Saturday, December 19, 2015

Harry Allen and Jan Lundgren Play Johnny Mandel

I just learned that Britain's prestigious Jazz Journal has named two albums by Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren among the top-ten best jazz records in its yearly Critics' Poll. One of these (coming in at number 3) is the compilation Jan Lundgren: A Retrospective, which includes some of the best sides Lundgren has cut since the beginning of his career in the mid-1990s for the Barcelona-based Fresh Sound label. You can read a review of that CD here. The other, which made it to number 6 in the poll, is a collaboration between Lundgren and tenorist Harry Allen, entitled Quietly There (Stunt Records). Recorded in Copenhagen over the course of two consecutive sessions on July 11 and 12, 2014, the album finds Allen and Lundgren in the company of bassist Hans Backenroth and drummer Kristian Leth, going through nine lovely Johnny Mandel compositions, some of which ("Emily," "A Time for Love," and "The Shadow of Your Smile," for instance) are better known than others.

The Harry Allen / Jan Lundgren Quartet
The pairing of Allen and Lundgren is extremely satisfying, and aided by such a dependable rhythm section, both men enjoy plenty of room to solo, both on mid-tempo and uptempo numbers such as "Sure as You Are Born" (a phenomenal album opener), "Cinnamon and Clove," and "Suicide Is Painless" (which is actually the theme from M.A.S.H.) as well as on slower tunes. The breathy quality of Allen's style, often vaguely reminiscent of Ben Webster, comes to the fore particularly on ballads like "Emily" and "The Shining Sea." Both musicians take the title track, "Quietly There," at an easy-swinging pace, which is already evident in Lundgren's attractive piano introduction, followed by some elegant blowing by Allen. Lundgren finds new ways to approach the popular ballad "The Shadow of Your Smile" and surprises the listener by choosing to begin with the verse. The piano-saxophone duo that kicks off that track is one of the most beautiful moments in the album, and when Backenroth and Leth come in about a third into the tune, the slightly Latin flavor they lend the melody sounds very appealing. "Just a Child" finds Lundgren at his most delicate and introverted, as though he were playing just for himself, and Allen seems to be inspired by Lundgren's introduction to put an even greater emphasis on the breathiness of his playing. Of course, congratulations are in order for Lundgren and Allen, not just for the deserved accolades their work has earned from Jazz Journal, but also because this collaboration is one of the very best entries in the already large discographies of both men.

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