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‘Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith’ explore modern jazz organ expression to depth

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Craig Handy “Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith” album [January 21, 2014, OKeh]

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Craig Handy is always exciting: he has humor, poise, a little outlandishness, and the intuitive power to jolt a solo into an unexpected area. –The New York Times

Craig Handy’s stellar line-up shows in every note of his new, January 21, 2014 OKeh release. But Handy himself is stellar, having brushes with fame early on in his musical career. When he toured with the Mingus Dynasty Band, actor/comedian Bill Cosby — at the height of his own career — picked him out for a special, regular engagement on the hit 1989-1990 Cosby Show. Later, Cosby enlisted Handy’s considerable creative musical touch to 1994-’95 The Cosby Mysteries, enabling the saxophonist to score, produce, and perform his own music.

The Oakland-born natural could’ve played any instrument under the sun. He tried his hand on piano, guitar, and trombone, but found his calling on the saxophone. When he first heard Dexter Gordon on the radio, the then-11-year-old was hooked. A Berkeley High School Jazz Program, a North Texas State University Charlie Parker scholarship, and foray in the prestigious One O’Clock Jazz Ensemble set Handy’s course of action fast. By 20, Handy was already considered by many as a post-bop master, technically and creatively ahead of his time.

He continued to play with masters in their game: Betty Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, John Scofield, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, the Cookers, Chartbusters. He also immersed himself in other styles, jamming with some Salsa and Haitian bands.

Fame met Handy again in 1994 when he appeared as saxophonist Coleman Hawkins in a Robert Altman feature film, Kansas City, adding a legitimate acting credit to his resume.

But it is in the studio where Handy rules. With several sizeable recordings for other labels already under his belt, he turned to different kind of inspiration for his first OKeh effort. “Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith” is Handy’s first recording as a leader since 2000. For the 10-track album, he recruited a stellar, revolving line-up from his N.J. working band and his dream wish list: Hammond B-3 player Kyle Koehler, guitarist Matt Chertkoff, sousaphone virtuoso Clark Gayton, New Orleans drummers Jason Marsalis, Herlin Riley and Ali Jackson, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and blues specialist Clarence Spady (also on guitar).

Handy’s idea came about from realizing that he never really worked much with an organ ensemble. Already a fan of New Orleans second line music, he turned to Jimmy Smith’s Great Modern Jazz Organ Songbook. The second line actually tied into Smith’s two hit songs, “The Cat” and “High Heel Sneakers.” What a lovely way to incorporate the two styles, thought Handy. “New Orleans is one of the furnaces that jazz comes from, and I saw no need to change my stripes to suit the style.”

Philly musician Koehler — well-versed in Jimmy Smith — and Chertkoff delivered the jazz while the revolving drum section together with sousaphonist Gayton brought the second line, with Handy right in the middle of all that action.

The eighth track off the album stands out in this regard. The Muddy Waters bonanza, “Mojo Workin’,” features the perfect gumbo of modern jazz, dirty blues, quasi-Zedeco shuffle, and gritty vocals. The modern jazz provides a firm foundation for the dirty blues to jump out and grab listeners playfully. Each instrument jumps in to broaden the sense of play with purpose, from the throaty, feral horns and the rampaging, molten guitar, to that breathtaking percussive break. Handy’s stellar line-up certainly pays off, as Riley covers damaged grounds, Wynton Marsalis proves why he’s a force, and Handy holds steady. Vocalist Spady finds the true spirit of blues, neither bereft or overladen, but infectiously affectionate.

It’s all about the New Orleans spirit, which can sneak up deceptively low-key like a dirge and infect with a tantalizing sense of the next party around the corner. Number four on the hit list, “I Almost Lost My Mind” puts drummer Jason Marsalis in the front line of Ivory Joe Hunter’s ballad, mixing a jelly slack with a military precision, as Handy loosens up the mood some more in the lascivious sway of his sax.

Handy’s sax is on prime display in “O.G.D. aka Road Song,” later on at #7 for a sweet but short 4:27. The band stays with him, hyping his trajectory — Chertkoff’s guitar is a succulent, moveable feast — but Handy’s the master of this meandering, dizzying frolic.

Last but not least, “I’ll Close My Eyes” best fits the modern jazz, post-bop hype Handy’s well-known for in a spritely New Orleans festive mood. That’s to the credit of the bandleader’s sax handling, moving forward in straight, strong lines, broken up unobtrusively yet distinctively by organ and guitar, doing their own dance. That this doesn’t revert into a typical organ funeral is even more amazing. It can’t. Kyle Koehler knows how to smooth out the corners of the clunky machine and make his organ lay under the dazzling, effectively intimate roller coaster of Handy’s sax alerts. Koehler does it so well in the opener, “Minor Chant,” too, a catchy, skipping blues number that feels more smooth jazz than traditionally blue.

As free-flowing and easy as this album sounds to the average listener, it’s been a long time coming for Craig Handy. He admitted that he wouldn’t have been ready to put out a record this diverse earlier. Dee Dee Bridgewater’s diverse, bold vocal attacks have had their influence. She doesn’t just sing the songs, she plays with them (obviously, listen to her version of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”), like toys. “Playing with Dee Dee, watching her assume a different role for every song, has rubbed off on me. A singer has to sell the song, and Dee Dee becomes that song every time,” Handy continued. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have had the chutzpah to pull off this project. I would have been too self-conscious, concerned about how people perceive me. I wasn’t musically ready to handle this kind of project, though I’ve been heading here for 25 years. Now this seems like the hippest thing I’ve ever done. As long as I stay in the groove of the beat, I can play anything I hear, be it angular or abstract, and it will sound cool over the band’s foundation. Just talking about it is making me excited—I can’t wait to get to the next gig—we have so much fun on the bandstand!”

Craig Handy’s “…2nd Line Smith” will grab jazz, blues, and New Orleans music fans, maybe even everyone else in between.

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