Michael Blake: Ghostlines

The idea of resolution – of disorder seeking out (and finally discovering) order – is an attractive one to the human psyche. It's why most people (count me out) prefer the “Hollywood ending” in their movies. “Ghostlines” is a terrific improvisation that tricks the listener into thinking “all is well” before disorder has its way. Beginning with a long, foggy duet of sorts between Blake's airy saxophone and some damaged Gestrin piano clusters. (Or was that the marimba? The fog can play tricks on us.) It becomes apparent that a theme is forming as some chiming marimba notes do appear, followed by the piano playing counterpoint. But just when resolution is in our grasp, most of the instruments drop away, leaving the saxophone walking off into the mist.

December 31, 2007 · 0 comments

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Abigail Riccards: I'll Be Seeing You

You know that cliché about a voice so beautiful that you wouldn't mind it singing the phone book? I'm ashamed to say that I've got to dust that one off for Abigail Riccards. The song itself has been done by so many singers that I was surprised to find myself looking up from my writing pad as the first verse passed. Guitarist Lund floats a gorgeous chord melody underneath the vocals...and oh, the vocals! Riccards has a lovely, finely textured voice and the delicate trills added at each line's end made me wish I'd known this version forever.

December 31, 2007 · 1 comment

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Johnny Bothwell: From the Land of Sky Blue Water

Bothwell was called "the white Johnny Hodges" for his beautiful sound and florid technique. Formerly a member of Woody Herman's and Sonny Dunham's Orchestras, his initial recognition came as soloist with Boyd Raeburn's 1944 orchestra. Raeburn even let Bothwell use arrangements from his book for the altoist's sessions with Signature Records in early 1945. Bothwell left Raeburn, joined Gene Krupa for a short time, and then formed a good small group before putting together a big band in 1946. He scraped by for two years, formed other small groups and then disappeared by the early fifties, turning up in Florida shortly before his death. Most of Bothwell's recordings during this period are attempts to get hits with poor material, but there is one constant that makes most of them worth hearing: the talent of his chief arranger Paul Villepigue. "From the Land of Sky Blue Water" is perhaps Villepigue's finest moment with Bothwell. Because of its form of fast-slow-fast, this is clearly not a record for dancing. But Villepigue's use of a flute in the setting and his lovely harmonies clearly enhance the original song; while his transition from slow to fast using four 3/4 bars and one 2/4 bar to get back to 4/4 is one of the most graceful uses of time change in jazz ensemble writing -- and rarely done during that era. Villepigue would later write for Claude Thornhill, Charlie Barnet and Stan Kenton.

December 31, 2007 · 0 comments

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John Scofield: Shoe Dog

Jazzmen, from Charlie Christian to Wes Montgomery, defined the sound of the electric guitar: clear, swinging and sophisticated. But as rock 'n' rollers and electric bluesmen gave the guitar a ruder identity, the instrument turned uglier than General Patton's bull terrier Willie. Amplifiers cranked to 11, feedback, fuzzboxes—it was worse than your 2nd-grade teacher scraping her fingernails on the chalkboard to get everyone's attention. Yet, somehow, out of this din emerged John Scofield, who can flirt with electronic debauchery without violating his jazz vows of musicality. "Shoe Dog," by way of sly, easygoing example, slips so snugly and refreshingly into the ear, we wonder how we've gotten along without it all these years.

December 31, 2007 · 3 comments

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Maria Schneider: Evanescence

Maria Schneider honors her mentor Gil Evans -- whom she assisted in various musical pursuits during the last three years of his life -- with her glorious composition "Evanescence." The essence of Evans, his visionary contribution, was replacing the battling sections of the big band era (trumpets versus trombones versus saxes) with a streamlined conception in which different instruments blend together as a choir. Under his guidance, big band music moves from a war metaphor to a new role model, one rich in spiritual overtones. Maria Schneider, who formed her own band in 1989, builds on this same holistic image of large ensemble as a coming together of individual voices. Her horn writing on "Evanescence" is brightly colored and richly textured, like a tapestry which reveals more fine details the closer you examine it. Check out (to cite one example) her clever underpinning to Tim Hagans' solo. But Schneider is equally gifted at writing yearning melodies with their big interval leaps and declamatory phrases. This composition would sound good played by a squeezebox and fiddle. But with all the tools at her command, Schneider reaches for the stars.

December 31, 2007 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Cheek to Cheek

Count Basie did not have a pleasant 1949. He'd already disbanded, put together a new group, and was scraping for gigs. As if that weren't enough, he was finishing out a contract with RCA Victor Records, an association which did neither the artist nor the label very much good. This edition of his band would finally disappear in August, and the Count would lead a wonderful small group for a time until he started yet another big band, this group more successful in many ways than the first. Even when work was not plentiful, he could still attract excellent musicians and make some nice records. While not a classic, "Cheek to Cheek" swings nicely and is perfect to dance to, boasting a colorful, bop-tinged arrangement which was probably made by Gerald Wilson. Solos are unconfirmed, but they sound like Edison, Wells and Gonsalves. And we get to hear the Count on celeste during the song's first chorus.

December 31, 2007 · 0 comments

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Brad Mehldau: Still Crazy After All These Years

Mehldau again shakes up the jazz police by sneaking some Paul Simon lead sheets into the nightclub. A quick check of Tom Lord's massive The Jazz Discography finds only two cover versions of Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" listed in its 23,000 virtual pages -- one of them is Mehldau's. Here the pianist turns his attention to the almost equally unlikely jam tune "Still Crazy After All These Years." But Simon crafted a lovely pop-rock waltz and it works in a jazz setting. Mehldau brings out the beauty of the melody and plays with great delicacy. But no Mehldau cover version is without its little surprises. When he gets to the end of the bridge, he lingers . . . and lingers and lingers. If this were a real bridge, say the Golden Gate, the suicide prevention squad would be out in full force by now. Brad grinds out a vamp that sets the poor old bridge swingin' and shakin'. But everything turns out okay, and Mehldau comes back to the main theme in all its glory. He will not be convicted by a jury of his peers, but this musician is still playing crazy after all these years.

December 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Brad Mehldau: How Long Has This Been Going On

I have written elsewhere how Brad Mehldau has updated the piano trio repertoire, refreshing the musty museum which passes for the standard jazz playlist. But Mehldau has never renounced Gershwin and his Tin Pan Alley associates -- he has just given them some new company, letting them hang out with Radiohead, Nick Drake and Paul Simon. And when Mehldau plays the brothers George & Ira in the year 2000, they come dressed in new millennium garb. This performance opens at an ambling ballad pace and Mehldau is sparing in his piano work. We think, at least for a moment, that the pianist is taking it sweet and easy. Have we returned to the open spaces and straightforward melody-solos-melody framework of Mehldau's earlier trio work? Nope! At the five-minute mark, bass and drums lay out, and Mehldau seems to be entering a brief piano coda to wrap up the piece. In fact, we are only halfway through this magnificent performance, with the best yet to come. Mehldau now offers a brilliant chord study -- not really a reharmonization of Gershwin's song, but something even more daring. Mehldau builds a new composition with occasional snippets of "How Long Has This Been Going On" bobbing and weaving above the surface, indicating the place where Gershwin's tune once floated. This interlude is fresh and interesting, without the slightest hint of banality or conventional jazz piano vocabulary. When Grenadier and Rossy return, more than four minutes later, their calming rubato gestures cap a remarkable performance.

December 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Eldar: Place St. Henri

Jazz is a borderless art. Among the first to prove it was Montreal's Oscar Peterson, who took jazzdom by storm in 1949, when topflight players were thought not to exist north of Boston. Nowadays they hail from Kyrgyzstan! At least, that's where pianist Eldar Djangirov was born in 1987. Here, Eldar and Oscar converge at "Place St. Henri" from Peterson's 1964 Canadiana Suite. Recorded a year before its composer's death, this track honors both men. A technical tour de force, "Place St. Henri" encompasses the history of jazz piano from stride to bop. If anyone wonders where the next Oscar Peterson might come from, the answer is clear: Kyrgyzstan.

December 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Brad Mehldau: River Man

In some circles, Mehldau may be almost as influential for his repertoire as his pianism. He has done more than any other musician of his generation to expand the concept of jazz "standards" beyond the traditional confines of Gershwin and Tin Pan Alley. Because of him, Radiohead and Nick Drake are now part of the great jazz game. Mehldau has also recorded Drake's "River Man" in an exemplary trio version, but this solo piano outing from a Tokyo concert offers a different perspective. Mehldau opens with a soothing melody statement, his left hand reminiscent of the strumming of Drake's guitar. But the textures soon get thicker and his phrases more insistent. By mid-solo he is attacking the keyboard with booming chords, harsh and angry, more Wagnerian than Drake-ish. We still encounter Mehldau's trademark "conversation between the hands," but instead of crisscrossing melodies, his two fists are hurling large harmonies back and forth at each other. We have now come full circle from the moody romanticism of the first Art of the Trio recording. This is formidable pianism, brash and challenging.

December 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Boyd Raeburn: Blue Moon

Raeburn began his career in the Midwest leading a functional Lawrence Welk-type band. By 1943, he switched gears and put together a jazz ensemble that by 1946 was one of the most admired and controversial in American music. But in 1945, his band reflected a Basie approach to music and attracted the top young musicians on the scene. Gillespie was not a regular member, but his "A Night in Tunisia" was part of the Raeburn book. Lang-Worth Transcriptions (recordings made for radio play) recorded most of the Raeburn library over several sessions and with numerous personnel changes. "Blue Moon" is an exciting dance arrangement with good solos by Bothwell, Gillespie and Carpenter. But the real stars are this powerhouse group, and a terrific arrangement by baritone saxophonist/arranger Milt Kleeb, still active as co-leader of an 11-piece band with Bill Ramsey in the Seattle area.

December 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Brad Mehldau: Martha My Dear

Paul McCartney doesn't get much credit as a pianist, but he builds very smart musical structures at the keyboard. Check out "Martha My Dear" from The White Album and admire Paul's fine harmonic motion and interesting left-hand action. But when it comes to left-hand action, Mehldau is the best since Smokin' Joe Fraizer threw that vicious southpaw hook back in the white-album-ish days of yore. Mehldau's sinister phalanges run amok in the bass clef, and his right is no slouch, by the way. Mehldau's counterpoint is invigorating, and this whole track shows not only his musicianship, but his conceptual brilliance.

December 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Brad Mehldau: I Fall in Love Too Easily

Brad Mehldau's first Art of the Trio recording from 1996 includes some of the most romantic playing of his career. This artist sometimes veers into cerebral territory, offering up multi-layered performances that I dig, but that I would be more likely to recommend to musicians than to casual fans. But this track comes straight from the heart - one of those hear-a-pin-drop ballads that sends a hush over the nightclub, and even gets the burly bouncer at the door teary-eyed. In his later recordings, the pianist has tended to cram more content into his solos, and one fears that the constant comparisons with Bill Evans (to which Mehldau has vehemently objected) has perhaps led him to build ever more impressive superstructures into his trio performances. But this wistful song shows that Mehldau can create tremendous drama and emotion with a stark and simple immersion into the feeling space of the composition.

December 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Jan Allan: Polska With Trumpet

Jan Allan is one of Sweden's finest trumpet players, collaborating in live performance and recordings with such musicians as Gil Evans, George Russell, Bob Brookmeyer, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and fellow Swedes Lars Gullin and Rolf Billberg. This track is included in an album which features three compositions for small ensemble, and three for large big band by Nils Lindberg, a classically trained composer/pianist whose music for saxophone ensemble, big band, symphony orchestra and/or choir is drenched in Swedish folk music. The ten-minute "Polska with Trumpet" is in sonata-allgreo form, and is an excellent example of composition for big band and soloist, perfectly balancing the written with the improvised. The solo in the 'A' section of the work is fully notated while the solo in the development portion is improvised, culminating in a trumpet/timpani cadenza. Also included in this section are exciting solos by Gustaffson and Aberg backed by trombones. The recording is a triumph for all participants, and not surprisingly, Jan Allan-70 won the Golden Record as the Best Swedish Jazz Recording of the Year by the magazine Orkester Journalen.

December 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Brad Mehldau: It Might As Well Be Sprng

In this debut trio recording, Mehldau stays in a straight-ahead groove. The later Art of the Trio recordings would take more chances, with their rhythmic pyrotechnics and the trademark left-versus-right-hand counterpoint that Mehldau does so well. But the trio swings with elegant drive on this Richard Rodgers' standard, and the pianist's improvised lines sparkle. Grenadier and Rossy support rather than challenge, and the whole performance stands out for its understated fluency. A promising debut with intimations of the riches to come.

December 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Maria Schneider: The 'Pretty' Road

Maria Schneider continues to impress with her 13-minute "The 'Pretty' Road" from her Sky Blue CD. Frank Kimbrough's solo piano introduction, taken out of tempo, states Schneider's bittersweet melody. Horns enter unobtrusively and gradually take over the melody, first with delicacy, and then with large, grandiloquent gestures. By the time we are in the midst of Ingrid Jensen's passionate solo, the lush landscape of the 'pretty' road is flashing by the windows of our family station wagon (the childhood inspiration for Schneider's composition), and we are certain that we are nearing our destination. But Schneider now surprises us with a dramatic change in tone and mood, taking us for a side trip through four minutes of shimmering, pointillistic horn-writing. This is a real aural treat. But the main melody returns, like a familiar lover, and sweeps us up in a long embrace. The coda is a delight. Pretty? That, my friends, is an understatement.

