, 1960

Albumcovercaltjader-playsharoldarlen-westsidestory

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Prologues of musicals serve two main purposes: to introduce the major tunes and themes of the score, and to allow for the seating of late arrivals ahead of the play proper. But Cal Tjader's version of the West Side Story "Prologue" (segueing straight into "The Jet Song") keeps you on your feet instead. Too much of the accompanying album (arranged by pianist Clare Fischer) is weighted down by swooning strings, with Tjader's tjaunty vibes reduced to playing Bernstein's melodies, or comping while Fischer or Paul Horn supply the solos; but the opening 7 minutes is adventurous, propelled by both Latin Jazz and the elsewhere-intrusive yet here jet-assisted strings.

Cal gets his licks in on this one (as he does on a later keep-it "Cool"). A brief mysterious opening leads quickly to lilting strings, plucked and strummed and dancing, the different instruments as voices with Tjader up on top; then suddenly the strings are sawing and driving, timbales going Shark-fast, heading straight into the mixed conversation of "Jet," Fischer at the piano, Horn's flute, and Cal in the lead. Each takes a 4/4 solo (over walking bass), but with some tandem moments too, sometimes talking to each other, but with street-gang taunting, too. Now Cal takes control again, with brass and French horns adding sly commentary, till all shape a gorgeous return to the melody and final sendoff. (The strings and percussion add a quiet Basie-style tag as afterthought, allowing you at last to sit down.)

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Oscar Peterson: Jet Song

Track

Jet Song

Artist

Oscar Peterson (piano)

CD

West Side Story (Verve/Polygram 539753)

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Musicians:

Oscar Peterson (piano), Ray Brown (bass), Ed Thigpen (drums).

Composed by Leonard Bernstein

.

Recorded: New York, January 24-25, 1962

Albumcoveroscarpeterson-westsidestory

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

By 1962, the second Oscar Peterson Trio – guitar jettisoned, but retaining Ray Brown and adding Ed Thigpen – was well established and running smoothly, a 4-on-the-floor mean machine, racing quickly through studio sessions and live dates yet still somehow usually generating solid jazz. For their minimally planned West Side Story LP, the guys gathered in the studio, checked the lead sheets, noodled around on a couple of other tunes, went away, then came back to jam through a handful of sharp, casually arranged, Jet Assisted Take Off versions. So naturally one of the Trio's best is "Jet Song."

A slightly florid opening by OP and Ray becomes solid 4/4 walking as Ed joins in. Oscar keeps stepping lightly, the insouciant gang lead, but his solo soon gets soulful – yes, he goes to church! – slapping and chording, roaming up and down the keyboard (all Jets left dumbfounded on the street corner). Ray rejoins and Ed keeps it swinging, while Oscar gets busier, does some finger-busting for a moment, then yields to Ray, who supplies a swaggering solo, a richly varied lesson on the big instrument with plucks and strums and some bass-ic walk-around too. Which inspires OP to take charge once more; and now he stomps it on out, right back to the gang's genial theme, our three wiseguys finally slowing and drifting to silence. Check it: a splendid 7+ minutes of street-cred jazz.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


André Previn: Something's Coming

Track

Something's Coming

Artist

André Previn (piano)

CD

West Side Story (Contemporary OJCCD-422-2)

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Musicians:

André Previn (piano), Red Mitchell (bass), Shelly Manne (drums).

Composed by Leonard Bernstein

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Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, August 24-25, 1959

AlbumcoverandréPrevin-westsidestory

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

From the choice of a Ben Shahn painting for the cover art, to the speedy, lighthearted treatments within, André Previn's West Side Story exudes cheekiness combined with class. Maybe his own credentials as a composer and classically trained musician-turned-jazz pianist allowed him to get closer to the similar Bernstein gestalt. Or maybe the guys were just inspired. Whatever the fortunate circumstance, this particular jazz version of the musical has been a solid favorite for 50 years.

The lead track, "Something's Coming," quickly demonstrates the Previn approach: 2½ minutes of that percussive tune taken at bop speed, his piano and Manne's drums racing each other through the streets, making twice the music in half the time; whatever's coming is coming fast! Some of Previn's chords step into dissonance, like a Bronx cheer maybe, but mostly he just dances around Bernstein's great melody. Manne's skill at making his drums sound musical can be heard here and throughout the album (his rim-taps a plus), and Red Mitchell was the West Coast match for, say, Paul Chambers; but their roles on this running romp are simple: no muss, no fuss, just get us there safe and sounding joyous.

