Tadd Dameron’s working instrument was the piano though, in a be-bop universe dominated by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, he didn’t pretend to be a virtuoso. Anyway, keyboard mastery was irrelevant because Dameron’s real genius lay in composition and even his arranging skills were much appreciated by his bop peers. Described by veteran producer/historian Ira Gitler as “a gracious, soft-spoken man”, Dameron’s lyricism, laced with impressionism, shines in classics like Charlie Parker’s Hot House, Dizzy Gillespie’s Good Bait and Our Delight, Fats Navarro’s The Squirrel, Billy Eckstine’s Cool Breeze and Sarah Vaughan’s shimmering If You Could See Me Now (for which he also wrote the lyrics). And, in this new album celebrating his work, singer Vanessa Rubin presents familiar Dameronia mixed with a few pieces that have been overlooked.
Ms Rubin has a pleasant, mid-range voice which could be much improved if she reduced the vibrato. Fortunately, her chops are good, her intonation precise, the rhythm section swings and the standard of musicianship is high. Four venerable arrangers (Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, Frank Foster and Bobby Watson) lent their skills to the album’s 12 songs, most times discreetly, occasionally a tad intrusively. On Lady Bird, Ms Rubin scats in unison with harmonised reeds followed by a taut trumpet chorus from Eddie Allen. She also struts through the lesser-heard Kitchenette Across The Hall (now, there’s a grabby title) supported by John Cowherd’s piano. A singer less-equipped would be daunted by the prospect of approaching If You Could See Me Now, a Sarah Vaughan classic inspired by Dizzy Gillespie’s coda to Groovin’ High, but Vanessa Rubin handles the ballad with confidence, as does Clifton Anderson on trombone. The impressionistic On A Misty Night pays reverential homage to the remarkable Poet In New York, Georgie Fame’s essential jazz album from 2000, Ms Rubin quoting in full Fame’s vocalese chorus based on Chet Baker’s elegant solo.
A minor gripe: like so many jazz composers (even including Duke Ellington), Dameron’s ballads are often ill-served by inferior lyricists, limiting the scope for vocal expression. On Never Been In Love, Next Time Around and Reveries Do Come True, cardboard metaphors don’t match the emotional depth of the music. But Good Bait, a high energy perennial be-bop anthem, offers rhythmic compensation. A pleasant and often fascinating album.