December 28, 2007 · 0 comments

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Buddy DeFranco: Out of Nowhere

At this writing, DeFranco continues to be an excellent musician playing an instrument that fell out of favor early in his career. Although he was certainly on the level of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, DeFranco was never able to cash in on his incredible playing the way his heroes did. After stints with Tommy Dorsey (his clarinet solo on the recording of "Opus No. 1" remains a classic) and Boyd Raeburn, DeFranco fronted an excellent small group before trying his luck as a big band leader. The band only lasted a few months before DeFranco joined Norman Granz's stable of soloists who toured all over the world. This track comes from DeFranco's first MGM session with an all-star studio ensemble recorded before the touring edition was formed. Under a straightforward ensemble background, DeFranco states the melody in an equally straightforward manner during the first chorus. The improvised solo in the second chorus begins in the low register, and maintains this easygoing feeling until the 'B' section. Then DeFranco cuts loose in a breathless burst of bop for another chorus and a half, even throwing in a quote from "Fascinating Rhythm." The result stuns and grips the listener with the sheer virtuosity and melodic beauty of DeFranco's art. The record seems to be over before it has started.

December 27, 2007 · 0 comments

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Kendra Shank: Incantation / Throw It Away

One can only applaud the idea of a tribute album featuring Abbey Lincoln's songs -- especially when Lincoln is still around to appreciate the gesture. But this recording does more to puzzle than to please. The essence of phrasing for jazz vocalists, as epitomized by the work of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, has long been to let the meaning of the words guide the voice. But on this track, Shank seems to accent syllables at random, almost as if she were singing in Esperanto, and didn't know the meaning of the words. Sometimes she falls into a singsong, moving back and forth from heavily stressed to unstressed syllables, reminding me of a babysitter reciting a nursery rhyme. I give Shank credit for trying something different, but Lincoln's moving lyrics are lost in this babble. Shank is a talented singer with an excellent voice, but her conception of this song lets her down on this particular performance.

December 27, 2007 · 0 comments

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Count Basie (with Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams): Teach Me Tonight

Vaughan and Basie were regulars at the jazz club Birdland on Broadway in New York City; Williams was still the vocalist with the Count's ensemble. All were on career highs and signed to Roulette Records. It was natural that label head Morris Levy would combine Basie and Vaughan for a record album. According to Frank Foster, "Teach Me Tonight" was the song of choice when Vaughan would drop by the club and sit in with the band, and she and Williams would "break up the house every time." The familiarity of the material shows in the performance by Vaughan and Williams, which crackles with excitement; clearly these two are having a great time with this roaring Wilkins setting. This performance is a standout by all participants, and is a deserved classic. Ironically, it was only available briefly on Roulette single #4273 until it was issued on CD in 1996. Equally ironic, Basie himself was missing from the proceedings; the pianist was Ms. Vaughan's regular accompanist, Kirk Stuart.

December 27, 2007 · 0 comments

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Max Roach: All Africa (from Freedom Now Suite)

The horns only make the briefest appearance on this movement from Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. We open with Abbey Lincoln singing over drum accompaniment: "The beat has a rich and magnificent history, full of adventure, excitement and mystery. Some of it bitter and some of it sweet." But the centerpiece here is the four-minute percussion solo, performed with grandeur by Roach. This is a dramatic moment in 1960s jazz. Indeed, the whole Freedom Now Suite stands out as a landmark event in Roach's illustrious career, and an important milestone in the still-vital efforts to fuse African and jazz musical traditions.

December 27, 2007 · 0 comments

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Kurt Elling: A New Body and Soul

Kurt Elling not only promises "a new Body and Soul" in his song title, but he actually delivers the goods. By now, we are familiar with Elling's fastidious care in reworking the songs in his repertoire. Although his performances sound spontaneous and 'in the moment,' Elling never just wings it. Here he constructs new lyrics inspired by Dexter Gordon's rendition of this standard on the tenorist's 1976 Homecoming release. Elling takes the listener on an ingenious ten-minute journey full of densely packed vocalese, with a little dose of pianist Hobgood as a rest stop before we reach our final destination. He rewards us with a happy ending, and we can sit and contemplate how far we have come since Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry dished out their own body-and-soul-fulness back in the 1930s.

December 26, 2007 · 0 comments

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Astor Piazzolla & Gary Burton: Milonga is Coming

Gary Burton had worked in Stan Getz's band in the 1960s, and saw firsthand how Getz's advocacy of bossa nova and willingness to collaborate with Brazilian musicians had revitalized his career and created a sensation in the music world. Two decades after leaving Getz, Burton embarks on a similar venture with the greatest Argentinean musician of the modern era, the brilliant tango composer and performer Astor Piazzolla. This promising meeting of jazz music and nuevo tango did not climb to the top of the charts, and posed no commercial match for that tall & tan & young & lovely girl who strolled past the Veloso bar-cafe in Rio. But this is a important recording, nonetheless, and one wishes that it had led to follow-up projects of similar scope. Burton here adapts to Piazzolla's compositions, and does so admirably, although with perhaps a little too much respect -- after all, Getz himself was fond of saying that irreverence was an essential attribute of a great jazz player. Maybe a dose of it would have been in place in this setting. I would have liked to hear one or two numbers in which the roles were reversed, with the great bandoneónist and his colleagues immersed in some heady modern jazz tunes; or perhaps (heaven forbid) a jazzier assault on one of Piazzolla's own cherished numbers.

December 26, 2007 · 1 comment

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Al Di Meola: Milonga Del Angel

I have a passion for Piazzolla, and look with satisfaction on how the music of this great master of nuevo tango still lives on more than 15 years after his death -- although his influence flourishes mostly outside the perimeter of the jazz world. Piazzolla had some interactions with jazz players during his career, perhaps most notably in his 1986 live recording with Gary Burton, but I am nonetheless surprised at how little attention the jazzistas pay to his legacy. By comparison, the bossa, samba, reggae and salsa styles seem to have penetrated the jazz mind more deeply. But Piazzolla and the tango tradition are just as potent as these other idioms, and one could profitably spend years exploring their riches.

Al Di Meola has done just that. He has been an advocate of Piazzolla's music for more than a decade, and previously recorded "Milonga del Angel" on his Di Meola Plays Piazzolla CD. He now contributes an intimate solo version as part of his first-rate recent release Diabolic Inventions and Seduction for Solo Guitar, Volume 1: Music of Astor Piazzolla. If you remember Al Di Meola for his fusion work and his stint with Return to Forever, you haven't experienced the full measure of his artistry. From the first, Di Meola had deep roots in World Music -- his flamenco flourishes are as authentic as you will find this side of the Atlantic, and his feel for the tango idiom could hardly be any deeper. This heartfelt performance is a fitting tribute to Piazzolla, and a reminder of how fine a guitarist Al Di Meola can be when placed in the right setting.

December 25, 2007 · 0 comments

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Esbjörn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.): Dating

Esbjörn Svensson's trio E.S.T. stands out as one of the most interesting European jazz ensembles of recent years -- but to call this a great European band is far too limiting. E.S.T. demands our attention as one of the finest piano trios to be found anywhere. I have long felt that many of the implications of the early ECM recordings, and in particular Keith Jarrett's masterful Facing You, have not been sufficiently understood and developed by later musicians. Jarrett himself went off in different directions, and no one else seemed interested or capable of mining this rich vein of harmonic textures and compositional devices. But E.S.T. builds new superstructures on this ground, adding much of their own inspiration and creativity in the process. Svensson, in particular, has a first-rate musical mind and shows here that he needs to be mentioned when the discussion turns to the best jazz pianists of the current day.

December 24, 2007 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz (featuring Chick Corea): La Fiesta

Stan Getz was not just one of the greatest tenor saxophonists in the history of the music, but also an acute judge of talent. He brought João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim to the attention of the mass market -- if Nobel Prizes were awarded for international musical advocacy, that move alone would have sent Getz back to "Dear Old Stockholm." Yet Getz also helped propel the careers of a host of other big-time talents, ranging from Horace Silver to Diane Schuur. But when Getz ran into Chick Corea (who had been in Stan's band in 1966-67) in Spain in 1971, the two began plotting . . . and soon the tenorist was given a chance to unleash the next, new BIG thing. If Stan had held on to the band from his Captain Marvel session, he might have been as famous for fusion as for "Four Brothers," and maybe even approached his bossa nova sales. Instead, this exciting track represents a passing interlude in a variegated career. No, Getz is not remembered for this style of music, but don't think that you can skip this recording. The Captain was a Marvel, even if his fusion journey was all too short.

December 24, 2007 · 1 comment

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Pat Metheny & Brad Mehldau: Ahmid-6

After a century of jazz, the piano and guitar duet is still a rare format, with only a few genuine masterpieces produced by this instrumental combination. Both guitarists and pianists love to mess around with chord voicings, and there is a great likelihood of clashing harmonies or muddy textures unless both performers play with great sensitivity and restraint. The 1962 collaboration between Bill Evans and Jim Hall still remains the litmus test by which this format is judged, but Metheny and Mehldau's 2006 session will inevitably be added to the short list of definitive guitar-meets-piano performances. Both Metheny and Mehldau are a natural for this type of partnership. Each has a history of functioning collaboratively within the context of a working band -- Mehldau with his stellar trio, and Metheny in many settings, but especially in his work with keyboardist Lyle Mays. They are both great listeners with what jazz people call 'big ears,' and the mutual respect is obvious throughout this CD. Mehldau does an especially good job of driving "Ahmid-6," and bass and drums are hardly missed, despite the high-energy tone of the composition. Metheny, for his part, never seems at a loss for melodic ideas, and offers up another winning solo.

December 24, 2007 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny & Brad Mehldau: A Night Away

Metheny and Mehldau worked admirably together on their recent guitar-piano duets, but this quartet track with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard reaches an even higher plateau. Metheny takes one of his great melodic solos on "A Night Away," and he continues to impress me with his ability to sublimate technique and ego in order to elevate the musicality of any given performance. Guitarists often play as if they are getting paid piece rate by the note, but Metheny is cut from a different cloth. If you listen to this track a few times, you will start humming along with his solo. Mehldau starts his improvisation in a similar vein, but soon begins pushing against the grain of the chords, stretching the aural sensibility of the composition. But you can tell that the pianist was enjoying the proceedings. He even is shown chuckling to himself on the back cover of the CD -- and jazz fans know that no artist since Miles has given fewer smiles on his promo photos than the serious Mr. Mehldau. Listeners, for their part, will find it hard to be glum when these two artists join forces.

December 23, 2007 · 0 comments

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Anders Widmark: Sweet Georgia Brown

Anders Widmark usually likes to lock into a happy groove and milk it for everything it's worth. Hence "Sweet Georgia Brown" is a great choice for him, and even before hearing his performance I could almost see the basketball bouncing back and forth among the members of his hot Swedish trio. Flashy passes, slam dunks, the whole works. But Widmark surprised me by dismissing the rest of his trio and settling into a thoughtful solo piano reworking of the standard, with only a smattering of blues licks thrown into the mix. But the total effect is quite impressive. Widmark's reharmonization is especially clever, and shows a powerful musical mind at work.

December 23, 2007 · 0 comments

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Anders Widmark: Raga Muffin Man

There is not much Indian raga in "Raga Muffin Man," but you will find a double dose of flat thirds and flat sevenths. Imagine if Ramsey Lewis grew up in Sweden, and picture the 'In Crowd' transplanted to Stockholm. An unexpected image perhaps, but it gives you some sense of Anders Widmark and his seriously funky piano playing. When the jazz snobs tells you that Europeans don't really get down, play this song and watch their jaws drop.

December 23, 2007 · 0 comments

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Eugene Chadbourne: Eleanor Rigby

I listened to this version of "Eleanor Rigby" and couldn't figure out if Chadbourne & Co. were playing it in major or minor. I listened again, and still couldn't decide. I'm not sure Eugene Chadbourne ever quite made up his mind. Maybe we should check with Paul and Yoko. Then again, fidelity to the original spirit of the music is not a high priority with this band. Elsewhere on the same CD, for example, we are regaled with "The Girl from Al-Qaeda" set to the music of your least favorite cocktail lounge song. (At least, Chadbourne is generous enough to credit "Getz / Jobim" as co-composers.) I might be old-fashioned . . . but I still think you should make sure your bandmates agree on the chord changes before you record the song. Nonetheless, Chadbourne will have his fans, especially among those who prefer Joseph Spence to Wes Montgomery, and Ed Wood to Orson Welles. If you fall into that category, you better not tell Paul and Yoko. They might want to put a stop to all this fun.

December 22, 2007 · 1 comment

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Wynton Marsalis: Blood on the Fields

Wynton Marsalis has built a career on high ambitions—including (for a start) assimilating the music vocabulary from Haydn to Ornette—but this may be the biggest gambit of them all. The best comparison point here is Duke Ellington's extraordinary Black, Brown & Beige, composed a half-century before Wynton presented his Blood on the Fields to the music world. Like Ellington, Marsalis also tries to pull together history, sociology and lots of dramatic music into a big, big, big composition-- more than twice as long as Ellington's work. It may take the jazz world decades to digest this massive three-hour work -- and with Wynton Marsalis there is a particular problem that people like to talk about his music without giving it the close listening it deserves. But I predict that the Pulitzer committee's controversial decision to select this composition as the first jazz work honored in their long history will eventually look like a very smart move. Who would have thought that the dazzling trumpeter who first made his mark as a teenager hard-bopping in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers would evolve into such a masterful composer? Listen especially to how well he writes for horns. One of the high points of a storied career.

December 22, 2007 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: All Blues

Miles Davis recorded many classic performances during his long career, but this ranks among the most beloved and best known of his works. Bill Evans sets the tone with a 6/8 vamp which provides both a hook for the listener and a spur for the soloists. I could tell you that Miles never had a better band . . . but, honestly, the real issue here is whether anyone ever brought a finer combo into a studio. And unlike most all-star dates, Kind of Blue contains no grandstanding or attempts at one-upmanship. Miles, Trane, Cannonball and the rhythm section all assert their individual personalities, but in a way that stays true to the mood of the music. This is not just a song, but a musical vision, perfectly realized and set down for the ages.

December 22, 2007 · 1 comment

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Dinah Washington: You Don't Know What Love Is

Though she tends to take a backseat to Lady Day and Sassy in most jazz criticism, it’s difficult to find anything to criticize on Dinah Washington’s 1955 session for Norman Granz. Washington’s delivery, while every bit as knowing as Holiday’s, emerges from a place of confidence and resilience rather than fragility and despair. Supported by Galbraith’s solo guitar work on the opening lines and thereafter by Quincy Jones’ arrangement of an all-star horn section, with a wonderful solo by Jimmy Cleveland, Dinah delivers a hopefully defiant interpretation of this Raye-DePaul standard, belying an undercurrent of raw emotion that tells the listener she knows exactly what love—and jazz—is.

