Casual jazz fans probably won't recognize Bud Shank's name on an album cover, but they might very well recognize his sound from the many session bands he's played with over the years—more than 40 years, as a matter of fact. And while he's never reached the level of fame achieved by the titans of jazz sax, Shank has every right to be counted among them when it comes to technical skill and big, round, good-humored sound.
Taking The Long Way Home is Shank's first recording as leader of his own big band. With the help of more musical guests than a year's worth of SNL, he showcases his enviable skills before a very game audience in L.A. And while the recording never "rollicks," as it were, the playing is extremely tight throughout. Plus, it's hard not to respond to Shank's charming "old timer" anecdotes. The band itself is top notch, rolling along with the kind of tightly controlled mayhem that made Shank's idol Artie Shaw such a powerful performer. And, of course, the man himself is in top form, blasting through intricate scales like Panzers through the Maginot line.
If performance were the sole criterion, you'd have yourself a five-star CD here; problem is, what's being performed matters too. The weakness of this record isn't Shank, or his band, or the arrangements (most of which are credited to the talented Mike Barone), but the compositions themselves. Shank or members of his band wrote most of the tracks on Taking The Long Way Home, and, not to put too fine a point on it, none of them is going to be giving Duke Ellington angst in the afterlife. The majority of the tracks are nondescript, straight-ahead numbers that pay lip service to the great standards but lack quality melodic lines and tend to rely on the players' virtuosity to make up the slack.
Indeed, the one bona fide standard, Cole Porter's "Night And Day," is presented in a frenetic (though nevertheless enjoyable) 3/4 arrangement, eschewing the lilt of the original's 4/4 rhythm in order to make room for bebop-esque flights of fancy from Shank and his men. It's admirable that Shank didn't want to take it easy his first time at the helm and throw down a bunch of been-done licks, but it seems like the pendulum has swung too much in the other direction. I, for one, would love to see what Shank the bandleader could do with the Gershwin songbook, or a more traditional arrangement of Porter's work, just to name a couple. Jazz, perhaps more than any other genre, is a matter of individual taste. No one will feel as though he's wasted money picking up Taking The Long Way Home, but this is a record for the jazz aficionado who listens more for performance than songwriting.