Mahavishnu Orchestra: Inner Worlds Part I & II

Inner Worlds was a large disappointment for many Mahavishnu Orchestra fans. The band was in its third configuration and had been scaled down to a quartet. The musicianship was at the highest level, but much of the music seemed either trending toward pop or farther out than Sun Ra. Even diehard fans couldn't handle some of it.

I don't much care for "Inner Worlds Parts I & II." It is one of those songs that was basically created using computer noises the band could get out of their new-fangled synthesizers. I understand there is an intricate rhythm pattern and that putting this piece together was probably a great technological feat. The tune also has a compelling background riff that slowly overtakes the random blips and bleats. I guess that is "Part II." This music raises you into the heavens, but it cannot overcome the drag of computer noise that preceded it.

So why would I review "Inner Worlds Parts I & II" at all? Partly it is about acknowledging the experimentation of it. But mostly I was feeling nostalgic. I used "Part II" as the ending theme to my radio show Jazz Journey three decades ago.

October 31, 2008 · 1 comment

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Mahavishnu: Pacific Express

For much of my professional career, I was in the photography business. I started in retail working in a Caldor department store's photo section, where I was eventually promoted to manager. I became very knowledgeable about photography, learning about both the equipment and the art and science of it. I would take long backpacking hikes with my lenses, tripods and five different types of film. My fellow hikers would get upset with me because I would stay in a location for an hour waiting for the proper light to take a picture of a dead tree. They would scream at me to move on! In time I left retail to join Vivitar, a leading photographic company most famous for its lenses and flash units. The strangest thing happened, though. The more cameras I sold, the less interested I became in photography. It is funny how that happens. I gave away all my equipment years ago. Today I take out a digital camera and snap the obligatory family shots. I am happy to have a loving family, but that old joy of composing and framing a shot is all but lost. Lest you think this story can't possibly have anything to do with Mahavishnu's performance of "Pacific Express"…

Although the intro to "Pacific Express" seems to have been partly played on a kid's jack-in-the-box, in fact it was played on one of the era's most advanced synthesizers. After which a female voice with a Japanese accent, sounding like it came out of a transistor radio, says repeatedly: "Too dark." Are you still with me? Finally a pleasing drawn-out melody appears. Because McLaughlin was using a guitar synthesizer, there is some doubt as to who is playing lead. My guess is that it was McLaughlin. Bassist Jonas Hellborg takes his impressive solo turn, followed by Bill Evans's (sax) skittering turn. Billy Cobham then gets his chance to pound away. The next solo is clearly McLaughlin, though it sounds like a flute. The phrasing is a dead giveaway. Allusions to the jack-in-the-box return as this enjoyable fusion workout wraps up. But before the final note, our Japanese friend returns. This time she says: "Too Dark. Use flash." Many fans were confused by this message. I was not one of them. I knew the very first time I heard the voice where it had come from. Minolta made a camera that talked. It was called the Minolta Talker. I sold a ton of them! It would vocally tell you when the batteries were weak or when your film needed to be changed. It could do so in several languages. I always found it funny that the English version was spoken with a Japanese accent. The camera also told you when you needed more light to take a picture: "Too dark. Use flash." It was a silly idea, really. But now you know the rest of the story!

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mahavishnu: Radio-Activity

The Mahavishnu Orchestra was back! Well, not exactly. It was now called just Mahavishnu and only John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham remained from the original band. We didn't know it at the time, but there was a plan afoot for a complete reunion. But it didn't get far, and in fact McLaughlin and Cobham had a big row over it. The relationship between these two musical giants continued to deteriorate. Cobham never toured with the new Mahavishnu, and the two don't speak to this day. It is one of the saddest breakups in fusion music history.

In 1984 I wasn't so crazy about "Radio-Activity." Lots of the synthesizer and keyboard sounds and effects heard were actually coming from McLaughlin's Synclavier guitar. McLaughlin had a new toy and he was overusing it in his desire to push digital technology. The problem with McLaughlin playing a guitar synthesizer was that you really didn't get to hear him play guitar. Instead he was playing every other instrument. Often you could not pick him out from keyboardist Mitch Forman, saxophonist Bill Evans or even bassist Jonas Hellborg. Something was missing. I did see the band a few times, and in person the music was compelling. But much of the appeal was visual. You realized it was McLaughlin making a lot more of that sound on the record than you thought. To see him do it live was fascinating. But ultimately, as many fans vocally made clear at McLaughlin's shows, you wanted to hear him do his ripping on a real guitar.

It is now more than two decades later. As I listen to "Radio-Activity," it crosses my mind that perhaps the time is finally right for Mahavishnu. This tune is a killer. It is subversive and frightening. It is still futuristic. The spine of the tune is a strong funk backbeat. Cobham's power is evident. Missiles are shot overhead. As I now realize, McLaughlin is the one tearing everything to shreds. Forman and Hellborg are locked-in tight. Bill Evans (sax) is blowing notes off the Geiger-counter scale. I couldn't really find the groove of this piece back in 1984. Today I can't escape from it.

The tune and performance receive a 95 rating. I am removing 7 points from that score because of the Synclavier. I don't care how much McLaughlin loved it or how good he was at playing the damn thing.

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Anne Phillips: Here's To Life

Being a child of the '70s, I have a built-in hatred of the Fender Rhodes piano. It's quite simple, really, having to do with the Chicago rock band Styx and their nauseating ballad "Babe." Looking back, it seems quite unfair to the instrument. I mean, it can't be blamed for its owner's bad taste. This brings back my early thoughts on the musical tastes of my parents, who were far more likely to appreciate Anthony Newley singing "Send In The Clowns" on the Mike Douglas show than any of the "true" jazz records I tried to push in their direction. Anne Phillips's warm and mature tone again reminds me of that era, and Artie Butler supports her with beauty and grace. My positive reaction to this is yet more proof that (a) my folks knew what they were talking about, and (b) "Babe" should still be avoided at all costs.

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wayne Wallace: Serpentine Fire

I hate to admit it, but I totally missed the Earth, Wind & Fire boat back in the day. Long before I became a jazz snob, I was a definite rock snob. My circle of friends rocked! Why would anybody voluntarily listen to horns when electric guitar was all you needed? Earth, Wind & Fire? Sure, I had a few friends who owned their greatest hits record, but I secretly suspected that had something to do with their girlfriends – a sort of musical/hormonal calculus. Well, everybody has to grow up sooner or later. My moment probably came with either my first Southside Johnny or Tower of Power record. In any event, this high-energy, Latin-ized version of "Serpentine Fire" is a real treat, reminding me of what fun it was to realize that not all songs had to sound like jackhammers gone medieval. Spiky horns, hip vocals, funky bass and guitar, and an insistent and driven piano give the piece huge inertia. There's something for both the rock and jazz snob here.

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Shaw: Foots

At first listen, you'll undoubtedly be struck by the high energy level (I was reminded of Chick Corea, the A.R.C years) as well as the busted harmonic collisions of Monk. What's amazing is that pianist Lee Shaw is playing like this in her 80s! On "Foots," Shaw's solos have a certain economy, showing a vital passion for the tune that comes across as focus. Whether she's comping for her simpatico cohorts, flying through and embellishing the head, or taking yet another new and surprising route through the changes, Shaw seems completely and joyously in her element. A well-known former piano student (whose initials are John Medeski) quoted her advice to him as "Play whatever you feel." She not only takes her own advice, she lives it.

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mark Weinstein: Lua e Sol

Now here is a fine example of sensitive instrumental interplay. After the ominously low rumble of bass serves as an introduction, the structure of "Lua e Sol" is set with a series of guitar chords and arpeggios that are used as starting point for Mark Weinstein's flute excursions. The contrast between the rolling nature of the guitar figures and the angular approach taken by Weinstein (recalling Anthony Braxton in spots) adds depth to the composition. As things progress, both the guitar and flute expand their sonic reach, with the great percussionist Cyro Baptista adding many exclamation points along the way.

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Project Grand Slam: Harry Knuckles

I once had a contractor walk through my living room, take a look at my stereo (which I was proud of at the time, even though it was basically a bunch of half-expensive junk), and say to me, "So you like Kenny G?" My inner jazz snob couldn't hold back the sneer. This isn't really a moment I'm proud of (though I still don't like the G-man), but it does remind me of the times that I've encountered music that takes too close a step toward that Smooth Jazz line. The problem with the genre isn't necessarily its smoothness, but the overall lack of improvisation combined with a rhythmic rigidity. A sure clue often appears in the liner notes with the mention of "programming." If you see that word, it's best to stay away. I suspect that a lot more new jazz fans could be drawn in if the introductory music gave rookie ears the benefit of the doubt and provided them with at least some level of difficulty. "Harry Knuckles" is a very accessible piece that combines funk rhythms (hats off to Gabriel Pollack on guitar), a great bassline, snappy horns, and some terrific solo passages (sax and keys). This isn't to say that Project Grand Slam isn't playing serious music; but they're not afraid to have fun with it.

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Larry McDonough: Aja

What's that cliché? Something about not discussing religion and politics in a barroom? If music and/or rock nerds are involved in the conversation, I would suggest avoiding the topic of Steely Dan as well. Given a cursory listen, you wouldn't think that the music of Fagen & Becker would be so polarizing, but I'm telling you, the spittle will fly! Are they rock? Jazz? Pseudo-reggae? Too slick? Well, this isn't a barroom, it's the Internet. Sure, it can be something of an electronic barroom, but I'll take that chance. Obviously this version of "Aja" shows the jazzier side of Steely Dan. The sax lines of Richard Terrill and leader Larry McDonough's fine Fender Rhodes lines bring into stark relief the song's many contours. McDonough keeps with the spirit of the original as well, by accentuating the energy gained by the many start-&-stop passages that amp things up as the composition winds its way toward a conclusion. Jazz or rock? Sorry, but that question misses the point. Have another beer.

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bujo Kevin Jones & Tenth World: Tenth World Order

The percussion builds tension right from the start, and you can't help but wonder where the inevitable explosion will lead. But then a funny thing happens – a short break resets the beat into a loping waltz-time dirge … almost like a second-line parade trying to build up enough steam to get moving. And, yes, the heat does build, thanks to the trumpet/tenor sax duo of Kevin Louis and Brian Horton. Yet, just when I'm absolutely certain that the initial friction will be overcome, pianist Kelvin Sholar busts in to morph the groove in a decidedly more Latin direction. This in no way deters the horns, who slowly bump the intensity by building lines atop the piano. At about the 10-minute mark, I swear you will feel the urge to rip off your clothes and throw yourself to the ground, writhing in the beauty of it all.

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jay T. Vonada: Mina

There's something reassuring about sitting down to the sounds of a nice, warm horn spinning up a bluesy conversation over the top of its sonic cohorts. So it is with Jay T. Vonada's trombone. He tells his story over the soulful backdrop of the B-3 sounds of Adam Kurland and the ultra-swinging bass of Jacob Hibel. "Mina" reminds me of why I like to pull out my Jimmy McGriff and Wes Montgomery trio records – the relatively simple blues structures open up the realm of harmonic possibilities while simultaneously giving a little musical comfort food. What could possibly be wrong with that?

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Hilario Duran: Paq Man

The modern Latin Jazz Big Band is alive and well, as evidenced by this Hilario Duran effort featuring Paquito D'Rivera and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez. While it's sometimes difficult to find the jazz amidst a Latin Big Band, Cuban/Canadian Hilario Duran declares with the very name of this new group that he is consciously combining Latin and jazz styles. D'Rivera delivers the "Paq Man" melody on clarinet amidst clever bop background figures that are bookended by mambo percussion breaks. Duran and D'Rivera then exchange solo choruses until Hernandez blazes over a concluding montuno to arrive at the track's rousing conclusion.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jason Lindner: Suheir

Jason Lindner, a native New Yorker, emerged as the foremost big band leader among the wave of young jazz musicians who congregated at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village during the 1990s. Throughout his longstanding Monday night residency there, Lindner performed original compositions with a wide range of influences: roaring gospel-blues intensity of Mingus, standard modern arranging of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, strong presence of polyrhythm and odd-meters, and a constant underpinning of modern Latin and funk rhythms. "Suheir" incorporates all the aforementioned influences. The melody successfully alternates between 6/8 and 7/8 time, the background figures all interact through cross-rhythm and polyrhythm, and trumpeter Duane Eubanks and soprano saxophonist Jay Collins engage in an extended improvisational duel padded by colorful trombone harmonies. A tour de force from one of New York's young guns.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Divine Revelation

"Divine Revelation" from Andrew Hill's A Beautiful Day, a live big band date recorded at Birdland in 2002, is an example of a big band revealing a whole new world of exciting possibilities for a bandleader who usually assembles only small groups. This track, originally recorded with a quartet on the 1975 SteepleChase date Divine Revelation, allows Hill to assign some of his complex piano layering to the brass section, freeing him to interact with the dueling saxophonists throughout the majority of this track. Near the tune's conclusion, the polyrhythmic lines, usually handled by Hill himself once again, develop into a Holland-esque polymetric dialogue in the hands of the big band. Marty Ehrlich and Greg Tardy stand out here, as well as the stylish stability of Scott Colley's bass.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento: Anima

Anima marks one of the highlights of Milton Nascimento's career. On the title cut, he somehow creates a music without passport or lineage. You can try to fit this into the history of Brazilian music, but it really sounds more African. Or maybe it's pop or some new type of jazz. You might even be forgiven for labeling it as a crazy takeoff on the minimalism of Terry Riley and Philip Glass. But toss all the labels out the window. This is Milton's universe, and he has created an individual soundscape out of his own personal musical journey. He enlists the group Uakti to help out with their unusual homemade instruments, and layers shimmering, echoing vocals on top of a hypnotic rhythm. This is magical stuff, the sonic equivalent of pixie dust. In fact, the whole Anima project marks a milestone in modern world music. It's a shame it isn't better known.

October 30, 2008 · 1 comment

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Dave Holland Big Band: Blues for C.M.

Perhaps no modern jazz musician has had a more profound effect on jazz rhythm than bassist/bandleader Dave Holland. From as far back as his Conference of the Birds and Jumpin' In from the 1970s and early '80s, to his famed Quintet recordings of the '90s, Holland has been largely responsible for popularizing complex long-form mixed-meter passages. But while 9/4, 11/4 and 13/4 are all fairly common meter choices for Holland, his careful, seamless writing suggests that his unique melodies are written without trying to squeeze any into a specific mixed meter. An interesting Holland melody, when completed, might just happen to wind up lasting 9 beats instead of 8.

Many of Holland's quintet arrangements translate perfectly into the big band format, as evidenced throughout his 2001 big band debut, What Goes Around. His frequent instruction to have tenorman Potter and trombonist Eubanks play concurrent melodic lines (in the quintet format) come to life to the nth degree when entire big band brass sections harmonize the previously composed, interweaving single lines. This powerful style of collective arranging can be heard throughout "Blues for C.M.," Holland's tribute to Charles Mingus, a slow-burning, ever-building blues (in 4/4!).

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Maria Schneider: Bird Count

Maria Schneider wrote "Bird Count," a tribute to Parker and Basie, while still at Eastman School of Music over 25 years ago. It has since become her most common set closer, a rousing blues that ended many a night during her longtime residency at Visiones Jazz Club in New York from 1994-1998. It also closes this live date from the Jazz Standard, a superb display of Schneider's immense writing and arranging talents. Days of Wine and Roses combines Schneider's strongest collection of regular players (Jensen, Ciccarone, Ries, Robinson, Monder, Kimbrough, Scherr, Horner) with some of the finest compositions of her career, including "Lately," "The Willow," "My Ideal" and "Bird Count." Note excellent blues solos from pianist Kimbrough, trumpeter Jensen (the track's highlight), trombonist Farrell and baritone saxophonist Robinson. A standout track from the modern purveyor of the Bob Brookmeyer/Thad Jones/Mel Lewis arranging style.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Milt Jackson with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: Bags' Groove

Brothers Jeff and John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton have co-led the premier West Coast big band for the last 20+ years. Whether backing vocalists Diana Krall or Rosemary Clooney or presenting John Clayton's arrangements of tunes by Duke, Sonny Stitt or Horace Silver, the group performs impeccably arranged, historically minded, ultra-swinging charts. As with most modern big band performances, "Bags' Groove" offers an updated twist on a familiar historical mainstay. Milt Jackson's classic bop tune is energetically arranged here to evoke the classic Hampton sound. Yet the interactive rhythm section playing behind Jackson, especially drummer Hamilton and pianist Cunliffe, reinvents the vibist/big-band relationship, giving a familiar sonic combination an entirely new life.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sun Ra Arkestra: Prelude to a Kiss

As it turns out, a rather strange, indefinable period in jazz history that lasted from the mid- to late '80s allowed for Sun Ra, one of its oddest, most indefinable characters, to come into greater view. But it wasn't simply a matter of timing that slightly but certainly widened Ra's fan base (or made some of his detractors loathe him a little less). Without ever sacrificing his complete and utter individuality, Ra definitely increased the accessibility factor come the 1970s and '80s – teaching a class at UC Berkeley, becoming a visible presence in his Philadelphia hometown, and incorporating classic jazz standards into his live repertoire. A prime example of a Ra-reinvented track is Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss," recorded at Tokyo's Pit-In. Ra's deft stride piano and playful yet respectful arrangement prove that as far out in the cosmos as you get in the big band world, you're never more than a step from the Duke.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gil Evans: Up From the Skies

The collaboration that tragically never materialized between master arranger Gil Evans and guitar hero Jimi Hendrix nonetheless produced some pretty significant developments. In 1974, Evans recorded and released The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix, and in so doing (at least in part) legitimized the adoption of the rock tune as the new jazz standard. While many laud Brad Mehldau or BeatleJazz for repeatedly dipping into the rock canon, the man behind the curtain here, as for so many other important developments in jazz history, turns out to be Mr. Evans.

"Up From the Skies" is one of the few Hendrix tunes that Evans continued to play after his 1974 tribute record. Gil's impeccable arrangement simultaneously (1) allows the listener to forget this ever was a rock tune and (2) nods to Hendrix's harmonic conception – many of the hip harmonies that Evans has accentuated were ripe for the picking straight from the original version. This astounding group from 1980, featuring Faddis, Lewis, Blythe, Bluiett, Kikuchi and Cobham, makes this the foremost version of an important jazz-rock development.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Toshiko Akiyoshi / Lew Tabackin Big Band: Strive For Jive

The Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band originated in Los Angeles in 1973. During the early '80s, wife Akiyoshi and husband Tabackin relocated to New York, revamping the group with new personnel and a new name: The Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin. Until the group officially disbanded in 2003, they recorded 20+ masterful big band works and amassed an enormous list of honors and awards. Just take their Down Beat Critic's Poll wins as evidence: Best Big Band every year from 1979-1983; Best Arranger (Akiyoshi) of 1979, 1982, 1990, 1995 and 1996; and Best Composer (Akiyoshi) of 1981 and 1982.

"Strive for Jive" is an early track from the group's West Coast days. The most palpable initial impression is certainly Akiyoshi's arranging skills. Check out the shout chorus on this up-tempo bop chart – very few arrangers could approach the swinging superiority of an Akiyoshi shout-chorus. And her piano playing ain't bad, either. A classic track from one of the under-publicized giants of the modern big band.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charles Mingus: Hobo Ho

Time and again, exploring the forward-thinking approach of any of jazz's true stylistic innovators ultimately leads further and further back into the music's history. As fundamentally modern and influential as Mingus's intricate rhythmic conception within a gospel/blues framework has been, it simultaneously presents an equally powerful nod to the previous foundation laid by Duke Ellington.

The first half of "Hobo Ho" returns to an earlier Mingus form – the single, gospel/blues bass theme that lays the groundwork for a guttural tenor solo and quick, biting background hits. Around the 4-minute mark, though, the arrangement turns into a more complex, through-composed event with multiple interweaving rhythmic figures as the tenor solo gradually melts away into a free-for-all climax. The 1950s and '60s seem to drift into the '70s at that 4-minute mark, displaying the arranged freedom that so many had set out to perfect throughout the '60s. The controlled chaos that has built throughout the tune eventually recedes and leaves the introductory bass theme as the last player standing, taking us both literally and figuratively back to where we started.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Big Band: Little Pixie

Sure, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band occasionally entered the electric/fusion world with funk-groove experiments: check out "Central Park North" for a prime example. But the famed group that performed every Monday night at the Village Vanguard epitomizes the modern big band when they are just plain swinging, too. Their arrangements and featured soloists skillfully combine Swing Era classicism with the energy and freedom of bebop and hard bop. On this track, Jerome Richardson, Eddie Daniels and Joe Farrell take fine solos, and Pepper Adams's rousing baritone sax solo makes clear why he was nicknamed "The Knife." The widespread, sustained influence of this group can still be heard every Monday night when the current Vanguard Jazz Orchestra plays many of the Jones/Lewis arrangements as a memorial to the originators of the straight-ahead, modern New York big band.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sean Wayland: Organic Cigarettes

Sean Wayland's Pistachio is one of the more entertaining CDs I have heard in some time. I am a sucker for any groove-oriented fusion, and these guys seem to know it. This is especially true on "Organic Cigarettes," which I would suggest is a not too thinly disguised tribute to Weather Report. (I call them as I hear them.) The CD's liner notes mention the term "intergalactic funk." That is an apt description of the rhythm section performance of drummer Keith Carlock and bassist Tim Lefebvre on this cut. The insistent lowdown but spaced-out groove they offer is similar to workouts from jam band Medeski Martin & Wood. What takes this music farther out is Wayland's synthesizer playing. He does sound like Joe Zawinul. Sometimes he even sounds like John McLaughlin on guitar synthesizer trying to sound like Joe Zawinul! (That is the persona he chose for this cut. At other times on the CD, he sounds quite different.) Wayland plays all of his lines with the urgency of a guy searching for the right door, which is always fun to listen to.

I often discuss the current state of jazz with some of my older jazz fan friends, and even some of my contemporaries. Mostly I deal with the refrain that there is no good jazz being played anymore. I explain that they need to open their ears a bit more and accept the fact that, as with any popular music, jazz grows and changes. One of the best ways to get that point across is to shove them in the direction of an album like Pistachio. If only they would listen…

October 30, 2008 · 1 comment

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Fred Frith: No Birds

Guitarists have always brandished their instruments like weapons. But when Fred Frith arrived on the scene it was like AK-47s had just hit the street. He could do some nasty stuff with his axe, and in his hands the guitar seemed capable of evoking the noise of industrial machinery, the metal-clashing clamor of colliding cars, the mind-numbing brrrrr of dying household appliances, and the relentless buzz of a dental drill looking for an exposed nerve among your back molars.

Frith's classic "No Birds"—the longest track from his essential Guitar Solos release—displays how brilliant this artist could be at his finest moments. He crafts eerie, quasi-orchestral sounds from his guitar, a modified 1936 Gibson K-11. Midway through the track he plays two modified guitars simultaneously—they were laid out on a table, neck to neck, with their bodies pointing in opposite directions—and the results take us far outside the realm of conventional chordophone music. Decades have passed since this record was made, but it still stands as a signpost at the outer limits of solo instrumental performance.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charlie Haden: War Orphans

In 1969, even though Charlie Haden & Co. were clearly staunch opponents of the Vietnam War, the Liberation Music Orchestra took the high road to deliver a sociopolitical message, performing instrumental music largely inspired by the Spanish Civil War. The big band was therefore infinitely more powerful than your average musicians performing their usual fare while playing political preacher between song performances.

On Ornette Coleman's "War Orphans" from the Liberation Music Orchestra's debut recording, Haden and pianist/arranger/co-conductor Carla Bley engage in an extended conversation with delicate, guarded grace. The remaining players creep in as the tune concludes, providing an eerie culmination in which a social and political message has been delivered without a word uttered. Also notice that this big band is not assembled by section as classic big bands were. A big band where you have only one musician to a part, as is the case here, is a significant modern development that leads to some groundbreaking playing throughout this 1969 recording.

Although the group has only occasionally toured and recorded since 1969, Haden and Bley occasionally bring the band out of retirement whenever the time comes to deliver a musical message. No surprise that they were set to perform at the Blue Note during election week in November 2008.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sean Wayland: Arc Is Enough

In subsurface mining, you dig a long shaft into the ground in search of valuable materials such as ores, diamonds or crystal. It is hoped that this shaft, which may be dug at any angle, intersects with a naturally created vein containing much of that desired material. Once a promising vein is found, miners will follow it wherever it leads until they have excavated every last possible bit of the substance they came looking for. That, my friends, is finding a deep groove and sticking with it! That is what these fantastic musicians did when they played "Arc Is Enough" on keyboardist Sean Wayland's Pistachio.

It takes a bit of time searching and re-sharpening drill bits for this quintet to find the mother lode. This is done with mechanical and musical precision through the use of drums, bass and jagged keyboard chords. Once the band locates the target vein, an insistent jazz-rock jam band groove is employed to exploit it. Guitarist Adam Rogers bores the large rough cuts first. Wayland follows with his vibrating keyboards to push aside the leftover refuge. Those of you familiar with the honky-tonk distorted keyboard funk heard on Miles Davis's Live-Evil album will most certainly appreciate Wayland's contributions and the entire tune's midsection. James Muller follows Wayland with pinpointed guitar drilling right through the middle. You must mine until there is nothing left to mine. This 10-minute vein will eventually die. But not before this locked-in fusion combo makes sure there is not a speck of recoverable material left. This is some of the most energetic groove-mining music I have heard in some time. It is well worth your exploring.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Connors: Out by Twelve

The final cut on Bill Connors's Double-Up is the blatant "Out by Twelve." It is a rollicking fusion number dominated by a heavy dose of bass thunder from Tom Kennedy. There is not much of a melody heard. This piece was written to serve as first-class shredding material. Subtlety is entirely absent as Connors rips through one screeching run after another. There is a rough edge to his guitar sound. This is in contradiction to the rest of the album, on which his sound is well oiled. Drummer Plainfield is given a power turn to show his mighty chops. This was one killing power jazz-rock trio. I rate "Out by Twelve" a 0 for nuance, 50 for melody and 205 for over-the-top burning. Divide the total by 3 and we conveniently come up with 85. It is good for the musical soul to revel in some bombastic excess from time to time.

October 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Connors: Long Distance

Once or twice every decade guitarist Bill Connors makes a recording. For his fans these are long-awaited projects. These days Connors seems to be primarily teaching music and trying to perfect his ever- changing style. Who knows where it will lead? But one thing is clear when it comes to Connors. He was one of the first great jazz-rock guitarists. He had a distinct voice (even when he changed it) and continued to put out interesting music whenever he chose to.

"Long Distance" is an effective fusion ballad. The melody consists of liquid-like stretched-out Connors notes presented over a slow and deep backbeat. The band is in no hurry to cover distance of any length. From time to time Connors pulls off the end of a note the way Jeff Beck would. That is the only indication he plays the same instrument. Like his contemporary Allan Holdsworth, Connors is the anti-guitar player. His lines are more associated with horns or even keyboard synthesizers. The thing that sticks out about "Long Distance" is that it sounds every bit as modern as any of the new music I review. You could put this cut on a current release and I would guess in form and substance that it was conceived, created and recorded this past year. Jazz-rock fans not familiar with Connors's past work need to check it out before he releases his next album. You will probably have a few years to get that done.

October 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Connors: Floor to Floor

Guitarist Bill Connors was a very different player on Double-Up than during his preceding short stay with Chick Corea's Return to Forever, where Connors played very much what was needed for that band. Corea's compositions required articulation of each note. There were lots of stops and starts and syncopated passages. After he left RTF, Connors took up classical guitar and shied away from the music business. A decade passed. When he returned, his playing seemed more in the mold of a player such as Allan Holdsworth than say Al Di Meola, his RTF successor. Both Holdsworth and Connors had joined the "School of Legato." One note led seamlessly into another. Finger or pick articulation between notes wasn't totally absent. In fact, Connors clearly played articulated chords. But his solos were hornlike. You may as well have put a mouthpiece on his guitar.

Connors, bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Kin Plainfield make an impressive power fusion trio. On "Floor to Floor" they have it all going on. The tune's melody is a simple but grabby riff. Bassist Kennedy gets a bit funky as Plainfield supplies the backbeat. Connors then loses all restraint during his solo turn. Not a single picked note is heard. Texture is all but absent in the rolling snowball momentum. This is called having an individual style. In fact, in keeping with the snowy analogy, Connors plays guitar as if he were skiing the Olympic slalom. The man hits no gates.

October 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Connors: Subtracks

Bill Connors was poised for a legendary fusion career. As guitarist for Chick Corea's Return to Forever, he instantly garnered notice with his performance on the group's seminal jazz-rock album Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. But his RTF stint was short-lived. After a year he quit. He felt that due to Corea's Scientology, the bandleader was too strict and demanding. Connors was also upset because he thought the band's music was heading into the territory already occupied by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Connors took up classical guitar and pretty much fell off the face of the earth as far as having a commercial career. Since the '70s, his album releases have been few and far between. Even so, the recordings he has put out serve as a testament to his great abilities.

During a small fusion revival scene in the mid-'80s, Connors released his first record in six years. But due to his long absence from the genre, Double-Up wasn't even a part of the revival. That is too bad. But isn't that what posterity is for?

"Subtracks" is a study in motion. Bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Kim Plainfield begin this driving piece with a circular riff and rhythm. Connors quickly joins them with a display of Methenyesque chords. Kennedy and Plainfield keep chugging as Connors solos. He is no longer Metheny. He is more like Allan Holdsworth. And in fact, both men claim as much influence from horn players as guitarists. Connors's long sustained notes and drawn-out lines back that up. He returns to his version of Pat Metheny to round out the number in a pleasing way. Connors was too good to put out so few records. But each of us must follow our muse.

October 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento: Chega de Saudade

Most casual fans will find nothing surprising in Milton Nascimento releasing a bossa nova CD, and covering the classic Jobim tune "Chega de Saudade." Yet those with longer memories will recall that Nascimento did more than any musician to topple the supremacy of bossa nova in Brazilian music. Nascimento's rhythmic sensibility, with its hypnotic even eights (which Pat Metheny and others would eventually incorporate into jazz settings), instilled a far more Africanized sensibility into Brazilian music than anything found in the Jobim songbook. Early in Nascimento's career, even when this artist performed bossa nova songs, listeners were struck by how different they sounded in his interpretations.

