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CD Review: The New Friends of Rhythm 

click to enlarge Hep Records, 2007
  • Hep Records, 2007
During the swing era many bandleaders flirted with the classics, sometimes successfully, but usually in failed attempts to “legitimize” their music to the establishment. The New Friends of Rhythm, who happily belong to the former camp, were formed in 1938 during the period’s height and came at the issue of musical pigeonholing from the other end: Made up of moonlighting members of Arturo Toscanini’s orchestra, the Friends were conservatory players who discovered jazz. And not only does their strings-dominated music swing—politely, of course—it’s also utterly fascinating, something neither jazz nor classical and yet somehow both, a world between. Think Django Reinhardt sitting in with a chamber group.

Led by cellist and arranger Alan Shulman (who spent his final years in Hudson), the septet also features two violins, guitar, bass, viola, and, yes, upright harp played by virtuoso Laura Newell. It’s Newell (the spiritual godmother of Accord avant-harpist Elizabeth Panzer, perhaps?) who is the Friends’ centerpiece and key selling point; check her fleet plucking and waterfall-like glissandos on Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” or the cheeky, retitled swing adaptations of themes by Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, et al. (The wonderfully named “Shoot the Schubert to Me Hubert” retools the composer’s music from the ballet “Rosamunde.”) Guest appearances by clarinet legend Buster Bailey will pique the interest of early jazz buffs, but the Friends’ charming, twinkling, dreamlike sound will put a spring in anyone’s step. Liner notes by Alan Shulman’s son, Jay Shulman, shed further light on this forgotten slice of jazz history.

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