By Bill Donaldson

Make no mistake about it: The musicians on Larry Vuckovich’s most recent CD, Somethin’ Special, are jazz professionals with years, well decades, of experience shaping their techniques into means of expression that effortlessly emerge as the music flows. Vuckovich himself started in the late fifties as a veteran of groups led by legends like Dexter Gordon, Mel Torme and Bobby Hutcherson. Vuckovich’s interest in working with Scott Hamilton started from his setting up of a tour in northern California for the tenor saxophonist. Eventually, the recording session Vuckovich long sought took place, and as luck would have it, West Coast saxophonist Noel Jewkes was available to join not a tenor sax battle, but a tenor sax celebration.

While previous Vuckovich albums like Street Scene featured his own trio, and consequently much piano improvisation, the emphasis of Somethin’ Special resides generously in the prominence of tenor saxophonists on most of the tracks. Not only that, but Vuckovich mines the rich tradition of jazz tenor sax recordings as he chooses pieces that represent some of the composers from the classic Blue Note years he respects—composers like Tadd Dameron, Ben Tucker, Thelonious Monk, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sonny Clark and Horace Silver.

Even though Hamilton’s work on Concord Records mostly involved traditional renditions of standards, the surprise on Somethin’ Special is not only how easily he falls into the groove, expressed eloquently in previous decades by saxophonists like Stanley Turrentine, Hank Mobley or Ben Webster. But also, Hamilton expands it. For instance, Hamilton growls and flutters and bites the ends of phrases as he smoothly improvises with effortless authority on “Comin’ Home Baby.” On Dexter Gordon’s “Cheese Cake,” when Hamilton and Jewkes’ unison first chorus ends, Hamilton takes over with medium-volume soulfulness that indeed pays tribute to the tenor sax masters who developed the instrument’s language, which Hamilton absorbed.

Jewkes doubles the saxophonistry on Somethin’ Else, and though he offers his own voice on the instrument, the camaraderie between him and Hamilton is evident. On, say, “Comin’ Home Baby,” they sound as one—until they break into harmony—stretching the final notes to the same length, attacking the same stressed notes with equal vigor, loosening embouchures to the same degree. Jewkes’ individuality, despite his uncanny ability to adopt Hamilton’s voice on the saxophone, breaks out several times on Somethin’ Special, most notably on Vuckovich’s composition, “Losing Linda.” Jewkes’ interpretation on soprano sax, with a reedy plaintive tone, contrasts markedly to the other pieces played on tenor sax.

For the most part, Vuckovich determinedly remains an equal member of his own group, rather than a leader that the others merely support, even as he contributes his own eloquent solos of approximately the same lengths as the saxophonists’. However, Vuckovich chooses tunes of contemplative beauty as unaccompanied pieces without horns: “Pannonica” and “Star Dust.” Alternating between rippling coruscations and slight intimations of stride, the pianist appears to consider the interpretive possibilities of “Pannonica” even as he plays it. And he adapts “Star Dust” to his own liking as he reharmonizes, and thus personalizes, it. Somethin’ Special, no doubt, is special to Vuckovich as he seized upon the opportunity to record with Hamilton, who lives now in central Italy—not to mention with equally superlative musicians like Jewkes, Paul Keller and Chuck McPherson.

Year: 2011