But all things mellow with age, and now Nascimento not only records "Chega de Saudade" but delivers it with genuine bossa nova feeling. And he brings Jobim's son and grandson in on the festivities. Don't expect any musical revolutions here, just a bittersweet, relaxed tribute to a classic song, a brilliant composer and a timeless style of music. This track, and most of the other performances on the Novas Bossas CD, will stand out as outliers on the bell curve of Milton's music, but fans of Brazilian music will enjoy this release and want to add it to their collection.

October 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mulgrew Miller: Dreamsville

Mulgrew Miller has been one of the most in-demand sideman pianists for many years, which has found him playing in top-notch groups ranging from drummer Tony Williams's quintet in the 1980s and early '90s to bassist Dave Holland's newly reorganized assemblage today. While Miller has also done several piano trio recordings as a leader, Wingspan has been the larger group that he has maintained off and on. The Sequel came 15 years after Wingspan's first release in 1987, and was also Miller's first recording under his own name in seven years.

For "Dreamsville," a theme from the old Peter Gunn TV series about a jazz-loving detective, Miller and Steve Wilson go it alone, their other four bandmates sitting this one out. Wilson, like Miller a valuable veteran sideman, has graced many groups (e.g., Chick Corea's Origin), with his fine underappreciated alto, soprano and flute work. Together they produce a wondrous track. Miller's heartfelt intro sets up Wilson's purring, deliberately paced reading of the theme on soprano, which makes room for the pianist's magnificent chordal and arpeggiated fills. Miller solos first with a sparkling sound and well-crafted, precisely articulated lines. Wilson responds in kind, mixing legato embellishments of the melody with highly expressive upper-register ascending runs, while Miller contributes succinct yet enhancing accompaniment. Wilson caps this beguiling performance with a concise, beautifully resolved coda.

October 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dave McKenna: Theodore The Thumper

Dave McKenna, who died on October 18, 2008, at age 78, wrote two tunes for Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame outfielder, namely "Splendid Splinter" and "Theodore the Thumper." A huge Red Sox fan, McKenna no doubt surpassed fellow pianist and Chicago Cubs fan Jim McNeely (see my review of his "Ernie Banks") with the intensity of his obsession. While performing at piano bars in Boston and vicinity, McKenna often kept a radio at low volume atop the piano, and insisted wherever possible that the piano be positioned so that he could see at least one TV screen when a game was airing. McKenna's death was even announced during the radio broadcast of the Boston-Tampa Bay playoff game the day after he died.

How fitting it was that Ted Williams, one of the greatest left-handed hitters in baseball history, was so revered by McKenna, who possessed one of the greatest left hands of any pianist to ever play jazz. On the charming "Theodore the Thumper," an airy, good-natured theme along the lines of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," McKenna's awesome technique can be readily admired. Sounding like two or even three piano players, he uses an intricate maneuver that allows him to simultaneously play chords and execute basslines with his left hand. He also similarly splits the duties of his right hand, so that he sometimes plays chords on top of the melody or variations thereof. McKenna's powerful rhythmic momentum and harmonic density are as usual unforgettable and irresistible.

October 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Russell Malone: The Odd Couple

Russell Malone's early Columbia and Verve releases, with their occasional vocals, attempted to position him as the next George Benson. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and the flashy, versatile guitarist has focused on his hollow-bodied instrument ever since.

When Neal Hefti passed away on October 11, 2008, obituaries headlined his having written the theme songs for Batman and The Odd Couple, rather than his composing and arranging accomplishments for Woody Herman and Count Basie. Yet as Malone shows in this sinuous interpretation of "The Odd Couple," the overexposed tune can still hold up quite well as a serious vehicle for improvisation in a straight jazz context. Malone, with his thick, warm tone, delineates the bouncy theme as Wonsey feeds him simpatico chords before the guitarist enters his long and imposing solo. Malone effectively alternates ringing, stretched high notes with echoing lower-register jabs. His trademark fleet staccato runs and country blues inflections are magnetizing. At the end of his solo, he toys creatively with a chord progression based on the opening notes of the melody. Wonsey's assured, flowing improv adds to the impact of this definitive treatment of Hefti's song.

October 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sheila Jordan: The Very Thought of You

Sheila Jordan will turn 80 on November 18, 2008, and still awaits the kind of recognition she has deserved throughout her long career. Perhaps her unconventional, risk-taking singing style has held her back over the years, although her contemporary and fellow Detroit native Betty Carter, sporting a similarly original approach, managed to finally attract a wide audience in her 50s after years of struggle and neglect. Whatever the case, Jordan, who studied with Lennie Tristano, sat in with Bird, and later recorded with George Russell, has produced one provocative album after another since her classic debut Portrait of Sheila in 1962. Yet for many years, she held down a secretarial day job just to make ends meet.

This version of "The Very Thought of You," which she recorded at the age of 60, finds her definitely in a Betty Carter frame of mind. Beginning with only Swartz's alternately walking and prancing basslines, Jordan elongates words and alters pitches at will. As Barron and Riley chip in, she exudes a girlish charm while at the same time exhibiting an obviously mature control, toying with the rhythm and hitting effectively slurred low notes when least expected. Barron's scampering solo seems inspired by Jordan's compelling quirkiness. The singer next trades masterfully with Riley, her scatting as always highly musical and unaffected. She then reprises the lyrics, sometimes nearly in falsetto to contrast with her richer natural voice. This is a teasing, knowing, unassailable interpretation from start to finish.

October 29, 2008 · 1 comment

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John Coltrane: Little Old Lady

A sprightly, major key tune that lives up to the spirit of its title, "Little Old Lady" is more reminiscent of what John Coltrane had played with Miles Davis than with the direction he'd recently taken on his previous Atlantic album, the more determinedly innovative (and personal) Giant Steps. Yet he does a good job here, inhabiting the jaunty, medium-tempo tune with requisite optimism and good humor. Coltrane had only months earlier recorded "Giant Steps"—his definitive "sheets of sound" performance—so it's interesting to hear him scale back his preoccupation with complex harmonies and approach a tune with a relatively unadorned, playfully melodic style. Contributing to the Miles-ian air is the Kelly/Chambers/Cobb rhythm section, with whom Coltrane had worked in the Davis band. Chambers is especially fine, contributing the type of virtuosic bass solo that we take for granted today but which was extremely uncommon in 1959. Kelly comps with characteristic bounce in his step, and Cobb plays with his usual tastefully swinging flair. Coltrane was manifestly comfortable with this group … perhaps too comfortable. The performance demonstrates how Coltrane had still not completely broken away from Miles's late-'50s style. Recorded during a period of transition, this performance represented conceptually a small step backward for Coltrane. Perhaps he felt the need to catch his breath, in preparation for the changes to come. Certainly it wouldn't be long before his vision would reach full flower.

October 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Robert Mitchell 3io: Quantum

Much of my formative youth was spent in a neighborhood of Franklin, Massachusetts. Decades after I left, I was back in the area on business and had a few hours to kill. I decided to see the old neighborhood. As I drove down Eldon Drive, I noticed first how all my childhood friends' houses were now under the shade of very large trees. When I was a kid, those trees cast no shadow. I parked my car on the side of the road and got out to walk around. I could not believe how small the homes were. There were families of six or seven people living in those houses when I was growing up! But the strangest perception overtook me as I walked between the blocks. I would swear that all the homes were sitting approximately three feet to the right of where they used to be! It was a bizarre experience. I know they have not moved in the physical sense. But perhaps my added height, my changed vision and the larger environment I had relocated to had all shaped my new view of this long-held memory. Whatever the explanation, I write this preamble now to convey my sense of Robert Mitchell's 3io trio. It is about three feet to the right of other jazz piano trios.

"Quantum" is a perfect example. You expect a jazz piano trio to either swing or play a touching ballad. You expect impressive keyboard runs performed at lightning speed. You know you will hear a piano solo, bass solo or a drum solo. You can be sure these things will occur. None of them happens on this tune. Instead we are presented with ensemble playing that focuses on the spatial and indirect reference. (Is this the atomic world?) Texture and feel are the dominant notes. You may be thinking that I am describing a free jazz performance. But "Quantum" and other cuts from the album are far from that. Free jazz has no plot. The music heard here tells a structured story. It just so happens that the structure is not located where you expected it to be. I wonder where it will be located next time I visit.

October 28, 2008 · 0 comments

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Robert Mitchell 3io: Cumulus

I have a stack of CDs on my desk that I audio scan to determine which cuts are worthy of review. Once I have picked a cut, I listen to the full tune and review it as I listen. Because of time constraints, I rarely get to listen to a whole album these days. That is a fault of our busy modern lifestyles and CDs that contain far too much music. At some point, I will write a blog about this need artists have to fill up the whole 74 minutes of a CD. I think it is detrimental to the art. We don't have the time in a day to sit still and really listen for 74 minutes. But now I have gotten off track already. The point to my story is that I just don't have time to listen to music the way I wish I could. Yet every once in a while, something will grab me and I must make time for it. Such was the case with this release by Robert Mitchell's trio (which he spells 3io). I used the only free moments I have these days, late-night bedtime, to listen to the CD in its entirety instead of counting sheep.

I have heard many jazz piano trios. I know what to expect. But this trio is different. Parts of The Greater Good are not that different from the other impressive progressive jazz piano groups I often write about. Like those, this 3io has driving rhythms and chops to spare. But I am more interested in the introspection of "Cumulus" and some other tunes. The easy analogy is to compare the piece to the clouds it refers to. But you could do that with almost any New Age piano music. New Age can be relaxing but it contains no drama. "Cumulus," though, is literally dripping with it. There is a deep thought in every note of Mitchell's playing. At times he proceeds so slowly that we have time to think about each note right along with him. You talk about controlling time? Mitchell, bassist Tom Mason and drummer Richard Spaven have mastered it. Since the Robert Mitchell 3io went to such effort to do so, the least I can do is to make the time to join them. Any time listening to this music is time well spent. (By the way, the album clocks in at about 60 minutes.)

October 28, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shakers N' Bakers: In Me Canoe

It's not often that you get the chance to draw a line (however indirectly) between an 18th-century religious subculture and modern jazz. Here's the backstory: the newly formed Shaker communities eschewed the musical fare of established churches, instead relying on "vision songs," thought to be of divine origin, transferred to an individual by deceased Shakers, angels or the Savior. The song was often learned while the recipient was in a trance, offering up the new spiritual message in tongues. Shakers N' Bakers take a similarly radical approach to the Shaker vision song. The idea of applying free improvisation to this source material might lead you to prepare for some wacky solos overlaying jazzed-up arrangements of the original song. Well, you would not have prepared yourself properly. This track sounds like the 1972 disco hit "Soul Makossa" as if sung by Kate Bush in duet with Captain Beefheart. A thick & funky groove develops thanks to some great saxophone and organ work, while vocalists Mary LaRose and Miles Griffith leap octaves, squeak, moan and grumble with abandon – an edgy jazz version of speaking in tongues. One of the most exciting tunes I've heard this year, by far.

October 28, 2008 · 0 comments

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David Sancious: And Then She Said

David Sancious is a legendary rock session musician. He has played keyboards and guitar with everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Sting to Peter Gabriel. But a small part of his past was spent in the jazz-fusion world. It appeared certain he would become quite a popular force in the genre. But things didn't work out that way. In recent years he has shown he may be catching the bug again. But nothing concrete has developed.

"And Then She Said" is one of those tunes that comes in from the progressive jazz door but exits by way of the fusion fire escape. Sancious's straight-ahead piano treatment leading to the somewhat gentle main melody would seem the least likely way to set the stage for fusion anthem theatrics. But it does. The solo turns also tend to be more jazz-based. But when the piece returns to its main theme, the soaring sparks of a jazz-rock tradition take hold. Sancious fills "And Then She Said" with conflicting measures of beauty and raw power. His Hammond organ solo is perfect. He is joined by bassist Jeff Berlin, who adds just the right touches. The quality of this tune confirms something that a small but loyal cadre of Sancious jazz-rock fans have known for three decades. Sancious's contributions to the genre were important but overlooked. Much of that may have been because of his own career choices. But nonetheless, a close look at his brief fusion career ought to be mandatory.

Caveat: The musician credits listed above are my best guess from the limited information available. I am pretty sure that Jeff Berlin is the bassist, but I would not stake my life on it. There is always the possibility that it was T.M. Stevens. It could also have been Sancious himself! The same doubt applies to the others. If you have better information, please share it in a comment below.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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David Sancious: Valley of the Shadow

"Valley of the Shadow" is my favorite cut from this album. If I did not know better, I would think it was from the '80s fusion group Elements. So right off the bat we know this was a few years ahead its time. Personally I have always preferred Sancious's electric guitar playing. But on this tune his synthesizer and piano work are beyond great. On synthesizer he takes block chords and stretches them out to lie on top of each other. Then he plays a beautiful but aggressive jazz piano on top of all that. The throbbing from the piece's ground-up beat is also quite engaging. Drummer Ernest Carter is given a heavy backbeated solo that leads to Sancious's guitar turn. (In this section especially, the band sounds like Elements with a guest star guitarist.) This is powerful music declaratively presented, and is further evidence that career session musician Sancious was both a talented composer and among the top-notch fusion performers. It is too bad only a few people knew it.

Caveat: The musician credit listing is a bit dubious. Full and provable information does not seem to exist. I could not really tell you who played bass on this cut or if there even was a harp. If I find out for sure, I will amend the review.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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David Sancious: The Naked I

No fusion band worth its salt would create an album without at least one classical-like tune that showed the acoustic skills of the band and the gravitas of the composer. Electric instruments can hide a lot of flubs. But you'd better be a real clean player if you are going to play acoustic fusion music! We demanding fans will be listening for even the slightest misstep.

"The Naked I" presents me with a quandary. I suspect that multi-instrumentalist Sancious is the only musician on the tune and that through the magic of overdubbing he created this wonderful performance. But due to inadequate liner notes and an unhelpful Internet, I am left guessing. Given the stylistic choices I hear, I'd say it is he and he alone. (My evidence is admittedly circumstantial. Should any new information be presented, I will be happy to reconsider this conclusion.)

In any case, Sancious is a wonderful player and composer. His acoustic guitar is steeped in blues one second and fluttering away into blue sky in another. He'll pull off a rapid and clean Spanish run while a whispery flute provides a backing. (I submit the evidence will show said flute as being a synthesizer keyboard.) "The Naked I" is only a little over two minutes long, but is packed with the requisite acoustic jazz-rock bona fides.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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David Sancious: Run

A couple of years ago I had the chance to see David Sancious as an opening act at a local show. I was quite excited. Though Sancious was best known as being a valuable sideman to such rock superstars as Bruce Springsteen and Sting, he was also known in the fusion underground as an important voice in that genre during the 1970s. Much of his sideman work came as a keyboardist. But it was his jazz-rock electric guitar playing that sent fusion fans scurrying for adjectives. For whatever commercial or artistic reasons, Sancious released only two fusion records under his name during this fertile period. Some claim that his record company wanted him to do a "radio friendly" album. And, in fact, his previous album True Stories had to be altered to accomplish that goal. Maybe he became frustrated and decided it was safer and more lucrative to stay in the pop world. I just don't know.

What I do know is that "Run" is a kick-ass fusion number. The tune starts with some nasty funk-oriented bass riffing. The liner notes are not clear which bass player performed on this cut. My somewhat educated ear suggests it was Stevens, though either he or Berlin is quite capable of jumping into another bag when required. Elements of the song bring forth positive comparisons to the best of Tony Williams Lifetime (the Allan Holdsworth version) and to Return to Forever. In some ways, Sancious's guitar playing does sound like Holdsworth, though he seems to have a little more blues in him. Sancious is a man of many talents. The impressive Moog soloing is by him as well. "Run" has an ingratiating rhythmic hook and free-flowing melody. It is one of the rare fusion numbers you could accuse of not being long enough.

I wish I could say I enjoyed Sancious's performance that night as opening act. He seemed uninterested in what he was doing. That stuff rubs off. Maybe I caught him on a bad night. I would have been happy if he had been half as inspired as on "Run."

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever: Majestic Dance

Al Di Meola wrote the rocker "Majestic Dance." It is clearly designed as a guitar showcase, and Di Meola does not disappoint. But the tune has other worthwhile elements. Mile-a-minute unison runs and abrupt theme changes dominate. Corea seems at times to be using a sound patch that came from a kid's toy organ. Even then – on whatever instrument he is using – he manages to capture a bit of the Middle Ages vibe that is so much a part of this concept album. When he and Di Meola play in unison, the disparity between Di Meola's stinging electric guitar and Corea's innocent-sounding keyboards is quite contradictory. Contradiction can make for interesting listening. Corea often employs the marimba as well. The syncopated sections in which the marimba appears are somewhat similar to the music Frank Zappa was playing in those days with vibist Ruth Underwood. The tune is noteworthy for the group's intricacy, power and speed, and as an example of a relatively early Di Meola composition. That being said, though, "Majestic Dance" does lack focus and is easily forgotten.

October 27, 2008 · 1 comment

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Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze: Domain Domain

This magical (and most unlikely!) intersection of cultures produces a surprising result. To be fair, "surprising" may seem like an odd description given the fact that I'd never considered the combination of the West African kora with a trumpet before. With the wide tonal range available on the 21-string kora, Ablaye Cissoko is able to maintain a solid bassline and a series of beautiful and ringing arpeggios over which Volker Goetze weaves his melody. There's also a call-&-response feel here as Goetze drops back for a few short solo passages. Truly mesmerizing stuff.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Vassilis Tsabropoulos: Melos

Over the years, the rap from some corners against the supposed ECM Records style is that it's too icy, lacking in emotion and drenched with reverb. This never made sense to me, bringing to mind commentary about certain memoirs being too "self-centered." Huh?! It's a memoir! To my ear, the extra "air" in many ECM recordings has always been a strength, a kind of modern jazz minimalist aesthetic. So when Vassilis Tsabropoulos brings forth the piano ostinato that will become this track's harmonic framework, it's no great surprise that Anja Lechner's cello lines seem more like conversational passages than a mere "musically correct" set of notes. It's the ample space between the notes, and their subtle decay, that draws in the ear.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Amina Figarova: Chicago Split

Ever wonder how jazz compositions get their titles? Inspiration leads to composition? That would make the most sense, though I've heard guitarist Pat Metheny play new tunes in concert with names such as "New Thing in E," the title being the very last detail to get nailed down. In the case of Amina Figarova's "Chicago Split," it was an event that occurred during the show of the song's unveiling: a good friend of Figarova split up with his girlfriend during the gig. As Figarova relates, this was a very good thing for the now-single man. Maybe I'm projecting here, but this tune does contain a burst of happiness midstream. The horns wind their way around a descending piano figure that seems to hold back a little. But then Bart Platteau slings out a very uplifting and bluesy flute solo, and the piece's entire attitude changes. Subsequent trumpet and piano solos extend the mood, which has shifted from slightly veiled pensiveness to an almost slinky joy. Or perhaps I really am projecting.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Giovanni Moltoni: Mystery Box

There are many ways to analyze music, the most academic being to observe how the melodic lines of a piece fit into the associated harmonic structure. I can do that, but my ears tend to scream that they're being left out. You see, my ear parts don't seem to care about what's "right." No, they care about more subtle things such as texture, phrasing and interaction. On "Mystery Box," guitarist Giovanni Moltoni and his crew ride a slow-burning, spooky groove, layering much texture and nuance along the way. The unison lines between Moltoni's guitar and Greg Hopkins's trumpet are beautiful in their simplicity. Moltoni's harmonically open guitar/synth arpeggios seem to ask their own questions, to which both Hopkins and bassist Fernando Huergo supply endless commentary. And speaking of Huergo, he appears to be the secret weapon here, holding down the groove while decorating the song's progression. I say forget the analysis, and let yourself be moved.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mort Weiss: Blue Monk

Now this is a match made in jazz heaven. Ron Eschete shows off his guitar mastery while Mort Weiss swoops his way through the swingin' chord solos. With the expanded sonic palette of the 7-string guitar, it almost seems like there are more than two musicians playing. What's great about this particular format is that it pretty much requires the musicians to assume nontraditional roles. It's that stretch of responsibilities that produces some great and unexpected results.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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KJ Denhert: Message in a Bottle

This slinky, jazzed-up version of the classic rock song provides yet another example of Sting's song- writing prowess. "Message in a Bottle" is one of those magical pop tunes that on first listen seems simple. The truth is that it's full of harmonic opportunity. From that signature acoustic guitar arpeggio to the "sending out an S.O.S." refrain, KJ Denhert and her fine group take advantage of every contour. Denhert plays with the phrasing, pulling the vocal line slightly out of shape. John Caban adds some seriously funky and subtle guitar parts, while Kevin Jones sprinkles in liberal amounts of percussion. After a piano solo that provides considerable forward motion, Denhert returns, scatting before moving back to the verse, phrasing looser and sexier than ever. Caban lays down an impassioned guitar solo at the end. This might be as far from The Police as possible, but it's still a load of fun.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jerry Costanzo with Andy Farber & His Swing Mavens: My Kind of Girl

Walking a (very swinging) line between John Pizzarelli and An Innocent Man-era Billy Joel, singer Jerry Costanzo delivers a song with a loving nod back to the Rat Pack. I mean that in the best possible way. You might think that this kind of material has been done to death, and yet the robust swing of Andy Farber's Swing Mavens puts this far above schmaltz. Maybe it's in the subtle interactions between Costanzo and the horns. Maybe it's the cool-cat finger-snap/bass introduction ... or maybe it's that it almost makes me wish I was 21 again, opening that Billy Joel record and wondering what all the fuss was about.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer & Jerry Goodman: Steppings Tones

Mahavishnu Orchestra's bassist Rick Laird's composition "Steppings Tones" was originally scheduled to be on the Mahavishnu Orchestra's third studio album. (The piece's title is based on a word game the fellows in Mahavishnu used to play, which juxtaposed letters.) When the group's implosion prevented that from happening, the original recording took place with Mahavishnu at Trident Studios in England, and remained unheard until 1999 when it was released on The Lost Trident Sessions. Laird was never pleased with it because in all the turmoil of the recording sessions, he was unable to complete the composition. He thinks it just hangs there.

With the piece in their pocket, Hammer and Goodman decided to reprise it the year after Mahavishnu broke up. The two create almost a clone of the original, yet without John McLaughlin's guitar or Laird's bass. The versions are so much alike that I can recycle part of the review I wrote earlier for Mahavishnu's version. Here are those comments with strategic revisions: "'Steppings Tones' is written," I wrote, "in intervallic steps, which Laird Hammer loudly lays down as McLaughlin Hammer provides a panning arpeggio. Cobham Hammer provides the requisite fills. Goodman plays a repeating melody as Hammer comps with some electric piano. The theme repeats over and over as if running in place. The tune would make a good theme for a TV detective show."

Rick Laird is right. While I love the piece's sound and structure, it does seem unfinished. In my earlier review, I also mentioned that the Like Children version was more complete than the one on The Lost Trident Sessions. I don't know what I was thinking or smoking. They are both incomplete.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer & Jerry Goodman: Topeka

"Topeka" is named after Andy Topeka, a legendary technician and engineer who could program computers and synthesizers and fix anything with wires, buttons or pedals. He would sometimes be listed in album credits as playing "computers." He was of great help on Like Children and would be called upon for other Jan Hammer projects over the years.

This short tune starts with a country-rock riff and boogie-woogie. (Aspects of the rhythmic structure were based on the children's game pat-a-cake.) It gives us a good opportunity to hear Goodman on acoustic guitar. The players get down and funky before they enter, I daresay, full-out Mahavishnu Orchestra mode. You could lift this call and response out of any Mahavishnu performance. Goodman's soaring electric violin and Hammer's Moog evoke what that band was all about. But my guess is that these ex-Mahavishnu bandmates would tell you it was what they were all about!

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer & Jerry Goodman: Country and Eastern Music

After the Mahavishnu Orchestra broke up in 1973, its keyboardist Jan Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman recorded Like Children. Jan and Jerry decided to play all of the instruments and to even sing. Unfortunately some of Goodman's insecurities arose during and after the sessions. Jerry always had a difficult time being pleased with his work. (This is not news. He has been public with this issue.) It delayed the album's release. As a result, much of the commercial momentum the two carried into the project from Mahavishnu was lost. Additionally, management had originally planned to release the record when they believed it would get the most notice. Instead they were forced to release it during a very heavy release period and it got lost in the crowd.

"Country and Eastern Music" (the name of Jan Hammer's music publishing company) opens the album. Hammer begins with a catchy piano riff. Goodman, on electric guitar, doubles Hammer. Overdubbing then allows Goodman to triple on violin. A slow movement that features Jerry's violin comes. (In hindsight this section sounds very much like something Goodman would put on his Private Music albums a decade later.) The song's theme is quite infectious. You will be humming it. Then the two decide to sing. This is not great. But it is not embarrassing either. The lyrics are really sort of fun. Hammer and Goodman next do what we came for, stretching out electric fusion-style. They sound like Mahavishnu, which makes perfect sense. To end the tune, Goodman goes into his future Private Music mode to play out Hammer's impressive composition.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: No Fear

Jan Hammer doesn't play in public or record much anymore. That is his choice, but it is our loss. His place in history goes beyond his playing in Mahavishnu and his composing and performing for TV's Miami Vice. He will go down as a pioneer of the keyboard synthesizer. What set Hammer apart from other early synthesizer contemporaries is that he realized early on that the synthesizer was an instrument and not a tool. To me that is the key in appreciating his music. If he couldn't find a way to bend a note, he would create a way. If he wanted a new sound he would go beyond the synthesizer's limited control panel. He might even open up the instrument's guts and change some wiring. It is sometimes hard in these digital days to realize the extent of Hammer's trailblazing accomplishments from back in the analog days. The man had an overwhelming knowledge of the art of music and of the technology he needed to convey it. He was a musician made for his time.

From the opening ring from the biggest bell on earth, every sound you hear on "No Fear" is synthetic. Hammer manages to include all manner of melodies, speed runs, juxtaposition and rhythms (without drums). His nimble fingers regularly go over the speed limit. At the time you were just as much fascinated with the sounds Hammer was generating as with the quality of the music. After all, you had never heard these sounds before. Today when listening with some history behind us, we can better appreciate the music itself. To experiment and entertain at the same time is no easy task. But Hammer made it sound easy.

Reviewer's Recommendation: Hammer is best known for his revolutionary use of the Moog synthesizer. There is a very good book out entitled Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (2004) by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco. You should read it if you are interested in such things.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Alphonso Johnson: Flight to Hampstead Heath

Alphonso Johnson, best known at the time as Weather Report's bassist, takes a breather on "Flight to Hampstead Heath." The piece is one of the more satisfying on this album. It is an exploration. Slow meandering arpeggios begin the song. Soon the band is in a Frank Zappa jazz-rock groove. This was probably due in no small measure to the fact that synthesizer player Ian Underwood and percussionist Ruth Underwood, both ex-members of Zappa's bands, were along for the ride. The tune has a strong melody and is full of the fun-filled syncopation that the Underwoods brought to Zappa's music. Percussionist Sheila Escovedo was just a few short years away from becoming the famous Sheila E. Guitarist Lee Ritenour was only a few years away from becoming a Smooth Jazz player. (Cough. Cough. I must have a hairball.) But on this tune they help Johnson, who plays great bass, lay down an impressive fusion number.

Reviewer's Warning: Neither "Flight to Hampstead Heath" nor its companion "Balls to the Wall" is representative of this album. I hate the rest of the music. Johnson was attempting the crossover move. I hate the crossover gambit. If that stuff doesn't bother you, then by all means, don't listen to me. But you have been warned.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Alphonso Johnson: Balls to the Wall

In the course of putting together for jazz.com readers the most complete and detailed jazz-fusion track review archive available anywhere, I have the opportunity to revisit music I may have long forgotten, dismissed or simply missed the first time around. Sometimes my mind is changed by a new listen three decades removed from the times.

I was well aware of the outstanding bassist Alphonso Johnson from his stints with Weather Report and The One Truth Band. But for some reason I never sought out any of his solo material. Until several moments ago I had never heard 1976's Yesterday's Dreams. I must say that there is some God-awful music on this album. It really pains me to say that. To be fair my criticism is mostly based on the fact that Johnson was clearly trying to cross over into pop music terrain. The resulting vocals are cloying. This was sort of thing that eventually killed the fusion movement. I am still bitter about this, so my disgust should be seen in that light. What made these "sell-out" attempts all the more disappointing was that musicians such as Johnson could really play. In a strange way, some of these musicians would play it safe by including a few "good" fusion numbers on these crossover albums. This was bad judgment. The fusion fans couldn't sit through the obnoxious pop music, and the pop music fans couldn't take the fusion. It was a lose-lose proposition.

It is a good thing that jazz.com uniquely reviews individual cuts. This allows us to point out the great tunes so that you can still legally download an important cut and not waste your time and money on the dreck. Yesterday's Dreams, for example, has two stellar fusion numbers: "Balls to the Wall" is one, and "Flight to Hampstead Heath" is the other. The title "Balls to the Wall" pretty much says it all about this testosterone workout. (Though interestingly there are two women in the band.) The tune starts with the heavy riffing of distorted bass and guitar brought to you with pride by Johnson and Ray Gomez. This is overtaken by some spatial "space junk," as they used to say. Johnson runs his bass through some sort of effects processor. His solo confirms he was one of the best players of the genre. Drummer Chester Thompson propels the piece forward. Gomez, an underrated figure in jazz-rock's history, blazes away. The tune aims skyward. In some ways it is reminiscent of Billy Cobham's historic Spectrum. This material is full of "balls out" vitality. If only the rest of the album had been like this. Ugh.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever: Celebration Suite (Parts I & II)

Most Return to Forever fans see Romantic Warrior as the band's most enjoyable album. (Please, I said most, not all.) But for this contrarian it is No Mystery. As it turns out No Mystery was the first time I heard the band. I later went back and discovered the rest of their music. Romantic Warrior would come a year later. I don't think it is so unusual to be most bowled over by music's first impression. The moment of discovery is a hard memory to knock off the shelf. So today, 30 years later, when I decide I want to hear some Return to Forever, this is the CD I play.

