Review: After Midnight “Autumn Leaves”

After Midnight “Autumn Leaves”

22 Feb, 2011 Alex Henderson

When musical historians think of the Swing Era, they tend to think of big bands.  They think of Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Glenn Miller, Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway and all the other big band leaders who were popular during the Great Depression and World War II (although swing really started in the 1920s with Fletcher Henderson and others, the term Swing Era is generally used to describe that period of roughly 1935-1945).  But swing wasn’t strictly a big band phenomenon.  From Fats Waller and Art Tatum to Lester “The Pres” Young to the Nat King Cole Trio to Shaw’s Gramercy Five, plenty of excellent small groups played swing back in the day.  It is inaccurate to say that Charlie Parker and bebop “brought back small groups” because small groups were, in fact, plentiful throughout the Swing Era.  And that spirit of small-group swing is the specialty of After Midnight, a Colorado-based sextet that has been active since 1997.   Autumn Leaves is consistently faithful to the sound of small-group swing as it existed during the Swing Era, and the small groups that Goodman and Shaw led back then are an especially strong influence.

The performances on this album are pleasant and likable, but if Autumn Leaves has an obvious shortcoming, it is the warhorse factor.  What it is the warhorse factor?  It is when artists play an excess of overexposed standards that have been recorded literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the years.  And when the warhorse factor is taken to an extreme (which, unfortunately, it frequently is in straight-ahead jazz), finding overlooked gems isn’t a high priority.  The warhorse factor is quite strong on Autumn Leaves, which finds After Midnight turning their attention to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” George Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful,” Art Hickman’s “Rose Room,” Harold Arlen’s “Blues in the Night” and other standards that have been recorded by countless swing bands over the years.  Since Autumn Leaves is essentially a tribute to Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, a certain amount of warhorses are justified; no one is suggesting that After Midnight or any other swing group should give up standards altogether.  That wouldn’t make sense.  But After Midnight could have mixed it up a lot more and found more gems that aren’t warhorses.  For example, Duke Ellington’s “The Eighth Veil” (one of his lesser known treasures from the 1940s) would have sounded great played in a Shaw/Goodman style on this album, and the gorgeous ballad “Mam’selle” (which was a #1 hit for crooner Art Lund in 1947 but never became a standard) would have also worked well as a swing instrumental on Autumn Leaves.   The point is that if After Midnight are going to play really familiar tunes like Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” and Shaw’s “Summit Ridge Drive” (two of the Shaw hits included on this album), they should surprise us with some not-so-likely choices.  There is no reason why After Midnight couldn’t have offered a lot more surprises and still maintained the Shaw/Goodman aesthetic that they were going for.

After Midnight’s publicity bio states that rather than trying to sound like a carbon copy of Shaw or Goodman’s small groups, they like to put their own twist on that type of sound by doing things like playing, for example, “a few Ray Charles hits” when they’re on stage.  That is a plus; if a group is going to take a retro approach, having a broader repertoire is a positive thing because it helps the group stand out in the crowd.  However, displaying an ambitious repertoire isn’t exactly a high priority on Autumn Leaves (which is predominantly instrumental but also contains four vocal offerings: “’S’Wonderful,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Stardust” and “Blues in the Night”).

But while this 2009 release plays it much safer than it needed to in terms of material, it is still an enjoyable, if predictable, listen.  The musicianship is nothing to complain about; clarinetist Roger Campbell (the sextet’s leader), pianist Justin Adams, guitarist Mike McCullough (who handles the singing), bassist Ced Forsyth, vibist Rick Weingarten (whose solos are mindful of Lionel Hampton) and drummer Jim Moore are all skillful musicians.  And by keeping the spirit of small-group swing alive, they are doing the jazz world a favor.  Jazz needs its fearless explorers such as Dave Douglas, Ivo Perelman and the Bad Plus, but it also needs traditionalists who honor jazz’ bygone eras.  The thing is that there is more to jazz’ bygone eras than the overdone warhorses that jazz enthusiasts have heard time and time again, and an album like Autumn Leaves needs to offer more acknowledgement of that fact.  But if After Midnight are more risk-taking in their choice of material on future releases, they just might provide an album that is excellent instead of simply competent.

Review by Alex Henderson
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)