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BOSS OF THE WALKING BASS - The last live recordings of the master bass innovator LEROY VINNEGAR, featuring Mel Brown on drums, Jessica Williams on piano

Photos by Elaine Arc/ see. hear video of Jessica, Mel, and Leroy

Eulogy for Leroy

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The last live recordings of the master bass innovator LEROY VINNEGAR, featuring Mel Brown on drums, Jessica Williams on piano. Leroy appeared on more than 800 recordings, including the immensely popular "Swiss Movement" with Eddie Harris and Les McCann.

item"I'm delighted on your attainment of international  recognition as master of the walking bass. You are an inspiration to others." - Bill Clinton, US PRESIDENT, jazz fan

(Leroy received a proclamation from Clinton that made him justifiably very proud.)

item"There was Jimmy Blanton. There was Paul Chambers. There was Jimmy Garrison... and there was Leroy Vinnegar. He occupies a very special place in the jazz world; his walking style, full of subtle turns and rhytmic skips, had a solidity and assertiveness that was uniquely his own." -Jessica Williams, pianist

item"Leroy was a great teacher, and he taught by example." -Mel Brown, drummer

itemReview: Bill Smith, AllAboutJazz

Jessica Williams is one of the great jazz pianists of our time.

Though that might reek of hyperbole, anyone who's heard her on one of her swings through town can vouch for the diversity and complex swing of her playing. She sheds light on the whole sweep of jazz piano history, combining the frenetic swing of Art Tatum, the jagged bop of Thelonious Monk and the exquisite introspection of Bill Evans. 

Two new discs on the Jazz Focus label show off both her playing and composing in different lights. The tribute to walking bass legend Leroy Vinnegar was recorded at Atwater's Nightclub in Portland, OR, in December of 1996.

With the great bassist and the outstanding drummer Mel Brown (whom Williams has called "the world's greatest") providing a steady flow of muscular rhythm, the pianist is free to stretch out her elastic improvisations in a program of standards as diverse as Gillespie's "Birks Works" and the cheeky "Canadian Sunset."

The disc offers textbook trio work-outs and features plenty of Vinnegar's signature sound, heavy on the high calorie tone and light on the showboating. 

But it's Blue Fire with Dave Captein on bass that really breaks new ground in showcasing Williams' remarkable originals. There's plenty of another jazz iconoclastÈs influence here too -both "Blues 2K" and "Elbow Room" in turning the blues playfully on its head, owe a melodic debt to Monk. "Somebody's Waltz" sounds like Thelonious meets Chopin while "The Vision" is a ballad Coltrane would have been comfortable in screeching his sonic squall over.

Interestingly, "Kenny Kirkland" celebrates its namesake's buoyant musicianship rather than eulogizing his tragic too-early death from drug abuse. It's a beautiful, wistful piece that highlights Williams' unorthodox talent. Reviewed by: Bill Smith

itemEULOGY FOR LEROY VINNEGAR

by Jessica Williams (see the Leroy Vinnegar Room)

There was Jimmy Blanton. There was Paul Chambers. There was Jimmy Garrison. And there was Leroy Vinnegar.

He occupies a very special place in the jazz world; his "walking" style, full of subtle turns and rhythmic skips, had a solidity and assertiveness that was uniquely his own. We made two albums together (Encounters I and II, on the Jazz Focus label), and they're CDs that I listen to with great frequency, mainly because they swing so hard , and because his lines snake around and through my improvisations in such a fascinating and unpredictable fashion. We had the world's finest drummer, Mel Brown; together, we formed a gestalt that swung like mad. Leroy valued simplicity and groove. You never heard any superfluous adornments or decorations in his playing.

He was an essentialist. And this quality permeates the work of all great artists and musicians; a profound underlying focus, a purity of purpose that never seems studied or insincere.

It's there in Miles and Trane and Monk...it was all through Leroy's music.

As a man and a spirit, he shines as an example of integrity, courage, and dedication. He was reserved in his praise of others; and when he gave clear approval of your work, it really meant something! His valuation of his own work was equally stringent: his critical assessments always included himself as their foremost recipient. Leroy had deep convictions concerning freedom and civil liberties. He gave his respect to those who earned it; he always had a kind word and a smile for you if he felt you were doing your job in life. Life really is about doing our jobs...not just our work but our journey .

We can make the journey kicking and complaining and gnashing our teeth; or, like Leroy Vinnegar, we can realize that life is the supreme gift. With the gift comes huge responsibility, and a vast array of possibilities...the achievement of a "life well-lived" leaves us all richer and fuller.

When I heard that Leroy had "graduated" I was sad. Sad for myself, sad for us. For Leroy himself, I just felt love. And a great sense of satisfaction at having been his friend, at having played so often with him, at having seen his wonderful smile, of being hugged by him and respected by him. I will always feel that deep love for him. Leroy "walked the walk".

He is alive within each of us that knew and loved him. That kind of immortality is rare, and precious.

-Jessica Williams

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