Once in a decade or so, one of New York’s most animated and underrated jazz guitarists -- this cool character Joshua Breakstone -- taps me to do liner notes for his latest album. The music’s always fine, and the pleasure’s all mine. The last time, the album was called 9 X 3, and featured the exemplary rhythm section of Dennis Irwin (bass) and Kenny Washington (drums). The working title of This Just In could easily be 8 X 4. And damn if the rhythm section doesn’t feature the still exemplary Kenny Washington and Dennis Irwin. Along with Philly’s happenin’ heavyweight, Sid Simmons, at the piano.
In the early ‘90s, Mr. Breakstone undertook a series of theme projects for a Japanese label -- sometimes eagerly, in other cases begrudgingly. There was a loving tribute to fellow guitarist and occasional inspiration, Grant Green. And a surprisingly hip album of tunes associated with instrumental rock champs, The Ventures. Plus a pair of CD’s devoted to enduring Beatles compositions. In each case, Josh approached the music on his own terms. The concepts may have been commercial, but the net results were pure. A dyed-in-the-wool bebopper became a bit more radio and retail friendly without sacrificing an iota of his integrity.
Thanks to those efforts, Breakstone has happily emerged as a cult star in Japan. As I write these notes, the guitarist is getting set for a 9-week tour of the land of Toyota and sake and Kurosawa and yen. By the way, Breakstone’s first fine outing for Double Time Records, Let’s Call This Monk!, was also a choice theme project -- a trio take on 10 Thelonius Monk masterpieces. “Yeah, I’m Mr. Theme Album Guy,” Breakstone chuckles.
Yet as the Millennium fast approaches, This Just In is a more accurate representation of where Breakstone’s at musically than any of those theme albums. The only concept and constant on This Just In is grade-A material played with soul, spunk, flair and finesse. You get a Frank Sinatra favorite, a Dizzy Gillespie anthem, a Billy Eckstine calling card, an evergreen dating back to 1919, a bossa nova gem from the landmark Black Orpheus soundtrack, plus some inspired originals.
Get ready for a warm and wild ride as the quartet tackles the tricky and always arresting Gillespie call to arms, “Bebop.” “Somebody must have played it on guitar before. But I’ve never heard it,” says Breakstone, a man with a ravenous appetite for pertinent musical knowledge. “It’s a bitch to play, man -- the whole fingering thing. You know immediately that it was written for trumpet,” he laughs. “The melody itself is fine. It’s the intro and coda that’s a really difficult thing for a guitar player.” Still, Breakstone relished the “Bebop” challenge. “It’s a seminal song, a real anthem, Bird and Dizzy in flight, a bebop touchstone.”
Breakstone learned “Three
O’Clock in the Morning,” an old Paul Whiteman hit with New Orleans roots,
from the classic Dexter Gordon rendition on the 1962 Blue Note album,
Go. “That’s a bit of a dedication and tribute, on my part, to the
great Dexter Gordon,” he says. Simmons rings the tune in and out on
the piano, like a cathedral tower or a city hall clock. If he were a
bell he’d go ding, dong, ding dong, ding. Later, Breakstone tosses
in an apropos quote of, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” yet another tip of
his Yankee cap to long tall Dex, who interjected the same stadium
“Stop” may remind alert listeners of the classic Jobim bossa, “Triste.” The song lives up to it’s title, with stop-time breaks that are automatic and fun. Much later, the Chattanooga choo choo makes a stop in the tune, too -- now how did that train get lost in the Big Apple? Speaking of bossas and Jobim, Kenny Washington spirits listeners straight to Brazil on the immortal, “Felicidade.” “I fell in love with that song way back when I heard Eddie Daniels’ recording of it on his album, First Prize,” says Breakstone, who’s far more often inspired to action by horn players and singers than other guitarists. “He was playing mostly tenor back then, it’s a phenomenal album.”
That leaves the title track, “This Just In,” which has chord changes and a structure similar to -- but not quite like -- the standard, “Alone Together.” Originally an AABA songform, the second A section has been shortened by four bars. That might mislead and befuddle lesser bandmates, but Breakstone’s in the great company of: WBGO - FM’s encyclopedic “Jazz Maniac,” Kenny Washington; the well-traveled, well respected and chameleonic Dennis Irwin (whose credits include Joe Lovano, Johnny Griffin, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, John Scofield, The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, plus seven prior Breakstone albums!); and the guitarist’s Pennsylvania soul mate, Sid Simmons.
Breakstone’s eager to sing
each sideman’s praises. “Sid plays with everybody who comes through
Philadelphia. And he’s recorded lately with trumpeter, Valery
Ponomarev. Sid has a beautiful touch -- he plays very
uniquely,” Josh says. “There’s a similarity between our
concepts, at least in terms of melody. And he’s tall 6’2” or 6’3”
... maybe even 6’4”. He’s way up there.”
Last and quietest, but
certainly not least, Dennis Irwin’s the perfect anchor for an hours worth
of bebop, ballads and bossas a la Breakstone. “With Dennis, you get
a sublime combination of real acoustic bass sound and great time,” the
guitarist says. “He’s a brilliant soloist, and can play virtually
any kind of music.”
Tom Surowicz, Mpls, Star Tribune, Request, etc.