Some of jazz's more radical thinkers tend to dislike tribute albums, which they feel are helping turn jazz into repertory music. But tribute albums definitely have their place. Great composers like Duke Ellington, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stevie Wonder, and Stephen Sondheim should be celebrated -- whether a tribute album is surprising, totally predictable, or somewhere in between is up to the artist. One of the various Hoagy Carmichael tributes that was recorded in the '90s, Rick Hollander's Once Upon a Time is enjoyable but not as adventurous as it could have been. Carmichael, a highly prolific composer, gave listeners his share of famous standards, but those who do their homework realize that Carmichael also wrote a lot of great songs that didn't become standards. Once Upon a Time tends to favor Carmichael's better-known standards; Hollander unearths two lesser-known gems ("Ivy" and "Hong Kong Blues"), but more often than not, the drummer's quartet (which also includes tenor saxman Tim Armacost, pianist Walter Lang, and bassist Will Woodard) sticks to well-known standards such as "Skylark" and "The Nearness of You." While it would have been nice to hear Hollander unearth more of Carmichael's lesser-known jewels, this post-bop CD does have a lot going for it. Hollander's quartet is undeniably cohesive -- it sounds like an real, honest-to-God working group -- and Armacost's lyricism is easy to enjoy. Further, Hollander does, at times, find something fresh to say with very familiar melodies. Almost always heard as a ballad, "Stardust" receives an up-tempo makeover -- and critic Jim Ferguson puts it best when, in the liner notes, he describes Hollander's interpretation of "Georgia on My Mind" as, "almost impressionistic." Once Upon a Time falls short of ideal, but all things considered, it's a CD that deserves respect.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson