Bebop is all about rhythm and chord changes, and Bob Mover is all about bebop. But he’s also about songs, something demonstrated in two sets at the Lily Pad on Monday night. Mover played a lot of alto saxophone, a bit of soprano, and sang. On his horns, he ate up chord changes and fashioned complex runs at high speed. But melody was at the core of everything he did, and he made his priorities clear whenever he introduced a tune. He said that he knew Anthony Newley’s “What Kind of Fool Am I” from his childhood, from “one of the last shows that had songs with chord changes” (from Newley’s Stop the World — I Want To Get Off, which played Broadway in 1962). He talked about how most of the vocal performances of the song that he’d heard were “over the top,” but suggested we check out a YouTube clip of the composer singing the piece on Hollywood Palace. Mover played it on alto, understated but Bird-like in its inventiveness. And his singing of the lyrics was understated too: “Why can’t I cast away/this mask of clay/and live my life?”
Mover is 61 now and suffering from emphysema, and he took hits off an inhaler between solos. He played alto nearly doubled over. But his sound was huge and pure and seemingly unfettered. Born in Boston, Mover was a regular on the scene in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. A former “rising star” in the bands of Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and others, he is now someone best known to aficionados. His latest album, My Heart Tells Me (Motéma), is a double disc, half ballad standards and half originals, with Kenny Barron on piano. Mover’s audience at the Lily Pad was a gratifying mix of old partisans and younger listeners. The 6 pm show at the 93-capacity venue was respectable, but by the time of the 7 pm set the place was crowded.
With Mover was another former Bostonian, guitarist Joe Cohen; the bassist Will Slate, who splits his time between New York and Boston; and drummer Bob Gullotti of the Fringe. The band played four songs in each of the 50-minute sets, all of them spellbinding. There was all manner of bebop derring-do, plenty of trading of 8’s and 4’s in the solo sections. There were upbeat abstractions, but even Mover’s “It’s All Good,” which had a relentless, Tristano-like driving unison line for guitar and alto, was, it turned out, based on the Gershwins’ “’S Wonderful.” (Mover asked us to guess his source material before playing the song and, afterwards, someone did.) The first set’s opener, a mid-tempo ballad with brushes, was “Shangri-la,” by Matt Malneck and Carl Sigman, and Mover recommended Peggy Lee’s interpretation. Dietz and Schwartz’s “By Myself” had been sung by Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. And Johnny Mercer’s “Dream” was something, Mover said, “I have sung my two daughters to sleep with.”
So, yes, there was a rip-roaring “Tune Up” and an original minor blues, “Erken,” that could have been a hardbop flagwaver. But the binder of the set, the yeast, the stuff that made it hold together and rise, was in those vocal performances: understated, perfectly phrased, in a light voice, so that you could hear every word: “Dream when you’re feeling blue./Dream — that’s the thing to do./Thing aren’t as bad as they seem/so dream.”