Don Menza (ts), Frank Strazzeri (p)
Reference: FSRCD 5062
Bar code: 8427328650625
Lester Young believed that every jazz player should know the lyrics of the song he plays. Listening to this collection of ballads, it is quite evident that Don Menza is one of those players. This lyrical tradition is reflected in Don’s sense of line, although, he says, he also hears in this album elements of all the saxophonists he has admired, including Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, and particularly Gene Ammons. “And of course,” he said with a smile, “I hear a lot of myself.”
A similar lyrical sense infuses Frank Strazzeri’s playing. And the tradition is particularly conspicuous in his exquisite tone. Few pianists have anything like the warm and sensitive touch Strazzeri has. Singers all know the joy of working with only a superbly sensitive pianist for accompaniment. After hearing this album of beautiful ballads, I have only to say: It’s superb —warm and soft and gentle and moving. It sings.
—Gene Lees, 1987 (Lyricist and writer)
"In the original liner note, reproduced here, Gene Lees dwells on Lester Young’s oft-quoted comment about saxophonists needing to know a song’s lyrics if they are to fully interpret a ballad. As Lees indicates, it is clear that Don Menza knows these songs intimately.
A highly accomplished musician, principally playing tenor saxophone, Menza was reputedly self-taught as composer and arranger. That last attribute is especially interesting given his long service as sideman and sometimes arranger with big bands led by Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and others. In big band settings, as well as with the small groups in which he played and also those he led, his playing was often fiery and aggressive, qualities that contrast strikingly with the reflective mood heard here.
Frank Strazzeri’s performing credits took him through many jazz styles and also found him playing with a Who’s Who in jazz. In the early 1950s, he was briefly house pianist in a Rochester club where the musicians he backed included Billie Holiday. In New Orleans, he played with Sharkey Bonano, then came spells in big bands led by Charlie Ventura and Woody Herman. On settling in Los Angeles, he became an in-demand studio pianist meanwhile playing jazz with a glittering array of jazz stars. Outside jazz, on a number of occasions in the early 1970s he performed with Elvis Presley. Interestingly, although Strazzeri (who died 9 May 2014) played piano from as early as his pre-teen years, when he started out in music he first played clarinet and saxophone and this might well be a factor in the understanding he shows in his accompaniment of Menza.
This recording session in Spain, overseen by producer Jordi Pujol, came as Menza and Strazzeri wound up a European tour. Now, through his Fresh Sound label, Pujol brings back this fine set of relaxed, intimate ballads. This is music of a very high order and should have wide appeal."
—Bruce Crowther (January 11, 2021)
Ringer of the Week ★★★★★
"They sure don't make them like this anymore, and the reason is simple. Both tenor Don Menza (who’s still around and playing) and pianist Frank Strazzeri (who left us in 2014) honed their skills in big bands, therefore learning how to be a team player, be confident in your sound, and not overplay your hand. Is anyone paying attention?
The two gents were touring Europe together when producer Jordi Pujol lasso'd them in Barcelona and recorded this gorgeous duet of a ballad album. Tone, style and class radiate off of every note. Menza at times sounds like Stan Getz, Gene Ammons and Zoot Sims, which means that his dna matches that of Lester Young. Stazzeri is a bopper at heart, with hands expanded by stride, and the two blow smoke rings on pieces such as the frothy “You're My Thrill,” the fluffy “Darn That Dream” and foggy day of “What's New”. Menza opens up a swooning solo cadenza on “Over The Rainbow” before glistening like ruby slippers, Strazzeri's fingers are as soft and warm as a fist baseman’s mitt on “What's New” and keeps the saloon open late on “Blues In The Dark”. Put this one in a time capsule, and play it for the first day at school for every horn player at Berklee or Manhattan School of Music. Class is over."
George W. Harris (December 3, 2020)