Live at Pilgrim Chapel, a duet album from two mainstays of Kansas City’s jazz scene, contains 56 minutes of worrisome adventure. While Joe Cartwright is a reliably outstanding pianist, David Basse’s limited vocal range and roguish demeanor add an unsteady edge to the recording.
Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history, Basse and Cartwright have earned positions in the pantheon of Kansas City’s jazz immortals. A first-call accompanist, Cartwright is a fixture in area jazz venues. He and Basse are members of the cast of the syndicated radio program "12th Street Jump." Basse’s distinctive voice can also be heard announcing jazz selections on the airwaves of Kansas Public Radio.
Immediately recognizable and imbued with enough personality to engulf a concert hall, Basse’s croaky voice is an imperfect instrument. He rose to prominence as the drummer and vocalist of the City Light Orchestra, a multi-generational ensemble that was one of Kansas City’s most popular groups in the 1980s.
With the City Light Orchestra and in his solo projects, Basse surrounded himself with superlative musicians. When he’s accompanied only by Cartwright’s sympathetic piano work, however, Basse’s vocal deficiencies are fully exposed.
Taking his vocal cues from the likes of Mose Allison and Bob Dylan, artists who use clever phrasing to sidestep their limitations, Basse turns Live at Pilgrim Chapel into a case study in how a savvy singer can overcome the constraints of a tenuous voice.
Their strategy is clear on an ingenious interpretation of Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” where Basse talks more than sings to elucidate the lingering impact of ill-fated romances. Cartwright adds bluesy annotation to reveal previously hidden melodic components of Dylan’s lament.
The duo approaches more conventional material from similarly unusual angles, such as giving “My Funny Valentine” – a standard often employed as a showcase for vocal pyrotechnics – a contemplative reading suited for a theatrical production. Basse may not hit every note, but he inhabits the role of an adoring lover to capture the pathos of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart composition.
The dramatic achievement is made possible by Cartwright’s exquisite support. His brief solo on “My Funny Valentine” is breathtakingly beautiful, and the versatile pianist plays with fearsome power elsewhere. Cartwright gives his instrument a thrashing as he recalls the boogie-woogie of legendary Kansas City pianist Pete Johnson during a rousing “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.”
But the frisky duo gets into all kinds of trouble on “Moanin’,” where Basse’s waggish spoken introduction and insolent scatting are abetted by Cartwright’s bold embellishments. And Cartwright’s authoritative playing can’t salvage “Like Jazz,” where Basse’s beatnik schtick is the embarrassing vocal and lyrical equivalent of clownish jazz hands. Even if his tongue is in his cheek as he offers asides such as “like, crazy man, wild” and scats like a condescending comedian, the joke isn’t funny.
But these jarring missteps don’t ruin the album. Listening to the most effective moments of Live at Pilgrim Chapel is akin to securing a comfortable seat in the world’s best piano bar. Basse’s willingness to embrace his imperfections has long been part of his mischievous charm. He and Cartwright may be playing a dangerous game on Live at Pilgrim Chapel, but it’s to their credit that listeners emerge not only unscathed but entertained.
Bill Brownlee’s writing appears weekly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. He blogs about Kansas City’s jazz scene at Plastic Sax.
David Basse and Joe Cartwright release Live at Pilgrim Chapel on Sunday, February 21 at Pilgrim Chapel, 3801 Gillham Road, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111. Ticket information is here.