In The Joy of Music (published in 1960, as was this album), Lennie wrote that "A popular song doesn't become jazz until it is improvised on..." He hadn't heard Previn's album yet, but I'll bet he smiled when he did.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Sarah Vaughan: Maria

Track

Maria

Artist

Sarah Vaughan (vocals)

CD

Sassy Swings The Tivoli (Verve)

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Musicians:

Sarah Vaughan (vocals),

Kirk Stewart (piano), Charles Williams (bass), George Hughes (drums)

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Composed by Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim

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Recorded: live at the Tivoli, Copenhagen, Denmark, July 18-21, 1963

Albumcoversarahvaughan-sassyswingsthetivoli

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

"The most beautiful sound I ever heard...." So begins in wonder the central song of West Side Story, Tony's expression of the lightning-strike of love. As many times as that tune has been played or sung over the years since 1957, surely one of the loveliest and most startling performances occurred on Sarah Vaughan's live recording in 1963. Once you get past the minor word changes needed to allow Sassy to sing on Romeo Tony's behalf, her sound begins to sink in. This is Sarah the matured singer, Sarah in diva mode: the arrangement only mildly jazzish, the piano/bass accompaniment mostly quiet, swing forgone for the space of this song, the powerful vocalist unleashed.

"And suddenly I found / How wonderful a sound / Can be...." There was no need for other instruments, really, when Sarah's had become so nuanced and expressive, her voice ranging from contralto to higher-than-high as the song progresses. The words flow and her voice rises and falls; there are moments of sprechgesang and sudden leaps of range and joy.

"Say it loud and there's music playing / Say it soft and it's almost like praying...." Tony's song is a lover's secular prayer after all, and we are reminded that his Juliet's magical name is actually thoroughly commonplace thanks to a Mary of long ago. (We may also recall another miraculous Vaughan recording, from a decade earlier, recasting the "Ave Maria"). As Sarah builds this performance from musing on a single word, to the gradual rising near song's end, and then reaches for the last high phrase (top notes whether sung by tenor or soprano), she unexpectedly takes her voice even higher, adding a few brief melismatic notes beyond the range of all but a few jazz or pop singers, or divas – a show-stopping finish indeed.

"All the sounds of the world in a single word?" Sarah.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Dave Brubeck: Tonight

Track

Tonight

Artist

Dave Brubeck (piano)

CD

The Dave Brubeck Quartet Plays Music from West Side Story and … (Columbia CK 40455)

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Musicians:

Dave Brubeck (piano), Paul Desmond (alto sax), Eugene Wright (bass), Joe Morello (drums).

Composed by Leonard Bernstein

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Recorded: New York, February 14, 1960

Albumcoverdavebrubeck-musicfromwestsidestoryandwonderfultown

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

The final word "and" of this album's original title indicates what's going on: the Brubeck Quartet performs only the four lovely ballads from Bernstein's musical, with non-West Side Story show tunes filling out the program. But these four allow Paul Desmond to arc his lazily lilting alto solos while Dave keeps staggering the rhythm the other guys work to make right.

In the play, "Tonight" is positioned as the second half (following "Maria") of the so-called "balcony scene" – albeit using a fire escape and the alley below – during which Tony and his newfound love sing of stopped time, morning stars, and other wonders. Desmond has a different message in mind; he quotes the tune at the very beginning and very end but otherwise wanders far, sounding acerbic rather than tender, and his glancing quotations are equally wry ("I Wish I Were in Love Again," maybe also "I'll Never Fall in Love Again"). Then Dave does his thing, skittering sideways against the section pull, lending his percussive mystery to this particular night of nights, the whole track clearly romance with an edge.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Bill Charlap: America

Track

America

Artist

Bill Charlap (piano)

CD

Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein (Blue Note 7243 5 94807 2 5)

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Musicians:

Bill Charlap (piano), Peter Washington (bass), Kenny Washington (drums).

Composed by Leonard Bernstein

.

Recorded: New York, October 15-16, 2003

Albumcoverbillcharlap-somewhere-thesongsofleonardbernstein

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

The vocal performance of "America" on the original 1957 Broadway cast recording of West Side Story is pretty much unbeatable, its quasi-Puerto Rican rhythms and immigrant sass and sarcasm still commanding attention today. But the cheery, jeering tune holds its own, and there have been valiant jazz versions over the years too, most notably by the Stan Kenton Orchestra (arranged by Johnny Richards) and an Andre Previn Trio propelled by Shelly Manne.

