Beegie Adair,
Centennial Composers Collection
(Green Hill, 2002)

Even after listening to and collecting jazz exhaustively for the past 15 years, I had never before come across the name of Beegie Adair, so I was rather surprised when I received for review this 6-CD box set. That a relatively little known pianist should get such treatment from her label says much about the confidence that label has in her, and considering the current jazz market, I suspect it's not misplaced. There's an ever-growing audience for "smooth jazz" these days, and although Adair mercifully doesn't fit that category of soulless, boring "music to shag by," as one of its proponents accurately calls it, Adair's playing is surely accessible to those listeners, as well as to lovers of classic jazz.

Even the concept is safe and non-threatening. Each of the discs is devoted to a major American popular composer: Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. Around a dozen tracks comprise each CD, culling the most popular works from each composer's songbook, rather than exploring their lesser-known works. The brevity of each tune (the longest track runs just over 4 1/2 minutes, and most are between 3 and 4 minutes) leaves little time for boredom, but leaves Adair little time for any development and variation either.

Therein lies the fault, if there's any to be found in these elegantly played sets of standards. Adair is a melodist, never straying far from the original tune. She cites among her influences George Shearing, Tommy Flanagan, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, and she shares with those pianistic paragons the ability to play in and around the melody, but seldom ventures beyond. I have to confess my bias for experimentation: two of the current flock of pianists I most admire are Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran and, of those of days gone by, Monk reigns supreme. There's little angularity or dissonance to be found, however, in these six discs, but perhaps that's as it should be.

This is music for relaxed listening, although it can reward more concentrated attention. Adair works well with drummer Chris Brown and bassist Roger Spencer, though neither man gets a chance to shine outside of the ensemble. The trio offers low-key, in-the-mellow-groove jazz, and if you heard it in a metropolitan hotel lounge, you'd consider yourself lucky. Some of the composers are treated better than others, and it's probably the Duke who comes up wanting. Ellington's tunes are sharp and edgy, more jazz to begin with than the others, and although they swing sufficiently here, they never get a chance to stretch out and prove themselves. One longs for a Cootie Williams or a Johnny Hodges to shake things up a little.

The package is a mite cheesy, composed of a thin cardboard one suspects will quickly self-destruct if the discs are frequently accessed. Fortunately, the discs themselves are lodged safely in individual jewelboxes, and there's a wealth of writing by Will Friedwald, including a booklet giving a lengthy history of every one of the 75 songs performed. There's also a booklet with each disc, with Friedwald's biography of each composer as well as his separate commentary on Adair's performances of those pieces. Friedwald is a superb choice, as he's an expert on American popular song, and Adair is as close as one gets to a vocalist at the piano, seldom leaving the melody behind, always acknowledging that what she's playing is a song, even if we don't hear the lyrics.

Those who listen for something edgy and new will not find it here, but what they will hear is something that we don't hear all that much anymore and often take for granted when we do -- classic songs, played with class, verve and taste. Yes, it's all a bit retro, but it's done impeccably, and if it makes you hum along or wish you had a dance floor handy, it's achieved its purpose.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 30 November 2002

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