"Celebration Suite" is an electric Spanish amusement-park ride full of intricate hairpin twists and turns. "Part I" is the fun aboveground part of the ride. It is full of blowing hair, blurred colors and laughter. "Part II" goes underground. It is a scary adventure full of drama. Each dark and violent corner takes your breath away. I'll never forget how tight this band was. You get the feeling if one of the musicians played the wrong note at 100 miles an hour, they all would play the wrong note at 100 miles an hour. That is tight! But of course they never played a wrong note! This was music played on a tightrope while juggling. Corea's Latin-sounding and skittering organ, Di Meola's soaring guitar flights, Stanley Clarke's bass volleys and Lenny White's power drumming all made an impression that stays until this day.

Reviewer's Note: On No Mystery, "Celebration Suite (Parts I and II)" were treated as separate tracks though sound continued between them. On other compilations such as Return to Forever: The Anthology the song appears as a seamless cut. I have chosen to review it as one long piece because I believe that was the group's original intent. If I am wrong you can sue me.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever: Where Have I Known You Before

I hope this isn't blasphemous, but count me as one of those fans who much prefers to hear Chick Corea on acoustic piano rather than electric keyboards or synthesizers. Don't get me wrong. He excels on all. But there is something about his piano playing that is just transcendent. "Where Have I Known You Before" is a 2-minute exercise in exquisite taste and restraint. Its slow-tempo melody, played with lightning speed nonetheless, is buoyed by an insistent 2-chord left-hand vamp. The notes are simply the thoughts of a man in deep reflection. This is beautiful stuff.

Reviewer's Anecdote: Well, it is actually a story my friend Jeff told me. Years ago he snuck backstage for what was probably one of hundreds of jazz and fusion concerts he did that for. He would arrive many hours before the shows and find a way to sneak in surreptitiously to listen to sound checks. One time he went to see Return to Forever. After some subterfuge, he found himself between a stage curtain, an exit door and Chick Corea sitting at an acoustic piano. Jeff was not supposed to be there. Chick saw him. Chick knew this kid wasn't supposed to be there. He looked over at my friend again. They were the only two people around. Chick turned to the piano and played away wonderfully for 20 minutes as my buddy stood, stared and listened. At the end, Chick looked up. Jeff quietly said, "Thanks, Chick." Corea nodded. Jeff exited right with a memory for a lifetime.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever: The Romantic Warrior

To me, the jazz-fusion opus was always the most enjoyable product from the great jazz-rock bands. These large-scope pieces provided the opportunity for hearing broad compositions played to the hilt by ensembles that featured musicians who excelled both as a group and as individuals. I have always been in favor of stretching out in any context. (Even in the context of the taut structure of this piece.) But give me a player, or a group of improvisers, that wants to say something provocative, and I will listen forever. I want to get lost in a hundred different themes that travel down a hundred different roads. I want to hear the guitarist switch from electric to acoustic or listen as the bassist plucks and then bows. Give me the sound of acoustic piano and electric organ. Play some Latin percussion and some rocking snare drum. You want to show off and play a thousand notes a minute? Go ahead. I want to hear that. Better yet, why don't you and the pianist do it at the same time? Throw in the kitchen sink while you're at it.

"The Romantic Warrior" is one of fusion's best such opuses. The theme changes and notes come at you so quickly that you forget them as they pass. The music itself can actually surpass its own groove. But that is the wonderful thing about getting lost in music. It can be a wild and challenging ride. Yet if you let yourself go, stop thinking, and let the music capture you, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have.

Reviewer's Note: I write while I listen. My last period was hit as the last note was heard. I love it when that happens.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever: Sorceress

Romantic Warrior included compositions from all the RTF players. "Sorceress" was Lenny White's contribution. White certainly had a funk bent, as evidenced by his solo records. I must say I was not always a fan of that approach to fusion. In my humble opinion, the funk had to be presented in a unique way to work. That was apparently not easy.

There is some funk in this mix as well, established in a bit of a blues funk rave-up complete with chunky guitar chords and Clarke's bass funk-blues notes. But it is not a major character. White shows that he can write a compelling melody, as several themes heard on the cut carry forth pleasing messages. Of value is the great midsection that features Corea playing what amounts to straight-ahead progressive jazz on acoustic piano. The song is filled out with some impressive repetitive riffs and the Return To Forever electric trademark sounds. This is not the most compelling music the band could produce. But it is interesting to hear the guys play in a more contemporary fashion from time to time. It was a way to let us know where they all came from and what they were capable of doing had this been a different place and time.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever: Medieval Overture

This was Return to Forever's most famous lineup's first and last Columbia record. It also happened to be the best selling Return to Forever album ever. A year later, following in the footsteps of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Corea would form a much larger group. The only carryovers to the new RTF would be Corea himself and bassist Stanley Clarke.

Every Return to Forever fan has his or her favorite version of the group and favorite record. But based upon sales and general fusion scuttlebutt picked up over the years, Romantic Warrior seems to be the band's most popular recording. It is not mine. But it is a fine album representative of the skills of the members separately and together.

The panning electric piano of Chick Corea fills our ears. Clarke and Di Meola take the low-register road to bring us up to speed on the main melody. Lenny White deftly does his thing on drums. This is one of those typical fusion numbers that changes directions a million times. It is hard to get a handle on the theme. The constant changes of direction become the theme really. There are a lot of trademark RTF sounds here, including some Spanish shadings, quick unison playing and the sound of synthesized orchestrated strings. (Though Clarke occasionally bowed real strings.) The tight ensemble playing is impeccable. There are keyboard flights of fancy and some subterranean bass and guitar. The melody isn't all that strong, but that wasn't always a mandatory requirement for a fusion workout. If someone were to ask me the difference between RTF and Mahavishnu – and they have – I would say that Return To Forever focused a bit more on subtle intricacies but lacked the power of Mahavishnu. Fusion fans could certainly enjoy both approaches.

October 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rachael Price: You Go To My Head

Listening to this young diva intonate so wonderfully on her sensual rendition of "You Go To My Head," you'd swear you're hearing someone older and more experienced in the ways of the world, not to mention the vagaries of love. Rachael Price's control simmers with the assurance of a veteran chanteuse, belying her mere 23 years of age. Her breathy, melancholic delivery is reinforced by pianist's Wolf's blues-based solo. This particular track reminds me of Anita Baker in her heyday, and ought to be popular with both jazz and pop music lovers. Perhaps with this familiar song as bait, the general public will hook into the artistry of this young and rising talent.

October 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rachael Price: The Trolley Song

Occasionally you get a pleasant surprise in your mailbox. For me, this time it was Rachael Price's new album The Good Hours. Recently I've labored through a plethora of new releases and, in my humble opinion, have found few worthy of comment. But Price's wonderful rendition of the unlikely old movie number "The Trolley Song" made me pause and listen. Maybe I have a soft spot in the memory bank for this song, since it conjures up such joyful images of a more carefree era. Yet beyond the nod to my own personal nostalgia, this 23-year-old Australian can really sing, and stamps her own imprimatur on whatever she attempts. The clarity of her voice, the sensibilities she brings to the song, and her bluesy warmth with just enough slyly delivered vibrato, set her apart from her contemporaries. Warren Wolf's piano flawlessly complements her and adds to this delightful musical experience. Clang, clang, clang went the bell announcing Rachael Price has arrived!

October 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Stitt: I Got Rhythm

The two albums that Sonny Stitt recorded in 1972 for respected producer Don Schlitten's Cobblestone label were among the finest of the 150 or so sessions that Stitt led during his prolific career. Coming off a very successful international tour with the Giants of Jazz, a group that included Dizzy, Monk and Art Blakey, Stitt was in top form. Add a highly compatible rhythm section and a no-gimmick concept, and you were almost assured of hearing Stitt at full throttle, rather than on autopilot as was too often the case when he entered the studio.

What makes this over 9-minute version of "I Got Rhythm," originally from the Tune Up! release, so memorable is that it showcases at length Stitt's equally formidable proficiency on both alto and tenor. Stitt commences on tenor in a bluesy loping fashion, sounding almost like a big band sax section all by himself, before going up tempo with a clarion call. His swift, fresh extended lines, rhythmically varied attack, and artful resolutions continue throughout this exhilarating, romping improvisation that defies all expectations, in that it jumps from peak to yet higher peak. You may find yourself sitting there shaking your head from side to side in disbelief, while tapping your foot uncontrollably. Harris, Jones and Dawson are in rousingly tight formation behind him all the way, and Harris delivers an inspired, eloquent bop proclamation of his own before Stitt returns on alto for a second, shorter solo. Again, Stitt's dexterity and imagination are in perfect sync, with nary a wasted note. Stitt moves back to tenor for the winding down, a testifying, soulful ending to a masterpiece.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Simmons: The Other East

Sonny Simmons had wanted this CD to be called Reincarnation, which would have been apt considering that he had spent a good part of the previous 15 years as a street musician in San Francisco, sometimes using the alias "Black Jack Pleasanton" to avoid recognition. Simmons was one of the earliest free jazz players, recording in the '60's with Eric Dolphy, Prince Lasha, Elvin Jones, and his then-wife, trumpeter Barbara Donald, before virtually disappearing from the scene by the mid-'70s. Yet given the undiminished vitality and adventurousness of his playing, this major-label comeback released in 1994 put him back on the map.

Simmons was joined for this session by bassist Charnett Moffett, the son of old friend and drummer Charles Moffett, and by his own son Zarak on drums. "The Other East" starts out with Simmons playing a rotating cycle of riffs and/or vamps, the first one bluesy, followed by others with the pronounced flavor of Indian classical music. Simmons then explodes, his fluid, cogent lines breathlessly insistent. His lucid phrasing and timbre most often resemble those of Ornette Coleman, although he periodically unleashes a dissonant cry that is more remindful of Dolphy. His overall concept, however, possesses a fully formed individuality. While regrettably the under-recorded Moffett can barely be heard, Zarak's drumming is persistently encouraging and responsive. His solo shows both an energetic technical mastery and a refined sense of coloration and texture, with particularly skillful use of the bass drum.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Sharrock: Venus / Upper Egypt

Sonny Sharrock was one of the early avant-garde guitarists, along with the likes of Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne and James "Blood" Ulmer. He and Ulmer both achieved some commercial success, but Sonny died of a heart attack in 1994 at perhaps the height of his popularity up to that time. Sharrock's playing was often fierce and violent in nature, as with the group Last Exit, and yet there was a lyrical side to him as well, which surfaced on such later recordings as Highlife.

It was fitting that Sharrock would record Pharoah Sanders's "Venus" and "Upper Egypt" (here as one continuous track), since during his two years with Sanders in the '60's he performed on the saxophonist's Tauhid album, which included these compositions. Snider's keyboards introduce "Venus" with a Far Eastern flavor, spiced up by the drummers' bustling cymbal accents. Sonny then enters with a rich, inviting tone to play the spiritual, affirmative theme, actually sounding much like another Sonny, the Canadian guitarist Sonny Greenwich. After a slight pause, the group segues into "Upper Egypt," which Sharrock also plays with a glowing, piercing tone. His improvisation approaches his more familiar sheets of sound, but steers clear of sonic chaos. Snider's solo keeps the peace as well, melodic and featuring pleasing angular runs. Sharrock returns for his most intense feedback-laden passages, but this track (and session) is a far cry from anything cutting edge. This is the other, more polished side of Sonny Sharrock – equally valid and well worth hearing.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Rollins: Sonnymoon for Two

This was the first live recording ever at the fabled Village Vanguard, and although about 100 have been made there since, none tops what Sonny Rollins achieved on November 3, 1957. In a pared-down trio format, Rollins performs with a profound combination of spontaneity, discipline and wit. Not only that, but Rudy Van Gelder's original onsite engineering, not to mention his superb remastering for the 1999 RVG edition, captures the ambiance and immediacy of a live jazz club performance – and specifically the aura of the Village Vanguard, whether or not you've ever been there – as well as or better than any comparable recording.

Rollins's successful Way Out West recording date earlier that year, with just Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, perhaps inspired him to try the pianoless trio concept at the Vanguard. On "Sonnymoon for Two," his riffing blues piece, Rollins's extended 5-minute solo is essentially a series of clever thematic variations, interspersed with fleet boppish runs that contrast nicely with his various inventive blues licks. All this is played with an almost sardonically dry tenor tone that adds a distinctly modern sound to this unassuming blues. The density and complexity of Rollins's phrasing increases gradually, but he repeatedly references the main theme. When he hits upon an entirely new riff near the end, he develops it too in concise yet vivid fashion before entering a series of crisp exchanges with first Ware and then Jones, the drummer displaying facets of the style that would later coalesce during his years with John Coltrane.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Donald Byrd (featuring Sonny Red): Fly Little Bird Fly

Sylvester Kyner was his real name, but he was better known as Sonny Red. Despite several recordings as a leader and further recording and performing as a sideman in the '50's and '60's, the altoist never really made his mark. Red appeared on four mid-'60s Donald Byrd sessions for Blue Note, beginning with Mustang. The title tune was Red's, which the composer hoped might become a big hit like "The Sidewinder" so he could buy a new car. This didn't happen. "Fly Little Bird Fly" got just as much airplay back in the day, and deserved it – a stirring Byrd composition with complex changes based on a whole- tone scale. Pianist Tyner, used to such harmonies from playing with Coltrane, is riveting in his absolute onslaught of a solo, which leaves no stone unturned, as well as in his fleet-fingered intro. Red, exhibiting his clear Jackie McLean influence, sounds less comfortable, as he sticks closely to the melody in his solo and plays mostly choppy, truncated phrases. The spirit is there, but not the inspiration. Byrd and Mobley open up a bit more in their improvisations, but only Tyner truly breaks through the pre-imposed structure, aided in no small part by his darting left-hand punctuations.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington (featuring Sonny Greer): Ko-Ko (live 1940)

While Sonny Greer was sometimes described as a casual or erratic timekeeper, he was also known as a subtle and discreet drummer who fit the Ellington orchestra perfectly, since the arrangements Duke's musicians played were all about voicings, coloration, textures and dynamics. When Greer sat amongst his elaborate configuration (except for one-night stands like this) of snare, tom-toms, bass drum, cymbals, timpani, vibes, chimes and gong, you might have thought he was the leader of the band, yet he was primarily there to supply a complementary rhythmic foundation, not to perform showy solos like a Gene Krupa or a Buddy Rich. Greer did this for Duke from 1927 to 1951.

The Fargo, ND, dance date recording of "Ko-Ko" is a very clear example of Greer's prowess, as well as his remarkable rapport with the great bass innovator Jimmy Blanton. The arrangement and execution may be lacking compared to the tune's classic original studio recording from earlier that year, but the performance is just as exciting, thanks in part to Blanton and Greer. This version of the blues piece is levitated initially by Greer's bass drum and Blanton's pulsating bass, the rhythms somewhat a throwback to Duke's old "jungle" style. The harmonically sophisticated intricacies of the call-and-response riffs and vamps between the saxes, trumpets and trombones, Nanton's charged plunger-muted solo, Blanton's provocative fills, and the powerful crescendo ending with its return of the jungle beat, all combine to make this a prime Ellington track.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Greenwich: Libra Ascending

In the mid-to-late '60's, Sonny Greenwich played with Charles Lloyd, toured with John Handy, and after a week-long working audition in Toronto in 1969 was invited by Miles Davis to join his band. Due to Sonny's immigration difficulties, that opportunity was never realized, although he got to play with Miles again in Toronto in 1972. From that point to the present, Greenwich has been relatively reclusive, playing – and sporadically recording – in and around Montreal and Toronto in his native Canada, and very rarely making trips elsewhere.

One such trip was to New York in 1987 for a weekday matinee concert at the now-defunct Sweet Basil jazz club, as part of that year's Greenwich Village Jazz Festival. A few hip New Yorkers, including yours truly, took that afternoon off from work to hear the esteemed Canadian guitarist up close and personal. Greenwich has a style influenced by cubist artist Paul Klee, classical composers Ravel and Debussy, and most especially the spiritual modality of John Coltrane. Sonny's "Libra Ascending" is "dedicated to the memory of John Coltrane." The guitarist's gently subdued intro is an unusually brief one for him, as he suddenly surges into a driving extended passage with a ringing, metallic tone, urged on by White's flailing drums. A gratifying release transports Greenwich into his main improvisation, his urgent staccato phrasing gradually building to an almost uncomfortably impassioned peak. Henke's piano solo maintains the leader's forceful momentum, but is overwhelmed by White's unrelenting drum rolls and cymbal crashes. Greenwich is better able to match White's aggressiveness in the duo's rousing exchange of fours. If you ever wondered what Coltrane might have sounded like on guitar, Greenwich could be the answer.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Fortune: Hornin' In

Sonny Fortune considered Four in One to be "my first traditionally oriented jazz album." Outside of several of Monk's best known tunes, Fortune was not really familiar with Monk's body of work until several years prior to this project. Like Coltrane before him, Fortune adapted his individual style to the unique logic and idiosyncrasies of Monk's compositions, and revealed – to listeners and perhaps even to himself – an aspect of his musical personality that was fresh and surprising.

In checking Monk's discography, it appears that "Hornin' In" was recorded by him just once, in 1952, with a sextet that included Kenny Dorham, Lou Donaldson, Lucky Thompson and Max Roach. Hart's resounding Roach-like intro jump-starts Fortune's and Lightsey's unison rendition of the carefree, skittering theme, with its typically distinctive and complementary bridge. At first in his extended alto solo, Fortune sounds and phrases like Charlie Rouse, but gradually Sonny's unmistakable rhythmic flair, zestful post-bop flourishes, and other original stylistic quirks make the piece his own as he commandingly negotiates the stimulating chord progressions. Note Hart's brilliant drum work throughout, as well as Lightsey's perfectly attuned Monk-centric comping. Williams, as usual, can hardly be heard, even with Rudy Van Gelder at the controls. This is a take-no-prisoners version of a relatively obscure Monk tune that deserves to be played more often.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Criss: Sunny

It was a shock to the many loyal fans of Sonny Criss when he took his own life at age 50 in 1977, just as he was about to begin his first tour of Japan. How could this uplifting, spirited altoist have committed such an act? It wasn't until years later in a 1988 Jazz Times article that Sonny's mother revealed that her son had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and could no longer deal with the pain. In the late '60s, Criss was using his soulful, luscious tone, polished technique, masterful sense of form, overflowing wealth of ideas, and a natural rhythmic flexibility, to record infectious versions of tunes of the day such as "Eleanor Rigby," "The Beat Goes On," "Ode to Billie Joe," "Misty Roses," "I'll Catch the Sun," "Up, Up and Away" and "Sunny."

Bobby Hebb wrote "Sunny" in a purging reaction to both JFK's assassination in 1963 and the coincidental murder of his brother the very next day. Ella Fitzgerald recorded it, as did Sinatra with Ellington, among the many covers of Hebb's own 1966 hit. Criss perfectly captures the earnest innocence of this love song's lyrics through his horn, yet without compromising his musical integrity. After Walton's perky intro, Criss drives headlong through the melody and right into his scorching solo, which contains exuberant, glittering runs and highly effective bluesy pitch alterations, and just keeps building in intensity. Walton's solo is not nearly as captivating, although he finishes with a flourish that pretty much salvages it. Criss restates the theme with the same vigor as before, fading his ending with a satisfying riff derived from a key phrase of the well-known tune. If you strain hard, you may barely hear guitarist Tal Farlow in the background. Either he didn't know the tune and elected to play sparingly, or he was woefully under-recorded.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Clark: Sonny's Crib

One of Sonny Clark's best trio sessions was strangely not recorded by Blue Note, the label for which he was virtually the "house pianist" for the major part of his tragically shortened career. (He died in 1963 at the age of 31.) "Sonny's Crib," which was also the title track of Clark's 1957 album featuring John Coltrane, is an ebullient bop theme with a hint of Gigi Gryce's "Social Call" in its final bars. Except for some lively traded fours with Roach near the end, this version is dominated by Clark's extended solo, which shows an obvious Bud Powell influence in both its phrasing and rhythmic sense, and in the way he utilizes his left hand quite sparingly, although his touch differs somewhat from Powell's. While Clark's playing is unlike theirs, his sustained drive brings to mind the consistently reliable pianists Hampton Hawes and Wynton Kelly. He also sounds a lot like Barry Harris on this particular track – or was it Barry who was imitating him? In any case, this "Sonny's Crib" finds Clark cultivating his bebop roots, rather than the hard-bop style that emerged from them.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sun Ra: Enlightenment

The '70s Impulse vinyl reissues of Sun Ra's obscure Saturn recordings, and their later reappearance starting in the '90s from Evidence on CD, greatly bolstered Ra's musical credentials. Some looked upon him as a charlatan who used showmanship and smoke and mirrors to disguise what were perceived as the deficiencies of his Arkestra. However, as these recordings proved, inconsistency does not equal ineptitude. If Sun Ra's self-produced sessions had been released widely and regularly by major labels throughout his lifetime, the jazz history books might read differently, such was his all-encompassing ability to look both forward and into the past for inspiration, along what he would probably have referred to as the "space-time continuum."

Ra's 1958 band was one of his strongest assemblages, and the serene, exquisite "Enlightenment" is one of the best early Chicago-period tracks. Later, a rearranged version of this tune would become a sort of theme song for the Arkestra, with an added vocal chant to go along with all the mythology, costumes and dancing. In 1958, it simply smacks of Tadd Dameron both compositionally and in the instrumental voicings. The catchy vamps flow gracefully one into another, and it's difficult to get the entire piece out of your mind after several listens. Upon the sounding of a gong, Patrick plays the alluring theme backed by Ra's waltzing chords, Cochran's cymbal accents, and fluttering horn lines. Patrick moves into the distinctive bridge aided by additional counterlines before Dotson's fluid trumpet takes over the melody. A delightful Afro-Cuban segment is followed by Ra's sparse solo that lands somewhere between Ellington and Basie. The pulsating Latin motif is revisited prior to Dotson's subdued recital of the melody over seductive horn fillips. Dotson's final emphatic flurry caps a classic Ra performance.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman (featuring Sonny Berman): Your Father's Moustache

"Your Father's Moustache" captures Herman's First Herd in full charge, and noticeably emerging out of the band's glorious brass section – to nearly steal the track – is the promising 21-year-old trumpeter Sonny Berman. After the simmering piano-bass-vibes intro, wailing bursts from the trumpets merge with Herman's bluesy clarinet phrases, and then Berman's blaring fills. Berman takes the first exuberant solo, and proves he is not simply a superficial high-note specialist, as he craftily switches keys midway. After a pungent statement from Bill Harris, and Flip Phillip's purring Prez-like expressions, Norvo's vibes close out the soloing alongside powerful exclamations from the brass. A contrasting interlude now transpires that moves from a "Seven Come Eleven" motif on to a train whistle/locomotive effect. Then silliness ensues, as the band's vocal chorus of "Ah, yer faddah's moustache," is bolstered by Berman's humorous muted squeals. The call-and-response between Chubby Jackson's crudely slapped bass and Buddy Rich's overwrought drums maintains the prevailing lighthearted mood to the very end.

Sonny Berman would die of a drug overdose in 1947, just after the First Herd was disbanded. Ironically, he had begun playing the trumpet only after an older brother, a talented trumpeter, died in a diving accident at age 17. Sonny wanted to have the career that his brother would not experience, but tragically it was never meant to be for either of them.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Thanks For The Memory

For Americans of my generation, "Thanks For The Memory" is the song Bob Hope sang at the end of his TV shows, usually after cavorting for an hour or two in unfunny comic skits with second-tier '70s celebs like Joey Heatherton or Tom Jones. Jazz fans my age also know the tune from Wayne Shorter's wonderful, corrosively abstract solo tenor version on Weather Report's live 8:30 album. For some reason, the song has not been an especially popular vehicle with jazz improvisers. (Could it be the Hope connection? Perhaps. His persona was, after all, the antithesis of hip.)

Lee Konitz makes gold out of the tune on this trio version, eschewing his usual alto saxophone for tenor—one of the few occasions in his career he recorded on the larger horn. Once one gets used to Konitz's tenor sounding like a 33 1/3-rpm version of his 78-rpm alto tone, it's easy to recognize his style. Konitz's delicate manner of articulation is little commented upon, yet it's a critical component of his sound. His attack seems cushioned, without the percussive, plosive aspect possessed by a great many if not most saxophonists. It contributes greatly to the "human" aspect of his sound, all the more pronounced here thanks to the tenor's lower register.

Pianist Jimmy Rowles, a dyed-in-the-wool bopper of the first order, ably abets Konitz. Witty and exceptionally swinging, his accompaniment gently goads the saxophonist, while his brief solo adds an element of playfulness. Bassist Michael Moore doesn't solo, but supports Konitz and Rowles well. He knows what goes where and why. Together, the trio subverts the geeky legacy of a perfectly good old tune. I'm sure Bob wouldn't mind.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Antonio Carlos Jobim: The Red Blouse

Jobim's first A&M recording wraps his minimalist compositional style around Claus Ogerman's lush strings and horns and producer Creed Taylor's thick wall of reverb. No real rough edges exist, but the track's main theme is striking and the production does not detract from the performance. A minimum of forcefulness is provided by Ron Carter, whose deep, active walking basslines provide counterpoint to Jobim's understated glissandos. Together, these elements drape the track in sonic regality and, even though the recording methods may have been modernized on this recording, the track remains an essential part of a historic album of jazz pacesetters.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Pat Martino: Oleo

The first thing that listeners will notice about "Oleo" is Joey DeFrancesco's organ sound, which is certainly a throwback to the Swingin' Sixties. Although prominently featured, he keeps the chord base simple as Pat Martino's 6-string prowess takes center stage on this amazing concert recording. Taut, driving rhythms provide release as Martino's fingers fly on the fretboard at a frenetic pace. Emotions run sky high as it sounds as though Martino is singing for his supper. Given this tasty jam, I say punch his meal ticket immediately if there's any way you can afford to do so.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Modern Jazz Quartet with Laurindo Almeida: Silver

Four intense mood swings in the first minute and an untraditional song structure make this track inaccessible to most. That is common when assessing John Lewis's body of work; his classical music roots firmly place his musical ambitions outside the mainstream. Lewis's ideas require significant digestion, especially for the untrained ear. Luckily, his compatriots on this recording are able to keep up with the constant shifts and surprises. While "Silver"'s dynamics are golden, Lewis's and Jackson's respective solos on piano and vibes pave the path for such jazz descendants as Stefon Harris and Jacky Terrasson. Definitely recommended.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charles Lloyd: Memphis Green

"Memphis Green" offers significant abstract deviations from its 12-bar blues pattern. Pianist Keith Jarrett's irregular diminished chords establish the concept, while lengthy and uninhibited solos abound. Emphasis is placed on avoiding standard chord forms altogether, meaning that, although melody is present, the artist is more interested in an excursion into free jazz's outer fringes than in tradition. At the Fillmore, while sharing bills with Jefferson Airplane, this was a new jazz development for Lloyd. Nowadays, though, its appeal is largely limited to fans of such musical directions and, possibly, to the few who still carry the peace-and-love banner.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bireli Lagrene: Wave (1983)

By-rote versions of well-worn jazz classics are generally defined as "filler." However, this fitting tribute to the Gershwin of Brazil is well served by the spirit of gypsy jazz, alive and well via the years of expertise that Lagrene, Coryell and Vitous carry to the stage. The trio lends new charm to a cut with unbreakable ties to the Latin heritage. And most importantly, Lagrene's fusion musings on guitar are not forced to succumb to the familiarity of a lead sheet. Overall, the track is successful due to this combo's uber-chops and stylistic panache.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Oz Noy: Blue Monk

Jazz purists may cringe at the rock overtones, but the Hendrix influence cannot be ignored here. As with nearly all of Jimi's own recordings, this track is an improvisational showcase for long strings of notes played on Fender guitar and topped with heavy stereo effects and gain. While none of these details sounds particularly surprising on the surface, Noy has created a standalone version of the classic Monk tune that pays enough homage to the original composition that it can still be considered a cover. The divergent synthesis provides fusion credibility, and the recording works on this level.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chuck Mangione: Fun and Games

The vibe of Chuck Mangione's signature tune, the pop hit "Feels So Good," is recreated here with a bouncy yet relaxed atmosphere and disco-drenched rhythms that provide a solid, era-oriented anchor. Elsewhere, the horn soloing recalls other progressive jazzers such as Miles, but this track sounds composed spontaneously in the studio around Grant Geissman's guitar licks, which are somewhat limited to funky single-note patterns and octaves. Geissman's bluesy slide guitar solo sounds out of place, and the melody, while tenable, is not as memorable as its predecessor. A decent track, but Mangione is better represented by other recordings.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Octane

This recording lacks synergy due to the fact that live and studio performances were merged to create it. There are imperfections, such as the intonation between guitar and bass. But Benson still plays like he has something to prove, and the inclusion of a Hubert Laws flute solo does not put out the fire despite the coolness of that instrument. Benson delivers the goods, and his performance will whet classicists' appetites for original, unaltered tapes that may never see the light of day. Even so, this recording stands as proof of Benson's instrumental prowess.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Take Five

Some tuning discrepancies exist here between guitar and bass, but it doesn't matter much, because the track is energetic and Benson's playing has obviously reached its peak. The flaws could be due to the track's genesis, as the original rhythm section was replaced in the studio by Will Lee and Steve Gadd in a last-ditch attempt by CTI to generate sales. Their presence ignited a spark that led to major chart success, and this pre-pop stardom cover version, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, is a clear indication of Benson's mass appeal and strengths as a top concert draw.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Barney Kessel: 64 Bars on Wilshire

Kessel's busy ode to a traffic-soaked Los Angeles thoroughfare contains several wild conflagrations by pianist Hampton Hawes, but Kessel himself steals the show with rapid-fire guitar leads. His name is rarely heard today (possibly because his parents named him Barney), and the disregard of his musical legacy is unfortunate. Such tracks leave me with the impression that Kessel is one of the more underrated guitarists in jazz history, despite his familiarity to many hardcore fans. Repeated airings of this easily obtainable track confirm those suspicions, as these bars have led to one of his best and most inspired moments.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shakti: India

"India" originally appeared on Shakti's A Handful of Beauty album, which has been very difficult to obtain after its initial release. It opens with a mind-bending string-bending display from McLaughlin. The scalloped fret board he used on his guitar, modeled after the Indian Vina, allowed him to pull and push down the strings to such an extent that the bends he achieved were beyond belief. In this exposition he even loosens and tightens the tuning nuts to achieve further Eastern-influenced bliss.

