Jazz Album of the Week: Cory Weeds Looks To The Old Country for Inspiration on O Sole Mio!
January 25, 2021. The most recognizable tunes on saxophonist Cory Weeds latest, O Sole Mio! Music from the Motherland, are synonymous with the great Italian tenors of the 20th century. Which is ostensibly curious. Weeds isn’t an opera star; he’s a saxophonist. And most of the time his go-to instrument isn’t even the tenor but the alto.
If there’s one country he’s come to be associated with it’s Canada, not Italy. Weeds has become our neighbor to the north’s most prominent jazz ambassador as both musician and founder of the Vancouver-based record label Cellar Live. The "I" word does follow him around frequently, but it’s not “Italian,” it’s “impresario.”
Weeds produced and played on pianist Antonio Ciacca’s Volare, The Italian American Songbook (2016). That must have planted a seed because in addition to jazz takes on Neopolitan operatic classics like “O Sole Mio” and “Torna a Surriento,” Weeds presents new, soul-jazzy arrangements of tunes written by some of his favorite Italian American musicians.
Henry Mancini, Pat Martino, and Chick Corea are among those who make the cut. As is Nino Rota. His “Speak Softly, Love,” better known as the theme from The Godfather, is presented as a bossa nova arrangement anchored by a Hammond B3 organ. It only sounds blasphemous before you listen to it—then it all makes perfect sense.
Much of this is owing to Weeds’ compatriots here, who bring out the latent jazz that’s lived in these compositions all along. As the Groover Quartet, Mike LeDonne, Peter Bernstein, Joe Farnsworth, and Eric Alexander have held a weekly residence at New York City’s Smoke jazz club for years. They all played at Weeds’ Cellar jazz club in Vancouver before he closed it in 2014, and they’ve all either led or been featured on Cellar Live-produced releases.
So Weeds knew this quartet would effectuate Cellar Live’s straight-ahead house style to polished perfection. What he couldn’t have known is how he, as a musician, would fit in with a group that’s been playing together for so long.
“They have [a] ‘thing,’ " Weeds is quoted as saying in the album’s liner notes. “And I was a bit concerned about how I would fit into that ‘thing,’ but they were all so supportive and made me feel like I was a part of the band. Mike [LeDonne] especially….”
With LeDonne, you know you’re going to get rocksteady, very rhythmic playing that adds a great deal of depth and body, particularly to a smallish ensemble. Taking all that as a given, his playing here is notable for being right on-brand. For the most part, LeDonne’s content to facilitate and anchor the rhythm section. LeDonne’s chops as a soloist are there, and it’s not like he shies away from showing them, especially on tunes like “Speak Softly, Love.” But, both there and elsewhere, we see him framing his solos in ways that allow him to give way to more expansive tenor soloing from Alexander again and again.
And who could complain about that? Alexander’s virtuosity is not in dispute, and he’s a Weeds type of player—tons of ideas but content and skillful enough to play all of them within the tune’s chordal structure. It’s clear from “O Sole Mio,” the album’s opener, where the two saxophonists duet before exchanging solos, that it’s a joy for Weeds to be playing with Alexander. You can almost hear the smile in his playing.
“I have had the great pleasure of recording with Mike, Peter and Joe on a couple of occasions,” Weeds is quoted saying in the liners, “but to share the frontline with Eric Alexander was both inspiring and a thrill of a lifetime.”
Hearing the two play an up-tempo hard bop theme in unison is a particular thrill, and for that it doesn’t get much better than the band’s version of Pat Martino’s “On the Stairs.”
Weeds and Alexander throw down the gauntlet immediately, entering hot and fast as though shot from a cannon. The straight-ahead purists might dig this one most, with its incendiary theme introduced by unison horns, optimal comping support from LeDonne and Bernstein, and explosive solos from everyone, Farnsworth included. Bernstein’s solo after the first chorus stands out; guitarists always seem to bring their best on tunes written by other legendary guitarists, as though they sense there being an important moment to meet. I listened to Bernstein’s solo here at least three times; I wasn’t ready to move on from it.
“Chick’s Tune,” originally written by Corea for Blue Mitchell’s The Thing to Do (1965), brings a similar energy and set of values. Again, there’s superior unison playing—this time between saxes and guitar to open things— though, here, we get a more deliberate and cerebral solo from Bernstein and more extended time out front for Farnsworth. But what this one underscores most is how steady and dependable LeDonne’s left hand bass playing is throughout the album.
Interpretations of Mancini’s “Mr. Lucky” and Bruno Martino’s “Estate” are the two resident standards here. The latter’s the record’s lone ballad and contains what might be Alexander’s signature performance. He shows athleticism and incredible technical facility throughout, but it’s here where his playing is most rich and musical.
For all the Italianate scaffolding here, O Sole Mio ends with a couple tunes—first in Dodo Marmarosa’s “Moody Blues,” then in Paul Chambers’ “Capricci di Camere (Whims of Chambers)”— that reaffirm Weeds’ most basic musical predilections. Straight ahead and dripping with the blues, these last two are the most faithful to the traditional organ jazz sound of Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery.
So, where’s the Italian thread that ties it all together thematically? Sometimes it’s not always so easy to tell, and sometimes it’s easy to tell that the connections are a little loose, a little remote. But is the music good enough to not be too bothered by these trifles? That’s a decisive “sì.”