When I read about two new compact discs featuring Jeff Hamilton as a leader, I wanted them immediately. I knew him as a singularly fine drummer from his Arbors recordings with Dan Barrett. Hamilton has a special way of playing for the band, of integrating himself thoughtfully and propulsively within the ensembles (some drummers play on top of the band, some alongside it) reminiscent of Dave Tough, Sidney Catlett, and Jo Jones. I don't write those names casually. Hamilton's hi-hat work has a driving silvery lightness; his accents are perfectly placed; he varies his sound; he is playful but never obtrusive. A few years after first hearing him on disc, I was lucky enough to hear him live at Jazz at Chautauqua, where he uplifted everyone he played with, both soloists and bands.
Swing That Music features Hamilton among irreplaceable players: Randy Reinhart, Bryan Shaw, and Dan Barrett (on cornet, trombone, valve trombone, and trumpet); Harry Allen on tenor sax; Dave Frishberg, piano; Eddie Erickson, guitar and vocal; Becky Kilgore, vocal; Joel Forbes, bass. It is beautifully recorded, with pointed, witty notes by RAG veteran Jim Leigh. It is also one of those CDs that makes intelligent use of the medium, understanding the potential and the pitfalls of 75 minutes of music in one package. Rather than being one ensemble blowout after another, a portable jam session that might overwhelm the listener with climaxes, this disc is a mini-concert.
The full band plays "Ring Dem Bells" and "It Don't Mean A Thing" early and late in the disc, then shifts timbre, volume, and tempo for exquisite singing by Becky Kilgore (in ravishing form, with her sound captured fully) on five songs -- the seldom-heard "Our Serenade" a particular standout. As is his habit, Eddie Erickson spreads joy vocally on three tracks, with "I Double Dare You" an especially winning invitation. And his guitar work is, as always, uplifting. But the little chamber ensembles -- the tiny bands within the nonet -- are especially rewarding: a duet on "I Would Do Anything for You" of Frishberg (in delicious form throughout) and Hamilton; a trio version of "Three Little Words" that adds Allen, reminiscent of the great Keynotes of the middle Forties, a quintet outing on "No Moon at All" featuring Allen and Barrett. Switching to valve trombone, Barrett evokes the splendid tonalities of Juan Tizol for three minutes on a pretty "The Moon Was Yellow." Randy Reinhart's cornet work is spectacularly rewarding, whether he is shouting to the heavens or creating s delicate obbligato. Harry Allen creates memorable solos whenever he plays, and it's a treat to hear him in this unbuttoned context. I have a special affection for the playing of Bryan Shaw, one of the great under-recorded players of our time. (He is also responsible for the extraordinary sound as well as the photography.)
But I would urge listeners to search this CD out for the pleasures of Hamilton's drumming -- audibly there from the very start of "What'll It Be?" appropriately written by Sidney Catlett. Hamilton doesn't imitate Catlett, but his fluid hi-hat work, accents, and willingness to listen (his backing of each soloist is so helpful and supportive, as he varies his playing intuitively as the soloist changes his or her path) is the work of a master, worthy of close study so that this brilliant craft, once the way all jazz drummers played, does not entirely vanish from the earth. The cover portrait has all the players, stylishly dressed, grinning in the way that only people whose hearts are joyous can do. Listeners will share their pleasure.
If Dreams Come True, Hamilton's other CD, requires more explanation. One evening at Chautauqua, after the musical festivities had concluded, I found Hamilton and Barrett chatting around a piano. After the usual banter, Hamilton sat down on the bench, played a good chunk of an up-tempo rag and then turned to some expert, subtle classical playing. Both performances were light-hearted, but they revealed him as a highly accomplished pianist. (Afterwards, Hamilton also showed his talents as a juggler -- with small bags of potato chips -- but his acrobatic skills will require a DVD. His quirky sense of humor is best displayed on the second CD's cover picture, which I won't attempt to describe, and its subtitle: "Jazz piano . . . exclusively for solo synchronized swimming," an idea whose time may not have come.)
I was greatly impressed with Hamilton's pianistic skills that night, but I had no opportunity to hear him improvise in a jazz context until now. Happily for all of us, If Dreams Come True would prove to anyone that he is as fine a jazz pianist as he is a drummer, and that's saying something. His solo showpieces, "Liza," and "Rosetta," both pieces close to Teddy Wilson's heart, reveal an irrepressible swing, wonderfully steady tempos (solo piano is difficult for all but the finest players to keep their compass), a light touch, and an ability to invent dancing alternative melodies that make familiar material seem fresh. Hamilton's stride playing has a powerful onward momentum, but he isn't ever overbearing. He isn't copying the records, but improvising on the tradition and bringing his own flavorings to it. Fittingly, the notes to this CD are by that satisfyingly idiosyncratic pianist Ray Skjelbred.
Perhaps the finest testimony to Hamilton's mastery is how he plays well with others: how his playing offers a feeling commentary on Becky Kilgore's creamy, melting "My Ideal," creating one of those lovely miniatures that I wanted to play several times before moving on to the next track. His CD presents one stirring, understated but compelling performance after another, primarily duets between Hamilton and a horn player, as well as three trio outings. On one, Eddie Erickson, Dan Barrett and Jeff Hamilton do "Till There Was You," with Erickson superbly wistful, crooning his heart out. It is more evidence that Erickson is our Sinatra; I wait for someone to record him with a string quartet. Barrett, Kilgore, and Hamilton create a jaunty "If I Were You," with the true 1938 Vocalion spirit. Kilgore, Bobby Gordon and Hamilton take off on the title track, which perhaps should be called "When," not "If," because this CD succeeds so well.
Special mention should go to Hamilton's stepfather, the clarinetist Bill Carter: on his blues, Carter creates a questing, worrying, sometimes querulous castle of sound -- not an imitation of Pee Wee Russell but worthy of him. And, in the same breath, Bobby Gordon's walking "Charmaine" is a superb matching of materials and musician. (On this track and on "My Silent Love," Hamilton's rubato opening chorus so tenderly defines the melodic line, something not easy to do.) RAG readers have had two decades to appreciate Dan Barrett's gifts, so I will say only that this CD finds him in plush form, with just the right emotional depth for each performance: a dark, melancholy "Here's That Rainy Day," a clipped, witty cornet exploration of "Don't Be That Way," and a version of "No One Else Can Take Your Place," deep and simple at once.
Both Hamilton CDs are delicious auditory evidence of the way the finest jazz musicians play when in front of small, sympathetic audiences. Or, perhaps this is the way they play for themselves: subtle, knowing, enthusiastic, and full of feeling. These two discs contain extraordinarily gratifying examples of jazz that is rarely, if ever, captured in recording studios. I hope Jeff Hamilton gets many more opportunities to make discs like this, on whatever instruments he chooses to put his hands to. For more information, visit www.blueswing.com and www.jeffhamiltonjazz.com.