Brian Charette: Giant Deconstruction

Samchillian
Check out Leon Gruenbaum's Samchillian web site

Starting off with some blurpy synthy noises, a few organ clusters, and a rhythm trying to find itself, this track might leave a listener wondering where it's all leading—if, in fact, a deconstruction is in progress. What's left to pull apart? Surprisingly, the barely organized sounds coalesce into a fiercely swinging, rising chromatic workout. Brian Charette is a monster on the organ, and Jochen Rueckert's drums complete the vibe. I'm usually a big fan of descents into chaos, but this "anti-madness" is a load of fun.

December 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Erik Friedlander: Ink

"Ink," in contrast to other, short frenetic tracks on Broken Arm Trio such as "Jim Zipper," lumbers along at a leisurely strut with a blues-like melody. But even on this straight-ahead, slower number, Friedlander is never short on ideas. With his cello tuned higher than a bass and played pizzicato (plucked), Friedlander effectively harmonizes Sarin's bassline, taking the high notes while Sarin goes low. When Sarin performs his syncopated solo, the leader comps, and when the two switch roles, Friedlander goes wild as he's apt to do, only in slow-motion. "Ink" is a lazy tune in attitude only; the musicianship behind it belies its laid-back demeanor.

December 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker & Lennie Tristano: I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me

This rare private recording finds Bird visiting Lennie Tristano at 317 E. 32nd St., where the pianist had set up a modest recording studio (with some help from Rudy Van Gelder). Kenny Clarke joins in on brushes, playing a phonebook instead of a drum kit.

There is a miscommunication between the two players eight bars into Bird's solo—the altoist seems ready to go into the bridge, while Tristano has returned to restate the A theme. But after that, the performance is wonderfully relaxed, with Parker taking on more of a Lester-ish flavor than usual. Tristano once commented that Bird's pianists didn't challenge him enough in their comping, yet his own accompaniment here is smooth with only occasional harmonic sparks thrown in Parker's path. But for his own solo, Lennie gets more baroque in a delightful way.

Parker and Tristano apparently discussed starting their own record label around this time, but unfortunately we have only a handful of tracks documenting the chemistry between these two players. Tristano revered Parker, and marveled at the altoist's ability to hear and respond to his substitute changes. And Bird returned the props, at a time when many critics were hostile, stating: "As for Lennie Tristano, I would like to go on record as saying I endorse his work in every particular. . . He has tremendous technical ability and you know, he can play anywhere with anybody. He's a tremendous musician."

I wish we had several hours of Bird and Lennie in musical dialogue. This track is more an appetizer than a main course, but still an important document in the history of modern jazz, demonstrating the complementarity of two approaches that some would have you believe were incompatible.

December 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Kenny Garrett: Sing A Song Of Song

Kenny Garrett has a penchant for writing spiritual, circular melodies, and "Song" is one of his better examples of that composing style. Built on a repeating bass figure, Nat Reeves combined with Watts's syncopated groove gives the song a solidly funky foundation. Kenny Kirkland simultaneously follows that bass figure and Garrett's thematic line before plunging into some rhythmically rigorous ruminations. While it's relatively brief, Kirkland leaves enough of an impression to make you bemoan his tragically premature death the following year.

Garrett's alto sax solo is filled with long notes and has a peculiar, exotic, almost Indian feel with the notes that he chooses. He saves his most impassioned improvising for after the last chorus, ending on literally a very high note.

December 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jacqui Naylor: Summertime

I'm going to begin with a caveat: I love jazz and I love blues. I love R&B. I even love good, honest rock 'n' roll. But when I'm sent a jazz album, I want to hear good, honest jazz, played and sung by artists who are willing to fly without a net.

Jacqui Naylor is a talented, beautiful and obviously marketable singer. She can approximate a reasonable facsimile of blues affectation and has a cadre of solid, competent studio musicians on this effort. She has received a goodly amount of media buzz thanks to a combination of the aforementioned factors. But, in this cloying rehash of classic rock 'n' roll, blues and disco, I find little evidence of deep understanding or sensitivity towards the art of jazz.

Case in point: her hybrid arrangement of "Summertime," crammed into a rather lackluster shell of the Allmans' breakthrough 11/8 rocker, "Whipping Post." Cute idea, nice execution. Still, I would rather hear Duane Allman's tortured riffs and brother Greg's heartfelt growling instead of this lukewarm, contrived effort. And Gershwin deserves much better.

December 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Vinnie Colaiuta: Bruce Lee

Über-drummer Vinnie Colaiuta proves to be quite the well-rounded musician on "Bruce Lee." He is heard on drums, keyboards and synthesizers. The first quarter of the tune has an up-tempo Weather Reportish vibe to it. Abruptly the tune becomes symphonic. Desperate voices are heard. Dramatic chords are struck over threatening drum volleys. What a powerhouse! This section is reminiscent of something you might have heard on Mahavishnu's Apocalypse with the London Symphony Orchestra. But it is mostly Colaiuta. The engaging multilayered composition reels you in. The tune ends strangely but pleasantly with a sound epilogue of an electric razor and a forlorn trombone. (Don't ask.)

Music is more than a showcase for technical prowess. It is the rare jazz-rock drummer who can write music that is interesting outside of his impressive drumming capabilities. For instance, Billy Cobham could do it sometimes. So can Vinnie Colaiuta. On "Bruce Lee" and other tunes from this fine recording, the drummer has "martialed" all of his talents to create one damn Black Belt project.

December 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Vinnie Colaiuta: Chauncey

A lot of people don't know that Sting started out as a jazz musician. As a young fan and a learning musician, he would travel down to London to catch all the jazz and blues shows. I remember reading someplace that he would check out bands like the Graham Bond Organisation in the city's then-thriving R&B and jazz scene. He was hardcore. So it is no surprise that he has sought out jazz musicians to be sidemen in his pop bands for years. Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland and Vinnie Colaiuta are a few of them. Colaiuta was his drummer for about 7 years.

On "Chauncey," the tables are turned and Sting is the guest. He is not there just for show. There are Eastern and Arabian influences heard in this music, and it was at about this time that these were showing up in Sting's own pop music. I assume Vinnie Colaiuta wrote the piece with that in mind. Guitarist Dominic Miller, a gifted player also in Sting's band, is included to offer his own view of this mix. Saxophonist Steve Tavaglione provides a very good solo. The piece's mood changes several times. A strong slow backbeat and low throbbing bass provide textural background for some disembodied chanting. The tune morphs into ethnic atmospherics until it fades and is suddenly interrupted by silence. Great stuff!

Once on Showtime cable TV, I saw Sting sit in with Herbie Hancock and do a respectful bass introduction on Herbie's "Chameleon." Sting is a good musician. Someday I would like to see him tour as part of a jazz group as bassist only.

December 31, 2008 · 1 comment

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Miles Davis: Go Ahead John (part two C)

"Go Ahead John" was simply named for a Miles Davis exhortation to guitarist John McLaughlin. "Go Ahead John (Part Two C)" is a short section taken from the whole tune which would eventually be created from snippets of short pieces … well, it gets a little complicated. Let's just say it is the part where John goes ahead. Other extended versions of the song would turn up a few years later on Davis's Big Fun album. But its birth was on these earlier sessions.

John McLaughlin, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette are the performers on this take. This is electric jam band music in the vein of Medeski Martin & Wood produced decades before there was a Medeski Martin & Wood or jam band music. The groove is dug so deep that you could put water in it and swim around. In fact, you could put a submarine in that water fully loaded with ballast and still not hit bottom. Is that deep enough for you? This is the shit.

The thing to keep in mind about this whole fertile period in Davis's career was that Miles was in a candy store. He had all these new young musicians around him. By the time the Jack Johnson sessions were happening, he was quite familiar with Holland, DeJohnette and McLaughlin. But he was still hearing new things from them. That's why Miles lived. He wanted to hear and play new things. But during this time extra attention was paid to McLaughlin because Miles wanted a rock guitar sound in his music. In McLaughlin he found someone who could offer that while understanding – and in some cases pushing past – jazz dynamics. Miles just loved to listen to McLaughlin play. So when he says, "Go Ahead John," he means it! Miles says something off mike after the cut. You can't quite hear it. But you know it was his scratchy voice voicing approval. He loved listening.

December 31, 2008 · 1 comment

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Miles Davis: Archie Moore

Miles Davis was a boxer trapped in a trumpeter's body. So it is no surprise that he named many songs or performances after famous boxers. In addition to the Jack Johnson album itself, there are other titles such as "Ali," "Sugar Ray," "Duran," and of course "Archie Moore."

Archie Moore was quite a boxer and character worthy of many songs to be named after him. He had more knockouts than any other professional boxer has ever recorded. He was the only boxer to have faced both Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay).

Miles Davis is not present on this cut. The tune is a nasty little power blues. McLaughlin plays painfully slow blues chords as bassist Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette chug along. Then McLaughlin starts playing those twisted, sideways, angular, whatever the opposite of angular is, inside-out, crooked, skittering, distorted, never-before-heard-anything-like blues lines he was playing at the time. All the while DeJohnette and Holland are adding well-placed accents. What a trio! Miles loved this stuff. I do too, although for what it's worth, you would never associate the blues with Archie Moore's personality.

December 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Willie Nelson (take 2)

There are no less than six alternate takes of "Willie Nelson" to be heard on The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. One of the takes, "Insert 2" according to liner note writer Bill Milkowski, was dropped into "Yesternow" on the original commercial release of A Tribute to Jack Johnson by producer Teo Macero. The version reviewed here was not used.

The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions is a treasure trove for several reasons. It becomes very clear that Teo Macero did a remarkable job cutting and pasting for the original Jack Johnson release. As presented on this 5-CD collection, the tunes are disparate creations. They are still great in their own way, but Macero managed to create context after the fact! I am also taken aback about how organized the sessions truly were. We are always being told how loose the jamming was during these recordings. But the band went through this tune six times and each time there is not that much difference. They were trying for something. It is just that that something was decided after the fact! This collection also gives you a wonderful inside seat in Miles's digs during the creative process. What a thrill it is to listen and feel as if you were there. To hear Miles speak to his fellow musicians while history was coming down is a special gift.

"Willie Nelson" is built entirely around a dark funk riff. McLaughlin starts it off. But he is quickly followed by bassist Dave Holland. The Echoplex sounds emanate from guitarist Sonny Sharrock. His brief outbursts were not credited on the original album for some reason. There has been much confusion about his contribution over the years because of this oversight. Drummer DeJohnette maintains a steady pulse isolated in one channel. Miles finally enters with well-placed staccato blowing. Eventually he plays some lines over the electric cacophony. The tune moves nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. The previously mentioned "Yesternow" was not as successful as the album's flipside "Right Off." But it was still an important harbinger to the fusion movement. The inclusion of a snippet of "Willie Nelson" was one of the reasons. As a standalone piece, "Willie Nelson" receives an 86 rating. Put into its created context by Macero in "Yesternow" would raise that rating to 93.

December 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Richard Twardzik: Just One of Those Things

Back in 1954, pianist Richard Twardzik was an unusual artist for Pacific, Richard Bock's boutique label focusing on West Coast jazz. Twardzik was a little-known Bostonian with an avant-garde sensibility, far removed from the cool stylings of Bock's usual releases. But based on a glowing recommendation from Russ Freeman, Bock gave the go-ahead for a session featuring a pianist he had never heard. Thank goodness! This would prove to be Twardzik's only leader date in a commercial studio session - he would die from a drug overdose the following year - and the results rank among the most spectacular jazz trio work of the era. The pianist takes Cole Porter's standard at a fast clip. Although one can hear his debt to Bud Powell (and probably his close listening to Powell's veering-out-of-control February 1951 recording of this same standard), Twardzik's lines construct odd patterns across the barlines in a manner beyond Powell's typical bop semantics. No gossamer wings on this track: instead hear the teeter-totter construction at the 1:20 mark in the right hand, and another pattern to the stars, at 1:35, now in the left hand. Along the way, he tosses out Americana quotes (John Philip Sousa and Ringling Brothers), proving that jazzistas can wave the flag at any tempo. The coda lands with all of the subtlety of a hand grenade. One of those crazy things.

December 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Brian Charette: Wu Wei

Does Brian Charette really draw on the different disciplines of chess and kung fu as inspiration for his music? I am told that "kung fu" translates as improvement through great effort, yet what I encounter here is a musician who plays effortlessly and with an instinctive sense of the musical. I suspect that Charette has a very discerning ear, since his performances seem to reflect what he hears in the cosmos, rather than any fashionable trends out there on the scene. His highest profile gigs have usually been in the company of those outside the jazz world (e.g., Chaka Khan, Joni Mitchell, Cindy Lauper), but don't doubt his jazz credentials for a moment. Charette is a first-rate organist (and needs to be heard on that instrument, too), but here he turns uncharacteristically to piano for a solo outing. This work is an exploration of tone colors, with the melody developing implicitly from the passing harmonies. Think of it as an "In a Mist" for the new millennium. This is jazz that is both pastoral and surprising: an odd combination, but one that reflects the fresh perspectives of this promising stylist. Charette is an artist to watch.