More recently, pianist Bill Charlap – a mainstay of the revitalized Blue Note Records, and a standards aficionado who often reworks Bernstein melodies – cut a brilliant trio version with piano, bass and drums functioning as equal voices, all three chiming in their rhythmic crosstalk and asides. Peter Washington's plucked-bass solo precipitates the piece ("Puerto Rico, you lovely island..."), with the chatter battle-royal joined a few seconds later, fed by a rapid-fire percussion barrage from the other Washington. Bill's answer seems sedate at first, but he quickly accepts the intricate Latin lead the Washingtons insist on, and then he's gone. He races the melody and drummer, runs the keyboard like Peterson, pounds chords like Monk, and even drops out here and there to let the other guys have their fractious-but-swaying say – a real three-way discussion, this! Then the rhythm suddenly drops away, and Charlap gentles a final coda into silence, sounding like no one but himself. Like the singer of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics in the original production, these three New York jazzmen "like the island Manhattan … Smoke on your pipe and put that in!"

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Marian McPartland: Cool

Track

Cool

Artist

CD

Plays Music of Leonard Bernstein (out-of-print LP: Time S/2013)

Musicians:

Marian McPartland (piano), Ben Tucker (bass), Jake Hanna (drums).

Composed by Leonard Bernstein

.

Recorded: August 8-12, 1960

Albumcovermarianmcpartland-playsmusicofleonardbernstein

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

Long after she'd recorded them, Marian McPartland was confronted with several of her 10" Savoy albums to be autographed. "Where did you get these?" she cried in mock or maybe real embarrassment. "Burn them! Please! I was just learning to play then."

Ms. McPartland, the doyenne of NPR and jazz piano too, is nowadays known for her elegant shadings and voicings, the rearrangements and spontaneous inventions in her performances; and she's proved she can swing, too. But she hasn't always had a swinging touch; and her interpretations of several West Side Story tunes date from that still-learning time. (More curio than necessity, McPartland's Bernstein album has, at this writing, never been reissued on CD.) The original LP liner notes point out that she was unfamiliar with the musical, so her versions were truly "improvised." But that turns out to mean brief, staid and somewhat bland.

Her take on "Cool" may be the best of the lot, thanks to the solid rhythm team of Ben Tucker and Jake Hanna. Taken at a pace slower than the musical's chosen tempo, this "Cool" staggers more than swaggers: Tucker bops and walks; Hanna keeps busy with traps and snares, drum rolls and dropped bombs; and the lady sticks to the percussive melody, her short solo sounding rather Brubeck-like, using block chords instead of her own softer linear style – in, out, and over.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Bill Barron: One Hand, One Heart

Track

One Hand, One Heart

Artist

Bill Barron (tenor sax)

CD

West Side Story Bossa Nova (Dauntless DC 6004)

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Musicians:

Bill Barron (tenor sax),

Willie Thomas (trumpet), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Steve Kuhn (piano), Henry Grimes (bass), Charlie Persip (drums), Jose Soares (percussion)

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Composed by Leonard Bernstein

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Recorded: New York, 1963

Albumcoverbillbarron-westsidestorybossanova

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

Crazes, like politics, can make for strange bedfellows. Put the early '60s craving for jazz versions of musicals together with the strange phenomenon of all things bossa nova, and you just might wind up with something neither fresh nor foul, like this series of 3-minute miss-takes. West Side Story Bossa Nova? Pshaw! There's nothing "boss" or new about smothering 10 show tunes in scratchy samba sounds, even if played by Kenny Burrell, Steve Kuhn, Henry Grimes and Charlie Persip, plus a Brazilian percussionist. The reductive results still sound like a skip-the-rehearsal, jam-it-fast release on some sub-Prestige label, but lacking the fiery players needed to make that approach work. Tenorman Barron blows hard in his solos, but everyone else sounds both frantic and bored. (They got an awful lot o' caffeine in Brazil.)

