Speak Low

Walter Bishop, Jr.

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Speak Low Review

by Eugene Chadbourne

The first album as a leader would of course be an occasion of incredible pressure, especially for an artist such as this one. By the time this recording was originally released in 1961, pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. had spent so much time in other people's bands that it seemed the sideman stigmata would never heal. And it really never did, since despite more than a dozen efforts as leader between this one and his death in 1998 he never really achieved the acknowledgement as a leader that some of his contemporaries did, even ones who were somewhat lesser players. Of course anyone who peruses commentary on the bebop era that Bishop paid his dues in will come across opinions to the contrary. It is sometimes said that this pianist "lacked chops," hip lingo concerning technique and not meant to suggest he failed to stop off at the butcher on the way home as requested. True, this is not a flashy keyboardist and also one who did not choose his debut as a leader to unveil a stack of up til then hidden original masterpieces of composition. He plays standards here, choosing either the long or short form for six different titles, some of them quite familiar. Listeners may be advised that this is a side worth owning simply for the playing of the bassist, Jimmy Garrison, the value of the piano playing put aside temporarily. By the '60s this bassist was mostly associated with John Coltrane, and was a member of what is often considered Trane's classic quartet. While that group was quite adept at playing standards, the type of straight-ahead approach presented in the Bishop trio was more the way Coltrane played before Garrison came into his group. This album is full of this bassist's wonderful touch with mainstream jazz material, including some rumbling arco solos and terrific walking. "Blues in the Closet" holds steady to its quick tempo; after all, Garrison hardly flagged on the long, fast "Chasin' the Trane" that would follow only a few years later.

Interesting drummer Wilbert G.T. Hogan recorded with some other fine pianists besides this one, notably Randy Weston. He also wound up with the Ray Charles band at one point and lays down a somewhat harder beat on sides by tenor saxophonist and Charles alumni Hank Crawford. This is somewhat more information that was given about him on the original album and reissues, the total sum of which was the following: "G.T. Hogan is on drums. Notice his fine brush work. A diminishing art today." The final comment isn't really true if any contemporary percussionists are asked -- they would all love to play brushes as well as Hogan and many are trying very hard. Whether the same comment could be made concerning the pianist is hard to say. Many keyboardists have missed out on the influence of pianists such as Bishop, who knows how to state themes simply and eloquently. His use of dissonance in 1961 is subtle, hinting at tritones in "Sometimes I'm Happy" and letting somewhat delirious overtones ring out on the superb performance of "Alone Together." Needless to say, the piano is a bit out of tune here and there, adding to the mystique. Despite that, there is the sense that this album must have been something special for Bishop. His final recordings came out under the title of Speak Low Again several years after his death, kind of like a set of bookends.

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