A gentle guitar arpeggio introduces the sonorous violin of L Shankar. The tune is spatial in parts. A relaxed rhythm cycle infuses the Indo-jazz piece. Percussionists Hussain and Vinayakram ramp things up to get ready for a McLaughlin solo turn. He is just whipping the notes out. They are a blur of bends and snaps. In between runs he strums the set of harp-like strings that have been built onto the body of his guitar. His playing is melodic and percussive. At some point McLaughlin joins the rhythm section for support of L Shankar's solo. The band gets down. A lightning-quick unison fest then takes place before the gentle opening motif returns for a coda. Shakti rocks!

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shakti: Isis

"Isis" originally appeared on Shakti's album A Handful of Beauty. At first, it is a sad ballad. Its opening theme is proffered by violinist L Shankar. Western melody and Eastern music don't always go hand in hand. Shankar was always more comfortable performing music from his own idiom. Outside of that, everything was new and experimental. But from time to time he was able to lock in on Western emotions. This was one of those times. His slow and sad movement is followed by a McLaughlin rip-fest. To be honest, this section is not that musical. It is more a demonstration of speed and skill than of communicative music. It is still full of amazing stuff, but McLaughlin's detractors could point to this section and claim it as an example of the guitarist's excesses, and they would be right. McLaughlin steps aside for a Zakir Hussain tabla solo. Hussain is the best in the world. His intricate power, precision and speed are mind-numbing. But unlike McLaughlin's solo, this turn is very musical. "Isis" is a keeper, and a rare performance in which McLaughlin's bandmates outshine him.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shakti: Mind Ecology

"Mind Ecology" appeared on Shakti's swansong album for Columbia Records, Natural Elements, which was a whack at trying to get a few more Western listeners to dig Shakti. There was a bit less Indian vibe and a bit more Western tradition than on the band's previous two albums. The tunes were also substantially shorter in the hope for some radio airplay. In neither case did these new efforts succeed.

The hypnotic sounds of a reverberating mouth harp open up "Mind Ecology." I never knew that instrument was used in Indian music, but you learn something new every day. The harp stays in the background most of the time. Normally this type of music uses a drone (sruti) box for the traditional Indian accompaniment. But here the same result is reached by recording the harp as if part of an experiment in the Doppler Effect.

McLaughlin plays some real heavy chords on this cut. By the third album he had really determined the best times to strum the extra set of strings on the body of his custom-made acoustic guitar. He used the lush sounds from the extra strings as a backdrop for full chords and sky-reaching runs. There were no wasted hand movements with Mr. McLaughlin. It was just as easy for him to strike the strings on the way back as it was not to. You would think this technique could be overused. But it is not. The song's melody is a simple sing-songy riff between McLaughlin and violinist L Shankar. Some outstanding percussion supports funky blues-leaning solos from Shankar and McLaughlin. "Mind Ecology" is everything you expected from the cross-cultural Shakti at the time. It is a mix of fast and slow, deep and not so deep, intricate and funky, and sad and joyful.

Reviewer's update: The famous Gibson "Shakti guitar" has recently been refurbished, as pictured here. Its revolutionary extra set of strings across the body and scalloped fret board allowed McLaughlin to take a Western instrument and make Eastern music.

Reviewer's nostalgic story: The mouth harp used by T.H. Vinayakram in "Mind Ecology" pans left and right. At the beginning of the tune it is isolated for several seconds. The very first time I heard it I thought this would be the perfect introductory theme for a TV or radio news broadcast. They often used tickertape sounds, but this was so much more dramatic. Since I was working at my college radio station, WGAO at Dean College, I recorded the segment and put it onto a "looping sound cart." (We talked like that before digital.) Starting in 1979 it became the opening theme of the station's newscasts. I wish I had as much control over the media these days.

October 22, 2008 · 1 comment

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Shakti: Bridge of Sighs

"Bridge of Sighs," which originally appeared on Shakti's Natural Elements album, has lots of deep and dark minor funk blues notes from John McLaughlin. The tune has a gutbucket quality, a "Bombay Bounce" if you will. (Or should I now say a "Mumbai Mamba"?) Percussionists Hussain and Vinayakram syncopate their collective butts off as the proceedings get a bit nasty. McLaughlin starts to stretch things out as only he can. McLaughlin & L Shankar go ballistic à la the unison route as the tune chugs along. Beyond the newness of the fusing of East and West improvised music, there is nothing really profound to here. That is, unless you are like me and just appreciate getting caught up in an infectious groove laid down by cats who encircle it from every direction.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shakti: Joy

I am sure the fans in South Hampton on Long Island that night in 1975 had no clue what was in store for them when Shakti took the stage. After all, they had come to see the electric guitar God John McLaughlin, who had led the world's loudest band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Instead, McLaughlin and his new band, composed of Indian musicians, came on stage without any of the accoutrements needed for a big loud jazz-rock concert. McLaughlin was carrying an acoustic guitar instead of his electric axe. There was an acoustic violinist. And the percussionists had these Indian instruments that had to be unfamiliar to 99% of the audience. After a warm spoken greeting from McLaughlin, the crowd got a good dose of the future.

"Joy's" opening strains are incredibly speedy and intricate. McLaughlin and violinist L Shankar are linked at the hip. Shakti wasn't nearly as loud as Mahavishnu. But in some ways it was still as electric. Many fans had no clue that McLaughlin was just as great, perhaps better, on acoustic guitar. As fellow guitarist John Scofield once said (I am paraphrasing), "Nobody sounds like John McLaughlin does on acoustic guitar." If anything, his blazing speed was even more apparent on an instrument that did not have the sustain of an electric guitar. There are parts of this performance when you wonder why all his strings just don't break. It had taken jazz and rock fans a little time to get used to the violin in the jazz-rock Mahavishnu. Here they had to do it all over again. Except this time they had to get used to an Indian violinist melding the traditions of Indian classical music with Western jazz. The calls and responses between violinist L Shankar and McLaughlin are performed with breathtaking precision and speed. And what about the rhythms of the percussionists? Based upon the Indian cycles of the rag, or raga, they were foreign sounding to most Western fans. But it didn't take long to get caught up in their energy. Zakir Hussain and T.H. Vinayakram were master percussionists in their own country and musical culture. Now they were using that skill and status to help introduce a new jazz-fusion-Indian hybrid. Toward the end of this 18-minute tune, the feverish Indo-jazz head returns, to the raucous cheers of the new fans of Shakti.

Soon there would be world music and world jazz and world fusion. Well, this would actually come about a decade or two later. Being ahead of your time in music is great for posterity but not always so for your wallet. Shakti was unable to penetrate a strong commercial market the first time around.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Giovanni Moltoni: While We Wait

My favorite cut on guitarist Giovanni Moltoni's CD 3 is "Mystery Box." But alas another jazz.com reviewer beat me to it. Drat! But I am still happy to point out that "While We Wait" is another satisfying cut.

Moltoni has a trace of Pat Metheny in him. You can hear it in his chord shadings and the warm ringing tone of his notes. There are also similarities in playing style and composing with the recently positively reviewed Gustavo Assis-Brasil. Moltoni is not as busy as Assis-Brasil, or Metheny for that matter, but he seems to reside in the same dimension.

Most of "While We Wait" lives in the center. There are no highs or lows. This is not a bad thing. As any political scientist will tell you, most action is in the center. Moltoni has crafted a very refined composition. His foil for this outing is trumpeter Greg Hopkins. The interplay between the two is reassuringly calm and beautiful. No it is not Smooth Jazz. (If it were, I would be gagging.) Instead it is melodic music that demanding jazz fans and curious bystanders alike will appreciate.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Carrothers: My Heart Belongs To Daddy

I always like to do a little research before I write a review. This is especially helpful when I don't know much about the musician I am reviewing. This pleases my editor. But I could argue, and would if ever caught, that going into a review with no knowledge is probably the best way to do it. That way you have no preconceived notions and your opinions will probably be more honest. But that is for when I get caught. And of course you could only do that once for each artist. But this whole opening paragraph is a way for me to really say that you should visit Bill Carrothers's home page on the Net. That's what I did for my "research." I actually did not find the information I was looking for, but did find one of the most personal and creative musician web sites I have ever seen. And I have seen thousands.

It turns out that Pirouet Records heard from jazz pianist Marc Copland that there were sessions from 1992 that featured pianist Carrothers along with the estimable bassist Gary Peacock and equally so drummer Bill Stewart. The recordings had never been released. Pirouet has now remedied that. The CD is a display of top-notch musicians jumping into each other's bags to play intricate and interesting progressive jazz.

I chose to review "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" because you will never hear another version that sounds like this. Carrothers and crew turn the damn cutesy song into a busy and aggressive modern jazz assault. Played at breakneck speed, the tune features all sorts of minor piano chords, explicit improvising and anxious energy. Each player proves his worth to the triumvirate with strong ensemble and solo performances that ooze urgency. This trio knows how to move the ball. I wonder what they would do with "The Good Ship Lollipop."

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Michael Higgins: Alone Together

Dear Reader: I have no idea when you will be reading this review. But as I write it this seems to be my week to write about great but understated guitarists. Maybe there is a movement afoot and I am missing it. Or maybe I will start it. Who knows? At any rate, Michael Higgins manages to impress with his prodigious chops even if his volume is only turned up to 5 and his treble control is switched to "off." He can play seamless melodic runs at speeds beyond comprehension. When he needs to swing it with chord progressions, he can do that too. He is ably assisted by bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum. At times it appears that Anderson and Nussbaum are mixed higher than the lead instrument. Don't test me on that though, as I have no sound-level meter. But in any case, "Alone Together" is satisfyingly presented in an understated but wholly effective way. This trio is full of enough tasty chops that I would wait in line to see them. And I hate lines.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Everything Happens To Me

Lee Konitz playing "Everything Happens To Me" with a drummer-less trio. Could that be the perfect combination of player, tune and format? It could, if the pianist was, say, Martial Solal. Unfortunately, Monsieur Solal was nowhere to be found on the night this set was recorded live at Los Angeles' The Jazz Bakery. Instead, a callow Brad Mehldau sat at the piano. As an accompanist, Mehldau does passably well. He lets Konitz's stunningly beautiful solo breathe and grow. In general, he stays out of the way. As a soloist himself, however, Mehldau's ornate grotesqueries slobber all over what up until that point had been a lovely performance. Full of "look-ma-no-hands" technical gloss and irrelevant reharmonizations, his Art Tatum impersonation is one of the most tasteless examples of jazz piano one will ever hear. Haden is fine, and Konitz outdoes himself, but Mehldau's stupendously incongruous contribution sticks painfully in the ear.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Another Shade of Blue

The blues can be either the most difficult or simplest of forms for a jazz musician to master. Put simply: if one has nothing compelling to say, the blues can be hard time in solitary confinement. If, on the other hand, one has something of moment to communicate, playing the blues can be as effortless and free as taking a breath. Lee Konitz isn't usually thought of as a particularly bluesy player, but the simple form is as appropriate to his melodic style as a beautiful woman on the arm of Cary Grant.

"Another Shade of Blue" is a medium-tempo blues in Db. Not many sax players have a ready supply of licks in that key, which might well be why Konitz chooses it—as a guarantee that he won't fall back on what is comfortable. Of course, no jazz musician is less lick-oriented than Konitz, so it might not be an issue. Regardless, his performance is characteristically incisive and devoid of cliché. He makes especially good use of long, sustained tones and tonal shading. Pianist Brad Mehldau drinks Konitz's Cool-Aid, on this track at least. Relying largely on well-articulated single lines in his right hand with slight punctuations from his left, Mehldau is clean and direct. There's none of the baroque clutter that occasionally mars his work in other contexts. Bassist Charlie Haden was born to play music like this. The relaxed tempo suits him well. Like Konitz, he's a natural melodist. The more space between the notes, the better he tends to be. His sound is a thing of beauty. Both he and Konitz benefit greatly from the absence of drums, which allows the luster of their tones to shine.

The blues doesn't have to be Robert Johnson or even Count Basie. There's room for every sensibility, as Konitz & Co. demonstrate. "Another Shade of Blue," indeed.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Esbjörn Svensson Trio: Premonition I: Earth

Made up on the spot, "Premonition: I. Earth" is built upon the foundation of a bass riff that Berglund creates from a single chord. While Öström coaxes excellent coloration from his Zildjians, Svensson carefully forms an extended piano run that paces itself in tandem with the bass and drums. As he pours out fragmented lines that show both classical and jazz influences, a moderate amount electronic distortion of his notes can be detected. An artificial sonic wash persists in the background, becoming more feedback-heavy about two-thirds in.

Around the 12-minute mark, Öström's fractured beats morph into machinegun fire. Not long afterwards, the drums become the focal point, as the song reaches its climax. As Svensson and Berglund drop out, the pulse is matched or sometimes followed by what sounds like some computer-generated beat.

The Esbjörn Svensson Trio had long combined electronic effects with the organic jazz aesthetic. With "Premonition," E.S.T. successfully adds another ingredient: pure improvisation.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Vassilis Tsabropoulos: Gift of Dreams

Speaker One: "Of course, this can't be jazz. The musicians show too much respect for the composition. They play with too much fastidious control of the details, too much self-effacement. And the cello, of course, is a dead giveaway."

Speaker Two: "Whoa, this can't be classical music, can it? You can't write down this stuff, with its free spirit and the sense of spontaneous cohesion among the performers. And the percussionist, of course, is a dead giveaway."

Welcome to the beguiling musical landscapes of Vassilis Tsabropoulos, a brilliant artist who doesn't care much about categories. He is too committed to his meticulous universe of sound colors. His music exists on its own terms, and invites us to participate or not, as we see fit. The songs may sound simple enough. But in our narrow world of pigeonholing and closely defined formats, Tsabropoulos's flaunting of the fashionable and contemporary is dangerous stuff. The jazz police (and classical music police, too) will need to work overtime to keep this CD under wraps. If too many people heard it, it might attract a crowd. And who knows where that would lead?

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Django Reinhardt: Ain't Misbehavin'

Grappelli states the melody with the effervescence and lighthearted swing that are his trademarks. Django starts his solo sluggishly here, and in the second eight bars either misses the chord or is trying for an unusual polytonal effect. But in the second chorus he takes flight, and dishes out choice phrases that build on very large interval jumps. Then come some wild and woolly guitar chords that sound—I kid you not—like a steam locomotive heading down the track. The band is so far out of the stratosphere by this point that they don't even reprise the melody. Forget the title—some serious misbehavin' is goin' down here.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill & Chico Hamilton: Watch That Dream

This 2008 CD draws on a session from 1993 matching pianist Andrew Hill and drummer Chico Hamilton. Generally the bass serves as intermediary between these two instruments, and when it is absent you expect each player to work all the harder to lock into his partner's respective groove. Yet the exact opposite happens throughout this entire session: both Hill and Hamilton seem to pursue their own individual vision on each song, and rarely have the same rhythmic conception in mind. This might seem a recipe for disaster, but the results are fascinating. Here Hill builds his performance on disjunction and displacement while Hamilton offers up a shimmering percussive flow. These two grand stylists both stake out their territory, and neither one budges. This continues to the end of the song—indeed, it is especially evident at the conclusion of the piece, since the two players appear to have a very different concept of closure here. Yet somehow a whimsical, attenuated relationship develops between their respective gambits. Riveting jazz . . . but I don't think many musicians could pull this off.

October 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Artistry in Rhythm

I promise I'll never again complain about excess bonus tracks on a CD. Though most such tracks tend to be alternate takes and often support the decision not to issue them in the first place, the CD reissue of Recollections of the Big Band Era contains 10 bonus tracks, none of which is an alternate take from the LP and one of which is this masterpiece by Billy Strayhorn.

This is a prime example of the woeful inadequacy of terminology such as "arranger" and "arranged by," and supports the contention of Gunther Schuller and others that works of this caliber (e.g., Gil Evans's Porgy and Bess) transcend the category "arrangement" and might be more correctly referred to as recompositions.

Strayhorn's masterful treatment of Stan Kenton's theme song begins not with a Kentonian wall of brass but with Ray Nance's pizzicato violin setting up a widely spaced background figure over a strange sort of double-time shuffle beat laid down by Sam Woodyard, after which Harry Carney's breathy bass clarinet states the theme. The effect is otherworldly and definitely not within Kenton's orbit. Hamilton later takes up the theme backed by Carney and the trombones.

A brief ensemble then leads to the kind of miraculous moment that can only happen in jazz. Cootie Williams restates the melody using what sounds like a derby mute, while Nance picks up his bow to supply a delicate obbligato. Though Williams is not soloing in the customary sense, he takes such complete and utterly personal possession of the written melody that it sounds (and more importantly feels) as though it originated in the depths of some mysterious bayou of his own invention.

All in all, a masterful example of the art of recomposition and illustrative of why most of the individual parts in the Ellington library had the name of the player in the upper left hand corner, rather than the name of the instrument.

October 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Eric Dolphy: 245

I've always thought of this track as the sleeper from Outward Bound, Eric Dolphy's debut recording as a leader. Though hearing such great music is one of life's supreme joys, it is also a sobering reminder that in today's jazz world, the ability to look simultaneously forward and backward has become a lost art. For too many musicians and fans alike, It's an either/or proposition.

Return with me now to the thrilling days of yesteryear (any Lone Ranger fans still alive?) when the most exciting jazz was produced by players who didn't have to choose between making every note a tribute to a dead guy, or learning the fundamentals of grant writing rather than the fundamentals of music.

Here we have some of the most forward-thinking players of the time exploring one of jazz's most classic forms, the slow blues. The theme features a mournful, wailing melody over some interesting substitute chord changes. All three soloists dig in deeply, maintaining the theme's dark, probing mood without gratuitous double-timing or change-running.

Hubbard at the ripe old age of 22 was already speaking in his own voice, employing a fat, singing tone combined with the technical virtuosity needed to transfer some of John Coltrane's harmonic and rhythmic concepts to the trumpet. Byard, who had several centuries of piano music at his fingertips, sustains the mood, sounding like a Klingon version of James P. Johnson. Dolphy's own solo strikes a perfect balance between control and abandon, pushing the envelope while acknowledging his debt to both Bird and Hodges.

October 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Tenorlee / Lady Be Good

It can't have been an accident that altoist Lee Konitz chose the quintessential Lester Young vehicle "Lady be Good" to pair with the title track on an album featuring (notwithstanding the cover photo) his tenor work. Konitz on tenor sounds much like a modernized Pres—the lightness of tone and articulation and the ease of swing show his kinship with the greatest pre-bop tenorist (a title to which Coleman Hawkins also has plausible claim). However, the resemblance of Lee to Lester, while profound, is paradoxically skin-deep. Konitz the tenor player is as strong an individualist as Konitz the altoist, possessed of the same distinctive sweet-&-sour tone and no-nonsense, deliberative melodic approach.

The track begins with an unaccompanied tenor solo that leads into the embroidered theme played in unison by Konitz and Jimmy Rowles (it must surely be a transcription of a Lester Young solo, though I do not have the version on hand with which to compare). Generally, the quieter the context, the more Konitz shines. That's true here. The absence of a drummer throws the subtlety of Konitz's playing into relief. It's a treat to hear his nuanced approach in all its aspects. Jimmy Rowles is a tasty, witty bop player, and bassist Michael Moore holds down the bottom capably if inconspicuously. The performance is flawed by an anti- climactic and very abrupt fade. That said, taking into consideration that Konitz hasn't recorded much on tenor—and given the good-humored, spirited reading—this is a nearly essential gem in his discography.

October 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roy Hargrove: Mental Phrasing

At age 24, Roy Hargrove did more than front a fine quintet for his sixth major recording. The trumpet prodigy also brought in five respected tenor players to join him one-by-one for a hard-bop tour-de-force. "Mental Phrasing" features Joshua Redman in addition to Hargrove's already solid quintet, and the result is nothing short of incredible. The rhythm section plays with an undying fury as they skillfully navigate the trumpeter's composition. Each soloist delivers a strong performance, with that of Redman and Hargrove rising above the rest. Bearing the endorsement of many proven musicians, including Wynton Marsalis, Hargrove raised high expectations whenever he approached the microphone. On this recording, he certainly did not disappoint.

October 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jim Hall: Two's Blues

Jim Hall's "Two's Blues" is an excellent display of the guitarist's improvisational abilities and his rhythm section's talent for complementing a soloist. Hall and bassist Ron Carter open the tune with an upbeat unison melody. They are soon joined by a cool-sounding Chet Baker, who carries the head into a solo section. As Baker plays an exceptional solo, he is matched in energy – and eventually pushed further – by the hard-swinging Carter and Steve Gadd. Hall's solo is punctuated perfectly by Gadd's innovative comping, which leaves the listener on edge until the close of Hall's final chorus. The only track on this release that features these four as a quartet, "Two's Blues" is one of the album's most exciting performances.

October 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chet Baker: The Night We Called It A Day

In such an intimate setting, Chet Baker's vocals are hauntingly beautiful. This late release of a session during Baker's younger days often exposes him so much that he sounds as if he is singing softly into the listener's ear. Baker's voice is vulnerable yet charming as he crafts elegant phrases over guitar and bass accompaniment. The ballad moves slowly, but bassist Ross Savakus never lets it drag, maintaining a steady pulse under Baker's delicate phrasing. Chet's vocals have a tender sincerity that few others can match.

October 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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James Moody & Hank Jones: Body and Soul

What do you say when two prolific legends get together and play a jazz standard? I mean really. You can't say it is the best performance they have ever given because you have no idea how many times Moody and Jones have played "Body and Soul" in their combined 173 years on this planet. But I do know this: It would be impossible to find another piano-saxophone duo that could play it with more authority and knowledge than these two wonders.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jerry Costanzo with Andy Farber & His Swing Mavens: Straighten Up and Fly Right

I sort of feel sorry for male crooners who are not living in the right time. The first singer who comes to mind is Jack Jones. He has an outstanding voice and style. But the poor guy was born about 10 to 20 years too late for his own talent. Jerry Costanzo may be one of those guys too. Every once in a while a male vocalist overcomes modern preferences and breaks through like Harry Connick Jr. or Michael Bublé. But that is the rare exception and is based on a lot of marketing power.

So when I listen to Jerry Costanzo singing the standards with a very good swing-like jazz band, I just assume he is a happy fellow loving what he does and is satisfied to be in a niche in which he is admired by a small and sometimes aging group.

You can't hear "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and not think of Nat King Cole. He owns the song as performer and co-writer. There is a bit of Cole in Costanzo's version. But Costanzo is not a clone of Cole, Sinatra or any of those icons. His voice is smooth but has a slight gravelly quality. As all great singers do, he tells a story. The band, led by Andy Farber, is given an extended section on the piece which evokes the period nature of the music. The band is very good.

There is no doubt in my mind that if Costanzo was living his father's, or grandfather's, life he would have a greater opportunity at fame. There is also no doubt that in front of a nostalgic audience Costanzo wows. And I believe that a more contemporary crowd would also be won over by his talent and the swinging arrangements. I can say for sure he would have me tapping the table. Costanzo is a very good singer and stylist, and that should translate from any time frame to any other despite changing tastes.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: Five G

I have been told by reliable sources that bassist Jeff Berlin wasn't always happy with the way he was mixed when he appeared on Bruford's albums. He felt he was mixed too low. Whether true or whether he was right or not, that certainly is not the case on "Five G." He is the piece's chief protagonist. His funky and involving bassline introduces and carries the show from beginning to end. At times he is doubled by guitarist Holdsworth, who turns in yet another impressive fusion guitar display. The tune is full of theme changes and super chops, most often presented by Holdsworth and Berlin. In those days Bruford, who is a great drummer but never seems to draw attention to himself, presided over one of the most interesting fusion groups that just happened to be disguised as a progressive rock band.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: (square root) q.e.d.

square root q.e.d.

The title of the cut refers to the Latin "quod erat demonstrandum," which means basically that the evidence in a mathematical proof or philosophical argument has been demonstrated to be true or proven. Or, to put it more simply, the proof is in the pudding. Understanding why one would request the square-root of the proof is a question for John Forbes Nash or Russell Crowe. Take your pick.

In this case you would have to disprove the theorem that this is Weather Report with a guest guitarist. Even further you would have to disprove that Bruford borrowed a bit from the spirit of "Birdland." This is not an accusation of pilfering in any way. I see it more as homage. The piece is an in-depth investigation into the layers of music. This is something Weather Report lived. Bruford's band offers its own proof that they are highly capable musicians who could dissect music and rearrange its DNA. There is no pretense that this is the progressive rock that was much expected from Bruford at this time. This is investigative journalism. I suggest it is some of Bruford's most interesting work.

Reviewer's Fun Fact: The only other artist I remember who used mathematical formulas in his song titles was free jazz multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. In fact, he used all sorts of symbols and drawings that seemed disconnected from his material. When I was jazz disc jockey, I had more trouble conveying the titles of his tunes than I did understanding his music – which wasn't easy either!

October 20, 2008 · 1 comment

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Jimmy Herring: Splash

"Splash" is not necessarily one of the best cuts on the stellar Lifeboat. That says more about the quality of the album than about the virtues of this piece because this is really good music. Apparently pianist and flautist Kofi Burbridge wrote the song when he was in the 10th grade. That is astounding. Herring and crew really get down with this pretty much straight-ahead jazz blues number with walking bass, solo turns and all. There is a lot of pleasing doubling and tripling up on the slightly Middle Eastern opening riffs. The tune quickly becomes domestic. The first solo turn is Herring's. He lets loose with a scorching display of feeling and dexterity. Kofi Burbridge is next and kills on piano, with his brother Oteil's bass leading the way in the background. Then he quickly picks up his flute and swings the shit out of it. Saxophonist Greg Osby next goes at it with unflagging skill and enthusiasm. This is a high-energy workout that will have you moving parts of your body. It's a real set-ender!

"Splash" is progressive jazz music that any star of that genre would be proud to have been a part of. I wouldn't be surprised if it starts to get covered by some jazzers.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Herring: Gray Day

Wow. This brooding melodramatic piece belongs in a soundtrack of really great movie. It oozes mystery. What is happening? Who is around the corner? What do I do next?

This is soundscape fusion. Old-time soap opera organ backs the track. But hearing is not believing. The orchestrated sounds, including the organ, are actually the product of the imaginative Herring and his guitar. Overdubbed, Herring plays atop the storyline (or the other way around). His notes are full of the unknown, yet drive the plot. Herring puts forth some dazzlingly beautiful runs as his bandmates follow the score. It is hard to describe just how affecting this music is. It gets right into your psyche. Some would argue that "Gray Day" is more of a mood piece than jazz or fusion. But it falls under the same category as some Mahavishnu, Return to Forever and Santana fusion orchestral pieces.

Reviewer's Conjecture: If Alfred Hitchcock had been born in 1940 he would use this music in his latest film. If Kim Novak had been born in 1975, she would be the star of this movie frantically walking the late afternoon streets of a gray London. If Christopher Walken had been born in 1943, he would be following her. If you were born after 1960 this conjecture probably means nothing to you. Google it.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Kary's Trance

Listening to this makes one a little sad that Lee Konitz hasn't written more tunes. He's based much of his career on being a nonpareil interpreter of Tin Pan Alley songs and jazz standards, so it's hard to argue his choices. But his original compositions are so invariably quirky and distinctive that one wishes there were more of them.

"Kary's Trance" is a minor-key, up-tempo swinger. Although written in regular 32-bar song form, the labyrinthine melody is very irregular, featuring odd phrase lengths, unexpected pauses and unusual rhythmic emphases. The listener wants to go back and listen to the head over and over in an attempt to glean its subtleties. In contrast, the solos are mostly conventional, if energetic and well executed. Konitz's lines are long and lightly inflected. Always a cogent improviser, he was at this point in his career becoming even more incisive, a trend that would continue over the next several decades. Trumpeter Don Ferrara turns in an enthusiastic and capable bop solo. Pianist Sal Mosca's solo combines a Tristano-like linear approach with a bit of craggy phrasing and Monk-ish use of space. Animated trading of fours by Konitz and Ferrara provides a conspicuous climax to a very nice performance—all the more valuable, since it's based on a Konitz original.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Poquito Spanish, Poquito Funk

I hadn’t received a visit from the old George Benson in quite some time and I must admit, I kinda missed him. Then one night while I was driving home from a gig, he showed up via the radio station playing a new tune he’d just released. I visited there with him a while and then found myself pulling over to the side of the road so I could give him my full attention.

“Poquito Spanish, Poquito Funk” is a burnished, nouveau-Latin, funk piece; the production quality will probably never sound dated in any bad way. In fact, both the production and the groove are to die for. George plays the vocal roles of some urban characters in the intro before he graces us with the melody in octaves first, then finally adds his unison voice to his guitar, the last of his stylistic trademarks. His voice accompanies the first part of the solo, perfectly following his moves from octaves to double-stops and back. In part two of the solo he features his single-line playing, at first with the pick, but quickly switches to the thumb. His ideas are as harmonically compelling as ever, but with more thoughtful probing and emotional depth. I like the fact that he plays his most interesting stuff jazz-wise without the pick. He’s havin’ a good ol’ time, and has nothing to prove. As one of his alter ego characters says to him during the track, he’s still the baddest.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Being With You

By 1983, when this record was released, Benson was a pop star facing all of the responsibilities of meeting with continued success (at the very least). And because of this, I’m sure, here we’re hearing George in six-figure, studio production.

But on this tune (written by my friend, drummer Omar Hakim), George channels his jazz guitar persona. His guitar sings this melody and I believe every word, along with every amazing fill-in between the melody! On his solo he exploits all his powers, and by the melody out it should be clear that although he’s moved on, we should always welcome him when he wants to visit.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: We All Remember Wes

True jazz lovers and jazz guitar geeks should rejoice when they hear this one! It’s a song written in tribute to the one-and-only Wes Montgomery by the one-and-only Stevie Wonder. And although the song is done with a pseudo-disco beat on the drums, it’s got a rock-solid, head-bobbing groove, and carries some meaty chord changes as well.

Here is George at his improvisational best. Not a note is wasted as he makes his way through these changes, one second like a heavyweight boxing champ and the next a balance beam gymnast. There are countless causes for oohs and ahhs here, but never so much as the slightest stumble. His time-feel is off the chart. It feels like he’s so at one with this groove that he’s both inside of it and riding on top of it at the same time.

