For her debut outing as a leader, pianist-composer-arranger Joan Stiles wanted to create a relaxed, loosely swinging vibe in the studio with a carefully chosen group of respected players on the New York scene. Assembling a dream band whose collective ensemble experience includes big band stints with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Benny Goodman and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Stiles filters well-known standards through her own unique sensibilities with provocative reharmonizations, skillful voicings and an unerring sense of swing.
With the help of revered jazz elders Frank Wess and Clark Terry along with a crack ensemble including Jerry Dodgion on alto sax, Joe Temperley on bariton sax, Warren Vache on trumpet, Wayne Goodman and Benny Powell on trombones, John Webber on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, Stiles succeeds magnificently on Love Call, a collection of extrapolations on standards for solo piano, piano trio, quartet, septet, octet and nonet.
“All are great ensemble players, all have a beautiful, natural sound and can play with powerful lyricism and swing" says the Brooklyn native and Manhattan resident. "I wrote for the musician's individual sounds, revamping tunes I had been playing with a trio and putting together some new things as well. I was thinking the way a playwright would, writing for certain actors--or Ellington and Strayhorn imagining certain tonal colors from their instrumentalists. "
The fact that the session was recorded live to 2-track in the studio without any of the players wearing headphones adds to the remarkably relaxed, gig-like feeling of Love Call. “ I wanted an ensemble sound in which musicians were really playing together, great players sitting right next to each other with no headphones--listening and blending. And there was no option of going back and changing any solos--or even mixing. A different aesthetic is created when you know that 'this is it.'"
Love Call was conceived with an ear towards variety--two intimate solo piano interpretations of Billy Strayhorn tunes and two swinging piano trio numbers are sandwiched in between the more ambitious “little big band” arrangements. Opening with an easy swinging original blues for octet, “Spherical,” Stiles quickly establishes her connection to Monk in the quirky piano figures and dissonant horn lines. Vache solos brilliantly before Wess steps in sideways with a sly statement of his own, eventually succumbing to the powerful lure of the blues in his artfully developed solo. Stiles’ own solo, which opens with some playful right-hand statements, stays true to the spirit of Monk and the thematic structure.
Stiles' impressionistic piano intro to “When I Fall In Love” segues to a hauntingly beautiful arrangement for septet, full of moving lines between the horns and gorgeous reharmonizations that unfold at a deliberate pace. “This arrangement was probably more influenced by Alban Berg than by jazz,” she explains. “The horn parts were conceived like a string quartet with new chord progressions developing out of the individual melodic lines. And for me, Jerry's beautiful solo is one
of the high points of the record. Right before Jerry's solo, there's a quote from Tristan and Isolde (Wagner) and the descending lines evoke what a friend called a 'very adult vision of love."
An octet treatment of Clifford Brown’s hard bop anthem “Daahoud” has Stiles punching up an implied Afro-Cuban undercurrent while giving baritone ace Temperley plenty of room to wail. This Horace Silver/Art Blakey influenced arrangement features the piano doubling and playing in tenths above the bass line played by John Webber.
The startling chamber-like rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” arranged for a quartet of piano, trumpet, bass clarinet and alto sax, is an excellent showcase for Clark Terry’s muted trumpet and blues-drenched plunger solo. The beloved jazz legend returns for a superb performance on “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” conveying the epitome of relaxed, soulful expression against the tension of Stiles’ vigorous comping. Her Monkish bass vamp evokes the sounds of the horses pulling the surrey. “This is a tune that I’ve played in a trio,” she says. “I never heard him actually play the tune, but since I'd heard him quote the opening lick, I thought of this as a feature for Clark."
On her trio rendition of “Tea for Two,” Stiles opens with a rhapsodic intro before yielding to a bristling romp full of metric modulations and surprising twists. Her solo piano take on Strayhorn’s melancholy “Blood Count” is suitably dark and introspective while her solo extrapolation on “Take The 'A' Train” swings with wit and verve. And on a jauntily swinging trio rendition of the Frank Loesser standard “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” she is brimming with the joyous flair of a Wynton Kelly or Erroll Garner.
Stiles' lush nonet arrangement of Gershwin’s mournful “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess stands as an arranging triumph of this session. “I was familiar with the Miles Davis-Gil Evans version but I went back to the Gershwin score,” she explains. "There's hardly any improvisation here. The ending section with Jerry's soprano sax glissandi is a variation on the soprano line in the operatic version."
The set closes on an invigorating note with a sextet version of Lerner & Lowe’s “Almost Like Being in Love.” Everybody gets a taste on this briskly swinging vehicle. Wess opens with a knowing, well-paced tenor solo. Vache follows with a crackling trumpet solo of his own, Dodgion offers some pungent bounce on alto sax and Stiles kicks in with a deft touch on piano. They each engage in spirited exchanges of fours with drummer Hutchinson before putting the exclamation point on this buoyant closer.
Stiles, who continues to teach in the New School Jazz program and at Manhattan School of Music, currently performs around New York in a duo setting with saxophonist-flutist Steve Wilson. For her ongoing "Mostly Mary Lou" concert series, she arranges and performs the music of jazz great, Mary Lou Williams. Recent concerts have included Jeremy Pelt, Steve Wilson, Dennis Irwin and Lewis Nash. These separate projects may indeed be documented for future release. As for now, enjoy her fully realized maiden voyage, Love Call.