|The title of this album says it all. The English translation, Speak Sweet, is a reference to all the dulcet-toned saxophonists who fueled Gil Spitzer’s imagination as a developing alto saxophonist growing up in the East Bronx. The names Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Johnny Hodges immediately come to mind, and Spitzer is right in that number with his beautiful tone and lyrical approach in what, amazingly, is his debut recording at the age of 75! But as Brazilian bassist and producer of this session, Nilson Matta, says of Spitzer, “You don’t have to be any certain age to play music. Anytime is about time.”
Matta met the saxophonist at his Samba Meets Jazz Summer Music Camp in Bar Harbor, Maine and the friendship deepened when the bassist invited Spitzer to an international SMJ camp in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Taken by the altoist’s sound, Matta later invited him to sit in with his group on gigs at Birdland back in New York City. “He’s got that lyrical thing, which is very charming,” said the bassist of Spitzer, “and also nice tone, great taste. He embraces all of those things and he plays with a lot of spirit.”
For Falando Docemente, Matta assembled a like-minded crew of Brazilian compatriots — guitarist Chico Pinheiro, drummer Mauricio Zottarelli and percussionist Fernando Saci — to provide an authentic vibe on several alluring bossa novas. Saxophonist Harry Allen, a guest faculty member at Matta’s SMJ camp, was paired with Spitzer on Hank Mobley’s hard bop anthem This I Dig Of You, the luxurious ballad Early Autumn and Spitzer’s lone original here, Blues for Harry A”. Rising star pianist-composer Julian Shore was recruited by Matta to write string quartet arrangements on The Very Thought Of You, Nature Boy and Sonny Rollins’ Valse Hot. And Spitzer responds in each setting with authority, clarity and a beautiful singing quality.
The spirit of his musical hero Stan Getz hovers over much of this session and is especially apparent on a beautiful bossa reading of George Gershwin’s Embraceable You and Jobim’s classic Triste. “Interestingly, my first lessons were at a studio in the East Bronx where Stan Getz took music lessons,” Spitzer recalls. “I never met him there, he was already gone, but his photograph was on the wall with some other star pupils there who achieved success. And I did take lessons with the same teacher that he had for a time, Bill Shiner. I was in junior high school at the time so this goes back quite a ways. But I remember Bill Shiner’s Music Studio on Southern Blvd. and Boston Rd. in the Bronx, right under the elevated train. The studio was one flight up and it always kind of interfered with your lessons to some degree when a train came by. But that’s how I learned how to play the saxophone.”
Another significant influence on Spitzer then and on his debut recording is Nat “King” Cole, the great pianist-vocalist who came up swinging with his trio in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s before morphing into a romantic balladeer (gaining a much wider audience in the process) in the post-World War II years. “My inspiration on both ‘The Very Thought Of You’ and ‘Nature Boy’ was Nat Cole,” he explains. “While it’s hard to convey his voice through an alto saxophone, that sound was in my head and what I was feeling when we recorded those two songs.” He also points to a Getz recording of “Nature Boy” with strings from a 1960 Verve album, Cool Velvet, as another inspiration for his reading of this tune.
Spitzer pays tribute to alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, whose tone was once described as “the sound of a dry martini,” on a relaxed reading of the title track from Desmond’s 1964 album, Bossa Antigua, which also featured guitar great Jim Hall. “It was my way of connecting with him and paying some respect to his sound,” says Spitzer. “In many ways he was maybe a bit underrated. He wasn’t a fantastic player in terms of technique but he had a sound, he had a vision, he had a lyrical sense, and he stuck with it. And to my ears, it was beautiful, it was creative, it was different than some of the other people who were around at the time.”
The supportive rhythm tandem of Matta and Zottarelli captures a quintessentially loose Brazilian feel on that soothing Desmond number and also on Matta’s relaxed This Is For Luisa, written for his wife. Guitarist Pinheiro solos persuasively on both of those engaging offerings.
Fellow saxophonists Spitzer and Allen display an easy interplay on Mobley’s swinger This I Dig Of You and also on Johnny Mercer’s “Early Autumn.” “The feeling was to have a kind of a dialogue together,” says Spitzer of his pairing with Allen. “And even though Harry has a more emphatic sound, not only because it’s a tenor but also because he’s such a strong player, there is still a kind of a sweetness and a communication happening. There’s a civility to it. It’s not one voice putting down the other but rather a kind of communicating,”
Spitzer and Allen also engage in some spirited exchanges of eights with drummer Steve Johns on “This I Dig Of You” and they create some intriguing harmonies through the head of Spitzer’s “Blues for Harry A,” a Monkish ditty written for the saxophonist’s son. “I love Harry’s playing, I like where his head’s at in terms of his sound and his feel and his freedom and his vocabulary, which is incredible. I’m very happy that he agreed to do this project and his participation on ‘Blues for Harry A’ made it more special for me. My son’s middle name is Aaron, so he’s Harry A. And Harry Allen is also Harry A. So it was kind of a nice coincidence.”
The closer, a rich reading of Rollins’ Valse Hot, opens with Shore cleverly alluding to the bridge of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in his string arrangement before the full band kicks off the theme of that buoyant jazz waltz.
There’s something sweet to savor on each track here. “Falando Docemente means ‘Speak Sweet’ in Portuguese,” explains Spitzer, “and that was really my idea for the theme of this CD — a romantic expression as well as a communication in a kind of civil and sweet way, referencing to some degree the great saxophonists and vocalists of the past.”
By referencing such greats as Getz, Desmond and Cole, you really can’t go wrong. Spitzer and his copacetic crew do justice to those jazz legends on this highly appealing (and long overdue) outing. — Bill Milkowski
CD Featured Musicians
Gil Spitzer Alto Saxophone, Chico Pinheiro Guitar (1, 2, 4 – 6, 8, 9, 11, 12), Harry Allen Tenor Saxophone (3, 7, 10), Julian Shore Piano (1, 3, 4, 6-12), Nilson Matta Acoustic Bass, Producer , Mauricio Zottarelli Drums (5, 6, 9,11), Steve Johns Drums (1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 10, 12), Fernando Saci Percussion (2, 9, 11,) Amanda Lo Violin (4, 8, 12), Monica Davis Violin (4, 8,12,) Angela Pickett Viola (4, 8, 12), Jessie Reagen Man, Cello (4, 8, 12)
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