Charlie Mariano Quartet, Charlie Mariano Plays Alto and Tenor

Charles Farrell

By Charles Farrell

on 09.07.11 in Reviews

Charlie Mariano Plays Alto and Tenor

Charlie Mariano Quartet

The late Charlie Mariano, having lived most of the last 40 years of his life in Germany, has never received the kind of acclaim in the U.S. his abilities should have guaranteed. An alto saxophonist out of the Charlie Parker School, his playing had a vulnerability and lyricism comparable to those of fellow Bird followers Sonny Criss and Art Pepper. But his tone was steelier than either’s, and he had a firmer sense of improvisational structure. Mariano was one of the first players of the bop era to move away from straight-ahead jazz into rock and fusion (his exodus took place around the same time as Miles Davis’s), and from that point he seldom returned to his pure roots. This gives Charlie Mariano Plays Alto and Tenor added value. The album doesn’t break new ground in jazz and doesn’t cover territory that wasn’t common to pick-up sessions during the 1950 and ’60s. What it does do is provide an extended look at a valuable and under-recorded master. Although Mariano plays tenor on three tracks, the focus here is largely on his alto playing.

An extended look at a valuable and under-recorded master

This is as it should be; as exemplary is his playing on the larger horn was, his true voice was on the alto. On “The Very Thought of You,” he combines the fluency of bop phrasing with urgently declamatory single notes, a melding of intellect with emotion. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is even better. Because of its identification with Bird, it’s a tune most alto players left alone. Mariano tackles it head on — same feel, same tempo, similar phrasing. I can’t say he comes out the winner, but he holds his own in the fastest company imaginable. “King for a Day” is a dark, bluesy theme, and Mariano’s alto just eats up the changes chorus after chorus, subtly building intensity as he does. He is assisted by the rhythm section of John Williams on piano, Max Bennett of bass, and the tastefully propulsive drummer Mel Lewis. Williams’s playing is very reminiscent of 1950s vintage Mal Waldron’s — not virtuosic, but insistent, swinging, and always supportive. Bennett is asked to provide an underpinning to the proceedings, and he handles this with aplomb. Lewis was always a superb small group player (despite the fact that his reputation came as the co-leader of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band), and there are some particularly instructive things he can do with brushes. “Darn That Dream” will show you. But this is really the saxophonist’s album, much to our benefit. From the rhythmic assuredness of “I Heard You Cried Last Night” to the effortless romanticism of “It’s You or No One,” Mariano never places a false step. It makes you wish his discography were a lot more extensive, but it’s good to have this one to remember him by.