May 22, 2024

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CD review: Walt Weiskopf – European Quartet: Diamonds and Other Jewels 2022: Video, CD cover

Now in his 20th year as a member of Steely Dan’s touring band, tenor sax maestro Walt Weiskopf has always found time to advance his own solo career as a composer and bandleader, making a long string of quality straight jazz albums stretching back to 1989.

He’s also taken his own show on the road, and as a veteran of many European tours, he’s come across a talented group of unheralded dudes from Denmark with whom he formed a new quartet in 2017.

Once they got started, Weiskopf and his cohorts have been on a torrid pace of making music. Diamonds and Other Jewels (August 19 2022, AMM Records) will be their sixth release; that’s right, including a Christmas EP they have produced nearly an album a year.

The quantity has done absolutely nothing to diminish the quality. Putting an ear on “Spartacus” is discovering a traditional, hard-bop tune with the freshness of today. Not just because Walt Weiskopf put together a snappy tune, but the tightness of the combo is strongly felt, starting with Mogensen’s fire from the drum kit. “Black Diamond” is a swinging waltz and the tenor man knives right through the changes with a lot of agility. Weiskopf’s gift for a pretty melody comes to the fore on “Other Jewels,” where he and Winther shrewdly play understated and let that strain shine through.

“Thad Nation,” dedicated to composing and arranging great Thad Jones, has all the suave swing that Jones’ big band with Mel Lewis was known for. Beginning and ending with a charming, floating motif, the gently swinging main segment serves as a platform for Weiskopf’s considerable chops.

“My Old Flame” is the only standard here, where Weiskopf shows complete mastery and saves the best for end, a show-stopping note run that stays faithful to the song and in keeping with the pre-Coltrane old saxophone greats like Parker and Gordon. By contrast,

“Blood Diamond” has that shuffle Trane often used in the ’60s – Mogensen is terrific in an Elvin Jones state of mind – but with Weiskopf’s own contemplative approach.

Backed by ace Euro jazz cats, Walt Weiskopf provides even more impetus for keeping up with his new recordings. Diamonds and Other Jewels presents his European quartet emerging from the pandemic with its coherence at an all-time high.

When Steely Dan is not touring or when the schedule affords a multi-day break saxophonist and composer Walt Weiskopf finds opportunities to go full jazz mode with his European Quartet, his Denmark-based working unit.

Diamonds and Other Jewels marks the sixth release since forming in 2017 for this unit comprised of pianist Carl Winther, bassist Andreas Lang, and drummer Anders Mogensen. The program has seven Weiskopf originals and one standard, and the album title mostly references the song titles., specifically “Black Diamond,” “Blood Diamond,” and “Other Jewels.” Also at play are two tributes, a variation on a standard, and the opener, “Spartacus,” which inspired Weiskopf’s fascination with Roman history. These eight tunes all average around six minutes, so the improvised solos are mostly concise with the quartet rendering all coherently and tightly.

The locomotive opener holds nothing back as Weiskopf and his quartet evokes that winning spirit of the legendary warrior – rebellious, compelling, and urgent. The leader’s solo and that of pianist Winther threaten to go off the rails before regrouping for the theme and exiting spiritly. “Black Diamond” is a bristling composition, which on the surface seems simpler, until one realizes it’s a fusion of minor, triple meter, and blues, essentially a waltz. Again, the leader’s playing is a combination of aggressive hard-edged blowing in fluid, rapidly running clusters, using all registers and often reaching into those chilling upper realms. Pianist Winther keeps up the frenetic pace in his own glistening solo before his rhythm mates weigh in with turns of their own. We get a breather from these two fiery tunes with the gorgeous ballad “Other Jewels,” a recognition that sometimes even the smallest things can give us pleasure.

In the second half, Weiskopf pays tribute, first to inspirational bandleader and composer Thad Jones in the celebratory “Thad Nation” and then in his deeply reverential and elegiac take on Charlie Parker’s “My Old Flame,” which he dedicates to his friend and former bandmate, the late altoist Andy Fusco. Weiskopf begins the tune with his trademark rapid runs but quickly slows to ballad tempo playing with fervent sensitivity, sustaining the notes beautifully while alternating his approach with classic Bird-like fluidity, blowing unaccompanied toward the end of the piece. It’s a stunning performance.

“Incantation” is a contrafact based on Bronislaw Kaper’s classic “Invitation.” In the liners, Weiskopf humbly mentions that he’s been faking his way through the chords for forty-plus years, so it was time to properly teach it to himself. The standout track “Blood Diamond” begins pensively before morphing into a poignantly emotional statement that decries the weird paradox of civilized society with the brutal, immoral aspects of humanity, true in Roman times and sadly, increasingly the case today. Weiskopf’s last solo, commencing around the four-minute mark, is a passionate cry for peace. Finally, “Everybody” is based on Jerome Kern’s standard “Nobody Else But Me” as Weiskopf goes for a celebratory feel for the close, only to discover that these progressions are difficult even for the tempo master that he is. The tune sprints across several keys in just sixteen bars and becomes disorienting. Only the best in class could pull one this off.

We’d be remiss without mentioning at least one of Weiskopf’s strongest outings as a sideman, especially having reviewed Billy Drummond’s Valse Sinistre on these pages recently. Weiskopf was a key member of Drummond’s ensemble for his widely acclaimed 1996 Dubai. Also, Weiskopf joined Steely Dan in 2002 and has been with them before and after the passing of co-founder Walter Becker in 2017 and has been the featured saxophonist on many of their tours.

This vital, animated session reveals Weiskopf’s strengths as both a composer and an energetic soloist, attributes that take a back seat when he’s playing with Steely Dan. Simply put, he is a monster on the tenor saxophone. This one should have listeners reaching into his catalog for his past recordings with his European Quartet.

01 Spartacus (5:30)
02 Black Diamond (7:50)
03 Other Jewels (5:47)
04 Incantation (5:04)
05 Thad Nation (6:11)
06 My Old Flame (6:19)
07 Blood Diamond (6:53)
08 Everybody (3:38)

Walt Weiskopf: saxophone;
Carl Winther: piano;
Andreas Lang: bass, acoustic;
Anders Mogensen: drums.

New CD – 2022 – Buy from here

Diamonds and Other Jewels

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