Picks and Pans Review: Neohippus

updated 06/19/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/19/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jack Walrath

Trumpeter Jack Walrath is a happy hipster for whom jazz is both a virtuoso art and an excuse to have some fun. On his 1987 album Masters of Suspense, Walrath even roped Willie Nelson into doing guest vocals on swinging versions of "I'm Sending You a Big Bouquet of Roses" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."

Joined by reed man Carter Jefferson, guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist James Williams, bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Ronnie Burrage on Neohippus, Walrath shows tongue-in-cheek audacity in his choice of materials. His quirky original compositions include "Village of the Darned," a hard-bop potboiler in which Bartok meets a rampaging Sitting Bull, "Fright Night," a parody of shlocko horror movie music, and "Beer!"—a tribute to the beverage of choice of rowdies in his home state, Montana. Raised among cow-pokes, Walrath traded in his boots and spurs for Saturday night shoes to earn pocket change on the R&B circuit with Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, the Drifters and the Platters. During the '70s, he apprenticed for three years with jazz maestro Charles Mingus, adding a warm, brightly brassy tone to such classic recordings as Three or Four Shades of Blues (recently reissued by Atlantic Records).

Like Mingus, Walrath delights in rich melodic nuances and colors, with blue notes stretched amid bursts of rhythmic energy. His talents as a composer and leader are especially apparent on "Watch Your Head," which opens with comic spooky effects but becomes a loping blues on which the band swings low and hard, and on "England," an impressionistic tune with shades of the elegant lyricism of Billy Strayhorn. The strong musical bonhomie evident in the ensemble playing is a tribute to Walrath's bravura style, as well as to his belief that good music can be a barrelful of laughs. (Blue Note)

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