December 22, 2007 · 1 comment

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Enrico Rava: The Pilgrim and the Stars

"Contemporary Italian jazz can be said to have begun with Enrico Rava," critic Michael Zwerin has written. Rava is still recording for ECM more than three decades after the release of The Pilgrim and the Stars, and though his work has continued to evolve and mature, this early outing demonstrates the core virtues of his style -- a warm, inviting tone, especially rich in the lower register; great phrasing with lots of variety; a fluent technical command of the instrument; and very smart use of space and dynamics. Kudos (again) to ECM for hunting out deserving musicians such as Rava and bringing them to the attention of the global jazz audience.

December 21, 2007 · 0 comments

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The Bad Plus: This Guy's In Love With You

Cocktail lounge music from hell? No, it's just The Bad Plus playing games with a song that is best kept locked inside elevators and dental practices. This Bacharach and David tune was never cool. After all, it was debuted by Herb Alpert (of Tijuana Brass fame) on a TV show. Herb Alpert is to cool what kryptonite is to Superman. But this trio doesn't put "Bad" in their name for nothing. They like to play up the hokey elements in songs like this -- check out how they rev up the overwrought part near the end of melody -- but occasionally mixing in some radical jazz elements to show that they -- The Bad Plus -- are above it all. I usually prefer my songs played straight and with real emotion, but when I want a dose of postmodern, deconstructionist jazz, this band gets the nod. A fun outing from the most irreverent trio in jazz.

December 21, 2007 · 0 comments

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Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians

The ECM label would eventually push far beyond its jazz roots, but its willingness to tackle new sounds and idioms is perhaps best exemplified by this 1978 release by composer Steve Reich. The classical music world has claimed this extended, hour-long performance, and it is deservedly lauded as a major statement of the minimalist aesthetic. But any attempt to link this music to categories such as "classical' or "jazz" misses much of the point of this visionary composition, which defines its own soundspace. The slow pace of harmonic change creates a hypnotic effect that is unmatched, in my opinion, by any other work of modern music. Reich relies heavily on mallet instruments -- played by seven members of the ensemble -- but tempers them with four female voices, creating a tension between soft and hard, stubborn insistence and gentle persuasion, that transforms the aural space.

December 21, 2007 · 0 comments

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The Spirits of Rhythm: My Old Man

"My Old Man" is one of those And yet songs. God knows, alcoholic fathers are no joke. They can be destructive, irresponsible, exploitative and abusive. Even the least obnoxious shame their families and strain the resources of society. And yet … this warmly affectionate song shows the redemptive qualities of humor and forgiveness. "He's only doin' the best he can," the Spirits of Rhythm absolve. Aren't we all? Caveat: as of January 2008, this 1996 Dutch import CD remained the most readily available source of "My Old Man," but audio is subpar on a track obviously remastered from a worn shellac disk.

December 21, 2007 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Bremen, Germany, July 12, 1973, Part I

Jazz musicians have always emphasized improvisation in their work. But few have taken this reliance on spontaneous creation to the lengths Keith Jarrett has assayed in his solo concerts. He pioneered the (still rare) concept of an entirely improvised piano recital, wholly inspired by the muse of the moment. But if the concept is exciting, Jarrett's execution of this ambitious idea is even more impressive. The ECM recording of Jarrett's 1973 Bremen concert represented the first attempt to capture this type of work on tape and present it on record. This disk may not have sold as well as the The Köln Concert from 1975 or matched the scope of Jarrett's massive Sun Bear Concerts (originally released on ten LPs) from 1976, but for sheer musicality and inventiveness it is hard to top the recital in Bremen. Here is piano music that is rich in complexity, subtle in detail, and completely free of cliché. One of my desert island disks.

December 20, 2007 · 0 comments

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The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Folkus

When the Art Ensemble of Chicago showed up at a studio in Ludwigsburg, Germany to record for ECM, it was as surprising (at least to jazz fans) as the Berlin Wall coming down. To many advocates of Free Jazz, ECM was the Evil Empire, dismissed as a reactionary attempt to infuse too strong a dose of European influences into the jazz vocabulary, thus watering down the music's inherent vitality. (Phew, that was a mouthful.) Such rhetoric may seem a little overheated today, but back in the 1970s the current pluralistic, open jazz environment had not yet been established, and those at the cutting (bleeding?) edge tended to believe that jazz presented a linear progression that allowed no turning back! But here we found the leading avant-garde band of the era showing up as "nice guys" and joining hands with their European brethren -- in a release appropriately named Nice Guys.

But the Art Ensemble didn't get too nice -- and things get very edgy if you try saying this song title after your second drink at the nightclub. The lengthy "Folkus" track includes all their usual stock-in-trade: lots of dissonance, minimalist interludes, criss-crossing horn lines, background-music-as-foreground-music, and enough percussion instruments to fill a museum of membranophones and idiophones. Not nice enough, perhaps, for many ECM fans, but a historic moment by any measure . . . and an event signaling both the end of ECM's early years and the arrival of the new postmodern jazz world of peace and brotherhood.

December 20, 2007 · 0 comments

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Egberto Gismonti: Baião Malandro

Egberto Gismonti concludes his Sol Do Meio Dia recording with a suite of four compositions, finishing with his amazing "Baião Malandro." Many know Gismonti as a guitarist, but this keyboard performance captures some of the most invigorating piano work in the ECM catalog. A savvy jazz player once told me that the secret to success was to steal from other players, but only from those who play other instruments -- so no one can trace your sources. Gismonti does just that -- but he steals ideas from his own guitar conception. Imagine treating the piano like an 88-string guitar, and you get some idea of what this song sounds like. A bravura performance full of drama and fireworks.

December 20, 2007 · 0 comments

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Jan Garbarek: Witchi-Tai-To

No record label has done more to establish the unique voice of European jazz -- not as an adjunct to American trends, but as a legitimate source of innovation -- than ECM under the direction of Manfred Eicher. But here Jan Garbarek and the exceptional rhythm section of Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen dig deeply into the ultimate American roots music. The Native American-inspired jazz of the late Jim Pepper is still all too little known and appreciated, although it has found a devoted audience that will not let his vital music be forgotten. Garbarek and crew offer an impassioned rendition of Pepper's best-known composition. Stenson starts in a wistful vein, but the energy level gradually increases . . . until Garbarek enters and wails with passion. His work in the upper register is as close as the saxophone can get to a human cry.

December 20, 2007 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny: Midwestern Nights Dream

Bright Size Life may have been recorded in Ludwigsburg, Germany, but the spirit of the American heartland permeates its tracks. In addition to "Midwestern Nights Dream," other Metheny compositions from this seminal release include "Omaha Celebration" and "Missouri Uncompromised." The guitarist is joined on this exploration of aural Americana by New York-born drummer Bob Moses and Finnish- American Jaco Pastorius, raised in Pennsylvania and Florida. Missouri native Metheny leads the way with dreamy, free-floating chords that gradually entice his cohorts into musical dialogue. One of Metheny's great virtues as a guitarist is his complete freedom from clichés and trite licks. His improvised lines always grow organically from the music, invariably sounding natural and unforced. Although he is a master of technique, his music never sounds technical. Not since Wes Montgomery has a guitarist shown such consistent ability to enter into the inner life of a song. Only 21 years old when this track was recorded, Metheny was already making music as expansive as the Midwestern night sky.

December 19, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ralph Towner & Gary Burton: Icarus

Both of these musicians had fully assimilated the modern jazz tradition before joining forces for their Matchbook sessions on ECM. Burton had worked with Stan Getz and George Shearing, and had been one of the first to test the fusion waters, with his Duster release on RCA back in 1967. Towner had also tried his hand at fusion -- he appeared as a guest artist on Weather Report's I Sing the Body Electric almost three years prior to Matchbook -- and had even made his mark as a pianist before focusing on guitar. But the constraints of the standard post-bebop vocabulary were too confining for these players, who wanted to assimilate a variety of sounds (folk music, classical, ethnic, and avant-garde, among others) into their ever expanding musical melting pots. "Icarus" is one of Towner's finest compositions. He had already recorded it with the Paul Winter Consort and on his ECM solo release Diary, and he would draw on it again with the band Oregon and in other settings. The composition evokes a transcendent, yearning ambiance -- this is nothing less than a musical soundtrack for a personal vision quest. Here is the mythical Icarus while still in ascendancy and heading for the stars, and Towner and Burton enter fully into the emotional maelstrom of the flight.

December 19, 2007 · 0 comments

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The Boswell Sisters: Shout, Sister, Shout

In his book Jazz Singing (1990), Will Friedwald calls The Boswell Sisters "the greatest of all jazz vocal groups." Preternaturally attuned, they could start singing independently in separate rooms, gravitate towards one another, and find upon meeting that they were not only at the same spot in the same song, in tempo and in key, but in perfect harmony! This spooky synchronicity is well displayed in "Shout, Sister, Shout"—part jazz, part gospel, with shifting meters dramatizing its morally prophylactic message: One thing the Devil can't stand is a hallelujah song. If only Linda Blair had known! Exorcists take note.

December 19, 2007 · 1 comment

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Dave Holland: Conference of the Birds

Jazz was exploring new horizons during the 1970s, dancing on the divide between consonance and dissonance, Europe and African-American elements, traditions and anti-traditions. Sometimes the experiments faltered but at other moments they coalesced into something fresh and never before heard. Conference of the Birds is one of those magical recordings where everything clicks. This performance sounded inspired and sui generis when I first heard it, and still captivates me today. I could try to trace the influences. Do I detect a Celtic tinge? Am I crazy when I actually hear the birds singing in this piece? Never mind, just listen and enjoy one of the great tracks of the decade.

December 18, 2007 · 0 comments

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Chick Corea & Béla Fleck: Brazil

Jazz fans have enjoyed this composition in many versions, both jazz arrangements such as Chick Corea's solo piano rendition, or when played (usually under the title "Aquarela do Brasil") by many of the leading Brazilian musicians of the last half century. This standard is so well known and beloved in Brazil that a panel of experts picked it as the "Brazilian song of the century" back in 1997. I can't remember asking for a version featuring banjo . . . but maybe that just shows my lack of imagination. Even so, I became the biggest believer in Brazilian banjo jazz after hearing Béla Fleck and Chick Corea work their wonders on Barroso's delightful composition. For several years now I have been suggesting that many of the most exciting developments in jazz will increasingly be found in various fusions with 'World Music' styles. But sometimes even I am surprised where these cross-fertilizations lead. Fleck and Corea's take on "Brazil" is one of those happy discoveries.

December 18, 2007 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage

"Maiden Voyage" stands out as a landmark of the Blue Note sound, and remains Herbie Hancock's finest composition. In the midst of a turbulent jazz scene, where musicians were restlessly exploring all of their options, Hancock always approached his recordings with a clear, holistic vision. Classic Hancock performances such as "Watermelon Man" or "Cantaloupe Island" would establish their identity in the introductory bars, and stick to the same course until they reached their chosen destination. The texture and ambiance of the music envelops the listener -- and the musicians too. If Freddie Hubbard ever took a hotter trumpet solo than on this recording, I haven't heard it. And all done with only four suspended chords -- but the 'hook' is in the vamp. One of the high points of 1960s jazz.

December 18, 2007 · 2 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Someday My Prince Will Come

Why does Herbie Hancock always save his best solo work for the Japanese market? When he was at the high point (low point?) of his career as a "fusion" artist, he released a solid, serious, solo keyboard effort called Dedication -- but only in Japan. I had to convert the holdings of my piggy bank into yen and find an import-export agent just to sniff the vinyl. The Piano is much the same story: a great collection of solo piano performances, but kept out of the US market for 25 years. "Someday My Prince Will Come" is a smart reworking of the famous Disney soundtrack song, with constant change-ups in mood, dynamics and attack. Although Hancock has recorded some 50 recordings as a leader, there are very few examples of him playing standards without accompaniment. This is one of the finest.

December 18, 2007 · 0 comments

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Lee Morgan: I Remember Clifford

Nine months after Clifford Brown's accidental death, composer Benny Golson unveiled this lovely, and loving, requiem for the late trumpeter, venerated as much for the content of his character as for his consummate musicianship. "I Remember Clifford" would've become a jazz standard strictly on its own merits, whatever its title. But being dedicated to the beloved Brownie ensured its instant acceptance by Clifford's peers and fans alike. Here, 18-year-old trumpet phenom Lee Morgan, a Brownie disciple but by no means imitator, brings us as close as we'll ever get to hearing Clifford himself play this reverent piece. A haunting, heartfelt tribute.

December 18, 2007 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: I've Found a New Baby

Bechet's band, at this celebrated session, was called the "New Orleans Feetwarmers"—but it's clear from the opening chorus that no one in this ensemble has cold feet. They plunge into "I've Found a New Baby" with gusto, and it would be hard to find a more driving example of New Orleans jazz. This style of music, with its interweaving counterpoint lines, was already old-fashioned by the time of this 1932 session, but Bechet and company were not ready to become museum pieces. The musicians who recreate the New Orleans sound today rarely achieve this degree of intensity—perhaps they are too respectful of the tradition. Bechet, for his part, entitled his autobiography Treat It Gentle, but the directions he gave his fellow musicians on this date must have been treat it roughly and kick it in the pants. Great late vintage New Orleans music by one of the masters.

