Throughout the 1990s, Jimmy Bruno’s name was synonymous with hard bop. Bruno was the guitarist to turn to when you wanted to hear pure, unapologetic, hard-swinging bop. But Midnight Blue (CCD-4980), the Philadelphia native’s latest Concord Jazz release, will come as a major surprise to those who think of Bruno as strictly a bop musician. With one foot in modal post-bop and the other in jazz-funk and soul-jazz, Midnight Blue is a definite departure from any of his previous Concord releases.
"As much as I love playing bop, it was time to move ahead and try something new,” asserts the 47-year-old Bruno, who has been recording for Concord since the early 1990s. "I was ready to do something with a different rhythmic feel and a different harmonic structure. I’m not trying to go commercial by doing some of the funkier things, but I do want to show that I am capable of playing different types of jazz.”
Although not overtly commercial, Midnight Blue is the most electric and amplified album he has recorded so far. Philadelphia bass virtuoso Gerald Veasley, whose influences include Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke, plays nothing but electric bass on this CD—in fact, Midnight Blue marks the first time that one of Bruno’s albums hasn’t had any acoustic bass playing at all. Dave Hartl, another Philadelphian, is featured on electric keyboards and the Hammond B-3 organ as well as acoustic piano. And rounding out the Philly lineup are drummer Marc Dicciani and Ron Kerber, a tenor and soprano saxman along the lines of Michael Brecker, Bob Shepherd and Bob Berg.
Midnight Blue contains some familiar standards that wouldn’t have been out of place on Bruno’s bop albums, including "Stella By Starlight,” "Perdido” and "Secret Love.” But on Midnight Blue, he doesn’t approach them the way he would have in a bop setting; instead, he offers 1960s-minded post-bop interpretations.
With its strong 1960s influence, Midnight Blue is a throwback to a time when modal explorers like guitarist Grant Grant and organist Larry Young were starting to get into funk rhythms—a time when post-bop improvisers were getting hip to Soul Godfather James Brown’s rhythmic innovations but were still being heavily influenced by John Coltrane. In fact, one of the high points of Midnight Blue is a hard-swinging version of Coltrane’s "Impressions.”
Although Midnight Blue was recorded in March 2001, Bruno had been wanting to record this type of project for several years. One of the people who encouraged him to explore his funkier side was the late Philly saxophone icon Grover Washington, Jr. Concord Jazz had high hopes for a Bruno/Washington collaboration, but sadly, Washington died of a heart attack before he and Bruno could record together.
"Midnight Blue is the sort of record I would have done with Grover if he hadn’t died,” explains Bruno. "When I would run into Grover in Philadelphia, he would say, ‘Jimmy, when are we going to make a record together?’ Shortly before Grover died in December 1999, I was in New York recording my Polarity record with guitarist Joe Beck. Todd Barkan, who produced Polarity, had done a lot of stuff with Grover. In fact, Todd and I talked to Grover, and he was definitely interested in working with me. But he died before we had a chance to get together.”
Nonetheless, Bruno’s desire to record a funkier sort of album remained, and he got a lot of encouragement from Dicciani and Veasley. Bruno explains: "I had been playing with Marc Dicciani a lot, and we used different bass players, including Gerald. We would be playing a standard tune like "On Green Dolphin Street” or "Perdido,” and before I knew it, Marc and Gerald would be taking it in this quasi-funk direction. Then, we started working with electric keyboard players and using a lot of harmonies that weren’t standard bebop harmonies. So we taped the sort of stuff that we were doing and played it for John Burk at Concord to get his reaction. John loved this new direction I was going in and said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’”
The camaraderie that Bruno enjoys with his fellow Philadelphians on Midnight Blue is impossible to miss. From jazz-funk to post-bop—from original material to standards—Bruno’s combo never fails to sound cohesive. And that is exactly what Bruno was going for—he wanted a real, honest-to-God group sound, and he encouraged his sidemen to provide material that would be mutually beneficial. So Bruno, Kerber and Veasley all helped with the writing. Veasley offered the playful "Philly Joe” (which is named after the great bop drummer Philly Joe Jones), and the songs that Kerber wrote include the New Orleans-minded "Fat Tuesday” and the innocent "First Dance.” Meanwhile, Bruno’s contributions include the aggressive "Hypertension,” the mysterious "Shades of Gray” and the infectious, groove-oriented "Funk’n Benny.” Some people might wonder if the Benny that Bruno had in mind was Benny Carter or Benny Goodman, but in fact, Benny is a nickname for Bruno’s wife.
Although Midnight Blue will come as a surprise to those who associate Bruno with hard bop, those who know a lot about his history will tell you that he has played other styles of music as well. These days, Bruno earns his living playing and teaching jazz, but it wasn’t always that way.
Born in Philadelphia in 1953, the Italian-American grew up in South Philly (which is famous for its largely Italian population) and started playing the guitar when he was only seven. Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Raney all influenced Bruno’s playing when he was growing up, but he also appreciated pre-bebop guitarists such as Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang. By the time he was 19, Bruno was touring the U.S. as a member of Buddy Rich’s big band. The Philadelphian ended up leaving Rich’s employ and moving west—first to Las Vegas, then to Los Angeles. In L.A., Bruno found himself earning a good living with non-jazz studio gigs but continued to play jazz on the side. Jazz, however, was really his passion, and in 1988, a 35-year-old Bruno returned to Philly in the hope of becoming a full-time jazz musician again. Bruno accomplished his goal; the first few years back in Philly were a challenge, but eventually, he found himself earning a living playing and teaching jazz.
It was in the early 1990s that Bruno caught the attention of Carl Jefferson, the late founder/president of Concord Jazz. Jefferson liked what he heard, and Bruno was signed to a long-term contract. Sleight of Hand, Bruno’s first album for Concord, was recorded in 1991, followed by Burnin' in 1994. Along the way, Concord united Bruno with some major names in jazz, including organist Joey DeFrancesco on Like That, Bobby Watson on Live at Birdland and Scott Hamilton on Live at Birdland II. In 1999, Bruno and Joe Beck formed a guitar duo for Polarity.
Midnight Blue has him feeling quite enthusiastic, and he hopes to keep moving in an electric direction on future Concord dates. "I enjoyed working with the guys on Midnight Blue a lot,” Bruno declares. "The guys on this record are very busy; all of them teach either full-time or part-time at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. But they really wanted to record this album; so as busy as they were, they found the time. They made the time. I’m very excited about this record and this new direction.”