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Renee Rosnes Records With Swinging Strings


When a jazz musician gets together with a string section, don't look for a set full of heated solos.

Over the years, recording jazz players with strings has been based around a single concept: pick about a dozen great standards, write soothing string accompaniments designed to be played at a slow to medium tempo, and let the soloist shine. Among the greats who have done it: Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and Bill Evans.

Up-tempo numbers, which include plenty of give-and-take between the featured artist and the accompanists, are generally no-nos. Not because they don't work; they just run against form. Notable exceptions include Stan Getz's classic "Focus," with marvelously sculpted and energized string parts by Eddie Sauter. Now, add to that list "Without Words," the new Blue Note Records album by Canadian pianist Renee Rosnes.

Beginning with Billy Drummond's crackling drum introduction to "You and the Night and the Music," right away there is a sense that "Without Words" is going to be a very different jazz and strings album. The tempo is bright, and Rosnes is "burning" as she works through her chord changes.

The strings--arranged and conducted by Robert Freedman, who orchestrated Wynton Marsalis' "Hot House Flowers" string album--dart in and around Rosnes, creating a charged context. Later, Freedman utilizes contrapuntal Baroque-like lines for the strings, which Rosnes follows with thumping, McCoy Tyner-like chords and lines. What a refreshing contrast!

Other numbers that zealously exploit the strings are "Dear Old Stockholm," when an entire chorus showcases the 12-piece orchestra, and "Jitterbug Waltz," when the strings prod and push Rosnes. Some selections, such as "Misty" and "Estate," explore the more traditional use of strings as accompaniment.

Rosnes, 29, has been interested in making a string album since she was a teen-ager, but wanted to do one that revealed individuality. "The goal of this album was to make it an (improvisational) date versus solely romantic standards," said Rosnes, in a telephone interview from the East Orange, N.J. home she shares with Drummond, her husband. "I wanted more interplay with the strings, have them more rhythmically and harmonically involved, and Bob's (Freedman) writing lent itself to jazz."

The album sounds remarkably tight, considering it was taped in two days, which included rehearsals. "There was a lot of pressure," said Rosnes. "We ran the tunes down once, then recorded them. It was like, 'Be creative. Now!' "

In the Racks: Joe Sample's "Invitation," which sits at No. 2 on the Billboard Jazz charts, is another album that includes a string section. Sample takes the soft, slow approach as he covers "Nica's Dream," "Django," "Summertime" and nine others in his typically relaxed, often tuneful style.

Critic's Choice: A personal sound and a telling lyricism is evident in the work of trumpeter Jerry Rusch, who plays Thursday at Lunaria.

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