Herbie Hancock: Water Torture

"Water Torture" expanded the role of the synthesizer in jazz; its purpose was to amplify electronically based sounds impossible for acoustic instruments to generate. While the arbitrary effects are just as liquefied as the dense, oversaturated reverb, and the pace plods along like slow death, the synth creates impressions of creaking doors and safari adventures. At the same time, everything is randomly processed, which allows a diverse pool of pings to surface. Most of the instruments ultimately sound created by a computer; the strings' tones ring untrue, yet such mock reality does not immediately repulse because, after all, these sounds are merely meant to resemble, not replace, the instruments themselves, and the majority of what is heard in the mix was not performed by the musicians in real time anyway. The track easily could have been crafted by a single person, as other human participants are unnecessary given that the producer is such a perfectionist. Its laboriousness is a perfect example of why such digital audio workstations as Pro Tools immediately replaced analog tape as the recording industry standard; works that would have formerly taken months to years to finish can now be completed in much less time.

November 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Quasar

The picturesque "Quasar" seems composed for a film action sequence. The improvisations lift off with trilling horns that could be searching for a faraway galaxy. They are joined by snarling drums prepared specifically for an alien cocktail lounge, and weird synthesizer babbling that shadows the raga underneath. The painstakingly stiff, quasi world must have taken lots of time and money to complete, as its complexity is on par with the big-budget film soundtracks it emulates. In today's virtual world, this would take much less effort, but still such complexity cannot be achieved overnight, and the overall destination must have been tough to predict, even from the producer's chair. The idea of controlled chaos is prevalent, yet atypically several sections are tightly woven, and much of the orchestration and soloing grapples with normalcy. Jagged, electronic elements meet with smoother, jazzier ones, and the resultant shock cinema does not fully transcend those qualities. A sci-fi nightmare is depicted, yet somewhat belied by a mixture of dark and light emotional extremes that clash even harder than the surface aspects that were crafted especially for such collision.

November 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Sleeping Giant

On "Sleeping Giant," the music is stripped of emotion and is only meant to connect with the listener from the surface level. Rhythms are straightforward, the form changes several times, and any connection to jazz is purely superficial. It could have been split into several different tracks; all maintain a constant percussive clicking and cowbell, and the bass seems to be constantly soloing. The track reflects a growing fascination with the role of the producer in music's creation. At times, the obvious studio trickery overshadows some rather tasty playing, as chronic segues purposefully interrupt the quest to break new ground. The track owes more to technology than to the performers, as instrumental contributions are superseded by tape loops, stereo delay effects and electronically generated vibrations. The music is weighty; an apparent urban jungle theme is conveyed, and several sections recall the relative simplicity of rhythm and blues. The sound takes on the character of King Kong stalking New York City streets, and the performance ultimately merges both artificial elements and those that are real.

November 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Hornets

Herbie Hancock must have thought that the kazoo sounded like an insect, because the instrument is an element of this track's horn section. Their 4-note segues are completely indebted to Miles Davis but become caught in a web of pests, obtuse changes, and musicians who foreshadow them by throwing many different ingredients into an already crowded mix. The collective experimentalism is never in doubt, yet the track finds accessibility in its coherent, driving disco beats, its 4-on-the-floor rhythms and an unchanging bass pattern. As a result, it is less abstract than intended, despite most of its elements being obscured by echo chambers, envelopers, flangers, layers of heavy compression and reverb, and wah pedal. A tone- wheel shifts the harmonics to either side of the median at any given time as the effects bounce back and forth by way of hard left and right panning. Sounding unlike much else, the track relies on its imaginary visual appeal, and such music must remain flexible as it assumes a variety of interpretations for different consumers. The shared quality between this and film music is significant because the recording's direction is always tilted towards optical illusion.

November 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Rain Dance

"Rain Dance" begins with electronically generated aspects mimicking alarm clocks, handclaps and springs. Then it becomes an aural collage of videogame-like squiggles depicting a trip to outer space, including the firing of laser guns, a rocket landing and a tank rolling across a cratered lunar surface. Perhaps Neil Armstrong's 1969 moon walk was the inspiration because it works well as that event's soundtrack. In any case, the recording's sole connection to jazz lies in the familiar yet intermittent sound of traditional instruments. Overall, despite its big-screen montage quality, the music reflects an almost complete avoidance of human interaction; when the instruments appear, they stray far from any predictable pattern, and the fragmented overdubs must have taken an inordinate amount of time to assemble. The natural habitat for such an experience is the recording studio, not the stage, since much of it was crafted not by humans but by the mathematical, synthetic nature of the available recording technologies. Headphones will help if you plan to get into this. It is so packed with microscopic details that any number are bound to escape even the closest scrutiny.

November 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chuck Bernstein: Contenda

Most of Delta Berimbau Blues trends toward the sounds of the delta blues as played by Chuck Bernstein on the Brazilian one-stringed instrument the berimbau. (To read more about the berimbau, see my review of Bernstein's "Kindred Spirits.") Ted Gioia, jazz.com's resident delta blues expert and author of the book Delta Blues, has favorably reviewed the album's title cut, so I'll defer to him as to how close Bernstein's jazz- and folk-influenced blues hew to the tradition or whether that even matters. But in playing with a bow and stone, Bernstein has certainly found another good use for this unusual instrument.

"Contenda" is the CD's most obvious jazz tune. Bernstein's berimbau serves as bassline and rhythm backing. Acoustic guitarist Ian Faquini provides some beautiful accompanying chords and slowly played arpeggios. But the star of this cut is the melody itself and how tenor saxophonist Robert Kyle plays it. A lovely jazz ballad performed with restraint and taste, this is one more reason you should check out Bernstein's fine album.

November 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chuck Bernstein: Kindred Spirits

The Berimbau is a one-stringed instrument from Bahia, which is a state in Brazil. Drummer Chuck Bernstein first heard the instrument on a 1965 Sergio Mendes record. About a decade later he saw drummer Shelly Manne bring the strange-looking instrument on stage in San Francisco. Manne joked about its appearance, then played the thing with a small stone and a bow. The instrument looks like a home-fashioned bow with a string attached that stretches across a dried-out gourd. It sounds like a low-register Jew's harp. After Manne's performance, Bernstein was hooked. Over the years Bernstein intermittently studied the instrument.

Delta Berimbau Blues is a collection of jazz-tinged blues and folk music. Bernstein uses the berimbau for its percussive and mood-setting qualities. But there is also much improvisation in the music, which gives it a jazz vibe. Bernstein's choice to use this Brazilian instrument in a delta blues mode is less interesting than his actual use. Once you have chosen the tool, you still have to do the work. After hearing the berimbau in the hands of Bernstein, you might well think that the instrument emanated from Mississippi! It fits right in. But that has as much to do with Bernstein as it does his implement.

"Kindred Spirits," a duet with drummer George Marsh, is one piece on the record that is all about rhythm and texture. There is no time spent on melody. Instead the musicians explore a delta blues sound that was never heard in the day. The ancient-sounding berimbau is presented in tandem and counterpoint to a modern trap set. Bernstein finds his groove as Marsh adds accents on his cymbals and occasional snare rolls. This is the kind of music you hear in those dark Deep South mystery movies just after someone has been murdered and they start searching the swamps in one of those flat wooden boats for a missing body, hoping the crocs ain't got to 'em first. In this case, Bernstein and Marsh are the killers.

November 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Evan Christopher: Douce Ambience

You may not see much coverage of traditional jazz in the media (or even the jazz media, for that matter), but it is alive and well; and no sector of trad-ville is more vibrant than the gypsy caravan on the outskirts of town. Django has passed from jazz history and become a figure of mythic resonance: indeed, few jazz figures from before WWII have a more devoted following nowadays, or exert such a powerful ongoing influence on the current scene. (Jazz.com's Bill Barnes will give you an insider's look at this subculture here.)

Clarinet is not a common instrument in this style of jazz performance, which is heavily tilted toward the strings. But you wouldn't know it from Evan Christopher's deliciously languorous approach to "Douce Ambience." He elicits a rich, smoky tone from his horn, and puts such a personal stamp on his melody statement that you don't even need to wait for the solos to appreciate that you are in the hands of a master stylist. But please do wait for the solos. Christopher & Co. work their taut phrases over a dark, tango-ish swing and with no wasted energy. Très douce.

November 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sun Ra (featuring John Gilmore): Future

For some 40 years, from 1953 to Sun Ra's death in 1993, tenorist John Gilmore was primarily a devoted and key member of Ra's various orchestral incarnations. When you went out to a club to hear Ra, you hoped that Gilmore was going to get a generous amount of solo space, for he was always arguably the best musician on the bandstand. Considered an influence on Coltrane, Gilmore's tenor could either heartily negotiate the intricate changes of a hard-bop tune, or explode into a no-holds-barred free jazz excursion. Perhaps this wide diversity of musical opportunities is what most appealed to Gilmore about playing with Sun Ra, and kept his few departures over the years relatively brief.

Gilmore is featured on "Future," a track from what was Ra's first album to receive relatively wide distribution (not self-released as was so much of his output). Ra's rubato piano intro mixes wisps of classical influence with phrasing similar to what one would hear from Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill in the "future." He suddenly goes into overdrive with a swinging boppish interlude, and then the horns introduce a tensely churning staccato theme. Gilmore enters an open space with a robust fill, to which the other horns respond with a spirited vamp. Gilmore's solo is an authoritative hard-bop statement, played with a brawny Wardell Gray-type of sound, and exhibiting the technical facility and buoyancy of a Johnny Griffin. A vigorous call and response between Gilmore and the band concludes one of Sun Ra's early gems.

November 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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Greg Osby: Pent-Up House

Blue Note packaged this CD to resemble a bootleg, what with the crude "graphics" and the pseudo-provocative behind-the-counter title. The music, however, is far from unfinished and inaccessible. Osby and Moran play like inspired, more progressive versions of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, as might have been captured informally on tape by the 1998 equivalent of Dean Benedetti. Here Osby and Moran are indeed plugged in to the modern jazz innovations of the '40s and '50s, but with a fresh individuality that is both respectful and forward looking, a clear indicator of the great music these two essential artists would continue to produce in the years ahead.

"Pent-Up House" runs over 13 absorbing minutes, with the single taping device putting Osada's reverberating bass and Green's crisply aggressive drumming up front in the mix at the expense of Moran's piano. Osby's fleet opening solo is basically a heady brew of hard and post-bop, with extended runs dominating except for an occasional spiky, dissonant aside. His pace is unrelenting, his inventiveness unflagging. Unfortunately, Moran's energetic comping cannot be clearly heard, and at one point he appears to drop out entirely. The pianist's own compelling solo is much easier to discern, as Osby is now out of the picture. Moran starts out tranquilly, but is soon flying over the keys with forcefully repeated chords and swirling phraseology. Osby reenters at the peak of his powers, like Moran before him passionately reconstructing elements of Rollins's familiar tune. A quick reprise leads to a seamless nonstop segue into the next tune and track, "I Didn't Know About You." This is live jazz at its unfettered, invigorating best.

November 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Lovano: I Waited For You

It's puzzling how Hank Jones, at age 90, is still sometimes described as a "journeyman" or "veteran sideman." Here is a great pianist with a lengthy 7-decade discography as a leader, a 1989 NEA Jazz Master and a 2008 National Medal of Arts winner, and he's still underappreciated or taken for granted. You need only listen to his three CDs this decade with Joe Lovano to realize what a complete pianist he is, and to hear how he inspires Lovano to perhaps the best mainstream-oriented playing of the latter's notable career so far.

On the first of these CDs, the all-ballad session I'm All For You, Lovano and Jones, buoyed by the sensitive support of Mraz and Motian, perform an unforgettable version of "I Waited for You." As Lovano caresses the alluring theme with a breathy tone containing ingredients of both Ben Webster and Lester Young, Jones's accompaniment is totally in the pocket, every note either skillfully bolstering or simply affirming the saxophonist's thematically based assertions. Lovano's solo is finely detailed and lucidly structured, subtly swinging, and chockfull of apt, and seemingly endless, winding single-note lines. Jones's subsequent solo is Lovano's equal, the pianist's sparkling touch, mesmerizing scampering runs, and overall harmonically rich concept attesting to his formidable proficiency. Lovano returns with a brief improvisational flurry before again expressively delineating the melody. While Motian remains a bit too fixated on a sparse and stagnant cymbal ride at times, this is nonetheless essential listening. And kudos to Dizzy Gillespie the composer – to think he wrote this gorgeous tune and "Con Alma"!

November 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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Richard Galliano & Jean-Charles Capon: Goodbye Miles

A series of duets between an accordionist and a cellist? Why would I want to listen to that, you might ask. For the sole reason that they are superbly executed, that's why! Galliano, of course, is a virtuoso on his instrument, and Blues sur Seine makes clear that the lesser-known Capon is in the same class. Capon has played a lot of free jazz over the years, from the Baroque Jazz Trio to projects with musicians such as Joe McPhee and David S. Ware. For this CD, however, he and the equally versatile Galliano focused on a more mainstream playlist.

"Goodbye Miles," Capon's tribute to Miles Davis, tries to capture the flavor of late-'60s Miles, when his more conservative fan base began railing against his newfound fusion style. Yet the track better recalls the works of Jean-Luc Ponty, due to the persistent ostinato figure first sustained by Galliano and later taken up by Capon, and also because of the ethereal nature of the theme. Capon's uplifting bowed solo even sounds like Ponty in its phrasing and with inflections that sometimes veer towards country or bluegrass. Galliano's improv spirals gracefully from nimble single-note lines to grand chordal expressions, as always sounding uniquely like himself. At the end Galliano becomes contemplative, his floating phrases taking on an eerie quality before he drops out entirely and only Capon's pizzicato, contagious ostinato survives.

November 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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Natsuki Tamura & Satoko Fujii: Infrared

Cecil Taylor and Lester Bowie on acid? Sort of. Though that description does a disservice to all parties involved, I must point out that this track does contains a large bag of what made those two musicians so special: blistering unison runs, aggressive and percussive piano clusters, and energy-soaked sheets of sound. What sets this apart from a lot of modern "energy music" is the obvious fact that Tamura and Fujii are also engaged in an exercise in very deep listening. Musical thoughts come together as they construct a pulsing wall of sound, then attempt to smash it to bits.

November 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Satoko Fujii Orchestra Nagoya: Gokaku

After years of cracking open recordings and poring over liner notes while new music spills from the speakers, it's always kind of fun (and funny!) to be completely surprised by something. In this case, I was certain that the CD had a manufacturing defect. I mean, the data sheet listed a huge ensemble full of saxes, trumpets and trombones. After bracing myself for a brass onslaught, I'm slapped upside the head by a distorted rhythm guitar part that would not be out of place on a Kiss record. What the hell?! I actually popped out the disc to make sure it matched the CD liner. Yup, all there! Perplexing. Well, after a fashion the horns do make themselves known, and in a big way. What follows is over 10 minutes of exuberant and barely controlled brass madness that stretches the ideas inherent in the basic riff almost completely out of shape. You'll be tempted to think they've lost it when the Captain Beefheart-esque vocals threaten full-on disorder, but you'll be as wrong as I was at the beginning of the track. Really great stuff.

November 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rita Edmond: Misty

Despite the 3.7 bazillion recordings of this Erroll Garner classic, I could not immediately recall which one made my memory bells go off so strongly. I'm embarrassed to report that it might have been the comedian John Byner doing an impression of Johnny Mathis. Ooops! Sorry Ella. Sorry Ms. Vaughan. And sorry Mr. Mathis. Actually, I've done a little penance here, making note of yet another beautiful version of the tune. Rita Edmond's voice illuminates the romance of the story with a lot of inner detail and texture. Supported by a very supple band (especially Joel Scott's piano), Edmond makes you realize how great this song is, not diminished in the least by repeated listens and viewpoints.

November 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sweet Baby J'ai: Exactly Like You (Perpetrating)

This version of "Exactly Like You" could not be more different in style from my favorite rendition, performed by Guy Van Duser and Billy Novick. While the more modern, funked-up angle on the track might offend some purists, the real point of interest is the addition of an overlaid spoken-word section. Sweet Baby J'ai makes the case that it's not impossible for the youth of Hip-Hop Nation to also be into the likes of Little Jimmy Scott, Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones. She has a point. She also has an incredible voice. One that might win over the traditionalists and thus render moot my cliché about purists being offended by funked- up angles.

November 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mark Masters Ensemble: Le Clit

From a fine tribute record to the late saxophonist Dewey Redman, the Mark Masters Ensemble moves along the solid and bluesy lines of Redman's Ornette. I totally dig the interplay of Dave Carpenter and Peter Erskine, who let loose in the most subtle ways as Hagans builds his trumpet solo. Things really heat up mid-song as Oliver Lake seems to truly feel the spirit of Dewey – love the smears, squeaks and honks woven in so perfectly with the larger ensemble's full-power blasts. Who says the big band is dead? Just listen to those fours bein' traded. They're very much alive.

Reviewer's Note: I picked this track to review by going through the CD with my Next button. The song title didn't influence me.

November 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jack Broad: Swamp Witch

Usually just seeing the word "programming" makes me shudder. That feeling is soon followed by the lovely parabolic arc of the disc into the trash can. Don't get me wrong, programming has its place. It's just that it's almost never done correctly, many times creating more problems than it solves (and yes, I know all about drummer problems), not the least of which is a certain blandness.

I'm happy to report that jazz guitarist Jack Broad knows what he's doing both in the areas of programming and guitar wrangling. "Swamp Witch" has Broad blowing crazed rock-like passages as well as reverb-soaked pedal tones. I'm reminded of early Bill Frisell as well as Guitar Shop-era Jeff Beck. It's a whole lot of fun and puts a modern stamp on what we used to look down on as fusion.

November 25, 2008 · 2 comments

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Tribal Tech: Aftermath

In my review of Tribal Tech's cut "The Big Wave," I pointed to the fact that sometimes the band could sound like Weather Report. Of course Weather Report had no guitarist. But the character of the music is the same. The comparison is even more apt on "Aftermath." For most of the tune Scott Kinsey's keyboards are the dominant Zawinulian force. By the tune's midsection, you can hear Scott Henderson's guitar. It is quite possible that he was playing all along. But through the use of effects gadgets he manages to squelch most of the guitar's telltale sounds. Bassist Gary Willis does not sound like himself either. This slow-moving piece is all about investigating texture and space. It is far from the generally expected Tribal Tech fusion rave-up. That's what makes it more interesting. Call me a contrarian if you will, but I always prefer music outside the expected. I like bands that push you out of your comfort zone. This music does that quite effectively.

Tribal Tech has managed to carry the fusion torch for many years now. It is good to see long-lived quality practitioners keeping the spirit alive through both the good and the lean times.

November 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tribal Tech: The Big Wave

The short introductory section for Tribal Tech's "The Big Wave" is a joke. At least I hope so! It is about 20 seconds of the most syrupy, gag-inducing Smooth Jazz crap you will ever hear. Every time I play the tune I look at my computer to make sure I have the right CD in. As parody, it is a brilliant re-creation of the Smooth Jazz (sudden reflux urge) WAVE radio format that began in the 1980s in Southern California and soon took over the world. I have no inside info on this, but I believe the song title may refer to this awful format.

Tribal Tech obliterates its own introductory passage with the sonic equivalent of a jet plane takeoff. The band gets to serious fusion real fast. Sounding like Weather Report played at 45 rpm, the band's tight and powerful synchronicity provides the perfect entry point for Scott Henderson's squealing guitar attack. "The Big Wave's" composer, bassist Gary Willis, is never too far away to be heard. His own solo is more introspective than Henderson's. Keyboardist Scott Kinsey has a full sound that becomes even deeper and fuller as the piece moves along. Henderson and Willis play a unison riff as drummer Kirk Covington takes his turn. That sped-up Weather Report vibe returns to end the wave.

The '80s may have been a somewhat fallow fusion period. But starting in that decade and continuing into the next two, Tribal Tech has been one of the genre's most reliable outfits.

November 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Karel Velebny: The Uhu Sleeps Only During The Day

Coming from a somewhat obscure multi-instrumentalist and composer from Communist Czechoslovakia, SHQ is challenging jazz but for the most part, isn't free. One exception is "The Uhu Sleeps Only During The Day." A rootless piece that's seemingly trying to find a root, the searching aspect becomes the song. As Velebny's vibes combine with Stivin's flute, it becomes impossible to ignore the ghost of Eric Dolphy's "Out to Lunch." Svabensky and Stivin eventually battle for space and Karel Vejvoda's temporarily bowed bass adds a creepy undertow. Velebny reasserts control with a flurry of mallets before the band downshifts the tempo at the end to restate the loping theme of the beginning.

The term "free jazz" typically has meaning in the musical context only. In light of the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion that transpired around the time of SHQ, there's a political context here as well. "The Uhu Sleeps Only During The Day" was as unrestrained as Velebny himself yearned to be.

November 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Rollins: More Than You Know (Live)

Tenorist Sonny Rollins is the closest thing the jazz world has to a force of nature. And like tornadoes and earthquakes, this artist is both powerful and unpredictable. His finest moments usually come in the heat of a performance, rather than in the sterility of a recording studio, and the privileged audience, on these occasions, can sense the saxophonist feeding off their rapt attention as he delivers a solo that is both the culmination of a lifetime of horn-playing, and a Zen-like celebration of the present moment.