Maybe I exaggerate. The players are pros of course, and Bernstein's tunes are mostly indestructible. But trying to slather quasi-Brazilian rhythms over and under them … well, bring back Bonfa and gimme Getz! Take the Barron version of "One Hand, One Heart" (please!); slightly radical to hear that plaintive ballad turned into a loud dance number – points for Chutzpah? grounds for Capoeira? – which initially respects Bernstein's rising/falling counterpoint (as a trumpet/sax duo), albeit over an unsubtle, scratch-that-itch beat. The Barron arrangement next offers a busy tenor solo, then a more inventive one keyed by pianist Kuhn. More counterpoint attends the finale and then … relief. From this album de uma nota só, one melody has emerged unscathed.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Dave Grusin: I Feel Pretty

Track

I Feel Pretty

Artist

Dave Grusin (piano)

CD

Dave Grusin Presents West Side Story (N2K Encoded Music N2K-10021)

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Musicians:

Dave Grusin (piano), Dave Valentin (flute),

Arturo Sandoval, Greg Gisbert, Glen Drewse (trumpets, flugelhorns), Byron Stripling, Tony Kadleck (trumpets), John Clark, Bob Carlisle, Jeff Lang (French horns), Keith O’Quinn, Jim Pugh, Birch Johnson, Dave Taylor (trombones), George Young (flute and piccolo), Jeff Clayton (oboe, flute and clarinet), Jerry Dodgion, Lawrence Feldman (alto sax, clarinet, flute), Jerome Richardson (tenor sax, clarinet, flute, alto flute), Bill Evans (tenor & soprano saxes), Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax, bass clarinet, clarinet), Roger Rosenberg (bass sax, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet), John Patitucci (bass), Dave Weckl (drums), Sammy Figueroa (percussion); string orchestra led by concertmaster Elena Barere

.

Composed by Leonard Bernstein

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Recorded: New York, Miami, Los Angeles, 1997

Albumcoverdavegrusinpresentswestsidestory

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Forty years after West Side Story hit big, pianist Dave Grusin decided to revisit and maybe revitalize Bernstein's musical by recording and overdubbing in several cities and studios, building a jazz-&-strings orchestra à la Stan Kenton, and adding guest soloists such as Michael Brecker and Lee Ritenour on some numbers. If you overlook a couple of misguided vocals, Grusin's concept offers expansive arrangements and excellent solos, and one of the top tracks is his brilliant reworking of "I Feel Pretty."

A lilting quasi-ballet in its original form, this new version goes a few steps farther, refashioning the tune as a mixture of flute-lifted Baroque dance and lightly fingered Cubano tango in the manner of Ernesto Lecuona, the trick realized perfectly by master flautist Dave Valentin and mischievous accompanist Grusin. The dual Daves float and shimmer in a haze of apache and pas-de-deux, which suddenly becomes a hard-driven, high-flutin' Afro-Cuban stomp. But this stalls after a minute, slowing for the piano's tango-on-tiptoes return, and then reverts to the master-class duet of piano and flute, now pausing, now proceeding in staccato counterpoint, admitting some fluttery trills and cries, ending quietly.

All in all, it's an enchanting, subtly tongue-in-cheek performance. It was Valentin's day indeed.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


New Century Saxophone Quartet: Somewhere

Track

Somewhere

Group

New Century Saxophone Quartet

CD

Main Street USA (Channel Crossings CCS 9896)

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Musicians:

Michael Stephenson (soprano sax), James Boatman (alto sax), Steven Pollock (tenor sax), Brad Hubbard (baritone sax),

Steve Kirkman (percussion)

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Composed by Leonard Bernstein

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Recorded: Renswoude, The Netherlands, November 1995

Albumcovernewcenturysaxophonequartet-mainstreetusa

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Balanced on the cusp between classical and jazz, the New Century Saxophone Quartet seems able to syncopate or go "pure" at will, the four gents and some extra percussion often sounding like a whole orchestra – as in the group's 1995 album of (other-than-Copland) Americana, which extrapolates and builds on tunes from Porgy and Bess and Morton Gould, as well as much of West Side Story. Nearly all of altoist James Boatman's arrangements scintillate and surprise (from cha-chas to oompahs, and vaudeville to the blues), but for sheer beauty none shines more brightly than "Somewhere."

Any jazz here is in the ear of the behearer only, as the tune is played as a hushed and heart-soothing ballad throughout, the only syncopation coming in some extended, out-of-tempo pauses near the end. The New Century's "Somewhere" begins as a yearning song from the blended saxes and near-silent vibraphone, then gradually becomes a contrapuntal dialogue mostly between alto and baritone (the latter going both above and to the bottom of its normal range), finally rising to the grand climax of the album and maybe Bernstein's score as well, as the hopeful upper voices sing like flutes while the low sax and timpani sound Tony's death knell.

