Album Review: Walter Bishop Jr. – Bish at the Bank

Baltimore, Maryland had a thriving and lively jazz scene in the mid-to late 1960s and well into the early ‘70s. Proof positive was the success of the Famous Ballroom, a nightclub situated in what had formerly been the city’s passenger railway power house. During the venue’s heyday, all manner of esteemed jazz players stopped by to play sets. And thanks to the intrepid jazz detectives Cory Weeds and Zev Feldman, a cache of high quality recordings has been brought to light. Those tapes document some of the more notable performances. And now in 2023, three of those have been released on compact disc (and vinyl).

I’ve taken a look at two already: one fearing Sonny Stitt, another capturing a Shirley Scott date. Now comes a third: the double-CD release Bish at the Bank: Live in Baltimore draws from two performances led by pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. One dates from February 1967 at the Famous Ballroom, and another features Bishop and band at the city’s Madison Club some six months before.

The lineup for both shows is the same, featuring the rhythm section of Lou McIntosh (bass) and drummer Dick Berk plus Harold Vick on saxes and flute. The two discs feature a total of eight numbers; each track runs in excess of ten minutes. But no time is wasted, as Bishop and his band dig into the grooves and explore the capabilities of their instruments.

The sound is on a par with the those other recent releases, which is to say that it’s flawless. The performances are thrilling and engaging, and the material selections are eclectic and inspired. Bishop – who, while nominally the leader, happily makes way for his talented sidemen to do their things – serves up a pair of sets that includes numbers by Jobim, Sammy Fain, Miles Davis (two, in fact: “So What” and “Pfrancing (No Blues),” both from the ‘67 date) and more. Subtlety and passion are showcased in equal measure.

By now it’s verging on repetition to observe that the liner notes accompanying a Feldman/Weeds project are exemplary, but it nonetheless bears repeating. The 32pp booklet that accompanies the digipak CD configuration of Bish at the Bank is filled with excellent archival photos and illuminating essays. Bishop isn’t among the better-known of jazz pianists, but one listen to this set will leave you wondering why that’s so. Recommended. And let’s keep on the lookout for more from Zev and Cory.