Trumpeter John Bailey‘s most recent album Can You Imagine? – streaming at Spotify – is a call for compassion and decency, recorded in 2019 at a time of increasing polarization in this country. Bailey released it in January of 2020, less than two months before the most extreme divide-and-conquer scheme the world has ever known came crashing down. Inspired by the activism of Dizzy Gillespie, the album is every bit as relevant now, and this blog shares Bailey’s optimism that compassion and justice will ultimately prevail. There’s a singalong catchiness to a lot of this, and Bailey’s sense of humor will grab you when least expected.
The opening number is Pebbles in the Pocket, bassist Mike Karn and drummer Victor Lewis launching into a deftly tumbling, brisk clave groove alongside pianist Edsel Gomez as Bailey harmonizes brightly with tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard and trombonist Stafford Hunter. Catchy tune! The bandleader echoes the album’s big influence, choosing his spots for riffs and cascades, handing the party over to Dillard and then Hunter’s burbling exuberance.
Bailey took his inspiration for the President Gillespie Suite, a triptych, from Gillespie’s publicity stunt Presidential run in 1964. Spare bluesiness and a slinkier clave introduce the first part, The Humanitarian Candidate, Bailey adding cheer with his mute before the horns enter for the understated majesty of Road to the Blues House. Hunter flutters up to a calmly triumphant triangulation, Dillard raising the ante for Bailey in the coda, President Gillespie’s Birthday Song as Lewis subtly takes everything doublespeed. Gotta love that ending – no spoilers.
Lewis’ The Touch of Her Vibe features Gomez’s sternly rustic blues underpinning a wry three-horn conversation, then the scene shifts to an uneasily resonant march with Bailey punching in hard overhead before a misterioso calm, handing centerstage to Hunter. After that, The Blues House is an ebullient, bluesy swing tune infused with warmly energetic horn solos.
Chico O’Farrill’s Ballad From Oro, Incienso Y Mirra gets a slowly undulating groove and invitingly balmy horns, Bailey followiug a long launching pad before Gomez’s ripples bring the tropical flight in for a comfortable layover punctuated by a subtly devious series of tempo shifts.
Elite State of Mind, a soulful jazz waltz by Dillard has Janet Axelrod joining the conversation on alto flute, the composer judiciously fueling the upward drive, Hunter and Bailey adding calm before a genial wee-hours solo by Gomez. The group reinvent Valsa Rancho by Brazilian guitarist Chico Buarque as a suspenseful nocturne with Axelrod on bass flute, Dillard raising the adrenaline with his most rapidfire solo of the program.
From the Heart, a second Lewis tune, keeps the latin theme going, a brisk bossa-tinged rhythm anchoring expansive, thoughtful solos by Bailey, Dillard and Gomez. The last song on the album may have been done by Ella Fitzgerald, but from this point of view even that can’t erase the smell of mallstore cookies and the tedium of having to trudge along with the parents to K-Mart instead of sneaking off to the video arcade to play alongside the big kids.
Bailey’s gig page doesn’t list any shows coming up, but Dillard is leading a quintet tomorrow night, March 19 at 10:30 PM at Smalls, which has reopened without restrictions. Cover is $25 cash at the door.