Replete with complexity and invention, not to mention gorgeous playing throughout, there's definitely a time and place for these guys, somewhere.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Stan Kenton: Gee, Officer Krupke

Track

Gee, Officer Krupke

Artist

Stan Kenton (piano)

CD

Kenton's West Side Story (Capitol Jazz/Blue Note 29914)

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Musicians:

Stan Kenton (piano),

Dalton Smith, Sanford Skinner, Bud Brisbois, Bob Rolfe, Conte Candoli, Ernie Bernhardt (trumpets), Bob Fitzpatrick, Jack Spurlock, Jim Amlotte, Dave Wheeler (trombones), Clive Acker (tuba), Dwight Carver, Gene Roland, Keith LaMotte, Gordon Davison (mellophoniums), Gabe Baltazar (alto sax), Sam Donahue, Paul Renzi (tenor saxes), Marvin Holladay (baritone sax), Wayne Dunstan (baritone & bass saxes), Pete Chivily (bass), Jerry McKenzie (drums), Lou Singer (tympani), George Acevedo (bongos, congas)

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Composed by Leonard Bernstein; arranged by Johnny Richards

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Recorded: Hollywood, CA, April 11, 1961

Albumcoverstankentonwestsidestory

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Kenton's West Side Story is how it was cover-billed, and like most Kenton projects this one divided the jazz audience. Stan's fans and those who liked Latin Jazz (especially as arranged by Johnny Richards) embraced the album, and indeed it won a Grammy that year. But Kenton's critics never let up, and there's enough bulk and bombast to stoke the naysayers too. Dynamic, exciting, sometimes melodramatic, yet lyrical, even danceable, the album bristles with energy, as big and busy as Bernstein's original: shaping showstoppers in "Prologue," "America" and "Cool," and wafting ballads as mellophoniously soaring as those odd brass horns (neither French nor 'bone) could make them.

Even "Gee, Officer Krupke" – a bobbing-and-weaving bit of sarcastic comic relief in the musical – in the Kenton/Richards version moves from cool to intense, with rhumba and ranting en route. The tune saunters in, sounding as mellow as a Peter Gunn floater, but drama soon arrives, Conte Candoli's solo trumpet atop brass and mellophonium comments (the poor street punks all misunderstood). Tension starts to build, then eases back for a section of slow rhumba, which becomes frantic Latin drumming, and suddenly every section screams out in true Kenton fashion, all the guys shouting right up to the final, unexpectedly downplayed, "Krup-you." (But, then, Stan was a notorious straight arrow.)

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Dave Liebman & Gil Goldstein: A Boy Like That / I Have a Love

Track

A Boy Like That / I Have a Love

Artist

Dave Liebman (soprano & tenor saxes, flute) and Gil Goldstein (piano, keyboards)

CD

West Side Story Today (Owl 984 755 6)

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Musicians:

Dave Liebman (soprano & tenor saxes, flute), Gil Goldstein (piano, keyboards).

Composed by Leonard Bernstein

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Recorded: New York, September 29-30, 1990

Albumcoverdaveliebman-gilgoldstein-westsidestorytoday

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

West Side Story revamps its Shakespearean source most clearly in the final scenes, as "Juliet" (that is, Maria) does not kill herself but instead pleads for peace between the rival gangs. Most jazz versions skirt the score's last few numbers, but saxman Dave Liebman and keyboard whiz Gil Goldstein link two of them in eight minutes of astonishing, adventurous balladry. That actually summarizes much of West Side Story Today (released originally in 1991), with Dave taking almost all the solos and Gil providing backdrops ranging from Weather Report synth-funk to bizarre mecho-screaming.

The medley "A Boy Like That / I Have a Love" dances around dated synthesizer sounds. Leibman sticks to tenor sax, talking with it in the first tune, getting at the number's back-and-forth argument, over a bubbling pseudo-organ that riffs from soul-trio grease to horror-film suspense. Moving seamlessly into "I Have a Love," Dave plays pretty the rest of the way, shifting high and dropping back, exploring the tenor's upper range while Gil, on his programmed keyboard, taps out gentle chords and thoughtful notes that resonate like vibes.

In his historical and somewhat spiritual liner notes, Liebman names "I Have a Love" as his favorite tune from the musical, and it definitely shows, beautiful to the end.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


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