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John Armato The Drummer Loves Ballads (2021) Review

John Armato’s new album is a gem. Get it. Give it a listen. You may think, “Oh, an album of ballads. Let’s take a nap.” But it’s anything but. It’s ever engaging. It’s a tasty, soulful, straight-ahead jazz album by a masterful KC drummer, who has assembled a star-studded cast of singers and instrumentalists to explore the many moods and faces of the ballad. It’s sultry, it’s playful, it’s melodic; and it swings.

The album revolves around a stellar KC quartet: John Armato (drums), Wayne Hawkins (piano), Rod Fleeman (guitar), and Gerald Spaits (bass). Not only are there also guest jazz artists on horn, but there is even an 8-person string section and a 4-person winds section on some orchestral tunes.

In the KC-centric cast includes an impressive variety of singers, including Lisa Henry, Molly Hammer, and Lucy Wijnands. It goes without saying that often the words bring a ballad to life, and these local ladies do, including moving renditions of “The Shadows of Paris” (Wijnands), “At the Trocadero” (Henry), and “Moonlight” (Hammer). In one of his narratives, Armato intimates that his parents had “good taste,” displayed or developed at the Trocadero in KC in the summer of 1955, when they were a new couple. At the Troc, they heard that “sweet, slow, sultry tenor sax” they grew to know and love, a kind of music they played for their son, who also came to love ballads, quite naturally.

The album also has a charming spoken word element in which Armato tells stories from his musical youth and heritage, speaking cleanly and clearly over an engaging solo track of drums. (Armato’s also on drums, we presume.) Armato has a natural narrative style, and the anecdotes he tells are at once amusing and instructive, and full of heart.

The first spoken word bit is on track one. Seventeen-year-old Armato hits his first jam session in KC in the summer of 1981, as part of a jazz camp.

The sax player in charge says, “What do you want to play next?” and young Armato says, “How about a ballad?” And the leader ways, “What’s the matter man, you tired?” and Armato says, “No, I just love ballads.” The leader kicks a quicker tune.

One highlight of the album seems absolutely unscripted. It appears Lisa Henry was warming up, singing a kind of scat warm-up bit, and Armato joined in on drums. The tune allows Armato, who usually plays sparsely on this album, to open up and play out, get busy. And he does. It’s not just comping he does here, but more of a duet between voice and drums. Armato complements Henry in an engaging way, filling in the spaces she leaves in the air, warming the cymbals and drumheads, grooving with a kind of soulful passion, often in a New Orleans second-line type groove. When the bit ends, Armato says, “I think that’s great,” and Henry says, “Oh, I was just messing around,” and so the bit gets its title “Messin’ Around,” track nine, lasting a little under two minutes. It’s a keeper, a favorite on this album, in part because its sparser, smaller sound--less orchestral, and less planned, totally in the moment. Overall, the album is brightly polished, immaculately musical. Every tune is thoughtful and played with a kind of harmonic precision. And, as a whole, the tunes tell a story—one of Armato’s journey as a musician, and along the way he shows us what he loves, a bouquet of soulful ballads. Hopefully, there are even more to come.

—Kevin Rabas

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