Ken Schaphorst certainly isn't the only jazz artist who has explored the Harold Arlen songbook; over the years, Arlen's songs have been beaten to death in the jazz world. So when Over the Rainbow: The Music of Harold Arlen came out in 1996, it begged the question: do jazz enthusiasts really need to hear yet another Arlen tribute album? In Schaphorst's case, the answer is "most definitely." The majority of songs that the bandleader/arranger embraces on this CD will be very familiar to jazz fans; anyone who is seriously into jazz has no doubt heard countless versions of "I've Got the World on a String," "Come Rain or Come Shine," and "Out of This World." But Schaphorst, much to his credit, doesn't approach them in a knee-jerk, predictable fashion -- he doesn't rip off Buddy Rich's arranging style, and he doesn't feature some unimaginative Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald clones who are afraid to develop their own personalities. Instead, Schaphorst takes chances, and offers a post-bop tribute to Arlen that is, on occasion, mildly avant-garde. Joined by guests who include Medeski, Martin & Wood and the Either/Orchestra, among others, Schaphorst offers some surprises -- and they range from a somewhat Ornette Coleman-ish version of "Get Happy," to an eccentric arrangement of "That Old Black Magic," which features the adventurous singer Kitty Brazelton, and sometimes hints at East European gypsy music. While Schaphorst can be abstract at times, he isn't a radical avant-gardist -- mildly avant-garde when he feels it's appropriate, but not radically avant-garde. Schaphorst goes with whatever works for a particular song; on "Stormy Weather," that means lyrical solos and an accessible, Duke Ellington-influenced arrangement. Whether the playing is lyrical or abstract, Schaphorst wisely keeps his options open -- and that outlook helps to make Over the Rainbow one of the more interesting and unpredictable Arlen tributes of the '90s.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson
feat: Charlie Kohlhase Quintet