December 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Apti

"I first started a version of this group when I lived in Chicago back in 1996," Rudresh Mahanthappa explains. "There was a sort of pressure put upon me to do something Indian as there was no precedent for an Indian-American jazz musician at the time. I disbanded the group rather quickly as I felt I lacked the skills and knowledge to lead such a trio with musical and cultural integrity." Mahanthappa was concerned lest this attempt at crossing musical boundaries, sometimes as daunting as geographical ones, might collapse into "exoticism" or exploitation of his ancestry.

A dozen years later, Mahanthappa returns to the alluring intersection between jazz and South Asian music, and the result is a gripping recording that brings together contrasting traditions in a seamless whole. The affinity between Indian music and jazz, hinted at in countless modal recordings over the years, is made manifest in this high-voltage performance. From the opening melody statement, Mahanthappa plays right on top of the beat with a fierce insistence. Usually this type of playing strikes me as lacking in phrasing, yet the saxophonist shows that you don't need soft, warm contours to give shape to a melody line. If you put together the right combinations with the proper moments of emphasis, even a boxing match conveys beauty and grace. And, yes, this is something of a pugilistic performance. Mahanthappa's solo extends the energy and - perhaps even more remarkably - the vocabulary of the melody, and the torrent of notes does justice to both the South Asian and post-Trane tributaries that flow into its construction. Rez Abassi and Dan Weiss also impress on this track. The end result is surprising to the degree that it doesn't sound exotic, rather like a natural marriage of true minds to which none of us should admit impediments.

December 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Freddie Hubbard: Lament For Booker

Freddie Hubbard
Photograph by Jos L. Knaepen

As I write this a day after his passing on December 29, 2008, we bemoan the loss of a great trumpeter. But Freddie Hubbard himself knew what it was like. Born only five days before him, Booker Little was likewise an exciting young trumpeter in the early 1960s, just beginning to realize his immense potential. That's when uremia cruelly cut short Little's life at age 23. Hubbard no doubt felt a special kinship to his fallen comrade, and wrote this melancholy ballad in a moving tribute.

James Spaulding's harmony flute lines intertwine fluidly with Hubbard's, but Hubbard's solo expressions are at the heart of this performance. Known primarily as a fiery player, Freddie here shows nothing but appropriate restraint, the clarity in each note expressed with the cadence and conveyance of the human voice. With a flawless performance, Freddie Hubbard immortalized himself in the service of immortalizing another jazz great.

December 30, 2008 · 1 comment

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Duke Ellington: Kinda Dukish / Rockin' In Rhythm

The Duke was a sophisticated gentleman who sometimes enjoyed pretending he was "just folks." While introducing musicians on stage, for example, almost as an afterthought he would gesture to indicate someone named only "the piano player" … and that would be the not-so-retiring Mr. Ellington himself. Coy protestations aside, there was nothing of the bumpkin about his keyboard work, whether striding out per his early training, tinkling quietly and Impressionistically (as in "Reflections in D"), teaching the orchestral parts to some new composition (an almost daily occurrence), or directing his fine-tuned, free-spirited players straight from those same 88's.

Occasionally even the number of keys would increase, as in the 91 arrayed on the piano given a thorough workout on his misleadingly titled Piano in the Background. If ever the Duke was out front with his second instrument (the orchestra famously being his first), it was for this astonishing series of band sessions, when his piano introduces every track, resounds often throughout, and usually has the last word (à la Count Basie). Also a bit Basie-esque was the atomic energy released by this 1960 group, the Duke's men at their mature peak – Hodges, Brown, Nance, Gonsalves, Hamilton, Carney and so many more longtime stalwarts playing like randy stallions, storming through the extended charts, roaring like the great jazz cats they could be when inspired.

Every cut merits attention, but to choose just one, check the perfectly joined medley linking "Kinda Dukish" – his around-the-beat solo intro used to jumpstart part two – and the great "Rockin' in Rhythm," which instantly gets kicked up a notch and then just wails, topped by prime-timed shouts from Carney, Wood, and the screaming brass. Elvis? Schmelvis … the rockin' role was right here!

December 30, 2008 · 1 comment

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Freddie Hubbard: Delphia

As a cool, multipart travelogue, "Delphia"'s dual sections contrast in mood yet remain undisguised by nonseismic modulations to chord forms, dynamics and time signatures. Moving from soul jazz to slow blues to hard, odd-timed bop, an elegance is maintained that reflects an association with those musical styles. Most of the track is a showcase for Freddie Hubbard's soloing, which, in its gripping beauty, surfs atop the coloring. He plays some of his most lyrical lines here, and his status as bandleader does not deter the group from building and releasing tension at important times. Due to the immediacy that results from the track's subtlety, a togetherness of spirit is displayed that is made only more powerful by the clarity of Creed Taylor's production. At times, Hubbard's trumpet is supplanted by organ swells that sound like they are influenced by the likes of Jimmy Smith and Richard "Groove" Holmes, and such an addition simply adds spice. Ultimately, the A and B sections are repeated enough times to be remembered, and they provide the backbone for some amazing playing by Hubbard, whose relevance to jazz cannot be emphasized enough.

December 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Freddie Hubbard: Straight Life

Freddie Hubbard died at age 70 on December 29, 2008, but "Straight Life" lives on as proof of his tremendous playing skills. Salsa-inspired rhythms are intertwined with an instantly recognizable melody that leads to some of the best playing by Hubbard and saxophonist Joe Henderson on CD. Henderson goes first, and his musings step very far outside the defined chord map. As the rhythm section generates a head of steam, he manages to cut up the air with his high end, and the track immediately pushes the boundaries of what should be expected from a 17-minute, 2-chord improvisation. Regarding Hubbard, his playing here can be considered more "in the pocket" than Henderson's, and his most impressive lines are those where he sustains notes for several measures. The form is obviously elemental, but the improvising is of superior quality, and the all-star lineup lives up to its promise on an essential album. In its entirety, Straight Life is still fresh, and if this is what Hubbard and Henderson's jam session in Heaven is bound to sound like, I'd love to own a copy of the recording.

December 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rinsethealgorithm: Urban Nocturnal

Rinsethealgorithm was a 2007 and 2008 Canadian National Jazz Award nominee for Electric Group of the Year. The group is led by Toronto-based electric bassist Rich Brown, a self-taught player influenced by the likes of Jaco Pastorius, Victor Bailey, Jimmy Haslip, and Alain Caron, and who's also an admirer of Marcus Miller and Matthew Garrison. In other words, Brown's a power player with formidable chops. However, he is also a thoughtful and imaginative composer.

Brown describes his tune "Urban Nocturnal" as having been inspired by "a great view of Toronto's city skyline as you drive west on Lakeshore Blvd. approaching the CN Tower." Based on his evocative "aural postcard," it must be quite a view indeed. Beginning with ethereal synth washes, Lewis's sparse drum cadence, and Virelles's reflective piano musings, a tantalizing mood is quickly and adroitly established. Deniz's sweet alto plays the lyrical theme over Brown's richly intoned basslines. The bridge is perkily infectious in contrast, and breezily rendered by Deniz. A calming lull ensues just before Deniz launches an expressive solo, his crisp lines both beseeching and exultant, his technical facility impressive. Deniz is a player to seek out. After the altoist revives the melody, Virelles's swirling piano improv follows, pleasingly framed by the unison vamping of Deniz and Brown. The group's closing tranquil interlude is a fitting end to a distinguished track.

December 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wes Montgomery: Blue 'n' Boogie

Wes Montgomery's Smokin' at the Half Note has always seemed to overshadow the similarly live Full House from three years earlier, perhaps because Smokin' was so superior to the rest of the guitarist's generally more commercial output for Verve. Full House, however, had the same state-of-the-art rhythm section, plus the added advantage of a fiery, at-the-top-of-his-game Johnny Griffin, so it compares quite favorably to the later Verve session. Full House was recorded on a Monday night at a packed and overflowing coffee house in Berkeley, when Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb had the day free from their regular gig backing Miles Davis in nearby San Francisco, and Montgomery and Griffin were in town and available as well. The overused phrase "in the groove" never applied more aptly than to the music these five consummate musicians created that evening.

"Blue 'n' Boogie" is a case in point. Play this track for someone who thinks jazz is too boring, intellectual, and distant, and then contact a funeral home if the detractor has not been reborn and revitalized. The pace is relentless from the start, as Wes and Griff essay Dizzy's riffing theme. Wes solos first, introducing his full arsenal, from fleet extended runs to ringing held notes, not to mention those irresistible unison octaves and block chords, all enhanced by the unique sound he engenders with his thumb-picking technique. Kelly follows with a contrastingly light, dancing touch, and when Cobb offers his always stimulating rim-shot accents, the pianist simply soars. Griffin then amazingly tops both his predecessors, with an exhilarating solo containing bluesy riffs and boppish twists and turns played with his inviting vocalized sound. His swooping lines, cries and wails, and inventive call-&-response patterns bring the audience to a frenzy. Cobb next exchanges alternately with Griff and Wes, before the drummer engages just Kelly in the same heated manner. Cobb has never played better on record than on this and other Full House tracks. His own brief yet rousing solo prior to the reprise is still further proof of that.

December 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet & Earl Hines: Blues In Thirds

This classic recording fortuitously came about when a memorial session was set up in September 1940 to honor the memory of the recently departed clarinetist Johnny Dodds. Earl Hines had recorded a solo piano version of "Blues in Thirds" (also known as "Caution Blues") in 1928, and would play it regularly for decades after, but nothing topped this trio interpretation with Sidney Bechet and Johnny's younger brother, Warren "Baby" Dodds. These artists were three of the earliest dominant individual stylists and soloists in jazz, original and adventurous on their respective instruments. This track, though, is a relatively restrained, simply sublime three-minute example of blues playing at its best.

Hines talked of Bechet being in a bad mood on the day "Blues in Thirds" was put on wax, but there is no sign of any friction or tension to be heard in this performance. Hines initially establishes the loping, relaxed pace, embellishing his blues theme with nimble, tumbling runs and piquant chords, as Dodds utilizes subdued New Orleans-style bass drum accents in oddly effective contrast. Bechet enters with a swelling tone as he infectiously articulates the unpretentious, legato blues line, adding expressive rasps and penetrating low notes to further personalize his message. Hines augments him with some semi-stride counterpoint, backed by Dodds's shuffling rhythmic pulse. As the piece draws to a close, Bechet raises the intensity level, with Hines now spiritedly paraphrasing the theme.

December 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stanley Cowell: Prayer For Peace

When Stanley Cowell arrived in New York in 1966, he immediately turned heads with his playing on saxophonist Marion Brown's Three for Shepp, particularly on the track "Spooks," where his solo exhibited a vast knowledge of the history of jazz piano, a kaleidoscopic journey of the kind you'd expect back then from Jaki Byard. From that point on Cowell also impressed as a composer, recording memorable tunes such as "Equipoise," "Cal Massey," "Maimoun," and "Prayer for Peace."

Cowell originally recorded "Prayer for Peace" in 1973 on his solo Musa Ancestral Streams release for Strata-East, the groundbreaking independent label that he founded with trumpeter Charles Tolliver, and he revisited it in this trio format in 1989. Cowell's playing here brilliantly combines the cerebral with the majestic. Art Tatum played at Cowell's parents' Toledo, Ohio, home in 1947 when Stanley was just six years old; Cowell never forgot the experience, and has aspired to achieve total command of the piano throughout his long career, which included several years with the Bobby Hutcherson-Harold Land Quintet, and an even longer stint with the Heath Brothers. Cowell's prelude for the 1989 "Prayer for Peace" shows his penchant for sophisticated harmonies and in this case a resolute spirituality. (He's a practicing Buddhist.) The staccato theme has a searching, yearning flavor, whereas the bridge evokes a chorale chant. Cowell's solo displays his usual technical flair, with swirling arpeggios and extended lines, prickly note clusters, and a sweeping vision that extends from the gently reflective to the strongly assertive. The return of the theme leads to a calm, luminous out-chorus that is capped by a final liberating "hallelujah"-like interjection. Debriano and Chambers maintain an effectively unobtrusive yet steadfast foundation during this track's engrossing nine minutes.

December 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Art Ensemble of Chicago: Oh Strange, Pt. 1

This is the first half of a nearly hour-long collective improvisation recorded live in concert by the Art Ensemble in the early days of its existence, when the group was headquartered in Paris. "Oh Strange" is the band at its free-est, playing without benefit of a preordained structure. Absent is drummer Don Moye; percussion responsibilities are therefore shared by the other band members, who play various drums, cymbals and other small instruments.