December 18, 2007 · 0 comments

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Chick Corea: Song for Sally

When Herbie or Miles or Wayne jumped on the fusion bandwagon, they often confused their loyal fans, who struggled to connect Kind of Blue with On the Corner or make their way from "Dolphin Dance" to "Chameleon." But for Chick Corea, the chasm between his straight-ahead acoustic and crossover electric styles demanded less of a leap. Only the smallest nudge was necessary to go from (for example) Corea's work with Stan Getz to his Return to Forever efforts. This memorable ECM track is a case in point. Corea always wrote great melodies, whether he was playing for fusion fans or jazz purists. He always put that "Latin tinge" into his keyboard work. He solos are always smartly conceived and played with Corea's immediately recognizable touch at the instrument. Corea's biggest-selling releases from the era were made for the Polydor label, but the great ECM disks -- with the Circle ensemble, the collaborations with Gary Burton, the first Return to Forever LP, and two outstanding volumes of solo piano improvisations -- rank among his most cherished works. "Song for Sally" from the first volume of Piano Improvisations is one of my favorite tracks from this period.

December 17, 2007 · 0 comments

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Bix Beiderbecke: Singin' the Blues – as heard in Woody Allen's <i>Bullets Over Broadway</i> (1994)

By the time Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool was first marketed as such (1954), cool jazz had been around for 30 years. The 1920s evoke hot-footed flappers burning up the dance floor to Hot Fives, Hot Sevens and Red Hot Peppers, but "Singin' the Blues" is cooler than bathtub gin in an igloo. Backed only by Lang at Heaven's gait, minute one features Trumbauer's sweet oddity C-melody sax. Minute two finds Bix's legendary legato supplanting Trumbauer. Minute three ushers in the remaining cast for an easygoing finale. This classic track could illustrate an audio dictionary under laid-back. Indispensable loveliness.

December 17, 2007 · 0 comments

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Charles Mingus: I Can't Get Started

A definitive version of a favorite Mingus standard (and staple of his live repertoire), captured in performance at the Nonagon Art Gallery in Manhattan’s East Village. Explaining his affinity for the tune, Mingus told Nat Hentoff, “It applies to me.” His commanding solo, which begins after an abrupt tape edit, indicates that he knows and understands the material implicitly. John Handy, the other featured soloist, connects with it deeply, too. Their virtuoso flights and bravura suspensions reflect the lyric’s ironic complaint. They come on strong, effuse, emote, make strong cases, and maybe even overthink it. It’s not for lack of effort—or aesthetic achievement—that they can’t get started.

December 17, 2007 · 0 comments

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Stanley Clarke: School Days

The bass was an optional instrument in early jazz. But in the 1930s and 1940s its importance grew -- especially through the influence of the Kansas City sound and its smooth 4/4 time. The bass was now a key part of the accompaniment -- although bass solos were still as rare as caviar at a juke joint. But with the emergence of fusion in the late 1960s and 1970s, basslines drove the band. Even keyboardists and saxophonists looked to the bass to create the hook and move the audience to its feet. Thus began the age of the superstar electric bassist, with Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke setting the tone. "School Days" was a grand bass anthem -- short on harmonic variety and about as subtle as a SWAT team at the door, but full of energy and boasting a very danceable beat. Clarke is the star here, and hits the mark with one of his most admired and imitated performances. A fusion classic that may be a bit dated, but with a groove that still packs a punch.

December 13, 2007 · 0 comments

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Patricia Barber: Laura

Patricia Barber always puts a few surprises into her songs -- odd poetic phrases, unusual cultural references, layers of irony or ambiguity, or strange musical bric-a-brac. But the big surprise on this track is that she sings it absolutely straight. Yes, Barber the traditional chanteuse comes to the fore here, and contents herself with tapping into the inherent beauty of Raksin's melody and the smart Mercer lyric. And she does it very, very well. If Barber ever decides to abandon her role as the postmodern philosopher of jazz vocals, she could always find a second career as a singer of standards.

December 10, 2007 · 0 comments

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Sophie Milman: The Man I Love

When Sophie Milman recorded it, "The Man I Love" was, at 80, antique enough to have been an oldie in her grandparents' day. Hope, however, springs eternal in a Gershwin song, and Milman's confidence about, in her words, "the waiting, searching and yearning for that one relationship" shines clear—fleeting though it may be. At Milman's tender age, singer Nancy King likewise saw hope; but as she matured, "the song took on tragic dimensions, deep longing for something lost or missed." While such hard-won wisdom of elders is indispensable, so is youthful optimism. Searchingly, yearningly, Sophie Milman balances the scales.

December 10, 2007 · 0 comments

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Jane Monheit: Over the Rainbow

Coincidentally, two months after Jane Monheit recorded it, "Over the Rainbow" was voted the 20th century's favorite song in the Recording Industry of America Association's survey of hundreds of music lovers from all walks of life across the U.S. Whether or not the 23-year-old Monheit's cover will become as iconic to our new century as 16-year-old Judy Garland's original was to the last, only time will tell. As the emotional centerpiece of Hollywood's most beloved family film, Judy's track has enjoyed a promotional advantage, not to mention a 62-year head start. But don't sell Jane short. A stirring, uplifting, charismatic performance.

December 10, 2007 · 0 comments

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Pearl Django: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

What goes around, comes around. In 1930s Paris, The Quintette of the Hot Club of France, featuring Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli, revived the 1920s acoustic guitar and violin style of Americans Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti. In 1990s Tacoma, Pearl Django (jointly named after rockers Pearl Jam and the Gypsy swing guitarist) in turn back-translated the prewar French style, here covering a 1935 Reinhardt & Grappelli recording. There was, of course, only one Django, and front-man Andersson judiciously avoids imitation. Instead, this lively track, highlighted by Gray's alternately arco and pizzicato violin, demonstrates the group's fluent and cohesive buoyancy.

December 10, 2007 · 0 comments

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Howard Alden & George Van Eps: I Surrender, Dear

Although the guitar may appear ancient, the modern instrument with six single strings has been the standard for only 200 years, having evolved to expand the range of precursors with four or five paired strings. In the 1930s, jazzman George Van Eps upped the ante by adding another bass string. (This one goes to seven!) Half a century later, the 79-year-old pioneer was joined by his ex-student Howard Alden, a mere pup of 34, for this unaccompanied duet, accounting for 14 strings vibrating sympathetically—the jazz version of quantum physicists' string theory. Impeccably, imperturbably, a shopworn ballad becomes 7th heavenly.

December 10, 2007 · 0 comments

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Rosemary Clooney: More Than You Know

While the lyrics of this 62-year-old standard show their age, its lovely melody is untarnished, and the vocalist, one year older than her song, is younger than springtime. Although she was by this time a well-established jazz singer, Rosie's reinvention as such was as farfetched as, say, Patti Page tackling the Thelonious Monk songbook. As a 1950s pop star, Clooney may've been, as her friend Bing Crosby declared, "the best in the business," but that business wasn't jazz. And indeed, this sensitively arranged ballad is to jazz tangential. Still, if you fancy a beautiful song beautifully sung, Rosie is riveting.

December 09, 2007 · 0 comments

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Lee Morgan: You Go to My Head

On the heels of his previous year's hit "The Sidewinder," Lee Morgan applies 3/5ths of the same quintet and an equally engaging groove to this misterioso standard. Although bossa nova was by now a full-blown fad, Lee strolls the beach closer to 125th Street than to Ipanema, with better results than the bandwagon hoppers chasing the tall-&-tan-&-young-&-lovely almighty buck. Atop Mabern, Cranshaw and Higgins's funky foundation, Morgan and Shorter form a surprisingly lyrical twosome. Listeners familiar with Shorter's abstraction during this period with the Miles Davis Quintet should not be misled: this is a graceful, gently swinging, straight-ahead track.

December 09, 2007 · 0 comments

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Paul Desmond: Polka Dots and Moonbeams

It's always the fellows you least suspect. Never loitered an unlikelier Lothario: bony, balding, bookish and bespectacled. Yet Paul Desmond was such a ladies man that his biographer Doug Ramsey devotes an entire chapter to the subject. Either Paul's playing wowed the fair sex, or his preparation. Here, for instance, Desmond cagily delegates the opening chorus to Jim Hall, enabling Paul to gently shake (not stir) his celebrated "dry-martini" alto for best effect. Then, and only then, does 007—i.e., Desmond—cozy up to this pliant standard for a brief but blissful encounter. Casanova Milquetoast scores again.

December 09, 2007 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday & Lester Young: All of Me

If hot jazz was defined by Louis Armstrong in the 1920s, then the lyrical side of jazz found its perfect exponents in Billie Holiday and Lester Young during the 1930s and 1940s. Their collaborations revealed a different side of the jazz art form. Here we can savor emotion without cheap sentimentality, simplicity without simple-mindedness, a force of expression that is achieved through restraint and understatement. In the long lineage of cool jazz, we constantly find the creative bursts coming at us through the work of couples -- Bix & Tram, Miles & Gil, Getz & Gilberto -- almost as if music this sensitive required some sort of magnetic, mutual attraction, an exemplary pairing to make it possible. Call it a musical romance, if you will. But at the top of the hierarchy, our First Lady (Day) and Pres of the democracy of cool jazz are Billie and Lester. "All of Me" ranks among the finest of their classic sides, and it is hard to say which of the two gets the upper hand here. Let's call it a tossup. A must have recording for anyone interested in the history of jazz vocals or the evolution of the tenor sax.

December 09, 2007 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday & Lester Young: I Can't Get Started

The collaborations between Billie Holiday and Lester Young still speak to us today -- and not just as historical documents. The individual personalities, the emotional presence of these two artists come across in the music -- which thus serves as enduring testimony to their ability to project their hearts and souls into the songs they recorded. Their influence on later popular music and jazz can hardly be over-stated. It is hard to imagine the direct, conversational style of singing mastered by Frank Sinatra, and passed on by him to so many others, if Lady Day had not come first. And the lyricism of the tenor sax, now taken for granted, owes more to Lester Young than to anyone else. Here they take a show tune from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 -- a cute lyric by Ira Gershwin, and a sentimental melody by Vernon Duke -- instill depths of feeling into it that went well beyond any precedent found on Broadway. With all due respect to the great (and underrated) Bunny Berigan, this is the defining performance of "I Can't Get Started."

December 09, 2007 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker: Embraceable You

We tend to remember 1940s bebop as fast and furious music, full of intricate melodies and hard-edged solos. But here Parker contributes one of the finest ballad performances in the history of jazz, a solo that redefined how slow, moody songs could be performed by a small combo. Bird barely glances at Gershwin's melody, and instead constructs a thematic improvisation, which develops a short motif—similar to the "You must remember this" phrase from "As Time Goes By"—that he states in the opening measure. A musicologist could spend a hundred pages trying to describe what Parker tossed out in almost as many seconds. But it's better just to sit back and enjoy this example of the great altoist playing at the top of his game.

December 09, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Embraceable You

I'm still waiting for them to release Ornette Plays the George Gershwin Songbook. But in the meantime, I can continue to enjoy this unusual entry in the discography of the Master of Free Jazz Saxophony. The young Ornette (or the old Ornette, for that matter) never had much time for the American popular song tradition. True, on his first record back on the Coast, the band played the changes of standards behind his alto solos, but this was more a stopgap than a conscious aesthetic preference. Yet here, in the midst of his musical revolution, Coleman records "Embraceable You," and shows -- surprise! -- that he is an effective balladeer. I have always dug the plaintive wail of Coleman's best alto work, that deep moan that sounds (to my ears) like an authentic cry from the heart. When you get to brass tacks, this raw soulfulness is not much different than what Ben Webster or Stan Getz or the other great jazz ballad players brought to their performances. I can't help wishing Coleman had done more in this vein, and had given us (like Coltrane did) a whole LP of ballads. At least we can content ourselves with this moving track.

December 09, 2007 · 0 comments

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Cecil Taylor: Silent Tongues

This music is not for the fainthearted. Taylor attacks the keyboard with such force that I'm surprised a few strings didn't break before he had finished all five movements of his extended work for solo piano. Taylor's "touch" at the instrument reminds me of nothing less than a jackhammer at work -- the notes and tone clusters explode from the sound board. Frankly, the technical challenges of this style of pianism are substantial, but don't underestimate the sheer stamina required to maintain this assault for the full duration of a concert. I often recommend Silent Tongues to fans of heavy metal and punk rock, since the intensity and theatricality involved here have much in common with those extreme forms of performance art. Could Cecil Taylor be the Sid Vicious of jazz? But even fans of hard bop and cool jazz might get swept away by the sheer passion of this music, which ranks among Cecil Taylor's most dramatic moments.

December 09, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Lonely Woman

We still haven't come to grips with the turbulence unleashed by Free Jazz during the period that started with the Age of Ornette and roughly ended with the Arrival of Wynton. Critics will continue to debate the importance of this body of work. Nonetheless the day is past when anyone could release a recording called The Shape of Jazz to Come -- unless it was meant as a wry post-modern joke. No, this was not the shape of jazz to come, and what promised to be the final destination of the jazz idiom proved to be one more passing phase. But the best examples of the Free Jazz aesthetic continue to exert their power, and few are more potent than this early example of the Ornette Coleman quartet in full flight. Coleman's melody is haunting and his counterpoint with Don Cherry unforgettable. Haden's throbbing bass also contributes to the overall effect. Listening to this piece in 1959 must have been an unnerving experience, but after a half century of changing jazz fads and fashions it still will stir you up.

