POWELL PAVES HIS WAY

In his recent past as a Berklee student, the Cheltenham, England–born violinist Ben Powell spent his afternoons jamming in Joe Lovano’s ensemble class and evenings rehearsing Brahms and Mahler with Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic. As you might guess, Powell has chops to spare, amazing control, great instincts. What distinguishes him, then — for good or ill — is his material. In the past, his jazz playing stuck close to the swing repertory, and Stéphane Grappelli was his main man. There’s no dishonor in that — working at a high level in a given tradition is not a bad way to go.
 
So the aptly title New Street further enriches Powell’s promise as a jazz player. Yes, the prominent subtitle on the CD is “Including a Tribute to Stéphane Grappelli,” but no complaints here, especially since the special guests for that tribute are the distinguished jazz master Gary Burton and one of Burton’s more recent protégé’s, the stunningly gifted guitarist Julian Lage.
 
But we’ll get to the Grappelli in a minute. What’s most encouragins here are the original compositions. Opener “Judith” is a ballad in which Powell gets to milk his vibrato with lush romantic phrasing. The tune sounds like a ’30s standard waiting for lyrics. It gives Powell food for ornamentation and a chance to contrast his bright, high-singing upper register with dusky lows that are even more vocal and expressive. But it’s the title track where Powell really takes off. Here he adopts a kind of bravura classical fanfare before a slowly accelerating walking bass joins him and then the rest of his quartet comes in for ripping uptempo post-bop. “Monk 4 Strings” is more impressive still, with Powell digging into obsessive Monk-ish phrases of his own devising. As on all the uptempo numbers here, the inventiveness and taste of Powell’s phrasing is impressive — the swooping long-breathed tones, the biting staccato punctuations, the occasional ping of a harmonic or single plucked note. And Powell’s regular quartet — pianist Tadataka Unno, bassist Aaron Darrell, and drummer Devin Drobka — show him ready to stretch out, taking a vintage swing feel easily into the post-bop world of challenging rhythms and out-there harmonies.
 
That said, there’s no faulting the more “trad” material. “Gary” is a waltz that was written for Burton by Grappelli himself following their 1969 collaboration, and Burton, Lage, and Powell play it beautifully. You could groan at the inclusion of “La Vie en Rose,” but singer Linda Calise’s take on this Piaf warhorse is so unsentimental that she and the quartet emerge with a real jazz piece that stands on its own. Another highlight is the album closer, Grappelli’s uptempo “Picadilly Stomp.” Here Lage flavors the jazz chords with his own country flourishes, Burton goes after the tune with his most rippling, hard-edged solo, and Powell is likewise unleashed. An old tune, but Powell updates it with his own arrangement. Powell is working his way into finding what’s new in the repertoire he loves, and creating his own book as he goes.  ^

Ben Powell Quartet | Scullers, DoubleTree Guest Suites Hotel, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston | June 5 | 8 pm | $20 | 617.562.4111 or scullersjazz.com

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