Though he may only have six strings at his disposal, guitarist Joshua Breakstone has felt a lifelong connection to jazz's great piano players. On his latest release, 88 (due out October 21 from Capri Records), Breakstone pays tribute to some of his favorite pianist-composers with a smoking set of pieces penned by some of the music's greatest keyboard practitioners. Along with a new composition from Breakstone written in tribute to his piano-playing heroes, the album features classics by the likes of Mal Waldron, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton and Elmo Hope.
"I feel like pianists and guitarists are related, in a way," Breakstone says. "Supplying harmony as well as being a soloist, I'm called on to fill the same interactive role as my brothers on the piano - so I have a lot of appreciation and love for the instrument and those who play it."
Despite the theme of the album and the row of ivories prominently featured on its cover, 88 doesn't actually include a single note played on the piano. Instead, the recording is the third outing for Breakstone's unique Cello Quartet, with cellist Mike Richmond, bassist Lisle Atkinson and drummer Andy Watson. That singular instrumentation provides a different perspective on the music itself, which is precisely what Breakstone intended to celebrate.
"There's so much great music by pianists that I've played over the years," he explains. "These aren't necessarily my favorite tunes by pianists or the greatest songs ever by piano players, nothing like that. It's just a nice set of nine songs that offer my take on the different conceptions of these piano players and composers and what they mean to me."
While in recent years he's played most often with the Cello Quartet or in a trio setting, Breakstone has a long history with some legendary piano players. His 1983 debut release as a leader, Wonderful!, featured Barry Harris, who's represented on 88 by the simmering "Lolita." The guitarist's follow-up, 4/4=1, was the first of several recordings he made alongside Kenny Barron. Over the course of his career he's also worked with Tommy Flanagan, Sid Simmons, Joanne Brackeen and organ great Jack McDuff, and led tributes to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.
A lovely solo guitar meditation opens the album, setting the stage for Harold Mabern's urgent burner "The Chief," its forceful melody rendered in unison by Breakstone and Richmond. The slinky, serpentine groove of Sonny Clark's "News for Lulu" follows, highlighted by the leader's flowing, elusive lines and a soulful solo turn by the cellist. Atkinson's knotty rubato phrases kick off Cedar Walton's scintillating "Black," while Breakstone virtually whispers his way through Mal Waldron's tender classic "Soul Eyes."
The title tune, Breakstone's sole original on the album, is a finger-snapping mid-tempo bop tune that fits perfectly in the spirit of the album. Watson's vigorous swing fuels Elmo Hope's fiery "Moe Is On," while the drummer's hushed brush work supports Tadd Dameron's mournful ballad "If You Could See Me Now." The album wraps up with the whole band at its most muscular for Lennie Tristano's surging "Lennie's Pennies."
"With each song that I play," Breakstone says, "I try to communicate to the audience what it is that I love about that tune. Is it exciting, is it beautiful, is the harmony stimulating, is it funny, is it sweet, is it romantic, does it break my heart?"
The Cello Quartet is keenly adept at capturing the full gamut of emotions, despite its unusual make-up. The idea for the band was one of many inspirations that Breakstone has taken from his travels in Japan, a country that has eagerly embraced the guitarist and his music for nearly 30 years. His regular tours of the country are one component of a new documentary, Joshua Breakstone, Soft Hands: Jazz Ethereal, that was recently produced for Colorado Public Television.
In the case of the Cello Quartet, its original incarnation was assembled at the behest of the late bassist and promoter Mitsuru Niushiyama, Breakstone's close friend and collaborator. "He was getting a little older," Breakstone recalls, "and didn't feel like dragging around a bass anymore, so he came up with an idea. He called me up and asked if it was cool to book me with a rhythm section plus cello." The idea wasn't unprecedented - bassists including Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Sam Jones and Ron Carter have played the cello, although not with guitar - and Breakstone immediately embraced the concept. Immediately upon returning home he began assembling a Stateside version of the band.
"My original idea was that it was going to be like a guitar trio with the cello as a solo instrument, just like if we added a saxophone or trumpet," Breakstone says. "But after a few nights the group gelled in a different way and became a string section accompanied by percussion."
88 shows off just how dynamic and interactive the Cello Quartet can be. The album offers a fresh slant on the post-bop tradition, deeply rooted in the language of the music yet boasting a distinctive blend of colors and textures that create an utterly contemporary sound. Doubtless these pioneering pianists would approve of being honored that way.