Al Muirhead’s Canadian Quintet: Undertones

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Long recognised in his native Alberta (and increasingly in the rest of Canada but not yet in Europe) as an outstanding trumpeter arranger, composer and sideman, Al Muirhead, now 82 (and disarmingly aware of his strengths and limitations), has recently taken up the little-heard bass trumpet.

After an early apprenticeship with the Regina Symphony, he turned to jazz and has worked with such talents as Diana Krall, Rosemary Clooney and Dizzy Gillespie. The recipient of several prestigious Canadian music awards, he came to wider prominence with his first album as leader, the aptly-named It’s About Time, released in 2016.

On Undertones he extracts a warmly expressive tone and timbre from an instrument not unlike that of a valve trombone. With the strong support and relaxed contributions of hand-picked colleagues, he delivers arresting, inventive and always harmonious versions of eight standards and two of his own compositions: “A Time for Cal”, dedicated to his late brother, a musician and copyist, and “Takin’ It to the Bank, Tom” – a tribute to his friend and collaborator, Tommy Banks, who died shortly before this recording.

Every track has its delights. My special favourites are “Takin’ It to the Bank, Tom”, with Muirhead evoking shades of J. J. Johnson, a lightly swinging Rose Room, and a quietly insinuating “Tenderly” with measured contributions from Muirhead and Jefferson and a sensitive solo by Schwager. A lovely performance of the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer composition “Charade” and an ingenious arrangement of “Four Brothers” (honouring his sister Elaine who had four older brothers) are also deserving of special mention. Once called (and sometimes dismissed) as “mainstream”, this is mature music-making of a high order.

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Discography
A Tune for Cal; Rose Room; ‘Deed I Do; Tenderly; You’re My Everything; Takin’ It to the Bank, Tom; Charade; S’posin’; I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You; Four Brothers (48.39)
Muirhead (bt); Kelly Jefferson (ts); Reg Schwager (g); Neil Swainson (b); Ted Warren (d). Chestermere, Alberta, 18-20 February 2018.
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