The performance follows a rather typical free jazz template of addition and subtraction, with players coming together in various combinations during its course. An alto saxophonist (Joseph Jarman, presumably) starts by blowing expressive, abstracted phrases over a bed of inconstant African/jazz percussion and vocal chants. He's succeeded by trumpeter Lester Bowie, who engages in the sort of tonal experimentation for which he was so well known. A dramatic arc is discernible yet camouflaged by the highly compressed, lo-fi recording, which reduces everything to the same volume, more or less. On the surface, the lack of dynamic contrast gives the music a rambling, purposeless quality. Careful listening has its rewards, certainly, but it's likely only a diehard Art Ensemble fan will put in the necessary work. Overall, "Oh Strange" is more valuable as a historical document than as an example of the band at its best.

December 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ramsey Lewis: Song of India

By the mid-'50s, Ahmad Jamal's open stylings had convinced Miles Davis that his keyboardist, Red Garland, should emulate Jamal some. Meanwhile, another pianist (like Jamal, based in Chicago) was listening to all of them, already persuaded of the efficacy in funky, percussive playing leaving lots of space. Before Ramsey Lewis's spacious, churchified threesome became one for the history books (pop-master Lewis actually revealing himself to be more limited than his breakaway cohorts Young-Holt Unlimited), his fledgling trio cut some fine post-bop piano albums full of expansive interplay—à la the later, much-vaunted Bill Evans/Scott La Faro/Paul Motian three. The best of these albums was An Hour with The Ramsey Lewis Trio (Argo LP 645), which truly was nearly an hour long and richer for it.

The available CD (reissuing a paltry part only) includes shorter, boppier tracks rather than the exotic ballads from that splendid 5-hour, single-takes session, during which Lewis struck lone notes and tremulous chords, Young essayed arco strings and gently arching solos, and Holt was all-over percussive, finger bells to cymbals to hand-drumming, for tunes as diverse as "Angel Eyes," a misterioso "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" and "The Ruby and the Pearl." Fortunately, the brief "Song of India" did make the reissue cut, so listeners can get a taste of the trio's moody changes and beautiful exotica-funk—and maybe lament the too-soon demise of some rich possibilities. All three musicians enjoyed later success, but they may have been at their jazzy best when together in 1959.

December 28, 2008 · 0 comments

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Arild Andersen: Independency Part 3

The third section of a suite celebrating a century of the bassist's native Norway's independence from its union with Sweden, "Independency Part 3" probes extemporaneous performance against an atmospheric backwash. Andersen's use of digital string loops is subtle and unobtrusive but adds much sonic heft to the song. Vinaccia does no timekeeping, but his percussive accents give the performance an insistent quality. Smith's tenor sax employs a big, wide tone not far removed from Michael Brecker with lines inspired by Andersen's old boss Jan Garbarek. His phrases are completely unforced, often stating a short phrase and stating it again in longer form. Andersen's well-modulated solo sings in the upper register almost wistfully, and when rejoined by Smith, becomes a musical conversation of profundity and beauty. Like a painting created on the fly by an experienced artist, "Independency Part 3" captures the immediacy often missing from a mostly scripted piece.

December 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dave Douglas & Keystone: Moonshine

A driving über-funky drumbeat, a rumbling Rhodes and booming, amped-up upright bass introduce "Moonshine" with a bedrock of unshakeable groove. While the rhythm section is funk minded, Douglas's and Strickland's thematic lines suggest bop. Ever adept at making disparate styles coalesce, Douglas gets the two currents to click together. Soon, Benjamin is diving into a solo threatening dissonance but never quite crossing the line, and Strickland's soul-drenched sax solo also avoids hackneyed phrases. Douglas himself delivers the best lines, with crystalline notes, technical flawlessness, and a keen sense of lyricism all at once.

Dave Douglas has mastered the art of electro-acoustic jazz better than most by using technology to amplify sound jazz ideas, not overwhelm them. "Moonshine" is one of those songs where his vision is more palpable and accessible.

December 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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World Trio: Dr. Do-Right

Dave Holland's flair for writing simple but gorgeous folk-oriented melodies, revealed early on with the song "Conference of the Birds," appears again in this up-tempo number. Eubanks, Holland and Cinelu strike a perfect balance between integrated group performance and individual improvising. Kevin Eubanks's rich 12-string acoustic brings out the richness in that Holland melody, while Holland and Cinelu are locked into an immaculate, double-timed syncopated groove. Holland doesn't even move off it when Eubanks lays out for the bassist's solo. With Holland anchoring both melody and rhythm so securely, Cinelu and Eubanks feel free to take more risks on their turns. Eubanks exhibits a startling amount of speed and musicality, while never going off the rhythm or melody.

Though a one-off collaboration, the World Trio made heady organic music like "Dr. Do-Right" that was pleasing to the ears while blowing the mind.

December 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Feel Like Going Home

And so we come full circle back to that great standard identified as "Walkin' Blues." Muddy Waters had essayed a classic version early in his career, released on the flipside of "I Can't Be Satisfied" (the early Aristocrat 78), but 15 years later during the sessions for Folk Singer, his quiet album with backing mostly by Buddy Guy, the slide master hauled out his old red Telecaster and went to town, or at least back to Mississippi, for a Waters-only solo performance of slow and stately beauty, the guitarist carefully exploring every note, the ghosts gathering at Stovall's Plantation, the twangy amplified strings rollin' and tollin' in the Delta night, his echoey voice sighing resignedly, "All I had was gone."

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: The Blues Had a Baby and They Named it Rock and Roll

Good times don't last. The hits and the innovation faded away even as Muddy Waters's status as the honored senior of Chicago Blues rumbled on. Leonard Chess died, and later producers tried useless gimmicks; yet even though there were honorable moments, even whole albums, finally Muddy left Chess behind, signing with Johnny Winters's Blue Sky, a sub-label of Columbia. The guitar-mad albino produced a total of four LPs revitalizing Muddy's career; but the first, Hard Again, was the one that mattered. And this less-known track is still the most fun, if not the "hardest" blues: James Cotton blew the cobwebs out, Winter muscled the slide, and Muddy had a good time telling all, "Otis Spann said it, 'You know the Blues got soul' / Queen Victoria said it, 'You know the Blues got soul' / The Blues had a baby, And they named it Rock and Roll." Proof positive, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, of McKinley Morganfield's benign and lasting influence on rock!

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Forty Days and Forty Nights

From the mid-1950s into the '60s, Muddy Waters's Chess singles and "hits" kept a-comin' – not big-money chart numbers, but releases gaining national and international acclaim – and he settled comfortably into the role of master blues entertainer, purveying up-tempo arrangements, lyrics of innuendo (sly and not so), gruffer vocals, and less and less of his own slide guitar. (In fact the Chess Blues Box makes a point of his "vocals only" for half of the 72 chosen tracks.) So his Noah-count single "Forty Days and Forty Nights" will have to stand in for dozens of other candidate numbers. It's still Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers behind him, but could as well be James Cotton or Walter Horton, Pat Hare or Luther Tucker, or the scores of tunes blessed with Otis Spann rocking the piano. Muddy's shouted vocals seem the exalted epitome of his style of blues declaiming, and the band just keeps thrusting straight on: no muss, no fuss, don't go no further; the real thing is right here.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Hoochie Coochie Man

You might say that for Muddy Waters 1954 came in with a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, as bassist Willie Dixon and great blues pianist Otis Spann joined the team. Spann, sometimes identified as Muddy's "cousin" and certainly his musical doppelganger, brought new sophistication to the arrangements or at least the piano parts, and Dixon slathered a potent, inventive sexuality onto music and lyrics – "I'm Ready," "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and this Coochie classic all recorded in the first few months alone. (Muddy too was juiced, cribbing and fiddling "Mannish Boy" away from Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" original.) Plus two solid years more of the best of Little Walter's jazz-influenced chromatic harp, up in the mix and heard to powerful effect on every recording. No wonder everybody knew Muddy was here!

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Long Distance Call

At the session that produced "Honey Bee," Muddy Waters also cut this gently rocking ballad, its slightly stately pace perhaps suggesting the central role he was already occupying in the new electrified genre – mentoring his sidemen, hosting new arrivals to town, becoming the genial godfather of Chicago Blues. Over the next couple of years, Big Crawford would be ousted by bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, simplistic drummer Elgin Evans would yield to Francis Clay, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter would become solidly present on all tracks. But for this quiet gem, and "Still a Fool" (Muddy's version of the traditional "Two Trains Running"), plus a few other tracks still ahead, the session crew was kept small and tight, and the Delta was still only two trains or a long distance call away.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Louisiana Blues

Little Walter's distinctive and soon-to-be prominent harp work was introduced on this October 1950 session, providing mellow backup for Muddy Waters's lazy, loping beat during the initial verses of "Louisiana Blues," the first of Muddy's major mojo-magical songs, with the familiar lyric "I'm goin' down in New Orleans, get me a mojo hand." (Those ju-ju devices figure most prominently in the near-theme song hit "Got My Mojo Working," and there's some voodoo happening in "Hoochie Coochie Man" too.) But what starts out melodically and a bit sleepily soon takes on a slightly greater urgency as both harp and guitar seem to speed up a fraction and gain some in volume. (This eventually became a favorite track – and arrangement trick – for some British blues bands.)

December 24, 2008 · 1 comment

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Muddy Waters: Honey Bee

By late 1950, producer Leonard Chess was finally admitting that the 1940s amplified duets approach had run its course, and that Muddy Waters's reputation as a bandleader had spread far enough to merit bigger session arrangements, starting with the addition of Little Walter or Jimmy Rogers fairly regularly (and gradually others). Chess himself played bang-along bass drum on the three-man thudder "She Moves Me," but this other, more intriguing trio puts Little Walter on guitar (a man of many parts!), his picking style ringing out in contrast to the slap-strings lead of Muddy. In the booklet accompanying the Chess Muddy Waters box, musician/critic Robert Palmer writes knowledgeably of microtonal sounds and black-keys-on-the-piano sources, but I just shrug and say, "Sail on, my little honey bee, sail on!"

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Rollin' Stone

"Rollin' Stone" puts us waist-deep in the Big/Muddy duet that entered the DNA of more rockers and bluesers than any other Muddy Waters track, truly his defining moment, the potent frontdoor-man bragfest. A sterling stop-time de-rangement launches this upscale version of the familiar Delta standard known as "Catfish Blues"; then it's power strums and tolling bells, and Muddy's mama predicting: "Got a boy child comin' gonna be a son-of-a-gun," and "a rolling stone" to boot. And the music world was never the same again!

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Rollin' and Tumblin'

This particular duel broke the mold with a fast, chugging-and-churning beat and a chanted, moaning-and-groaning vocal – "Whiskey and women would not let me pray!" – so compelling it was allowed to take up both sides of the disc. But, in fact, Muddy had already anchored a faster, louder, more inchoate version recorded for tiny label Parkway, with Leroy Foster on guitar and lead vocals, and harp master Little Walter. Foster's track is a primitive early landmark of Chicago Blues, Waters's cover merely manic – but Mannish Boy proof that he could pretty much do it all by himself if he had to!

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Burying Ground

Although Muddy Waters had his own amplified band of four or five (usually including Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica) playing Chicago's South Side clubs from 1947 onward, producer Leonard Chess was reluctant to mess with success, so he kept Muddy recording "Big" bass-ic duets for the next two years (aside from a couple of sop-to-the-guitarist sessions where Muddy was allowed to add Leroy Foster or Jimmy Rogers on second guitar). Alongside "Down South Blues," "Kind Hearted Woman," "Little Geneva" and a dozen more, the most radical duet cut was "Burying Ground" as Waters applied everything in his guit-arsenal, digging in, reaching for that bigger blues band sound – forceful picking, his loosened, snarling strings riding roughshod over the bass and battling his own vocals to a draw.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: I Can't Be Satisfied

Muddy Waters moved to Chicago in the mid-'40s and quickly cut a few forgettable tracks for Columbia, but it took the intercession of Sunnyland Slim and the unlikely interest of Leonard Chess at new independent label Aristocrat to launch greatness, as Waters was given the green light to play several Delta numbers on electric guitar, usually on what became his beloved red Telecaster, and with his bottleneck slide, and with solid driving bass by "Big" Crawford (the unsung hero of Muddy's early tracks). The 78-rpm release of rocking, rhythmic "I Can't Be Satisfied" – bulked up and with more bounce to the ounce – coupled with the slower, sadder "I Feel Like Going Home" sold out in a single afternoon, and a blues legend was born. As Muddy sang it, "Baby, I cain't never be satisfied," and one suspects The Rolling Stones took a hint from this track too.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Muddy Waters: Country Blues

One might glibly say that Chicago Blues starts here. There were many Down South musicians recording in the Windy City ahead of Muddy Waters (in the 1930s and early '40s), yet this track – his 1941 debut on disc, cut while still in Mississippi, for Library of Congress field folklorists Alan Lomax and John Work – in retrospect announced the arrival of something new, maybe an insouciant, jaunty, sprung-rhythm approach to the rural blues (here applied to the Son House/Robert Johnson number "Walkin' Blues"). At any rate, Lomax lucked onto the perfect Delta descendent with 26-year-old Morganfield, whose first track transmits House and Johnson precisely (he'd observed or heard both), and the accompanying interview confirms it: Son was his unmatchable mentor, and Robert's aggressive guitar and high vocal tones clearly the better fit.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Janiva Magness: One Heartache Too Late

This lady has one of the finest blues voices around today. There are bits of Motown and rock here, hints of Aretha or Janis, but the end result is Janiva, a sultry blues diva with a bad attitude. This song floats over a salacious 6/8 that gradually builds in intensity, with Zack Zunis's guitar propositioning our lead singer at every opportunity. But sorry my friend, you are "one heartache too late" on this occasion. This song could be a radio hit, at least it could have been back in the days before the music died. Nowadays you need to sniff out the best songs by yourself. But this one is worth tracking down.

