Sunday, March 19, 2017

CD Review: Idrees Sulieman Quartet ft. Oscar Dennard - The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier

Idrees Sulieman Quartet featuring Oscar Dennard
The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier
(Groovin' High/Sunnyside)

Knowing not only the names but the output of unsung musicians can put a listener in a rarefied group. Idrees Sulieman ranks as under-the-radar player. He might be best known as the trumpeter on Thelonious Monk's first Blue Note session, but he also recorded with Coleman Hawkins and Randy Weston before moving to Stockholm and later to Copenhagen. He worked with several studio orchestras there and the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band before he passed away in 2012. An inventive player in the Dizzy Gillespie style, he likely would have gone on to greater fame in the U.S. had he stayed here. He was also supposedly one of the first jazz musicians to convert to Islam.

Oscar Dennard didn't live long enough to secure his status as jazz pianist with the record buying jazz folks. But before he died at 32 due to typhoid fever, he made a great impression on Weston, Ahmad Jamal and Harold Mabern who knew him personally. Aside from a few recordings with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, this two-disc set is really the only document of his work as a formidable pianist.

The first of the two discs has been previously issued in Japan while the second sees the light of day for the first time. In 1959, Dennard was convinced by bassist Jamil Nasser to join him in a trio that also included Sulieman and drummer Earl "Buster" Smith for a tour of  Europe and North Africa. When they reached Tangier, Radio Tangier International producer Jacques Muyal quickly assembled a recording session with his friend at the competing Radio Africa Tangier studios. The seven tracks, recorded all in single takes on a single microphone, come from that session.

In the some ways, the raw quality makes the group come off like a typical bebop unit. They tackle two Charlie Parker tunes ("Visa," "Confirmation") with skill, trading fours just a little two long on the former. Two standards get worked over ("All of You," "Stella By Starlight"). The quartet swaggers through the slow "Tangier Blues," in which Sulieman displays his circular breathing skill, unfortunately less like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and more like Kenny G, since he merely holds one note for three choruses before he releases it.

But there are moments that reveal what Dennard might have been had he not passed away a year later. In "Stella by Starlight" his solo seems to combine Errol Garner's rapturous way with harmony together with a rhythmic freedom that would become the call of the day just a few years into the next decade. His chordal solo in "Tour De Force" also hints at an advanced rhythmic sense, akin to Dave Brubeck's big-handed approach. Nasser, who would go on to play with Jamal extensively, is under-recorded but should be turned up during his solos, including an out-of-tempo-into-funk intro to "Stella" and another groovy one in "Tour de Force." When Sulieman uses the mute, he really displays his Gillespie influence. Without it, his bright sound is infectious and clearly the reason he's cited as a big influence on Clifford Brown.

Disc Two was recorded at a party in New York before the quartet went on tour. It provides some revelations. Dennard's lengthy introduction to Branislaw Kaper's "Invitation" is arresting; in "Round Midnight" he seems to channel Charlie Parker as well as the tune's composer. But the recording quality, despite the liner notes' claim that it's been cleaned up, still sounds like one of the Dean Benedetti recordings of Parker - interesting for the historian but not too appealing for the casual listener. Further, knowing how skilled Dennard could be, it's frustrating that the closing "Piano Improvisations" finds him playing variations on "Three Blind Mice." The quality makes the opening seconds sound like a music box as well.

It's inappropriate to slag The 4 American Jazz Men in Tangier since it stands as a singular document of this group, which thereby gives it some intrinsic value. Yet, it's sound quality seems like it might be of value more for historical purposes and not much for repeat programs.

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