Rollins's Road Shows, Vol. 1 CD captures this rapturous side of the tenorist at work. It surveys more than a quarter century of performances and culls out seven tracks, including this titanic version of "More Than You Know," recorded in Toulouse in 2006. Rollins is a master of this type of "power ballad," where instead of introspective vulnerability we get grand statements from the mountaintop. One could easily trample the sentiments in a love song with such powerful outbursts, but instead Rollins manages to amplify the emotional qualities of the song, expanding their scope without losing any of their rawness. He seems paradoxically to be both in total command of the material, but also letting go and allowing the music to take him to its own chosen destination. His solo is a fascinating combination of motivic development, reworkings of the melody, and rhapsodic flurries.

In the midst of this inspired saxophony, you might neglect the contribution of guitarist Bobby Broom, which would be a shame. He counters Rollins's grandiloquence with a sharply etched solo, mostly in the higher register, in which each note glistens, almost like those shimmering phrases you hear from African harp masters. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of the performance, and is all the more effective for its unexpected delicacy.

November 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Lush Life

Joe Henderson was not just a great composer and technician, he was also a fine interpreter of standards. You can find examples of that throughout his career, but it was the major focal point of the final recording period of his life during which he recorded for Verve.

The first Verve project tackled the lofty music of Ellington cohort Billy Strayhorn, using varying band configurations. Right at the end of the record is Henderson alone scaling the most magnificent of Strayhorn compositions, "Lush Life." The melody flows from his horn without any equivocation, the transitions between shapes are effortless and the phrasing is creative but never too cute.

Joe Henderson's flawless solo presentation of "Lush Life" is the kind of performance that only a first-ballot Hall of Fame tenor player can give.

November 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Isotope

"Isotope" first appeared on Joe Henderson's 1964 album Inner Urge, but this version is of special interest because of the way he deconstructs the tune down to the root. In the 1964 version, he played the advanced bop thematic line in unison with a piano. This 1985 version takes the piano out of the equation, leaving it up to the remaining three to fill in the void left by the absence of a comping instrument.

Luckily, he's got Ron Carter to help out. Carter finds the crucial notes for filling out the melody on the bottom end, while Henderson performs that task for the higher registers while simultaneously blowing out quick arpeggios and other expressions. Foster keeps a beat at about double-time the original, adding his accents in appropriate spots to prod along the other two.

"Isotope" was a long-time staple in Henderson's live performances; it was only fitting that he included this in his pivotal performance at the Vanguard. It was a firm signal to the world that through changing tastes in jazz he remained the same old Joe he'd always been.

November 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chuck Bernstein: Delta Berimbau Blues

The malleability of the Delta blues tradition has been demonstrated all over the world, from Liverpool to Calcutta. Here Chuck Bernstein adopts the Brazilian berimbau, the one-stringed bow from Bahia, for his cross-cultural explorations. As Shelly Manne once said, the berimbau "is good for many uses: you can hunt with it or smoke it." Well I am not sure about the wisdom of lighting up your berimbau, but clearly you can also play blues on it. Think of it as a South American alternative to the diddley bow, that African-inspired one-string instrument that was the starting point for many Delta blues masters of the past. Bernstein makes the most of his inspired vision of berimbau blues. He claims that he first heard the instrument on a Sergio Mendes record, but anyone listening to this track would think that these guys grew up in some juke joint outside of Clarksdale. Due credit must be given to Bernstein's partner, Greg Douglass, whose outstanding guitar work is responsible for most of the bent thirds on this track. This self-produced CD could easily get lost in the shuffle, but it is a contender for my list of best blues recordings of the year.

November 20, 2008 · 1 comment

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Jaco Pastorius: Kuru / Speak Like A Child

Jaco Pastorius was lucky enough to lure Herbie Hancock into performing on several cuts on Jaco's debut album as leader. Both players were steeped in the fusion movement at the time, but took the opportunity to showcase their prodigious straight-ahead jazz chops on this medley of "Kuru / Speak Like a Child." Pastorius wrote "Kuru," which slides into the Hancock-penned "Speak Like a Child" that came from Herbie's Blue Note album of the same name.

The performance actually starts out sounding like fusion Mahavishnu because it opens with a riffing string section. But Pastorius's circular bassline is the hook. It sounds like it is comprised of 3 or 4 notes, but it may be 10. It is played so fast you can't count. Once Jaco gets the groove going, Herbie has the impetus to do some real flying. The pianist has it all going on. Rapid-fire runs are followed by gentle chord passages. The man feels the music as much as he plays it. The rhythm section, which also includes the great percussionist Don Alias, continues to push the tune forward until it meets the strings once again.

Jaco took a back seat to his guest Hancock on this cut. Don't get me wrong; he was still an outstanding contributor. But sometimes the pure bassist in Jaco is forgotten in favor of the fiery innovator. Jaco's skills were just as much in evidence on a piece like this as on any of his solos filled with technical fireworks. Make no mistake about it. Pastorius still would have been a highly respected musician even if he had just fulfilled the role of the traditional bass player. He was great at that, too.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Greg Diamond: Naufrage

New York City jazz guitarist Greg Diamond lists his influences on MySpace. He cites Coltrane, Monk, Powell, Davis, et al. He also mentions such great Latin jazz stars as Santamaria, Pascoal and Machito. The CD's song titles also gave me the distinct impression that I was about to hear another heavy display of Latin jazz. It is a genre I can have a bit of difficulty with, to be honest with you. The overriding Latin influence that is necessarily the keystone to that music makes a lot of it sound the same to me. That's something I have to work on. But I think I can still tell good music from bad.

Well, after that worrisome preamble, I discovered that Dancando Com Ale contains straightforward progressive jazz in the mold of the iconic American influences Diamond mentioned on MySpace. There is certainly a Latin tradition percolating throughout, heard especially in Arturo Stable's percussion. But the soloing in "Naufrage" is all from the Northern jazz tradition. This makes for quite an interesting opposition. Diamond's playing is a mixture of Pat Metheny with a hint of Wes Montgomery if he had played through modern equipment. This makes sense as Metheny himself owes a lot to Montgomery. (He will gladly tell you so.) On "Naufrage," the melody strangely turns slightly mid-Eastern. Diamond uses a good amount of reverb to get his point across. This allows his arpeggios to hang in the air. His solo, presented over a Latin beat, is an impressive display of dexterity, scalar knowledge and taste. The liner notes make no distinction as to whether saxophonists Blake and Hogans appear alone or together on the cut. At any rate, there is some fine sax playing here as well. This is music conceived and played at a very high level that warrants and deserves further attention.

One of the best things you can say about music is that it surprised you. I am used to hearing a lot of good musicians. There are so many. So it was not unexpected that this music is good. But I was still surprised because I was thrown off by the song titles. I should've known better than to judge a CD by its playlist.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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April Hall: You Must Believe In Spring

April Hall is a Boston-based singer with a voice so flexible and wide-ranging that she can sound like several completely different vocalists as you move from track to track on her Fun Out of Life CD. Her strongest performances come on bluesy numbers such as "Boogie Woogie Blues" and "Please Send Me Someone to Love" where she allows her voice free reign, as well as on "How Deep is the Ocean" and especially "You Must Believe in Spring," where controlled intonation and tasteful, subtle phrasing are the keys to success.

The dramatically emotional "You Must Believe in Spring" is a challenge for any singer, and Hall's interpretation is one of the better ones you'll ever hear. No vocal tricks or horn-like phrasing, but rather a commanding, sharply focused approach that would transfix a live club audience, bringing even the rudest patrons to rapt silence. Jon Damian's lovely guitar intro and coda, as well as his accompaniment and impressive Joe Pass-flavored solo, only help to magnify the impact of this duet track, his playing a perfect complement for Hall's lustrous voice. Her resonant timbre and varied delivery are to be admired, and she's equally assured in both the upper and lower registers. One must also note Hall's refined inflections and flawlessly sustained long tones. This is a heartfelt, moving and unassuming version of a classic song.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Marco Granados: Los Tiestos De Moca (Moca's Pottery)

Lovers of the flute, not to mention anyone else who appreciates the technical mastery of any instrument, simply must hear Marco Granados. He studied with James Galway and Jean-Pierre Rampal, and it's not hyperbole to say that he is at least the equal of each. On Music of Venezuela, Granados explores the contemporary music of his native country, with the aid of his Venezuelan group, Un Mundo.

"Los Tiestos de Moca" is composer Valderrama's tribute to his mother, who makes pottery for a living in a secluded region of Venezuela. It's described as a Venezuelan meringue, which is distinguished by its 5/8 rhythm. Granados starts out in unison with bassist Koch, playing the melody in a nearly rubato classically restrained fashion. The full ensemble then repeats the line in a bracing 5/8 rhythm and Granados solos spiritedly above Glem's vigorous accompaniment on cuatro (a 4-stringed guitar). Granados's flawless intonation and articulation are quite apparent, as is his skilled use of slurs, trills, and other devices. His fast-fingered ease with the rhythm, and his inventive thematic variations prove that he is no mere robotic technician. Koch and Glem follow with shorter solos that are both fluent and highly expressive. The breezy theme is once again briskly handled by the agile and commanding Granados.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dave Douglas: Culture Wars

Donny McCaslin had Chris Potter's big shoes to fill when he joined the Dave Douglas quintet, and on the trumpeter's Meaning and Mystery CD – and especially on the track "Culture Wars" – he showed why his star was rising then and continues to do so today. At over 12 minutes in length, "Culture Wars" gave McCaslin plenty of room to display his wares.

Genus's resounding bass intro leads to Douglas's reflective rubato interlude, prior to Penn's entrance and introduction of a loose rhythmic pulse, at which point Caine's Fender Rhodes adds another welcome layer. Douglas continues on, but now blends in more fervid swirling runs. Genus maintains a throbbing ostinato as Douglas and McCaslin finally play the sustained notes of the brooding theme. McCaslin's solo inventively embellishes the melody, starting out with relatively simple elaborations that soon become increasingly complex, his extended lines vividly articulated with anxious rushes of notes and wailing outcries before a sudden subdued conclusion. With a radiant sound, Caine then delineates initially sparse phrases, but a vamp by the horns propels him to more intricate and passionate passages. The horns return to repeatedly play a key phrase of the melody, and they then engage in a contrapuntal tradeoff, theme and improvisation alternating between them. Genus's returning ostinato and a vamping Douglas and McCaslin take out the piece. "It should be obvious to anyone who has heard this quintet that I love Miles Davis," writes Douglas in his notes to the CD. This absorbing track masterfully and spiritedly evokes Miles's great quintet with Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob Belden: Danza D'Amore

The finest seven minutes of Bob Belden's ambitious Black Dahlia project come on "Danza d'Amore," with Joe Lovano as featured soloist. Although Belden wrote that the music for this tribute to Elizabeth Short's tragic life was inspired by Jerry Goldsmith's score for Polanski's film Chinatown, as well as by certain composers of Grand Opera, nonetheless the textures, the pulse, and even Lovano's improvisation on the track "Danza d'Amore" bear a striking resemblance to parts of Focus, the outstanding 1961 studio collaboration between Stan Getz and composer/arranger Eddie Sauter.

"Danza d'Amore" deals with the quest for true love on the part of Short, a young woman found brutally murdered in Los Angeles in 1947, and who posthumously became known as the "Black Dahlia." Lovano's playing of the dreamily romantic theme is initially supported by lush legato strings, which soon turn to more staccato bursts, and Previte's castanets add mystery to this backdrop for Lovano's extended soloing. Lovano's intricate, yet gliding lines are expressed with a burnished tone, and Friedlander's cello provides a tenacious counterpoint that both inspires and affirms the emotional message of Lovano's captivating improv. Lovano then restates the love theme, with a final dramatic crescendo by the full orchestra in the best film noir tradition. This track presents a wonderful embrace between a gifted soloist and a stimulating arrangement.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ry Cooder & V.M. Bhatt: A Meeting by the River

Ry Cooder has always had his own quirky concept of fusion. Back with Chicken Skin Music in 1976, he was mixing spicy Tex-Mex, Hawaiian and American roots flavors like some Paul Prudhomme of the music world. He later went on to embrace everything from 1950s R&B to the Buena Vista Social Club. But Cooder's 1993 CD A Meeting by the River reveals a different, if no less praiseworthy, side of his musical split personality. This recording represents an exemplary blending of Hindustani musical traditions with the soundscapes of the U.S. of A. Cooder's partner, V.M. Bhatt, may have studied sitar with Ravi Shankar, but here he plays an instrument of his own invention, the Mohan veena, a modified hollow-bodied guitar with 20 strings. The addition of tabla and dumbek (a goblet-shaped drum from North Africa) contribute to the multicultural flavor. This is a classic recording and one that still sounds fresh years later.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Laswell: Lost Roads

Bill Laswell is deservedly renowned as a musician and as a producer of some of the most diverse material you will likely ever find. Punk, funk, metal, jazz, rock, ambient and world music – you name it, he's done it. As a musician, he co-composed and played on Herbie Hancock's monster hit "Rockit." As a producer, he has run the gamut and even remixed existing Miles Davis and Carlos Santana albums. The CDs from those efforts, Panthalassa and Divine Light: Reconstructions & Mix Translation, both met with great praise and/or harsh criticism. His willingness to take on such risky projects over the years speaks volumes about his musical tenacity and vision. Another of these interesting endeavors is Hear No Evil.

Classifying music is always tricky and, in some cases, ill-advised. But as a critic, I must try to help readers understand what they would hear if they were sitting here with headphones on while spouse and children scurry about the house. Sometimes, classifying and comparing are the handiest tools to do this. So in my system, "Lost Roads" would be classified as meditative Indian-jazz-trance. This is not exactly a stretch on my part as the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and Indian violin master Shankar are two of the tune's most obvious voices. Guitarist Skopelitus, a frequent Laswell collaborator, adds gentle affected arpeggios as Laswell seems content to take a simple role. We also hear some sitar-like plucking. A Hussain solo is always reason to take notice. "Lost Roads" may be a tune in a perimeter search for a melodic theme. (To be fair, as the first cut, "Lost Roads" acts almost as an overture for the rest of the CD). But it has a pleasing enough vibe that whether this tune was 7 minutes long, as it is, or 20 minutes, you would enjoy it just the same.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: 'Round Midnight

In the early '70s, Joe Henderson had Monk's most celebrated tune at least semi-regularly in his live rotation, as evidenced by its inclusion in At the Lighthouse, recorded almost a year earlier. This time, however, there's no trumpet player, and Henderson allows himself to stretch more.

And stretch he does. Starting the song unaccompanied, he combines trills with trips to the altissimo register, playing coyly and summoning up Coleman Hawkins. Never in this a cappella performance does he lose track of the melodic line. As the local backing players enter three minutes later, Henderson glides right into the groove. Hino is playing with an ear close to what the leader is doing, and Inaba is rock solid. Ichikawa doesn't shrink from the challenge of following Henderson, bringing much humanness to his electric piano.

Joe Henderson could spin magic no matter what he played, where he played, or with whom he played.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Black Narcissus

Jazz was changing rapidly as the '60s turned into the '70s, and Joe Henderson was present for much of it; he participated in Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay and Herbie Hancock's Fat Albert Rotunda, after all. But while Henderson was open for electric instrumentation in his own work, he also steadfastly refused to commercialize his music.

Henderson's first departure from an all-acoustic format as a leader came in the guise of a beautiful tone poem he wrote called "Black Narcissus." The only plugged-in instrument may have been Herbie Hancock's Fender Rhodes, but it was critical in giving the song a warm glow. Combined with Ron Carter's delicately plucked high notes, the song has an ethereal soundscape upon which Henderson quietly drops his notes.

"Black Narcissus" is less about Henderson's considerable sax skills than about his acumen in sketching atmospheric pieces. As far as those go, this is one of his best.

November 20, 2008 · 1 comment

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Bryan Beller: Life Story

Time is the enemy. There are only so many hours in the day to listen to music and write about it. I have talked of my reviewing process in some of my other reviews. For those of you who are new, here is a quick recap. For historic recordings, most of my thoughts are already stored in my head. I almost don't have to listen to the music. But I do anyway because sometimes I hear things I never heard before. For new music, I spend 10 minutes trying to open the CD package with a steak knife. After applying yet another bandage, I scan a few seconds of each cut to determine the tunes most worthy of review. Once chosen, I listen to an entire piece to double check my intuition. I then listen to the song again as I write the actual review. I have found this method to be the most effective because it allows me to be honest in the moment while making the best use of my time.

Then along comes an album like bassist Bryan Beller's Thanks In Advance that throws a kink in my regimen. Every tune sounds unique and compelling. I can't listen to 30 seconds here and 30 seconds there. Instead I am glued to my office chair, headphones attached intravenously, as I listen to each and every possible second of the music.

Beller first came to some prominence playing in the band put together by Frank Zappa's sons Ahmet and Dweezil called Project Z. He has had a longtime musical relationship with guitarist Mike Keneally and has played with Steve Vai.

"Life Story" is the most subdued cut on the album. But it is also the most sublime. Beller plays all manner of overdubbed basses in varying styles. The engaging melody is made of compressed single notes and chords run through some effects. The actual bassline is a collection of slides, harmonics and rolls that give the piece a fragile stability. But Beller has total control over all elements. In less than two minutes, this captivating gem is over. It is hard to believe that such a short piece would require almost two hours of my time to write about. But when you get truly captured by music, time is not your friend.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bryan Beller: Love Terror Adrenaline / Break Through

I would review every cut on Bryan Beller's Thanks In Advance if jazz.com's policy allowed me to do so. That is how much I like this album. Beller is joined by frequent collaborator guitarist Mike Keneally for the wonderfully titled "Love Terror Adrenaline / Break Through." Keneally and Beller, who is also a member of the Mike Keneally Band, have shared musical visions and adventures for quite a few years. A tightly frantic performance like this one bears that out. "Love Terror Adrenaline / Break Through" is as dramatic a progressive rock and fusion tune as you will likely hear these days. Maddening riffs and tense interludes dominate the frenetic song. Keneally sounds panicked. Beller seems full of anxiety too as he doubles up with Keneally on some vexing unison runs. The frenzy increases in tempo. Urgency is the master. The breakthrough comes as the piece evolves into an excited fusion anthem. Beller and Keneally finally slow things down with a tender bass and piano duet. It blows my mind that Keneally played both that blazing guitar and understated piano. I am making it official. It is going to take one hell of a CD to knock Thanks In Advance off the top of my personal playlist. Bryan Beller is both an accomplished bassist and an intriguing composer. You should pay close attention to him from now on.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rod Levitt: Holler

Rod Levitt was a trombonist and composer-arranger whose playing and writing struck a near-perfect balance between versatility and highly personal expression. As a player he is best remembered for his tenure in Dizzy's mid-'50s big band, and he played bass trombone on several notable Gil Evans sessions including New Bottle, Old Wine and the April 1959 CBS-TV program featuring Miles Davis. He went on to become a successful writer of music for radio and TV commercials. Despite the bop credentials listed above, his playing was strongly influenced by Tricky Sam Nanton and Lawrence Brown, and he always rejoiced in the fact that the trombone is the only horn that has a slide. (Phil Woods called him "Tailgate Levitt.")

Full Disclosure: I had the pleasure of playing in this group for the last several years of its existence, and like everyone who knew him, I thought Rod Levitt was one of the kindest, most contagiously positive people on the planet.

This distinctive octet originated as a rehearsal band formed by Levitt so that he and several other musicians could maintain their chops and relieve the soul-killing boredom brought about while working five or six shows a day at Radio City Music Hall back when it was a year-round gig. The instrumentation of this group was and still is common among groups seeking a middle ground between a small group and a big band, and many writers for such ensembles tend to use a more or less standardized series of techniques to give the illusion of a larger band. For a number of reasons, including Rod's skillful use of brass mutes and woodwind doubles combined with his seemingly endless resourcefulness as a composer, this octet sounds like no other. Another distinguishing characteristic of Rod's playing and writing was his exuberant sense of humor.

"Holler" begins with Rod's slippery horn wailing over an eerie atonal-sounding background that soon gives way to the Dukish main theme. From then on, it's all about the blues, in a variety of shapes and sizes with especially distinctive solos by Ericson and Johnson. Gene Allen's solo is followed by a beautifully handled transition into half-time for the bass and piano solos. The piece ends as it began with Rod's trombone hollering in the spirit of the blues over the mysterious opening ostinato figure. This group recorded several excellent albums for RCA Victor during the '60s, but none has been reissued on CD.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Blues To Bechet

"Blues To Bechet" is another of John Coltrane's many superb pianoless blues performances. Apparently there was something about the sonority of a simple bass/drums accompaniment that brought out Trane's best, especially when playing the blues at a slow-to-medium tempo. As one might deduce given the song title, he plays soprano—somewhat of a departure for him, since most of his recorded blues performances were played on tenor. Coltrane plays very lyrically, as was often his tendency on the smaller horn. In his solo, he leans on simple melodic figures, stitched together with an occasional technical flourish. The mood is laid back and fairly restrained. Neither of his bandmates solos, but both provide more than adequate support. Things heat up in his final chorus, but mostly Trane tells his story in (relatively) simple language, within a narrow emotional compass. It's a Coltrane not often heard, but one that is invariably affecting.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Laswell: Lost Roads

The personnel of this 1988 recording is impressive, but also a bit ominous … as promising as a bad day at the United Nations after the translators have gone home. Yet the end result is about as perfect a realization of "world fusion" as you will ever encounter.

Meet the cast. We have Nicky Skopelitis, the eclectic American string player of Greek heritage (you name it, he has played it at some point … lute, oud, banjo, and—yes!—guitar); Indian violinist L. Shankar, who has recorded with John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, Yoko Ono and lots of other diverse artists; Aïyb Dieng, a percussionist from Senegal; Cuban conga drummer Daniel Ponce; and, of course, the bassist and master of the soundscapes, Bill Laswell. I am surprised Laswell didn't add a didgeridoo player, so that he could have every continent covered. Not that there is much lacking in the collective CVs of these players. If someone can get these diverse views of rhythm to peacefully coexist, there may be hope for mankind yet.