December 09, 2007 · 1 comment

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V.S.O.P.: One of a Kind

If you weren't a jazz fan at the time, you can hardly imagine the stir that this band made back in 1977. Newsweek featured the V.S.O.P. quintet in a cover story, pronouncing that Jazz Is Back. Of course, jazz hadn't gone anywhere, although it was a homecoming of sorts for some of the V.S.O.P. band members who had focused their energies on fusion music for most of the decade. I remember the excitement at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, where much of the resulting V.S.O.P. album was recorded in concert, a palpable sense that jazz history was being made on stage. In retrospect, this 1977 revival of the great 1960s Miles Davis Quintet (with Freddie Hubbard standing in for Miles, who definitely Was Not Back) did signal that fusion music was no longer a hot new thing. But predictions of widespread public interest in hard bop were premature, to put it mildly. And did the V.S.O.P. band live up to the hype? Certainly the individual members of the quintet exude tremendous energy on "One of a Kind." Hubbard takes the first solo, and shows why even today he must be on any list of the hottest trumpeters in the history of the music. Shorter follows and he gets into an esoteric bag with Hancock. Carter and Williams constantly stoke the fire. Maybe the band is trying a bit too hard . . the proceedings remind me of the NBA All Star Game where the heroics seem a little too staged. No, the V.S.O.P. reunion won't make you forget the great Blue Note sides these same musicians made in the 1960s, but it is much more than just a historical artifact. Pound for pound, no band of the decade had more raw talent on the stage, and if it had stayed together for a few years, and not just for a Very Special One-Time Performance, V.S.O.P. might have really shaken things up.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Shirley Horn: You Stepped Out of a Dream

The late Shirley Horn had a long list of admirers. If you have any doubts, just look at the list of sidemen on her You Won't Forget Me CD -- which includes fellas named Wynton and Miles. They don't appear on this track, but the jazz credentials here are impeccable nonetheless. Buster Williams throws down the gauntlet during the opening bars, dishing out a queasy, churning bassline that would throw many singers for a loss. But Horn thrives on this type of accompaniment. Her intonation is perfect, her rhythmic sense impeccable, her phrasing always in sync with the meaning of the lyric. The CD title was prophetic. Although Horn is departed from the scene, she won't be forgotten.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Benny Carter: Central City Sketches

Benny Carter was six months shy of his 80th birthday when he debuted this extended composition at a "standing room only" concert at the Great Hall of Cooper Union. After a quarter of a century devoted primarily to work for movies and television, Carter could easily have been forgotten by the jazz world. Life ain't fair? Well, for once life did the right thing. Carter was given a major platform and he produced a major work -- an extended composition in six movements of Ellingtonian proportions. And like the Duke, Carter made no attempt to update his sound or jump on the latest bandwagon. The composer may be revisiting the harmonic and stylistic palette of the Swing Era, but nothing here sounds out-of-date. Carter's swinging lines and memorable melodies were captivating in 1937 and 1987 . . . and will still be charming listeners 50 years hence. Kudos as well to the all-too-short-lived American Jazz Orchestra for a winning performance.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Thelonious Monk & Gerry Mulligan: 'Round Midnight

Producer Orrin Keepnews always did a brilliant job of putting his star musicians into interesting settings that tended to display new facets of their talent. As a result, the Monk recordings on Riverside represent a far more vital body of work than the later releases the pianist made when he switched to a major label. But matching Monk with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan was an especially daring move. The folks at eHarmony would never approve. Who would think that the "High Priest of Bop" (as Monk was sometimes known at the time) and the fair-haired boy of the cool school (who made his reputation by getting rid of the piano in his band) could connect on the same wavelength? But judging by the results, Monk and Mulligan get along like carrots and peas. The opening is mostly cool school restraint, but the intensity ratchets up over the course of the song, and by the time we get to the final melody restatement, Monk is at his most dissonant. Mulligan seems to thrive on this battlefield, where the comping chords come flying like shrapnel. A peculiar moment in the discographies of both musicians, but a great date by any measure.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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James Carter: 'Round Midnight

On his CD The Real Quietstorm, James Carter plays baritone sax . . . and tenor sax, alto sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet and bass flute. And plays them well. Of course, such versatility is rarely rewarded in the jazz world. Rahsaan Roland Kirk is hardly ever mentioned these days when jazz aficionados talk about great flautists or great tenor saxophonists -- and his constant switching back and forth among a dozen or so horns no doubt contributes to fans' difficulty in pigeonholing him. The same might be said of Benny Carter, who may have been the greatest alto sax soloist of his generation, but would also be found gigging on trumpet or piano or trombone or writing big band charts. Now we have another Carter whose multifaceted talent resists easy generalization. This baritone sax interpretation of "'Round Midnight" rivals in quality the version that Gerry Mulligan made in his celebrated session with Monk, but its style is far different. The baritone is the linebacker among jazz horns, and Carter brings out all of its muscular attributes. And I love his sound on the instrument. Imagine what he could do if he just focused on bari? Fat chance!

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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James P. Johnson: Carolina Shout

"Carolina Shout" is James P. Johnson's most famous composition, and mastering it was a major rite of passage for aspiring Harlem stride piano players. But no one played it better than Johnson himself, as demonstrated by this outstanding 1944 recording. Stride piano was long out of fashion by the time of this session, replaced by the more streamlined rhythms of Kansas City, the jitterbugging sounds of the Swing Era and the nascent pulse of bebop. But James P. Johnson paid little attention to these passing fads, and asserts his own powerful musical vision. Hear the granddaddy of all jazz keyboardists at top form, the man and the song that influenced everyone from Ellington to Monk. A classic of American pianism.

December 08, 2007 · 1 comment

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James P. Johnson: What Is This Thing Called Love

Only a few months after Cole Porter launched this tune as part of his 1929 musical Wake Up and Dream, James P. Johnson records this cover version in a stride adaptation. Johnson aims to transform Porter's minor key lament into a boisterous rent-party number. Jazz fans who are familiar with these chord changes as a springboard for bop pyrotechnics will find this Harlem piano version of the song a bit strange. "What Is This Thing Called Love" is not the best example of James P. Johnson's artistry -- check out his "Carolina Shout" or his classical works if you are new to this artist -- but even this track demonstrates the pianist's ability to put his own personal stamp on a popular standard.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Red Norvo: Dance of the Octopus

Music, declared Surrealist Manifesto author André Breton, is "the most deeply confusing of all art forms." He might've been referring to "Dance of the Octopus." After hearing a test pressing, a Brunswick Records exec manually shredded Red Norvo's contract. This was an understandable reaction to the strangest jazz track theretofore recorded. If we define surrealism as a phantasmagoria of irrational juxtapositions, then "Dance of the Octopus" is surrealist jazz. As wonderfully wacky as Hollywood's early 1930s black-&-white animated shorts (to which it could easily be a soundtrack), this quirky submersible by jazz's primo malleteer is an experience not be missed.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Red Norvo: In a Mist

Few jazz musicians have mastered a wider range of the music's history than the now unfairly forgotten Red Norvo. His resume reveals him working with Paul Whiteman in the 1920s, Benny Goodman in the 1930s, Charles Mingus in the 1940s and Frank Sinatra in the 1950s. But the recordings Norvo made under his own name in the 1930s are the best place to begin in coming to grips with this multi-faceted musician. Bix Beiderbecke had passed away only two years before this session, but the force of his personality continued to exert an influence over a generation of jazz players, with artists as diverse as Bing Crosby and Norvo learning from the cornetist's example. Here Norvo resurrects Bix's "In a Mist" in an ethereal performance that rivals Beiderbecke's own memorable piano rendition. "In a Mist" is a stellar example of chamber jazz, with an experimental flavor that has hardly been diminished with the passing years.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Red Norvo: Dance of the Octopus

This strange piece of music sounds like . . . hmm, how about a dancing octopus? In a clever piece of program music, Norvo evokes an underwater mood with his lopsided melody, unusual instrumentation and startling arrangement. This masterpiece of cool jazz pushes beyond the typical confines of American popular music, circa 1933, and displays its avant-garde credentials proudly in every measure. The tenuous harmonies are reminiscent of "In a Mist," a version of which Norvo recorded at this same session, and "Dance of the Octopus" reminds us of what Bix Beiderbecke might have been doing had he lived longer. This is no mere novelty number, but true jazz chamber music of the highest order -- and proof that the cool aesthetic pioneered by Beiderbecke and Trumbauer in the 1920s still had adherents during the FDR years.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Red Norvo: Honeysuckle Rose

In his day, Red Norvo recorded and gigged with everyone -- Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra, Charles Mingus, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Indeed, no other jazz musician of his generation had more diverse credentials. Norvo could flat his fifths with the boppers, or drink his fifths with Eddie Condon and the Chicagoans. But today he is unfairly ignored, dealt with as a modest footnote in the history of the music. What a shame! Few jazz bands in the 1930s were hipper than the Red Norvo Octet. Here in a rare integrated recording session from 1935, the xylophonist leads his band on a hard-swinging journey through "Honeysuckle Rose." What a strange, engaging mixture! The band tackles the song at a fast bop-like tempo, but by the end the horns are tossing out Dixieland counterpoint. A top-tier performance from an underrated ensemble that was always full of surprises.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Diana Krall: I've Got You Under My Skin (live in Paris)

What extraordinary patience and care Krall puts into her vocals. She never strains for effect, never gets caught up in superficialities. She just digs deeper and deeper into the emotional heart of a song. You may have heard this Cole Porter standard a thousand times before, yet Krall will make you believe that you are experiencing its feeling state for the first time. She lets this exquisite performance float by at the tempo of a heartbeat for a full 7 minutes. This is what jazz singing sounds like when you get beyond the notes and into the soul of the composition. Highly recommended.

December 08, 2007 · 2 comments

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Ornette Coleman & Joachim Kuhn: House of Stained Glass

This live performance offers further evidence of Coleman’s unique melodic vision. The piano intro sets us up for the reading of the head, which displays the usual somewhat abstruse logic of this visionary’s compositional gifts. The interaction between the two would be awe-inspiring if one hadn’t come to expect this level of virtuosity from Coleman’s projects. That being said Kuhn sounds wonderful here, soloing and throughout. I am always thrilled to hear Ornette’s alto in less than familiar surroundings – especially a spare setting such as this. It reminds me what all the fuss was about, so long ago.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Sonny Sharrock: Once Upon a Time

This track begins with one of THE greatest drummers of the 20th century laying the foundation for the whole piece. Bass is introduced briefly and then that marvelously saturated electric guitar sound of Sonny Sharrock. The guitarist is one of the more enigmatic figures of jazz to come out of the 60’s. He died young (53) and this session has him working with Sanders, who was one of the first artists he recorded with (Tauhid, 1966). Co-produced by Bill Laswell, this is one of Sonny’s best records and this tune’s drone-like quality builds regally through the fade with some beautiful soloing from the guitarist.

December 08, 2007 · 0 comments

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Shelly Manne: I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face

Listening to André Previn's jazz recordings, I sometimes get the impression that he is out slumming . . . Having a good time, but not taking the proceedings very seriously. Too often he is content to throw out some clichés or play around with cocktail piano mannerisms. On this lovely Lerner & Lowe standard, he merely tinkles for most of the three minutes of the song. Manne tries to add some spice on the drums, engaging in a playful call-and-response during the melody statement. But Previn is not in the mood for musical banter. He plays it straight and simple. A clever bit of Lydian magic at the two-and-a-half minute mark reminds us that this is, in fact, an example of jazz piano. But for the rest of the song, we might as well be sitting in the lounge in the Marriott lobby. Rex Harrison did it with more soul.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ron Carter: Stella by Starlight

This is all bass, from beginning to end. Carter takes the melody, stretches out for a lengthy solo and handles the restatement at the conclusion, with only the most gentle support from the rest of the band. Carter plays with surprising restraint, leaving behind the bends and slides and tonal distortions that are his typical calling cards. Instead he hits these notes dead on in the center, and plays with a warmth and melodicism that you might associate with, for example, Charlie Haden or Ray Brown. A beautiful performance that artfully displays the lyrical side of this premier musician.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Charles Mingus: A Foggy Day

Don't be fooled by the album cover. Max Roach is not on this track. The introduction is promising -- an avant-garde grumbling and rumbling seems to announce the arrival of Free Jazz. Cecil Taylor would not issue his first recording until the following year, and Mal Waldron seems anxious to get the jump on him. But it only lasts twenty seconds. Perhaps the musicians were trying to imitate a foghorn to announce the arrival of their foggy day in London town. The rest of the track is fairly conventional, and one of Mingus's lesser efforts. Those looking for a more invigorating dose of the great bassist should fast forward a few years -- to "Haitian Fight Song" (from 1957) or "Better Git It In Your Soul" (from 1959) for better examples of his artistry.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman: My One and Only Love

Early 1963 marked a tumultuous time in the U.S., especially in Alabama. First, new Governor George Wallace seized the moral low ground, vowing: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" Then sit-ins began in Birmingham, culminating in Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and Sheriff Bull Connor siccing police dogs on demonstrators. Amidst this turbulence, Coltrane & Hartman's 5-minute ballad of "sweet surrender" became an island of sanity in a deranged sea. It was a refuge that Coltrane himself would soon abandon, but for one brief moment the stillness, "like an April breeze on the wings of spring," was a welcome respite. So it remains.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: You Stepped Out of a Dream

Part of a jazz lover's impossible mission, should you decide to accept it, is to champion artists forsaken in fashion's fickle frenzy. One such is Dexter Gordon, who in the movie Round Midnight (1986) sparked a flash in the pan, but quickly faded into the answer of a trivia question: "What jazz tenorman was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for portraying a jazz tenorman?" Probably more people know the answer than know this laid-back track, which is sad. With his spacious tone and abiding sense of song, Dexter could treat a standard respectfully, yet make it singularly his own.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans & Jim Hall: Darn That Dream

Nearly six years of an average lifespan, scientists calculate, are spent dreaming. The ancients considered dreams prophetic, even divinely inspired. Moderns subject the process to rigorous physiological and psychological analysis. Yet dreams continue to defy understanding. No one knows for sure what purpose, if any, dreaming serves for either body or mind. Some philosophers posit that life itself is but a dream. Meanwhile, artists such as Bill Evans and Jim Hall open waking windows into the dream world, where time and logic are suspended, and beauty treads so softly a sleeping child is undisturbed. This "Dream" truly is divinely inspired.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Anita O'Day: Yesterdays

Decades before recycling became fashionable, Russ Garcia was doing his part, reworking an arrangement of "Con Alma," written for Oscar Peterson's Swinging Brass (1959), into a chart for another Verve album, this one by Anita O'Day. Thus did yesterday's Garcia arrangement become Garcia's arrangement of "Yesterdays." O'Day, however, had a tougher row to hoe, since she was stuck with the preposterous 1933 lyric by a former English professor. "Joyous, free, and flaming life," it goes, "forsooth was mine." Forsooth? Get thee uptown, Otto! Somehow, out of this emerges a hip and highly enjoyable track. Please recycle.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Toots Thielemans: Don't Blame Me

Sometimes Toots Thielemans plays so soulfully that you forget his "instrument" came from Woolworth's toy department. His agility, of course, was not so readily acquired. This 2½-minute track amply illustrates both aspects of Toots's craft. As he movingly interprets an old standard, the tooter's technical mastery serves rather than subsumes his lyrical objectives. Indeed, Toots's imagination is even more impressive than his deftness. From conceiving that full-blown jazz might be played on a gadget that fits in the palm of your hand, to exercising such expressive control over said gizmo, Toots Thielemans reigns as the Wilbur Wright of palm pilots.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz & Oscar Peterson: Pennies from Heaven

Every cloud has a copper lining, according to this Depression-era song: "Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven." The sentiment must've appealed to Depression's child Stan Getz, especially in 1957, the year this perennial poll-winner declared bankruptcy. Reporting liabilities of $42,398.59 against assets of $86.11, Getz proved a $70-a-day heroin habit can eviscerate even a $1,000 weekly income. Amazingly, his "personal problems" (the jazz press' favorite euphemism) never clouded his musicianship, which remained invariably sunny. This track, for instance (notwithstanding a flub towards the end), has Getz in all his glory, which is as glorious as glory gets.

