The core of the ensemble is Schnake on nylon-string guitar, electric guitar, and mandolin, Santiago Leibson on piano, Gui Duvignau on bass, and Paul Shaw on drums. Also appearing are Dave Petro on alto sax (tracks 1,4), Sunhyun Yoo on alto and soprano saxes (tracks 2,3,6), Tim Struven on tenor sax, John Blevins on trumpet, Eric Quinn on trombone, Jennifer Wharton on bass trombone (all on tracks 1,2,4,6), and Ammon Swinbank on flute (track 7).
Six of the seven tracks were composed by Schnake himself. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat was, of course, composed by Charles Mingus but was arranged by Benjamίn Schnake.
The album opens with Marisol and Schnake’s beautiful nylon-stringed guitar. The brilliant Dave Pietro is featured on alto sax. What a pairing. The horn section add their flash and flair to create a smoking ensemble piece. The rhythm section pushes the horns and guitar nicely.
The Joy of Playing features Santiago Leibson’s piano and Paul Shaw on drums. The melody has a great hook and the solo by Leibson is catchy, then pairs off with Shaw’s drums in a great passage before returning to that sweet hook. Then Leibson and Shaw stay in the spotlight for Fragment as Schnake and Yoo’s alto sax join them there. The piece opens with solo nylon-stringed guitar before being joined by Shaw’s washing cymbals and the touching piano. The piano solo on Fragment may be the best of the album. The Schnake’s guitar paves the way for Yoo’s warm and wonderful alto sax. This could be my favorite track on the whole album. Good Lord, it’s good.
Eric Quinn’s trombone and Dave Pietro’s alto sax take center stage for She’s Gone. The moody and melancholy piece is exquisitely accented by Leibson on piano. Schnake adds his guitar to the back layers in a wonderfully sad track. That sadness is alleviated by the fiery and fun Ajú with Schnake’s electric guitar and the rest of the core quartet. Leibson brings forward the percussive piano and Duvugnau and Shaw work the rhythms hard. Fantastic.
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat was Charles Mingus great elegy to Lester Young and was released on the 1959 album Mingus Ah Um. Schnake arranges it beautifully for the horn section. When Mingus played the song live, it could go on for 30 minutes and, so help me God, you wish that Schnake took that long with this version. Yeah, it’s that good.
The album wraps with Lakitas, featuring Schnake on mandolin and Ammon Swinbank on flute. Piano and drums flesh out the great original by Schnake.
The Benjamίn Schnake Ensemble is a cast of remarkable characters, portraying tight and well-reasoned parts under the over-arching vision of their leader. The Joy of Playing is, for us, the joy of listening.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl