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Face To Face (1961)

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Ben Dixon

While it's true that Baby Face Willette's Stop and Listen is widely regarded as his finest recording, this, his Blue Note debut from January of 1961, should not by any means be overlooked. After all, before this session he had the same lot most of Blue Note artists did at the time; they played as sidemen on other's recordings before being allowed to headline their own dates. Willette performed on dates by Grant Green (Grant's First Stand) and Lou Donaldson (Here 'Tis). Face to Face boasts a mighty meat and potatoes soul-jazz lineup: Green on guitar, Fred Jackson on tenor, and drummer Ben Dixon. Comprised of six cuts (and two alternates on the Blue Note CD), five of them are Willette originals. The evidence of the rough and rowdy side of Willette's playing is evident from the opener, "Swinging at Sugar Ray's." His approach to the B-3 is far more percussive than Jimmy Smith's, each note is a distinct punch; not only in his solos, but in his chord and head approaches. His solo is a nasty, knotty blues sprint that encompasses gospel licks and R&B fills, too. The other notable thing about the cut is Green's guitar break that shows a side of him we seldom got to hear early on, where he's bending strings, playing in the high register, and using intense single-note runs. It's nearly a breathless way to open a record. Things slow down on the blues "Goin' Down" that features a nice emotive solo by Jackson. The mambo-infused "Whatever Lola Wants" by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross comes next and includes some beautiful stop-and-and start moves in the melody, as well as beautiful call and response between Jackson and Willette, while Dixon's drums shift around the outside before the whole thing breaks down into a groover. The poppin' funky title track has one of those beautiful hard bop heads that's instantly memorable. Sure, it's not terribly sophisticated but it's full of soul and a relaxed yet quick group of changes before Jackson begins to blow. "Somethin' Strange" is pure blues, Chicago style, before moving into tough funky soul. The set closes with "High 'N' Low," a relaxed show-closing groove joint; it's all blues with fine contributions from Green, Jackson, and Willette. The two alternates are not necessarily revelatory, but they do keep the solid vibes happening for another 13 minutes or so. Certainly it's true that these compositions don't show a ton of imagination conceptually, but that doesn't mean anything. The group interplay here is the thing, it works seamlessly. The other notable is the looseness with which Green was playing on the date, and the true introduction of Willette's trademark approach to the B-3. That's all here. These tunes have their own little trademark knots and notches all over them. Highly recommended. ~ Thom Jurek