December 07, 2007 · 1 comment

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Sonny Rollins: It Could Happen to You

It could happen. A great jazzman at the height of his powers might inexplicably retire to his Brooklyn apartment, emerging after dark to practice on the little-used pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. It not only could happen, it did! This track offers a stunning preview, sans traffic noise, two years before Sonny's sudden sabbatical. Rollins later likened his thematic improvisations to a jeweler, "holding the melody up to the light and rotating it. There's no limit to what you can do." Motorists crossing the East River never dreamt that, perched alone overhead in the middle of the night, a master jeweler honed gems such as this.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: What's New

Do you prefer to take your Holiday earlier or later? Hard choice . . . The early Billie Holiday sings with more pop song panache and surface polish. Take a later Holiday, and the terrain is rougher, the emotional landscape dangerous but perhaps even more alluring. I tend to give the highest marks to the early collaborations between Billie and Lester Young, musical gems that will delight listeners a hundred years hence. But you could make a good case for the later Holiday on the basis of this poignant ballad. "What's New" was a perfect vehicle for Billie Holiday, circa 1955, a love song meant to be sung by a world-weary woman looking back on her past. Lady Day delivers a raw and beautiful performance, full of dark shadows. Benny Carter's fine sax solo, a sweeter take on the changes, offers just the right contrast.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments

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Michael Brecker: The Mean Time

Michael Brecker had already passed away, after a lengthy battle with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and leukemia, before the release of this final CD. He had hardly played the saxophone in the months leading up to this session, but one would never guess it from this hard-blowing track. Brecker and an all-star ensemble -- Metheny, Hancock, DeJohnette and Patitucci -- are totally in sync from the opening measures. And if anyone in the band thought the ailing Brecker would take it easy, they quickly learned otherwise. He tackles the first solo, and stretches out for two minutes of high energy jazz. Here we have all the distinguishing marks that long set this saxophonist apart from the crowd -- his very smart improvised lines, his potent technique and, above all, his immediately identifiable sound. The interplay between Brecker and Metheny on the melody restatement is especially inspiring. A fitting epitaph to a remarkable career.

December 05, 2007 · 3 comments

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Matthew Shipp: Key Swing

A late-night, on-the-prowl groove permeates this compelling track. Shipp's solo is a striking example of what Gunther Schuller called, in an influential 1958 essay, thematic improvisation -- in essence, the solo develops and reworks a small number of musical motives, drawn primarily (in this instance) from the melody of Shipp's composition. And don't miss Shipp's acerbic comping chords, tonal clusters that bite and sting. Where other pianists stretch out, Shipp digs in more deeply. A gritty performance.

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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J.J. Johnson: What's New

Rightly renowned for his incomparable technique, J.J. Johnson is often wrongly overlooked as a balladeer. Here, using a cup mute, J.J. displays a tonal purity matched by no other jazz trombonist, and a lyricism second to none. J.J. often expressed admiration for Billie Holiday, whose haunting 1955 recording of this song may be reflected in J.J.'s own heartfelt soliloquy two years later. Johnson, though, was always his own man, and this urbane interpretation is in no way derivative. With sensitive support from a stellar cast, J.J. justifies the title of Columbia's compilation: not "A" trombone master, but The Trombone Master.

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Harry 'Sweets' Edison: How Deep Is the Ocean?

Browsing rival websites recently for good stuff to steal—or, make that transmute into high art—we found Sweets Edison described, for the umpteenth time, as a "journeyman." This makes our blood boil, for it denotes competence not mastery, dependability without distinction. While he wasn't as spectacular as Roy Eldridge or as innovative as Dizzy, no trumpeter was more distinctive than Harry Edison, and few were as crafty. Here, brandishing his familiar cup mute, Sweets sets a honey of a tempo, leads by solid example and concocts a confectionary delight. If Sweets Edison was a journeyman, Rembrandt was a housepainter.

December 05, 2007 · 1 comment

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Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald: A Foggy Day

The 1950s boasted many illustrious pairs: Barbie & Ken, Boris & Natasha, Fred & Ethel, Huntley & Brinkley, Ike & Mamie, Lucy & Ricky, Martin & Lewis, Ozzie & Harriet, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Watson & Crick. None, however, outclassed Ella & Louis. Here, from the vicinity of Hollywood & Vine, they cover George & Ira's tribute to the land of Fish & Chips. He & She are as complementary as Bread & Butter and as iconic as the Stars & Stripes. "The age of miracles," each sings agelessly and miraculously, "hadn't passed." Thanks to Ella & Louis, it never shall.

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: On the Sunny Side of the Street

Recently a friend of ours lost her mother, a much-beloved, dyed-in-the-wool musician. At the funeral, our friend sang her mom's favorite song, concluding with a Satchmo-like "Oh, yeah" before losing it. This exceptional piece of courage and devotion made us realize we'd always misunderstood that song, associating it with jazz's most life-affirming artist. Yet listening again to Louis's rendition, we discover that of course he got it, singing: "I'm not afraid, baby. My rover crossed over." If we do make it to Heaven, surely that cat at the gate'll welcome us with an incandescent smile. And a gravelly "Oh, yeah."

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Out of Nowhere

Enrollment at America's 1,870 institutions of higher learning In the early 1950s grew at 6% per annum, but appearances by modern jazzmen were as rare as a sighting of J.D. Salinger. Deforesting this virgin territory, Dave Brubeck logged 60 consecutive on-campus one-nighters in 1954, helping his Jazz Goes to College become a Top 10 fixture for two years, outselling even Liberace. "Out of Nowhere" exemplifies the Quartet's appeal, with Desmond's alto luxuriating over a steady pulse to orient the newly initiated undergrads, and classical-sounding counterpoint to appease the faculty. Together, Paul & Dave were a gentleman and a scholar.

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Chet Baker: There Will Never Be Another You

With jazz performers, we crave the person behind the persona. Usually what you see is what you get. Sometimes, though, it's Jekyll-&-Hyde. The seemingly mild-mannered bandleader turns out to be a tyrant. The happy-go-lucky singer throws herself off a bridge. Such was The Strange Case of Dr. Chet and Mr. Baker. In 1954, he looked like the choirboy who mows your lawn and calls you Sir/Ma'am. Behind the angelic façade, however, lurked a vagabond junkie-in-waiting. This track (no pun intended) gives us the captivating, cup-muted choirboy on his best behavior. Hopefully, there will never be another Chet. Thankfully, there was one.

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ben Webster: Tenderly

Hey, I'm only writing about jazz till there's an opening in Romance Novels. You may not realize it, but RNs generate $1.4 billion in sales annually. Plus, unlike jazz, they're recession-proof. I mention this because "Tenderly" strikes me as an RN in disguise. Ben Webster is an RN's dream, an archetypal hairy-chested brute with a soft spot for heaving bodices. His manly tenor ravishes with fluttery allusions to sighing breeze, trembling trees, mists, kisses and breathless caresses, interspersed with crashing waves, wet shores and lips taken willfully to keep those bodices heaving. (Excuse me, gotta run. Harlequin is calling!)

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Karrin Allyson: All I Want

Allyson livens up Joni Mitchell's ode with a lively Jamaican beat, courtesy of Gil Goldstein's overheated imagination -- the same mastermind behind the accordion version of Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away." What's next? A salsa rendition of Nick Drake? A Strauss waltz in 5/4? But this stop-and-start groove grows on me with each repeated listening. Hidden in the interstices of Joni Mitchell's Blue album are hints of island life that the rest of us missed. The wind was blowing from Africa, and all that jazz. Allyson picks up on these bohemian themes and brings them to the forefront. She's playing this one for fun, and I can practically see the band balancing colorful rum cocktails with tiny umbrellas on their amps.

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Diana Krall: A Case of You

No singer currently active is better than Krall at these oh-so-slow ballads, where she manages to expose every raw nerve end hidden in the melody and the lyrics. She almost sounds as if she is secluded by herself in some quiet nook, singing only to soothe herself. The jazz world with its ballsy, macho culture, hardened in a century of jam sessions, is almost too hostile a soil to support such delicate blossoms. But somehow Krall not only survives, but rises to a high degree of fame. Finally, something is going right in the music world! Joni Mitchell's confessional song is a perfect match for this singer, and she rises to the occasion. You can sense the quiet electricity in the hushed audience. They know that they are hearing something special. You will too.

December 05, 2007 · 1 comment

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Ian Shaw: Danny Boy

You may have heard "Danny Boy," but you haven't really heard "Danny Boy" until you've heard Ian Shaw perform it. "The pipes, the pipes are calling," he sings, but the pipes you will be marveling at will be Shaw's vocal pipes with their strength and great range and emotional authority. His falsetto rivals that of the great Milton Nascimento, and he has all the little cadences and bends and throwaway phrases that impart a sense of drama to a jazz vocal performance. Adrian York's deft reharmonization adds to the sweep of this highly recommended track.

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ian Shaw: A Case of You

It's still way too hard to find Ian Shaw's music. This CD is only available as an expensive import here in the US, and no one thinks to offer a download. In fact, every Shaw CD in my collection had to be shipped across the big pond. Such a shame! Ian Shaw is the best vocalist you've never heard. When I first encountered him at Ronnie Scott's, I became a believer on the spot. Shaw has it all -- great range, radar ears, and real emotional commitment to the songs he sings. He is especially skilled at taking contemporary pop material and jazz-i-fying it without lessening the jazz component or diluting the original vitality of the music. "A Case of You" is not an easy composition to tackle. Joni's words have a quirky way of moving across the beats, and you can easily can get lost in the bar -- especially when you sing the line in the first chorus about getting lost in the bar. (If you don't know the lyrics you're saying huh at this point.) But Shaw puts on this song like a comfy robe he has been wearing for years. A case of you? I'll order two cases. Let's hope they don't fall in the pond.

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock (featuring Norah Jones): Court and Spark

The ingredients here are provocative: Joni Mitchell's poetic composition, Norah Jones' remarkable voice, Wayne Shorter's angular soprano sax, Herbie Hancock's modern jazz keyboard conception. But each of these individuals has such a distinctive and uncompromising style, we wonder if they can mesh. No need to fear. Hancock's tribute CD, River: The Joni Letters is a grand artistic statement, with everybody shining. Norah Jones takes on a darker, huskier tone, and offers one of the most authoritative jazz interpretations of a Mitchell composition I have heard to date. Hancock is lyrical in his comping behind Jones, but when Shorter enters, he rumbles and clashes and pushes the harmonies to the brink . . . and beyond. Norah returns in majestic form, and briefly insists on decorum. But Hancock will not be held back and insists on adding his spark to Norah's court. The pianist takes off on the wings of Scriabin and Prokofieff, crafting a remarkable solo, edgy and unsettled. Jones comes back once again, unperturbed, her voice full of drama. But the coda belongs to Wayne and Herbie who coo and whisper. Seven-and-a-half minutes of aesthetic rapture, but (as it says on the shampoo bottle) use and repeat as necessary. Trust me, you'll find it necessary.

December 04, 2007 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: These Foolish Things

Sixteen years after recording it with Teddy Wilson, Billie revisits this song for a slower, deeper interpre- tation. Gone is the girlish naiveté, succeeded by the womanly wisdom of a summa cum laude graduate of the School of Hard Knocks. Now, as she catalogs those silly mementos we can't escape—"a cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces, an airline ticket to romantic places"—Billie's artistry is fully matured. Knowing her life story, it's hard not to consider Holiday a tragic figure. Hearing her music, it's impossible not to realize that, like Caesar, Billie came, saw and conquered. Her soul had wings.

December 04, 2007 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: Blue Moon

Lady Day evidently brought a head cold to this session, which for other singers might be a handicap. Holiday, however, brought more than a head cold to this session. Her naturalness and easy familiarity make it seem she's singing to you alone. Unfortunately, not everyone's on the same page. Flip Phillips and the rhythm section are fine, but Shavers bolts into his solo like George Armstrong Custer's bugler sounding the charge. This, mind you, less than a minute after Billie sings, "I heard somebody whisper, 'Please adore me' " (emphasis added). What, Charlie's mute was in the shop for repairs?

December 04, 2007 · 1 comment

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George Shearing: I'll Remember April

"The fire will dwindle into glowing ashes," goes the lyric. "For flames and love live such a little while." Depressing stuff for a love song, huh? Not that it applies to George Shearing's instrumental, which is still warm 60 years after ignition. At a listener-friendly medium tempo, Shearing reminisces of springtime past via his trademark gauzy, behind-the-beat, vibes/piano/guitar unisons, ending with one of his droll intimations of a church bell pealing amidst the English countryside. So, when next you're in the mood, gather 'round the embers, cast off those mittens and booties, and remember April. Just don't forget George Shearing.