This is Benson in the zone. And master that he is, he knows that his one chorus solo is plenty.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Soulful Strut

Back in 1968, this tune was an instrumental pop/soul radio hit. George and company must have felt, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ as they were rollin’ along and seemed to be enjoying the ride, since they had found the formula for success. Even Claus Ogerman’s strings in the opening statement give more than a nod to the intro of one of their other hits from a previous album or two. But I guess that’s human nature even for jazz musicians—go with what works (at least until it becomes stale).

Benson and his group are all settled in and cozily familiar with their own sound and feel. Everything fits (from the blend of the instruments’ sounds and their parts in this feel-good arrangement, to the overall sound of the production) for George’s guitar to stand out front and carry the track home, which he does with polish and energy, in his unmistakable style. The backbeat, clavinet, and strings may have led some jazz fans to turn away, concluding that his jazz days were over. But the sense of authority and surefooted pacing with which he plays at this point in his career, coupled with the knowledge, energy and excitement of his jazz mentality, and his even more accurate, ridiculous technique, leads me to say: they don’t know what they’re missing.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Affirmation

A backbeat has never disqualified melody or harmony to my ears, so when I listen to this cut I hear George Benson, jazz musician, at the height of his improvisational and creative abilities. The Breezin’ album, where this tune appears, was George’s breakthrough, making him a major crossover artist. But what pleased me so at the time was that there were plenty of juicy and lengthy guitar solos for me to wrap my brain around. There’s also a fairly even blend of harmonic motion and modal vamps over which the solos occur throughout the record, allowing George to express himself fully.

This tune represents classic Benson in a few different ways. During the 1970s it had become pretty much his standard practice as an improviser to deal first with moving chord progressions during his solos and then tackle modal vamps, which is the case with "Affirmation." This solo contains the usual devices in his arsenal, except the octave with additional note technique (he does use regular octaves). In place of strumming the octaves, however, he plucks them simultaneously, using his thumb and index finger to create a more stinging effect. As a matter of fact, this is another technical variation (in addition to the octave with added note) that he incorporated into his trademark style. Otherwise, the singing melodicism, cascading single notes, bluesy funk, and gritty, flurrying double-stops are all there.

I also have to note the transcendent nature of George Benson’s language as a jazz improviser, which is realized on this album and is perfectly evident on this particular piece. Rather than rely upon tried and true melodic phrases from the jazz idiom, he (in true jazz musician form) draws from these melodies with measured precision, realizing them as a portion of the total information in his melodic palette. Combining these with the melodies of the blues culture and American folk and popular cultures, Benson creates solos that represent the best in jazz in their idiomatic and rhythmic integrity, as well as their inclusive nature and expansive scope.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Sky Dive

Every set needs a burnout tune. At this 1975 Carnegie Hall concert, this was it. Benson takes Freddie Hubbard’s "Sky Dive" to the stratosphere!

He states the melody as though he wrote it himself, using both single notes and chords, and I’m amazed every time I hear the knuckle-busting fills he twists between the phrases of the melody in the second and third A sections. His solo is nothing but masterful. He uses all the tools available to him—single lines, double-stops, octaves, octaves with an added note (which would soon become one of his trademarks) and block chords—to the most dramatically powerful effect, and evokes an incredible feeling of excitement on his instrument. Near the end of the solo, he reaches spiritual heights, wailing repeatedly on bent notes, in effect crying out. He had played everything else. There was nothing left to do.

I don’t think there is another guitarist in jazz who has shown us how much emotional range and depth is accessible on the instrument. Because of the inherent characteristics of the classic jazz guitar sound (i.e., sans effects), at its best it’s a satisfyingly warm, mellow and beautiful listening experience. But when it’s time to burn or get down, often guitarists turn to effects to bolster themselves against the clean-toned guitar’s physical challenges. This tune is a perfect example of the soaring heights that Benson could reach without the use of effects, via his superior talent, singular vision, musicianship and style.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

Many might find this pick way too schmaltzy, but I can’t help including this movie theme ballad, super-sweetly orchestrated by Don Sebesky, because it highlights a side of George Benson’s musicianship that deserves consideration.

Here we find Benson in the setting made successful by Wes Montgomery on A&M Records almost a decade before—jazz guitar accompanied by full orchestra. I believe that it takes nothing less than an instrumental master with star quality to carry an arrangement such as this, which wraps itself around Benson’s beautifully lush tone, voice-like phrasing and perfectly controlled pace. His embellishments of the melody show a musical depth that transcends jazz as a category and breaks through to being just plain good music. I love the gorgeous chord melody playing and the brilliant mini-cadenza just before the end.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Plum

This track contains some of the most exciting and articulate jazz guitar phrasing I’ve ever heard. On his original composition, chockfull of moving chords, George shows us his artistic nature by taking liberties with how he chooses to build the track to create a total performance and presentation.

He uses the intro—an easy, loping, 2-chord vamp—as a precursor, soloing sparsely as a suggestion of where he’ll be heading later on. In this AABA tune he states the A section melody only once and then proceeds to improvise through the entire remainder of the form, repeating an additional A section melody again as a kind of recap. I’m fortunate to know the actual melody of the complete tune from having worked with Stanley Turrentine (George’s label-mate on CTI) who, many years later, had this tune in his repertoire. However, prior to that experience I had no clue that there was a B section melody! Regardless, this track proceeds from one event to another so seamlessly and is so perfectly spellbinding that I never questioned it. And actually, the A section melody is a complete musical statement unto itself.

Benson is now at the top of his game as a guitarist and jazz musician and can seemingly do whatever he pleases. He’s making all the right moves here. His solo over the second A, B, and final A sections of the melody form transcends the guitar and is in the realm of the highest level in jazz. The rhythmic, melodic and harmonic freedom and command with which he navigates these progressions, coupled with his technical mastery of his instrument, should place him among the pantheon of the greatest jazz musicians of all time—the same group of musicians that I use as a reference point to make this statement (which may seem bold to some). After he devours the chord changes on the form, he breaks to restate the A melody again (a palate cleanser), before indulging in the 2-chord vamp like a vacationer at a cruise ship dessert bar. The funk, blues and jazz smorgasbord of ideas and technique seems never-ending as the track fades.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: The Gentle Rain

From my perspective, this tune represents a period of exploitation, experimentation and growth for George Benson during his days at CTI Records (1971-1976). This jazz-bossa standard is treated with more rhythmic freedom and at times suggests more urban, New York-style Latin rhythms and double-time backbeat, thanks to Jack DeJohnette’s polyrhythms. Benson uses this active backdrop as a springboard for his own rhythmically aggressive playing on the solo vamp. I also like how he employs Ron Carter on cello to create sound-painted melodies and smears as a supplement to the organ-drums-percussion rhythm section. George even looks to the cello for melodic interaction as he begins his solo.

These abstractions create a mood that’s a perfect foil for what could possibly be go-nowhere II-chord-to-V-chord blowing. George uses his fierce technique to build this solo to a frenzy, while organically using his favorite elements—the blues, a probing harmonic awareness to inform his single-line ideas, block chords, a keen melodic and rhythmic sense, and controlled abandon. He takes chances here that are only available to those who know and trust that elusive musical spirit. Whether it’s by leaps, steps or spins, lulls, cries or shouts, his ideas are always delivered with grace and are musically sound and emotionally moving.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Shape of Things That Are and Were

On this blues head by Benson from his 1968 A&M Records debut, he gives a nod to his predecessor Wes Montgomery and also breaks the mold. The recording actually took place on Montgomery’s old turf (same record label, producer, arranger, musicians)—George was offered a new recording contract in order to replace Wes just after Montgomery’s untimely death.

Benson’s playing here is the perfect example of a jazz musician who has fully realized his own voice on his instrument. His approach, rhythmic and otherwise, contains the inherent essence of a decade or more of R&B and soul music culture that he’s absorbed and adds to the jazz mix. In his block-chord soloing he freely employs one of the techniques that was integral to Wes’s style without ever sounding like a mimic. Actually, Benson takes Wes up a notch, and especially in his single-line playing establishes that this is the next level for jazz guitar. He shows off two new, jaw-dropping techniques—a risqué sweep picking and an ability to play in flurries that are removed from the strictures of the meter. What makes all this dazzle most amazing for me, though, is that it is so controlled and tempered by a spirit of extreme musicality. It never actually sounds like he’s showing off.

October 20, 2008 · 1 comment

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George Benson: Ready and Able

After the crisp execution of this Jimmy Smith-penned melody on the chords of "I Got Rhythm," it’s equally exciting to hear Benson’s comping behind Ronnie Cuber’s baritone solo. It’s a lesson in taste and subtlety, as well as an indication of why a musician’s rhythmic feel is so important. Although George’s chordal ideas are voluminous, they’re most properly placed (in both rhythm and octave range) to excite and propel the music and seemingly always relevant in those same ways to the drama of the soloist’s phrases.

Benson’s solo takes the excitement level up even more, which is quite a feat considering the superb solo it follows. I’m particularly fond of his harmonic vision here, which makes what and how he plays on these changes seem very unique and personal to him. As always, his command of the jazz idiom and syntax, and how he chooses to fuse these with blues and R&B leanings to form a distinctive and influential jazz guitar style, is apparent. A much more obvious observation, though, is that his technique here is simply mind-boggling. What makes this solo so breathtaking has less to do with how fast or lengthy his lines are, than how he is able to think and hear ahead in order to shape finely crafted melodic ideas through the chord progressions. The component that completes his stunning technique is the quicksilver response and coordination that allows him to execute so flawlessly.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Benson: Eternally

On this Latin-esque minor blues tune from his 1965 debut album It’s Uptown, Benson unleashes the controlled urgency and masterful fluidity that would become his signature in the 1970s. Although the tune is presented in a rhythmic style that suggests the laid-back cool of a 1960s cocktail party, George Benson comes out of the gates on fire, making nothing but exacting melodic and rhythmic musical statements with not one extraneous note throughout his five solo choruses. His playing style, although not fully developed, is quite apparent, and clearly distinguishable from its influences (Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Hank Garland are a few that come to mind). The urban-blues consciousness, blistering technique, rhythmic freedom and melodic and harmonic sophistication, are all on display in two riveting minutes of improvisation.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Punk Jazz

This song explodes with a fantastic bass solo by Jaco Pastorius. His dexterity is mighty, and he shows why he was one of the greatest to ever touch a bass. I wish this lineup was recorded more because of the way Tony Williams's hi-hat propels the group through the swing section. My only real complaint about this song is that some of the keyboards used by Zawinul sound a little cheesy. But overall this is still a great Weather Report song, and swings more than most in their catalog.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Palladium

Wayne Shorter has said he composed this song in honor of the Latin music he heard growing up as a child. He captures the energy and spark often heard in Latin music, especially at the end of the track. Zawinul plays some tasty synth lines at the end while Jaco thumps and pops like no one else could. Jaco's tone on this track is splendid and laid the foundation for all of the other bassists who bit his style. It's a shame Shorter didn't get to compose more for the band because his gift of melody is unlike anyone else's in jazz. This song is a testament to Weather Report's strengths, as they play circles around every other fusion band from this period. The band's innovative qualities ensure that their music will continue to be heard by generations of listeners. Weather Report pushed the envelope of jazz.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Barbary Coast

From the opening sounds of a train, this song grabs you with its undeniable funk. Recorded after several rewrites, this was the first song newcomer Jaco Pastorius composed for Weather Report. It's definitely not complex, but that doesn't matter because Pastorius's bassline is so dirty that even the hearing-impaired will be bobbing their heads. I would have liked some extended solos, but the group does such a good job at grooving over a Db7 chord that I quickly forget that idea. Not the best song ever from this group, but it came when the band was evolving, and shows how fast Jaco appeared out of nowhere to change electric bass playing forever.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Cannon Ball

This song, which Joe Zawinul wrote for his former bandleader Cannonball Adderley, marks Jaco Pastorius's first recorded appearance with Weather Report. Harmonically the song is powerful, and Zawinul's synthesized melody lines nicely fit the overall tone, providing the warmth Zawinul no doubt intended. While Shorter doesn't get in on the action until the song builds at the end, he nevertheless contributes a memorable solo. Pastorius also provides moments of brilliance showing why he would go on to change the way the electric bass was played.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Black Market

With Black Market, Weather Report broke new ground unlike any fusion band from the 1970s. All the elements are present in this song: funk, pounding drums and percussion, and genius writing, both harmonically and melodically. Joe Zawinul's wah-wah Rhodes and ARP synthesizer penetrate the sound spectrum and, coupled with Johnson's nasty bassline, proves why no band in jazz or pop music could match the power of Weather Report. This album marked the band's path for the rest of the decade, and stands as a huge testament as to why they were hands down the best at the fusion game.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Man In The Green Shirt

Josef Zawinul composed the perfect tune for Tale Spinnin'. "Man in the Green Shirt" is a progressive masterpiece with powerful textures and melodic overtones. Though Tale Spinnin' would mark some of Alphonso Johnson's last appearances with the band, he holds his own. The album contains other strong tracks, but this one truly represents the beauty of Weather Report. With an exceptional A section followed by a great jam section over an Esus7 chord, the C section contains nothing but triads over fourths, and provides the perfect connection back to the head. In my opinion, this is the best song the band ever recorded.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Cucumber Slumber

Man, could Alphonso Johnson play the bass! He gives this song its entire base with a funk line that would have made the Godfather of Soul Mr. James Brown himself proud. Zawinul provides his usual tasteful comping on the Rhodes as Shorter plays a warm solo on soprano sax, mainly in the upper register. Though Weather Report sold more albums and gained more popularity following Alphonso Johnson's departure, this album stands as one of the band's most enduring releases, with solid funk grooves and exceptional songwriting.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Mysterious Traveller

This Wayne Shorter tune displays his compositional ability to adapt to most styles of music. After three meter changes between the head and the chorus, Weather Report gets down to their normal agenda of funking out. Shorter also plays tack piano on the opening passage, and while he might not be the most gifted pianist, the tack sound gives the song its entire feeling, along with the reverb on Hadden's drum kit. This song may take a back seat to others in the Weather Report catalogue, but it still contains all the elements that gave WR its sound.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: 125th Street Congress

With the bass chair in limbo during the recording of Sweetnighter, Andrew White fills in on this hand drum- driven funk piece, maintaining the groove with great time and feeling over Eric Gravatt's driving drumbeat. Though the song clocks in at over 12 minutes, it still delivers. Wayne Shorter wails in the high range of the soprano sax, as Zawinul sits back and does what he does best: laying down funk on the Fender Rhodes. Muruga Booker helps accelerate the groove as well with the tambourine. This song represents the band at a time when a listener could readily tell which direction they were heading, that being funk.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Unknown Soldiers

Joe Zawinul composed this song in memory of an experience as a child when he and his brother found a dead soldier during World War II in his native Austria. From its haunting voice introduction over a swing ride pattern by Eric Gravatt, the mood fits the title, moving through various motifs that invoke a feeling of loss, uncertainty, and closure. Midway through, one understands what a strong impact this childhood experience had on Zawinul. This is my favorite song from Weather Report with Vitous, and shows how visionary Zawinul was with his compositional talents.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Milky Way

From Weather Report's debut album, this song was among the first to fully demonstrate the power of studio effects and superior sound engineering. Some of the haunting sounds found on this song were produced by Shorter's playing soprano saxophone into the upper portion of the piano causing the strings to vibrate. Though this is a very abstract piece with no backline instruments, it fits right in with the improvised, exploratory elements on this album. It's surprising that Weather Report was voted album of the year by Down Beat. One might wonder why they gave it such high praise given its freedom and the magazine's limited respect for music that's not all that jazzy. In any case, "Milky Way" may have been the ideal name for this song, since it definitely creates a suspended feeling if you listen to it several times in a row.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Allee: Dragonfly

The title cut from Steve Allee's 2008 release, "Dragonfly" is a well-conceived, lively composition with a bouncy and melodious motif that is revisited frequently. In between, Allee adds interesting interludes and effortlessly changes tempo, especially for the slowed-down funky midsection where Moring testifies for the blues. Elsewhere, Allee employs a nimble touch, steering all around the variations in the cadence and taking a two-fisted approach to his solo run, replete with swift and fiery right-hand runs. Horner's double-timed pulse is crisp, with just the right amount of fills to push the leader along. Perhaps most importantly, "Dragonfly" demonstrates Allee's ability to construct, and execute to near perfection, a demanding composition that induces toe-tapping.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Michael Bates: Great Exhibition

Within the span of a typical pop tune, Bates & Co. do more in this song than many jazz recordings triple the length. This is chiefly because lead roles are stacked on top of each other instead of played in sequence, and are fluidly switched around. The first 20 seconds ride randomly up and down a scale, with Bates's bass pulsating at a faster rate than Johnson's muted horn, and Nachoff in turn playing more rapidly than Bates. The drummer seems to be the only one ignoring time. This exercise is repeated after an interlude featuring unison stuttered thwacks by Bates and Davis. Eventually the scalar runs lose their regimen as Nachoff, Bates and Johnson spar with Davis. Bates manages to keep time through this with Johnson sometimes joining in, sometimes rejoining the battle. Within the realm of organized chaos, "Great Exhibition" is just that, an excellent demonstration of a difficult conception.

October 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Quincy Jones: Soul Bossa Nova

Surprise! The opening theme song to the Austin Powers trilogy wasn't composed specifically for everybody's favorite hairy-chested, mojo-laden international man of mystery. It was actually a Quincy Jones Big Band tune recorded in 1962 and featuring the flutes of Roland Kirk and Jerome Richardson on the now instantly recognizable 5-note theme. Allow this track to serve as a gateway to some of Jones's seriously stylish big band music from the 1960s. Check out "Se E Tarde Me Pardoa" from the Big Band Bossa Nova album and "Days of Wine and Roses," "Dreamsville" and "Moon River" from Quincy Jones Explores the Music of Henry Mancini for more of the Jones Big Band featuring Roland Kirk.

October 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roland Kirk: A Quote From Clifford Brown

I Talk with the Spirits is Roland Kirk's only all-flute recording, aside from the occasional cuckoo clock or music box, of course. His flute playing throughout is at times delicate and beautiful, at other times passionately overblown, making for a compelling if not comprehensive case study of Kirk's dynamic instrumental skills. Although Horace Parlan, more than a fine player, seems somewhat unsure of how to comp under Kirk's intense improvisation on this track, he reels himself in and provides an excellent solo following Kirk's. So, Brownie fanatics: just what is the "Quote from Clifford Brown?"

October 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roland Kirk: Cabin In The Sky

Roland Kirk spent 1961 and 1962 developing his craft by performing with some of jazz's finest players, from Jack McDuff, Charles Mingus, and Benny Golson to Herbie Hancock and Roy Haynes, the latter two who appear on Kirk's seminal 1962 session, Domino. With these experiences in the bag, Kirk hit his stride by late 1963, especially in his live performances. Kirk in Copenhagen, a live date from the famed Club Montmartre, reveals just how electrifying a performer Kirk had quickly become. "Cabin in the Sky" has it all – a standard opening bop statement, a fine Montoliu solo, and a blazing Kirk improvisation including a run from 1:18 to 1:53 that just may contain the most amount of notes ever heard in 35 seconds!

October 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roland Kirk with Jack McDuff: The Skaters Waltz

A year after he recorded Introducing Roland Kirk and just months before he participated in Charles Mingus's Oh Yeah sessions, Roland Kirk recorded this hard-bop/soul-jazz session with organist Jack McDuff. Kirk is in fine form throughout, usually opting for a single horn (or flute on "Funk Underneath") to complement McDuff's spirited playing. On the album's concluding track, "The Skater's Waltz," a fine opening Kirk break and solo statements by Kirk and McDuff are followed by a combination of fours – first between Kirk and McDuff, then between Kirk and drummer Art Taylor. A fine example of a somewhat restrained early Kirk perhaps still searching for a balance between his encyclopedic knowledge of the jazz tradition and his quest for downright stylistic originality.

October 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roland Kirk: Our Love Is Here To Stay

As quickly as some critics saw three saxophones around Roland Kirk's neck and howled gimmickry, was as quickly as Kirk won over nearly all their praises with his ability to pick up a single saxophone and lead a generation of expressive players. Not too long after this second Kirk session, he was not only critically acclaimed but had developed an exceptionally loyal cult following, a far rarer occurrence in the jazz world than one might think.

Kirk's take on this Gershwin standard is a fine example of his early hard-bop intensity on a single saxophone. While trumpeter Ira Sullivan guests on multiple tracks throughout the session, "Our Love is Here to Stay" is all Kirk. His improvisation takes off at the 1:25 mark and builds until the band develops a strong groove about a minute later. Throughout the solo, Kirk cleverly intersperses brief unexpected vertical maneuvers amidst his standard soul-jazz lines. Note the strong melodic bass work from Donald Garrett that triggers Kirk's solo development.

October 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chico Pinheiro & Anthony Wilson: Alla Chitarra

Nova is a mixture of Brazilian music and jazz. The full ensemble playing is quite good. But as is often the case, music can be best when pared down. The most rewarding cut on the album is "Alla Chitarra." The music itself is not simplified. In fact it is quite intricate. But the two main protagonists, Chico Pinheiro and Anthony Wilson, go at it without the rhythm section. They are joined by Swami Jr. who plays the Brazilian 7-string guitar. His task is to offer a textural bed for the other two players. Pinheiro and Wilson are nothing short of fantastic. The tune, written by Wilson, gives the players many opportunities to be as expressive as hell. This isn't Paco De Lucia meets John McLaughlin or Al Di Meola, but a Latin flavor permeates the jazz, and the calls and responses are reminiscent of the Guitar Trio. (Certain sections of the piece also sound very much in structure and intent like "Rene's Theme" on Larry Coryell's 1974 album Spaces.) Excepting the acoustic guitar of Swami Jr., the sound is electric. At least that is what the liner notes say. Both Pinheiro and Wilson are plugged in. From time to time you can tell this. But the sound each gets mimics the gut string in a very evocative way. The tune turns straight-ahead jazz for a spell before ending with some interesting counterpoints. Pinheiro and Wilson are simpatico. Their unison playing is especially rewarding. This is very enjoyable music performed with a knowing precision.

October 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Herring: New Moon

Guitarist Jimmy Herring has developed a reputation for string shredding with such bands as Aquarium Rescue Unit and Widespread Panic. He has played with the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh, and in the jazz band that honored the Dead, Jazz is Dead. According to a recent interview, it appears Herring isn't all that comfortable being known mainly as a shredder. He is concerned some of his more diehard fans may be expecting such guitar fireworks from his first solo outing Lifeboat. Unless his fans are a slew of tasteless zombies, he shouldn't be worried. Lifeboat is a collection of jazz-oriented pieces that stress melodious grooves, developed themes and group cohesion. There surely is some killing guitar here, but it is not the be all and end all. "New Moon" is just one example.

Guest guitarist Derek Trucks introduces the slowly paced song on slide guitar. He has an interest in Indian music, and manages to incorporate that influence in a very bluesy way. Though using slide guitar is helpful, this is just not a simple thing to do. Herring joins Trucks to state the main theme. It is quite catchy in a Southern blues jazzy way. It devolves into a lengthy Trucks carnatic exposition. He is answered by a soulful Herring. The rhythm section of Burbridge and Sipe is perfectly restrained. Pianist Matt Slocum offers chord shadings. These guys are real tight. No fast guitar shredding here. Instead we have an evolved interaction. This is really good music. If some of Herring's fans don't get it, we'll find him some new ones.

October 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Lover Man

The remarkable professional relationship between saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist Martial Solal dates back to 1968's European Episode, from whence this track came. Much of that album is "out" in varying degrees. "Lover Man" is one of the more straightforward performances on the record, although it's in no way a conservative reading of the jazz standard. Konitz uses an Octavoice (or multivider) on his horn, an electronic device that adds a lower octave to his sound. Today it seems almost criminal that he would electronically alter his tone—one of the most personal in jazz—especially when playing a ballad. Yet while it may now seem gimmicky, back then it was a noble experiment.

By 1968, Konitz had become one of the free-est improvisers over standard chord-based structures. He uses that ability to stretch the changes most effectively on "Lover Man." He's utterly unpredictable. His melodies resolve in places you'd least expect; his rhythms are impulsively elastic. Solal shares that gift for spontaneity, exuding like Konitz unfettered freedom. He obliterates any conscious obligation to form and structure, yet almost subliminally maintains a sense of order. Bassist Henri Texier and drummer Daniel Humair lend the flexibility that suits Konitz and Solal so well. The band seems easily familiar with both the materials and each other. Their obvious kinship results in some especially beautiful music.

October 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Duet for Saxophone and Drums, and Piano

Saxophonist Lee Konitz's experience with free jazz dates back to the very first freely improvised jazz recordings: the Lennie Tristano Sextet's "Intuition" and "Digression" from 1949. So, while the saxophonist is widely known as an inimitable straight-ahead stylist, he's also shown a repeated inclination and ability to play "out" during the course of his career. "Duet for Saxophone and Drums, and Piano" is a 6-minute, totally improvised conversation between Konitz and drummer Daniel Humair, with pianist Martial Solal apparently unable to resist the impulse to join in.

Konitz begins by avoiding anything like a swing feel or even a consistent pulse. His line is sculptural, rather than architectural—an exercise in disciplined impetuosity, unplanned yet not without design. Humair embroiders Konitz's line quietly and inventively with varied timbres and inconstant rhythms. He's a full partner only briefly. Solal enters mid-performance and temporarily replaces him in the dialogue with Konitz. The pianist seems to read the saxophonist's mind, so closely do they act on and respond to one another's gestures. Solal is a wonderful free player, very expressive and articulate, and obviously well versed in 20th-century European art music. Humair returns for the track's last segment, as Solal drops out. The heat he generates is palpable, but it simmers rather than boils.

Konitz apparently utilizes an Octavoice or multivider—an electronic device that splits the horn's sound into separate octaves. As one of the first electronic effects for horn players, it was fairly popular in the '60s and '70s. The device provides the illusion of another horn doubling Konitz's thorny lines, inspiring a perception of greater ensemble unity. In a bop context, it's a bit gimmicky, but in this context it works quite well. Overall, this music sounds so fresh, it could've been recorded yesterday. Contemporary free jazzers would do well to do to adopt Konitz's philosophy of stylistic growth and curiosity.

October 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Billie's Bounce

Lee Konitz had the reputation of being the stylistic alternative to Charlie Parker during the 1940s and '50s. A slightly younger contemporary of Bird, Konitz was one of the few saxophonists of his day to remain comparatively unaffected by Parker's influence. For that reason, it's interesting to hear Konitz interpret one of Parker's best-known blues lines. This 1957 performance has Konitz moving away from his relatively note-y improvisations on the early Lennie Tristano sides. His style is not nearly as lean and melodic as it would become, but it's getting there.

Trumpeter Don Ferrara's solo is superb. A bright-toned, soulful, Gillespie-influenced player, he blows a tastefully extroverted horn. Konitz, on the other hand, is extremely cool, weaving a solo of impeccable logic and emotional restraint. Bassist Peter Ind's solo is unusually limber for its time, and pianist Sal Mosca takes a few nice understated choruses. Drummer Shadow Wilson plays with a nice easy feel. In terms of backing the horns, the rhythm section is boilerplate mid-1950s bop—extremely competent, if not overly daring. The horns lead out of the solos into the final statement of the head with a transcription of Bird's improvisation on the original 1945 Savoy recording of the tune, providing a rather direct avenue of comparison. It's a nice touch. Not top-drawer Konitz, but the perspective it gives on his stylistic distance from Parker makes it a valuable track.

October 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joseph Spence: I'm Going to Live That Life

Joseph Spence had been playing the guitar for more than 30 years when researcher Samuel Charters stumbled upon him. "When you go out into a new part of the world with a tape recorder to look for music," Charters has written, "you always dream that someday you might find a new performer who will be so unique and so exciting that their music will have an effect on anybody who hears it." Charters' encounter with Joseph Spence was one of those rare moments. This artist is a true one-of-a-kind. Spence played with an unconventional tuning and a willy-nilly technique of his own invention. His recordings sound deceptively simple, but guitarists struggle to get the feeling just right when trying to imitate his style. Spence keeps melody, harmony and rhythm moving along with a boisterous energy, and his "singing"—more an exhortation than a conventional vocal—adds to the celebratory tone. This is the record to start with if you want to know how music sounds when all the commercial angles and marketing decisions are removed, and song is reduced (or "elevated" might be the better word) to a pure and perfect expression of the human spirit.

October 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tuck & Patti: In a Sentimental Mood

Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart met thirty years ago (through the intercession of my old bandmate Michael Stillman), and soon found their musical bliss in the relatively untapped format of jazz guitar and vocal duets. Fast forward three decades and this pair is still working as a twosome, and remain committed to the American popular song tradition. Not much has changed with their music but, frankly, who wants to tinker with such a winning formula? Tuck Andress is a brilliant guitarist who needs no bass and drums to anchor his efforts. The under-produced sound of this release is the perfect setting to appreciate his artistry. Here he hints at Duke Ellington's accompaniment to John Coltrane from their famous recording of this tune; but he also adds some bluesy touches of his own invention. Patti Cathcart continues to delight with her sweet, soulful voice. For music fans, Tuck & Patti are still a match made in jazz heaven.

October 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: Land's End

"Land's End" is an interesting piece. It is very much Weather Report meets the progressive sounds of rock group Focus. Keyboardist Stewart has Joe Zawinul down! Berlin also seems to be channeling the live spirit of his contemporary Jaco Pastorius. The grandeur and sweep of the piece is also reminiscent of the material Focus would tackle from time to time. John Clark captures that guitar energy supplied to Focus by Jan Akkerman. Once the rhythms start kicking in, courtesy of Mr. Bruford, the jazz-fusion elements fully take over. Well, for a while anyway, until a straight rocker emerges that leads to an anthem-rock ending that is pure Focus. Have I made myself clear? Weather Report meets Focus. Yeah. That's right. That's the ticket.

October 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: Joe Frazier

I am not going to review any of the songs on this album that contain Jeff Berlin's vocals. God bless the guy. He is one of the greatest jazz bassists alive today. But his voice on the opening cut sounds like a bad imitation of Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon. (Chronologically, this makes no sense as Duran Duran wouldn't hit it big for a year or two after this recording took place. So perhaps Le Bon was doing a good impression of Berlin.)