December 24, 2008 · 1 comment

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T-Model Ford: Hip Shakin' Woman

James "T-Model" Ford is not quite as old as the Ford Model T … but almost. When he was born, probably in 1924 (he's not really sure), those Tin Lizzies were still coming off the assembly line. But blues singer Ford has picked up even more mileage, and considerably more wear and tear, than any machine on four wheels you've ever seen. Matthew Johnson once asked Ford how many times he'd been to jail. "He seemed to think it was a trick question," Johnson recalls, "Upon realizing it wasn't, he answered to the best of his ability: 'Every Saturday night there for awhile.'"

Fortunately for blues fans, and maybe even more happily for Saturday night strollers in the state of Mississippi, T-Model Ford now works out his aggression on his guitar. No matter that he didn't start playing until he was (more or less) 58, Ford sounds like he was made to perform this music. This track, recorded for the documentary M for Mississippi, shows him off in all his raw and raucous splendor. The lyrics may be hand-me-downs, the guitar chords throbbing like a demon locked in your neighbor's garage, but the edginess in this music is infectious. Some things get mellower with age, and then there is T-Model Ford, who's been operating for many years now with nary an oil change. Check him out, but keep a distance of at least two car lengths from the bandstand.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Boy Arnold: Decoration Day

Billy Boy Arnold has called it "the most important day in my entire life." Over 60 years ago, after leaving a movie matinee, he treks from his home on the South Side of Chicago to 3226 Giles Street, and knocks on the door of blues harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson. Williamson would soon be dead, a victim of a mugging at age 34 in 1948, and had his posthumous reputation confused by a usurper who took his name; but on that day he generously spent time with the visiting youngster, demonstrating his harmonica effects and how he made his humble mouth organ say wah, wah, wah.

Decades have passed and now Billy Boy Arnold returns the favor on a CD devoted to songs by Sonny Boy Williamson. Here he takes the melancholy "Decoration Day," and turns it from doleful to soulful with lots of wah, wah, wah along the way. Sonny Boy's nice and kind woman "died and left him," and he needs to fulfill his promise to bring her some flowers on every Decoration Day. Hey kitties, you know it's a heavy dues song when it opens at the side of a deathbed and goes downhill from there. But Billy Boy translates his mourning into some serious wailing on the harmonica, and the whole band is magical throughout this track. There are so many tribute albums floating around these days, and most of them come across as contrived and shallow. But Billy Boy Sings Sonny Boy is the real deal, one master celebrating the artistry of another with unfeigned passion. A real treat for blues fans.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Les Brown: Rock Me To Sleep

This was one of Les Brown's last sides for Columbia Records before he signed a contract with the Decca subsidiary, Coral. His was the house band for Bob Hope's radio (and later television) show, so he did not have to tour to keep his band going, and he could hire musicians who would remain with the band for years. Les always featured excellent vocalists, and Lucy Ann Polk was one of the hippest ever to sing with the band. (She'd been part of a two brother-two sister vocal group called The Town Criers, who'd sung with Brown back in 1943. They'd also appeared with Tommy Dorsey and Kay Kyser.) This recording features an attractive Benny Carter song, a wonderful vocal by Ms. Polk, and a solo by tenorman Dave Pell. This track also reminds us how, once upon a time, pop recordings had strong jazz sensibilities.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans (sax) & Bruce Hornsby (piano): A Simple Life

Bill Evans (sax) is an avid fisherman. For some reason, I never associate fishing with jazz. I don't associate NASCAR, bowling or hockey with jazz either. But maybe that is only me. Evans refers to his pastime as "a simple life" in the liner notes. I can only assume the song title is about that too. Does Bruce Hornsby fish? (This review has been interrupted for a Google search for "Bruce Hornsby" + "fishing." Hmm. Hornsby appeared on a song about fishing with Ricky Skaggs. I may be onto something here.)

Evans (sax) plays "A Simple Life" as a ballad duet with Hornsby (piano) who has shown he can play pop, country and jazz with equal skill. This is not one of Evans's most memorable melodies. But the piece is more about mood and setting than about telling a story. I could listen to Evans ramble all day. He is that good on his axe. Hornsby has a distinct playing style marked by his unusual choice of chords. The two sound very comfortable together as they think about fish.

December 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans (sax): Push

I would not be understating to say that I hated Push when it came out in 1993. Bill Evans (sax) was always someone I could count on to produce a great jazz or fusion album. But I knew I was in trouble when I opened the CD and saw lyrics and credits for rap singers. NO! NO! Evans (sax) had decided to incorporate hip hop and rap into his music. I still gave it a chance, though, since Evans (sax) said in the liner notes that the music was a marking a "new direction in my life." Yuck. What a god-awful shame that was. I listened once and said goodbye to another great musician who had decided to go over to the dark side.

It is 15 years later. I take out the Push CD from my collection expecting to hate it all over again. The tunes featuring the rapping are still bad. But I realize my distaste for those particular numbers years ago made me overlook some very good fusion cuts. The title piece has hip-hop influences in its heavy bass 'n' drum sound. It is possible I hated that then too. Now it seems that Evans may have been ahead of his time. This music now sounds quite contemporary, even infectious. The sound on Push is heavily compressed, which takes some getting used to. The same is true for the electronic drum loops. But Evans's composing is as strong as ever, and the melody and his wonderful playing of it win out in the end. This is not my favorite Bill Evans music, but it deserves to be listened to. This is one time I would say Thank God for individual track downloads.

December 24, 2008 · 8 comments

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Maria Schneider (featuring Scott Robinson): The Willow

Beginning in the early 1990s, Maria Schneider has emerged as the strongest modern-day baritone-centric big band arranger, offering nods to Ellington/Carney with both baritone features and arrangements with the bari on top. Throughout much of her career as a big band leader, Schneider's Carney has been multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, who according to his web site "has been heard on tenor sax with Buck Clayton's band, on trumpet with Lionel Hampton's quintet, on alto clarinet with Paquito D'Rivera's clarinet quartet, and on bass sax with the New York City Opera."

He's actually recorded most often, though, and especially more recently, on baritone sax, and some of his finest playing can be heard on Maria Schneider's recordings. The delicate melody and radiant colors in Schneider's baritone feature "The Willow" make the bari sound as refined and mature as it ever has. For a musician so experienced and adept at playing multiple instruments, Robinson's improvisation here is filled with historical awareness and a distinct, tender personality.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Three Baritone Saxophone Band: Line for Lyons

You'll get no argument from this quarter If you conclude from this disc that "the more the merrier" is perhaps not the best philosophy to apply to the baritone saxophone. A small dose of this record, however, or large doses of any of these saxophonists' respective solo material, will reveal some of the strongest post-bop baritone voices. Originally assembled to pay tribute to Gerry Mulligan at the 1996 Jazz and Image Festival in Rome, the Cuber-led Three Baritone Saxophone Band recorded for the first and only time on this similarly intentioned studio date.

"Line for Lyons," the album's opening track, works best, featuring careful arranging from Cuber that creates a colorful illusion of a wider instrumentation. While it's sometimes tricky to tell the impressive modern sounds of Brignola and Smulyan apart in this context, Cuber's individual personality shines through, remaining the most expressive and comfortingly straight-ahead of the three. It's apparent that Cuber's long history of juggling jazz, soul and rock/pop gigs has yielded a universal approach, one that has influenced many modern baritone saxophonists.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Hamiet Bluiett & Concept: I'll Close My Eyes

Hamiet Bluiett, a co-founding member of the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis, alumnus of the bands of Charles Mingus, Sam Rivers, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, and a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, was once asked what drew him to the baritone sax. "I just fell in love with the instrument from the sight of it. That was it," he responded. "I think it can stand toe to toe with you like Shaquille O'Neal and take you out." Later in the interview, Bluiett went on to state that his major influence, once the "love at first sight" wore off, was Harry Carney, and it is indeed a combination of the classic Carney sound and Bluiett's own confidently forceful, avant-garde experimentation that makes Hamiet one of the more exciting and original baritone saxophonists of his generation. Bluiett and pianist Don Pullen, who are both perfectly comfortable at balancing the frenzied and the beautiful, participate in restrained, sophisticated interaction throughout "I'll Close My Eyes." Two underrated masters in fine form.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Donald Byrd (featuring Pepper Adams): Jeannine

From 1958-'63, Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams combined to form one of the most appealing hard-bop partnerships. Byrd's carefully developed lyrical improvisations were greatly contrasted by the sheer intensity of Adams's "Knife"-like improvisatory onslaught. An alumnus of the groups of Charles Mingus and (later) Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Adams's work with these famed artists and as a leader and co-leader in his own right warranted his reputation as the leading purveyor of the aggressive, post-bop baritone sax style.

His solo on this hard-grooving Duke Pearson composition has it all: a forceful sound that will knock you to the ground, a multitude of satisfying vertical leaps and bounds (none more amusing than the perfectly placed accidental squeak near the end of his first line at 5:08), and most importantly, brilliantly executed connecting threads that lend his improvisations a tangible storyline. The entire span from 6:00-7:00 is special playing indeed.

Quick sidebar: In his extended improvisation on this track, Donald Byrd returns to the same (rather long) motivic theme no fewer than 9 times over the course of the solo. Is this variation-on-a-theme lyricism an example of giftedly constructed motivic development? Or does he cross the line and deliver a phoned-in, planned-from-the-start performance?

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Serge Chaloff: A Handful of Stars

The best baritone saxophonist most listeners have never heard of: Serge Chaloff, whose rather incredible talents combine Harry Carney's tone and Cecil Payne's vocabulary. After early runs with Boyd Raeburn and Jimmy Dorsey, Chaloff teamed with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward to form Woody Herman's "Four Brothers." There was quite a buzz surrounding his playing after those performances, but Chaloff failed to capitalize, in part due to a serious drug habit that frequently interrupted his recording career. In the early to mid-'50s, however, Chaloff managed to kick the habit and release a handful of outstanding recordings as a leader, before tragically suffering from spinal paralysis and an untimely death.

Blue Serge, the highlight of these late-career sessions, features consistently inspired playing from Chaloff and the superb rhythm section Clark, Vinnegar and Philly Joe Jones. Note how amazingly hard Chaloff is swinging right off the bat during his expressive statement of the melody, while maintaining a light, "is-this-really-a-bari?" tone. The intensity spikes as soon as his solo starts, utilizing the full dynamic range of his horn with a blistering run of 16th notes supported by a double-timing Philly Joe. Vinnegar's solo and the trading among all four members at the tune's conclusion also distinguish this exceptional track.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Quincy Jones (featuring Lars Gullin): Sometimes I'm Happy

Jazz Abroad presents the first recording sessions led by, respectively, Roy Haynes and Quincy Jones. Don't be confused by the album cover: the two sessions were separate, and the two artists do not appear together. Haynes, while on a European tour with Sarah Vaughan, recorded in Stockholm in October 1953, while Jones, who was on tour with Lionel Hampton, combined some of his fellow Hampton bandmates with the top Stockholm musicians for this November '53 date.

Scandinavian cool baritonist Lars Gullin begins the soloing on "Sometimes I'm Happy." Given his penchant for floating, experimental lines, it's easy to see how he hooked up with American cool and/or Tristano school musicians such as Chet Baker and Lee Konitz. Gullin has a well-defined cool jazz aesthetic under his fingers here, only months removed from the seminal Mulligan/Baker quartet sessions. He and Art Farmer play the finest solos, backed by Alan Dawson's crisp, clean brushwork.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Richard Twardzik: A Crutch for the Crab

Twardzik, dead at age 24, left behind a small body of work, but enough to justify his inclusion in the short list of jazz piano masters of his generation. At a time when most of his peers were paring down their chords, Twardzik was adapting a modernistic orchestral palette to the keyboard. His melody lines were brittle with Bartokian bite. His rhythms were a higher order of syncopation, breaking free from the typical tyrannies of 4/4 swing. "A Crutch for the Crab" starts as a stately march suitable for a military procession, but soon deteriorates into a lopsided skirmish, and finally a free-for-all. There are many surprises here: hints of deranged Harlem stride, oddball walking chords, falling snowflakes of harmonic color alighting on the high register of the keyboard. Only a few jazz pianists of this period would have been able even to imitate this futuristic style back in 1953, let alone create it afresh.