And not only do they coexist, they flourish. This band sounds like they have been playing together for decades, so natural and seamless is the interaction. My ears are especially drawn to Zakir Hussain's tabla, but everyone gets an A+ in this class. Especially Mr. Laswell, who had the brilliance—and courage—to pull off this awe-inspiring collaboration.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tabla Beat Science: Audiomaze

In Western music we have come to view the percussionist as providing accompaniment. The "serious music" repertoire (note: quotation marks indicate a quizzical tone in my voice) often dispenses entirely with percussion, and even commercial acts tend to hide the drummer at the back of the bandstand. Indeed, it is almost a truism among know-it-alls in the music world that you never let a drummer lead the band (although this is usually whispered out of earshot of the guy with the sticks in his hands).

But all this is an aberration, a quirk of history. I have discussed elsewhere the sociological reasons for the marginalization of percussion in Western music. Yet you don't need to take it from me, just open your ears. Even today, many traditional styles of music show us the limitations of our Western idealization of harmony—both as a technique and as a metaphor—revealing the power that is unleashed when the beat reigns as the master of the music, from which everything else radiates.

Bill Laswell may be a bassist (among other things), but he understands the power of percussion in a way that few others do. He has demonstrated this sensibility in a number of recordings, but especially with Tabla Beat Science, the group he formed with Zakir Hussain in 1999. The marriage of electronica with tabla may sound like an edgy concept, but this music exists at the center not the edges. Hussain's tabla grounds everything. It is not just the heartbeat of the band; it is the whole cardiovascular system. (It helps that the tabla is recorded with great presence in the mix.) Laswell's contributions here—switched-on sounds from the electronics factory—fit perfectly, as natural in juxtaposition as sparks accompanying a flame. In a music world that hypes so many phony fusions, this one stands out.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Ganesha

This invigorating track from the stellar CD Kinsmen has been in frequent rotation on my CD player. Instead of driving the song structure with chord changes, Mahanthappa sets it in motion via a repeating 14-beat melodic pattern with a heavy funk orientation - think of it as a Carnatic "Chameleon." (Whoops . . . Boy George may have that phrase trademarked.) But the presence of alto saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath and violinist Avasarala Kanyakumari soon take this into musical currents far beyond the conventional formulas of fusion, or even jazz for that matter. I have been very impressed with the interplay between these two artists in other settings, and they again deliver a stunning performance here. Mahanthappa follows with a brilliant solo, more grounded in the jazz vocabulary, but he is also channeling some heavy South Indian spirits as well. The rhythm section is outstanding throughout this 11-minute performance, and might even leave you wondering why the mridangam, a double-headed drum associated with Carnatic music, doesn't show up more often on groove tunes.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sheila Jordan: Lady Be Good

Sheila Jordan, who is celebrating her 80th birthday on the day I am writing this review, frequently apologizes for her "senior moments" during the course of her live recording in Montreal Winter Sunshine. But there is more sunshine than winter in Jordan's music these days. Except for an occasional note-bending exercise that seems to hover precariously outside of consonance, her phrasing is supple and inventive; if anything she sings with more relaxation here than she did back in the day. Her version of "Lady Be Good" is a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, who put an ineradicable stamp on this tune, but Jordan feels no compulsion to imitate the First Lady of Song. She takes Gershwin's warhorse at a very slow tempo—a real departure for this standard, which usually is played with a brisk, swinging pulse. Along the way, she tells about Ella, and throws in some bits of her own personal history. Mid-song she insists that she won't try to scat like Fitzgerald, but instead she scats like Sheila Jordan, and with such winsome charm that no one in the audience has any right to complain. This lady be great . . . and it is heartening to see her finally getting some of the honors (most recently a lifetime achievement award at an star-studded event at the Kennedy Center this past May) that have long been her due.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Kadri Gopalnath: Gajavadhana Hamsadvani Adi Purandaradasar

This is decidedly not your typical world fusion effort. Of course, there is a fusion happening here - the mere use of the alto sax in Carnatic music signals a blurring of cultural boundaries - but Kadri Gopalnath is a deep visionary whose recordings resist the glib formulas that so often accompany the meeting of soundscapes of the East and West. Born in Panemangalore, in Dakshina Kannada district, Gopalnath was raised in a musical family, but his attempt to assimilate the vocabulary of South Indian music to the cranky horn invented by Belgian Adolphe Sax was a radical step of self-definition. Gopalnath's career took a quantum leap forward when he was invited onstage at a 1980 Mumbai jazz festival by visiting artist John Handy (whose pioneering work in merging jazz and Indian music deserves far more recognition). Since then, Gopalnath has established his reputation as "Saxophone Chakravarthy" or "Emperor of the Saxophone" in a series of recordings.

Here he develops a mesmerizing 11-minute performance that evokes the energy, although not the vocabulary, of jazz. Instead of conventional solos, Gopalnath engages in a rich dialogue with violinist A. Kanyakumari that serves as the centerpiece of this track. Percussion ebbs and flow, with an ever-changing pulse provided by mridangam (a South Indian relative of the tabla) and morsing (the Indian equivalent of a Jew's harp). The latter instrument is the closest thing to a bass on this performance, but skeptics need to hear the end results before dismissing it out of hand. However, Gopalnath is the star attraction here. Fans of sax music who haven't experienced the magic of this artist, need to do so forthwith . . . and this track is a great place to start.

November 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Blind Blake: C.C. Pill Blues

Blind Arthur Blake's biographical info is sketchy at best, while his influence on guitar players is vast. No one is sure where or when he was born or died, but he was in Chicago in 1928. Johnny Dodds was one of the first great jazz clarinetists to make his way from New Orleans to the Windy City in 1920 at the behest of Joe "King" Oliver. This track was one of three completed for Paramount on April Fools Day, and provides an example of the range of artists Dodds worked with during this period. A year later he would do his last recordings till 1938, perhaps due to his refusing to leave his family and adopted hometown. Blake was at the top of his game, but would exit the Chicago scene by 1932, disappearing into the ether. This simple blues ventures into the surreal with Bertrand's warbling slide whistle distracting from Dodds's unique obbligatos. Blake, however, is in complete command, and his guitar and voice cut through his cohort's vertigo-inducing accompaniment.

November 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Larry Young: Street Scene

Larry Young's celebrated 1965 Blue Note album Unity found him reaching beyond the organ trio format and coming into his own. While the "Coltrane of the Organ" moniker didn't seem to go to his head, this piece features plenty of the exploratory depth that had found its way into jazz by 1969. So while the tune is simple enough, Young wastes no time adding layers of embellishments before opening it up to his front line. Lee Morgan proves completely adaptable to this non-hard bop session, as does Herbert Morgan (no relation), a rarely heard Newark, New Jersey-based player. Both acquit themselves admirably, and if that sounds like a less than ringing endorsement, it's only because Young is the main action here. While he comps in a respectful manner, there's always something going on underneath that nearly distracts from anything else being played. Mind you, I'm not complaining. He sounds great, and the drums take the role of willing coconspirator, creating some explosive moments.

November 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Benny Goodman: Peckin'

Harry James got his first big break when he joined the Benny Goodman organization in January 1937. Benny's brother Harry had discovered the trumpet wizard working in Ben Pollack's band, which served as the Swing Era's farm club. Among the jazz greats sent up to the majors from that band were Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller, Jimmy McPartland and the Goodman brothers themselves. While James had previously recorded "Peckin'" for Pollack, this version has all the classic touches of the Goodman band at the height of its powers. The spry arrangement is James's, and his solo is packed with the sort of creativity that he would exhibit for much of his career, even when playing more mundane material. Goodman's break displays his usual infectious, rhythmically playful modus operandi, and that's a serious thing!

November 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mitchel Forman: My Foolish Heart

I can never say enough great things about Mitchel Forman. To me, he is one the best interpretive piano players and composers we have today. You put him together with legends drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Eddie Gomez to play the music of Bill Evans, and you get magic all over again.

Evans didn't write "My Foolish Heart," but it was part of his repertoire. Forman adds his own introduction on this performance. I'd pay just to hear that short section. Forman plays a beautiful "My Foolish Heart." DeJohnette gently brushes his cymbals as Gomez adds melodic accents by sliding up and down the neck of his bass and finishing the pianist's runs. This is just damn lovely stuff performed by an overly gifted Evans admirer and a rhythm section that truly knew the man and his music in an intimate way. I challenge anyone not to get lost in it. From the quality of this performance, I would say DeJohnette and Gomez came to know Mitchel Forman as well.

November 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Santana: Yours Is The Light

To be a Santana fan while he was bouncing back and forth between pop-rock and jazz-fusion must have been a pretty confusing predicament. Open-minded fans probably loved it, while pure pop fans were disappointed. Pure fusion fans were probably wondering when he would stop playing that pop crap. Music is in the ear of the beholder. Santana lost fans by the scores when he started playing fusion. The man should be given much credit for following his soul. Some three decades later he still dives into both worlds. Today's fans understand this and want to hear both genres. But back in 1973 when Lotus was recorded, there was no such understanding. Santana's pop performances on this record received far greater response from the crowd than his fusion instrumentals. It is probably no surprise to you that I prefer the jazz-rock material.

"Yours Is The Light" is actually among the less weighty fusion numbers. Its writer, Richard Kermode, created a wonderful uplifting melody. The tune's midsection increases in intensity. Santana plays with the same spiritual fire he did on Love Devotion Surrender, recorded with John McLaughlin the same year. I am sure not everyone in the crowd was ready for that. Kermode himself adds some great jazz-tinged electric piano. The band finds a jazz-rock Latin groove that will have you bobbing your head. You know, between you and me, that pop stuff Santana plays isn't all that bad. I am happy to listen to it if I am going to get some of his fusion in between numbers.

November 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles: Marbles

I write this a few short months after drummer Buddy Miles passed away. It's funny how life works. Buddy Miles was in the famous rock group Electric Flag. He went on to play important roles in the music and albums of Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin. He even had a solo worldwide rock hit with his tune "Them Changes." But he was probably best known, and made the most money, from his turn as the voice and creative power behind the California Raisins, a made-up band that recorded three albums based on their successful mid-'80s claymation TV commercials for the California Raisin Advisory Board. The most memorable commercial featured Miles singing "I Heard it Through the Grapevine."

In the late '60s and early '70s, it appeared that Miles was on his way to jazz-rock stardom. When he got together with Carlos Santana for Live, he had just finished a recording gig with John McLaughlin for McLaughlin's Devotion. He had been joined on that record by organist Larry Young and bassist Billy Cox, his cohort in Hendrix's Band of Gypsies. It only made sense that Miles would play McLaughlin's tune "Marbles" with Carlos, who was also beginning his fascination with McLaughlin's music.

This concert was held in the crater of a Hawaiian volcano in 1972. You think there was any paca lolo floating around? I can only imagine. Santana and Miles pretty much copy the original McLaughlin performance. Santana's solo is different from McLaughlin's acid trip because he is Santana. But he is rocking. The catchy scalar riff that is the core of the piece remains thoroughly intact as Miles pounds away. Robert Hogins on his B-3 does a good job being Larry Young. This is a very crowd-pleasing performance but has even more value as a historical look into the beginnings of Santana's fusion interest and Miles's early career.

November 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Noah Preminger Group: Sax of a Kind

In the tradition of such great jazz jam-session tunes as Sonny Stitt's "The Eternal Triangle," saxophonist Noah Preminger and guitarist Ben Monder open "Sax of a Kind" by taking a white-knuckled ride through the changes. Ah, those kind of fire-breathing unison runs are so much fun, and the guys definitely sound like they're having a great time. After a stuttering and momentum-encouraging drum break, Monder takes off for a solo flight of his own. Kudos here to bassist John Herbert, whose ultra-swingin' lines provide particularly dynamic compin' material. Leader Preminger follows Monder with his own impressive solo (this guy is only 22?!). Monder joins Preminger at the end to close things out with another short but intense unison passage. I'd love to hear what they'd do with this in a live setting.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jason Domnarski: Tofu Queen

Beginning with a simple 3-chord electric piano dirge that draws directly from the James Bond theme, Jason Domnarksi's "Tofu Queen" (love that title!) blooms into several surprising directions. The theme presented is a pensive, close-to-the-vest kind of thing. Attentive listening will reveal several subtle bits of dissonance. They foreshadow the tune's bridge that features moody, almost Melotron-ish pedal tones that Domnarski uses to paint expansions of his earlier mood. This leads to a nice-&-bluesy electric piano solo followed by a full-band restatement of the head. The instrumentation, being a standard piano trio, is misleading, as this particular trio has so much more to offer.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chico Pinheiro & Anthony Wilson: Planicie

Here is a case where less is most certainly more, in that the interlocked guitar arpeggios, while inspiring in and of themselves (and where the handoff of ideas seems telepathic), are not just background and structure but integral parts of the solo passages to follow. Guitars, 6- and 7-string acoustic plus electric, all seem to be living inside the same melodic storyline. There are times when the shift from one instrument to the next is so subtle as to defy reality. Imagine a beautiful chord solo (by, say, Gene Bertoncini), and then recast it with three guitars.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Karel Velebny: Andulko Safarova

This feels like a requiem for something or somebody. Maybe for a really big fan of Rahsaan Roland Kirk who met with a tragic end? Seriously, I hate to make light of Velbny's composition because it's a very textured affair just loaded with ominous sounds and off-kilter rhythms. Beginning with phrases presented by flute, recorder and bowed bass, successive rounds are punctuated with chunks of prepared piano, scraped bass strings, bells, and some of the moodiest bass clarinet passages you've ever heard. A lively, almost angry flute does come in to make a few insistent statements before the full band plays out the tune's last spooky lament.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gunter Hampel Group: Heroicredolphysiognomystery

Wow, and you thought "Klactoveesedstene" was tough to pronounce! Well, no matter. The fun here is in the listening. During the composition's opening minutes, Willem Breuker and Gunter Hamel run incredible circles around each other – clarinets, flutes and saxophone careening with abandon. Some full-band cacophony (my goodness, Breuker might give Peter Brotzmann a run for his money) leads into a Hampel/Corbois vibraphone/drum duet of sorts. This takes us slowly back into horns-behaving-badly madness. Hampel dedicated this piece to Eric Dolphy. The result is certainly in that spirit. When the last cymbal strike rings off into the distance, you will find yourself reaching for the repeat button.

November 17, 2008 · 1 comment

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Mostly Other People Do The Killing: Drainlick

Ornette Coleman: This Is Our Music

Fans of Ornette will immediately recognize this record's cover shot as being a clever tribute to the classic Coleman album. You might think (if you're one of those uptight jazz people) that it takes a lot of balls (Wait … would an uptight jazz person use the word "balls"?) to release a record that fails to take Ornette seriously. Well, that would be missing the point. While there are certain parallels to Coleman's quartet sound (including Moppa Elliott's nonstandard use of the double bass), this band is in full-on Ornette praise mode. "Drainlick" is a great big lopsided blues that gets taken apart, dropped on the floor, and then expertly reconstructed. So what if there's this one part that nobody can figure out where to put back? If none of this makes any sense to you, then you've never listened to Ornette.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wolfert Brederode: Soil

This tune finds clarinetist Claudio Puntin playing with intensity and passion as well as gentle lyricism. The circular passages that introduce the track are reminiscent of the great British saxophonist Evan Parker. That kind of angular playing does come back later in the composition, interspersed with some lighter phrases that pair well with Brederode's open and chiming piano chords. "Soil" is a modern blues that draws much of its power from the emotional distance between the clarinet (insistent, on edge) and piano, which keeps more of an even keel. As with many ECM recordings, what's not played makes things even more interesting, the "air" in the recording further distilling its content.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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New York Electric Piano: Temple Tantrum

Imagine the deep groove of The Headhunters. Now mix in a little of the intensity and weirdness of Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group. New York Electric Piano is sort of like that, minus the mind-melting electric guitar and those really awful vocals (for the truly masochistic, or even the merely interested, check out the song "Full Moon Boogie"). Bassist Tim Givens and drummer Aaron Comess lay down an insistent groove over which the rest of the band spread the funk. The secret weapon here may be Leon Gruenbaum, who plays an instrument of his own construction: the samchillian. What that is exactly is a little too technical and nerdy (I mean that in a good way) for this space, but let's just say that the fact that Gruenbaum has played with the likes of James "Blood" Ulmer, Vernon Reid, and Cyro Baptista explains a lot of about this group's sound. Or it means I haven't had enough sleep recently and am just in love with "Temple Tantrum."

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Greg Diamond: Rebulico

Guitarist Greg Diamond plays with an assured and warm tone. Saxophonist Seamus Blake brings to mind Paul Desmond. The rhythm section is stellar. But it's the brilliant unison work that makes "Rebulico" worth a listen. Diamond and Blake fly through their lines at breakneck speed. Later on, Diamond takes a beautiful solo that mixes single-note runs and short chord solo passages. Blake's turn is similarly impressive. The intriguing thing about this composition is that it sounds very modern while retaining an obvious Latin flair.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Barnacled: Losing Weight Through Prayer

With instruments listed such as a shortwave radio and modified Speak & Spell, you're not exactly expecting Kenny G. Thankfully, there are no hideous surprises on that front. Instead, your ears will be forcefully opened by the rhythm section's driving lurch over which the horns and accordion fight for attention. A center section introduces the baritone sax as things devolve (or evolve, depending on your mood) into an Evan Parker spin cycle. A bit later, the bass groove rematerializes, setting up a blistering sax solo that serves as lead-in for an energized restatement of the head. Terrific stuff, though probably not for the Kenny G set.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane & Don Cherry: Bemsha Swing

John Coltrane never cared much for what other people thought. He must have had doubts, at least occasionally—he was human, after all—but ultimately he let his instinct for exploration guide him. A prime example is The Avant-Garde, where he joined forces with several of Ornette Coleman's sidemen at a time when Coltrane was the most influential musician in jazz and they were insurgent up-and-comers. Whereas most of the album consisted of interpretations of Coleman tunes (and one by co-leader Don Cherry), the band took a stab at a prior era's avant-garde with the recording of Monk's "Bemsha Swing." Monk's melody is not technically demanding, yet the empathy shared by Coltrane and Cherry in playing the unison theme is still notable. They phrase and blend like a single instrument.

Cherry's biggest fault as a player was the ever-present "splat" that characterized his attack and sound in general when he used an open horn. That's a factor here, yet it fades in significance next to his gift for unfettered melodic invention. Cherry was the ideal companion for Coleman, in that he served as a natural bridge between Ornette's downhome concept and mainstream bop. Cherry's skill at reconciling related if contrasting approaches is put to good use here, as he plays totally free while maintaining the integrity of Monk's construct.

In contrast, Trane seems tentative, perhaps because his natural inclination is to deal with the chords more directly. After Cherry's comparatively free improvisation, Coltrane's method of navigating the changes—ingenious though it may be—sounds nearly archaic. As a result, the track isn't the complete success one might expect. That said, the very existence of this recorded meeting between the avant-garde's greatest trumpeter and its premier tenor saxophonist is something to be treasured.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Paul Bley: Batterie

Carla Bley has had a career-long flair for writing theatrical pieces that sometimes sound like they should accompany silent movies. Her compositions can project absurdity and somberness, often in the same song, whether rendered by a full orchestra or a small group.

Even in a 5-piece outfit playing unrestrained jazz, this quality shines through, as it does for "Batterie." The frantic theme is not dissimilar to one Ornette Coleman used years later for his "Happy House," and once the formalities are done, listeners are assaulted with a fierce, one-two punch from the Sun Ra Arkestra's Allen and Johnson. The leader responds with some oddly rolled chords and fragments in pensive counterpoint to the savage horns. Meanwhile, Graves is a one-man wrecking crew on his kit, doing the work of two drummers at twice the speed. Gomez does well just to keep up with everyone else.

Who says there's no drama in free jazz? There's plenty to be found in "Batterie."

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Waltz For Zweetie

"Waltz For Zweetie" provides a contrast from the more advanced compositions that Joe Henderson was then tackling. The inaugural recording of Walter Bishop's tune casts the tenorman in more conventional 3/4 time, showing off his knack for the sweet, romantic style that waltzes typically call for. The piece is also more democratic, as Friedman's impressionistic stylings get fully articulated and Carter's bass work is outstanding in its range and lyricism. The leader himself solos last, steadfastly in the Rollins tradition and making excellent use of space. "Waltz For Zweetie" hasn't been covered much since, which is a shame. It's got a light, buoyant melody that's memorable. In any case, it would be hard to beat Joe Henderson's rendition.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Tetragon

"Tetragon" is a modernized bebop tune, with the head demonstrating Joe Henderson's flair for imaginative chord progressions. This time, it's a series of descending chords and a start-stop melody that gives the song distinction. Another distinction is Henderson's sheer speed in running through scales even through chord changes. While he had the ability to modulate brilliantly between hot and cool from one phrase to the next, it's almost all hot blowing in this instance, and it's top notch. Henderson gets some solid comping from Kenny Barron, who was just starting to come into his own around this time. The pianist steps out shortly thereafter into a fine solo, followed by Ron Carter's blues walking on his standup bass.

Though inspired largely by postwar jazz, Joe Henderson's blues-based "Tetragon" is a timeless display of artistry.

November 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Cunliffe: Port Authority

In the ongoing debate about which jazz recordings merit elevation to the status of "classic," there are few (other than Kind of Blue) that enjoy a consensus among jazz pundits. But Oliver Nelson's 1961 album The Blues and the Abstract Truth clearly makes the cut, having given us the immortal "Stolen Moments" among its five other unforgettable tracks. In tackling the daunting task of re-creating this cool-hot blue gem of an album, pianist Bill Cunliffe took it a step farther by adding two compositions of his own, keeping both in the spirit and context of the original six sides.

