Given his impressive resume of sideman and co-leader gigs, it’s surprising that trumpeter Lew Soloff is only now making his solo debut for an American label. While he’s recorded several albums as leader for Japanese imprints, the 55-year-old veteran has linked up with Milestone to deliver With a Song in My Heart, a sumptuous collection of standards, originals, and even a jazz spin on Tchaikovsky. As music journalist Chip Stern concludes in the album’s liner notes, Soloff is “an artist whose time has come, a trumpeter ready for any challenge.”
Produced by Todd Barkan and Makoto Kimata, the new CD not only trains the spotlight on Soloff’s lyrical performance (he plays the entire set in relaxed fashion with a Harmon mute) but also focuses on his prowess as a bandleader. He’s assembled an all-star group, featuring pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Victor Lewis. Plus, on two tracks, Soloff enlists his wife Emily Mitchell to contribute exquisite harp textures.
“Mulgrew’s solos blow me away and he’s also a sensitive accompanist,” Soloff says. “George has always been a favorite of mine. We go back to the days when we played together in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band when we first moved to New York. I’ve been playing with Victor for a long time in the Manhattan Jazz Quintet. I love the spectrum of his playing, especially his ability to play gently. He’s one of the few drummers who can solo on a ballad and sound great. As for Emily, she’s a great harpist. She’s a classically-trained musician. I wish I could talk her into doing more with me.”
The ensemble interplay on the CD is brilliant. Soloff says that most of the tracks on the album are first takes. He and his bandmates were in sync from the word go. “The first song we played was ‘Come Rain or Come Shine,’” he recalls. “It was amazing. We hadn’t played together before and we didn’t rehearse prior to the sessions. We just played the tune and only later realized how good it sounded. Our secret? We were all listening to each other.”
Soloff knows all about ensemble chemistry. He received on-the-job training throughout his career. Born on February 20, 1944, Soloff grew up in Lakewood, New Jersey and took up the trumpet when he was ten. His conscious reason was “because it was shiny”; later in college, however, he realized that the real reason was his very fortunate exposure, by his grandparents and uncle, to Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge recordings from the age of five. By the time he was 15 he knew he wanted to be a professional musician. As a teen he worked in the Catskills in the summer and graduated to the New York scene during the Sixties, playing club dates and concerts at Radio City Music Hall.
Soloff performed with such Latin jazz players as Machito and Tito Puente, joined up with Maynard Ferguson’s band, then in 1966 scored a slot in the Gil Evans Big Band—a gig he today considers to be the greatest of his life. While he continued to perform with Evans until the bandleader died, Soloff also took on other work in the Sixties, most noticeably with the popular pop group Blood, Sweat & Tears, joining in 1968 in time to contribute those sizzling trumpet lines on the band’s 1969 hit “Spinning Wheel.” In addition, he established a lengthy association with Carla Bley. Currently he plays in her 4+4 group.
These days Soloff is busy with a number of other projects, including the Manhattan Jazz Quintet (he’s a charter member of the group formed in 1984), US’N (featuring George Young, Will Lee, Steve Gadd, Rob Mounsey, and Sammy Figueroa), Pocket Brass Band (led by trombonist Ray Anderson), and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. He recently finished recording a new album with his regular working ensemble The Food Group, comprised of Lou Marini, Joe Beck, Mark Egan, and Danny Gottlieb.
While most of Soloff’s Japanese solo projects are available as import-only discs in the U.S., his Speak Low album originally released by the King label has been reissued by Evidence as But Beautiful. In the All Music Guide to Jazz, Scott Yanow highly recommends the CD in his four-star rating. Soloff is joined by pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Elvin Jones. Soloff is also heard performing “My Funny Valentine” with Mulgrew Miller on the Milestone CD Trumpet Legacy.
On With a Song in My Heart, Soloff and his bandmates settle into a zone of relaxed elegance. He says that wasn’t necessarily the plan. “That just happened to be the mood we were in when we recorded the album,” he says. “In fact, for the tune ‘Deguello,’ which is from the film Rio Bravo with Dean Martin and John Wayne, we slowed the tempo way down. It just seemed to work best that way.”
The CD opens with the sweet, straightahead swing through “Come Rain or Come Shine,” then dips into a state of pensive beauty that lifts at the final song, a hotly swinging extended rendering of the Rodgers and Hart title track. Soloff’s intention overall for the disc was to aim for the heart. “A longtime goal of mine, from listening to people like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, has always been to play something simply and emotionally,” he told Stern. “And there are many ways of doing it. There are people who play a lot of notes, and there are people who don’t play a lot of notes. I have a particular fascination with the people who don’t. Like, what is that quality that makes them so special? And that’s the thing about this record that I like so much.”
Soloff offers two originals, the mysteriously beautiful “Istanbul” (inspired on a plane trip to the Turkish city and co-written by arranger Rob Mounsey, who composed the bridge) and romantic “Song for Emily” (inspired by his harp-playing wife). Other highlights include a slow, joyful take on “Mea Culpa” (Kimata’s request) and a gorgeous melancholic read of Sinatra’s “I’m a Fool to Want You.” Even though Soloff loves Sinatra’s version, he’s partial to Billie Holiday’s. “This is on Lady in Satin, one of the last recordings she made. I listened to that album over and over. I owe a lot of my interpretation to Billie.”
The most surprising track on the CD is Soloff’s rendition of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Taken at a pulse-like pace, “Andantino,” also arranged by Mounsey, features Soloff blowing the rich melody while Mitchell on harp and Mraz on bowed bass provide additional colors. “Tchaikovsky was a composer who wrote great melodies,” Soloff says. “One day I was listening to his fourth symphony and thought this movement would sound great in jazz. Todd really liked the idea and encouraged me to try it.”
Throughout his career, Soloff has been engaged in a variety of stylistic settings. But With a Song in My Heart represents a turning point for the trumpeter who Stern says “plays like a man with nothing to prove, save for his deep devotion to the virtues of a song-like tone and a beautifully sculpted phrase.” Soloff is pleased with the results. “I’ve never been pushed in the States before,” he says with a laugh. “This is my first real shot here.”