December 04, 2007 · 0 comments

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Nat King Cole: If I Had You

During their 1940s heyday, the King Cole Trio swept up material with the tenacity of a Hoover (the vacuum cleaner, not the G-man) and the gilt touch of Midas (the king, not the muffler). From blues to bop, soft- shoe patter to hepcat jive, even light classical takeoffs, the KCT was cool, clean and clear as crystal. But what really put them over, and crowned Nat Cole King, was balladry. Roasting this particular 1928 chestnut on an open fire, they all but changed gray skies to blue, pledging: "There is nothing I couldn't do, if I had you."

December 04, 2007 · 0 comments

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Erroll Garner: Laura

The hardboiled jazzman went to the dead girl's apartment to work, not fall in love. Her friends were staging a wake and required mood music. But that portrait over the mantle got to him. Slouched at the baby grand, caressing the popular theme from a mystery film, he sensed those delicately drawn eyes gazing into him. She was more mysterious than any movie, lovelier than anything coaxed from a baby grand. But suddenly, cruelly, the mood was shattered as a radio across the airshaft began blaring Spike Jones's send-up of the song. When the hardboiled jazzman left that night, he had $15 in his pocket and a hole in his heart.

December 04, 2007 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me

Duke Ellington was both artist and entrepreneur. The composer who premiered his 45-minute tone poem Black, Brown and Beige at Carnegie Hall in 1943 was, within a few weeks, performing "Hayfoot, Strawfoot" at the Hurricane Restaurant (49th & Broadway, Dinners $1.50) from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. Presently, Duke's "Concerto for Cootie" (1940) acquired lyrics to compete with what he called the "popular, sentimental ballads" then driving the music business. His Hurricane run concluded, Ellington returned to Carnegie Hall in late 1943 to memorialize his latest juxtaposition of art and commerce with a sweeping and sensitive performance.

December 04, 2007 · 0 comments

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Cab Calloway (featuring Chu Berry): Ghost of a Chance

If he hadn't died from a car crash at 31, Chu Berry might've joined the great first-generation triumvirate of tenormen Hawkins/Young/Webster. Here, in his feature with Cab Calloway recorded 16 months before his death, the big-toned Berry sashays through "Ghost of a Chance" much as Hawkins had plowed "Body and Soul" the previous year. Whether or not Berry would've followed his Calloway band mate, one D. Gillespie, into the uncharted rapids of bebop, this track proves that as the '40s dawned, Chu could chew the scenery with the big boys. If you dig the manly tenorman, Chu Berry's your man.

December 04, 2007 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum: Sophisticated Lady (Solo Masterpieces version)

Art Tatum recorded this same piece at his first commercial session back in 1933, but this updated performance shows how much he had matured during the intervening two decades. No he doesn't play any faster than he did back in the Great Depression -- he was already at the Einsteinian limits of keyboard speed from his first appearance on the scene. But his rhythmic approach on the later version is much freer, and his harmonic inventions even more inspired. He starts with an out-of-tempo melody statement, but soon is pulling out all his patented tricks -- two-handed acrobatics, heavy stride, bluesy asides, dipsy-doodle runs, and those thick chords that sound like twelve or thirteen fingers are spread out on the keyboard. A very sophisticated lady.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum: Sophisticated Lady (1933)

Only five weeks after Duke Ellington recorded his version of this now popular standard, Art Tatum features it at the session that produced his debut solo 78s. Tatum is clearly attracted by the four-chords-to-a-bar hook that Ellington employs in the second and fourth measures of the main theme. Tatum adds further ornamentation to this part of the song—but it's like too much frosting on the cake. Tatum's technique is (as always) impressive, and even three-quarters of a century later remains the benchmark against which all jazz keyboard virtuosos are measured. But the master's music is sometimes haunted by a mechanical quality—like a player piano on steroids—and this early performance has more flash than flesh. Not enough sophistication to this lady for our taste. Tatum's later recording of this same composition as part of Norman Granz's Solo Masterpieces project is more nuanced, and a far superior performance. Even so, one needs to bow to an artist who is playing with this much confidence and dexterity at his debut leader date.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Benny Goodman: Memories of You

Much is made of Goodman the martinet, the stern taskmaster leveling The Ray to tyrannize his minions. Then there's Benny the eccentric, polishing his world-class clarinet technique by practicing in the nude. Less legendary is Goodman the romantic, the nearsighted nerd with the forced smile who wore his heart on his sleeve. What!? you ask, aghast. Benny Goodman? Romantic? If you can spare 3 minutes, you'll hear what we mean. With Hamp's vibes shimmering in the moonlight, Benny's gentle boat ride across a still lake on an unseasonably mild Thanksgiving eve proves as surprisingly endearing as a valentine in November.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Johnny Hodges: Prelude to a Kiss

Two weeks after recording "Prelude to a Kiss" under Ellington's aegis, Johnny Hodges switched from soprano to alto sax, added vocalist Mary McHugh and redid his boss' serenade under his own name. If Miss McHugh found the song daunting, it doesn't show. She handles its slippery chromatic slopes and heady intervallic ascents with affecting naturalness, setting up a half-chorus of Rabbit at his languid best. Whereas the Maestro's first version of what would become a standard was overly sentimental, Hodges and McHugh clarify Duke's masterful construction with simplicity and directness. The lyric contends, "You could turn it to a symphony: a Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch." We prefer an Ellington tune with a Hodges touch.

December 03, 2007 · 1 comment

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Count Basie (featuring Lester Young): Oh, Lady Be Good

Swing Era rhythm sections specialized in a monotonous thumping not unlike men with flyswatters beating determinedly on stacks of old newspapers. In this case, however, fortune intervened. First, the studio was too small to accommodate a bass drum. Second, no rhythm guitarist was present. These absences make the jazz lover's heart grow fonder, allowing for an uncommon buoyancy ideally suited to Lester Young's lighter-than-air excursions. Thus, after Basie tinkles his way through the melody, Pres glides atop the Gershwin tune for two glorious, untethered choruses, as effortlessly graceful as an eagle out for a Sunday cruise. Oh, Lester be good!

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Spirits of Rhythm: I Got Rhythm

While "I Got Rhythm" has merited >600 jazz recordings, even that understates the song's ubiquity. So many tunes have been based on its chord progressions that "rhythm changes" are rivaled only by the blues. In any case, the Spirits of Rhythm were qualified in more than name only to assert "I Got Rhythm." With their tippling tiples (oversize ukuleles), scuttling scatting and rousing rascality, the Spirits gave voice to America's Depression-era resilience, which banished Old Man Trouble from 'round their doors on the very reasonable grounds that "I got my gal. Who could ask for anything more?" Who indeed.

December 03, 2007 · 1 comment

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Duke Ellington: Sophisticated Lady

During his illustrious 50-year recording career, Duke Ellington led >1,000 sessions, each yielding multiple tracks. While collectively indispensable, they haven't aged equally well. Consider the Maestro's maiden "Sophisticated Lady," which rates high as a historic composition notwithstanding a virtual parade of what we now consider antiquated performance practices: trombonist Brown's unctuous vibrato, Bigard's porcelain clarinet, Hardwick's smarmy, trilling alto, glissading ensembles, all laid over a clunky four-beat guitar. Perhaps it's loutish to deride a lady arrayed in yesteryear's fashions. But even by the standards of the day, which Ellington himself had helped transform, his dame sophistiquée deserved a more haute couture.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)

As Gunther Schuller points out in The Swing Era, the composer of this song that named its era was hardly dogmatic about it, writing many meaningful pieces that didn't involve swing. This one, though, lives up to its title, with unforgettable turns by plunger specialist Tricky Sam, a surprisingly chromatic Hodges (sounding at times like Eric Dolphy's granddaddy), and the delightful Ivie Anderson, who from her opening "What tattoo?" to a hint of alley-cat lechery near the end generates irresistible . . . well, swing. "Just keep that rhythm," Ivie advises, practicing what she preaches. "Give it everything you've got." Now that's philosophy!

December 03, 2007 · 1 comment

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The California Ramblers: After You've Gone

Nothing much happened in 1927. Oh, Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in an orange crate, The Jazz Singer launched talkies, Babe Ruth launched 60 homers, Ellington recorded "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," Bix "Singin' the Blues," Satch "Potato Head Blues" and "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan were born. But otherwise, '27 was as uneventful as the Big Bang. The only bright spot was Adrian Rollini's goofus solo on "After You've Gone" by the California Ramblers, who incidentally didn't hail from California, rarely rambled, and included the quaintly named trumpeter Chelsea Quealey. Whatever, nobody blew hotter goofus than Rollini.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Mary Lou Williams: Medi No. 2

Composed during her religious chapter, “Medi No. 2,” also on Zoning (1974) and Mary Lou’s Mass (1977), demonstrates her inherent progressiveness. Like Miles, Mary Lou had the depth and capacity to transform within each era. This track is an example of her all-encompassing vocabulary; her right hand lays out an eloquent, eternal theme, while her left hand retells the history of jazz piano. Unequalled in her versatility, she set a benchmark for a myriad of players, composers, and arrangers. Last thought: “Mary Lou, this is Strays. Duke can’t make the gig, will you play it?” And so she did.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Bruce Eisenbeil: Autumn Light/Elastic Horizon

Bruce Eisenbeil's picture should be in the jazz dictionary next to the word 'angular.' A few seconds into “Autumn Light” and your ears are still confused – wondering if the odd, knotty guitar figures intend on allowing other sounds in. The answer appears shortly as bass, drums, horns and violin begin to encircle the guitar, expanding the original thoughts in all directions. While “Autumn Light” is just the start of the 47-minute “Inner Constellations” suite, it's obvious that Eisenbeil's group is locked in to his universe of ideas. The next 44 minutes are quite a ride as well.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Mark Ledford: Blue in Green

The late Mark Ledford was a gentle, multi-instrumental hit man for the Pat Metheny Group. Here, a modern, Hip-Hop spin is put on Miles' composition. With some slinky drum programming, rubbery basslines, layered vocalese, and terrific muted trumpet work, Ledford came up with an example of what Doo-Bop could have been. Sorry Miles, it's true! The listener can revel in the funk without the jazz details being swamped by the modern technology. It's a tough line to walk, but Mark Ledford made it look easy.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Oscar Brown, Jr.: Living Double in a World of Trouble

Oscar Brown Jr. has female problems. Married, he's got "one more woman than the legal laws allow," and must juggle a "two-woman harem." Not that he feels guilty about this arrangement. "One is my treasure," he brags with entitlement, "one is my treat." What bugs him is the threat of ostracism. "Bad talk would nail me if the truth got out." Brown had the songwriting and performing skills to critique the Ring-a-Ding treatment of women as playthings, but by going for laughs from an approving audience, he hypocritically reinforces women's second-class status during the height of the civil rights era.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Sammy Davis, Jr.: Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody

Sammy! The Ring-a-Ding Al Jolson. Singer, dancer, actor, comedian; by acclamation World's Greatest Entertainer. Sammy was also Hollywood's most insecure star. Whether sucking up to Sinatra and Nixon or cradling himself in Dean Martin's arms onstage in Vegas so Dino could "thank the NAACP for this award," Davis was more desperate for acceptance than a stray puppy at the pound. Here, he resurrects Jolson's best-forgotten 1918 hit as pretext to impersonate him and 17 other demigods from "the nostalgia that is Show Business," subjecting us to a cringing, 10-minute gag-me-with-a-spoon spectacle of a man obse- quiously digging his own grave. Pathetic.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Nat King Cole: Ballerina

The first 30 seconds are given over to fanfares (including kettledrums) introducing "Mister Nat King Cole!" Kettledrums are optional, but Mister is mandatory. Following his 1940s reign as King Cool, King Cole sold his merry olde soul for filthy lucre. By 1960, he was the Ring-a-Ding éminence grise, having starred in Hollywood movies, hosted a network-TV variety series, continuously topped the charts with easy-listening schlock, and headlined the biggest rooms in Vegas. Among his generation, only Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin matched the Ring-a-King's multimedia success. And excepting Miss Day, King Cole was the squarest of the bunch.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Frank Rosolino: Too Marvelous for Words

After breaking in by scatting on Gene Krupa's "Lemon Drop" (1949), Frank Rosolino emerged during a stint with Stan Kenton as jazz's most exuberant trombonist. But singing remained central to Rosolino's shtick, providing disarming levity between instrumental levitations. If vocal shenanigans made him hard to take seriously, well, that seemed to be part of the plan. As in the opera Pagliacci (1892), Rosolino's life was tragedy set against the façade of commedia dell'arte. Here, 17 years to the day before his gruesome filicide-suicide, Rosolino sings merrily, plays masterfully and hides malevolently behind a Ring-a-Ding death mask, too devious for words.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Someday My Prince Will Come

This was a turbulent period for the Dave Brubeck Quartet. The ensemble was still adapting to its new label (Columbia) and maintaining a hectic recording and performing schedule. The arrival of Joe Morello in the band had created friction with Paul Desmond -- who would only gradually come to terms with the master percussionist -- and with bassist Norman Bates, who would soon depart from the group. Eventually all the pieces would fit together, but right now Brubeck was holding it together, establishing the personality of the band from the keyboard. When he signals a shift from waltz time to 2/4 at the 5-minute mark, everybody follows his lead. And when he decides to waltz a short time later, waltz comes back into fashion. A few years later, Miles would record this same piece on a memorable date with Coltrane. But Brubeck was digging Disney before it was cool.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Marian McPartland: Cloudy

Mary Lou Williams was a leading light through each epoch of jazz; her playing, composing, and arranging were equally luminous. Only Marian McPartland – another pianistic marvel, a Mary Lou Williams devotee, and friend – could create as soulful and sensitive a tribute to this aurora of jazz. Mary Lou’s atmospheric “Cloudy” is an elegant ballad, rich in chordal textures and intriguing passages. Marian’s deft solo piano work captures the verdant harmonic substratum of Mary Lou’s universe and presents us with a glimpse of a Planet in the jazz solar system that should be in our telescopes more often.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Bill Ware: Caravan