One of these originals, "Port Authority," seems to have jumped out of Nelson's head and picked up where the classic album ended. Bill Cunliffe's efficient arranging skills take full advantage of this octet, resulting in a sound that suggests a much larger ensemble. In this urban romp he creates ample dissonant tension within the hard-boppish head before unleashing the solos through a swinging 32-bar blues form, where these superb players establish beyond a doubt that "authority" is indeed their modus operandi while cruising the deep blues. A special treat is Mark Ferber's edgy drum solo, which safely pilots the ensemble back to port. Admiral Nelson would surely approve.

November 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ludovic and Kruno: Philadelphie Sur Seine

Kruno Spisic turned many heads when he debuted at Birdland's Django Reinhardt Festival in 2006, due to his crisp, lively and dead-accurate interpretation of Django's style. French accordion master Ludovic Beier was also on the bill, and the two hit it off big time. The following year Beier made the trip to Philadelphia to record this intimate album of swing, jazz, and traditional Eastern European numbers.

Some jazz fans still consider the Gypsy jazz movement to be a retro-nostalgia thing, much like the jitterbug craze. Likewise, there are those who, upon meeting an accordion, will instantly recall Frank De Vol playing bandleader Happy Kyne leading His Mirthmakers on that 1970s talk-show spoof, Fernwood 2Night, or "The Love Goddess" Judy Tenuta mugging with her squeezebox. If you find yourself in either camp, this recording is not for you. But you would be missing some superb music. Here we have a pairing of two virtuosic players in a seamless performance filled with warmth and passion. And, yes, the button accordion is indeed a serious jazz instrument, especially in the hands of Ludovic Beier. I would urge listening with open mind and heart.

This track is a bossa, but with a subtle difference: rather than the familiar Brazilian feel, one hears distinctive gypsy strumming in the rhythm section. The intuitive and respectful interaction between the two soloists is a perfect fit. Kruno's clean jazz Manouche technique applied to a gorgeous petite bouche acoustic guitar is like a fresh autumn breeze, while Ludovic's expressive accordion work evokes a romantic Left Bank café. I recommend serving this recording with a nice bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape or at least a decent pinot noir.

November 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Harper (featuring Amiri Baraka): Africa Revisited

If I didn't know better, I'd think Amiri Baraka is mellowing in his old age. Now 74, the remorseless radical was last in the news a year ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider his lawsuit against former New Jersey state officials for terminating him as Poet Laureate in response to his controversial poem blaming the United States for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For anyone unfamiliar with the Poet Laureate's stirring ode "Somebody Blew Up America," that's the one where, among other calumnies, he accused Israel of having foreknowledge of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and of surreptitiously warning "4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day." Baraka also claimed that an Israeli film crew who documented the explosion could be seen gleefully "cracking they sides at the notion." (An educated man, the Professor Emeritus [State University of New York at Stony Brook] likes to toss in grammatical errors to bolster his sagging street cred.)

So you can imagine my surprise upon encountering Baraka's restrained (yes, restrained!) participation in Billy Harper's "Africa Revisited," over which musical performance the Professor Emeritus declaims his vignette "Where Dat Stuff Come From?" In this instance, stuff refers to jazz, but Baraka disdains said term as having been "media-named," and every anti-Semite worth his salt knows who controls the media. In any event, the Professor's saga of Dat Stuff commences with "the earliest blood songs the African made at the bottom of the ship" during the 40 days on the ocean, 40 nights in hell of the Middle Passage. Next come field hollers and work songs, for as the Professor Emeritus sneers, "We were not brought here to play basketball or place second on American Idol."

What for, then? Well, obviously, as the Professor Emeritus sees it, to play in the band. Taking Dat Stuff to the next level, however, requires urbanization. Notwithstanding such lurid distractions as the "blood-&-guts arena" of St. James Infirmary, moving to the Crescent City permits a fateful "new encounter with European instruments," says the Professor Emeritus, "themselves prototypes of the ancient African ones."

Whoa. Clearly I have overestimated the Professor Emeritus' erudition. How can modern instruments be prototypes of ancient ones? Yet before I can parse this cart-before-the-horse non sequitur, Professor Emeritus continues his exegesis of European instruments. "As the piano emerged," he recounts, "voilà, it was segregated into all the white keys and the black five set up top" so that "when the slaves got over here they could immediately pick out the notes to make the blues." Talk about your 40 nights in hell! As a metaphorist, with his segregated white keys and black keys, Professor Emeritus wouldn't even place second on American Idol. More like 42nd.

Still he forges on, following Dat Stuff wherever it leads, which by now is to big bands engineered by Fletcher Henderson, who "did all of Benny Goodman's arrangements for Goodman's radio show at 32 dollars a pop." Actually, according to Ross Firestone's book Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life & Times of Benny Goodman (Norton, 1994), the fee was $37.50 and was acceptable to Mr. Henderson. But more to the point, which is the presumed exploitation of a black genius by a white huckster, it should be noted that in early 1935, when Goodman and his band were featured on NBC's Let's Dance radio program, the U.S. was still clawing its way out of the Mariana Trench of the Great Depression. Per capita personal income was a meager $474. Fletcher Henderson had merely to crank out 12 arrangements to equal what the average Joe or Jane could earn in a year. Mr. Henderson's orchestrations were a far cry from "blood songs" extorted at the bottom of a slave ship.

At this point, the track peters out and our history lesson terminates prematurely, only to resume on the ensuing track ("Knowledge of Self"), which is otherwise unrelated to "Africa Revisited." This arbitrary break underscores the fundamental disconnect between Billy Harper's music and Baraka's spoken words, recited not as an integral part of the group's performance but overdubbed later, probably long after the band had gone home.

Musically, "Africa Revisited" revisits "Africa" from John Coltrane's 1961 LP Africa/Brass. Essentially a 2-chord vamp over a pedal point à la the previous year's Coltrane hit "My Favorite Things," the 16½-minute "Africa" was overlong and monotonous, but at least spared us LeRoi Jones (as Amiri Baraka was then known). "Africa Revisited" is virtually the same length as its prototype (take that, Professor Emeritus), and is deliberately imitative. What distinguishes it, if that is the word, is the pedagoguery
(if that is a word) of Professor Emeritus.

Yet, as I indicated above, Billy Harper's "Africa Revisited" is notable most for Amiri Baraka's restraint. So uncharacteristically does he abstain from anti-Semitism and railing against paleface devils, that it's hard to believe this is the same rhetorical rottweiler from back in the day when an earnest young woman asked how she and other whites could help heal America's racial wounds. Baraka replied: "You can help by dying. You are a cancer. You can help the world's people with your death." Thankfully, there is none of that rancor here. Just the same tired History of Jazz previously set to music, and to better effect, by chroniclers from poet Langston Hughes in 1954 to the rappers Gang Starr in 1989.

You know, I never thought I'd say it, but "Africa Revisited" makes me nostalgic for the Amiri Baraka of old. What ever became of the hotheaded, self-appointed commissar who grandly decreed: "The Black Artist's role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. The Black Artist must teach the White Eyes their deaths, and teach the black man how to bring these deaths about." Now that's the Amiri Baraka we know and love.

November 15, 2008 · 3 comments

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Joe Henderson: Mode For Joe

Cedar Walton is no minor composer, but he may have reached the pinnacle with "Mode for Joe." Chords gracefully ascend and descend, and optimal use is made of spacing and timing. The expanded horn ensemble along with Hutcherson's vibes gives the song the elegant heft it demands, without being too large to play nimbly.

This song isn't perfect just because Walton scored it flawlessly, though. "Mode" is a signature Joe Henderson performance as well. In the midst of the call and response between Henderson and the rest of the front line, the leader shocks the listener by inserting some rough, dissonant lines that he repeats precisely as played the first time. His solo that follows is likewise a mixture of cool, precise phrasing with loosely conceived statements punctuated by coarse honks.

Like the great painter Picasso, Joe Henderson combines the odd with the beautiful to create something oddly beautiful.

November 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Punjab

Like many of Joe Henderson's songs, "Punjab" is the kind of modern jazz composition that arose in the wake of harmonic innovations introduced in Coltrane's Giant Steps and Miles's Kind of Blue. There's a lot of root movement in the thematic line declared by Henderson and Dorham. While the tune is a blues at its core, it's a longer form than the standard 12 bars. But since it's still the blues, Henderson sounds right at home, producing an endless wellspring of articulations that employ both lightning-fast arpeggios and easygoing, rhythmic phrases, all gliding over a melody with strange chord changes. And oddly enough, it's a melody that's hard to shake once it gets inside of you. "Punjab" succeeds in making the complex simple to digest.

November 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Buck Hill: But Beautiful

There's a great 1960 William Claxton photograph of Buck Hill standing in his postman's uniform on the steps of a house, saxophone held to his mouth, while neighborhood children play in front of him. The "Jazz Postman" or "Wailin' Mailman" worked 40 years for the U.S. Postal Service in his hometown of Washington, D.C., where as a teenager he studied music with a teacher who had also taught a young Duke Ellington. Hill chose this secure day job in order to support his family, playing local jazz gigs at night and recording as a leader when such opportunities finally came along starting in 1978.

Hill's treatment of the ballad "But Beautiful" is an excellent example of his polished and confident hard-bop style, most similar to Dexter Gordon's. (Hill was born four years after Gordon.) The first thing you notice is Hill's robust sound, as he unhurriedly embellishes the melody with runs that often end in deep bass notes. As he embarks on his solo, piercing inflections are introduced, and he effectively utilizes wide interval leaps to add spice and emotional bite to his musings. Ozment plays a profoundly lyrical solo with an endearingly light touch. Hill's soulful return to the theme culminates in an inventively sustained and resolved coda. Fortunately, Buck Hill got to record enough gems like "But Beautiful" to lift this local legend out of nearly total obscurity and towards some semblance of a wider audience, as well as to generate a fair amount of critical acclaim.

November 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ronnie Cuber: Con Pasión

For many years, Ronnie Cuber has been one of the most in-demand sidemen and studio musicians on his instrument. Yet, as he turns 67 in December 2008, he is unlikely to be one of the first baritone saxophonists that most jazz fans would name. Eddie Palmieri, Maynard Ferguson, B.B. King, Paul Simon, Woody Herman, George Benson, Frank Zappa, J. Geils, Lee Konitz, Eric Clapton, the Mingus Big Band, Lonnie Smith – the list of his past associations is endless and impressive. However, Cuber has often seemed most at home playing Latin jazz in his searing and nimble hard-bop style.

"Con Pasión" bristles with emotion, recalling Gato Barbieri at his best. After Cuber's romantic, yearning intro, he warmly sways through the lilting theme, embellishing it with intense extended lines and dancing Latin-rhythmic figures. His upper-register excursions, always one of his strengths on the big horn, are as usual deftly executed. Drew, Jr., a more flamboyant pianist than his father, creates dense, rippling, technically brilliant arpeggios during his gripping solo, which elicit a shout-out from at least one appreciative bandmate. Cuber's reprise fluctuates between his brawny and tender sides, concluding an extremely moving ballad performance with a flourish.

November 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: Dickie's Dream

Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra can play an old territory band-type of arrangement with the precision of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, or take a looser, more progressive and playful route, such as Sun Ra would with a Fletcher Henderson piece. Years of honing their skills at the Tonic club on New York's Lower East Side have given the MTO formidable expressive power, unlimited flexibility and great rapport.

Basie's orchestra of course began as a territory band, and the classic "Dickie's Dream" was first recorded in 1939 by Basie's smaller Kansas City Seven, featuring solos by Buck Clayton, Lester Young and Dickie Wells. Bernstein based his arrangement, however, on the all-star big band fronted by Basie on CBS-TV's memorable The Sound of Jazz special from 1957. (In his liner notes, Bernstein mistakenly credits the 1957 arrangement to Andy Gibson; it was in fact written by Nat Pierce.) A Freddie Green-styled guitar riff and bustling drum accents launch the track, and the band enters playing the insistent theme with an authentic-sounding harmonic texture. A guitar fill precedes Gayton's fluently swinging trombone solo, unrelenting guitar riffs spurring him on. Burnham's slow-burning violin improv invokes both Claude Williams and Stuff Smith, as horn figures blare behind him. Apfelbaum grabs your attention from his first pungent phrase, which he then embellishes and amplifies creatively for the rest of his solo. Guitarist Wamble is next, in a Django Reinhardt mode, followed by Munisteri leaning more towards Charlie Christian. The band drops in still more riffs as the guitars exchange gliding passages. The wailing out chorus is riveting, augmented by Perowsky's rousing and unfettered big band drumming.

November 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tom Beckham: Tethered

Brooklyn-based vibraphonist Tom Beckham is a lyrical player with a flair for writing distinctive, memorable tunes. On Rebound, Beckham is rejoined by Cheek and Hey from his previous CD Center Songs, plus newcomers Clohesy and Nemeth.

The leadoff track, "Tethered," is a good example of Beckham's thoughtful compositional approach: "With this song, the pitch at the end of each phrase suggested the pitch of the following phrase." Vibes and bass introduce the slowly building melodic theme, with Beckham sounding like a mixture of Gary Burton and Mike Mainieri. Piano and drums enter as Cheek's tenor sax reads the same line, accentuating its smoothly interconnecting short phrases until the group ups the dynamic level, adding heat and emotion to what had been a coolly deliberate exposition. Beckham's appealing solo is played with a warm, rounded tone and displays a sure technical finesse. Cheek follows with his always identifiable, inviting sound and an imaginative flow of well-formulated and resolved ideas. Hey's piano solo focuses on sharply delineated chords and a series of cascading runs. Cheek again takes up the tantalizing theme to close out the piece, with Beckham's animated arpeggios complementing him superbly. This track invites repeated listens, so compelling are the tune, the series of solos, and group interplay.

November 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane & Don Cherry: The Blessing

The Avant-Garde is John Coltrane's most literal encounter with the music of Ornette Coleman. It features several of Ornette's sidemen: trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Ed Blackwell, and bassists Charlie Haden and Percy Heath. (Haden played on two tracks, including this one; Heath played on the other three.)

"The Blessing" was first recorded by Coleman on his debut LP, Something Else!!!!, which is arguably his most conservative album. Coltrane's approach to this tune seems similarly restrained. Indeed, compared to his other work around this time, he sounds almost tentative, as if he were trying to find his way around an unfamiliar landscape. That's not to say the results are less than fascinating. His soprano sound is a good deal rounder and less penetrating than usual, perhaps because of the need to blend with Cherry's Harmon-muted trumpet. The trumpet/soprano sonority is novel and effective. Cherry and Coltrane play together extremely well in the ensembles; their line breathes together as one. Cherry solos first, playing cleanly, quickly and perhaps more coherently than he did with Coleman. He plays like he's got something to prove—as well he might, given Coltrane's exalted status. Coltrane takes a stab at unalloyed lyricism at the beginning of his solo, but his improvisation soon evolves into a maze of complexity over the simple harmonic base. Haden and Blackwell are a bit introverted, not engaging the soloists to any great extent, but holding down the fort harmonically and rhythmically. Blackwell does contribute an attractive, tom-based solo that moves beyond explicit tempo and form.

Coltrane did his own thing at this point in his career. That he was willing and eager to step outside his comfort zone to engage the music of another musician says a great deal about the respect he had for Coleman, Cherry, et al. While he's something of a fish out of water on his own record, he plays beautifully, as do his cohorts.

November 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Escreet: The Suite of Consequence (Movement II)

A foreboding introduction ushers in "The Suite of Consequence (Movement II)." While "Movement I" was somewhat structured, "Movement II" is nothing of the sort. A somber and simultaneous chaotic atmosphere hangs in the air. Saxophonist David Binney and bassist Matt Brewer take turns trying to sound like each other in a slow and sad section. Pianist John Escreet and Binney follow by trying to fill the now present sound vacuum with some spatial texture. The doom and gloom continues as the volume and participation levels increase. Now all obvious structure is lost. A free jazz formlessness appears, then disappears. It turns out that there is form in the unformed. I am usually not a big fan of this free jazz stuff. But Escreet's music has the ability to maintain interest. Perhaps it is because it is a section of a larger piece, and you need to hear this to get you from here to there. At any rate, "Movement II" is quite engaging.

There are three parts to the overall suite. They are listed as separate cuts, but "Movement II" flows seamlessly into "Movement III" without any pause on the CD. It is a continuation of the substance of "Movement II." However, as the piece draws closer to its end, there is an increased amount of dynamic syncopation, stops and starts and unison playing. The suite ends with a dead stop.

This music will not be to everyone's liking. But those of you who enjoy listening to jazz musicians trying to meet the strong challenge of powerfully intricate music that is still somehow free will be very stimulated.

November 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Escreet: The Suite of Consequence (Movement I)

Consequences is the debut recording from the John Escreet Project. Pianist Escreet is an English transplant to New York City. The album contains a collection of his original compositions played with earnestness by a group of talented musicians.

"The Suite of Consequence (Movement I)" is the first movement of a 3-part suite. The piece is classical in structure, as one would surmise from its title. This is very much a scored production that you could imagine being heard in a melodramatic movie soundtrack. If not for the PR material that accompanies the CD, you would question whether there was any improvisation at all. But with that knowledge beforehand, you can determine the improvised sections. Without exception they are played in such a way as to maintain the core identity of the piece. That identity clearly has serious intentions. There are no smiles on these faces. This is music that takes a studied effort to play and to listen to. The group's rhythm section is tight, and Escreet, saxophonist David Binney and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire are creative and lyrical players.

November 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Adriano Adewale: Comboio

I admit I have to get used to some of the vocals that appear on Sementes. So far I can't quite get my ears around them. It isn't because they are not good. I just don't know whether they are or not because I have no frame of reference. In the end I have to figure that out on my own. In the meantime, there are vocals on "Comboio." But they are treated more as rhythm than as melody. That makes it easier for me.

Composer and percussionist Adriano plays the tarol, a Brazilian snare drum that is shallower than a traditional snare drum. It is lightweight and often worn over the shoulder. According to tradition it helps guide the overall percussion in a band by its constant "rolling." Adewale certainly does a lot of rolling on this piece.

This jazz is a mix of cultures. There are the African sounds of Nigeria and Angola. The South American sounds of Brazil are tangible. There is some European flavor. I even hear Klezmer. The music also has a classical feel to it sometimes evoking Leonard Bernstein and his West Side Story era. "Comboio" means convoy or to escort in Portuguese. So I need to add another cultural influence to my list.

The beat is the key ingredient to the success of this song. But the happily innocent melody is a strong supporter. A propulsive rhythm, played solely on the tarol, introduces the cut. We are exuberant. Soon a more jungle-like atmosphere envelops us. We are a bit worried as clarinets and flutes are heard in the distance. We don't know where we are. A repeating voice is heard. At first the repetition is quiet and slow. Soon it becomes faster, louder and more urgent. The tension builds until released in the joyful reprise of the song's main theme. All's well that ends well.

This was an interesting listen. Perhaps it will help me create my own frame of reference so I can go back and dig the rest of the music.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Carl Orr: JFP (John Francis Pastorius)

"JFP," named in honor of the great bassist Jaco (Francis) Pastorius, stands on its own merits on guitarist Carl Orr's Blue Thing. It is a good piece of jazz-fusion music. But the mere act of a guitar player writing a song in memory of a bass player is further indication that Jaco's influence went beyond his particular instrumental technique. Jaco was full of ideas that could be expressed on any instrument and in many forms. Still, Jaco was a bassist, and Orr lets his bassist Adam Armstrong pay his own tribute by affording him a dominant position. Armstrong does the master proud with some fast fingering and interesting phrasing. He does not imitate Pastorius because that would have been foolish and impossible. Later on, Orr takes his own turn. As always, his playing is superlative. Tenor saxophonist Dale Barlow enters, and he and Orr go at it in a grooving progressive jazz section. "JFP" is a first-class composition that Jaco would have enjoyed playing. Of course, he wouldn't have played it in this way. That's what he was all about.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Blackthorn Rose

Wayne Shorter's "Blackthorn Rose" is a beautiful duet performed with Josef Zawinul. The first part of the tune is a mournful ballad. As the song evolves it becomes more abstract. Shorter's fluttering soprano sax volleys float above Zawinul's staccato piano chords. Zawinul puts periods, question marks and exclamation points on the end of Shorter's exploratory lines. The simpatico between the two masters is sublime. My guess is that a performance like this would yield appreciative but mild applause from a Weather Report fusion crowd. This tune did not require banks of electronics and the mastery of pages of complicated notation that many jazz-rock fans were expecting. Instead it required something much more intrinsic to good music and especially a good duet. Shorter and Zawinul had a deep understanding of each other's musical sensibilities. These guys could have been playing a wooden flute and a toy keyboard and they still would have meshed brilliantly. Sometimes the most understated message says the most.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Inner Urge

"Inner Urge" is a hard-swinging vehicle for a torrid blowing session. Joe Henderson lined up Coltrane's pianist and drummer (as well as Rollins's bass player) to back him, just nine days before Trane's two sidemen joined their boss (and bassist Jimmy Garrison) to record A Love Supreme. Clearly Henderson was seriously intent on showing he could measure up to two of his primary tenor influences, and doesn't disappoint.

Henderson's two solos here are extended, but he keeps things flowing by liberally mixing pleasantly tuneful passages with exciting, turbulent ones. Cranshaw and Tyner also sparkle during their turns. Elvin Jones, however, nearly steals the show with peerless, thunderous polyrhythms that rank among his better drum solos on record.