Percussionist Bruford's previous release, One of a Kind, had been a pure fusion affair. And it was very good. Gradually Going Tornado, however, was more progressive rock and aimed toward a pop audience. Guitarist Allan Holdsworth had been replaced with "the unknown" John Clark. He is a good player who sounds a bit like Holdsworth. But it is not good enough to sound a bit like him for this music. All in all, there is less interesting material on the album. But there are a couple of cuts of note. One of them is "Joe Frazier."

"Joe Frazier" is a showcase for the bassist Berlin. From his corner it was relayed that Berlin had been unhappy that in other recordings with Bruford his sound had been too low in the mix. He couldn't say that about this performance. He spends most of his time dancing in the middle of the ring. He is joined there by sparring mate Dave Stewart. It is a thrust and parry worthy of any jazz-rock bout. Clark makes his strongest effort on the tune as well. Bruford seems to be the referee, making sure the players don't clinch. Toss in some funky trick punches and a very good bass solo, and you have the full 15 rounds.

Reviewer's Fun Fact: During and after heavyweight Joe Frazier's boxing career he led a musical group called Joe Frazier and the Knockouts. Frazier was the lead vocalist. He was a much worse singer than Jeff Berlin. But who was going to tell him?

October 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Royce Campbell (featuring Joe Kennedy): Happy Rhythm

An empyrean venture on multiple levels: three Olympian musicians, ethereal feel, supernal solos, a sonically cosmic recording, Joe Kennedy's finale, and a transcendent celebration of his life. Joe was one of the handful of jazz violinists who played in the classic Venuti style, yet clearly had his own voice and vocabulary. With equal parts swing and phrase-ability, Joe was a master musician. On this hip track he syncs up and trades off on the melody with guitarist Royce Campbell, and three brilliant solos unfold, the last from lyrical Paul Langosch (a Tony Bennett veteran), who stylishly adds enough slap-and-pull percussion on his bass to groove ad infinitum. Royce Campbell is a beatific player who imparts inspired lines with just the right stroke of swing and sensitivity. He produced the CD with Joe's spirit in mind, and it shines lastingly.

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Buckethead: Machete

Buckethead

When I was about nine years old, I followed the exploits of The Destroyer, a masked wrestler who appeared regularly on Southern California television. (New Yorkers will tell you that, in L.A., this counts as high culture.) Too bad we didn't have Buckethead back then. He would have pushed ratings through the roof and had everyone rushing out to phone Richmond 9-5171. This guitarist, who invariably plays with a bucket on his head—question: does Kentucky Fried Chicken pay him endorsement money?—combines ethereal improvisation with a stage persona straight out of TV wrestling. Even the name of the track ("Machete") and the CD (Colma—a city famous for its cemeteries) adds to the over-the-edge sensibility.

Yet here is the strangest part of the story. This artist's guitar playing has no gimmickry about it. The music has a stark, open quality and—unlike the bizarre figure on stage—makes its point through understatement, especially in the opening minutes of "Machete." But don't underestimate this walking advertisement for fried chicken: when the occasion warrants, his digits can fly (lick-finger-pickin' good), and the track closes with some seriously wailing guitar. Even so, there is a cerebral and noncommercial soulfulness at work here. Heck, I'd listen to him even if he ditched the bucket, and downsized to a box or bag.

October 14, 2008 · 1 comment

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Bill Bruford: One of a Kind - Part Two

In reviewing "Hell's Bells" from One of a Kind, I suggested the group, at least on this record, was half progressive rock and half fusion. As I listen to the music more to write further reviews, I am changing my mind a bit. It is now 60-40 in favor of fusion. I may change my view again tomorrow. But I write the words when I feel them.

Thirty years after it was recorded, the thing that really stands out on "One of a Kind - Part Two" is just how contemporary this music still sounds. If I listened to it without any information, I would have no trouble telling you the music could have been recorded last week. Bruford's shuffling drums back some ambient noise, synth and the engrossing guitar efforts of Allan Holdsworth. One of the problems with early synthesizers is that they have a tendency to sound really outdated years later. What was so thrilling then can seem almost toy-like today. None of that is apparent with Stewart's workout here. In between, the great Jeff Berlin can be heard advancing bass technique. Some well-placed Bruford pounding and Holdsworth volleys catch our attention. The tune steadily gains complexity and energy, leading to an abrupt climax.

There is a lot of fine musicianship going on here. As a longstanding fusion fan, I regret not having paid more attention to Bruford at the time. That was a big mistake that lessened the quality of my life.

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: One of a Kind - Part One

"One of a Kind - Part One" serves as prelude to "One of a Kind - Part Two." It's a countdown in a way, full of rhythms of which some are provided melodically by Bruford on vibes. (I am guessing it is he and not keyboardist Stewart.) As countdowns go, this is successful. The jazzy and slightly Spanish opening section gives way to a mid-'70s Zappa-like section. (Think Ruth Underwood.) Then Holdsworth starts ripping away. The pleasing theme, now slightly Far Eastern and ascending, perfectly leads into the funk transition that becomes "Part Two." The ship jettisons its fuel tanks as it achieves orbit. To experience earth from orbit, see my review of "One of a Kind - Part Two."

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: Hell's Bells

Bill Bruford has one of the most impressive résumés of any drummer alive. He was the original drummer for rock supergroup Yes. He was an integral part of the progressive rock band King Crimson, and toured with another hugely popular band, Genesis. In recent years Bruford's efforts, especially with his group Earthworks, have trended toward the jazz of his background. But even in his early career, a jazz sensibility was never far from the center of the rock music he was performing. This made a group such as Yes sound even more distinctive. The band's music was never fusion, but its drummer played it that way.

The musicians heard here on Bruford's second solo outing were known collectively as simply Bruford. Most musicians hate it when you categorize their music. But we listeners have to do it in order to communicate with one another. This was a fusion band that progressive rockers would call a progressive rock band out of pride and fusion guys would call a progressive rock band out of snobbishness. The band was really a 50-50 jazz-rock/progressive rock proposition.

"Hell's Bells" is an up-tempo fusion number with a pop hook. A heavy backbeat supports layers of synthesized keyboards. A dastardly low-register Holdsworth plays his guitar as if inside a bottle of maple syrup. Bruford double-times the affair. Berlin's throbbing bass is a constant. This isn't the deep fusion of Mahavishnu or Weather Report. It was a more fun version meant to connect with the commoner in us all.

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ron Carter: Cubano Chant

This jazz standard from the Fifties gets the Ron Carter treatment, and it couldn't be in better hands. It's great to hear the bassist address the head, and the additional percussion of Steve Kroon does much to flesh out this arrangement, making the ensemble sound bigger than it is. Scott's solo stays in the Latin mode for the most part, while injecting plenty of swing and blues throughout. The rhythmic shift that precedes Mason's solo breaks things up nicely, paving the way for an understated yet authoritative showing from the drummer. It all wraps up with a short return to the intro melody, proving once again that less can be more.

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mary Lou Williams: Play It Momma

Mary Lou Williams was the rarity for jazz in her era and beyond. She left a legacy of great piano playing, stellar arranging capabilities and a substantial body of work as a composer. She started as a prodigy, venturing to play the piano at age 2½, and logging her first paying gig at 6. She made her recording debut at 17, and by the early 1930s found herself in the midst of the thriving Kansas City jazz scene. This piece reflects the blues foundation that she witnessed and participated in with many of the founders of the swing and modern jazz eras. There isn't a stilted note in this performance, and the bass and drum simpatico is all funked up.

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charles Mingus: So Long Eric

Listening to this performance reminds me of the weight of some of Mingus's compositions. Maybe it's because I've been listening to this piece for a long time, but it still blasts out of the speakers with the fury of Pamplona's running bulls. It starts so strong with the rhythm section really pushing Jordon's tenor solo, only to have the dynamics come down for Byard's lengthy section without any diminishment of energy. The leader solos next, with his usual dexterity and wit, followed by Dolphy's alto. The great reed-instrument eccentric unleashes a torrent of sound, including a humorous quote from Borodin that sustains the ensemble's fever pitch. Richmond's solo is dramatic, crisp and full of life, keeping pace with all the participants in this rollicking 23 minutes of great jazz. Sadly, two months later, after leaving the band to remain in Europe, Dolphy would pass on

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Carrothers: When Will The Blues Leave

The music of Ornette Coleman is chockfull of so many twists, turns and unexpected changes in direction that its structure (if it's fair to use that word) is as iconic as Coleman's unusual saxophone sound. It is for these reasons that it's always interesting to encounter interpretations of Ornette's music. Bill Carrothers celebrates the Coleman landscape by employing dizzying chromatic runs and very angular passages, all while swinging like mad. Credit for the swing factor must also be given to Gary Peacock and Bill Stewart, who sound like they've been playing with Carrothers for their entire careers. Kudos to Bill Carrothers's colleague Marc Copland for helping to push this record out into the daylight.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Various Artists: Morena Faceira (Naughty Brunette)

From an album paying tribute to popular music from the 1940s through the '50s, we have the slinky (Hmmm...doesn't that apply to all bossa nova?) "Naughty Brunette." While Mario Adnet provides some beautiful and textured vocals, and the group background vocals are just beyond fun, the secret weapons here are the guitars of Adnet and Rodrigo Campello. The rhythm work that supports the harmonic structure ends up sounding like a song-length chord solo, and the melodic fills add color by winding their way around Adnet's story. Given the state of today's popular music, it's almost impossible to imagine a world where music this vibrant held sway.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jovino Santos Neto & Weber Iago featuring Joe Lovano: Wave

Joe Lovano joins pianists Jovino Santos Neto and Weber Iago for a spectacular splash through Jobim's "Wave." While remaining respectful to the original source material, this impromptu group (Lovano came onstage as a guest at the end of the Neto/Iago set at the Caramoor Jazz Festival) brings to mind the duet work of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, but with Lovano helping to take the song in a more "out" direction. Both pianists do their best to show just how much intrigue can be found in a well-worn melody, and Lovano is obviously more than up to the task.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Erik Friedlander: Jim Zipper

It's an old, yet pertinent story. Jazz bassist Oscar Pettiford broke his arm playing baseball in 1949. During his recuperation, he turned to the cello, which he tuned like a bass (though up one octave). This resulted in a handful of cello-based projects, including My Little Cello (named after Pettiford's newborn son). For Broken Arm Trio, inspired by Pettiford, Erik Friedlander dispenses with the bow, playing his cello pizzicato. On "Jim Zipper," Friedlander and his cohorts hold on for dear life to a melody that can just about contain itself. With its jagged rhythms, breathtaking start-&-stop incidents, and furious runs, it's a lot of action packed into only 68 seconds. Hopefully, Oscar Pettiford would be proud.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tom Teasley: Good Foot Dervish

A word of warning here: do not listen to this song in the presence of any furniture whose main feature is a sturdy, flat surface (coffee tables, kitchen tables, etc.) as you will feel a strong desire to leap onto said platform and wave around random body parts. Teasley and bassist James King set up a muscular groove (providing yet another example of my long-held thesis that congas are the mostest funnest instruments on the planet) over which the horns are allowed to run rampant. Imagine the Tower of Power making a trip to the Middle East. Just don't do that while you're bustin' your coffee-table legs.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Todd Sickafoose: Future Flora

People like to draw sharp lines between musical genres – pop, rock, jazz, classical, country, folk, world (whatever the heck that means). There can be music that crosses over, but most listeners seem confused by that kind of thing. Which is why I was so happy to stumble onto this Todd Sickafoose recording. See, my pop side (which honestly doesn't care if it gets mixed up with jazz) knew of him only as the bass player for Ani DiFranco. It turns out that Sickafoose has a whole other side, that of.....uhm...well, whatever this music is.

Some bass triplets introduce a few ringing guitar notes & scrapes before the entire group settles down into a nice, deep groove. That sense of forward motion is enhanced by the occasional break where the band drops away and those opening notes are revisited. As things proceed, instruments pop in and out to comment, including short trumpet/vibraphone unison lines, and some terrific electric guitar work. Very thought-provoking stuff from my new favorite pop/jazz/world/folk instrumental artist. Sort of.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Enrico Rava: Bella

This track gives listeners a window into the early years of both Enrico Rava and John Abercrombie. While "Bella" begins in traditional ECM mode, with a lot of space separated by Abercrombie's light chords and harmonics and Rava's introductory lines, things take a few surprising turns. Surprising in that those familiar with the Enrico Rava of 2008 might not know his past, with scorching chromatic runs full of passion and angularity being as common as graceful lines and romanticism. And speaking of angularity, John Abercrombie takes great joy here with a startling guitar solo that at one point causes a band member (Rava?) to cry out "Woo!" Really great stuff and, lucky for U.S. ears, finally available here on CD.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Taj Mahal (with Toumani Diabaté): Zanzibar

Although blues music has deep African roots, the combination of these two traditions in the recording studio typically presents a stark contrast in musical styles. Here blues Maestro (also the name of this CD) Taj Mahal is joined by Beninese vocalist Angélique Kidjo and Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, The results take us into unpredictable world music waters where few blues artists dare to swim. The rhythm, which is broken down into two bars of three beats followed by a bar of two beats, is hypnotic, and the intersecting vocal lines are quite effective. You will hear few flatted thirds on this track, and the performance is a departure from what you might expect from Taj Mahal. Those seeking more familiar blues fare will find it elsewhere on the Maestro CD, but this performance is a standout effort.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dick Dale and His Del-Tones: Misirlou

You thought that Miles and Trane were the only people experimenting with modes in the early 1960s? Think again. Dick Dale, the King of the Surf Guitar, was playing some crazy scales on his Stratocaster back in the day, with a little help from his friend: the Fender reverb unit. The "wet sound" from this high-tech (for 1962) baby defined a new style of play. In Dale's words, he "just started cranking on that mother." The modal sensibility came from the history of "Misirlou," which started life as a Greek popular song. But under Dale's prodigious digits, the result was a wild and unhinged instrumental that shot to the top of the Los Angeles charts, and has retained a cult following to this day. Most people believe surf music started with the Beach Boys, but there is still a hardcore group that insists that real surf music is guitar-driven and doesn't need any stinkin' vocals. For this fringe of true believers—and you are invited to join their ranks—Dick Dale is the King.

This song had an interesting afterlife. It was featured in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. The Black Eyed Peas used it as the basis for their song "Pump It." And "Misirlou" was celebrated at the Athens Olympics as a masterwork of Greek music, and played at the closing ceremony. But the event organizers invited Anna Vissi, not Dick Dale, to perform it. What wusses! As punishment, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos decree 30 years of lousy waves on the shores of the Aegean Sea.

October 13, 2008 · 1 comment

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Lenny Breau: Georgia on My Mind

With his prepossessing looks, a winning personality, and a larger-than-life talent, Lenny Breau had all the ingredients for stardom. Moreover, he came of age just when guitar was starting to dominate popular entertainment, and Breau's commanding technique and expansive conception should have earned him a place at the top of the music world. He could play in a wide range of styles, and although the jazz world claimed him as its own, his performances drew on elements of everything from country to classical. This version of "George on My Mind" from a live date at Donte's shows how far Breau could push a familiar pop tune. From the opening bars, he is reconfiguring the harmonies, drawing on a sound palette more akin to Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock than your typical guitar stylings. His single-note lines push up against the limits of the changes; then, around the midpoint of his solo, he superimposes a fast waltz beat, and seems intent on forcing a "Bluesette" mood onto the Hoagy Carmichael tune. Finally, Breau shifts gears again, and as the piece draws to a close he develops a stunning counterpoint on the guitar that sounds like two musicians trading phrases. Long after his death in 1984, at age 43, this player still seems ahead of the times.

October 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Pass: Darn That Dream

This track, from Pass's memorable 1975 concert with Oscar Peterson at Salle Pleyel, features the guitarist in a solo setting. But after an evening of duets (that might be a typo—"duels" would be just as appropriate), Pass was still charged with adrenalin, and makes the most of his ballad feature. Here are all the Pass trademarks: convoluted passing chords; unexpected modulations through the circle of fifths that threaten to pull us out of the tonal center; basslines that seem to require a second guitarist hidden in the wings; crisp, super-fast single-note lines; hints of funk and bop and soul and plain old-fashioned romanticism. And through it all, that imperturbable Pass confidence, as if the six strings were hardwired into his central nervous system. The 1970s were a great era for Joe Pass, and here in the middle of the decade he delivers a magisterial performance in Paris.

October 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shuggie Otis: The Time Machine

He turned down a chance to join the Rolling Stones, and now lives happily amidst the apple orchards of Sebastopol, California. Who can figure out Shuggie Otis? He was one of the great prodigies of the guitar, and started making waves almost from the moment of his professional debut at age 12—sometimes wearing a false mustache and dark glasses to convince club owners that he was old enough to gig. This track, recorded when Shuggie was 17, shows what a monster he was on the guitar before he was old enough to vote. But he could also play keyboard, bass, drums, sing or write a hit tune (the Brothers Johnson took his "Strawberry Letter 23" to the top of the R&B charts) if the occasion warranted. This song is aptly named: given a feature number during a Monterey Jazz Festival program headed by his father (R&B great Johnny Otis), the young Shuggie dishes out some old school slide guitar that is drenched with soulfulness. You feel you are listening to a master, but it's just a teenage boy. You can pinpoint many successes in Shuggie Otis's career, yet I can't help feeling that this ridiculously talented artist only gave us a small glimpse of what he might have been.

October 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Torben Waldorff: Heimat

Torben Waldorff is a Danish-born guitarist/composer with an uncluttered, controlled playing style and a keen ear for melody. His songs are accessible and soulful while possessing ample profundity. The slow-paced "Heimat" provides an excellent example of these attributes and the rapport that comes with an efficient, sympathetic group.

The theme, stated by Waldorff and McCaslin, is well constructed and memorable. Yahel reveals a mastery of projecting warmth from a Rhodes, not just through the carefully considered notes in his solo turn, but also as an accompanist. Waldorff's employs a similar strategy from the full-bodied sound of his Gibson ES when his turn comes, modulating his approach from gentle to mid-intensity, but always relaxed. Meanwhile, Wikan sympathetically adds fills to emphasize the leader's evolving mood.

One of several standout tracks on Afterburn, "Heimat" displays Waldorff's ability to craft songs that can engage the listener even when a soft touch is utilized.

October 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Robert Glasper: Beatrice

Robert Glasper continues to prove himself as a leader in this odd-metered Sam Rivers tune. Glasper's statement of the head is accompanied by Vicente Archer's simple bassline and Damion Reed's very tasteful brush work. Most evident on this track is just how tight this trio is. As Archer takes a very rhythmic bass solo, Reed and Glasper still maintain an unwavering sense of time, making a normally awkward meter feel fluid and natural.

When Glasper takes control, Reed reaches for his sticks and the trio crescendos together. The young pianist's improvisation is rarely flashy. Instead, he focuses on forming beautiful, melodic lines as he leads the trio in a rise and fall of energy. Glasper has already demonstrated his speed and facility on other recordings. Here he proves that the beauty in his playing lies not in technical prowess, but in the ability to carry the listener with him as he explores unique harmonic and rhythmic possibilities.

October 10, 2008 · 1 comment

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King Crimson: The Sheltering Sky

Paul Bowles - The Sheltering Sky

By far "The Sheltering Sky," its name taken from a 1949 novel by Paul Bowles, is the most rewarding cut on Discipline for any jazz-fusion fan. The performance sounds like Weather Report without saxophonist Wayne Shorter and with two guitarists instead of none. In all past King Crimson lineups, Robert Fripp was the only guitarist. In this new version of the band, Fripp invited Adrian Belew along. Fripp plays all sorts of "devices," so he could probably come up with some sounds that approximated two guitars. But he couldn't really play counterpoint to himself. I mean he could … but you know what I mean. The two-guitarists model makes a real difference. The ever-clever Bruford steadily pounds an insistent rhythm into your head as Fripp on device, an early guitar synthesizer really, soars above it all in a Joe Zawinul-inspired flight. Every one of this tune's eight or so minutes is soaked to the saturation point with fusion trademarks. I may get an argument from many jazz-rockers that I let some of King Crimson’s other works into the fusion fortress a little too willingly. But anyone disagreeing that this tune belongs in there should be sent into the corner.

October 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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King Crimson: Indiscipline

This is a tough call. What is this? Is it power progressive rock? Is it jazz-fusion? Is it something else? The vocals sound like something a Zappa band may have done. But in between those vocals, some of Zappa's bands sounded an awful lot like a jazz-rock group. I would argue that Zappa, especially after touring with Mahavishnu, became more a jazz-rocker than a rocker. Suspiciously, guitarist Adrian Belew had played with Zappa. Could there be a connection?

"Indiscipline" is a piston-driven electric fusion anthem interrupted from time to time by incongruous talking vocals. The instrumental sections, at their most intense, sound like something the Mahavishnu Orchestra might have broken into. The Crimson has more than a foot in the jazz-rock waters here. So in this case, it is easy for me to say this is fusion music. At the very least I suggest that without fusion this song would never have happened. The master Fripp would disagree with me about that last statement.

October 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: Lady Chatterley's Mother

Gerry Mulligan's early '60s Concert Jazz Band was one of the most musically influential big bands of its time. That influence carries on today, as this band was the spiritual forerunner of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, which begat the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, which begat the present-day Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. The CJB's slightly reduced instrumentation, with one less player in each section than was and still is customary in big bands, gave it a unique and original lightness and transparency.

The supreme irony of this band is that Mulligan originally formed it as a vehicle for his own writing, but the demands of running the business side of things, combined with pressing matters in his personal life, left him little time for writing. As a result, Bob Brookmeyer assumed the role of straw boss and de facto music director, handling the bulk of the writing. The band's book was filled out by works from such outstanding writers as Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, John Carisi, George Russell, Gary McFarland, and Al Cohn, among others.

"Lady Chatterley's Mother" is perhaps Al Cohn's finest work for the CJB. It is a lively 40-bar theme in AABA form with a distinctive 16-bar bridge. Brookmeyer, Terry and Mulligan contribute characteristically fine solos, and there is a dazzling sax soli with Mulligan joining the section. The sax soli is followed by a great ensemble passage in which Cohn derives maximum intensity using minimum density by pitting a declarative unison line in the trumpets against a pedal tone in the lower horns, with no harmony in between, thus providing a great lesson for today's voicing-obsessed big band writers.

October 09, 2008 · 1 comment

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King Crimson: Discipline

There has always been a fine line between progressive rock and fusion. Progressive rock historians tend to include fusion in their archives. At Internet site collections of prog rock, you will find listings for Mahavishnu and Weather Report. The same is generally not true coming from the fusion side of the equation. Only occasionally will you see groups such as Focus or King Crimson included in the fusion discussion. But those and other bands did cross over the fusion line from time to time, and deserve to be so noted. The case comes down to improvisation. While it is unclear whether studio recordings of progressive rock tunes in the gray area between the genres include improvisation, there is little doubt that live concerts contained at least some of it. King Crimson, in its first incarnation, clearly developed a style that incorporated jazz, funk and group improvisation.

The group on Discipline, coming seven years after King Crimson's preceding lineup called it quits, initially wasn't going to operate under that name. Founding member Fripp put together a new band to be called Discipline. He recruited Bill Bruford, who had appeared in several previous King Crimson lineups, Adrien Belew and Tony Levin. At some point Fripp changed his mind, and just called the new group King Crimson. Apparently he felt the spirit of the original band.

The reconstituted King Crimson's 1980s style veered towards the new-wave movement of the time, especially on vocal numbers. But being a fusion fan, I ignore those cuts. There was less improvisation, if any, on a tune like "Discipline." But fusion elements were still present, including mantra-like riffs and Fripp's slightly off-kilter arpeggios that he had been playing since back in King Crimson's early days during the '60s. "Discipline" doesn't have much forward motion. Any advances it does make come at a snail's pace. But a "disciplined" rhythm in both count and melody makes for a taut exercise in walking the tightrope between progressive rock and fusion.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Todd Coolman: Connotation

Now here's an interesting use of the Internet. Todd Coolman set up a web site so that unknown composers – perfect strangers – were able to submit their ideas for interpretation by his band. The results, judging by "Connotation," do not disappoint. The long series of shifting chords and accompanying angular melody that open the piece provide an irresistible harmonic bed for the solos to follow. As leader Coolman swings with abandon, pianist Jim McNeely blisters his way through several choruses. Clearly both saxophonist Alexander and trumpeter Lynch are inspired by this, as they just burn in their own spots. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that the composer in this case, Dana Malseptic, is only 17 years old. Wow! When I was 17, I was reading old copies of Rolling Stone 12 hours a day. Don't worry, my new composition will be coming out any day now. Right....

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rob Mosher's Storytime: Silhouette of the Man in the Fog

The title conjures up a film noir landscape, all slick with moisture and fog. At first the music doesn't take a single quarter note in that direction. Instead, the main theme is quite pensive, with a multifaceted story to tell. The presence of an oboe adds a loneliness factor, but nothing too dark. Tension arrives a couple of minutes later in the form a bridge that introduces us to the deep tones of Brian Landrus on baritone sax. Landrus takes the song home, leaving a wake of jazz and blues for all of us to deal with.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Shapiro & Pat Bergeson featuring Annie Sellick: Early

OK, I admit it, I'm a sucker for a romantic story. The draw is even greater when delivered by an attractive voice. So here we have Annie Sellick presenting a story of lost innocence, followed by a wistful look back at what might have been. Pat Bergeson's guitar figures provide a harmonic bed for Sellick's vocals. What sets "Early" apart is the arrival of Steve Shapiro's vibraphone solo. While we've heard many saxophone solos in a context like this (and we do have that here), the vibes add a very satisfying emotional element.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shaun Barrowes: Separate Trains

Whenever a jazz reviewer spots promotional references to American Idol, Billy Joel and Sting, he reaches instinctively into his toolkit for that can of hyperbole mace. Even so, the music of Shaun Barrowes caught my ear. His singing brings to mind a more pop-orientated Michael Bublé, tossed with a side of John Mayer. Barrowes adds some interesting accents with his piano work without smothering the vocals. All of which might turn off the jazz purist, but I'd bet that wouldn't bother Mr. Barrowes one bit.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lucia Pulido: Yo No Tengo Quien Me Quiera

For those playing along in English, "I've No One To Love Me" finds Colombian singer Lucia Pulido in a lovely duet with bassist Stomu Takeishi. With his extremely woody bass, so full of texture and ringing harmonics, Takeishi is the absolute perfect foil for Pulido's strikingly rich and beautiful voice. The melding of these two instruments, together with a gorgeous and wide-ranging melody, winds up telling the intended story, even though not a word was understood.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tim Ries: Miss You

The great thing about covers of pop songs is that every so often, unexpected results can occur. Tim Ries knows all about this. His first Rolling Stones project provided hungry ears with all manner of jazz twists on the music of Richards and Jagger. I have to admit that Some Girls has always been one of my favorite Stones records. Ries and company do the album's opening track justice, with Bernard Fowler taking lead vocal duties. Pushing the original near-Disco pulse out of shape, Ries ends up with a "Miss You" that's equal parts funk and steam. We even have Charlie Watts (a huge jazz fan) adding to the pulse. Great stuff.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Brinsk: The Gun I Used To Have

While not strictly a jazz tune (heck, not even really a tune at all!), Tom Waits's "What's He Building In There" is quite instructive here. The story concerns the neighborhood weirdo. You know the guy, the one who always seems to have a light burning in his garage late into the evening, bizarre sounds emanating from underneath the door. If our mysterious character was to have a few friends, all playing jazz-type instruments, this is what it would sound like. The moan of the euphonium, the acoustic bass squirting out plinky notes, the trumpet and saxophone letting loose with torturous bleats, the drums leaving subtle and reactive accents – it's an orchestra from the underground. This is some fine room-clearing music, perfect for scaring kids at Halloween or annoying your Kenny G-loving neighbor next door.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Cantrall: Torrent

This composition illustrates just how much creative juice can be extracted from a simple set of chord changes. "Torrent" has its structure introduced by Gerald Cannon's bass, laying down a simple rising/falling motif. Like many famous modal pieces (thanks Miles & Mr. Coltrane), much of the power derives from how the musicians draw color and shape from the existing contours. After the horns play the head, saxophone, trombone and trumpet solos follow, each amping up the tension, egged on by Rick Germanson's terrific comping at the piano. Particularly effective is trumpeter Ryan Kisor, especially when the rhythm section temporarily changes up, dropping in a nice blues-walk segment. As Kisor's last notes fall away, Montez Coleman's drum break forces extra momentum onto the head's eventual restatement. Simple, but effective.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gilfema: Morning Dew

"Morning Dew" begins not so much as a jazz tune, but as a meditation. Percussion. A single note. A single note lower than the first. Repeat. But then the bass comes in with melodic afterthoughts. Then the clarinet. A bass clarinet, too. Finally a voice. The simplicity is still there until the melody begins to rise along with the emotional intensity. Solos are taken, with Lionel Loueke's unison vocal/guitar lines being the most memorable. While the composition ends up being much grander nearing its finish, it still manages to retain the elegant simplicity it started with. Very inspiring.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Teen Town

It's a funny thing about a lot of us jazz-fusion fans. We can be somewhat contrarian when it comes to the success of musicians we admire. On the one hand, we want this music we love to sell millions of copies so that these artists can live a comfortable life. On the other hand, if their music becomes too popular we suspect they have sold out to the watered-down tastes of the unwashed masses. Heavy Weather is a case in point. Its huge radio hit was "Birdland," which later had a second life when Manhattan Transfer scored a cover hit by adding vocals. But many fusion diehards like me always dismissed the tune. Objectively, it is a remarkably crafted fusion instrumental. But logic has nothing to do with this picture. It is about fusion cred, a quality "Birdland" never had.

"Teen Town," by contrast, has cred to spread. True, it lacks the structural charm of "Birdland." For all intents and purposes, the tune exists as a vanity workout for its composer, bassist Jaco Pastorius. Joe Zawinul adds nothing much more than keyboard textures, while saxophonist Wayne Shorter offers short bursts of punctuation. Jaco even plays drums. Yet for me, listening to these historic players searching for the right sound is much more enjoyable than glomming onto a fusion tune that somehow found the right formula to appeal to everybody and his brother. I am sorry. That is just the way it is.