Twardzik is a name unfamiliar to most younger jazz fans—or perhaps at best a name recognized but not an artist heard. What a shame! For this pianist understood, even better than Garner or Shearing or Peterson or the other stars of the early 1950s, the shape of jazz to come.

Note: Fans are advised the supposed "alternate take" of this song, is in fact the same as the master take, and that both have lost their opening measures on most extant copies of this recording.

December 23, 2008 · 1 comment

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Gerry Mulligan: Jeru

Gerry Mulligan's immense talent as a performer, composer and arranger were so significantly impressive throughout the mid- to late 1940s and early '50s that he managed to not only reinvent the possibilities of the baritone sax, but concurrently had a hand in developing the entire cool jazz aesthetic – a rare occurrence for a non-dominant lead instrument. While the original "Jeru" from the Birth of the Cool is better known, this 2½ -minute version by the influential Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker pianoless quartet is just about as close to perfect as a recording can get. Mulligan solos first, and the stunning weight of his beginning statement (00:31-00:39) opens the door for subsequent generations of baritone saxophonists to consistently and inventively "kill it" with the opening line of their improvisations. Also note Mulligan's sensitive comping (no guitar or piano, remember) under Baker's story-time solo. The two then engage in collective improvisation before a brief bass solo ushers in the final cadenza. Definitive West Coast jazz.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gjermund Larsen: ArriVals

This Norwegian trio could easily fall outside your music radar screens, but their pastoral 2008 release Ankomst is well worth tracking down. Larsen's playing meets at the crossroads where acoustic jazz and folk styles intersect, a rich field only occasionally plowed by American jazz artists these days, but with far more adherents in other parts of the world. This CD covers a range of styles, sometimes even evoking a spirited Nordic hoedown or ECM-ish currents, but "ArriVals" is a simple, heartfelt performance that I found myself listening to over and over, and sharing with others. Highly recommended!

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Kenny Dorham (featuring Cecil Payne): La Villa

As time goes by, multi-reed specialist Cecil Payne is increasingly recognized as the foremost originator of the bebop style on the baritone saxophone. And rightly so: his bebop agility expanded the improvisatory possibilities on the instrument. In 1946 he played baritone in Roy Eldridge's band, which in turn led to his participation in some of the most influential bebop recordings with Dizzy Gillespie, including the classic "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop." From there, Payne worked with Woody Herman, Tadd Dameron, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Illinois Jacquet, John Coltrane and many others.

Highlighted here on Kenny Dorham's "La Villa," a track from the mid-'50s, Payne flexes his baritone muscles among an all-star bop lineup. His solo statement near the end of the tune provides a powerful lift after already powerful solos by Dorham and Mobley. Note how Payne stumbles upon a brief line he likes (03:39-03:42) and masterfully weaves it into the remainder of his solo. A perfect example of using just the right amount of lyrical repetition.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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World Saxophone Quartet: Hattie Wall

No avant-garde jazz band ever combined musical sophistication with sheer, unadulterated down-and-dirtiness better than the World Saxophone Quartet. Case in point: “Hattie Wall.” Built on a catchy, repetitive bassline played with Bootsy Collins-like abandon by baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, “Hattie” was the band’s theme song, and maybe the funkiest tune in their repertoire. A live version highlighted the WSQ’s 1981 Live in Zurich album. This later example is culled from the band’s second disc for Elektra/Nonesuch, Dances and Ballads. It’s tighter and more smoothly rendered than the ’81 recording, but it’s still a groove-fest, featuring the WSQ’s typically powerful collective soloing, tight-but-not-too-tight ensembles, and characteristic joie de vivre. If I had to pick one vehicle that represents what made the original WSQ great, "Hattie Wall" might be it. This studio recording may not be their all-time greatest performance of the tune (after all, the band could be a volcanic live act), but it will do.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Lacy: No Baby

Like many an American jazz musician before (and after) him, Steve Lacy found Europe to be a more agreeable place to ply his trade. He moved there to stay in 1965; he would not live in the U.S. again for many years. He did pay the occasional visit, however. “No Baby” comes from the 1977 album Raps, which was recorded in the immediate aftermath of a week-long series of performances at Ali’s Alley in New York.

One of the wittier items in his discography, “No Baby” begins with drummer Oliver Johnson verbally intoning the title over and over, as if scolding an errant toddler on the verge of committing some childish misdemeanor. The chant morphs into the simple three-against-four motive (played by the twin sopranos) which makes up the tune. Potts takes the first solo. He sounds a great deal like Lacy—working against the pulse rather than riding on top of it, cleanly articulating his deceptively simple melodic ideas—yet you realize he’s not, the instant Lacy’s distinctive, astringent tone enters the fray. The saxophonists make a terrific team, rather like an old married couple completing each other’s sentences. Johnson plays hard and loud. One can imagine in a live setting he might be overbearing, but with the sax and bass volume essentially normalized by the recording process, his contribution is actually quite exciting. In later years, Lacy would employ more conventional drummers than Johnson, but none had the capacity to generate more intensity. This is visceral stuff, demonstrating that Lacy’s inspiration never flagged, even in a high-energy context.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Lacy: Stamps

According to John Swenson’s liner notes, Raps “documents Lacy’s first real acceptance here in the U.S. since his 1965 exile … (to) Italy, and later Paris.” The expatriate Lacy was in New York for a week of performances at drummer Rashied Ali’s Downtown loft performance space, Ali’s Alley. Lacy & Co. went into the studio to record the album at week’s end. For this quartet date, Lacy was joined by two members of his Paris-based sextet—saxophonist Steve Potts and drummer Oliver Johnson—and bassist Ron Miller, who had (according to Swenson) worked with him occasionally in Europe.

“Stamps” is the album’s lead track. The minor-key tune is characteristic of Lacy’s compositional style: motives of varying length repeated several times by the horns—sometimes in unison, sometimes harmonized; each set of repetitions constitutes a section, and the sections are arranged together to create a clearly defined form. It’s a simple yet very effective manner of composition—a distillation of techniques drawn not only from jazz (Monk, in particular) but also classical music. Following the theme statement, the saxophones improvise in tandem, exchanging terse bits of information, weaving an ornate sonic latticework over the free-time tumult generated by the rhythm section. Rawer than Lacy’s later work but nevertheless well-organized, “Stamps” in retrospect seems a harbinger of the refinement the saxophonist’s work was to undergo in the ‘80s.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Lacy: Flakes

During the ‘80s, Steve Lacy was probably best known for his work with his sextet, which featured co-saxophonist Steve Potts and Lacy’s better half, Irene Aebi—the latter playing cello and often singing Lacy’s quirky Jazz art songs. For a dose of pure Lacy, however, you can’t do better than the trio music he occasionally recorded, often in the company of bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel. On “Flakes,” Lacy and Avenel are joined by drummer Oliver Johnson, a delightfully sensitive accompanist who was well able to follow Lacy-the-composer’s every plotted course. “Flakes” highlights much of what made Lacy great, not least his tone. Crystalline from top to bottom but especially clear in the upper register, his sound works in perfect tandem with his incisive manner of improvisation. The opening motive—located near the top of the horn’s conventional range—provides thematic material and sets a mood evocative of the composition’s title. Light, dancing, and poetic, the performance is a remarkable exercise in creative empathy. Avenel, in particular, shows a profound affinity for Lacy’s music—more so, perhaps, than any of Lacy’s long-term partners, excepting perhaps Roswell Rudd.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Josh Roseman: I Should Have Known Better

A dub reggae trance free funk jazz version of an early Beatles hit song? Heck, why not? Don't expect the familiar melody to jump right out at you, though; snippets and short quotes of it emerge from the haze only to submerge beneath the thick electronic motif again. Some chords don't really belong in the song as Lennon & McCartney envisioned it. The only constant is that island beat.

Amongst this murky mixture of a live performed groove and an assortment of samples and artificially generated noise is Josh Roseman's tribute to the pioneering ska sounds of Don Drummond's trombone, in both open and muted form. With "I Should Have Known Better," Roseman subverts pop music by suffocating it with a mélange of Jamaican influences. He may have been too successful contorting the song, though, as it's warped almost entirely beyond recognition.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: How Deep Is The Ocean

McCoy Tyner essentially adapted Coltrane's vision to the piano, and thus influenced countless young pianists in much the same way as impressionable saxophonists (and other instrumentalists) were inspired by the power, challenging technical mastery, and spirituality of Coltrane's playing. As the years passed after Coltrane's death, it appeared that Tyner was "mellowing," while in reality he was simply returning to a broader stylistic approach, one that was already evident at times during his early '60s stint with Coltrane. Examples would include Tyner's work on Coltrane's Ballads and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, as well as on his own Impulse albums such as Nights of Ballads and Blues and Plays Ellington.

For Tyner's second solo piano release, and his first since his Coltrane tribute Echoes of a Friend 16 years earlier, producer Michael Cuscuna wisely recorded him in an empty, acoustically ideal Merkin Concert Hall in New York. Thanks to the exceptional quality of Tyner's playing and the superior sound engineered by the esteemed David Baker, Revelations is a standout item in the pianist's vast discography. Tyner's version of "How Deep is the Ocean" is fascinating for what it reveals about his own influences as much as for how he can reinvent and refresh a well-known standard. He begins with some tolling dissonant notes alternating with cavernous chords, before entering the theme and embellishing it with jabbing phrases and potent left-hand figures. You are struck by how his penetrating sound seems to be fully resonating throughout the intimate venue in which he's playing. Tyner's solo mixes intriguing motifs and pounding chords with quick flourishes and runs, and he even takes his attack into exhilarating overdrive leading up to the final exploration of the melody, which he ends with a fittingly Monkish "trinkle tinkle." As you listen, glimpses flash by of Monk's quirkiness, Tatum's extravagance, and even Earl Hines's dexterous 2-handed unpredictability, all wonderfully endearing and gripping, if at times nearly overwhelming.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Etta Jones: If You Could See Me Now

The two Ettas, Jones and James, endured decades of confusion due to the similarity of their names, as opposed to their obviously different voices and singing styles. It wasn't until, by coincidence, the mid-'90s that each dared to record the other's big hit from the '60s, James doing "Don't Go to Strangers" and Jones recording "At Last." Both singers recorded tributes to Billie Holiday as well, but Jones was more of a pure jazz vocalist, whereas James's approach to jazz never entirely forsook her R&B roots. Etta Jones, however, was also extremely adept at the blues, and thus could be considered more versatile, if never as popular, as Etta James.

James had a favorite saxophonist in Red Holloway, but in that regard could not match Jones's three-decade musical partnership with tenorman Houston Person. Nonetheless, Person himself stepped aside in 1994 to produce a unique and memorable session that featured Jones exclusively in duets with the emerging young pianist Benny Green, who had first drawn attention as Betty Carter's accompanist. Jones is in fine voice, and the sparse setting allows the listener to focus on the enduring characteristics of her individual style, which are mostly derived from her main influences, Holiday and Dinah Washington. On "If You Could See Me Now," she lags the implied beat a little as usual, alters her pitch and skillfully varies the dynamic level for dramatic effect, sometimes bends notes in a manner that nearly suggests a yodel, and gravitates effortlessly from the intimately conversational to the emotionally exclamatory. Green's plaintive intro, responsive comping and eloquent solo that features some imposing chord progressions, all manage to match Jones in both artistry and expressiveness.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roy Haynes: James

Since Roy Haynes and Pat Metheny had joined together (in a trio with Dave Holland) for the captivating Question and Answer (1989), their reunion for the drummer's Te Vou! CD only a few years later was another welcome event. Add to the mix the versatile and polished altoist Donald Harrison, formidable young bassist Christian McBride, and Haynes's adept regular pianist Dave Kikoski, and the result was among Haynes's best recordings as a leader. Metheny brought along four of his compositions, including the delightful "James," which he and Lyle Mays wrote for James Taylor and that first appeared on the guitarist's revered Offramp (1981).

Haynes's intricate and masterfully coherent intro to "James" sets up the alto/guitar treatment of the dancing, playful theme, with its folksy charm and intoxicating bridge. The tune actually possesses the quirky logic and rhythmic freshness of a John Scofield piece. Harrison solos first, his invitingly sweet tone a perfect fit for his refined thematic variations. Metheny is more abstract and convoluted, and certain tumbling staccato phrases and clever unanticipated note placements attest to his individuality and creative genius. Kikoski's pleasing solo seems to be inspired by Keith Jarrett. All the while, the then 69-years- young Haynes is fully of the moment, on high alert and keenly responsive to every nuance, phrase and direction chosen by the other players.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Barry Harris: All God's Chillun Got Rhythm

A vital keeper of the bebop flame both as pianist and esteemed educator, Barry Harris has always engendered great respect for his playing, if not the worshipful awe that the flashier Bud Powell or Phineas Newborn Jr. garnered during their all-to-short peak periods. Harris interprets bebop in a style that is thoughtful, crisp and confidently self-contained, similar his fellow Detroiters Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan.