As a supremely confident saxophonist already running out of things to prove at this stage, Henderson again upped the ante with "Inner Urge."

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Our Thing

With its variable beats and hot bop lines, "Our Thing" could be considered something of a precursor to the better-known "The Kicker," which Joe Henderson would record the following year with the Horace Silver Quintet. But even more than with the song he lent to Silver, Henderson tests the limits of hard bop with "Our Thing."

The time signature changes from double-time to a leisurely gallop and back again. The main theme that rides on this rocky rhythm might be a gauntlet for most horn players to negotiate alone, much less in perfect unison with another musician as Henderson and Dorham do here. Henderson swings superbly on his solo, and Dorham lays down some Clifford Brown-type phrasing before turning matters over to Hill and his rhythmic precision.

"Our Thing" shows Henderson the composer constructing complex harmonics and tempos, even near the beginning of his career.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob Dorough: Comin' Home Baby

"Comin' Home Baby" was first popularized by Herbie Mann's instrumental recording for Atlantic Records, with its composer Ben Tucker on bass. Tucker then got Dorough to write lyrics for it, and producer Nesuhi Ertegun convinced a reluctant Mel Tormé to record it for his first album on Atlantic. As Tormé wrote in his autobiography, "It was a minor-key blues tune with trite repetitious lyrics and an 'answer' pattern to be sung by the Cookies, a girl trio that had once worked for Ray Charles…. It was number 19 [on the Billboard charts] for two or three weeks, and then bye-bye 'Baby'."

While Tormé obviously felt he had "sold out" with "Comin' Home Baby," his overly harsh assessment is nonetheless a minority opinion. At the Iridium in 2004, Dorough's regular backup singing duo, the Bobettes, helped him create an infectious version. While the lyrics admittedly may not be among Dorough's best, the melody has always been a grabber. The seductive rhythm originally created by Tucker is sustained here initially by bass, piano and guitar. Dorough next engages in an unpretentious, well-delivered call-&-response recital of the lyrics with the Bobettes. After soulful solos by Dorough's piano and Steve Berger's guitar, Dorough and the Bobettes pick up pleasingly from where they left off. This is plain old hard-to-resist fun. No more, no less.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob Dorough & Dave Frishberg: I'm Hip

Dave Frishberg became a big Bob Dorough admirer when he heard Bob's first album, Devil May Care, around 1956. When they met in New York several years later, they aspired to become a songwriting team, but little came of it except for an engagingly witty tune that has stood the test of time. "I'm Hip," with Dave's lyrics set to Bob's music, became an obvious choice for their first recording together in 1999, by which time they had each sung it separately countless times.

In his spoken introduction on the CD, Dorough proudly remarks that "I'm Hip" even made a New York Times crossword puzzle (clue: "tune by Frishberg & Dorough"). Dorough takes the vocal to begin, singing a few stanzas before veering off into a scatted interlude that is soon interrupted by Frishberg calling out, "Wait a minute, you think you're hip. Dig on this, homey," and then proceeding to play a bombastic piano figure that sends them both into mock ecstasy. Frishberg vocalizes his remaining lyrics, and, as always, the line that draws the biggest laugh is this: "Now I'm deep into Zen, meditation, and macrobiotics, and as soon as I can, I intend to get into narcotics." At one point Frishberg starts uncontrollably repeating the words "I'm Hip" in a foggy overdone baritone, only to crack up the audience even more by admitting to be doing "a little Arthur Prysock." To hear either one of them sing this tune is worth the price of admission. Together, they are unbeatable.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob Dorough: I've Got Just About Everything

Bob Dorough had been singing "I've Got Just About Everything," the title tune of his 1966 LP, for over 30 years when he recorded it again for his second Blue Note CD. He has called it "a really hip love song with a kind of jazz feel, " and it bears a similar relentless propulsion and ebullience in its lyrics as his "Nothing Like You," another older composition (with Fran Landesman) that he got to record with Miles Davis.

After Phil Woods and Joe Cohn play a spirited intro, Dorough romps through the lyrics with flair, his always-relaxed sense of time making the words flow in the way only an assured jazz singer can. The gist of the message: "Just say you'll be my own, my one and only one, and I can say I've got everything I need." If not, he sings with typical humility, "living without it I might turn out a slob, at best remain a blob." The grossly underappreciated guitarist Cohn solos delightfully with precise, luminous phrasing and a self-contained continuity. Woods's alto then soars with gusto over the enticing changes, followed boisterously by drummer Haddad. Dorough's vocal reprise is capped by Woods's fervent obbligato.
This is among Bob Dorough's most enjoyable works, and one that never grows tiresome.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob Dorough: I Get the Neck of the Chicken

Bob Dorough probably first heard "I Get the Neck of the Chicken" while in the Army during World War II. Introduced in the 1942 film Seven Days' Leave, the orchestras of both Cab Calloway and Freddy Martin recorded it, as did Kate Smith. Dorough's high and unpolished, put-upon voice is perfect for capturing this amusing tale of a sad-sack loser who unexplainably succeeds in his love life: "I get the neck of the chicken / I get the hand-me-down tie / I get the liver and the gizzard / I get the small piece of pie / If I get the neck of the chicken / How did I ever get you?" Some of Dorough's clever lines appear to be of his own creation, not Frank Loesser's, such as his hard-to-resist closer, "You so edibobble, baby, you a drumstick!" (Yet he uncharacteristically leaves out the verse.) Lovano is in exuberant form, both while playing the catchy melody at the open and then later surging through a warmhearted solo replete with authoritative, crisply flowing runs. Dorough on piano frolics lucidly with a distinctly boppish mindset, and bassist Christian McBride offers an articulate and forceful statement as well. At age 73 and on his first-ever release for a major label, Bob Dorough showed everyone that he hadn't lost a step.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jazz Passengers (featuring Bob Dorough): Ring the Bell

Two of the most unique tracks that Bob Dorough ever recorded came on projects produced by the creative Hal Willner. On the first, a 1984 double-LP tribute by various artists to Thelonious Monk titled That's the Way I Feel Now, Dorough and Bobby McFerrin scatted a playfully gratifying version of "Friday the Thirteenth" (unfortunately not included on the CD reissue). Then in 1994, Dorough was one of a select group of vocalists joining the Jazz Passengers on their first major label release, In Love.

Dorough sang his own lyrics to Jazz Passenger Bill Ware's composition "Ring the Bell." Dorough's foreboding words run the gamut of bell-ringing connotations, such as in the boxing ring, at the starting gate, on the auction block, and particularly the death knell: "Now you've reached the final phase … postmortem each bad mistake … greed, ambition, jealous fear … don't keep me waiting, just ring the bell." The horns intone insinuating vamps based on fragments of the melody as Dorough's deceptively soothing voice contrasts with the substance of the downbeat message. Ware's discursive vibes solo adds to the disquieting mood. Dorough's tone becomes darker and more insistent as the tempo accelerates in the closing section and Fowlkes and Nathanson improvise freely.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob Dorough: The End of a Love Affair

It should come as no surprise that when Art Farmer joined forces with Bob Dorough's trio for some 1987 gigs in Barcelona, Spain, the results were inspirational. Dorough and Farmer brought out the best in each other, both being such astute interpreters of the Great American Songbook.

Dorough always includes the verse if available when he sings a tune, as he does here for "The End of a Love Affair," delivering it in an engaging singsong manner before smoothly entering the chorus. Farmer first appears for his flugelhorn solo, played with a wonderfully rounded tone, and during which he executes some sparkling head-turning runs. Dorough's piano follows with a bluesy emphasis, typically linear and lyrical. Takas and Levitt are in lockstep in their driving support, and Takas, that most tasteful of electric bassists, also provides a thoughtfully concise solo. Dorough returns to scat the chorus in unison with Farmer, an agreeable, unexpected touch, and then he once again does eloquent justice to composer Redding's endearing words. The line "And the tunes I request are not always the best, but the ones where the trumpets blare," definitely does not refer to any of Dorough's and Farmer's performances in Barcelona that March of 1987.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob Dorough: Nothing Like You

Bob Dorough's first three albums as a leader came at 10-year intervals, and Beginning to See the Light was the third, on his own Laissez-Faire label. (Regrettably, the LP has never been reissued on CD.) "Nothing Like You" was an early collaboration between Dorough and lyricist Fran Landesman, the latter best known for "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men." Dorough first recorded it in 1962 with Miles Davis, arranged by Gil Evans, and the brief vocal mysteriously appeared on Miles's Sorcerer release four years later, which puzzled more than a few of the trumpeter's fans.

Bassist Bill Takas performed and recorded with Dorough from the mid-'50s until shortly before his death in 1998, and often in a duo format. They had a special rapport, as can be heard on this track. Dorough plays the churning melody on piano with Takas's reverberating electric bass alternating between unison lines or complementary chords. Subtitled "An Extravagant Love Song," the words that Dorough next emphatically sings indeed offer an abundance of laudatory sentiments regarding a lover: "Nothing can match the rapture of your embrace, nothing can catch the magic that's in your face … no one has your magnificence." Dorough's melodic piano solo is stirring, as Takas sensitively shadows him all the way with a firm yet agile pulse. This live version is twice the length of the one on Sorcerer, and is the better for it.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob Dorough: Three Is A Magic Number

"Three is a Magic Number" was the first piece Bob Dorough wrote after being hired to create an educational recording to teach kids the multiplication table. Luckily, the project got picked up by ABC-TV, and Dorough became musical director from 1973-1985 for a series of 3-minute animated instructional cartoons on various subjects telecast on Saturday mornings. Contributors to the series overall included Grady Tate, Blossom Dearie, Dave Frishberg, and Jack Sheldon, but Dorough's personal focus was on Multiplication Rock. Countless children were helped to learn math by his clever and often amusing lyrical lessons, and as adults many sought him out years later in jazz clubs to request their childhood favorites.

The original short Dorough vocal of "Three is a Magic Number," backed chiefly by an electric piano (his?), a drummer, and a chorus of singers, sounds much like Paul Simon, with the added homespun sentiment of Mister Rogers. At its folksy, lighthearted core is a simple lesson in multiplying by the number three. However, Dorough's lyrics leave the challenges of elementary math behind at the very end: "A man and a woman had a little baby, yes they did, they had three in the family, that's a magic number."

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob Dorough: Baltimore Oriole

No one has ever sung "Baltimore Oriole" better than Bob Dorough. He recorded it on his debut session as leader in 1956, and then again for his second album a too-long 10 years later. Coincidentally, Hoagy Carmichael, its composer (along with lyricist Paul Francis Webster), also sang it in 1956 on his own Hoagy Sings Carmichael. Carmichael's laconic vocal recalls Jack Teagarden, but since Dorough has cited Teagarden as an influence, surely he was at least indirectly influenced by Carmichael's singing as well, although Dorough usually mentions Nat Cole, Satchmo, Louis Jordan, Trummy Young, Joe Mooney and Blossom Dearie as among his other inspirations. The fact that Dorough has participated in recorded tributes to Carmichael, such as Hoagy's Children and Stardust Melody, indicates his profound love and respect for Hoagy's songs.

Dorough's 1966 version of "Baltimore Oriole" is very similar to his original 1956 interpretation in both arrangement and impact. What makes Dorough's delivery of this tune so enduring is that it plays to his strengths on ballads – a soft, delicately endearing timbre, a pliable voice that clearly articulates every word and phrase of a memorable lyric such as this, and in so doing tells a story with sincere emotion and understanding. His "chirping" piano figure to both open and close the piece provides perfectly evocative bookends. He sings the verse unaccompanied before Tucker and Brice join him for the chorus. From "No time for a lady to be dragging her feathers around in the snow" to the concluding "Come down from that bough, fly to your daddy, fly to your daddy now," Dorough has you in his grasp. (Mischievously, in this rendition, Dorough interjects as an aside that the "Tangipahoa" is "a big river near Baltimore, you know," when in fact it runs between Mississippi and Louisiana.)

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis (featuring Bob Dorough): Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)

The cynical, bah-humbug "Blue Xmas" was probably not what Columbia executives had in mind in 1962 when they asked Miles Davis to record a track for a planned Christmas jazz compilation album. Davis turned to Bob Dorough, whom he had met in Los Angeles in the late '50s and would have sit in with his band to sing "Baltimore Oriole." Miles dug Dorough's hip, laid-back singing style. Dorough left L.A. with a song in hand, met with Miles and arranger Gil Evans, and was soon in the studio with Miles's sextet singing the incendiary words to "Blue Xmas."

Miles in his autobiography ungraciously dismisses the whole affair: " … they thought it would be hip if I had this silly singer named Bob Dorough on the album with Gil arranging … The less said about it the better, but it did let me play with Wayne Shorter for the first time…." Actually, Evans's arrangement of the short track is quite representative, the horns and even the bongos skillfully enhancing the effect of Dorough's guileless vocal. "When you're blue at Xmas time / You see through all the waste / All the sham, all the haste / And plain old bad taste … It's a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy." This is indeed a Christmas song for those who hate Christmas, and you even get a Coltrane-like Shorter solo as an extra added bonus, or stocking stuffer, if you will.

November 12, 2008 · 2 comments

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Bob Dorough: Yardbird Suite / Charles Yardbird Parker was his Name

After spending six formative months performing in Paris, Bob Dorough returned to New York in 1955 just weeks before the death of his idol and friend Charlie Parker. Inspired by the vocalese of Annie Ross, King Pleasure, and Eddie Jefferson, Dorough wrote lyrics for Parker's classic "Yardbird Suite" and recorded this knowing tribute, which has remained prominent in his wide repertoire to this day.

Dorough enthusiastically vocalizes the well-known theme, and also sings breezy lyrics to Bird's solo, a sort of encapsulated telling of the ups and downs of the great bop innovator, both a summation and a shout out to the uninitiated. Imagine a multi-noted phrase like "His improvisation was miraculous" set to a boppish rhythmic pattern. Trumpeter Fitzgerald then offers a searching solo, followed in order by Hitchcock's intricate vibes, Dorough in a percussive piano style similar to Eddie Costa's, and Takas's bass, absorbingly expressive as usual.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob Dorough: Devil May Care

Bethlehem Records folded shortly releasing Bob Dorough's first album, Devil May Care, in 1956, but his debut's many diverse wonders helped seed the beginnings of a loyal (if small) fan base that included Miles Davis. The title track, which Miles would record in 1962, is a defiant, upbeat, rhythmically intense tune that Dorough wrote during his early years in New York spent indulging in the city's frenetic jazz scene. It expresses lyrically how he felt at the time: "Live and love today / Let come tomorrow what may / Don't ever stop for a sigh / It doesn't help if you cry / That's why I'll live and I'll die / Devil may care." Warren Fitzgerald's opening trumpet fanfare, along with Bill Takas's driving bassline and Jerry Segal's taut cymbal pulse, pave the way for Dorough's cocksure vocal, his slight Arkansas twang and soft, occasionally breaking voice making him sound like an engagingly hip hillbilly. Fitzgerald's hearty Clifford Brown-influenced trumpet solo and Dorough's own sprightly piano interlude, prior to his zestful vocal reaffirmation, help complete this signature Dorough track.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ben Pollack: Cryin' for the Carolines

By 1930, Ben Pollack had long stepped away from his drum kit to become the leader-in-front and vocalist. He and his all-star band had to scramble for work by 1930, and casual jobs were supplemented by recordings. This is one of only two sides they did for Hit of the Week, a label that made flexible records sold at newsstands for 15¢. Initially quite successful, Hit of the Week ran into money problems and by 1933 was a memory. Most of its product was geared for the average listener who didn't care for jazz, but every once in a while, a band such as Pollack's would make a couple of sides. (Duke Ellington also recorded for Hit of the Week.) "Cryin' for the Carolines" was the better of the two Pollack recordings, but not by much. It does feature solos by Jack Teagarden and Matty Matlock, and while these are not the best work of either man, they are certainly worth hearing at least once.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ben Pollack: I'm Following You

Ben Pollack's hot dance band was a mainstay at the Park Central Hotel in New York in the late '20s. By 1930, times were tough for dance bands, and the group was often unemployed, with the musicians scattering to get gigs of their own and regrouping when Pollack could line up dance jobs. A recording date for Hit of the Week did not show the band off to good advantage. In fact, the track under review may well be the worst recording this particular edition of the Pollack band ever made. No solos, pure ensemble corn, and Pollack's vocal thrown in as a bonus are what this track has to offer, and only collectors who must have every Pollack side need concern themselves over this recording. On the plus side, Archeophone's transfer is excellent and shows how well recorded the Hit of the Week sides were.
At least the musicians made some money.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Terell Stafford: Berda's Bounce

To open "Berda's Bounce," piano legend Mulgrew Miller dances across the keys in a solo that swings hard from the first phrase. As he finishes, Miller sets up the rest of the band for a brief statement of the tune's catchy melody. From here, saxophonist Steve Wilson starts from scratch, leading a now-quiet rhythm section back into an up-tempo swing. At this point, Stafford's band has reached full steam.

Dedicated to his wife, "Berda's Bounce" completes Stafford's 3-movement New Beginnings Suite with a considerable bang. After Wilson's alto solo, Stafford enters with a stop-time section in which he walks the fine line between blues and hard bop. Stafford's passion pours from the bell of his horn as he pushes listeners to the edge of their seats. Some of the many high points of Stafford's playing include lofty high notes, against-the-grain rhythmic figures, and even a lick reminiscent of Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song." Dana Hall also gets some well-deserved time in the spotlight, with a very tasteful drum solo before the band reunites for the head.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Terell Stafford: Le Maurier

"Le Maurier" is the second movement of Terell Stafford's New Beginnings Suite and is dedicated to Jon Faddis, a renowned trumpeter and mentor to Stafford. The composition is well written, with a slow, pensive melody, and Stafford's flugelhorn tone is a near-perfect match for the piece. It blends almost seamlessly with Dick Oatts's alto and, when Stafford plays alone, is reminiscent of the human voice. Stafford's solo is brief but awe-inspiring. Rather than playing to impress, Stafford carefully constructs a heartfelt melody as he floats over the chord changes. The rhythm section provides a slightly busier accompaniment when Oatts enters and offers his interpretation. At the close of Oatts's beautiful solo, the trumpeter introduces a background figure and Oatts joins him. They end the tune in unison, and Stafford plays a tasteful cadenza over the closing chords.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Terell Stafford: Selah

Terell Stafford opens his New Beginnings Suite with a powerful, bass-driven piece that highlights the trumpeter's funkier side. Stafford defines "Selah" in the liner notes as "a biblical reference meaning 'to pause and reflect.'" This tune gives both its performers and listeners an opportunity to do just that. Its oddly phrased head consists of short bursts of melodic lines shared by Stafford and altoist Dick Oatts. Between these terse statements are spaces filled solely by the rhythm section. These may be what gives "Selah" its title. They serve as a time for the listener to reflect on what has been played, rather than overwhelming him or her with an overly complicated melody.

After a break at the end of the head, Hodge and Hall light a fire under Stafford with a groove that continues to build with every phrase he delivers. Stafford's playing is a breath of fresh air in modern music. He explores numerous harmonic and rhythmic possibilities without wandering too far off the grid and losing the listener's attention. Dick Oatts's solo pushes and pulls at the structure of the tune. He leads the rhythm section into a new groove that brings the energy to a minimum, only to carry it upward once again as Oatts releases a fit of notes to climax this brilliant composition.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Christian Scott: Died In Love

Any musician can express sorrow and anger in his music, but it takes a really good one to express it effectively where there are no lyrics, and in front of a live audience. Christian Scott wrote this lament to a close friend who, along with his new bride, was shot down in cold blood.

The chord progression is dirge-like and varies slightly with each round. Pianist Aaron Parks's relentlessly repeating notes and Matt Stevens's growling guitar add a dramatic effect. For nearly the entire song, Jamire Williams's drums stutter like a shooting victim trying vainly to hang onto life. Scott himself begins with sorrowful notes, which turn over the course of the song into despair, anger and back to sorrow again. With his trumpet, he articulates emotions over the senseless, sudden loss of his buddy that words couldn't convey nearly as well.

"Died In Love" is an example of where Christian Scott's vast technical abilities as a soloist are matched by the sentiment he can express through his horn.

November 11, 2008 · 2 comments

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Carl Orr: Non-violence Is the Only Way Forward

I find the title of this cut to be quite ironic. I agree with the sentiment completely. But Orr and his band literally take no prisoners on "Non-violence is the only way forward." It is shoot first and ask questions later. Orr has channeled Tommy Bolin for this battle. Having loaded his guitar with every possible type of ammunition, he mows down subtlety. The allusion to Bolin is not a singular comparison. There is a driving rhythm to the song that was also present when Bolin played on Billy Cobham's seminal Spectrum. This is present in Orr's spraying notes, Neville Malcolm's bass and even Adam Glasser's electric piano. Drummer Davide de Rose is not Billy Cobham, but he can still play with a driving power. This is the type of fusion that gets us jazz-rock fanatics all up in arms. We'll follow its banner into battle. I suppose once we have killed all the enemy forces, "Non-violence is the only way forward."

November 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Carl Orr: Unstoppable

The clicking of guest drummer Billy Cobham's sticks counts down to "Unstoppable." Cobham was returning the favor to Orr for playing guitar in Cobham's bands on some recordings and various tours since 1990. The tune's opening head is an R&B "Funk City." For a fleeting second or two the piece threatens to go the Smooth Jazz route. (Excuse me while I contemplate vomiting). But the direction veers. Thank God! The melody is somewhat reminiscent of Cobham's more commercial recorded efforts of the '80s and '90s. No surprise there. I am not too thrilled by it. No surprise there either. Of course, Cobham is always worth a listen. But the reason to open your ears for this cut is the tune's midsection. Orr is one of the best fusion guitarists we have. He is a deeply intense player. He tears apart the structure of this tune and throws the waste to the side of the road. There is no pretense here. This is about deconstruction of the form in a passionate and violent way. The only thing that keeps my rating below 90 is the unfortunate head arrangement.

