This is the first I’ve heard of Joel Frahm, who aside from a few albums as leader, is also a part of singer Jane Monheit’s working band. On Don’t Explain, Frahm teams up with pianist and high-school buddy Brad Mehldau for nine duets on well-worn standards and one original. Typical blowing session fare, then, that allows the musicians space to freewheel within a recognisable context.
The album sets off with the relaxed title-track: Frahm revels in his voluptuous tone, straight-forwardly stating the slow, romantic theme, while Mehldau improvises around the saxophonist’s line, bouncing ideas off his impassive companion. Throughout the album, Mehldau’s accompaniment is ever-shifting and often ingenious, more a challenge than a confortable frame, a Meccano construction rather than a pillow.
The album climaxes with its fourth and fifth tracks. “Round Midnight #3″ (#1 closes the album with a conventional and anti-climactic reading) is perhaps the only track where Frahm truly takes the lead, brimming with fresh ideas. His solo introduction is perhaps Don’t Explain‘s greatest moment, as, anchored by low honks that that sketch out an elliptical bass line, he never states the well-known melody while making a great deal of reference to it. Another stroke of genius is how a semi-theme statement seems to grow spontaneously out of the spare accompaniment Frahm was providing underneath Mehldau’s solo. The communication between the two is remarkable, at that moment. Lennon and McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son” is given a fabulous, driving rendition, as the arrangement cleverly avoids jazzing up the chords, allowing Frahm’s soprano an almost rural sound, and Mehldau to play in a sophisticated pop piano style.
The one low spot is the slowed-down “Oleo.” Not only does it sound like a slow song that should be played fast, but the carefree saxophone and the dark and complex piano chords seem to be talking past each other, not meshing in any way. However, the rest of the album is peppered with more than enough interesting moments (the second part of Mehldau’s solo on “Get Happy,” for example) to make Don’t Explain a worthwhile purchase.