Listening to Harris perform unaccompanied at the intimate and acoustically ideal Maybeck Recital Hall, one can focus on his artistry without distraction in probably his first recorded solo recital since Listen to Barry Harris (1960). Harris spent much time with Thelonious Monk at the home of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, and introduces "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" by saying, "I have a special tape of Monk, and the way Monk played 'All God's Chillun Got Rhythm' ... I'm gonna start it out like that and then I'm gonna play it fast." Maybe not as fast as Powell played this tune with Sonny Stitt in 1949 (who could?), but Harris does provide plenty of sizzle after the inventive and knowing Monkish intro. Without the safety net of a bassist and a drummer, Harris daringly goes all out, creating on the fly, lithe and flowing. His generous left-hand punctuations are in complete harmony with his fleet and lucid extended runs, and are perhaps even more pronounced than they would have been in a group setting. While Harris borrows from Powell's 1949 solo, overall this is a shining example of bebop piano at its sophisticated and communicative best.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Robert Kyle: Favela

On the golden anniversary of the birth of bossa nova, Robert Kyle returns the form to its acoustic origins with, appropriately, a Jobim composition. While Stan Getz's landmark recordings with Charlie Byrd and João Gilberto had relatively light accompaniment, Kyle goes one step farther and constructs his ensemble without a bass or piano. Rather, it's just his sax, Roberto Montero's acoustic guitar and two percussionists.

This setup serves the song well. Montero's brisk guitar work sparkles, providing a perfect bridge between the rhythms and harmony, making the absent bass superfluous. The double percussion puts the proper emphasis on that rhythm. All of which frees up Kyle to color the pretty melody and do so at the leisurely pace that bossa nova is supposed to be about, after all.

Robert Kyle's less-is-more, no-fluff approach makes "Favela" bristle with Brazilian goodness.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon (featuring Leo Parker): Dexter's Riff

Performing with Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Illinois Jacquet in the 1940s, Leo Parker looked to be prepping for a leading spot in the evolution of the modern baritone saxophone, but a drug habit halted his progress. Nonetheless, this defining track features extended trading between the gritty, rhythm-and-blues-infused Parker and the big-toned tenor legend-to-be Dexter Gordon. Both young guns are overflowing with (borderline sloppy) energy here, and the matchless rhythm section of Dameron, Russell and Blakey is simpatico to the proto-hard bop that these men were experimenting with. Note Parker's amalgamation of brief, bluesy riffs, longer bebop lines, and repeated single-note runs throughout his solo – all of which have come to spell out the modern baritone saxophone vocabulary.

Editor's Note: Lest anyone surmise that the cover photo of Dexter Rides Again scooped Sonny Rollins's Way Out West as the earliest image of a jazz tenorman posed as a cowpoke, be advised that Savoy's compilation of three sessions from 1945-'47 was issued in 1958, a year after William Claxton's classic shot for the Contemporary label, posing New York City slicker Theodore Rollins in a Brooks Brothers suit 'neath the blue sky in California's Mojave Desert. Moreover, the horseman pictured on Dexter Rides Again, reconnoitering Manhattan's Central Park on an overcast day, is not even Dexter Gordon, who was then reconnoitering San Quentin on a heroin bust. If anyone knows the story behind Jos. Bottwin's cover photo (click here for a larger view), please fill us in. – Alan Kurtz

December 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Count Basie Orchestra (featuring Jack Washington): Somebody Stole My Gal

Jack Washington stands with Harry Carney as one of the first featured baritone saxophonists in jazz. Performing in Bennie Moten's Orchestra in Kansas City before joining the Basie Orchestra following Moten's death in 1935, Washington set the standard for the more traditional role of the baritone sax as a foundational force and harmonic colorist. While not featured in the front line nearly as often as Carney was in the Ellington band, Washington's rare opportunity to solo was approached with a youthful, crowd-riling vigor. As "Somebody Stole My Gal" begins, Washington immediately makes his presence felt (though barely heard) with fills between the trumpet melody. After Jimmy Rushing's vocal, Washington plays one of his longest and strongest documented solos. Note how the beginning of his solo is grouped into lyrical 4-bar phrases, and as the solo progresses he develops his lines into sharp 2-bar phrases in order to increase the drama and bring his solo home. A common yet vital improvisational tool perfectly executed here.

December 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington (featuring Harry Carney): Frustration

Harry Carney played the role of personal driver, trusted confidant and all-around best friend to the Duke throughout the majority of his career. Their strong extra-musical relationship extended to the bandstand, where Ellington's baritone-centric reed arranging propelled Carney's rich, round tone into the forefront of the world's finest big band. After Ellington/Carney, it was possible, and more importantly, desirable, to view the baritone sax as a legitimate frontline instrument perfectly appropriate to carry the lead. And just as Ellington himself did for the entire big band genre, Carney provided a beacon to successive generations of baritone saxophonists.

While Ellington classics such as "Sophisticated Lady" and "In a Mellotone" feature Carney's baritone in a leading role, "Frustration" is probably the strongest start-to-finish feature Ellington/Strayhorn wrote with Carney in mind. ("Sono" and "Agra" are two other fine examples.) Even though this is a rather late example, the smooth, just-right tone heard here had been Carney's strongest asset since the 1930s. Note how he chooses to suppress the instrument's power during the middle of his phrases in order to provide an unparalleled low-end punch to conclude (or sometimes, to begin) a powerful line.

December 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet (featuring Ernie Caceres): What a Dream

November 1938 was a standout in the career of Sidney Bechet. Mid-month, he recorded "Chant in the Night," "Hold Tight," "Jungle Drums" and "What a Dream" (all on this CD) with the unique support of Ernie Caceres's baritone sax and Leonard Ware's electric guitar. Two weeks later, Sidney and Mezz Mezzrow shared reed duties on a Bluebird date for the Tommy Ladnier Orchestra that resulted in "Ja Da," "Weary Blues" and "Really the Blues" – all classic Bechet recordings (and all also on this CD). While the latter session may be better known, the earlier soprano/baritone hookup yielded some of Bechet's more remarkable recordings.

Bechet and Caceres are involved in a direct dialogue throughout much of "What a Dream." Caceres answers Bechet's calls throughout the first statement of the melody, with Bechet delivering the goods and Caceres improvising in and around him. The two then engage in a brief trading session, featuring an impassioned Caceres doing his best to keep up with the master. Guitarist Ware then temporarily takes Sidney's solo position before a high-voltage Bechet returns and handles the concluding improvisation himself. Up until that point, though, this track had consistently highlighted the powerful possibilities of the baritone sax as both a refreshing voice in a supportive role and a commanding voice in a lead role. It's a somewhat unanticipated and altogether enjoyable performance: a shining moment in the recorded history of both underdog saxophones represented.

December 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Les Brown: Where's Prez?

Les Brown liked bebop when he first heard it, but wondered whether it was appropriate for his dance band. By 1949, both singers and arrangers had woven bop elements into popular music of all types, and several musicians in Les's band were fluent in the new language. "Where's Prez?" was the type of original composition with bebop touches that filled the Brown book during this period, usually written by either Frank Comstock or Wes Hensel. Interestingly, the melody begins in 2-beat style, then segues into a 4-beat feel with plenty of altered intervals and harmonies. The composition next leads into a bass clarinet solo by Dave Pell, and a screaming trumpet solo by Frank Beach. An exciting out-chorus, with a solo by bassist Ray Leatherwood and melodic punctuations by trombonist Ray Sims, leads to a restatement of the melody and a final altered chord. This recording is missing part of the arrangement (which can be heard via air checks not yet on CD), and was not issued until 1954, long after Brown signed with another record label.

December 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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The New Jazz Composers Octet: Bad Alchemy

"Bad Alchemy" is an interesting reversal on the widely held assumption that modern jazz is more complex than rock, made more interesting that this Henry Cow song is covered by a collective of musicians that has the word "composers" in its name.

The song itself is operatic in its dramatic, stilted structure, and the original even contains obtuse lyrics that were sung in the style of a Broadway musical. Those singing lines work well as horn charts in the NJCO's hands. It was undoubtedly challenging enough to interpret this composition straight, but the group wasn't satisfied with doing merely that. Instead they loosened up the highly structured composition some with improvisation via cascading, urgent notes from Myron Walden's sax solo and Nasheet Waits filling and rolling on his kit underneath.

Advanced jazz groups don't typically look at 1970s avant-rock groups for source material, but seeing how well this rendition of "Bad Alchemy" turned out, perhaps they should do so more often.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Kenny Burrell with Coleman Hawkins: Montono Blues

This early-'60s Kenny Burrell original is a relaxed setting paced by Ray Barretto's swaying Latin rhythms. The first soloist is actually Major Holley on bowed bass, and it's a nice one, but the main course follows immediately. That's when the old master tenorist, who just took his spot next to Burrell during the recording, gets the nod to start blowing.

Coleman's instantly recognizable wide vibrato and smooth legato is something that never gets old, and Bean laying it over a blues chord progression sounds as natural as breathing. That said, the real treat comes when Burrell and Coleman casually exchange short statements. Hawkins, the icon of prewar jazz saxophone, and Burrell, one of the major exponents of bop guitar, find much common ground in their love to swing.

The back-and-forth is so enjoyable that hearing the fadeout at less than five minutes is a letdown. "Montono Blues" is a jam session of two legends, generations apart, that deserved to linger.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Les Brown: April Showers

After establishing himself as a freelance arranger in New York, Les Brown led a pretty good orchestra. Having Doris Day as a vocalist for two periods during the '40s further enhanced his reputation, and her vocal on "Sentimental Journey" helped turn that recording into one of the biggest hits of the big band era. Brown disbanded in 1946 but reformed because he couldn't get out of a major engagement. When selected to be the house band for the Bob Hope radio show, Brown was able to keep his orchestra together for many years with minimal touring. He later said that the unit he led in the '50s was the best he ever had, but his group during the late '40s was a strong one that made excellent recordings and left many air checks.

Brown also made many transcriptions for radio play only, which allowed him to record arrangements that he normally played on dance jobs. Skip Martin had written for Count Basie, Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, and the Pied Pipers. He would continue to write for Brown during the '50s and was the resident jazz arranger for MGM studios at the same time. Martin always turned in beautiful, exciting arrangements for any ensemble, and his arrangements for Brown are uniformly excellent.

After a short intro, the band plays the melody of this standard in 2-beat style, eventually leading to four by the second chorus. Solos are by trombonist Ray Sims, tenorman Dave Pell, and the gorgeous clarinet of Abe Most. Also outstanding are Geoff Clarkson's piano punctuations. The out chorus is powerful and jumps like crazy. It is no wonder that Les Brown's ensemble is now considered one of the top big bands of all time.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Les Brown: Bopple Sauce

Despite the unison sax/trumpet melody, this is hardly a bebop composition, although Les Brown's band played bop very well. But it hardly matters, since the band plays this Bob Higgins original beautifully. This was one of those pieces that was played once or twice and then pulled from the book (Brown didn't even remember recording it), and that's too bad because the harmonic structure is perfect for solos. Higgins was only one of several excellent arrangers who wrote for Brown during this period; Frank Comstock was the chief arranger, with regular contributions by trumpeter Wes Hensel, Skip Martin, and Brown himself, who continued to write for his band until his death. Solos are by Abe Most (who could stand toe to toe with pretty much any jazz clarinetist of any period, and had a full, gorgeous tone to boot), Ralph Pfeffner (a fine soloist who had been in Woody Herman's First Herd and was rarely heard to advantage with either Herman or Brown), and guitarist Tony Rizzi. Although the ending is not as strong as the rest of the piece, this is still an exciting performance.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Femi Kuti: Oyimbo

Femi Kuti, eldest son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, has made his own mark on the music world, although more listeners probably hear him through his appearance as a radio host on Grand Theft Auto IV. But the videogame-meisters might do well to put down the joystick and pick up Kuti's CD Day by Day instead. This artist has the same persuasive, conversational vocal style his father mastered, and shows a similar willingness to take on contemporary issues in his music. In the course of this song, he addresses peace, justice and the British banking industry, all in under four minutes. Yes, his music is more compact than his dad's half-hour epics, and the rhythm shifts from the trance-inducing style of his famous antecedent, instead taking on a more overtly Western dance beat. This is a welcome addition to this artist's all-too-small discography.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Savina Yannatou: Sareri hovin mernem

Recordings of traditional folk material tend to evoke the past rather than intensify the present. In their attempts to resurrect and preserve the music of a bygone era, the performers risk becoming curators at some aural museum, where the smell of dust and mold lingers obtrusively in the air. Greek singer Savina Yannatou and her colleagues here are a different matter entirely. This music is so vividly present that no distance seems to separate us from the worldview of the songs. The lyrics here translate as: "A year has passed with no word of my beloved. The wind blows from the mountains. The rivers bring no news. Has your heart turned to ice." And I can't help being reminded of that venerable poem about the Western wind, from an anonymous source—probably some sailor or traveler—that comes across as ageless, without date of passport, concluding with the sentiments: "Christ, if my love were in my arms, and I in my bed again!" Yannatou has a delicate voice, yet with hidden reserves of strength, more psychological perhaps than a question of physical equipment. Her accompanists are very much in synch, and when they fall into a stately 12/8 rhythm behind her, it is almost as if a sad and stately procession has walked into the room.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Kala Ramnath & Ganesh Iyer: Raga Ahir Bhairav / Charka Vaham

This collaboration between two leading Indian violinists is itself a fusion of contrasting musical cultures. North Indian Kala Ramnath and her counterpart from the South, Ganesh Iyer, bring with them their respective Hindustani and Carnatic musical traditions, beautifully merged in this 40-minute performance. The opening section "Alap" is an improvisation in free tempo, starting in the lower register and gradually ascending in a dialogue that gains passion as it progresses, but never loses its centering focus. The following section falls into more structured time, and the pace accelerates in the concluding moments of this morning raga. Throughout, Ramnath and Iyer demonstrate their rich singing tones and distinctive phrasing, a sliding calculus of tone color which moves as smoothly as a skater on pristine ice. In a world of musical sound bites, this recording takes its time and rewards listeners willing to do the same.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Hal McKusick: Jambangle

Hal McKusick was a veteran of the Boyd Raeburn and Claude Thornhill orchestras, and was an active freelance musician during the time of this recording. The album was one of a series produced by Jack Lewis for RCA Victor, and included sessions by Manny Albam, Billy Byers, George Russell, and John Carisi. (Unfortunately the latter's LP was never released.)