From Bill Ware's Duke Ellington tribute record, we have Bill Ware's vibraphone and Marc Ribot's irrepressible guitar answering “Yes!” to the question Does the world need another cover of “Caravan”? In Ribot, Ware has discovered the perfect foil. The guitar begins with plenty of unresolved chords, dissonant intervals, sly figures, and taunting silences – then the fun begins. Ware unfurls that classic theme while Ribot comps (and swings) like mad, alternating chords with walking basslines. This inspires Ware to some tremendous, rippling solo passages. When the roles are reversed, Ribot is more than up to the task. Best of all, it sounds like the guys were having a load of fun.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Charlie Hunter & Bobby Previte: All Hell Broke Loose

One monster of a groove. Wait, doesn't that pretty much describe every Charlie Hunter tune?! Sure enough, but here the deep groove is amplified by Bobby Previte's slinky backbeat, percussive accents (are those chimes I hear being abused?), and oddball sonics. I tell ya, if you can't have fun listening to this, then you have a serious problem.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Frank Sinatra: Come Fly With Me

Away with pretenders! The throne belongs to but one Ring-a-Ding King. A quarter century after achieving stardom with Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra steps again in front of a big band, this time Count Basie's at Frank's "Place In The Sun" on the Las Vegas Strip. Before attributing your goose bumps to charisma alone, listen to the Chairman casually syncopate "he'll toot his flute for you," ending neatly on Sonny Payne's bass-drum accent, or hiss a slithery glissando along the s in "starry-eyed." Sinatra's artistry was all about throwaway. The more effortlessly he sung, the more relentlessly he swung. Ring-a-Ding rapture.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Mark Murphy: Doodlin'

This track comes perilously close to being not imitation hip, but the real thing. Horace Silver's "Doodlin'" was a fountainhead of funk even before Jon Hendricks added vocalese describing a cat so cool he just doodles all day; naturally he's sent to Bellevue, where a shrink probing the doodler's noodle desires to diddle the doodler's chick. Who could square the edges off this? Mark Murphy, that's who. Mocking an immigrant waiter's Eastern European accent, Murphy transports "Doodlin'" from Birdland to Borscht Belt. You can take the Ring-a-Ding out of Las Vegas but can't take Vegas out of the Ring-a-Ding.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Buddy Greco: This Could Be the Start of Something Big

Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the Ring-a-Ding National Anthem—named in honor of Sinatra’s album Ring-a-Ding Ding! (1960), which inspired a generation of actual and wannabe finger-snapping hipsters. In the early 1960s, Steve Allen's star-spangled banner opened every Ring-a-Ding show in every smoke-filled joint in every wet state plus the District of Columbia. In this ultra-hip ditty, you don't catch someone's eye, you suddenly dig. Oh, it has airs: lunching at Twenty-One, one declines an elegant French dessert; after a spin in an "aeroplane," one dines at Sardi's. But Buddy Greco hails from South Philly, where Cannoli outclasses Charlotte Russe. Buddy can sing "hear a bell," then actually ring one, and keep his cool. Bocce balls of steel.

December 03, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ron Carter: Tambien Conocido Como

I remember seeing this band at San Francisco's Keystone Korner around the time the Piccolo LP was released, and can still recall the excitement Carter stirred up by his switch to the piccolo bass. All of jazz seemed in a process of redefinition back in those days, and Carter was doing his part. Why couldn't the bass move from its cozy nook next to the drummer and become part of the front line as a featured solo voice? But this was more than an experiment, it was also a great band with a definite (if peculiar) chemistry. Here Carter leads his ensemble on a 13-minute romp over a Latin vamp. The piccolo bassist is the star of the show, but Barron's hard-driving keyboard work also deserves attention.

December 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ron Carter: Little Waltz (1977)

Having two bass players in a band is like having two spouses -- friction and fireworks are almost inevitable. Duke Ellington briefly kept two bassists in his band after hiring the great Jimmy Blanton in 1939 while still keeping Billy Taylor in tow. My late friend Grover Sales, who saw Ellington perform the day Ben Webster joined this ensemble (creating what is even today known as the great "Webster-Blanton" band) liked to tell of Taylor walking off the bandstand in disgust, muttering: "I'm not going to stand here and watch that youngster play so much bass." Soon Ellington was back to one bass player, and domestic bliss permeated the bandstand. Several decades later, Ron Carter tries the same experiment -- with bassist Buster Williams sharing the small stage at Sweet Basil's with Ron, pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Ben Riley. But to preserve the peace, Carter has shifted to the piccolo bass, and moves it to the front of the bandstand as a solo instrument. The results are invigorating and exciting. Carter has always been a first-rate soloist, but on piccolo bass he comes across as even more free-flowing and dramatic. He stretches out here in a lyrical three-minute solo over the chords of his most famous composition. The Piccolo CD is a vital document of an important band that still has no imitators.

December 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ron Carter (with Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams): Third Plane

Ron Carter served as sideman on so many Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams sessions, and now he brings his stalwart colleagues out on his own date. The results are everything you would expect from this stellar trio. Hancock and Williams were coming off a period in their careers during which they had focused on building a crossover audience with fusion music. But here they are back in a mainstream attitude, and you can sense the sheer fun of their music-making. A great track, and the whole Third Plane CD stands out as one of the best trio recordings from a decade marked by outstanding threesomes. Highly recommended.

December 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ron Carter (with Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams): Lawra

You could hardly imagine a simpler composition -- a repeated two-note figure, with a syncopated displace- ment in bar five. And then you do it again . . . and again . . . and again. But this world-beating trio takes an easy game and brings it to exciting new places, like Fischer and Spassky playing tiddlywinks for mastery of the universe. Tony Williams wrote the piece, and seems to be having a blast on the drums. Ron Carter (leader of this session for the Milestone label) is a delight with his basslines, which bend and amble and strut like a gymnast on the balancing bar. But he is also the supreme accompanist, and even when he pushes the limit of what constitutes a "walking line" he still is perfectly in sync with Hancock and Williams. One of the finest trio dates of the era.

December 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Jazz at the Philharmonic: Blues

"Blues," composed by legendary linotypist Etaoin Shrdlu for the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, exposes everything wrong and right about JATP. Wrong: Illinois Jacquet's crowd-pleasing tenor-sax screeching established from JATP's outset its predilection for showmanship over musicianship. Right: Defying segregation, impresario Norman Granz's interracial troupe treated fans to such dream teams as Nat King Cole and Les Paul. Here, following solos by McVea, Johnson and Jacquet, Nat and Les engage in one of the most amazingly antic exchanges ever recorded—an improvisatory epiphany illustrating why we say jazzmen "play" rather than "work" their instruments. Forget histrionics; this is history.

December 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Bix Beiderbecke: Jazz Me Blues

When a high-school teacher in Hollywood's juvenile-delinquent flick Blackboard Jungle (1955) plays this track for his students, gangbangers contemptuously shatter both the teacher's collection of fragile shellac disks and his equally brittle illusions about educating teenagers. As broken as his records, the teacher quits his job. The moral may be Cast Not Pearls Before Swine, but there's nothing elitist about "Jazz Me Blues." With disciplined ensembles framing individualistic solos, it's a civics lesson in democracy. Maybe that's why the gangbangers rioted. Jazz extols cooperative freedom, which terrorists fear. "Jazz Me Blues" is a pluralistic pearl.

December 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Tell Me a Bedtime Story

The smart horn writing on "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" looks back to the textures of "Speak Like a Child," but by now Herbie Hancock has gone electric, and the resulting mixture is one of the great medium-slow fusion performances of the era. This recording captures a "quiet storm" ambiance, and each of the band members sublimates his individual ego in order to sustain the late-night mood. Hancock's solo is more about textures than licks, and he projects his personality effectively through his electric piano. Soon Hancock would be moving away from these rich harmonies, embracing a style (epitomized in his hit "Chameleon") driven by basslines rather than chords. But "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" points toward a jazzier, more cerebral fusion -- one of the many paths tested briefly by Hancock, then abandoned in his quest for the next new thing.

December 02, 2007 · 1 comment

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Miles Davis: Someday My Prince Will Come

Jazz waltzes were still fairly rare back in 1961, and Paul Chambers' pedal point intro keeps the meter a mystery during the opening seconds. Cobb is part of the conspiracy, and refuses to signal the downbeat, while Wynton Kelly floats over their throbbing pulse. These opening feints -- forty seconds of sweetness and light -- are worth the price of admission alone . . . but then Miles enters and shows how he can put his stamp on a song just by playing the melody. His solo is a minimalist canvas, perfectly matched by Kelly's crisp comping. The swing gets stronger with Mobley's tenor and during Kelly's solo, but when Coltrane enters with his "sheets of sound" the temperature in the studio rises at least ten degrees. The handsome prince has arrived on a Harley, ready to burn rubber. But Chambers rushes back like a protective dueña, instilling decorum with his pedal point, and this magical performance makes a complete circle back to its starting point. What a ride!

December 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond: You Go to My Head (1952)


    Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond at Birdland, photo by Marcel Fleiss

This is the quintessential cool jazz duet. A quarter of a century after this recording was made, Brubeck and Desmond had such fond memories of "You Go to My Head" that they resurrected the song for their 1975 duet session on the A&M label. But this 1952 meeting-of-minds will not be topped. Desmond was never more lyrical, Brubeck never more sensitive, and the rapt attention of the audience is palpable. This 1952 Storyville session, which also produced a stunning version of "Over the Rainbow," stands out as a landmark event, the refinement of a new aesthetic attitude toward jazz. Desmond slyly quotes Charlie Parker mid-solo, but the performance subverts the bop conventions in every measure. Jazz fans who want to understand the chemistry between these two artists should start right here.

December 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Over the Rainbow

Twenty years after this performance was recorded at Boston's Storyville nightclub, a host of musicians (most of them associated with the ECM label) began playing jazz without relying on syncopation -- that essential rhythmic device that had propelled jazz performances since the birth of the art form. But Brubeck showed how to do it back in 1952. In this pioneering performance, Brubeck weaves a hypnotic web without relying on a single jazz cliché or any of the familiar devices of swing or bop. It was almost as if he were trying to construct an entirely new way of improvising at the keyboard. Brubeck pulls it off through the sheer brilliance of his reharmonization, and the shifting chiaroscuro textures of his reconfiguration of the Arlen standard. Paul Desmond joins in at the end -- almost as if he couldn't resist the allure of Brubeck's spell. But for all intents and purposes, this is a solo piano performance, and a telling reminder of why Brubeck caused such a stir with his early recordings.

December 01, 2007 · 1 comment

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Dave Brubeck: Thank You

A general rule among jazz pianists is that they give up the keyboard long before their age matches the number of keys on the instrument. But at a spry 86 (when "Thank You" was recorded), Brubeck seems intent on (once again) defying the conventional wisdom. Adding to the challenges, Brubeck injured his ankle shortly before the start of this session, and was hospitalized after its completion. Nonetheless, he offers up an exquisite performance of a lovely original composition. "Thank You" opens in a Chopinesque vein, but Brubeck gradually moves his tonal palette away from nineteenth-century Romanticism into more modern currents. The chords get thicker and full of the ingenious harmonic movement we have come to expect from this pianist. As a solo performer, Brubeck has always shown great patience, digging deeply into the mood of the moment and never rushing the effects --check out, for example, that remarkable version of "Over the Rainbow" from the Fantasy catalog -- and he does the same here, building phrase by phrase to create solid musical structures that will stand the test of time. Brubeck may call this performance "Thank You," but the gratitude here is all ours.

December 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ron Carter: Someday My Prince Will Come

Ron Carter's ensembles often bring a wry sense of humor to their performances. This song is especially susceptible to tongue-in-cheek interpretation. Snow White's bedtime song for dwarfs somehow made its strange path from (Walt) Disney to (Miles) Davis -- probably via Dave Brubeck, who handled the first jazz recording of the tune in 1957. Carter starts with a brief homage to the famous intro from Miles' classic recording, before unfolding his elaborate variations. The melody floats around in a calming lilt before entering the turbulence of a queasy turnaround, which seems undecided on whether to modulate or stay in B flat. Pianist Scott proceeds to test out wry Monkish dissonances, polytonal games with the melody, and a bit of hard bop funkiness -- trying on various costumes in an attempt to discover his own musical identity. When we return to the melody, we are temporarily in the key of B -- a key that Snow White reportedly detested -- but we soon get back to where we started, with that throbbing Paul Chambers pedal point, followed by a rubato coda. Unfortunately all seven dwarfs were still awake and demanding an encore.

December 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane (featuring Elvin Jones): One Up, One Down

A vital part of any extended Coltrane improvisation (this one is 20+ minutes) is the intense interplay between Trane and Elvin Jones. Elvin revolutionized jazz drumming by accenting alternating upbeats of the ride-cymbal pattern (instead of accenting on beats two and four). He is also known for his Latin-to-swing grooves and his ability to build intensity by gradually adding upbeat accents and complex polyrhythmic snare-drum comping. As Coltrane experiments with various motives throughout this improvisation, notice how Elvin is always listening and reacting to Trane’s statements while building to an intense burn on the ride cymbal.

December 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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Wynton Marsalis: Chambers of Tain

My CD copy of this release does not provide any composer information, or list the musicians, or even tell you the state or country where the music was recorded. (Although it does note the microphones employed: Neuman: U-67, KM-84, T170i; AKG: 414EB-P48, 451.) But you can't keep a band this good a secret, no matter how hard the folks at Sony / Columbia work to hide their light under a bushel. When these unknown musicians first released the mystery track on the Black Codes (From the Underground) LP, back in the mid-1980s, a host of cryptographers worked to decipher the discographical information from a cypher supposedly hidden in Stanley Crouch's liner notes. But seasoned jazz fans didn't need to break the Black Code—they just listened to this sizzling hot performance for a few seconds before bowing in deference to Wynton Marsalis, his brother Branford, and the stellar rhythm section of Kenny Kirkland, Jeff 'Tain' Watts and Charnett Moffett. In all honesty, this record shook people up when it first came out, and still amazes today. Wynton puts it all together in his solo—great ideas, peerless virtuosity, hard-edged swing. And the whole band clicks, both on the labyrinthine head and during the fast-paced modally-oriented solos. A classic performance from the mid-1980s.

December 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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