November 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: The Translators

On the back of the original LP jacket, and later in the CD notes, McLaughlin's band is referred to as The Players. In reality the group never had an official name. But by the end of its run the band, comprised of Europeans, was actually most commonly referred to as The Translators.

In McLaughlin's old Mahavishnu days, a tune such as the barely 3-minute "The Translators" would have been part of a much longer piece. Here it stands alone. It is a reverb-filled slow-moving ballad designed to showcase some gorgeous acoustic riffs from McLaughlin. His notes are played over a droning synthesizer and backed by a rather simple percussion and the sliding notes of a double bass. McLaughlin is extremely laid back. You can afford to be that way when the notes you play sing out this way. The riffs are so mesmerizing that the song seems to last all of 10 seconds.

November 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Aspan

"Aspan" is a joy. The character of the piece is largely European with a prejudice toward Spain. Spanish-sounding chord progressions dominate the backing as McLaughlin and keyboardist Katia Labèque engage in some furious calls and responses. The spontaneity of the music belies the fact that Labèque's notes were written out for her.

There are times that Labèque's synthesizer sounds can come off as a bit dated. But her lines are always engaging. When she and McLaughlin play rapid-fire unison notes her tone melds in perfectly. McLaughlin does some killing playing. A bit of the Gypsy in him breaks out from time to time as he jumps into a hyperactive Django jag. Also of interest is drummer Tommy Campbell's reverberating pounding. This band took a bad rap from some corners as not being up to McLaughlin's previous standards. It is true that there was no one in this band who was going to "challenge" McLaughlin. But they were the right players for McLaughlin to get his point across about how wonderful an acoustic guitar could sound playing fusion music in this half-acoustic/half-electric configuration.

I don't know where the title of the tune comes from. But I can quite easily see a bullfight in its melodies and rhythms. Labèque is actually the bullfighter. McLaughlin is the unpredictable bull.

November 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Javon Jackson: One by One

Wayne Shorter composed "One by One" back during his days with Art Blakey. Here Javon Jackson and company capture some of the sweet swinging ambiance of the Jazz Messengers. Nothing too "out" or faddish here, just solid solos over a grooving rhythm section. Jackson starts his improvisation with short, incisive phrases, and gradually stretches them out, and before long they are hurtling forward like a loco-motif Trane threatening to derail. Eric Reed, in contrast, scarcely takes a quarter-note rest during his first chorus—I never knew you could do circular breathing on the keyboard—in which his thematically constructed improvised line coils round and round like the longest serpent in the underbrush. Drummond and Holt are in perfect synch, contributing to the happy proceedings on this infectious track.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Alan Sondheim: 776

Ah, the commune. Ah, the incense. Ah, the ... sorry, I was just flashing back to the '60s for a moment. Seriously, though, this unruly bit of improvised guitar and percussion does have the stamp of that era. Multi-instrumentalist Alan Sondheim improvises his way over a rippling bed of percussion provided by Sugarman and J.P. At first it seems that Sondheim might be heading toward an off-kilter bossa nova of sorts, but as time progresses and as the percussion becomes more insistent, "776" dives straight into "Miserlou" territory. Well, maybe "Miserlou" run through a blender. Surf music for hippies? Eh, why not?!

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gene Bertoncini & Roni Ben-Hur: Smile

It's tough to decide which is more beautiful, the perfect contrast between Gene Bertoncini's nylon-string guitar and Roni Ben-Hur's electric, or the absolutely winning melody written by Charlie Chaplin. Picking a winner seems pointless, as art isn't a competition. Bertoncini and Ben-Hur draw just about every last bit of emotion from the tune as they trade exquisite solo/comping passages. Though the instrumentation is different, the interplay here compares favorably with one of the best jazz duo records of all time: Jim Hall/ Ron Carter's Alone Together. Highly recommended.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jazz Arts Trio: Freeway

This track is an interesting "re-construction." That is, the Jazz Arts Trio decided to pay tribute not by performing their own renditions of the tunes, but by transcribing them and recording the note-for-note transcriptions. So right down to the piano riffs, bass inflections and brush strokes, Vince Guaraldi's "Freeway" comes back to life. For those familiar only with Guaraldi's classic music for Charlie Brown/ Peanuts, it might be a little surprising when the Thelonious Monk influences come shining through. Surely the blues was not unknown to Guaraldi, but an edge too? I have to admit that the idea of re-creating music in this manner was a little off-putting, but the result has far more energy than I expected.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Escreet: Somewhere Between Dreaming and Sleeping

After a particularly weird dream, have you ever noticed how the chemicals your brain parts pumped out managed to make the oddest transitions seem perfectly normal? The unofficial term for this is "dream logic," and this track provides an aural outline of the concept. Oddball plinky noises, broken piano arpeggios and ominous bass scrapings simulate the dreamer attempting to tune in something meaningful on that apparently malfunctioning living-room radio of the mind. But then the sounds begin to coalesce, and what seemed random now makes sense. The theme radiating from those sparse piano and horn notes was set up perfectly by the previous musical scene. When things almost fly apart as the suite ends (we're past the 9-minute point here), that makes sense too. Dream logic indeed.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Levitts: Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most

Some people look back at this 1960s with a sneer. Yes, the war protests and the summer of love and all of that unintentionally devolved into a sad black comedy of sorts. On the other hand, there was a cultural innocence that fostered some inspiring (to say nothing of odd) art. The Levitts were a family outfit whose output might have you thinking of The Partridge Family on an acid trip. Adding to the weirdness is the fact that some tracks came across as quite normal. Their rendition of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" isn't hugely different from Ella Fitzgerald's version. Stella Levitt's voice is certainly pleasant enough, and Chick Corea adds some "jazz cred" to the proceedings. When the tune morphs from ballad to a light Brazilian feel, you get the odd feeling you're on the set of the Mike Douglas show.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Martin Urbach: I Broke The Jazz

OK, so maybe they didn't actually break the jazz (the official line is that Peter Brotzmann broke it), but Martin Urbach's group does at least show it a little disrespect. Particularly fun are the start-&-stop segments in the tune's early sections. With Tim Collins on vibes, the feel is not unlike the Frank Zappa years with Ed Mann at percussion. Collins and leader Urbach shine again mid-song as the duo, along with bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, swing like mad while Collins floats lines in several directions at once. When they return to the main theme, driven by Urbach's short and pointed solo, the band's energy is clearly redoubled. Urbach also gets extra points for a very cool and funny song title. Humor does belong in music!

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Paul Bley: Walking Woman

Vicious. That's the word. With Eddie Gomez and Milford Graves holding down the low end, Sun Ra's not-so-secret weapon Marshall Allen and trumpeter Dewey Johnson launch a firestorm of sound. Leader Bley is more than up to the task, as he tosses back comments from behind his keyboard. A couple of near-unison squeaks from the horns, and Bley takes off on a long solo that sees him engage in a blistering call-&-response workout with Gomez. The entire band comes in for a short restatement of the head, giving a very Ornette-ish feel to the proceedings. People who have a knee-jerk reaction to free jazz should be directed to this track, as it's both technically thrilling and seriously fun.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: We Are MTO

Unless you're cursed with an unusual amount of the "uptight gene," it's hard not to like a blues that has some slink to it. This track funks along from the start with the bass/drums lope of Ben Allison and Ben Perowsky. Charlie Burnham's very earthy violin sets the stage for the entry of the horns and boy, are they ready. Part downhome New Orleans, part New York attitude, this band is relaxed and loose. Check out the partial slide into chaos near the end when the violin switches to pizzicato and spiky notes come in from all directions – and yet the vibe never loses steam. Phew! I gotta towel off.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tony Malaby Cello Trio: Anemone

Beginning with a lone cello floating beneath a series of glockenspiel arpeggios, "Anemone" builds tension as the ear wants to hear that next transition. When it comes, the instrumental inversion – with the cello replacing glockenspiel and saxophone replacing cello – is quite a surprise. This second section gets a little edgier, thanks to some spooky colorations provided by the melodica. (Gee, it's usually such a happy little instrument.) The release, if you can call it that, comes when the glockenspiel reenters midway through the composition, completing this temporary "family of sounds." Resolution, though, is never fully achieved, as the tune returns to its original lineup, navigating a final pass through the stark fog before sax, melodica and cello make one last forlorn statement.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Seven

This is a solo piece composed by Russell Baba. I saw Andrew play with Russell at the San Francisco Asian American Jazz Festival, maybe a couple of years before this was recorded. He had a longstanding relationship with Russell from the ‘70s. This is a straight solo record that Andrew did in the late ‘90s, after not having released much that whole decade. It’s a live record at a small club in France. On this song, he gets a powerful resonance out of the instrument, great clouds of sound. I’ve always cherished Andrew’s sound. He gets the instrument ringing in a way that reminds me of Monk, Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner, and...well, not many other people. You can tell that he cherishes that physical sensation that the piano gives you when you get it really ringing and shaking. You just feel it. It starts to play you. Andrew was able to cut through a rhythm section and still get that depth of sound with that kind of technique, and it often means he plays a little less than, for example, Tommy Flanagan, who was also a percussive player but fleet and delicate as well. Just a different perspective. Here it’s really about physics and getting the whole room resonating. There’s something very majestic and almost sacred about it.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Golden Sunset (alternate take)

This is from one of a couple of records that Andrew did for Blue Note in the late ‘80s. The album itself has a certain coldness, which I think has to do with the way it was recorded—direct to digital two-track, with digital reverb on the drums, and everything sounds a bit cold. Particularly the sound of the bass is nasal. It’s a strange mix, which for me diminished what could have been this record’s impact as a comeback or whatever you could call it. But this song nonetheless is quite powerful, and everyone plays beautifully on it. To me, the alternate take, which is about half as long as the one that was chosen to be released, is the more focused, more intense of the two. The other one was more sprawling and a lot more things happened in it, but the power of the song is watered down. Greg Osby sounds great. It’s a beautiful song, delivered with power and grace. A nice gem from Hill’s later years.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Verona Rag

Basically, what’s always drawn me to Andrew Hill’s music is that it’s so mysterious. It challenges your sense of what music is. You can’t really listen to it as style, like, “Oh, this is a great example of hardbop, or postbop.” To me, it just explodes all those categories. It’s something much more fundamental about existence. I listen to it on those terms, like it’s telling me something about consciousness or about life. When I give a piece a grade of 100. . . I don’t know how it would stand as a piece of music, because to me it’s something larger than that.

Here’s something I wrote earlier about “Verona Rag” for Destination-out.com:

How can one piano piece contain the universe? Somehow this one does . . . It is and is not a rag in the traditional sense; it has a traditional rag form, maddening repeats included, but it also spirals off at times---into fragments of other songs, into glacially paced anti-rag ruminations, into what seem like the recesses of human consciousness. It has glaring imperfections and yet also seems perfectly balanced. Its pulse careens, wobbles, and falters, but this results in a more accurate portrayal of human motion than any piano roll ever could capture. It pushes a quintessentially ragtime hemiola figure to an absurd extreme. It is simply a tour de force explosion of the idea of rag.

Hill constantly allows the two hands to slide slightly out of register, enhancing the polyphony while peeling the rhythm apart like an onion, revealing musical pulse to be a mere convenience, a collective fiction. There are times when Hill seems to be fooling with us, but then you turn a corner and glimpse certain mysteries of existence. Check out the passage starting at 8:45 where he refracts the “C” section, spinning these intoxicating lines across an insistently asymmetric sub-basement left hand, only to hit the last chord with deadpan simplicity each time.

The song ends suddenly, with a dash of elegance and humor, and it feels like the right time to make an exit. The listener has been put through the wringer. You are bewildered and have forgotten what life was like before the song started. But, as Wadada Leo Smith said in this clip from the film Eclipse:

“The artist is the consciousness of society, but musicians’ role is very special. It’s a way of making an example of the perfect state of being for the observer, causing, if it’s successful, the observer to forget just for a moment that there is anywhere else existing except that moment that they’re engaged in, and to eclipse everything that was happening to them before they began that process of being the observer, or being involved and engaged between art and music and listening, and to transform that life in just an instant, so that when they go back to the routine part of living, they carry with them a little bit of something else.” (Smith, Eclipse)

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: California Tinge

This is a great example of Andrew Hill’s abundant solo piano music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It has a unique quality—this kaleidoscopic polyphony—that you come to recognize from him. I guess it wasn’t documented prior to the ‘70s; it may be that he’d already achieved these sorts of techniques much earlier. A lot of this stuff emerged later on. For example, this wasn’t issued until last year. There’s a previous record, From California With Love, which is from the same sessions. It may have been that no one was paying for him to make ensemble records any more after the eighteen sessions he did for Blue Note, with only a third of those released. Anyway it’s nice to see his solo concept start to emerge with such flair, virtuosity, and majesty. At any moment you feel like you’re hearing something that’s authentically part of the jazz piano tradition, but it’s unique in the persistent irregularity of how the moments string together. It takes such an unexpected path: ambling, lurching, sly, dazzling. It’s like a history of jazz piano atomized, a deconstruction of the piano tradition. Yet there’s a real throughline, too. You really hear the song being played; it’s just that he’s strolling through the music’s unconscious, letting it all speak through him.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Illusion

This is Andrew with a funky rhythm section and string quartet, and Bennie Maupin enters pretty far into the song. At first I thought that he wasn’t even on this track, but he is. What grabbed me about this is, on the one hand, the way Mickey Roker plays, which is this kind of low-down groove, steady and centered, with a lot of character to it, like James Brown at two-thirds speed—a mellow James Brown groove. Then there’s Ron Carter, who is very good at handling this sort of thing—he can play the same thing over and over again and give it life, and find subtle and interesting ways to vary ostinato basslines. That rhythm section is in interesting contrast to the very graceful and lilting string writing that feels almost incongruously elegant across that groove. It sets up a nice space, and Andrew straddles those two textures or tendencies. A nice, unexpected delicacy.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Desire

I love the vibe of this piece. It’s very focused and dark, with a kind of lope to it. The bassline is really simple, but the way it’s played is evil! I mean that in the best way. It’s beyond bad! A mess!! I think what really sells it for me is that Walter Booker is playing almost a quarter tone flat, but because it’s in the bass register, it somehow works. It creates this sustained harmonic instability. He’s only playing two notes, the V to the I. I think it’s C-minor. But because it’s flat in just the right way, it warps and expands the richness of the spectrum harmonically; it thickens the tonal space. It’s a trance-like bassline that keeps repeating, and Andrew seems to be almost sleepwalking. I use the word “gone” about the way he’s playing there. I can immerse myself in it. It’s great to hear Andrew and Sam Rivers together.

There’s an alternate take of this tune, on which the bassist is more active. He’s interacting and sometimes walking. But I like the trance version better. I think the bending of the pitch enhances that, because it blurred the whole picture in such an interesting way. The reason it doesn’t get higher than 98 is because it’s sort of static, but I like the stasis.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Compulsion

“Compulsion” is one of my all-time favorites. I can say right now that the whole album, and particularly this piece, gets 100! People see this album as Andrew’s kind of breakthrough into the avant-garde. What’s amazing about it for me is that it’s so carefully orchestrated and compositional. He has sculpted this series of spaces for improvisation to take place. They end up being solo features, but the texture for each solo is specific and beguiling—the way he worked with the percussionists to create these sort of vortices, these swirling textures, as well as the incredible sonics he elicits from the piano. For the most part, it’s not really tonal. These orchestrated motives connect the different sections, and in his accompaniment to the solos by John Gilmore and Freddie Hubbard Andrew elicits these terrifying resonances from the piano that make you rethink aspects of harmony. Everything he plays feels so right even though it doesn’t seem to have any obvious connection to tonality that we’re used to. It’s more than a breakthrough into the avant-garde; it’s a real breakthrough with harmony and texture and form. Then, to hear John Gilmore in this context is so incredible, too. It’s rare to hear him outside of Sun Ra’s context, and, of course, they had this Chicago connection. John Gilmore’s solo entrance. . . if you just hear a few seconds of it, you could mistake it for a Sun Ra record, not even necessarily from this period, but from later on, like the ‘70s. So there’s something visionary

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Euterpe

This one burns. Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson were dealing at a really high level in this post-bop context. Super chops and amazing creativity, dealing with the structure of the tune in such detail and with great power, clarity, polish and dexterity. It’s great to hear Andrew’s music realized on that level. Someone in music school today could learn a lot from this, because it has all the things that they strive for, and also all these other things that they don’t tend to work on. The tune’s structure is interesting, because the bridge sort of cracks open. It’s extended and suspended, and it recurs every chorus in a way that seems to destabilize the song. It’s an interesting balance, because usually the bridge is a temporary reprieve from the main section of the tune, but here it almost takes over. I love Joe Henderson! I could do a whole other playlist on him alone. Freddie is blazing on here, too.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Siete Ocho

This is a fascinating intersection, because we have Andrew Hill with Elvin Jones, two powerful forces. Also, Hill and Bobby Hutcherson had a powerful relationship over the decades, which is well crystallized on this album. This is their first recording together; Dialogue came later. It’s a great composition. As the title suggests, it’s a 7-beat metrical form. The head is 20 bars. Andrew loved these irregular forms. Often the three-fold nature of the blues form came through in his compositions, even if they didn’t strictly adhere to that exact form. It’s more like these different sections would answer each other in unexpected, irregular ways that got away from the Tin Pan Alley, 32-bar format. He had interesting ways of grouping things.

Everything about this piece is great—the intensity, the lyrical quality, and especially hearing Elvin Jones drive this 7-beat cycle. Elvin sounds fantastic. The bassline is this insistent vamp, a rhythmic ostinato that persists throughout, and Richard Davis, perhaps more than is typical for him, anchors that rhythmic figure very firmly. I think often that happens when you introduce novel rhythmic structure: people hew to the written foundation a little more, because it’s less obvious how to depart from it. But here, because Davis does that, it frees up everyone else. Things get a bit ragged at times, but that’s because they’re reaching beyond the obvious. For example, what Andrew does in his solo strikes me every time I listen to this track. He creates his own rhythmic gravity. Towards the climax of his solo, the original rhythm becomes dwarfed by the intensity of his own rhythmic space that he’s creating, so you hear that 7/8 part as a mere satellite orbiting Andrew’s solo. It’s mesmerizing.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Refuge

Point of Departure is one of the first CDs I ever bought, around 1990 or 1991, when I first got a CD player, when I was 19 or 20 years old. I had to save up! Prior to that I was all about vinyl and cassettes. That makes me feel old. Anyway, this is a landmark composition of a landmark recording, with such an intense combination of virtuosos. Everybody sounds great on it, and it’s simply a classic! I remember in the liner notes Hill called it a blues, which is mysterious, because it has all these chords that you don’t associate with the blues, and it feels like a long form; it’s actually a 24-bar progression in 6/4, so it has this sort of large extent to it. But if you hear each 8-bar section as if it were one-third of a blues progression, then that alignment makes more sense. But I also feel that the alignment with blues is more conceptual.

I transcribed the piece at one point for a performance in Oakland that was a tribute to Eric Dolphy, and we tried to do a bunch of things that Dolphy was featured on in addition to his own music. I had to sit with this one for a long time, because some mysterious stuff goes on with the inner voices. I don’t remember exactly, but I think this was the piece that Andrew referred to in the liner notes either to the Mosaic box set or the original album. He said something about finding the mode that works over the entire song. It’s as though some set of common tones persists through the entire harmonic progression, which, when you look at the changes, is counter-intuitive, because there are a lot of passing chords that seem to move through different keys. But then, when he improvises, you hear the unity.

Anyway, this is a masterful composition. The solos are great. Dolphy’s entrance is one of the great musical moments of the whole album. Tony Williams sounds incredible. It’s fascinating to hear Tony Williams with Richard Davis and Andrew, this intersection of these different streams of creativity from the ‘60s.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Smokestack

This is one of my favorite albums of all time, of any artist, on any instrument. It takes Richard Davis and Roy Haynes, who rounded out the trio on Black Fire from a month before, and augments it with a second bass player, who becomes a kind of X factor. It frees Richard Davis to orbit the group, rather than anchoring it, and Eddie Khan, it seems, ends up taking more of the traditional bass player role. There’s something so powerful about the driving rhythmic vortex, the rhythms spiraling around each other, between Haynes and Richard Davis and Eddie Khan. Eddie Khan is playing this vamp, a clave pattern, driving the rhythm. If you were to notate it, it would be two dotted quarters and a quarter over the course of four beats, which is that classic Afro-Caribbean rhythm that’s ubiquitous in American music. But then, what Richard Davis does across that is a warped version of that pattern, which tumbles across the barlines. So what Eddie Khan is doing fits squarely in the bar, while Richard Davis reaches past it. You get this very sharp rhythmic relationship, like a high harmonic relationship, if that makes sense.

There’s an alternate take, and in the take that wasn’t used, Eddie Khan is walking, while Richard Davis plays very much the same. When Eddie Khan is walking, the relationship between the two basses isn’t quite as interesting. It’s simpler, and that seems to hold it back, compared to the intensity of the rhythmic space that they created in the take that was chosen. Then also, Roy Haynes is so playful. It’s not like he’s just playing a square beat or anything like that. He’s playing interactively and as inventively as ever. This is some of my favorite examples of Roy Haynes on record, actually. It’s so alive. Then, too, the song itself has such majesty to it, such mystery. It’s a harmonic maze of its own. So the whole thing, with all these different rhythmic layers and the harmony being a progression that doubles over on itself. . . It’s like the whole thing is this massive polyphonic labyrinth. It’s incredible.