McKusick hired Gil Evans to write for his album, and "Jambangle" was one of the pieces submitted. McKusick has the only improvised solo, but Evans is a generous writer, and everyone is featured, albeit briefly. One of the reasons musicians loved to play his music was that their parts were beautifully crafted and made them sound good – something Gil had in common with Johnny Richards and Billy Strayhorn. The piece begins with a boogie-woogie feel that transitions to Basie-esque swing. It's instructive to compare this with the version Evans recorded in October 1957 under his own name, where the first part of the melody sounds like rock 'n' roll. Many of the ensemble ideas heard in the setting for McKusick were expanded upon in the later version, so when the two recordings are heard side by side, McKusick's sounds like a sketch that Evans rethought. But that is why Evans is still so respected. He could take something that was great to begin with and make it even better.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gil Evans: Jambangle

Gil Evans kept a low profile in the music world from 1949-1955, even though he arranged for Billy Butterfield and various singers, worked on his piano playing and continued his study of music. Opportunities began to come his way in 1956: his work was featured on a Hal McKusick Jazz Workshop LP; he wrote and arranged the album Miles Ahead in 1957, and was asked to make the album Big Stuff (the original title of Gil Evans & Ten) for Prestige. Evans put together a band of veterans and some younger musicians. The result was a classic ensemble album with excellent solos and brilliant arrangements.

"Jambangle" warrants a full-scale article on its own. Expanding the setting for the McKusick album, Evans changed the feel of the first part of the melody to something more like rock 'n' roll (he would insist during his later electric big band period that he wrote popular music, and this recording seems to prove it), and then the rest of the melody is Basie-like swing. He fully exploits the instrumental colors he selected (although according to Anita Evans and Howard Johnson, he would have preferred to use the tuba instead of the bass trombone, but Bill Barber wasn't available). The bassoon hadn't been used in ensemble jazz since The New Music of Reginald Foresythe in 1935, and it works beautifully in Evans's sound world. Lee Konitz could not be credited on the original album because he was under contract to another label at the time, and in fact he is barely audible. Evans, Lacy and Cleveland solo over rich ensemble fills, which cannot fully be appreciated given that they are mixed under the solos. The out-chorus is one of Evans's best. Orchestrationally it should not work given that the lead instruments are at the bottom of their registers part of the time and should sound muddy, but as with all of Evans's work, what seems impossible is not only possible, but works brilliantly. The tone of the track is not as relaxed as the McKusick recording, but this is the definitive version of the composition in my opinion.

The SACD edition of this album is its first release in true stereo. First the bad news: because the music was difficult and there was a great deal of splicing, there are some alternate solos used (in the case of "Jambangle," the solos are the originals; the ending is from an alternate take). Now the good news: the sound is fantastic, since it is from the first-generation master, allowing us to hear more of what Evans wrote. This release is a hybrid, meaning that it is playable on a normal CD player as well as an SACD unit, so treat yourself even if you don't have one.

It should be noted that I was able to examine the manuscript of "Jambangle" when I co-edited The Gil Evans Collection for Hal Leonard Corporation, a folio of several of Evans's works spanning his entire career. I also conducted the first public performance of the piece at Town Hall for a benefit concert.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny: Lone Jack

It is 1982 or 1983. We've brought our cooler and blanket and spread ourselves across the grass of Hartford's Bushell Park for a free Pat Metheny Group concert! There are 30,000 of us. It was a bit warm as I remember. Mike Nock opened the show. I remember seeing some guys set up microphones on stands to record the concert. They were not with the band. Some cops came and made them take down the mikes. Hartford holds a special place in Metheny's heart, so he told the crowd he was going to play a long time. They played a bit too long, really. But I will always remember how that crowd reacted to familiar Metheny classics such as "Lone Jack." They were taken away as the sound wafted through the city.

"Lone Jack" appeared on the band's first album. It quickly became a big hit. The tune hits the ground running as Metheny wastes no time getting into the swing of things. The melody is beautifully simple. Metheny's playing can be described as skittering. Bassist Mark Egan and drummer Danny Gottlieb provide texture and pace while Lyle Mays adds some very effective keyboard work. There are enough jazz chops to keep this critic happy. There is nothing bad you can say about the piece. It just makes you feel good.

There was really something about those early Metheny compositions. Somehow he had found a way to incorporate engaging jazz-rock melodies with the high-volume electricity of the fusion genre without scaring all the girls away! Prior to Metheny's appearance on the scene most of us male fusion fans attended shows dateless. He made it safe for us to ask again.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko: Ninka Nanka

The banjo is unfairly tainted in the mind of the general public—who probably know the instrument best from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies or perhaps the film Deliverance. But the next time you hear someone shout out "Squeal like a pig" when the banjo starts to play, remind the ruffian that in Africa this instrument has a royal lineage.

Or better yet, point the culprit in the direction of the CD Africa to Appalachia, which is the fruit of banjoist Jayme Stone's time in Mali exploring the historical antecedents of his instrument. The kora is closer to the harp than the banjo, yet the pairing of Stone with Malian kora player Mansa Sissoko is an inspired idea. An arcane and still mostly unwritten history lies hidden behind the instruments assembled here, but their combination creates a fresh sound that is neither African nor Appalachian. The track opens with a free-flowing mood piece, an ethereal marriage of string sounds, but in the final 1½ minutes the tempo picks up into a strange type of holistic hoedown. Then at the very close a flamenco flavor enters, all too briefly, before the performance comes to a sudden halt—leaving this listener for one wanting more.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Carlos Santana & Mahavishnu John McLaughlin: Meditation

It is not every day you get to hear guitarist John McLaughlin on piano. On "Meditation" he plays simple but dramatic backing chords on the keyboards. An occasional flourish arises, too. Overdubbed, or the other way around, are McLaughlin and Santana on acoustic guitars. They play a spare spiritual ballad that is similar in tone, but not intent, to their version of Coltrane's "Naima" that appeared on the flip side of the original LP. The two pieces provide quite a contrast to the LOUD cosmic electricity on the rest of the album. It was fitting that "Meditation" was the last cut. The guitarists' fluttering notes and mantra-like chords provide the perfect backdrop for a chill-out. After hearing the previous cut "Let Us Go Into The House of the Lord," you would need that.

I have never been able to confirm Larry Young's participation on this track. There is a sustained note that acts as an introduction to the song. It is either Young on B-3 or a studio trick with the piano. My educated guess favors the first theory.

December 21, 2008 · 1 comment

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Motu & the RoadHouse Jesters: Here Comes Those Blues Again

Who is Motu? is he an ex pat from the island of Moti? Is he an unfortunate Mugu? Is he related to Mongo (of Candygram fame)? Ah, none of these. Motu is the nom de axe of Dr. Richard Michelson, a formidable blues guitarist and very raw singer. Motu is joined here by his accompanists in musical malfeasance, the RoadHouse Jesters, and they deliver a hot and bothered 12-minute performance on "Here Come Those Blues Again." The track starts with some free-floating atmospherics, a guitar lightning storm crackling on the horizon; but soon settles into a very danceable "Spirit in the Sky" groove. How nice to hear vocal harmonies on a blues track (albeit one that, despite the song's name, never really settles into the familiar blues pattern). But this band ain't the Four Freshmen, and those who want spit and polish in their music need to check out another CD. If you subjected Dr. Michelson's vocal cords to otolaryngological analysis they would rate a FEPA grit designation no higher than 50. In layman's terms, we are talking some serious blues.

December 19, 2008 · 1 comment

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Ray Bryant: Ain't Misbehavin'

Ray Bryant made his mark in the jazz world with some very soulful piano playing, mixing a dose of modernism with a double helping of blues. So it comes as some surprise to find him focusing on old-fashioned stride piano playing on his 2008 CD In the Back Room. Here he performs solo versions of songs by James P. Johnson and W.C. Handy, as well as five Fats Waller tunes, including this rendition of "Ain't Misbehavin'." Bryant proves that he is conversant with stride mannerisms, but his playing lacks the boisterous energy that the great masters of this style brought to their performances. This sounds the way stride might have been played if it had been transplanted from the Harlem rent parties to an academic setting. So it comes as no surprise to see that Bryant recorded this music at Rutgers University. Did the environment inspire a more subdued demeanor, Mr. Bryant? Some listeners may enjoy this more restrained approach to Fats Waller's music, but for my part I prefer a bit more misbehavin' in my Harlem stride.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Reginald Foresythe: Dodging a Divorcee

Reginald Foresythe was a British pianist/composer/leader active on the both sides of the Atlantic during the 1930s. His music was admired by many, and he worked with major names such as Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Paul Whiteman, and wrote and arranged Earl Hines's theme "Deep Forest." His interesting music (which is really not considered jazz so much as syncopated ensemble music) did not sell very well on record, and by the '40s his career had pretty much burned out. After his war service, there was not much interest in his new compositions, and he played dives until his early death in 1958.

"Dodging a Divorcee" was perhaps the most popular piece from Foresythe's musical world. He was so respected that he could attract the finest musicians in New York. Several were in Benny Goodman's big band, Johnny Mince was in Tommy Dorsey's band for years, and Sol Schoenbach would join the Philadelphia Orchestra and remain for years. The piece is a fun exercise featuring a mini-fugue in the middle, and the band tears into it with gusto. This certainly appealed to many listeners, as a number of bands played it during that time. For me, this original version is still the best.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Eric Dolphy (featuring Booker Little): Bee Vamp

Booker Little's "Bee Vamp" is an exercise in chordal suspension containing a back-and-forth between two short chord progressions. Little swings hard, sometimes with melancholy, but always technically astonishing and advanced in his harmonic conception. With his own solo, Eric Dolphy is practically rewriting the playbook on the bass clarinet, using its bawdy tone to walk the line between tonal and atonal. Waldron's piano being a little off-tune on the high notes has the unintended effect of adding to the overall slight dissonance of the song. Blackwell performs a vital function in holding together the rhythm through the 2-part line, and his traditional press roll adapts amazingly well to the highly modern style played on this date.

This song showcased the skills of a quintet traditionally structured while straining to break out of tradition. Had Little not tragically died a mere three months later, we might have seen the great promise made by this performance fulfilled. As it stands, "Bee Vamp" is a marvelous testament to the "new thing" going on in jazz at that time.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Hadda Brooks: Don't Go To Strangers

Hadda Brooks had been a very popular pianist singer – inspired as much by Charles Brown as by Nat Cole or Fats Waller – in the '40s and '50s; she put Modern Records on the map and was a key figure in the emergence of rhythm & blues. Brooks stopped recording in 1952, although she kept performing for much of the '50s and '60s. Rediscovered around the time of her 70th birthday in 1986, she made two albums in the mid-'90s, Time Was When and Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere.

The masterpiece of the two later albums is "Don't Go To Strangers." The song was written by Redd Evans, Arthur Kent and Dave Mann in 1954, the year it was a hit for big-voiced belter Vaughn Monroe, but didn't become a standard until the classic Etta Jones recording of 1960. Thanks to Jones, the song has become accepted as a kind of soul ballad (one of the few not by an Afro-American songwriter) in the tradition of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love" and Buddy Johnson's "(I Wonder) Where Our Love Has Gone."