October 09, 2008 · 1 comment

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Weather Report: Havona

Of all the fusion groups that blazed the trail in the early '70s, Weather Report was the most jazz-like. "Havona" is a good example. If you removed the opening synthesizer work from this fusion number, you would have a powerful progressive jazz piece. (Of course, you would have to be nuts to do that! The synthesizer creates the character of the piece, and its inclusion is what Weather Report was all about.) In any case, Zawinul plays a swinging acoustic piano. Although Shorter never really plays straight-ahead, more often than not he too is blowing more traditional sounds. Jaco Pastorius plays electric bass and shows off, but he could play the same thing on acoustic. Alex Acuna is a good jazz drummer.

This music sounds as contemporary today as it seemed ahead of its time in 1977. There are progressive jazz bands and fusion groups out there today that would kill to sound this vital.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Adam Birnbaum: House Party Starting

In the liner notes, Adam Birnbaum calls this track a "tribute to the great unsung pianist/composers over the years who somehow missed the limelight." Birnbaum himself seems unlikely to join that group. Already the talented young pianist is on his way to being widely recognized, having won the 2004 American Jazz Piano Competition and performed with a plethora of top jazzers in the course of his burgeoning career.

Birnbaum's interpretation of Herbie Nichols's "House Party Starting" reveals a pianist with a sure touch, malleable phrasing, and an elaborate melodic conception. His notes are clearly struck and precisely enunciated, his improvisations devoid of clutter. Rhythmically, he's not inclined to stray too far, distinctly articulating the pulse even as he subtly manipulates it, moving ahead of and behind the beat in creative ways. Harmonically, Birnbaum is rather tied to the chords and their accompanying scales. He doesn't go "out," but builds moderately ingenious melodies staying mostly within the given framework. His bandmates serve him well, providing idiomatically correct accompaniment that perfectly mimics a mid-'50s bop rhythm section.

Based on this performance, one suspects that Birnbaum isn't the kind of pianist to labor in obscurity like Nichols (or Monk, before his success in middle age). Birnbaum is more in the mold of a Jacky Terrasson— a gifted technician and aesthetician who's synthesized his influences and contrived a fairly distinctive and definitely attractive middle-of-the-road acoustic jazz style.

October 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Adam Birnbaum: Kate The Great

A standard-issue jazz waltz taken at a "Someday My Prince Will Come" pace and feel, "Kate The Great" presents Adam Birnbaum in a wistfully romantic mood. The young pianist doesn't bowl one over with his originality, yet he's a technically gifted player who plays very musically. His style is pretty generic—post- Bill Evans modern jazz piano, a step-and-a-half to the right of Brad Mehldau. He seems to revel in his composition's unabashed romanticism, although this reviewer finds both the tune and the pianist's overtly sentimental interpretation a bit cloying. His rhythm section plays it totally straight. Both bassist Joe Sanders and Rodney Green are authentic, highly competent musicians with a solid grounding in bebop. Indeed, that may be the best description of the performance as a whole: highly competent with a solid grounding in bebop. Not that there's anything wrong with that…

October 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Soulive: One In Seven

Performed at a slower pace than the studio version, this live rendition is also less tight. The group is not playing as intuitively here, and the volume war between keyboardist Neal Evans and guitarist Eric Krasno is laid to rest only when an engineer audibly decreases Evans' level at 5:50. It is a challenge for a trio like Soulive to effectively fill the entire sonic palette. However, halfway through, an unusually high amount of loud processing stamps both players, and a two-minute perfunctory jam at the very end expedites an anticlimactic conclusion that the trio seems glad to have reached.

October 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Soulive: Shaheed

As per their reputation, Soulive is best experienced live. Watching Neal Evans's hands work in unison while handling double duty on keyboards and bass is always fun. He and fleet-footed drummer Alan Evans form the backbone of Soulive, and they provide a solid platform for guitarist Eric Krasno to wail. He ably obliges, adding blues-like presence to this particularly space-bound track. Krasno stays well within the margins here, allowing the Evans brothers to expand and contract the dynamics at will. The result is a very synchronous performance for a unit whose strengths are quantifiable power and psychic collaboration.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Eumir Deodato: Super Strut

Featuring interesting yet dated orchestrations, this is little more than an improvisational one-chord jam built on a vigorously grinding rhythm section and elongated, fluid soloing by Deodato on keys and guitarist John Tropea. Tropea's red-hot extrapolations are customized by distortion and other rock characteristics. However, the free-for-all's energy is dissipated several times by the entrance of heavily overdubbed horns, woodwinds and strings. The track has its moments, most belonging to Tropea; but apart from sonic adornments that occasionally resemble soundtrack music, the result is an admirable (and even formidable) melting pot whose contents seem somewhat analogous.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Quincy Jones: Hikky Burr

Carol Kaye's funky Fender bass provides much of the excitement on this track, which served as the theme to The Bill Cosby Show, which ran on NBC from 1969-'71. Cosby's jabberwocky and jive lyrics are firmly relegated to the background, buried beneath layers of horns and tight, rhythmic grooves. The session players are top-notch, Jones's own production is clear, and the engineering is ace. However, the tune itself seems stuck in first gear. Forty years later, it sounds like a novelty tune that certainly reflects the particular era in which it was conceived and created.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Quincy Jones: Dead End

"Dead End" is taken from a Grammy-winning album, and, as expected, the personnel is illustrious. The track features such legends as Ray Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Hubert Laws, and, while the groove is reminiscent of Booker T. & The MG's, extraneous horns and a brief, 23-second bass solo are unnecessary. In particular, Brown's showcase sounds lifted from a psychedelic LP, which shouldn't surprise anyone as the album's entire first side is dedicated to the 1968 Broadway rock musical Hair. Overall, the playing is great, but the production sounds like it was conceived on the fly.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Howe: No Pedestrians

Great varieties of guitars and tones were employed during this recording, and, while both Steve Howe and Martin Taylor have overdubbed both acoustic and electric rhythm parts, the soloing is what stands out. As a member of the rock group Yes, Howe rarely displays his jazz chops on their albums. Those can, however, be heard in abundance here. He is an accomplished player, and with this recording has reached the level of consummate performer. The tune is largely constructed around augmentations, minor chords and octave utilization, meaning it warrants further listening, especially by aspiring guitarists and musicians.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Larry Coryell: Love Is Here To Stay

Larry Coryell's chops seem more indebted to residencies in posh jazz clubs than to either Tin Pan Alley or Shubert Alley, but Gershwin would be proud of this performance. The song is instantly familiar, yet this entertaining solo version stacks up against more established renditions by artists including Ella Fitzgerald. Featuring some of his most reverent playing on disc, the track's conscious conservatism is not a letdown. Ultimately, its success is in its fresh approach to music basic to the jazz lexicon. The melody remains unchanged, his embellishments are perfect, and it benefits from a high level of technical proficiency and excellence.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charlie Hunter: Natty Dread

Charlie Hunter plays chords and basslines simultaneously on 8-string guitar. Therefore, the spotlight is clearly on him, and he delivers with carefully chosen notes from both octaves. The ensemble performance is also notable for rolling drums highlighted by tasteful cymbal work and the use of sparse horns. Both elements enliven the production a great deal and, while the arrangement is similar to Bob Marley's original, Hunter's dexterous versatility adds an important new element. This should appeal to most people because of its sheer melodiousness, and that is an accomplishment shared by the writer, interpreter and listener.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Hummin'

Consider this track a reflection of tumultuous times. Performed with ashes still smoldering from the inhumanity and violence that defined 1968, the mostly African-American audience claps loudly in unison as their enthusiasm essentially replaces the drums and becomes the groove. They lead the way, and while the healing power of music is debatable, everyone in the room is eager to participate and seems liberated by doing so. Sociologically, this was an important, positive development in the lives of those who, by no fault of their own, could not trust nor take solace in the activities of the outside world.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Larry Coryell: Wrong Is Right

Nothing here backs the song title, but, consistent with the disc's intended concept, each soloist is given the space to make a major statement on his respective instrument. Thanks to Vanguard's liner notes, listeners can follow along and differentiate between the guitar styles of Coryell, whose tone is bright and high, and John McLaughlin, whose low-neck, bassier modes prevail. Important contributions by bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Billy Cobham should not be underestimated, but the recording's enduring charm lies in the two guitarists' subtlety. They complement each other perfectly while avoiding arrogance, which is a challenge to most.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jim Campilongo (featuring Norah Jones): Stella

Jim Campilongo and his trusty Fender Telecaster can be found playing their unique brand of quirky country-jazz every Monday night at the famed Living Room in downtown Manhattan. Campilongo is most directly influenced by country-blues guitar pioneer Roy Buchanan, and over the last several years has cleverly incorporated some of Buchanan's techniques ("unusual right-hand muting, squealing harmonics, behind-the-nut bending") into his increasingly jazz-centric solo work.

American Hips is perhaps the most appropriate place for jazz fans to begin exploring Campilongo's music. The base trio of Campilongo, Luntzel and Rieser effortlessly balance country and jazz, and therefore present a stylistically similar approach to the genre-bending trio work of Bill Frisell. The fact that Frisell and Campilongo both approach jazz (and non-jazz) from similar perspectives yet play with such contrasting personal styles makes for a fascinating comparison in a relatively small instrumental subgenre. On this track, a subdued Campilongo plays a stunning introductory statement and brief solo between Norah Jones's relaxed delivery of a Campilongo original. If you like what you hear, Campilongo, Jones and Rieser can likewise be heard together on The Little Willies, a 2006 country-jazz release also featuring guitarist/ vocalist Richard Julian and bassist/producer Lee Alexander.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Oz Noy: Steroids

New York session guitarist Oz Noy leads a fusion trio every Monday evening at the famed Village nightclub The Bitter End. As evidenced by Oz Live, a live album recorded over the course of four nights in 2002, Noy has used his extended residency to create, develop and record much of his solo material in recent years. A "who's who" of New York session musicians has graced the stage with Noy, including the David Letterman rhythm section of Will Lee (bass) and Anton Fig (drums), drummers Adam Nussbaum and Shawn Pelton, and bassists Chris Tarry and James Genus. Highlights from this high-energy, electric fusion track include Noy's impressive agility and intricate post-bop thoughts amidst a some-other-colored haze of guitar effects. Keith Carlock, Steely Dan's current drummer of choice, took the New York drumming scene by storm in the early 2000s, displaying his dizzying yet musically logical four-limb-independence with Noy and Wayne Krantz. His now-signature syncopated solo grooves are on full display during the trading section immediately following the guitar solo.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ari Hoenig: Moment's Notice

Jazz standards in 4/4 time rearranged into odd time signatures have a fairly strong "crash and burn" tendency. If a tune was not intended to be in an odd meter (and there are many great ones that are), forcing a tune into 5/4 or 9/8 usually confuses the essence of the tune, and sometimes the musicians themselves – often producing sub-par improvisations along the way. "Moment's Notice," the opening track on Bert's Playground, is a major exception.

The Trane melody is cleverly rearranged into 7/8 here, and flows so naturally that Hoenig has beaten the odds and reinvented a jazz classic. Without doubt, the sophisticated playing also ensures that the arrangement works. Special guest Chris Potter, who is more than used to odd meters from his work with Dave Holland, is in fine form throughout, twisting and turning right along with the dropping of the beat. Rising star Jonathan Kreisberg also shines with a smart solo that dips into some heavy quoting territory. As expected, Hoenig's aggressive interaction with a light touch always remains driven by melody. This group, usually with a different saxophonist, can be found playing at Smalls every Monday night in NYC.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Cobham: La Guernica

"La Guernica" appears to have much to offer. In terms of live components, it features fine musicians Billy Cobham, Mark Soskin, Randy Jackson, Alvin Batiste and 3 guitarists, a horn and a string section. This is quite some undertaking. In its scope it measures up to and in some ways sounds like the larger version of Chick Corea's Return to Forever band that was operating concurrently. There is some heavy drumming, some good Batiste and an overall feeling of forward motion. But, alas, the piece is more form than substance. Too bad. Steve Khan is a superb guitarist. The liner notes say he plays acoustic guitar. If you can discern acoustic guitar in this piece, your hearing trumps mine. I detect some interesting chords on electric that sound a lot like Khan. But is it him? How can I tell guitarist Singleton from guitarist Mouton? It is all just too much. Cobham, Batiste, Soskin and Jackson all sound good together. But it is as if their best parts, and the best part of the tune, are really just stuck in the middle of a ramped-up Spanish groove of extraneous horns and strings that we have all heard a thousand times.

I don't want my ingrained disappointment in Cobham's new directions at that time to paint such a bleak picture. Amazing how it still bothers me 30 years later. But music is a very personal thing. The fact is any tune featuring musicians of this caliber is worth hearing. This is music above the normal standards. You just have to relax some of your other standards to appreciate it. I am happy to say that Cobham seems to have rediscovered his groove in recent years.

October 07, 2008 · 2 comments

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Billy Cobham: 'Anteres' the Star

Billy Cobham didn't leave all of his composing skills behind him on his two all-time best albums Spectrum and Crosswinds. His 1977 album Magic is an unfocused work to be sure. But there are a few pieces that do indeed capture the magic.

"'Anteres' the Star" sounds like some futuristic game-show theme. But it is a game show I would watch. Bassist Randy Jackson does a little bass intro similar to something you may hear on one of those old Chuck Mangione jazz-pop numbers. This does not bode well. Luckily the tune then diverges from the expected. The opening melody is good fun, really. But we get to the meat of the matter when the band finally kicks in. Cobham's drumming is compelling as always, and Jackson, Mark Soskin, Pete Mauna and the famous percussionists the Escovedos all have the groove down. But the star of the show is Alvin Batiste. He uses his clarinet to dice and chop Cobham's melody in a way that would make Ron Popeil proud. This section of the song is straight-ahead jazz and reminiscent of some of the aforementioned Crosswinds. It is good music. The game show theme returns as the credits roll.

TV Trivia: The very able bassist on this cut is the same Randy Jackson who would later become famous as one of the celebrity judges on American Idol. A show, by the way, I am proud to say I have never watched a minute of.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Cobham: Leaward Winds

Guitarist Pete Maunu turns in an impressive performance on this semi-fusion anthem. His notes are long, sustained forays. While Maunu's guitar is quintessentially fusion-sounding, pianist Soskin spends most of the tune in a more standard jazz mode. The cat can play. There is not much of Billy Cobham here aside from his perfect timekeeping. The short tune has a pleasing if slight melody, and is performed well.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Cobham: On a Magic Carpet Ride

"On a Magic Carpet Ride" shares one quality with another cut on the album, "'Anteres' the Star." The opening moments of both tunes sound like game-show themes. I can hear the announcer now: "Are you ready to win?!" But this piece is more substantial than "Anteres." Cobham does some heavy-duty bashing and double and triple timing. Guitarist Maunu catches fire as the tune moves along at breakneck speed. Kuhn plays impressive piano. Jackson works his bass overtime. Everyone has a foot on the accelerator. The tune combines good melody and jazz-rock power.

Many fusion fans were losing patience with Cobham during this period. It was good to hear that he could still bring it, even if he was bringing it less and less. Too bad about most of the rest of the tunes on the album. Ah, well…

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Narada Michael Walden: Saint and the Rascal

Narada Michael Walden's relationship with guitarist Jeff Beck is an important part of jazz-rock history. As drummer and composer, Walden was in part responsible for Beck's popularity in the genre. His contributions to Beck's famously popular Wired album are still admired to this day. Beck's leaning on former Mahavishnu Orchestra members Walden and Jan Hammer to produce material for him to play was no accident. He wanted to take that style of music and somehow find a way to make it more accessible. Walden knew how to help. Later he would go on to an award-filled producing career doing the same for many other artists, such as Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Starship and on and on.

"Saint and the Rascal" isn't quite up to the standards of Walden's material heard on Wired. But it is an effective piece nonetheless. The melody has an ominous attitude that Beck grasps tightly. But much like Walden's work during this time, at some point the music is going to get a bit cute and funky. Though Walden, Lee and Sancious seem to thrive in such territory, Beck is less successful in that milieu. Luckily this section is short-lived. Beck returns with the main refrain. The band speeds up the proceedings tenfold to rock us out.

Garden of Love Light was a transitional album for Walden. He was making the move from jazz-rock fusion to soul, R&B and pop. This would prove to be the greatest decision he probably ever made in his life. But the album itself was half pop and half fusion. This put a listener like me into purgatory.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Narada Michael Walden: The Sun Is Dancing

Narada Michael Walden, known as Michael Walden before aligning with the guru Sri Chinmoy, came to public attention through his remarkable stint with John McLaughlin's second Mahavishnu Orchestra. He was a different type of drummer than Billy Cobham, the legendary stick man he replaced. No one had Cobham's power. Walden would be the first to tell you that. But Walden had his own type of power and clean speed that awed drummers as well. Even today, 30 or so years since Walden was an active everyday musician, drummers such as Dennis Chambers see him as a legendary figure on the kit.

"The Sun is Dancing" is dedicated to John McLaughlin. Its opening strains are similar in concept to some of the music on the second Mahavishnu Orchestra's Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Its rotating arpeggios and climbing synthesizer runs create an offering toward the sky. And much like that Mahavishnu album, there are dramatic theme changes. The band goes funk-city for some extended measures. Gomez plays clipped minor-9th chords to register his funkiness. Walden and bassist Lee jump in a pocket as David Sancious, another important but underappreciated fusion player, begins some spaced-out noodling. Sancious then adds some gospel organ. A few more nods to jazz-funk, R&B, gospel and the blues permeate the long ending, culminating in a return to the opening melody. You put all that stuff together and you get a damned good fusion performance.

October 07, 2008 · 1 comment

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Narada Michael Walden: White Night

I was a jazz disc jockey in 1977 when I first laid eyes on the cover of Garden of Love Light. I couldn't wait to give it a spin. After all, Narada Michael Walden was one of the finest drummers the fusion movement had produced. And even beyond that, he had been writing killer jazz-rock compositions for Mahavishnu and Jeff Beck. But by album's end, I was very disappointed. Walden was in a transition with his music. There were three cuts on the album that were superlative fusion numbers. But the remainder was an R&B pop fest full of syrupy vocals. Walden's new direction would eventually make him one of the industry's most successful pop music producers, in charge of some of the biggest hits that Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey ever put out. He won Grammys and awards for his movie soundtracks as well. More power to him. Despite my own selfish grieving over the great loss to jazz-rock his absence meant, I am happy for his success. No artist is put on this earth to do what I want him to.

The album's first cut, "White Night," is a full-fledged jazz-rock symphonic blast. It would seem to foreshadow a fusion fan's wet dream. Guitarist Ray Gomez, who co-wrote the piece, enters over an orchestral bed of harmonious strings. He sounds like Jeff Beck on the main slow theme. Once he solos, however, he shows some more electric bite. Walden's heavy backbeat supports the structure of the tune. Kick-ass mode has been achieved. As the song winds down, the Perfection Light Symphony plays heavenly call and response with Gomez. It is quite entertaining. "White Night" ends with a dramatic send-up that has you waiting with much anticipation for the next cut, only to be disappointed after it arrives.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Al Di Meola: Suite – Golden Dawn

Suite – Golden Dawn is separated into three parts: "Morning Fire," "Calmer of the Tempests" and "From Ocean to the Clouds." One often wonders if some of these fusion composers would just write four or five songs and then say, "Why don't we put them all together as a suite and give it a fancy name?" Using that model, Suite – Golden Dawn could have had 10 parts. Certain sections of the piece have clear allusions to Mahavishnu. Di Meola and keyboard Barry Miles take a turn at being John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer in an engaging call and response. Unfortunately, it is one of the rare highlights of the piece. Di Meola and Weather Report's bassist Jaco Pastorius engage in a brief counterpoint that doesn't quite live up to its potential. There is some really good playing here, but the piece as a whole doesn't quite coalesce. Nonetheless, it is worth a listen for fusion fans to hear a snippet of Jaco and get a foreshadowing of future excesses.

October 07, 2008 · 1 comment

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Al Di Meola: Short Tales of the Black Forest

Guitarist Al Di Meola has always been better known for his playing than his compositions. But from time to time he has proved capable of writing a very compelling piece of music. A case in point is his wonderful "Short Tales of the Black Forest." Performed here with Return to Forever leader and bandmate Chick Corea, Di Meola's quasi-gypsy piece is given a stellar treatment. The acoustic sounds of the two players dance in open space. Di Meola's sometimes percussive style can have a piano-like quality to it. That would be a very fast piano for you Di Meola neophytes. Corea is quite capable of delivering very fast piano as well. The tune is full of stops and starts and dramatic range. It is one of the best pieces Di Meola has ever written. It still boggles my mind that Di Meola was all of 22 years old when putting out this advanced music. That just isn't human.

Note: A live version of "Short Tales of the Black Forest" later appeared on The Guitar Trio's Friday Night in San Francisco.

Reviewer's update: As noted below, a perceptive reader named Daryl found an embarrassing gaffe in this review, wherein I praised Al Di Meola for one of the finest compositions he ever wrote. The problem is that Chick Corea wrote the piece! My first instinct was to rewrite the review. But I realized that my views about the tune itself remain unchanged. For that matter, the fact that Al Di Meola didn't write the piece reinforces my comments about him as a composer as well. In any case, I am sorry for the mistake. Thanks, Daryl.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Al Di Meola: The Wizard

"The Wizard" was written by percussionist Mingo Lewis. If I were to take a wild guess, I would suggest its title refers to Di Meola's guitar playing, which did seem to be the product of some sort of sorcery. Who but a wizard could play that supernaturally fast and clean? "The Wizard" is a syncopated speed demon run. Di Meola's guitar has a rough biting edge. There is none of the string muting effects that we so associate with his trademark sound. Lewis and Gadd really push the insistent rhythms. The expected Latin influence typical of Di Meola, and Lewis for that matter, is only slightly heard. The tune has a rough melody that reminds me how the rock band Blue Oyster Cult used to play before they became big. Please take into account that the skill level of these jazz-rock musicians is several factors higher. (Not a knock on Blue Oyster Cult at all. Early Blue Oyster Cult is a guilty pleasure of mine.)

Land of the Midnight Sun was Di Meola's first recording as leader, the result of his impressive gig with one of fusion's supergroups, Return to Forever. In many ways it remains possibly Di Meola's most interesting work. Many artists throw in everything they have in their bucket for their first record. I think it is because deep down they are never quite sure they will get another opportunity. (See Billy Cobham's Spectrum.)

Do wizards have soul? That's a discussion for another time. But they sure can impress with speed and skill.

October 07, 2008 · 1 comment

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Ella Fitzgerald (with Duke Ellington): Take the 'A' Train

Matching Ella Fitzgerald with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on its signature tune is a surefire winner. But when you add Dizzy Gillespie to the band, this goes from "A Train" to "A+ Train" with extra AP credits to boot. Everybody is in fine form, and Dizzy shines. But Ella returns after the trumpet interlude and declares that she is taking over this "A Train" and all its passengers. She seems undecided whether she should scat or sing the lyrics, so she settles the matter by doing lots of both, but even when the song seems over and the train is pulling into the station, she stretches out the coda for a full extra minute, and her closing exchanges with the horns are an absolute delight. If I were a passenger, I'd stay on for at least five more stops.

October 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ruslan Khain: Delay

Bassist/composer Ruslan Khain's "Delay" is a medium-up Jazz Messengers-type tune, reminiscent of Wayne Shorter's (or perhaps Bobby Watson's) writing for the Blakey band. The minor-key, stop-time head offers a pleasant slip of a melody, with a string of solos comprising the meat of the performance. Yoshi Okazaki is a skilled hard-bop trumpeter. He's not flashy but swings hard, has a pleasingly burnished tone, and plays nice ideas. Tenor saxophonist Chris Byars is a favorite of label head Luke Kaven, for good reason. An articulate, brainy player whose lovely tone is the aural equivalent of melted caramel, Byars is his typical excellent self. Pianist Richard Clements is a spirited player, if a bit unsure of himself at times. The leader turns in an agile—if murkily recorded—solo. In terms of the composition, Khain's second, contrasting melody leading out of the solos and back to the head is an effective touch.

The performance is fine, although there's a certain tightness to the overall feel. The solo section in particular seems overly scripted. Each player is given a scant 32 bars, which inhibits the performance. It seems as if they're being cut off just as they're getting warmed up. It would be nice if Khain had allotted at least twice that amount, allowing the improvisers to build momentum and express themselves more fully. Other than that, the music is solid, unpretentious and enjoyable.

October 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ruslan Khain: For Medicinal Purposes Only!

"For Medicinal Purposes Only!" is an up-tempo swinger—a thorny, cool jazz-ish melody played with hard-bop abandon by bassist Ruslan Khain and his able colleagues. Tenor saxophonist Chris Byars's and trumpeter Yoshi Okazaki's sinuous, fiery yet even-keeled solos stand out. Khain is a fine soloist as well, though he's ill served by the muddy recording of his instrument. He and drummer Phil Stewart form a good rhythm team, maintaining a swinging, smooth and assured tempo. As a composer, Khain's complex melodic line is worthy of Gerry Mulligan or Shorty Rogers. Byars and Okazaki play it down with admirable precision and fire. A good choice for the title track—this is arguably the cookin'-est thing on the album.

October 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jay Clayton: Free Me

"I want to sing like birds sing," Jay Clayton announces midway through this performance. And—dang!!—the lady pulls it off. Give Olivier Messiaen a mike and, I guarantee, he couldn't do better than Ms. Clayton in vocalizing a type of ornithology the beboppers never knew. Of course, this vocalist has long demonstrated that jazz singing can be more than the usual cabaret rehash. But here Clayton delivers one of the freshest and freest releases of the year. She tosses aside the standards. She does without a rhythm section. Much of the time she works without words, too. But the more Jay Clayton tosses overboard, the higher she soars. If you have given up on jazz singers, thinking that only pretty boys and glamour gals are releasing CDs these days . . . well, think again. This CD is an aural trick and treat, coming just in time for Halloween.

October 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Kenny Garrett: Wayne's Thang

On his live CD Sketches of MD, Kenny Garrett features five tracks. All are long excursions (the shortest song on the CD is more than nine minutes); all are Garrett original compositions; all are in a medium or medium-fast tempo. "Wayne's Thang" is built on a funky groove set off by a series of (sometimes surprising) breaks—at one point the audience starts clapping, thinking that the performance is done, but it was just one more break. Some strange synthesized sounds return to "Wayne's Thang," and the song stretches out another five minutes. The next break finds the crowd clapping again—but this time in rhythm, because they know now that there is more to come. And there is. Even so, too much of this track is devoted to keyboard work that sounds like reheated 1970s fusion. Garrett is effective in an understated way, but Pharoah Sanders really shakes it up with his contribution, which gives a brief nod to the funk sensibility before heading off into its own universe of sounds.

October 06, 2008 · 1 comment

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Ellery Eskelin/Andrea Parkins/Jim Black: It's A Samba

The title is truth in advertising, but with some intriguing twists. Black seems to be able to slip a heavy rock backbeat into most any material he's presented with, even within this samba. In the first phase of the song, he's given ample room to accentuate the rhythm as a response to the melody statements. The chord progressions presented by Eskelin and Parkins seem innocuous, even mirthful at first, and then grow more discordant. While Parkins's accordion moves to more dissonant territory, Eskelin holds onto traditional saxophone phrasing, eventually cutting loose and culminating in a single chord blurted out in pairs in lockstep with Parkins. That signals a return to the original drum solo/head pattern of the first section, then a brief coda by a single chord from Parkins's accordion. The Eskelin/Parkins/Black trio excels at taking a familiar, safe musical concept and subverting it. "It's A Samba," all right, but it's a samba turned on its head.

October 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Take 6: Someone to Watch Over Me

Some things have changed with Take 6 since the vocal group's debut CD back in 1988. Instead of a cappella gospel music, we now hear a conventional rhythm section in the background and a repertoire featuring a big dose of pop and love songs. But some things don't change. This group still shows off its flawless execution, great intonation, and very smooth blending of voices. Even with guest Shelea Fraizer handling lead vocals, I find myself zeroing in on the impressive backup work of the six singing stars who make up Take 6. Jazz fans take note: although Roy Hargrove is on this track, don't expect to hear much of the trumpeter. Even so, this is a jazzy release, and Take 6 fans will want to own it. But those who haven't heard this group before may want to start with the earlier a cappella releases—timeless projects that still stand out as masterpieces of the genre.

October 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dave Holland: Rivers Run

This is the leader's tribute to his erstwhile colleague, the great progressive tenor and soprano sax player Sam Rivers. The opening minute is Holland alone with a bass solo characteristically full of melodic invention; he approaches his instrument with the mindset of a pianist. After the other two join in, Holland states a dark vamp over which DeJohnette shows increasing volatility until the band stops dead in its tracks to let him solo unaccompanied, this time preceding the second vamp, a 4-5-5 ostinato that quickly devolves into a double-timed free-for-all. Coleman refuses to blur his notes, making his nice quick scale runs cleanly. The frenzy ends with a return to the second vamp stated a couple more times and then out.

"Rivers Run," revisited 10 years later on Holland's sextet album Pass It On, shows many of Holland's qualities: economy, interplay, thoughtful musicianship and attention to melody even at the more "free" moments.

October 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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James Moody & Hank Jones: Birks' Works

To hear these two octogenarian jazz giants play so effortlessly together is a testament to the universality of the music and its unifying nature. On this Dizzy Gillespie tune with an oft-quoted melody line, the mellifluous James Moody reveals his unmistakable soulful side. Moody's mellow sound is a joy to behold, as is his inventiveness. Jones for his part is the consummate accompanist, for most of the tune ably laying back as Moody explores the tune's soul. When Hank does take his turn, his lyricism is emboldened by his familiarity with the classic, on which he nonetheless makes a fresh statement. Coolman and Nussbaum do their best to just let these two icons strut their stuff.

October 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bruno Råberg: Fora Do Retrato

Bruno Råberg is a Swedish bassist who studied with the great Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous and has performed with many great European and American jazz artists. He is currently living in Massachusetts and teaching at Berklee. His music is both highly textured and impressionistic. On "Fora Do Retrato," one his more subdued pieces on the album, he takes a gentle, wandering stroll through a gentle musical pasture. You can hear the brushstrokes on this aural canvas as Råberg creates his landscape. His basslines are firm and anchored, onto which Cheek playfully dances with his soprano explorations. Monder is at his best in this atmospheric setting, playing in a deceptively subdued but poignantly thoughtful way. Bruno's bass climbs a wall of anticipation and punctuates the breaks with purposeful accents, leading to a safe descent from the plateau he has cleverly built.