November 10, 2008 · 2 comments

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Andrew Hill: Subterfuge

This is from the great album, Black Fire, which also features one of my favorite saxophonists, Joe Henderson. Everyone is great form. I probably zeroed in on this trio piece because I’m thinking a lot about piano trio music right now, but also because it’s so powerful. This album has mystified and excited me since I got it about fifteen years ago. The group is unified to an astounding degree, all the elements resonate with each other, which gives the group such a powerful sound. Roy Haynes sounds incredible, all the very animated work on the snare, and he’s present in the mix in a way that drummers usually weren’t on Blue Note’s Van Gelder sessions. When a drummer is that present in the mix, which is usually how I prefer it to be on my own albums (and sometimes I get flack for this), you really hear the counterpoint with the other instruments. It’s much more centered: you hear the drummer not just as a supportive instrument, but as a central member of the group. It sets off all the rhythmic intricacies that Andrew is doing, how he fits in all this stuff between the beats. I love the way Hill lands synchronously with Haynes so forcefully and so frequently. His rhythmic solidity is so palpable, and his playing is very extroverted and active. It’s not like he’s just floating. He’s always anchored in the time. It’s inspiring to hear such advanced rhythmic expression.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Chiconga

This is from a very early recording of Andrew’s with his working trio in the ‘50s that mainly did standards. In that context of a more workmanlike set of standards, this stands out as a piece of art music. It prefigures things to come for Mr. Hill. There’s some singing, which sounds like it might be actually Hill himself doubling the melody with his voice. It’s a very haunting dirge-like blues—sort of related to “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and maybe also “Creole Love Call,” because of this mysterious vocal part. More importantly, it documents an encounter with an unidentified percussionist who is playing various hand drums, bells, and things like that. In a way, it reminds me of some of these pan-Africanist projects from the previous decade, like the stuff with Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie. It has an episodic mini-suite form, even though it’s only a few minutes long.

At one point, the percussionist’s tempo is imperfectly matched to what Andrew and company are doing, so the two have a mysterious relationship to one another. That aspect prefigures the prominent percussion-piano relationships on Compulsion. Once I heard Andrew refer to the blues as a rhythm above all else, and you hear that sensibility in his brief solo on this tune. The rhythmic fluidity and expressiveness of his phrasing sounds straight out of blues. He comes off on the rest of the disk as an accomplished straight-ahead player, in a way that might surprise some people. There’s a version of “Old Devil Moon” that’s really in the pocket, swinging, rhythmically strong, intricate, and precisely arranged. I think it’s interesting to hear the amount of skill and dexterity he had with rhythm in a more traditional context. Later on, he was often heard as someone who was just rhythmically “out.” But when you hear his deep foundation in these groove-based approaches to rhythm, you realize that the later stuff actually wasn’t so “out”—it was more as if he reached further in. It’s interesting historically and there’s a lot to learn from it, so I’d give it a 95. It’s a fascinating moment from Andrew’s pre-Blue Note era.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: All You Need Is Love

If the purpose of music is to bring joy and pleasure to both the players and the listeners, then Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra surely seems to have accomplished that. As a working band, they performed night after night for five years at the once-progressive downtown New York club Tonic. This recording memorializes the spirit of participative music practiced not only by these eclectic artists, but at times by their audiences. Under an umbrella of camaraderie, the MTO creates an atmosphere of inclusion with its cacophonous collection of instruments played with a passion and sense of pleasure that belies the group's professionalism. In particular, the MTO covers this Beatles song with a gusto and joy befitting a classic of '60s love, peace and hope. Good fun.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Shapiro & Pat Bergeson: I'll Take the Soup

The team of vibraphonist Steve Shapiro and Chet Atkins protégé Pat Bergeson has produced this scorcher of a soon-to-be-standard tune titled "I'll Take the Soup." It plays like the background music to a fast-moving cartoon chase sequence. This upbeat swinger takes its pulse from the rapidly synchronous playing of the frenetic Bergeson on guitar countered by the equally speedy but mellow tone of Shapiro's vibes. The tune also includes the surprisingly well-matched sound of Will Barrow's swinging accordion backed by the nimble Tim Ferguson on bass. In their totality they form a seamless flow of musical delight that brings a smile to your face. Fun music played with a sense of real professionalism, panache and joy.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Amina Figarova: Ernie's Song

Pianist composer Amina Figarova hails from Azerbaijan. This portal between eastern Europe and western Asia seems an unlikely place for such an accomplished practitioner of Western jazz composition. On "Ernie's Song," named for trumpeter Ernie Hammes, she develops the theme by a repeated driving piano and bass line that carries throughout. The horns and brass follow the contrapuntal melody statement in building nice tension behind Strik's backbeat and Viedag's plucky bass. Starting his muted trumpet solo, Hammes stirs the embers by squeezing each note stubbornly through his horn's restricted bell before Schepers's own trumpet is released to full open expression. Figarova for her part takes a nice turn on her Fazioli grand with a staccato style that punctuates each note with animation. A worthy offering from a talented composer supported by accomplished musicians.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Michael Higgins: The Last Farewell

Who is Michael Higgins? That is what I asked myself after hearing his new album, which I found thoroughly engaging in an unassuming way. Doing some web research, I learned that Higgins has been around awhile and has built his chops working with Eddie Harris, Billy Watrous and Maynard Ferguson, to name a few. His accomplished technique was honed by private lessons from greats like Joe Pass and Howard Roberts. They have taught him well. Along the way he has developed a gently flowing style, one that at times reminds me of a less eclectic Bill Frisell, especially on this wonderfully tasty track. Ably assisted by bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum, Higgins casts a low-timbered tone to his treatment of this bossa-based offering with a somehow countrified sensibility that is eerily familiar yet not easily identifiable. Nussbaum's traps roll polyrhythmically throughout, adding the perfect counterpoint to Higgins's wispy riffs. With so many talented guitarists on the scene today, no doubt Michael Higgins will continue to make his mark and build his own following of listeners who just like good music played in a tasteful, low-keyed style.

November 10, 2008 · 1 comment

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Joe Henderson: Recorda Me

Like its more recognizable album mate "Blue Bossa," "Recorda Me" is bossa nova at its core. However, this Joe Henderson-penned tune boasts a shiftier rhythm underneath and busier thematic lines out front. Another difference is that Henderson leads off the soloing this time, and it's here that his careful phrasing and modulation of intensity testify to his tenor mastery. Kenny Dorham contrasts nicely by holding his notes where there might be spaces. Tyner's own lead shows off a little bit of his familiar detached, right-hand arpeggios before a horn line signals the transition back to the head.

"Recorda Me" became a longtime staple in Joe Henderson's live performances and has been covered by acts as diverse as the fusion supergroup Steps Ahead and avant-garde giant Anthony Braxton. This early Henderson composition has stood the tests of both time and presentation quite well.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Blue Bossa

As the title advertises, "Blue Bossa" is bossa nova with blues overtones. An eminently catchy tune (even non-jazz fans recognize it), it's Kenny Dorham's rightful entry into the jazz standards canon. In original form here as the first track from Joe Henderson's debut album, a strong composition is given strong treatment. After the two horn players state the theme in unison, Dorham takes the lead, restating his theme with a succession of rapid-fire tremolos that sound like he's playing his trumpet behind an electric fan. The rest of the way, he stays close to the theme in a clean and relaxed manner. Henderson's ensuing solo introduces his warm tenor from the Sonny Rollins school, finding notes that aren't always obvious but always fit. Foreshadowing his affinity for Antonio Carlos Jobim's music, Tyner already sounds right at home with the Brazilian form. Warren makes his own solo statement concise.

"Blue Bossa" introduced the world to Joe Henderson in fine fashion. This classic piece remains the place to start for discovering the treasure trove of Henderson's body of work.

November 10, 2008 · 1 comment

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Jazz Arts Trio: Tin Tin Deo

In a unique hybrid form, which may be a harbinger of further explorations to come, classically trained pianist Frederick Moyer and his equally talented colleagues drummer Peter Fraenkel and bassist Peter Tillotson take a decidedly classical approach to creating jazz piano trio music by transcribing note for note outstanding performances of some of their jazz heroes.

On this re-creation of a classic Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen performance from the 1964 LP Easy Walker, these master musicians treat this magical moment as a vehicle for emulation without sacrificing their own interpretive vitality. Critics may see this as lacking in the spontaneity of original thought or of a type of savant replication without artistic merit. To my mind, these performances stand on their own, no less legitimate than brilliant performances of Beethoven or Mozart by contemporary classical masters. Can one transcendent moment be re-created by careful transcription and be forever preserved outside of that single recording? Should we even try? Isn't the beauty of improvisational music that its stream of consciousness may never be repeated in precisely the same way? The Jazz Arts Trio seems bent on proving that these concepts need not be sacrosanct. If Bartok or Schoenberg can be preserved forever note for note, why not Peterson or Evans or Silver?

Moyer seems particularly in awe of Oscar Peterson. His fluid mastery of some of Peterson's stunning techniques on "Tin Tin Deo" is inspiring to behold. Having never heard Peterson's original version, I can only imagine its magnificence. Fraenkel does a laudatory job of re-creating what must have been one of Thigpen's most inspired performances on cowbell and traps. This is a praiseworthy offering by master musicians who through care and reverence have delivered a thoroughly entertaining piece of music. They pay homage to past performances while injecting their own essence and enthusiasm, making this classic fresh and vital. It is also a unique attempt to memorialize magical performances of great artists by preserving their brilliance through scrupulous transcription of their finest performances – a noble endeavor.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Ife

Amidst few true variations, the 2-note pattern that typifies "Ife" is never relinquished. This On the Corner outtake sounds like a lazy leftover from Bitches Brew. Most of the latter's elements are here, ranging from cacophonic riffing to a dramatic, unshifting musical terrain. The multifarious cinematics are somewhat relaxed, and the use of wood blocks as percussion flirts with world music. Opaque soloing is both inaudible and unmemorable as it is buried underneath upfront synthesizer effects. The recording does find Miles at a crossroads; while his music here reflects complete freedom through simplicity, the results are less diverse and, to a great degree, uninteresting. If you are a jazz fan in need of a quick Miles fix, this will do, because of its length; in this largely uninspired moment, you will hear more of him and the others than necessary. It is uncertain what listeners will experience during these 21 minutes, because the action is as motionless as it is unrelenting. Near the end, what at first sounds like a breakdown from out of left field unfortunately becomes the same unchanging musical pattern used earlier but performed at less than half time, meaning Miles had temporarily run out of ideas.

November 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)

The lengthiest track on Filles de Kilimanjaro is also its least effective. The melody is unforgettable, likely due to 16 minutes of repetition resulting in one of Miles Davis's lesser creations. Having conquered most of his influences, this basic extrapolation adds nothing new to a vast legacy comprised of many better examples of his progressive approach to the blues. At a snail's pace, "Mademoiselle Mabry" rolls down a lengthy, unchanging road, and even Miles's solo seems overlong, meaning it fits in well with the recording itself. Unfortunately, Miles provides the sole highlight, because, over a quarter-hour, the musicians seem unconcerned with either breaking new ground or adding any collective tension whatsoever. To his credit, Tony Williams sounds ready and willing to break out of the mold, but his efforts are thwarted by the situational orthodoxy, and listeners will eventually desire more action than what is presented here. The recording definitely leaves much to be desired, sounding like an unfinished composition that ought to have been left on the cutting-room floor. Not quite faceless, yet far from essential, "Mademoiselle Mabry" is tough to recommend to anyone outside of hardcore Miles enthusiasts.

November 09, 2008 · 1 comment

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Miles Davis: Petits Machins (Little Stuff)

True to the general concept of Filles de Kilimanjaro, a mosaic of controlled chaos becomes the defining sound of "Little Stuff." The track militarily commences, and, even though there is enough structure for the composition to sit on staves, precise charts of these solos would prove a heavy task for anyone to create. Chord changes are loosely defined as an expanding balloon unleashed by the musicians at will. The expansive deconstruction may seem strange when compared to pop music, but it is probably not so odd to the revisionists of jazz. Although Miles and Ron Carter, at times, do concurrently play root notes, the fact that these musicians mostly follow each other instinctively into such undefined territory is jolting. Absent of any form of actual standardization, these rare glimpses into the thought processes of geniuses validates their singular language as impossible to replicate in any way that would do this original recording justice. Though relatively brief, this track is the highlight of the album, and its significance to jazz remains tantamount. Through it, an apex of creativity in Miles's career was reached, and the track also shows why each musician here is considered an A-list innovator.

November 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Tout De Suite

A dark, soulful fugue initially sustains the musicians as the word "suite" in the title telegraphs the song form. Consisting of several different parts, a haunting head leads into a throbbing midsection where deliberate attempts to avoid any semblance of stereotypical propriety are employed. Tony Williams helps the track find its stride, while the soloists refuse to play many notes within a minimum of two steps of the root. Their metrics are wide ranging, and the advanced, adventurous musical concept is difficult to grasp. The many aural shifts seem devised on a dime, and, as the silky smooth plateau quickens, Miles and Wayne Shorter are able to ascend the scalar heights while communicating a drove of emotions. "Tout de Suite" proves this band was willing to allow the music to lead them into any given direction, and, while it must have been an exciting work environment to participate in and witness, it is beyond engaging for those of us who were not in the room when the track was laid down. The introduction reprises at the end and bookends the improvisations, but the faster solo section follows and provides an unexpected yet worthy coda.

November 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Frelon Brun (Brown Hornet)

The simple structure of "Frelon Brun" is largely constructed around two minor chords that become undefined extensions once Chick Corea takes control of them. His science is barely comprehensible, as even he was likely unaware of what form the music would take and what description would be appropriate for it once the finish line was reached. Nonlinear horizons make any accurate description of the theory that went into the performance impossible. For the most part, this particular form of artistry had not been tried before, as the ensemble attempts to break down any preconceived notion of what music is. If you know what chord is formed by depressing every single key on the piano within a certain octave simultaneously, you're the genius, because these chaotic improvisations are fully intended for flight, and even though faint links exist between this and the psychedelic rock then in vogue, the players are comfortable in uncharted territory. A jumbled yet joyous jam, the fact that this was, in any way, comparable to the mainstream, as defined by the recording industry, is amazing, because it is nowhere near the middle of the road.

November 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Geoff Keezer: Across the Universe

Solo piano adventures are too often unfairly measured against the introspection of Keith Jarrett, the complexity of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, or the technical prowess of Art Tatum. Inevitable comparisons to the indisputable brilliance of the masters can taint our perceptions of their disciples' efforts. Geoff Keezer proves that beauty is sometimes best realized through simplicity. Listeners won't be wowed by mind-boggling runs or harmonic eccentricities in his thoughtful solo version of John Lennon's "Across the Universe." Staying close to the melody, Keezer's soothing and concise performance doesn't push any boundaries or break any rules. But when isolated and appreciated for what it is and not chastised for what it isn't, the results are altogether gratifying.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Michelle

"Michelle" is one of Paul McCartney's many love songs, but the chromatic movement in the melody and descending guitar line, sublime harmonies, subtly swinging beat, and even a jazz-inspired solo by George Harrison made it one of the more intricate ballads in the Beatles' songbook. Not surprisingly, "Michelle" is the tune that translates most easily into Count Basie's vernacular on Basie's Beatle Bag, a qualitatively mixed bag recorded five months to the day after Rubber Soul was released in the U.S. Chico O'Farrill's arrangement opens solidly with a typical swinging intro by the Count and a "Li'l Darlin'"-inspired fully voiced ensemble rendition of the verse containing nice movement from the inner horns. Basie's spare reading of the next 8 bars of the melody (supported only by bass and gentle cymbal) emphasizes the sexier side of McCartney's romanticism. After a muted trumpet improvisation over the second verse, the arrangement begins to lose its direction and is ultimately saved only by its brevity.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Marcus: Tomorrow Never Knows

The Beatles' 1966 album Revolver fired a psychedelic salvo that reverberated through not only the rock community but certain jazz circles as well. Saxophonist Steve Marcus always had his ears open to rock happenings, and his cover of Revolver's boldest track, "Tomorrow Never Knows," was one of the first jazz-directed explorations of the psychedelic realm. His soprano sax echoes John Lennon's detached and ethereal vocals, while Bob Moses lays out his own adaptation of one of rock's most famous drum beats. Mike Nock's solo is the highlight, stacking fourth chords beneath motive-based improvised lines. While Marcus spirals deep into the Coltrane-esque reaches of outer space, Coryell and Nock broaden the sonic potential of their instruments; Coryell strums heavy open chords, experiments with violent, stabbing feedback and wah and echo pedals, and Nock plucks and pats his piano's strings. Although Hills's gravitational bass pedaling prevents his bandmates from permanently escaping into the cosmos, 11 minutes of his incessant thumping leaves something to be desired.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Grant Green: A Day in the Life

Other prominent soul-jazz guitarists hitched onto the Beatles train (e.g., Wes Montgomery's 1967 A Day in the Life and George Benson's 1969 The Other Side of Abbey Road), but this Grant Green recording tops those efforts by his pop-minded compatriots. Whereas Benson and Montgomery were suffocated by Don Sebesky's infamously fluffy arrangements, Green's multi-sectioned version of "A Day in the Life" is poppy yet still raw and funky. Unlike Paul McCartney, Green doesn't drag a comb across his head while rushing to catch the bus, but instead starts his day with a relaxing soul-food breakfast and a tall glass of groove juice as he and Creque share melodic duties in the roles of John Lennon and Sir Paul, respectively. A weighty, minor horn interlude introduces the blowing section, which features King Funk Idris Muhammad's heavy pocket groove and cooking solos by Green, Bartee, and Creque. "A Day in the Life" was one of the Beatles' most epic tunes, and Green & Co. do it justice.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mark Turner: She Said, She Said

At the time of this recording, Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel were in two working groups together, developing a seamless blend only achieved by sharing the stage night after night. Brad Mehldau is invited into the mix here, making a rare appearance on electric piano; his Rhodes' warm, buttery sound blankets Turner's unassuming, even-toned tenor and Rosenwinkel's gracefully ambiguous, singing style. Turner glides through his solo, even his trickiest passages flowing effortlessly from his horn (check out 2:17-2:47). The original "She Said, She Said" featured some of Ringo Starr's greatest playing (his fills as integral to the composition as vocals and guitar), so who better than Brian Blade to man the traps in this version? Blade's ability to groove while filling is incomparable. His busyness never derails his momentum, and his shifting grooves enrich each soloist's canvas in clever and unique ways. Note the complexity of his hi-hat, snare and bass-drum work as Rosenwinkel's solo begins at 3:26.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chris Potter: Yesterday

Hundreds of covers have dulled the luster of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday," but like a fresh coat of wax on a vintage Rolls-Royce, Chris Potter's unique version restores the sparkle and magnificence, making an old tune sound new again. Beginning in chorale-like fashion, Potter tenderly guides the guitars and electric piano through McCartney's heartbreakingly gorgeous melody. The understated counterpoint and voice leading create some unanticipated and interesting harmonic moments, enough to catch your ear but not distract from the leader's touching rendering of the melody. The bridge is a more typical jazz ballad, with the introduction of Smith's brushes and hi-hat and Potter's improvised embellishment of the melody padded by rich, sustained chords from Krantz, Rogers and Taborn. The second verse is accentuated by more elaborate movement from one of the guitars (especially from 2:13 to 2:20). One of the best jazz Beatles covers out there, Chris Potter's interpretation of this classic is simply marvelous.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Don Byron: I'll Follow the Sun

Multifaceted clarinetist Don Byron scores huge with this cover of Paul McCartney's divine "I'll Follow the Sun." His clear-toned clarinet a perfect representation of McCartney's charming tenor voice, Byron delivers the melody with ease above Frisell's ringing arpeggios and inimitable comping style. The sublime harmonic tension embedded in the chord progression elicits many lovely moments of resolution during Byron's engaging solo. Frisell references the melody, often cleverly implied or displaced unexpectedly, throughout his choruses. Gress provides firm support, and DeJohnette's delicate cymbal and snare work, selective hi-hat and rim-clicks are simply splendid (especially behind Frisell's solo). This fabulous track will bring a sunny smile to any listener's face.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gabor Szabo: In My Life

Though Gabor Szabo's late 1960s and early '70s catalog is uneven, some of his jazz-pop crossover tracks are well-deserving of rediscovery. The lullaby-like "In My Life" is one of his gems. John Lennon's exquisite ballad is stripped down to its barest melodic essentials. Szabo's plaintive lead is elegant and poignant, accompanied by second guitarist Vaz's modest arpeggios and voice-leading. Kabok outlines only the basic harmonic bottom, and Keltner's cymbal texturing adds a light touch of finesse. Written as an ode to John Lennon's Liverpool childhood, the reflective and nostalgic beauty of his lyrics is delivered expressively in this touching performance.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jon Larsen (with Jimmy Carl Black): Jimmy-As-A-Ghost

Jon Larsen's CD The Jimmy Carl Black Story was released three days before Black's death. In fact, I had just been listening to this music (which is supplemented by an extra CD of Black recounting his life and times) and preparing to write a review, when I received an email from jazz.com's Alan Kurtz alerting me to Black's death. The tragedy of the passing of this former Frank Zappa sideman is amplified by the likelihood that this smartly produced release would have given him a new boost of fame and enhanced earning potential.

