Fans of Greg Skaff may know him as one of modern jazz’s premier organ jazz guitarists through his own trios with hard-grooving greats like Mike LeDonne and Pat Bianchi; or as a veteran first-call sideman, from his early years with soul-jazz titan Stanley Turrentine through decades of work with the likes of Ruth Brown, Bobby Watson, Freddie Hubbard, Orrin Evans, Matt Wilson, Ralph Peterson and countless others. Yet, this is the first time he has led a guitar/bass/drums trio and he enlists two jazz icons in the process, octogenarians bassist Ron Carter and newly anointed 2021 NEA Jazz Master, drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, with his new album Polaris.
“When a guitar player works with an organist in a trio,” Skaff says, “the organist is driving the bus. He’s playing the bass, a lot of the harmony and sometimes even the melody. So, you’re essentially playing their game. In a guitar/bass/drums trio, the guitarist has considerably more responsibility – as well as freedom. Experimenting with that format in the last few years of gigging, I learned to embrace both the freedom and the responsibility. I felt that Ron and Tootie would be simpatico with that because of how sharply they listen and their ability to move the music in different directions.”
There was some uncertainty about getting the recording done as the second of two planned studio dates fell on March 16, just as New York City was heading into lockdown. But both players wanted to keep going. Tootie Heath was in town to play the Lincoln Center memorial for his brother [legendary saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who had passed away in January]. So, when Lincoln Center closed, Tootie was intent on getting something out of his trip. He was surely looking forward to playing with Carter too as such an opportunity had only come once in more than 30 years, when their paths briefly crossed on the 1993 all-star session The Riverside Reunion Band. Their most extensive experience together dates to when both were enlisted as the rhythm section for pianist Bobby Timmons, who embarked on a solo career following his second stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
Because Skaff had been working with Carter over the last several years in the bassist’s Great Big Band, he understood Carter’s penchant for details and preparation, yet he found his rhythm mates taking his material in new directions once they started recording. Skaff largely chose standard repertoire for the session, wanting to minimize the amount of reading required so that spontaneity and interactivity could come to the fore. The album opens with a buoyant run through “Old Devil Moon,” driven by Carter’s vigorous walking bass and inspired by the well-known rendition from Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard. It’s followed by the first of two Duke Ellington compositions on the album, “Angelica,” transformed into a New Orleans parade thanks to Heath’s high-spirited second-line beat.
Carter’s classic “Little Waltz,” first recorded on Timmons’ The Soul Man! in 1966 (with Carter, Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Cobb), has two renditions. The first was a spur of the moment decision when Heath was late for the second session, prompting Carter to suggest a duet in the tradition of his storied partnership with Jim Hall, resulting in a lovely, intimate dialogue. The trio version is equally tender, spotlighting the delicate caress of Heath’s brushwork. The organ tradition that Skaff knows so well is hinted at with a bristling take on Larry Young’s “Paris Eyes,” originally recorded with one of Skaff’s heroes, guitarist Grant Green. Carter’s melodic gifts are showcased on the oft-covered ballad “Yesterdays,” where the bassist states the melody following a lush, mood-setting solo guitar intro.
Skaff’s first original, “Mr. R.C.” is a tribute to Carter– a play on John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.,” a tribute to Paul Chambers, Carter’s predecessor in the Miles Davis Quintet. The leader also contributes the steely title track, named after the North Star – actually a triple star system, making the name doubly apt as both an acknowledgment of the two elders’ role as guiding lights as well as the album’s trio format. The seldom covered Ellington’s “Lady of the Lavender Mist” simmers in restrained beauty, while Carter’s “Caminando,” a regular set opener with the bassist’s current quartet, digs down into an earthy blues feel, so germane to Skaff’s style. Finally, Skaff takes an introspective solo turn on the Harold Arlen classic “Ill Wind,” ending on such a luscious chord, that you’re left wanting to hear more.
Like the title, a guiding star, any one of these three masters could be the leader, yet all put egos aside and just play these tunes exquisitely without any histrionics, nary a wasted note. It’s as clean as clean gets.