April 5, 2021. West coaster George Kahn is one of those melodic, easy-swinging pianists that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. He’s not edgy, nor experimental; he appropriates liberally from the Great American Songbook. He’s unabashedly straight-ahead, which, in this day and age, might be a revolutionary act in itself.
All about truthfulness in advertising, he named his last album Straight Ahead (2018). On Dreamcatcher, his 10th album as a leader, Kahn, once again, is not hiding the ball; he’s coming right at you, with an impressive cast of sidemen consisting of former Weather Report drummer Alex Acuña, guitarist Pat Kelly, and bassist David Hughes, all Los Angeles mainstays who are also in-demand film and TV industry session players.
Good, clean, unpretentious playing predominates, evoking the “cool” West Coast sound of the ’50s and ’60s; they leave the pyrotechnics and special effects to the Hollywood types whose films they play studio gigs for.
They lead off with a take on “I Feel Pretty” that’s played with easy but exact precision; Kahn’s arrangement of the West Side Story favorite is sharp simplicity, the musical equivalent of perfectly executed business casual. It’s a fresh-from-the-dry-cleaner pair of slacks with a razor-sharp crease ready to cut soda cans on demand that’s also perfectly comfortable at that post-work happy hour, where the can thing becomes a neat party trick.
Next, they take on one of my all-time favorite Cole Porter tunes, “Just One of Those Things,” and hit it with a little bossa feel, exchanging the slacks for something slightly more après-beach. Kelly steals the tune with a guitar solo that’s got plenty to communicate within the changes and just epitomizes cool, easy, self-assured facility.
The take on “You and the Night and the Music” is similarly Latin-inflected, with Kelly, this time, taking charge of things from the outset before switching off verses and then solos with Kahn. Kelly exhibits a Jim Hall-like feel for the Latin stuff, and when he looks around to see whether he should hand off to Chet Baker or Stan Getz—and finds neither— he willingly defers to Hughes who obliges by graciously leading with some bottom into a fun riff interlude that allows Acuña to freelance a little. Just when you start to think there’s not a lot going on because it sounds so tight and clean, you listen closer and realize these guys are just really smooth.
Having paid due deference to the mid-century period, Kahn, evidently shooting for exhaustive treatment of the last century’s generations, manages covers of a Hoagy Carmichael tune from 1927, a James Taylor tune from 1972, and a Harry Connick Jr. tune from 2013.
The take on Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” is a Jukebox Jazz favorite right out of the box. No additives or preservatives needed; just enough cheese has already been added. This is good cheese, though; it’s the ’70s, so maybe fondue. Kelly plays lead and shows a more soulful side to his playing, before handing off to Kahn who takes us to church just a little bit.
The take on “One Fine Thing,” Connick Jr.’s tune, sounds a tad too much like the theme to a police procedural to me. But then, on the other hand, if I’d heard this tune while watching a police procedural, I’d probably compliment the showrunners for their taste in music.
Too often, we hold prejudices based on our own conceptions of what’s high-brow media and what’s low brow. That said, it’s not like this one doesn’t sound like it was created as a TV show theme, so I guess the question then becomes whether you’re the type of person who can find fondness for TV show themes within.
I’m much more fond of the guys’ interpretation of Carmichael’s “Stardust,” which is just such a regal tune when played well, especially as it is here by the pairing of Hughes and Kahn. This is joyful piano jazz.
Of the originals, I’m partial to the two with fun names: “Going Baroque” and “Quarantuni Time.” The former cleverly bookends the tune with a classical-style fugue, reminiscent of the “chamber jazz” that made the Modern Jazz Quartet memorable. That distinctive intro gives way to smoky interplay between Kelly and Kahn, with Hughes assertively driving tempo.
The latter will call to mind Ellington’s “C Jam Blues,” the childlike playfulness of Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” and again, at times, the buttoned-up elegance of MJQ, whom Kahn himself states as a major inspiration to the quartet.
So when it gets to be about quittin’ time, allow me to suggest a Quarantuni or two? I’ll take mine stirred, in a half-carafe.