Monday, March 16, 2009

Criscuolo with Strings

By Matt Criscuolo

The so-called “with strings” records, featuring an instrumental soloist accompanied by a lush string section on a set of romantic standards, account for some of the most popular releases in jazz history, and some of the least regarded. Many times the results are more suitable for the kitschy bachelor pad scene. Happily, that is not the case with Melancholia, Connecticut-based alto-player Matt Criscuolo’s latest CD, very definitely recorded with strings.

Several factors elevate Melancholia above the level of cocktail hour jazz, the most crucial being Criscuolo’s strong, clear tone on alto. His choice of repertoire is also quite shrewd, eschewing Tin-Pan Alley love songs in favor of advanced hard-bop standards by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, as well as his own originals and one from pianist Larry Willis. Willis also contributed the hip string charts, which are surprisingly lithe and insistent—no wall of schmaltzy sound here.

Melancholia begins appropriately with Criscuolo’s original “When in Rome,” a darkly romantic ballad. With the rhythm section of Willis, drummer Billy Drummond, and bassist Phil Bowler as prominent in the mix as the string section, it establishes the robust sound of the session. The quartet then takes over the second Criscuolo original, “Pensivity,” a dramatic showcase for the leader and Willis, forcefully egged on by Drummond.

Though the soaring string arrangement for Willis’s “Ethiopa” might be a bit over-written and his piano introduction might have a bit of the flavor of “Nadia’s Song,” Criscuolo’s alto cuts through it all. It becomes quite a passionate, emotionally direct performance when the strings subside. However, the string charts on both Shorter standards, “Infant Eyes” and “Miyako,” are perfectly balanced, beautifully reinforcing the mood of the elegant ballads, rather than overwhelming the soloist.

While the string arrangements are more pronounced on the Hancock standards, they never run the risk of sentimentality. In fact, they are quite vigorous on the upbeat “Tell Me a Bed Time Story,” creating a dynamic groove. While the treatment of Hancock’s lovely ballad “Chan’s Song,” originally written for the ‘Round Midnight soundtrack, is more traditional for string sessions, it probably inspires Criscuolo’s most eloquent statements of the record.

Evidently, Criscuolo is something of a renaissance man, overseeing his family’s pizzerias while simultaneously pursuing a career in music. His great sound on Melancholia certainly suggests it would be worth a trip to Wilton, CT, when he is playing at the “Jazzerias.” His full-bodied, expressive alto makes this one of the strongest string sessions recorded in recent years.