Certainly this artist deserved a stroke of good luck. Back in 2001, Walter Becker used the occasion of his own induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as member of Steely Dan) to lobby for Black's inclusion as a founding member of the Mothers of Invention. No dice. Black retained a cult following, but he never made more than a meager living from music; when an interviewer asked him about his royalties from his recordings with Zappa, he replied: "We never got anything out of the recordings. I'm still as broke as I was when I was with the Mothers."

This track concludes a long rock-jazz-blues opus that is very much in the spirit of Frank Zappa. In other words, it is zany, vulgar, transgressive, surreal, and impeccably performed. The band grooves over a sensual 12-bar blues, while Black adds a vocal. Okay, the personnel listing calls it a vocal, but it is really just Jimmy talking over the phone. "Hi, boys and girls," he announces, "I'm actually Jimmy as a ghost." Halloween took place during the few hours between the release of this CD and Black's death, but in the midst of so many tricks-and-treats, this performance was really haunting.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Don Ellis: Hey Jude

This track is totally bonkers. Is that R2-D2 being tortured during the opening cadenza? No, that's Don Ellis's trumpet, amplified and mutated by a Ring Modulator and echo devices. Imagine being at the Fillmore in 1970 and seeing someone do that with Louis Armstrong's instrument! The first pass at the tune is backed by a "Pomp and Circumstance"-like brass choir, with Ellis and guitarist Jay Graydon creating as much indiscriminate noise as they do melody. Contrabass trombone and flute momentarily bring things into perspective as they double the melody on the bridge, and then the circus comes to town with some outrageously dissonant oompah-ing. Ellis's unaccompanied solo—at once humorously Mozartian and bizarrely extraterrestrial—calls the band to attention, and they roar through the legendary coda. There isn't much middle ground here: some listeners will appreciate and dig Ellis's humor, and others will seek the closest blunt object to bludgeon their ears. Regardless, for better or worse, no other band has ever come close to sounding like Don Ellis's orchestra.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Brad Mehldau: Dear Prudence

Brad Mehldau sounds completely comfortable bridging the gap between rock and jazz, and "Dear Prudence" is another of his unforced, genre-spanning efforts. He never overworks his covers by trying to do too much with them; instead, he respects the compositional boundaries and celebrates what made the tune great in the first place. The pianist's take on the melody here is pretty straightforward, and though the mood is mellow, the groove is buoyant thanks to Oles's swinging bass. The star, though, is Jim Keltner, the renowned rock session drummer who actually recorded with three of the Fab Four (Lennon, Harrison and Starr). His work is loose but precise, unpredictable and subtly extraordinary. His understated playing behind Mehldau's solo is fantastic, especially his slyly capricious hi-hat accents and floor-tom fills. Close listening will be richly rewarded.

November 06, 2008 · 1 comment

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Buddy Rich: Norwegian Wood

Though the power and audacity of Bill Holman's arrangement contrasts with the light folksiness of John Lennon's original, there are also elements in common. The booming low brass pedal notes recall the drone of George Harrison's sitar, and the harmonic movement and melodic content is charmingly minimal. Like the Beatles' version, Holman's arrangement is focused on shifting texture and overlaying counterpoint, only on a more massive scale. The energy peaks on the final bridge (replete with Jim Trimble's trombone freak-out) and the last fortissimo unison verse backed by screaming trumpet shakes, multiple contrapuntal lines and Rich's ferocious drumming. Just when your ears are about to explode, everything drops out and guitarist Richard Resnicoff tags the final four bars by himself. An exhilarating chart by the hardest swinging big band of the 1960s.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dr. Lonnie Smith: Eleanor Rigby

When dipping into the Beatles bag, "Eleanor Rigby" might be the tune that jazzers grab onto most, and for good reason. It's one of their most unforgettable melodies, and its simple, minor harmony can be vamped, lending itself as easily to cerebral modal exploration as to blues-inflected blowing. Lonnie Smith chooses Option #2, transforming Paul McCartney's solemn tale of the lonely Ms. Rigby and desolate Father McKenzie into a soul-jazz boogaloo jam. The mysterious ambiance created by the intro's billowing trills carries over into Smith's serpentine organ melody, which slithers around punctuated horn interjections. After two verses, Muhammad kicks in his famous boogaloo beat, and young Maupin steps up with an economical, bluesy chorus—so laid-back he sounds like he's in slow-motion! Smith plays the blues with conviction, unfurling an endless supply of licks atop Sparks's wildly enthusiastic comping.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Freddie Hubbard: Hub-Tones

In 1962, Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock volunteered their talents on each other's records: Hubbard performing on Hancock's first album as a leader, Takin' Off, and Hancock performing on Hubbard's classic Hub-Tones 4½ months later. While the interplay between these two young and fertile minds is most often considered this record's greatest historical significance, many other elements also make Hub-Tones memorable. For one thing, it contains some of Hubbard's finest compositions, from the stunning "Lament for Booker" (dedicated to fellow trumpeter Booker Little, who died of uremia the previous year at age 23) to the challenging up-tempo burn of the title track. What makes the latter such a standout is the playing of two other musicians on the session. James Spaulding is in top early form here, rivaled perhaps only by his performances on Wayne Shorter's Schizophrenia and/or Horace Silver's The Jody Grind. Another key element is the fiery drumming of longtime Sun Ra sideman Clifford Jarvis, here on full display, swinging and soloing as freely and as hard as any of his post-bop contemporaries of the early '60s.

November 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Warne Marsh: I've Got You Under My Skin

After a 1948 stint with Buddy Rich's big band, Warne Marsh immersed himself in all things Lennie Tristano, performing almost exclusively with either the famed pianist and/or fellow Tristano protégé Lee Konitz. In the mid- to late-'50s, Marsh began recording as a leader more often, influenced still by his mentor's methods yet incorporating new musicians and an expanded repertoire. Two of the finest recordings from this stage include a 1958 trio date with Paul Chambers and Paul Motian (see, for example, "Yardbird Suite") and this massive set of standards captured live on the West Coast in October 1957. Of the 18 standards on this double-disc release, "I've Got You Under My Skin" is among the highlights. The prime Marsh is when he's in both soulful and playful moods simultaneously, diving deep into a tune's melody to deliver a seamless yet unanticipated improvised line that manages to reveal the essence of any given tune. This tune, as with much of this set, finds Marsh in just that mood.

November 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ben Monder: The Third Eyebrow

Ben Monder has rather quietly built one of the strongest reputations among New York guitarists of the last 20 years, performing regularly with Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and tenorman Bill McHenry. Monder's masterful combination of complex linear runs, polytonal chord work, and unorthodox techniques earn him the ultimate musical compliment of having fashioned a completely original voice on his instrument. Predictably, his recordings as a leader best represent his overall style, and his two early records with bassist Ben Street and drummer Jim Black, Flux (1995) and Dust (1997), are career highlights. On "The Third Eyebrow," the group effortlessly weaves in and out of 11/8 time, with Elvin-isms aplenty from Black and the foundational odd-meter bassline from the ever-steady Street. Monder provides hypnotic atmospheric chords up front, followed by his trademark linear lines that twist and turn in the most unforeseen ways. Check out how his already dramatic solo does a complete 360º at the 3:35 mark. Modern jazz of the highest order.

November 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill McHenry: The Lizard

Bill McHenry's most recent four records have featured the stunning guitar work of Ben Monder, a prodigious alumnus of the bands of Paul Motian and Maria Schneider. On Roses, the latest of these releases, the McHenry/Monder partnership is supplemented by Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Paul Motian. "The Lizard" is a good starting point to discover the group's original take on melody-centric free jazz. McHenry's long-tone dominated tenor statement, in and of itself affirming his role as one of the leading New York improvisers, comes first. A virtuosic jazz/rock offering from Monder is next. The farther Anderson and Motian are led out on limbs by McHenry and Monder as the track develops, the more inspired their playing becomes. The fun these four improvisational risk-takers were having in the studio makes for an equally enjoyable listening experience.

November 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill McHenry: Time

The Bill McHenry Quartet featuring Paul Motian actually becomes a trio when guitarist Ben Monder sits out on "Time." While Monder's playing on other tracks is indispensable to the execution of McHenry's open-ended material, it is a treat to hear Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson and drummer extraordinaire Paul Motian interact with McHenry in a trio format. Those who question the intentionality of Motian's sometimes random-seeming rhythmic placement should check out this slightly more accessible example of his free-flowing, melodic concept. The way the drummer responds to the opening McHenry theme is essential Motian: he creates a bed of moving, flowing rhythm by simultaneously responding to melody already played and predicting the melody to come. McHenry's ears are fully prepared for the Motian experience, and it leads to 5½ minutes of deeply instinctual improvisation.

November 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lori Bell: A Ilha (The Island)

When most people think of Brazilian music, they tend to think either bossa nova or samba. Musicians who have traveled and played around Brazil will testify that there are many other rhythmic forms and subtle variations within its musical melting pot. One artist who did much to bring the various elements together was singer-guitarist-composer Djavan, who incorporated elements of African folk, R&B and pop music, as well as the more traditional Brazilian flavors. Brooklyn native Lori Bell, a member of that increasingly rare species known as the jazz flautist, pays tribute to his diverse musical confections in a handsomely crafted album from Resonance Records.

This is an unusual recording in many respects. Aside from showcasing the music of Djavan, who is technically more of a "pop" artist, and the welcome return of the flute to the fore, there is an obvious break from the typical Brazilian instrumentation: the guitar, a staple of Brazilian music, is curiously absent from all but one track of this album. Fortunately it is not missed, due largely to the strength of Tamir Hendelman's polished arrangements and beefy keyboard work. On "A Ilha," the rhythm section alternates between a solid Afro-Cuban 6/8 feel and a lively samba, over which Ms. Bell's rich, lyrical flute takes flight. Her solo lines, a bit evocative of Joe Farrell's work on "Molten Glass," reflect a solid respect for time and space, while her tone reminds us that, in the right hands, the flute can be a powerful, expressive voice. "A Ilha" is an island getaway worthy of an extended visit.

November 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Harmonique

It's unlikely that anyone has ever described John Coltrane's music as "overly academic." It has too much blood-&-guts passion for anyone to ever make that call. But Coltrane was an inveterate experimentalist, and as such was inclined to write tunes or create contexts that tested certain specific aspects of his technique. "Giant Steps," based on the pattern of extraordinarily difficult chord changes that consumed Trane in the late '50s, is probably the most famous instance of this. The lesser-known "Harmonique" is another.

The melody of the altered 6/8 blues in Bb features Coltrane's use of multiphonics—a technique by which he produced several notes at once by manipulating his embouchure and using alternate fingerings. It's something he used a great deal in his avant-garde phase, albeit in a raw, less contrived form. Here he makes a refined use of the method, producing overtones over low Bb and B natural (C and Db on tenor) to suggest a chord. It's use here is interesting from a historical perspective, if not terribly consequential from an artistic standpoint. More compelling is Trane's solo—another in the series of wonderful blues improvisations that, with each passing year, became more brain-meltingly soulful. "Harmonique" lies somewhere between "Trane's Slo Blues" from Lush Life and "Chasin' the Trane" from Live at the Village Vanguard: it's neither as straight-ahead as the former nor as "out" as the latter. By any definition, though, it is a masterful accomplishment, with or without the multiphonics.

November 05, 2008 · 1 comment

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Jazz Arts Trio: My Foolish Heart

I have been suggesting for years that jazz, even fusion, will eventually be treated as classical music. I am pleased to discover that the Jazz Arts Trio, accomplished in both the classical and jazz fields, has already begun that process. After playing together as high-school students, these superb musicians took different routes, yet three decades later found themselves together again. For this project, they painstakingly transcribed some of the greatest jazz piano trio performances ever captured, then re-created every note and accent live for their CD Tribute.

The band's reenactment of one of the greatest jazz ballads, "My Foolish Heart," replicates the Bill Evans Trio's live version featuring Scott LaFaro and Paul Motion in a famous Village Vanguard performance from 1961. Of all of the tributes on the album, "My Foolish Heart," with its fragile beauty and melancholy melody, best lends itself to classical treatment. Bill Evans approached jazz with a certain classical bent anyway, although unlike the Jazz Arts Trio, he created his own improvisations.

I have heard the original Evans performance, but don't have it in my collection to compare it beat by beat with this re-creation. While that may have been fun, it would have missed the point. A note-for-note replication of any performance could be one of the hardest things to do in jazz. Being able to sound like a soloing Bill Evans and his groundbreaking rhythm section is probably even harder. But we don't give points in jazz for cloning. Clones may possess identical physiology, but they haven't the same personality or spirit. The music still has to move us. This performance does so. I have listened to it several times. As far as I am concerned, this could just as well have been the original group. I feel every sentiment in this loving and skillful re-creation as I did on the Evans original. Of course, this is not really a jazz performance per se as there is no improvisation. But it may be a precursor to the future of some jazz. For that reason this conceptual presentation is an important addition to the jazz genre.

Pianist Fred Moyer is the main cog in Tribute because he is the pianist. But let's hope there are two more Jazz Arts Trio re-creations – Tribute Bass and Tribute Drums. It's only fair that Tillotson and Fraenkel get their chances to be main cogs too.

November 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Scarlet Woman

Mysterious Traveller really got things going for Weather Report. The album was the band's fourth release and started a 4-year run of jazz and rock awards. It also marked the beginning of a funkier phase for the group that was most notably realized in the lines of its new electric bassist, Alphonso Johnson.

"Scarlet Woman" is a soundscape virtually devoid of melody. The funk lies partly in its ponderously slow rhythm and deeply ominous riffs played in unison by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and a synthesizer-armed Joe Zawinul. Johnson adds some funk bass flourishes, but they are mostly hidden by the tune's density. The percussion, as sparse as it is, suggests dark Africa. Zawinul takes a moment to do some layering before the piece fades out into the darkness.

Weather Report was quite adept at painting a sound picture. This would be abstract art. I can stare at some of that stuff for hours. Similarly, I could listen to "Scarlet Woman" for an hour straight. But it is only five minutes long.

November 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Connors: It Be FM

"It Be FM" is an even fusion number with a flowing theme. Connors's tone is a bit rougher than on the other cuts on the album, and he plays with more texture as well. The memorable melody line is comprised of drawn-out notes and liquid runs. Connors plays his own keyboard vamp backing on guitar synthesizer. Bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Kim Plainfield are timekeepers on this song. The star of the show is Connors and his purposeful licks. This song is clearly not AM radio material. For that matter, I doubt it got much play on FM either. There was always that hope, though.

November 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Connors: Sea Coy

"Sea Coy" is an interesting title. I like the way it looks and sounds. When I Googled it, Google wanted to know if I was referring to "sea cow." So I guess it has no special meaning beyond the composer's thoughts. That is too bad. I wanted to learn something.

On his albums Double-Up and Assembler, guitarist Bill Connors veered back and forth between the jazz-rock and progressive rock worlds. But when he soloed, he was clearly in fusion land. "Sea Coy" is really just an excuse for a high-powered jam. A good power trio had to be really good in order to carry this type of music off for any particular period of time. If you could still maintain the listener's interest after five minutes you had done a good job. The rollicking guitar, thumping drums and rolling bass propel this excited number along for 30 seconds longer than that. Could they have sustained this energy for much longer? I don't know. But, as they say, you always want to leave 'em wanting more.

November 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Connors: Crunchy

Directions for appreciating this review: Be familiar with the music of Allan Holdsworth, Pat Metheny, Jeff Beck, Return to Forever, Ritchie Blackmore and Black Sabbath.

Assembler was Bill Connors's follow-up to the previous year's Double-Up. Such successive output from Connors was a rare thing. He would usually wait years between projects. Assembler marks a continuation of Connors's modified electric guitar style. He had become a cross between Allan Holdsworth and Pat Metheny with a little Jeff Beck thrown in for good measure, which was a far cry from his style during his short-lived stint in fusion supergroup Return to Forever and used on its groundbreaking album Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. This recording is a collection of jazz-fusion-progressive-rock instrumentals perhaps designed for the hope of radio airplay. Good luck!

"Crunchy" begins with an almost country-like guitar arpeggio accented by occasional harmonics. Drummer Kim Plainfield and bassist Tom Kennedy then double-time it to create a fusion blues hoedown atmosphere. Connors strums muted chords before taking off on his solo. His sound (not his style) is like Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore in this section, which is no longer blues. Connors plays in one continuous burst leaving no space between notes. The head arrangement returns leading to a song ending that sounds as if it were lifted off a Black Sabbath record. For those of you in doubt, this is all good.

November 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Mila Repa

Is there a more imaginative percussionist than Trilok Gurtu? The first minute of "Mila Repa" presents the rush of an approaching electrical storm, bubbles in water, the world's largest wind chime and the chirping of crickets from inside a cave. Those who have seen Gurtu in concert know that he was the creator of all these sounds. It is a wonder to watch him play. I suggest everyone does so.

"Mila Repa," named after a Tibetan poet and saint, is a good example of McLaughlin's more cosmic side. There are people out there, supporters and detractors alike, who think all of McLaughlin's music is out in space. But I would suggest that such McLaughlin tunes as "Mila Repa," and "Negative Ions" from Music Spoken Here, represent the cosmic side of an inner space. Both tunes lack a dominant theme. Instead they rely on beautiful soundbites that reverberate through your mind. McLaughlin uses a Photon MIDI- interface to accompany himself on acoustic guitar on this piece. The MIDI sounds are full of graceful echo. McLaughlin's pure notes are struck at a mile an hour. There is no attempt to show off. Instead, "Mila Repa" is about the inner contemplation of a simple spirituality.

There is large group of fans who think that listening to John McLaughlin is only about a trip to the races.
If I could lock those people in a room for awhile, I could set them straight.

November 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Buena Vista Social Club: Chan Chan (Live at Carnegie Hall)

The late 1990s success of the Cuban ensemble known as the Buena Vista Social Club was remarkable from several different angles. The wide crossover success in the United States of any band not singing in English is always a cause of surprise. But even rarer is a hit album by a group of senior citizens. Add to it the global political implications of overnight stars traveling from Havana to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall, and you have all the ingredients of a made-for-TV movie.

Certainly there was more than a little hype involved in the popularity of this band. After all, these musicians had been largely forgotten even in their native land, before becoming international stars of World Music. Yet this ensemble delivered the goods onstage, as they demonstrated at their July 1, 1998 Carnegie Hall concert, finally made available on CD ten years after the event. "Chan Chan" captures a world-weary, bittersweet temperament that most fans would hardly associate with Cuban music. But these musicians had seen many ups and downs in their long careers, and something of the wisdom of the tribal elder is distilled in this song composed by the late Compay Segundo. Alas, many of the other stars of this band have now departed, but this record still makes for compelling listening long after the hype has faded.

November 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Hijacked

Fans started rediscovering John McLaughlin in the early 1990s. The '80s had not been so good for the icon. He had a couple of bad record deals, and his experimenting with guitar synthesizers had left some listeners cold. Even his good music wasn't being heard by many.

Que Alegria was released about the same time that Branford Marsalis was having his Tonight Show band play McLaughlin's Mahavishnu music on the show, which provided a small but needed boost. The fact that Que Alegria was brilliant also helped. McLaughlin was now exclusively playing acoustic guitar. But he still wanted to play synthesizer. So he made a wonderful compromise. He had a MIDI-controller added to his acoustic guitar. This allowed him to play both. This time out, however, he used the synthesizer much more wisely. He could make his guitar sound like an organ and other things, but for the most part he used the synthesizer to provide backing chords and shading for his beautiful acoustic guitar. This formula worked to perfection. But John McLaughlin cannot be pigeonholed no matter how hard one may try. There is hardly any acoustic guitar sound heard on this tune.

"Hijacked" begins as a collection of fluttering synthesized notes and a riding cymbal. McLaughlin sounds like an electric keyboard as Di Piazza plays a circular bass riff. Lots of fun stops and starts and unison playing ensue. This is difficult but light music at the same time. The tune's midsection is a collection of disjointed offerings that somehow all meet in the middle. Di Piazza's solo is especially pleasing. Then the tune is hijacked. It becomes a full-out swing number with walking bass and all. This is head-bopping and toe-tapping music that confounds those who say McLaughlin doesn't swing.

McLaughlin would cover the song again with his Free Spirits group of drummer Dennis Chambers and organist Joey DeFrancesco on 1994's Tokyo Live. He also reprised the tune on his 2007 tour with his latest group, the 4th Dimension.

November 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: American Tango

Despite some popular belief, there was a Weather Report before Jaco Pastorius. It was quite a successful band, thank you very much. In fact, Mysterious Traveller was the group's commercial breakthrough. But the album also chronicled the changing of the guard on bass from original member Miroslav Vitous, who performed only on this tune (which he co-wrote), to Alphonso Johnson, who appears on this and the other cuts. In an interview in the 1990s, Johnson said he played electric bass on "American Tango" while Vitous played acoustic. The album credits are unclear on this point, but electric bass is clearly heard.

At the time, Weather Report's co-leader Joe Zawinul expressed admiration for Vitous's musicianship, but thought that since he was a primarily an acoustic bassist and from Europe, he was never going to capture the funk sound that Joe wanted for the band. (Zawinul, who was himself European and a very fine acoustic pianist, was a complicated person. Years after his praise for Vitous, he changed his tune and was much more critical of his musical skills.) Alphonso Johnson, by contrast, was an electric player from Philadelphia. He knew funk. With him on board, the band's sound changed, paving the way for Jaco's highly electric arsenal two years later.

"American Tango" is not one of Weather Report's deepest pieces. But its catchy head arrangement was full of charm, and there was enough synthesizer and electricity on display to please early jazz and fusion fans. Zawinul lays the sounds on thick layer by layer. The tune's pulsing rhythm provides fodder for a short Shorter solo and some more Zawinul noodling. The tune offers a brief respite from the standard fusion attack.

November 03, 2008 · 1 comment

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