Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tonolo, Goldstein, Swallow, Motian, and John

Your Songs: The Music of Elton John
Pietro Tonolo, Gil Goldstein, Steve Swallow, Paul Motian
ObliqSound (OS 506)

Timing is critical in jazz, but sometimes it involves factors beyond one’s control. Given the bad publicity Elton John has had this week it might not seem to be the best time to release a set of interpretations of his tunes. However, Pietro Tonolo and his all-star rhythm section have reinvented the material so effectively on Your Songs: the Music of Elton John, it is easy to lose track of the original songwriter, and enjoy the music on its own merits.

With Paul Motian on drums and Steve Swallow on electric bass, time certainly is not a problem for Your Songs. Gil Goldstein might be better known as an arranger with an understanding of pop, having worked with likes of John himself and Chris Botti, but he has also been a well regarded faculty member in NYU’s jazz department. Here he shows a nimble, boppish touch on the piano.

As for the leader, Tonolo’s solos are consistently inventive, as are the arrangements. A song like “Tiny Dancer” unfolds gradually as a rich vehicle for Tonolo’s tenor, exploring the catchy melody without any of the cloyingness that John’s music is susceptible to. When Goldstein shifts to accordion it adds rich texture to the tune.

Of the Elton John songs chosen, perhaps “Rocket Man” is the most recognizable. Wisely, they avoided most of the pop star’s more over-played hits, like “I’m Still Standing” or (Heaven forbid) “Candle in the Wind.” As for “Rocket” it is played fairly straight, but there are interesting solo statements from Tonolo on tenor, Swallow, and Goldstein.

“Your Song,” the sort of title track, has another strong arrangement, with a very effective intro from Swallow, before the full rhythm section falls in. Goldstein takes an elegant turn before Tonolo finally enters on soprano. Throughout, they respect the melody, but give it a distinctly fresh interpretation.

On the ballad “The One,” Motian’s shimmering cymbals and a surprisingly lyrical solo from Tonolo make it a track both John fans and jazz purists could relate to. The following “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is taken as an up-tempo swinger, more for the latter audience.

Your Songs concludes with two “inspired by” originals from Tonolo. “White Street” and the brief “Epilogue: Semifonte” do suggest his talent for composing intriguing melodies, wrapping up things nicely.

Your Songs is the kind of session that demonstrates how one genre of music can feed into another. Tonolo is a former classical violinist, turned jazz saxophonist, recording the songs of a pop star, who now composes for Broadway. Fortunately, it all works. Tonolo and his colleagues seem to have a real affinity for the material, and succeed in putting their own stamp on it.