Rick Bear and Friends, “Sweetness” (Independent)

Like the perfect butler, the perfect jazz drummer is usually invisible but crucial, and Rick Bear takes that lesson to heart on his debut solo album, sitting comfortably in the pocket and becoming the engine that drives these dozen Great American Songbook war horses. Most of the interesting interplay comes courtesy of his friends—specifically, Ken Gregory on trumpet and trombone and the formidable John Fohl on guitar—throughout, there’s an unusual balance between Gregory, who takes on every song with a brassy strut that’s half Dixieland and half Latin, Arturo Sandoval meets Al Hirt. Fohl can’t help but bring a little St. Louis or maybe West Coast blues, no matter how complex the chords get.

This holds true for everything from “’Round Midnight” to “Cantaloupe Island” to “My Funny Valentine,” the main difference being that on the slower, more ponderous numbers Gregory switches over to what sounds like a cup-muted trombone. It’s a fun set, loose and not over-indulgent, and it’s always great to hear a NOLA jazz summit meeting; none of these standards are being redefined here, but it still makes for a perfect soundtrack when it comes wine o’clock again. Most notable, however, is what may be the very last recorded performance of jam-band godfather Col. Bruce Hampton, who recently passed at the age of 70—his half-spoken, half-warbled take on “Sweet Georgia Brown” is a textbook example of his Beefheartian approach, and while it may seem a little jarring and out-of-place with this set’s mellow mood, it’s still great to hear from him one last time. Hopefully, these guys get together again soon and take on some pop standards; it’d be great to hear them really stretch out like the good Colonel used to.