CD Review: David Basse’s “Uptown”

David Basse

Uptown (Cafe Pacific Records)

By Brian Arsenault

Uptown opens with another (yawn) jazz ode to Manhattan which is made more curious by the fact that David Basse is the acknowledged “leader” of the Kansas City jazz scene.  In fact, two of the first three tracks are New York-centric which would be a little bit tedious even by a New York based jazz singer. And a mention of stepping out in a top hat, really, in 2012?

I don’t mean to be disrespectful and I know that Mike Melvoin — who penned five tunes, including the New York songs, on the album and lends his considerable talents on piano — unfortunately passed away in February.  But I can’t help feeling I’ve heard this all before. Basse is compared by some critics and the album’s publicity to Mel Torme, Ray Charles and Dr. John (Dr. John, really?) but in truth he’s a lot closer to Harry Connick, Jr. without as much sparkle and wit.

Oh, Basse can sing all right. He’s sly on Mark Winkler’s “Like Jazz,” a tribute to some other jazz luminary. And he’s wry about the aftermath of a break up on the clever “Living Without You.”  There’s some welcome emotional depth on Melvoin’s “You Won’t Hear Me Say Goodbye,” but the song is still more tenderly sentimental than sharply insightful.

That’s the best stuff.  His version of “Slow Boat to China” is pretty much like every other treatment you’ve heard over how many decades.  By the obligatory Gershwin tune, “Bidin’ My Time,” I had pretty much emotionally checked out of the album.  You can do old stuff, standards as they say, but it’s a lot more satisfying when you bring something new to the depth or pacing or phrasing, like Halie Loren provides on her recent CD, Heart First.

Still, one of my favorite tracks on the album is Harold Arlen’s familiar “I’ve Got The World On A String” where some subtle piano work by Mr. Melvoin and Bill Goodwin’s precise drumming support Basse’s subtle vocal. The piano break is a little long on a four and a half minute studio version.  It would have worked better on a concert recording of eight to nine minutes, no doubt.

Or maybe I just wanted Basse to sing more, he’s so good here. How about a nine minute studio version?

Everyone associated with this album — including alto saxophonist/clarinetist Phil Woods and bassist Steve Gilmore — is top shelf in his own right.  For me, though, the album just doesn’t come together as tightly as it should. Seems like a collaborative effort where everyone was just being too nice to everyone else.  Here, you take a solo, then me, then him.

And I just couldn’t escape my initial reaction to the opening bars of the first tune, “Uptown,” which was “I wonder if this album would have sounded exactly the same if it was recorded in 1959, even the new stuff?” That, of course, would still be darn good if not uptown exciting.

A final word on Mike Melvoin, whose song writing and piano work contributed so much to this album:

I have an old vinyl record which I believe is Coleman Hawkins’ last studio album.  As such, for me it has a value well beyond gold or diamonds or critic’s comments. I expect that if this is Mike’s final studio work his many fans and admirers will feel the same about Uptown.

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