October 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Denise Donatelli: Sails (Velas Icadas)

Denise Donatelli can flat out sing, but many vocalists can sing, so what makes Donatelli worth listening to? Her choice of music is superlative – the songs on this CD span artists from Milton Nascimento to Joni Mitchell – and the arrangements by talented keyboardist Geoff Keezer are perfectly tailored to showcase Donatelli's vocal and interpretive talents. The combination is potent, and the musicians are all thoroughly professional and complementary. On Ivan Lins's magical "Sails," Donatelli's smooth, unfettered delivery slides through the lilting melodic twists and turns with feeling and grace. As Sheppard tracks seamlessly through the intro, Keezer prods the rhythm section through its staccato beat. Keezer's lyricism is on show during his solo, and the scatting Donatelli flexes her vocal chops successfully without becoming tedious. She offers a fresh approach to songs worthy of being revisited, and has the vocal acumen to make it interesting without gimmicks or pyrotechnics. It's good to hear a new voice with such promise.

October 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Denise Donatelli: Crystal Silence

With an abundance of female singers striving to make a name for themselves in today's shrinking jazz market, I wonder why some of them even try, if they have nothing new to offer. While the great grandes dames of jazz – Ella, Sarah, Carmen and Billie, to name but a few – have passed, they left us with an uncompromising legacy of greatness. Well, to the present generation of wonderful songstresses – Nancy, Cassandra, Dee Dee, Diane Reeves and Roberta Gambarini come to mind – it's time to add another name: Denise Donatelli. With the haunting "Crystal Silence," she delivers a superlative performance of a jazz classic in a silky, unpretentious voice that declares her to be a talent to be watched. Ably assisted by Blakey alumnus Geoffrey Keezer on lyrical piano doubling as arranger, the searing soprano saxophone of Bob Sheppard, and the rolling cymbal work of "Smitty" Smith, Donatelli weaves an enchanting vocalization of the title tune from an album by Chick Corea and Gary Burton. She conjures up feelings of Mark Murphy in her approach and Flora Purim in her sound – a potent combination to be sure. Move over, ladies.

October 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Adam Niewood: Where's the Cat???

Having been a fan of Gerry Niewood's saxophone playing in the '70s, I was anxious to see if the acorn had fallen far from the tree. Happily, the son has learned well from the musings of his father and an apparently musical mother, too! In this 2-CD set, Niewood and cohorts take both carefully orchestrated and free-form forays into the musical unknown. This offbeat tune from Volume I starts in a marching, chant-like way with Fender Rhodes, guitar and saxophone synchronously matching notes to the tin-soldier beat of taut traps and snappy rim-shots provided by dual percussionists. The tune builds tension via the evermore urgent tone of Niewood's meandering solo. The steady marching beat builds in a carefully climbing crescendo that seems ready to explode until an intermediate release introduces Randalau's playful and effective Fender Rhodes solo, which starts the buildup once again. The song finally settles gently into a calm refrain at the coda. This group displays a wonderful affinity for making the whole better than its parts, and Niewood shows promise as a composer of quirky but interesting, mood-evoking music.

October 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lucía Pulido: Dejala Llorar

"Dejala Llorar," which means "Let Her Cry," was never conceived as a jazz song; it's a traditional festive aria indigenous to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Pulido's voice is powerful but exceptionally controlled, as she successfully navigates the Spanish lyrics through an uneven time signature, with her voice soaring above the complex rhythms.

As the arranger, Cruz deserves much credit for fusing improvised New York jazz in such a way that illuminates, not dilutes the culturally rich tune. The theme, stated by Koller and Cruz, is asymmetrical but logical in a way similar to Ornette Coleman's harmolodics. Koller's solo clarinet is given much room to create, first by providing counterpoint to Pulido's vocals, then by a free-form solo that's firmly avant-garde. Poor is nearly soloing right along with him, but never takes his hand off the rhythmic tiller.

There's much to appreciate from the lively, romantic historical music of South America and the malleability of American avant-garde jazz. "Dejala Llorar" lets us appreciate both at once.

October 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Allan Holdsworth: The Un-Merry-Go-Round

Allan Holdsworth dedicated "The-Un-Merry-Go-Round" to his late father, a great musical influence on him. Alan Pasqua, who had partnered with Holdsworth in Tony Williams's new Lifetime band 10 years earlier and recorded with him many times since, opens the song with block synthesizer chords. A deep groove is established by bassist Willis and drummer Husband. Some robotic-like guitar and keyboard riffs introduce a Husband extended solo. Husband knocks it out of the park. This leads to an exculpatory section of free-flowing guitar and keyboard excursions. The tune has many identities. Rhythm, themes and intent change often. There is even silence. Perhaps these are the memories Holdsworth holds dear. From beginning to end, "The Un-Merry-Go-Round" is an engaging example of what good fusion could sound like in an otherwise uninviting 1980s.

October 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Allan Holdsworth: Water on the Brain Pt. II

"Water on the Brain Pt. II" is a short statement that on most fusion records of the day would be part of a larger piece. (Perhaps the title suggests it was meant to have other parts!) But Road Games, the unfinished album Holdsworth made for Warner Bros. at the behest of Holdsworth fan Eddie Van Halen, was targeting a different audience. Van Halen wanted Holdsworth to gain well-deserved widespread recognition. The album contained only five 4-minute cuts and this piece, which is less than 3 minutes. The thinking had to be about trying to get some radio airplay. To that end special guest Jack Bruce even raised his voice on a couple of cuts. As often happens with Holdsworth, things didn't work out in the end. The music was originally released briefly only as an EP in 1984. It was somehow nominated for a Grammy. But it wasn't until the EP was released as an unfinished album on CD in 2001 that the music was made available to at least part of that wider audience Van Halen had envisioned.

Despite its brevity, "Water on the Brain Pt. II" is great fusion number. Holdsworth does his usual thing. He spins the catchy melody from side to side, throws it up and catches it. But the highlight of the tune is the outstanding bassist Jeff Berlin. The few minutes he is given to take the lead are as fine a display of electric bass playing as one is likely to hear. He is all over this tune like white on rice. Berlin, to this day an under- sung figure, is one of the best jazz and fusion bass players of the last 25 years.

October 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Allan Holdsworth: Tokyo Dream

On this nod to Tokyo, vaguely referred to in some scale choices, Allan Holdsworth at times comes across like Pat Metheny. The chord sounds and even the changes are reminiscent of Metheny's mid-70s work with his Pat Metheny Group. The music is quite approachable. Of course at some point Holdsworth is going to sound nothing like Metheny or anyone else. His guitar lines are quickly squeezed out of a tube of toothpaste. You have no idea where they are going. The faster the notes go, the less control. It becomes Silly String time. Holdsworth's haywire solo is misplaced, really, plunked down right in the middle of a tune that even my wife would enjoy. This solo ensures that she will not enjoy it. Scaring listeners away like that is fun. It is one of the aspects I enjoy most about robust fusion.

October 04, 2008 · 1 comment

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Allan Holdsworth: Three Sheets to the Wind

It is quite possible that, of all the remaining '70s fusion players who were doing anything in the genre during the vapid '80s, Allan Holdsworth was producing some of the most interesting material.

Holdsworth is one strange cookie. He is among the world's greatest guitarists but has claimed to have never really liked guitar. As a kid, he wanted to be a saxophonist, but a saxophone was too expensive. He ended up playing guitar because there was one kicking around the house. But he longed for the long sustained notes you could get from a horn. This desire was pushed even farther by his affinity for John Coltrane. The result was a guitar style almost devoid of percussive elements. He didn't like that sound, the sound of a finger or pick hitting a string. Holdsworth instead plays long flowing notes and slurs his fingering to create what in essence is a sound not unlike a horn player. Some listeners may even hear Coltrane in his guitar. Eventually, later in the decade, Holdsworth would grasp onto synthesizer technology, which gave him an even better tool to get the sound he so desperately wanted.

Road Games is another of those Holdsworth projects that for some reason was never completed. There were apparent artist and label "issues." That is a shame because rock guitar star Eddie Van Halen, who had clout back then and believed Holdsworth deserved a wider audience, pushed Warner Bros. to give Holdsworth a shot at the big time. The album has only 6 short cuts. The famous Jack Bruce appears on a couple of forgettable vocal tracks. But the power trio of Holdsworth, bassist Jeff Berlin and drummer Chad Wackerman make the album worth having.

"Three Sheets to the Wind," a state Holdsworth may have occasionally found himself in, starts off as a nice electric jazz ballad. Holdsworth plays some jangly spacey chords as Berlin lays down a melodic bassline. Then Holdsworth goes all squirrelly. Only the string bending hints that the man is playing a guitar. The long sustained notes morph from one to the next. The phrasing is not normal. The direction is not usual. You are hearing something different. There wasn't much good fusion music in the 1980s, but a lot of what there was, was being played by Holdsworth.

October 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Allan Holdsworth: Kinder

"Kinder" allows us to hear the kinder and gentler Allan Holdsworth. The song is actually a cover version of the original Holdsworth composition "Fred," which appeared on the Tony Williams Lifetime recording Believe It the previous year. Performed here on acoustic guitar and overdubbed, the tune is serene in nature. Like John McLaughlin, Holdsworth is capable of playing a million notes a minute while still instilling a certain calmness. Holdsworth's chords are lovely. His soloing is a combination of semi-blues runs and lightning-quick flourishes. A touch of harmonics ends the short piece. I daresay that if the skill level was a step or two lower, we could very well categorize this music as Smooth Jazz. (Pardon me while I gag.) But that entire concept didn't even exist in 1976, so Holdsworth is given a pass. A little more melodic development would have insured a higher rating, but this more introspective side of Holdsworth is well worth your time.

Reviewer's Clarification: Some people have asked me how I judge something to be Smooth Jazz. (Retch!) I have a simple and fair test. If I believe a tune could get airplay on a smooth radio station or one of those "wave" or "quiet storm" stations, it is Smooth. This way I give the artist the benefit of the doubt. If even one chorus exhibits a hint of creativity or risk, I deem it unsuitable for such airplay and will not call the music Smooth Jazz. (Barf!) "Kinder" would not get that airplay. In any case, you should also know that Holdsworth hates this album. Details can be found in my review of another track from Velvet Darkness, "Wish."

October 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Allan Holdsworth: Good Clean Filth

Velvet Darkness, which was originally released on the CTI label, came on the heels of Holdsworth's appearance on Tony Williams's new Lifetime band's Believe It. Holdsworth was also associated with the early fusion/progressive rock groups Gong and Soft Machine. But it wasn't until his turn in the states with Williams that his playing began to get the full attention it deserved. Holdsworth's Herculean performance on Williams's uneven record, particularly on the tune "Red Alert," was an important fusion landmark. Ironically, and sadly for Williams's own attempts at garnering a greater audience, Velvet Darkness was a much better album than Believe It.

Holdsworth was playing with the right guys. Bassist Alphonso Johnson, sometimes credited as "Alphonse," and drummer Narada Michael Walden were fledgling jazz-rock superstars. Pianist Alan Pasqua had played with Holdsworth in the new Lifetime band.

"Good Clean Filth" is the fun cut on the record. It does not contain the depth of most of the other pieces. But there are some searing guitar lines worth listening to. Holdsworth manages to wring the nonsense out of his axe. A mouth organ, or something that sounds awfully like it, is employed occasionally by Holdsworth to comic relief. Johnson and Walden add an element of funk. All in all, this is not the most serious of tunes. Still, it is performed at a high level, and a little bit of fusion fun never killed anyone.

Reviewer's note: On this Contemporary Jazz Masters re-release, alternate studio takes are included for the first time. The alternate take of "Good Clean Filth" is superior to the official cut reviewed above. And you should also know that Holdsworth hates this album. Details can be found in my review of another track from Velvet Darkness, "Wish."

October 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Allan Holdsworth: Wish

Allan Holdsworth thinks much of the music he has released over the years is pure shit. He is not quiet about this. If you were a fan and would bring an album, say Velvet Darkness, for him to sign after a concert, he would tell you to your face that it was a piece of garbage. His standards are so high that he cannot please himself. He is not the only artist who suffers from this malady. But he is certainly one of the most open about it. Living your life blessed with a great talent and not being able to appreciate it must be awful. Though his view about his early career has not softened, he is apparently a little easier on himself these days. But he is still known to blow off commitments here and there for unknown reasons. It is a shame.

Holdsworth hates Velvet Darkness above all else. He claims it was never finished and was released without his permission. He says he thought he was just rehearsing.

The apparent betrayal of Holdsworth aside, it is hard for those of us outside his head to believe he isn't happy with his performance on "Wish." It is a deep, dank, dark and nasty fusion anthem interrupted by some fine jazz piano playing from former Lifetime bandmate Alan Pasqua. Holdsworth's guitar playing is a revelation even after all these years. There is a surprise tone or intricate lick around every corner. And how can you go wrong with Pasqua, drummer Walden and bassist Johnson? This is compelling jazz-rock performed by some of the genre's greatest practitioners. For rehearsal music, it is damn good.

October 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jackie McLean: A Fickle Sonance

This is an interesting performance that takes place, both musically and chronologically, in a transitional zone between typical Blue Note hard bop and the then-burgeoning avant-garde. McLean's composition pushes the boundaries of tonality but in the end pulls back from the brink. A repeated bass figure in 6/4 is used as both an intro and an interlude between solos by McLean, Turrentine and Clark. The solos are based on a single tonal center in the manner of some of Charles Mingus's pieces in what he referred to as open form. Each soloist signals the end of his solo by quoting the introductory bass figure. The angular melody begins with cluster harmonies that threaten to break with tonality, but then works its way to a cadence in D-Flat major, and the solos are all based on a G Dorian scale. This tritone relationship is probably no coincidence, given the deep bebop roots of all five players. McLean' s intense, driving solo is more harmonically daring than those of Turrentine and Clark but still deeply rooted in Bird.

This track is expertly propelled by one of the finest rhythm sections of the time. It also serves as a reminder of what a fine player Tommy Turrentine was. The last few times I heard him were in the early '90s, outside the 42nd St. station of the Sixth Avenue subway, where he teamed with saxophone legend George Braith in what must have been the hippest street band on the planet.

"A Fickle Sonance" is a useful historical document of a time when many jazz musicians were struggling, not always successfully, with striking a balance between tradition and innovation. The problem of providing the soloist a suitable framework in a piece that deliberately breaks from conventional song form is one that most jazz musicians still haven't figured out.

October 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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James Moody & Hank Jones: Good Bait

The loping "Good Bait" is one of the friendliest, most optimistic tunes in the standard jazz repertoire, making it a superb vehicle for James Moody and Hank Jones—two veteran boppers who emanate goodwill with every note they play. Composer Tadd Dameron's deceptively simple limerick of a melody is essentially based on "I Got Rhythm," with the bridge reprising the A-section a perfect fourth higher. It's a famously fun tune to blow on, and Moody and Jones have their way with it. Moody takes advantage of the loping 2-beat tempo by engaging in some creative double-timing, garnishing his boppish solo with a few ever-so-slightly "outside" touches. Jones, as is his wont, stays inside, but finds plenty of poetry in the tune's nooks and crannies. Both Coolman and Nussbaum step outside their roles as stalwart section men to play superb solo choruses.

On the day they recorded this, Moody and Jones had accumulated something like 140 years of combined experience playing jazz. So fresh is their spirit, you'd think they'd just begun their journey.

October 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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James Moody & Hank Jones: Eternal Triangle

Except for a few incidental studio meetings, this 2006 date was the first time James Moody and Hank Jones had been paired in the recording studio. When you consider how long the two men have been playing jazz at the highest level, that's a bit of a surprise. What isn't a surprise is the high quality of this music. Sonny Stitt's quick-paced, "I Got Rhythm"-derived "Eternal Triangle" is an ideal vehicle for the two masters. Moody's solo reminds us that he's always been more than a boilerplate bebopper. His playing has a searching, vulnerable quality. His technique is sure, yet his clear determination not to repeat himself results in a remarkably fresh statement. Jones's solo has an equally spontaneous air. You'd never know that he's probably played "Rhythm" changes a million times. Then again, maybe you would, since he evinces such total freedom within the structural confines of the tune.

These two gentlemen still play like they have something to prove, which is pretty amazing given their track records and seniority—Moody was 81 and Jones just shy of 88 when this was made. They might not be quite as spry as they once were, but the passion for creativity that infuses the music of the best jazz artists remains strong within them.

October 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roger Kellaway: Take Five

Anyone who knows my writing through my books or my reviews here at jazz.com realizes that I am a child of the jazz-fusion era. But I also hope those same people see that there is more to jazz for me than jazz-rock. I will always argue that fusion fans are among the most open of jazz fans. Many of us heard fusion first and then went back and studied its influences. This allowed us to live jazz in a different way than just growing up with it. We discovered we liked the big bands, Dizzy and Charlie, Miles and Coltrane, and on and on. Believe it or not, we hear all of their music in the best of fusion. The point is that even for hardcore fusion fans, there have always been traditional jazz tunes that have opened our ears and given us a better appreciation for the jazz genre and the jazz-rock music we loved. Recorded music has allowed us to have revelations 30, 40 or even 50 years after the fact.

In the 1970s, I was in the middle of my fusion discovery period. But I will never forget my first time hearing Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond playing the live version of "Take Five" on the radio. That music was very much different than what I was listening to in those days. But it had the same mesmerizing effect. I wanted to hear more and I made sure I did.

So of course I learned about standards and what great jazz musicians do with them. I have heard many interpretations of "Take Five" over the years. Most fall short because the memory of the initial experience still overwhelms. Roger Kellaway, regarded as one of the world's most accomplished pianists, does not fall short on this one. That is because he presents the tune from a different perspective that does not compete with the original. That is the real key to any successful interpretation. Kellaway's arrangement is a heavily blues-based number that at times is a slow shuffle and at other times swings like hell. Kellaway doesn't dominate the historic opening riffs as Brubeck did. He leaves more space. Often the main melody is played by bassist Jay Leonhart. Each player takes a traditional solo turn. (Though a cello solo on "Take Five" is anything but traditional.) And boy, can these cats play! Kellaway is as dexterous and expressive as any jazz pianist I have heard. In fact, all these guys are world class. And I have not even mentioned that there are no drums! So Kellaway and gang are expert timekeepers, too. There is another surprise at song's end as some high-energy unison playing almost sounds like a slight nod to progressive rock.

If I were you, I would take the 8½ minutes to listen to this "Take Five." It is one of the most creative takes on a standard I have heard in years.

October 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Santana: Flame-Sky

For years, copies of the Welcome LP were near collectibles. Long out of print, the album only became available again with its 2003 CD reissue. Without a doubt the tune that made the album so desirable to many fusionphiles was "Flame-Sky." This legendary performance featured Santana with guitar buddy and spiritual guide Mahavishnu John McLaughlin during the apex of their historic collaborations. The recording session took place around the time McLaughlin and Santana were finishing their co-release Love Devotion Surrender.

"Flame-Sky" begins with gentle intentions and the sustained notes of a lengthy soaring Santana solo. The song's midsection devolves into some evil intentions before the pace picks up appreciably. The music becomes a dense mess of conflict and resolution. This is just what every fusion fanatic loves! Organists Tom Coster and Richard Kermode, replacing the great Larry Young from the LDS sessions, provide double-barreled action. Drummer Michael Shrieve, who had also taken on a religious name by this time, pounds away like there is no afterlife. Santana and McLaughlin swap violent entreaties. Bassist Rauch is lost someplace in the mix, but you can feel his presence. Did I mention that McLaughlin and Santana are giving as good as they are getting? Are we delivered yet? Yes. Welcome to the glorious world of "Flame-Sky."

October 02, 2008 · 1 comment

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Santana: Every Step of the Way

There is a funny Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Will Ferrell that has become so famous it is now nicknamed the "More Cowbell" routine. In the skit, Ferrell's character is in the band Blue Öyster Cult during a recording session for what would become the band's biggest hit, "Don't Fear the Reaper." He is insistent on overwhelming the music with his constant clanging of his cowbell. It is very funny. I am not quite sure if one of the percussionists on "Every Step of the Way" is hitting a cowbell or another similar apparatus during the song's long introductory passage. But it sounds remarkably like Ferrell's turn some 30 years later on SNL. Listening today it made me laugh. Of course this is unfair to the original music reviewed here. But things pop into your head when you are looking for 1,000 different angles to describe music. I usually go with the first thing that crops up because it is the most honest.

If you can pry your ears from the cowbell on "Every Step of the Way," you will find a finely crafted, grooving, semi-Latin rock jazz number. The steady beat leads to tentative guitar growls that sometimes employ feedback. A rising dual-guitar arpeggio leads us into more recognizable Santana territory. The song becomes similar in structure to his big rock hit "Jingo." But it doesn't stay there too long, as Santana and Schon do a little further investigating. An orchestral background arises as the constant chugging of Santana's trademark band sound sustains forward momentum.

There are mostly two types of Santana fans, comprising those who like his rock stuff and those who prefer his fusion music. "Every Step of the Way" splits the difference right down the middle and should please both camps. Of course, I can't really speak for the cowbell camp.

October 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Carlos Santana: Song of the Wind

The music on Caravanserai represents one of Santana's earliest attempts at breaking out of the pop mold. He wanted to play more serious music that reflected his growing spiritual and musical influences. In a way the album served as a way-station on Santana's road to the more fulfilling music he longed to play. Interestingly, a caravanserai was an inn that travelers across the old trade routes though Asia and Africa would use as an overnight rest stop for the remainder of their journey. I think there is significance in the title. There was Santana music before this album and there would be Santana music after this album. The material on this record represented both aspects. But this is where thought began to become action. A good night's sleep is always helpful for the journey ahead.

"Song of the Wind" features Santana along with another guitar superstar, Neal Schon. The cut is really a jam. You can tell this not only because the piece lists three composers but also because there is generous quoting from other popular riffs. Santana and Schon (who would form the rock group Journey shortly after these sessions) don't really act as jazz-rockers quite yet. That would come a few albums down the road. Their parts seem more parallel and planned out even if they weren't. In other words, we are not talking jazz call and response. But we are talking about cohesive counterpoint and blues-laced improvisations. The spirit of jazz-rock is there if you reach out and grab it.

It is interesting that Santana seems to be holding back a bit. This is only surmised because he stretched out into the universe in subsequent fusion albums. Perhaps that was more about growth than lack of confidence. At any rate, Santana and Schon still sound great at rocking a semi-fusion groove, and it didn't hurt to have the likes of Rauch, Rolie, Lewis and Mike Shrieve pushing them along.

October 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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Carlos Santana: Waves Within

Caravanserai was a transitional record for Santana. His first three albums had become mega pop-hits. For the most part, this record was devoid of vocals and focused on more complex musical excursions that contained jazz elements, thus guaranteeing there would be no hit singles.

With its distinct main melodic riff, "Waves Within" is one tune where you could imagine vocals sounding okay. And its short length, fewer than four minutes, also indicates there may have been a thought that some radio play was possible. Such was not to be the case, however. You still needed lyrics to get the disc jockeys to play your stuff. Heavy guitar riffs, constant congas, a surging organ and heavy drums dominate the piece. The tune is over before you know it. "Waves Within," and the album from which it comes, marks the first tentative steps toward jazz-rock that Santana would take under his own leadership. The spiritual influence later incorporated on his more consequential sound was not yet present. But, all in all, this was an important first step.

Note of Interest: Bassist Doug Rauch and organist Gregg Rolie are given credit for the composition. In Rauch's case it was further evidence that he was an early important contributor to the fusion movement and that his untimely death a few years later was a significant loss to the genre. Organist Rolie was also very talented and took a different direction by joining the rock supergroup Journey in 1973. Regardless of paths, both players exhibited monster chops and creative musical minds that helped Santana find his new way.

October 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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Devadip Carlos Santana & Turiya Alice Coltrane: Bliss: The Eternal Now

The partnership of John Coltrane's widow, Alice, and Carlos Santana produced the mostly wonderful Illuminations. The album is as spiritual as symphonic jazz-rock can get without crossing over into the actual beyond. Santana was lucky enough to have a successful pop career for Columbia Records. One doubts that, had it been otherwise, the company would have been all that pleased with the guitarist and his new fusion direction.

"Bliss: The Eternal Now" is more of a cosmic mood piece than a fully realized tune. Its main mantra, presented in front of a resonating string section, is all of 5 or 6 notes repeated in various shapes and sizes. But Santana makes his notes cry. Coltrane's lush harp and occasional piano runs add celestial texture. This is a successful entry in the Orchestra Meets Jazz-Rock Sweepstakes in which the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were also running at this time.

October 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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Devadip Carlos Santana & Turiya Alice Coltrane: Angel of Air / Angel of Water

At the time of this recording, Carlos Santana was using the spiritual name Devadip, given to him by his personal guru Sri Chinmoy. Alice Coltrane, John's widow, was also a seeker with a guru of her own. She changed her name to Turiyasangitananda. She later used a shorter version as a first name. Officially, the artists named on this album were Devadip Carlos Santana and Turiya Alice Coltrane.

In the 1970s, Santana's admiration for John Coltrane knew no bounds. This respect went beyond the music. Santana was, as many were in those days, "trying to find himself." Coltrane's spiritual path was of great interest to him. It is not so surprising that one day he would play music with someone who had a connection to the man, the music and the spirit.

Alice Coltrane played piano in her husband's last band. The avant-garde music Coltrane was playing toward the end of his life was very much in her bag. Some angry Coltrane fans blamed her for influencing this last and least popular direction. She responded by suggesting that nobody led John Coltrane anywhere, and that she was playing what he asked her to play.

Jules Broussard's deeply somber flute opens "Angel of Air / Angel of Water," which consists of two parts that can be clearly distinguished. "Angel of Air" is more expressive. "Angel of Water" tends to be more pensive and cleansing. Alice Coltrane is responsible for the impressive string arrangement, providing a wide swath for Santana to do his best fusion ballad playing. Short, beautiful melodies are interspersed with Santana's trademark sustained single notes that must be written off the page because they are so long. It is interesting how these notes can sound so Latin when Santana plays pop music and so otherworldly cosmic when he plays the hymnal-like fusion heard here. Coltrane's harp appears mid-tune. Her playing provides more color than splash, but in context delivers an angelic message.

The orchestral ambience, spiritual overtones, collaborative success and the fusion-guitar anthem make this one of the more fulfilling jazz-rock performances of Santana's career. For some reason, it remains among his lesser-known accomplishments.

October 01, 2008 · 1 comment

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Santana: Promise of a Fisherman

The Dorival Caymmi-penned "Promise of a Fisherman" is Borboletta's best cut. Its main theme is strong enough to allow the players to reference it thoroughly during solo turns. The tune combines Santana's two musical worlds. In one, the rhythm is pure Santana pop band. Percussionist Armando Peraza never lets Santana down. His congas and bongos are as much a trademark sound of Santana's music as Santana's own guitar playing. The great bassist Stanley Clarke gets busy in the role of Santana's usual partner Doug Rauch. Tom Coster provides the ever-constant organ that was always so much a part of Santana's music as well.

In Santana's other world, the composition is pure fusion anthem material. (Can fusion be pure?) Santana eschews his straight-ahead rock style for his balls-out, shooting-bullets fusion mode. The man takes no prisoners. At one point the notes are so fiery and high-velocity that the engineer decides they must be divided into two channels. The panning effect leaves your head spinning. The advertised vocals are nothing more than a couple of seconds of distantly heard whimpering. This is a good thing, since much of the album is marred by unsuccessful vocal efforts. This reality falls conveniently into my axiom that 99% of fusion vocals do not work. Santana is not alone in his blazing playing. Coster has a ton of jazz chops to offer, and Clarke always hooks into a groove. "Promise of a Fisherman" delivers us full nets.

October 01, 2008 · 1 comment

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Cynthia Hilts: Second Story Breeze

Composer, pianist and vocalist Cynthia Hilts has put together a collection of disparate and entertaining forms on her latest release. The CD's P.R. material suggests that this is Hilts's nod to the more traditional side of jazz. If so, she must play some really far-out stuff when not being traditional. Several standards are included along with her original compositions. Her interpretations of the standard repertoire turn convention on its head.

The title cut opens the album. Hilts's wordless vocals set the scene. On this tune, and on no other cuts, Hilts sounds like Anita Baker. As enjoyable as her voice is, however, I am drawn more to her piano playing. On "Second Story Breeze" she certainly takes the path less taken. Her lines are always a bit off-center. Her syncopation is not syncopated, at least not in the traditional way. The first time you hear this apparent incongruity, it throws you a bit. The second and third times, you realize this is her congruity! Bassist Ron McClure and drummer Jeff Williams are able helpers.

Some listeners may not be able to get with the plan. Each tune on the album heads in a different direction, and Hilts's voice takes on various characteristics as needed. But once you acquire a taste, you will probably want more.

Reviewer's note: After reviewing this cut, I contacted the artist's publicist to obtain a recording date. It turns out the piece was recorded in 1998, ten years prior to its release. That makes it even more interesting.

October 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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Oscar Peterson & Joe Pass: Just You, Just Me

The School of Velocity is in session, and our teachers are Professor Peterson and Professor Pass. You want to know how fast is fast? Well, you could time that bullet train in Japan. Or you could dig up some footage of Nolan Ryan's no-hitters. Here's a better idea: check out this live recording from Salle Pleyel. Horowitz played under this roof. Rubinstein did too. They had fast fingers, but could they swing hard and get all the syncopations just right at 400 beats per minute with the same relentless energy that this duo brings to their craft? Our esteemed pianist pulls out all the stops here, and demonstrates some breathtaking two-handed work that you rarely heard on his trio recordings. Any normal guitarist would back off in the face of this bravura keyboard work. But Pass never backed down from a race, and he keeps up the pace all the way to the finish line. You have to smile when you hear those final exchanges between pianist and guitarist, two masters now departed with no one to take their place. It's "Just You, Just Me" these speedsmiths declare, but who needs anyone else when Peterson and Pass are on stage?

October 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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