History has shown us that jazz can be written for, and improvised on, virtually any instrument. (Even the bagpipes have been tried, though with questionable success.) As the first four records below illustrate, fresh and exhilarating sounds are being produced outside what is assumed to be the conventional instrumental jazz family.
"SOUND PROJECT." Joe Pass-Tommy Gumina Trio. Polytone (6865 Vineland, N. Hollywood 91605). Gumina retired from active playing 15 years ago to concentrate on the electronics business and the manufacturing of instruments. He now returns to the studios lugging along a polycorus, a sort of super-accordion that shows itself able to generate swelling organ-like sounds. With guitarist Joe Pass in an improbable setting (this is his first album in 15 years away from the Pablo family), and Jimmie Smith on drums, this is an intriguing experiment, using polytonal voicings. Pass at one point leaps out of his normal tonal skin to achieve an out-of-character electronic sound. The tunes are mainly standards, but one of the best cuts as an original blues, "About Time." There is no bass player; rather, Gumina's agile left hand is the bassist. 4 stars.
"THE NEW TANGO." Astor Piazzolla/Gary Burton. Atlantic 81823. Nobody ever calls an accordion an accordion any more. Gumina has his polycorus, Astor Piazzolla uses the bandoneon, supposedly a cousin of the accordion, with a dark harmonium-like sonority. Teamed with Gary Burton, that most resourceful of multi-malleted vibraphonists, he taped this set live at the 1986 Montreux Jazz Festival. Long popular in his native Argentina, Piazzolla wrote the six-part "Suite for Vibraphone and New Tango Quintet" that shows here how far the tango has moved beyond the conventional tump-da-dump-dump of yesteryear. Violin, piano, guitar and bass make up this unconventional group in a challenging program of sophisticated chamber music. There are helpful historical notes by Piazzolla and Fernando Gonzalez. 4 stars.
"SVINGIN' WITH SVEND." David Grisman Quintet. Zebra CD ZEAD 42118. The mandolin is perhaps the unlikeliest of jazz vehicles, yet Grisman has overcome its inherent obstacles (mainly a lightweight, tinny tone) to achieve respectability. His teammate here, the veteran Danish violinist Svend Asmussen, walks off with most of the honors in a swing-era program that involves standards by Django Reinhardt, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. The pianoless backup (guitar, bass, drums) is by no means the hardest driving of groups. It all adds up to a pleasant but forgettable experience. 3 stars.
"TRIPLE TREAT II." Monty Alexander/Ray Brown/Herb Ellis. Concord CCD 4338. Jazz violinists being a fairly rare breed, it is astonishing that John Frigo, who appears on the last four of these nine cuts, has not been famous for decades. Even more remarkably, he is 71 years old, lives in Chicago (could that be the problem?) and is best known as a bassist. His solo on "Lester Leaps In" lead one to speculate why this is the last track rather than the first. The tunes without Frigo are superior piano-guitar-bass mainstream works, with Alexander in buoyant form on Neal Hefti's "Fred" and Ellis taking charge forcefully on "Seven Come Eleven." 4 1/2 stars.
"PASSION SUITE." Doug Cameron. Spindletop SPD 124. That men like Frigo can languish in obscurity while a Doug Cameron can be touted as "top jazz violinist" says much about the bloated state of so-called contemporary jazz. These carefully programmed Cameron originals are best characterized by the title of the third cut, "It Doesn't Get Any Better," which, alas, turns out to be true. Except for a few passages on the title cut, spontaneous creativity is at a minimum. This is all carefully calculated to get airplay while skaking no bones and toppling no thrones. 1 star.
"FUTURE EXCURSIONS." Henry Johnson. Impulse MCAD 42089. It is ironic, and symptomatic of the music world as business empire, that the best example of Johnson's guitar improvisation, "Ready and Able," is available only on the CD version. This simple "I Got Rhythm" line finds him loose and uncluttered; most of the other pieces, with the exception of a delightful blues-with-a-bridge called "75th and Levy," are tight and cluttered. "There Are Ways" is an agreeable quasi-samba, with good tenor sax and piano solos. The reprehensible treatment of "A Child is Born" could have been retitled "A Child is Aborted." Taking a leaf out of the George Benson book, Johnson sings, quite effectively, on four tunes. When his commercial potential has been adequately milked, perhaps Johnson will be allowed to give full rein to his exceptional talent as a jazz musician. 2 1/2 stars.