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Arts Desk
Every week on the air there's a special focus on one particular jazz album. Check them all out here!

Jazz Album of the Week: Guitarist Larry Tamanini Puts Music and Philadelphia ‘Front and Center’

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Larry Tamanini's Front and Center

July 12, 2021. In Philadelphia, we’ll always go nuts for the Orrin Evanses and the Christian McBrides and the Joey DeFrancescos of the world—as jazz goes, they are our big-ticket cultural exports, and deservedly so.

We brag on them as though we’re all mothers of newly minted MDs. But you know what we love even more than boasting of Philly’s jazz ambassadors to the world? We love staking claim to the indie-label guys, the neighborhood jam session legends who power the engine that keeps our local scene thriving, richer, and—just ask us—better than everyone else’s.

For every Christian McBride, there’s a Mike Boone, teaching the next generation not just musicianship and rhythm, melody, and harmony, but how to perform, how to approach a gig, how to respect and cherish an audience. For every McCoy Tyner, there’s a Sid Simmons. For every Coltrane, Golson, Grover and Getz, there’s a Larry McKenna, a Bootsie Barnes, a Victor North, a Michael Pedicin, Jr.

This group’s talent in some ways feels like a more precious gift because we have the good fortune of being able to hoard it all to ourselves. Exposure has never correlated directly to credibility in this town, where, as BP has known for so many years, our ears really are very finely tuned. Major-label releases for our own are a source of pride but aren’t the first or last word about who can and cannot play. We can, and do, judge that for ourselves.

And among the many things we judge very seriously for ourselves here in Philly are our native guitar players. And for every Pat Martino, Jimmy Bruno, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, there’s a Larry Tamanini, a humble shredder, a tireless wood-shedder with a vast storehouse of repertoire who simply loves this music’s history, loves our town, loves our scene, and loves to play.

If you identify with anything about the nature of Philadelphia pride and fanhood, Larry Tamanini is a musician you will really appreciate.

Tamanini studied formally with Dennis Sandole and Pat Martino but is also one of the youngest surviving members of the Ortlieb’s JazzHaus fraternity, where every night was a graduate level practicum in jazz musicianship under professors like Simmons and Boone and Bootsie and Mickey Roker and Trudy Pitts and Shirley Scott. 

He’s paid those lessons forward, hosting regular jam sessions at Maxwell’s on Main (aka M.O.M’s) in Doylestown, while continuing to grab up Philly gigs with stalwart colleagues like Boone—they’ve got one coming up in September at Fabrika, the newly opened spot in Fishtown that’s already become one of the hottest new hits in the city.

In August 2019, he released his second album as a leader, Front and Center, a follow-up to 2011’s Lookin’ Into It.

The Martino influence in his playing is definitely there, but the flavor profile is dynamic; you’ll taste not just a little Grant Green in there— and some WesMont, too. Tamanini’s got great facility and is capable of feats of athleticism, but at his core is not someone who is called to go off-piste to display technique.

Tamanini eschews overplaying. It’s cliché to remark that Tamanini and his bandmates—brothers George (piano) and Geoff (bass) Hazelrigg and drummer John O’Reilly, Jr.—play in such a way that a conversation seems to be manifested through music. But Tamanini and co. earn this cliché. 

The sonic profile of the opener and title track will be especially compelling to jazz guitar lovers. The cerebral soulfulness of Grant Green typifies the style of much of the tune, but the body proper is punctuated, as in the thrilling prologue, by electrified runs reminiscent of Larry Coryell’s distinctive style.

Tamanini’s a big basketball fan, and his approach here exemplifies one of John Wooden’s most elegant precepts; he’s quick but never in a hurry. He and George Hazelrigg (piano) run the fast break like Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich. Whether they’re playing harmonically or in unison, they’re always looking for one another; each is always aware of the where the other is and where they intend to be.

“In the Night” is a smoke-filled blues number, with a mournful quality redolent of my favorite Porgy and Bess ballads. There may not be anything here that will blow your mind or “melt your face” (a phrase I’ve regrettably and lazily used in the past, which, upon reflection, seems to be the single lamest player seated at the very end of music writing’s lexical bench). 

Except, isn’t having one’s mind blown or face melted—whatever on earth that means—one of the more overrated experiences one can have vis-à-vis a piece of music? Wouldn’t you rather have music that calms your mind, silences the internal chatter, and replaces that chatter with something that places you, spiritually, on more sturdy footing.

Tamanini’s music provides that piece of mind; this is healthy nourishment for the soul, composed of simple, clean ingredients. No GMOs here!

With “Trust the Process,” it becomes necessary to make reference to basketball once again. Granted, the first hoops metaphor was an indulgence of a basketball loving commentator, but this tune really is a musical homage to the cult of former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie and his polarizing strategy for returning our proud but moribund NBA franchise to glory. Unfortunately, by the time “the process” went into effect, Grover Washington, Jr.—the surefire talisman— was no longer around to work his Mister Magic. In his absence, our beloved Sixers turned to more drastic measures.

The feathery, metallic quality of cymbals being struck ever so delicately indicate a new day is breaking, but the opening chords on piano and guitar suggest conflict, ambivalence. Just what kind of new day will this rising sun shed light upon?

Those early notes of uncertainty fade to reveal an optimism, albeit one that is guarded. After some soulful strutting out front by Tamanini, the piano-playing Hazelrigg is eager to get out and freelance. He puts on quite the ball handling exhibition but he doesn’t have numbers. Contrary to much of the NBA, Tamanini’s is not an isolation-heavy offense. Playing point guard here, the heady and deliberate leader pulls things back and safely dumps the ball down to the low block, where bassist Geoff makes a living muscling, as the great Marc Zumoff would say, down in the weight room, amongst the trees. 

But, though a process this may be, you can’t hold the ball forever, and so with the shot clock running down and the ball back in his hands, Tamanini finds a lane to penetrate, a path carved out by George’s piano. Will our talented point guard have the mettle to take that last shot as time expires? Tamanini leaves us with a final chord of beautiful yet maddening uncertainty. Ben Simmons, are you out there picking up on any of this?

You know what, never mind that one, Ben. If you happen to be listening to Tamanini’s CD along with me, skip to Front & Center’s closer, “The Determinator.” This is the one you ought to be bumping through your wireless Beats headphones during pre-game shootaround.

Tamanini takes all the governors off here. No minutes restrictions; no load management; no mercy. Larry T. and co. have arrived in a post-process world, and they’re leaving everything on the court, as it were. O’Reilly and George H. are at their authoritative and percussive best. The rhythm section imbues Tamanini with a self-assuredness to do all things possible with guitar in hand. He hits holes directly, no frivolous dancing in the backfield. This tune is determined; it is resolute; it is singular in its purpose; these musicians won’t be denied.

Process that, 76ers!