Rhodes Spedale: The Man and His CDs
Review by Stephen Steinberg; Reprinted with permission by the author
When Rhodes Spedale retired from the bar in 1998 to devote more time to playing jazz piano it was not because he'd finally discovered where the money was. This is not to denigrate his talents as a pianist (or to exalt his talents as a lawyer for that matter) but simply to point out that Rhodes is at last able to do what he always wanted to do more than anything else in the world; to play piano as a full time job. What that means is that he is now able to play without interference for his ancillary careers, mainly aas an attorney, but also from time to time as teacher, author, broadcaster, and though I am loathe to a admit I am stepping into the ring with him, a writer of record reviews and album liner notes. It's what he's wanted to do and it is something he is indeed quite good at doing, in a variety of different ways for a variety of different reasons.
There are a total of five CDs in three albums currently available to testify to where Rhodes' true talents lie. After spending some time with his two albums of Snug Harbor Sessions (each with one CD from 1994 and one from 1996) and with his more recent "The Gentle Jazz" I have no trouble stating that he is a first class jazz pianist, with a stylistic range that many of his contemporaries have every reason to envy.
Rhodes first got into jazz in that wonderful period in the fifties when it was all happening at once. If you were on or near the right scene in New York or California, you could go out just about any night and hear live performances by the people responsible not only for the jazz of that day, but also for where jazz had come from and where it was going. From Baby Dodds to Benny Goodman, from Chippie Hill to Sarah Vaughn, from Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie the overwheliming majority of jazz greats of all eras were there to be heard and enjoyed.
If you were an aspiring musician, they were also there to learn from. While Rhodes was a student at Pomona College in California, he asked modern pianist Hampton Hawes if he would give lessons. "I've never done it before," Hawes said, "I guess you can be my first pupil."
Thanks to his New Orleans background--and an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional jazz, Rhodes was able to put what was new in the music in the context of his own roots. Unlike many others of that period, he did not draw demarcation lines between traditional and modern. As a result, he was able to absorb from a variety of stylists who were then performing. It's reflected in the music you hear from him today--music that not only swings but that I like to call intelligent jazz.
All of these CDs were recorded on location and reflect the kind of joyful informality that comes from playing before a live audience rather than in a studio. Accompanying bass and drums on the Snug Harbor 2 CD sets are the extremely competent David Hansen, drums, and Al Bernard, bass, in 1994 and Dickie Taylor, drums, and Ed Wise, bass, in 1996. Each set contains one CD from teh '94 session and one from '96. Composers whose words are interpreted range from Louis Armstorng (Struttin' With Some Barbecue) to John Coltrane (Moment's Notice). There is also a wide range of interesting material that rarely gets a jazz treatment--"Miss Otis Regrets," "Mr. Bojangles," "Waltzing Matilda," "Some Day My Prince Will Come," I think you get the idea. With about two dozen performances on each of these double CD packages you really get your money's worth at $20 per set.