Bassist Dave Santoro is a throwback to the not too distant past when cutting-edge small group improvisation was anchored by stalwarts such as Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Sam Jones and Jimmy Garrison. Thankfully, there are seasoned pros like Santoro to remind us that a strong supple pulse is still the core around which everything else revolves. The result? Here, it’s simply one of the great jazz albums of the 1990's!
Indeed, to paraphrase Thelonious Monk, this is music that “lifts the bandstand.”
First, this is a band of all-stars. Indeed, Santoro’s resume, which reads like a “who’s who” of contemporary jazz, ranges from Clark Terry to Dave Liebman, Bob Brookmeyer to Bob Berg, and Red Rodney to Mike Stern and Brad Mehldau. Jerry Bergonzi, a musicians’ musician, is simply one of the great post-Coltrane originals, a tenor titan whose sophisticated style is at once earthy and heroic. Pianist Bruce Barth is a still young veteran of high profile gigs with Stanley Turrentine, Terence Blanchard and Tom Harrell, as well as the leader of two outstanding Double-Time dates, Hope Springs Eternal and Don’t Blame Me. Drummer Tom Melito, who’s helped propel such varied artists as Steve Grossman, Ken Peplowski and Lew Tabackin, is currently a member of bassist Michael Moore’s trio.
A group of all-stars, though, is hardly a guarantee of a great performance. Here, the key to the success of Santoro’s band rests largely on a rich history of shared playing experiences and musical values. “Jerry and I have been friends for over 20 years,” the affable bassist explained. We’ve explored standards on a lot of gigs. In 1990, part of that got documented in Standard Gonz for Blue Note. Still, there were a lot of things that we hadn’t had a chance to get down. Finally, in September 1998, we had a chance to put this particular group together for a gig at Fran Sullivan's Main and Hopewell Jazz room in Glastonbury, CT. We recorded it on a cheap tape recorder and were knocked out. That’s when we knew we had to do an album.”
One would be hard pressed to guess that Dave is the leader from just listening to the music. When asked about this role, Dave, with a laugh, concluded, “Well, I’m sort of a backseat leader. However, the date came together largely because of my coercion, getting people together who I thought would fit, and having Jerry reharmonize a lot of the tunes. As a bass player, I’ve always wanted a group, but not necessarily to be a leader. Here, I wanted to play particular standards with this particular group. Being the leader, especially for a rhythm section player, was the best way of seeing the project through.”
The masterful reharmonizations go a long way in putting new faces on familiar tunes. “That’s what we were looking for,” Dave says. “In some situations, as in ‘Time After Time,’ we found a good set of changes within the tradition. With others, like ‘Stairway to the Stars,’ there’s some minimal reworking. Then, for tunes like ‘Green Dolphin Street,’ there are drastic revisions.”
Yet, standards are standards, the lingua franca of America’s popular music. As such, a focus on standards, regardless of the degree of interpretive liberty, helps make the music accessible to a far wider variety of tastes. “Yes, playing standards helps hook up with an audience. We were aware of that. But we’ve been playing this way for years.”
There’s also a shared vision based on common musical touchstones. “A large part of that had to do with the music Jerry and I both love and grew up on. Coltrane and Rollins were at the center. When I was a high school freshman, I had a drummer friend who was into Elvin. He gave me a copy of Coltrane’s Crescent with McCoy, Jimmy and Elvin. That was it. I was hooked.”
“I also listened to Ray Brown, Scott LaFaro and Paul Chambers. It was quite an experience trying to learn each of their styles. But none of them, with the exception of Scotty, influenced my soloing. Instead, I identified with horn players and pianists. Along with Coltrane and Rollins, we admired Wayne Shorter for his composing as well as his playing. However, the older I get, there are more and more influences. There are trumpet players — Miles, of course, and Kenny Dorham and Freddie Hubbard. And pianists — Wynton Kelly, Red Garland and Bill Evans, especially his harmonic concept.
“As far as playing bass, drummers have been most important. Elvin captivated me from the start. I loved his looseness, his cross rhythms, his textures with currents either going with each other, or against each other. Also, there were straight ahead drummers that I enjoyed like Jimmy Cobb and Billy Higgins.”
In addition, there were jazz bass lessons. “I studied with Michael Moore for a while. And I was Dave Holland’s first student. Dave really pushed me hard. So, yes, I was influenced by Dave, who was influenced by Scotty. Besides the free stuff, Dave also played traditional mainstream things. Even then I enjoyed hearing people play standards.”
In addition to his busy professional schedule, Dave is a noted jazz educator. He heads the jazz department of the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, is an adjunct professor of jazz at the University of Connecticut, and is scheduled to begin teaching at Berklee in Fall 1999. He lives in his boyhood town of Torrington, Connecticut. “It’s about equidistant from Boston and New York. And with being in the country and my folks living just down the street, it’s also a good place for my three kids to grow up.
The program for the Dave Santoro Standards Band is a winner from top to bottom. First up is “Green Dolphin Street,” in which Jerry paints pointillistic clusters over Dave’s insistent pedal. “This is a first take, by the way. We did a couple of second takes, but they were never as fresh as the first takes. Bruce was actually reading the changes since he hadn’t seen what Jerry and I had done in terms of reharmonization. Except for a couple of extended changes, it’s the original melody, but transposed up a 5th, with 4 different key centers for each 8-bar section, and a vamp.” It also has a sense of openness, a sense of breathing. “Everyone had the same sense of space. Too often, pianists tend to crowd the issue by over-comping. Bruce comps actively, but there’s always space. I also love the sense of ‘air’ that Tom has in his beat. For me, he’s the one who stitches the whole thing together.”
“Time After Time,” set at a congenial medium tempo, is a showcase for Jerry’s Trane-tinged lyricism. It also reveals the band’s special bass-drums relationship. “You can have a great drummer and bass player, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to connect. It’s really rare to find the level of agreement on where the beat is that Tom and I have. Largely, it’s a matter of trust. When there’s trust, and we’re listening intently, there’s a constant give-and-take. It’s like a little dance that we do. I’ve played with some great drummers, but Tom is the first one that I’ve been able to hook up with so closely and consistently. Although I wouldn’t presume to put us in the same category as Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones or Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, there’s a connection there that amazes me.”
For the lithe “Autumn Serenade,” Dave called on what he describes as an “Elvin-Latin feel. It’s more free flowing than most Latin things. The accents keep on changing, so it’s not as patternistic. Moving the rhythmic stuff around is something Elvin always did.” The alternations between major and minor sections ups the dramatic ante as well. “We’re coming from the Coltrane thing, which is something Tom really helps with. It keeps building. Here, the function for Tom and me is to be totally supportive, in a sense, to give up everything for the sake of the group.” It is precisely the quality of selflessness that is missing in so much contemporary jazz. “Nobody has real roots anymore,” Dave laments.
The up-tempo “I Love You” is a show-stopper. “Here, we used ‘Giant Steps’ changes except for the bridge. In playback, when we heard Bruce’s solo, Jerry said, ‘That’s it.’” Bruce’s lean comping is likewise exemplary. The gorgeous “Stairway to the Stars” frames Jerry’s tough-tender balladry as well as a wonderful melodic solo by Dave. For the brightly paced “The More I See You,” we catch a sample of Dave’s precise pizzicato work in a solo where each and every note counts. The curtain closes on “For All We Know,” another poignant ballad. Here, Dave’s solo is a model of mature musicality and just plain great taste.
The immensely satisfying music of
Dave Santoro’s Standards Band crackles with an
Dr. Chuck Berg;