Ben Wolfe’s ‘Unjust’ Is the Latest Stop on a Journey That Started in 1929
The song started as ‘Just You, Just Me’ and appeared in an early talkie. Among the notable innovators to have taken it on before Wolfe was Theolonious Monk, who renamed it ‘Justice’ and then ‘Evidence.’
Ben Wolfe, ‘Unjust’ (Resident Arts)
Sometimes it’s great to listen to a variation on a variation. The title track of bassist-composer-bandleader Ben Wolfe’s new album, “Unjust,” is the latest development of a tune and a set of chord changes that have been manifesting in different forms for almost a century now.
In 1929, the song “Just You, Just Me” was written by Jesse Greer and Raymond Klages and then introduced by Cliff Edwards — who, among other things, was the first major scat singer in popular music — in the early talkie comedy “Marianne.” Although it was this team’s only song of note, it quickly became a much-played standard among jazz musicians, and a jam session favorite.
Pianists tended to dig the song the most: Nat King Cole performed “Just You, Just Me” both as an instrumental and a vocal, and Thelonious Monk also recorded it several different ways. He played it live and in the studio, and with trios and quartets, and most importantly he devised his own variation on the song that became a jazz standard in itself.
Monk’s first thought was to title his new tune “Just Us,” as a play on “Just You, Just Me,” but then he changed that to “Justice.” Now thinking legally, Monk went with the title “Evidence,” when he introduced his tune in 1948. Henceforth, for the rest of his career, he played it both ways.
Ben Wolfe has now taken it a step further, and his version, which he calls “Unjust,” is on the new album and was played during a gig this past weekend at Birdland. In both performances, it sounded resolutely Monk-ish, the same sort of jerky, stop-and-start motion that helps to make Monk’s tunes so catchy.
Both the live and the studio versions employed a quartet of trumpet (Nicholas Payton on the album, Mike Rodriguez at Birdland), tenor saxophone (Immanuel Wilkins, Grant Stewart), and drums (Aaron Kimmel, Kendrick Scott) in addition to Mr. Wolfe. This particular pianoless foursome also reminds me of early Ornette Coleman and his two-horn frontlines. Ultimately, “Unjust” served to underscore what Monk and Coleman had in common in terms of the overall sound of their ensembles.
The live show was a satisfying event itself, not least because of Mr. Stewart on tenor sax; he is, in the best sense of the term, a gloriously old-fashioned player with a big robust sound on tenor. On the album, Mr. Wilkins is engagingly ruminative on “Unjust”; at Birdland, Mr. Stewart was more charging and straight ahead, and he ended his solo with a brief detour through the original “Just You, Just Me.”
The album is more than a quartet: a rising star on vibraphone, Joel Ross, also appears, and saxophonist Nicole Glover is heard here and there as well, as are two pianists on various tracks, Addison Frei and Orrin Evans. At Birdland, aggressive, boppish sounds predominated.
The album boasts a wide range of different sounds and approaches. “Lullaby in D” is tender and loving, highlighting Ms. Glover and Mr. Evans, and very different from the Birdland set. “Eventually,” which puts the focus on Mr. Ross, is another tranquil love song. On the album, “Bob French” features both horns and the full rhythm section, and still is somehow warm and cool at the same time.
“The Heckler” sounded much more aggravated at Birdland; the album version includes Mr. Wilkins on alto and places Mr. Ross’s vibes in the sonic center, yet still they get much more hecklish towards the end. At Birdland, the center was left wide open, which makes the piece somehow seem more confrontational, without the heat of the vibes to tie it all together.
The title of “Mask Man” refers to a classic Lenny Bruce routine that was also used as the soundtrack for an excellent short animated film, one of Bruce’s more extreme later bits that rather mercilessly savages “The Lone Ranger” — among the more outrageous Western parodies before Mel Brooks and “Blazing Saddles.” On the album, the track sounds somewhat Monkish, but the Birdland version, with Mr. Stewart’s rambunctious tenor, was even more so.
In a description of the album on his website, Mr. Wolfe tells us that “Unjust” is one of three albums he recorded during the pandemic in 2021, and the first to be released. I generally assume most musicians prefer playing live to the studio, but Mr. Wolfe surprised me by writing, “I really love the overall process and purity of being in the studio.” He continued, “For me, being in the studio feels like a much more intimate or direct experience with the music, with less distraction. … I liken it to the feeling a painter may have when creating a work.”
Given the excellent results of “Unjust,” such an approach seems completely justified.
Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for The New York Sun and other publications. The host of the radio show ‘Sing! Sing! Sing!’ on San Diego KSDS on Saturday mornings, he also is the author of 10 books. He has written more than 600 liner notes for compact discs, received 11 Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and in documentaries.