Strings are the connectors on bassist Ben Wolfe’s Fatherhood. Not heartstrings, mind, but violins, viola, and cello. Wolfe’s father Dan was a violinist, and the bassist credits his dad with having introduced him to jazz. Thus Wolfe’s use of a string quartet on here has sentimental, not just instrumental, import.
What Wolfe does with those strings isn’t sweetening. Rather than use them simply to plump up the arrangements, the writing here treats the quartet as an additional voice—sometimes supportive but at times oppositional. Take “Blind Seven,” which opens the album. The last time Wolfe recorded the tune, on 2007’s 13 Sketches, it was a straight-ahead bopper. This time, though, that aspect of the tune gets disrupted, first by the oblique harmonic approach taken by the soloists, vibraphonist Joel Ross and alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, and then by the strings, which break the groove with a grumpy, minor-key fugue that plods along at half tempo. It follows the same changes, but into an utterly different universe, making the tune feel like a conversation between two people who inhabit the same space but don’t hear each other.
There’s also a difference in the relationship between the instruments. Rather than isolate the instruments, Wolfe recorded his musicians together in the same room, an approach that makes the ensemble sound warmer—particularly when the strings are playing—but at a cost to his own sound, which is rich and deep but not especially loud. On the other hand, the quiet encourages the listener to pay attention, as on the jaunty “Uncle Leslie,” where Wolfe’s unamplified bass commands just as much attention as Giveton Gelin’s trumpet or Orrin Evans’ piano. And when the group finally takes a more traditional approach, on an album-closing rendition of Bob Haggart’s classic “What’s New,” the intimacy of the sound only adds to the emotional impact, as Ross’ vibraphone all but melts into the string accompaniment.