Although other musicians (trumpeter Jack Sheldon, guitarist Al Viola and bassist Gene Wright) appear on most of the rest of the album, this track features Brooks accompanied only by her own piano, and is thus especially intimate. In her interpretation, "Don't Go To Strangers" is slow and sentimental, but not too slow or too sentimental. Brooks makes it highly personal but refuses to let it get maudlin. She sings with unmistakable love, romantic, maternal, whatever, it could be to a child or to a lover, it doesn't matter. She's been through it all, she's an old hand; the lyric tells us this, but it almost doesn't have to – Brooks sings it with so much authority that from the sound of her weather-beaten voice alone we realize there's nothing she doesn't know.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Julia Lee: Marijuana (aka Lotus Blossom)

Pianist and singer Julia Lee (1902-1958) recorded a lot of songs about sinful substances, from pie and cake to alcohol, most of which originated with the Kansas City blues tradition that Lee herself grew up in. However, her most overt song about unsavory habits did not, surprisingly, originate as part of the blues tradition, but was in fact a number from a Hollywood musical. In 1934, the lyricist and later producer Sam Coslow wrote "Marihuana" (as it was then spelled) for the film Murder At The Vanities. Cannabis was then still legal in many states, but it was already a taboo and risqué subject for a mainstream pop song. Coslow later changed the title, and some of the lyrics with it, to "Lotus Blossom."

Lee probably made the song a permanent part of her repertoire from the mid-'30s onwards. She recorded it no less than three times, once in 1945 for the independent Premier Records, as "Marihuana," and twice for Capitol Records, under both titles, at the session listed above. Capitol issued the "Lotus" version at the time. (In all three labels, the composing credit was given to Lee.) Under either title, the song is not about getting high and having a good time; it's a far cry from Cab Calloway extolling the joys of viperhood or Bessie Smith joyfully demanding reefer along with her pigfeet and beer. "Marihuana" is a song of addiction and regret. Lee's heroine (no pun intended) wants to give up smoking dope but can't do without the escape that narcotics provide. Addressing the drug directly in the second person, Lee sings, "You alone can bring my lover back to me." She sings with the remorse of a major blues singer doing a sad blues, combining sex and drugs, euphoria and melancholy, into one especially potent cocktail. (Blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, who later recorded it in the "Lotus Blossom" incarnation with Wilbur DeParis, obviously learned it from her.)

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rose Murphy: I Can't Give You Anything But Love

"I Can't Give You Anything But Love" was Rose Murphy's signature song: she recorded it at least four times, and it was the first known document of her voice, as taken from a 1945 AFRS broadcast made two years before she first began recording commercially. In November 1947, Murphy, who was already 34 and having had a long career in clubs and the black vaudeville circuit (and had even appeared in a major motion picture, the 1945 George White's Scandals), made her first commercial recordings for the recently founded independent label Majestic Records. The Majestic sessions have not been accurately dated, but we can be certain that "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" comes from one of her first dates.

Murphy, even more than her contemporary Nellie Lutcher, places a heavy emphasis on vocal sound effects, most notably her trademark "chee-chee." But more remarkable still is Murphy's highly developed sense of comic and rhythmic timing. Murphy's oft-recorded arrangement of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" is distinguished by her brilliant use of stop-time breaks, a jazz device derived from the blues. Like Fats Waller and Nat King Cole, Murphy knows well that the system of tension and release in music is a parallel to the comedy ideal of setup and punch line. She sets up the laugh, "I can't give you anything but love…" and then, when we expect her to say "Baby" in the lyric as Dorothy Fields wrote it 20 years earlier, she throws us off by chanting "chee-chee" instead. Murphy heightens the drama (and thereby the comedy) by extending the pause before going into the last note of key lines, and throughout defies our expectations. Instead of the word we expect, she pauses and throws in a "chee-chee," a hummingbird hum, a descending scatty trill, or possibly singing the written lyrics to an entirely different melody (as at the end of the bridge on "Baby").

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Nellie Lutcher: Kiss Me Sweet

My personal favorite Nellie Lutcher track is not one of her originals, nor a blues, but a contemporary pop novelty that was more likely Capitol's idea rather than hers. "Kiss Me Sweet" was a 1949 hit for sweet bandleader Sammy Kaye (of Swing and Sway fame), written by Milton Drake, most of whose hits were of the novelty nature; I first heard it sung in a Warner Bros. cartoon by Tweety Bird (of Tweety & Sylvester fame). Mel Blanc, supplying the bird's voice, chirped it in a high-pitched caricature of a child's way of speaking, overflowing with infantile impediments ("Kiss me tweet"), but he sounds positively restrained compared to Lutcher. Her performance is by far the most compelling, firstly because she accentuates the right parts of the beat and cuts off the right notes in the right places, to make the piece really swing; the best the song's other interpreters can manage is to get it to bounce. (She further makes it more musically interesting by adding a key change into the bridge.)

Her recording boasts an attractive wordless episode, wherein Lutcher exchanges phrases, both from the keyboard and scatting, with guitarist John Collins (later with Nat Cole for many years). But it's what she does with the song's plain vanilla lyric that's really remarkable. As written, "Kiss Me Sweet" (which begins "Kiss me sweet, kiss me simple / Kiss me on my little dimple"), has a nursery rhyme-inspired simplicity, so much so that a five-year-old might find it banal. The song is just "kiss me this" and "kiss me that" over and over again, but Lutcher brilliantly animates the text by making its relentless repetition into a virtue: when she sings "kiss me slow, kiss me dreamy / kiss me every time you see me," she elongates the first adjective and makes the second sound wistful; on "kiss me plain, kiss me fancy," she makes those words sound so plain and so fancy, she could be singing in ancient Aramaic and you still would know what she meant. (She later quoted "Kiss Me Sweet" on her 1956 treatment of "Blue Skies.")

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Nellie Lutcher: Hurry On Down

Fats Waller's two greatest disciples, Julia Lee and Nellie Lutcher, were both alike and different. By way of comparison, the two Afro-American pianist-singers shared a signature song, or at least a piece of material that the two of them developed independently from a folk-blues source. Lee first recorded it in 1929 as "Won't You Come Over To My House" and then again in 1944, on her first Capitol date, as "Come On Over To My House"; Lutcher called her version "Hurry On Down," and recorded it at her own first Capitol session, in 1947. They are similar enough to be considered variations on the same material: Lee sings "Come on over to my house, baby / Nobody home but me" and Lutcher coos, "Hurry on down to my house, baby / Ain't nobody home but me."

With Lee, you somehow assume the song is being sung by a housewife, whose kids are at school and whose husband is at work; Lutcher, contrastingly, sounds like a teenaged girl whose parents have stepped out to catch a Hopalong Cassidy triple feature. The way Lee sings it, there's no doubt what she has in mind; with Lutcher, you're also relatively sure, but it also sounds like she could be desiring a play date, and not necessarily in the amorous sense; it almost sounds as if it could be a couple of kiddies cavorting innocently. Really.

Lee sings it with deliberateness; even though it's fast and exciting, every word and every intention is crystal clear. Lutcher machine-guns out the lyrics in a way that reminds me of Bob Hope deliberately swallowing his punch lines to make audiences listen harder. Lutcher sings it as fast as humanly possible, without apparent regard to intelligibility. She knew that audiences wouldn't miss her larger point. Her special effects, her yelps and squeals, are more important than the actual words, and her meaning is impossible to misinterpret.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Nellie Lutcher: A Maid's Prayer

"A Maid's Prayer" is one of the oddest items in singer-pianist Nellie Lutcher's discography – or anyone else's, for that matter – and makes for a fascinating footnote in the story of Afro-American race relations. The piece was written at a time when domestic service was virtually the only avenue of employment open for black women, and, by way of example, virtually every black actress in Hollywood was playing maids; Academy Award-winner Hattie McDaniel famously said that portraying a maid on the screen was the only alternative to actually working as one.

Credited to Nellie Lutcher herself along with one Florida Morgan, "A Maid's Prayer" has a strong sense of humorous irony. The piece is essentially a spoken monologue, which Lutcher delivers in rubato with her own piano accompaniment. In a prescient prequel to Arthur Prysock's "A Working Man's Prayer," this is a semi-spoken monologue in which a working girl ponders what existence will be like for a domestic in the hereafter. When she crosses the River Jordan, will she still have to make the beds and empty the garbage cans? Will she have to polish the stars and hang them out? She recites:

     I know I will be discouraged
     I know I will be dismayed
     If I should be a maid in Heaven
     And still be underpaid.

Also, along with Louis Jordan's "Ofay And Oxford Grey" and the Golden Gate Quartet's "No Restricted Signs Up In Heaven," it's one of the few mainstream recordings by entertainers of the period to examine the social status quo. Unlike Frank Sinatra's "The House I Live In," the surface of the piece is not directly concerned with racial issues, but there's no denying that's what the subtext is.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wayne Shorter: Mahjong

This song begins with a simple but Latin-influenced beat by Elvin Jones, the perfect drummer for the 28-bar tune. Overall, Juju encapsulates the belief for many that Wayne Shorter is the greatest jazz composer to walk the earth. I can't say I disagree. I find it interesting how solid Reggie Workman sounds, despite never seeming to get the credit from listeners he deserves. His pocket basslines and walking anchor this song. The beauty of this melody is what Shorter was best at. His ability to compose simple pentatonic melodies while using different ideas beneath them separates him from all other composers.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wayne Shorter: Yes or No

On this classic recording, Wayne Shorter displays his absolute brilliance. This composition epitomizes the mid-'60s post-bop Blue Note sound. Beyond that, this group was one of the best ever recorded, stronger even than some of Coltrane's work. Coltrane had an obvious influence on Shorter, but Trane's composing skills suffer, as do all other jazz musicians, compared to Wayne Shorter. McCoy Tyner lays down textbook comping here as well. I have listened to this track for most of my jazz life, and I think it stands as one of the best songs ever written. The magic captured on this August day in 1964 at RVG's house is among the premier recorded moments in jazz history.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wayne Shorter: Black Nile

1964 was a magical year for Wayne Shorter. His sheer musical output is astounding during this period, as is the volume of greatness he produced with his Blue Note albums. "Black Nile" is no exception. Shorter and company are joined by Lee Morgan, who adds spice to this already tasty jazz entrée. It's too bad Morgan didn't appear on every album Wayne did, since he complements the Coltrane rhythm section perfectly and, when combined with Shorter, forms one of the best horn duos on wax.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wayne Shorter: Night Dreamer

This song, one of the many waltzes written by Wayne Shorter, has a tinge to it. Unlike his other 3/4 songs such as "Wild Flower" and "Footprints," this one's chord progression is both challenging and rewarding for the ear. Though the changes are simple, Shorter's gift of melody accelerates the possibilities here. Elvin Jones is nice with the ride cymbal, and McCoy Tyner proves why he was the most in-demand pianist at this time other than Herbie Hancock. This song is a perfect gem on an all-too-neglected album.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wayne Shorter: Adam's Apple

On this R&B-influenced song, Wayne Shorter shows his diversity, as does the rest of the band. The song is perfect for Herbie Hancock, who excels on this blues-based form. The 24-bar form has only six chords, but it's the perfect launching pad for the solos. This might one of the easier among Wayne's tunes, yet it stands out as the sort of simple, effective blues that was common during the '60s. I might even go so far as to say this song has a touch of Motown to it.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Blues on the Corner

On this album, pianist McCoy Tyner shines almost unlike any other star the jazz world has seen. His unrelenting output from the late 1960s shows why he is one of the best ever to touch the ivories. Along with Coltrane bandmate Elvin Jones, Tyner and company soar over this extended blues. Joe Henderson pushes the band just as hard as Elvin does, and the results are nothing short of remarkable. This group recorded more and the magic doesn't stop here, but this album is a must for anyone serious about McCoy Tyner and the extension of the Coltrane sound after 1965.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: The Wanderer

McCoy Tyner was one of the most influential pianists of his generation. Having made his name with sax idol John Coltrane, Tyner extended his reign in the late 1960s and early '70s with several classic releases on Blue Note. On "The Wanderer," he mixes it up with members from the Coltrane-Davis groups, and the result is nothing short of amazing. Wayne Shorter plays a haunting solo over the fast swing section, while Gary Bartz adds spice with his alto solo. Elvin Jones shows why he was one of the masters of the drum set. All the necessary elements are present. This is a stellar performance from everyone involved.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Hang Up Your Hang Ups

Herbie Hancock recorded a plethora of timeless music in the 1970s. After finding his niche with funk-laced fusion, he continued on this path right through the middle of the decade. While this song doesn't stray from many of the pianist's recordings from the period, it does indicate that the artist was slowly but surely coming to embrace pop music. The horn lines are typical Hancock writing, as Paul Jackson's bassline provides continuity. Some listeners might put both this song and album on the back burner, but I think it represents the band right after they peaked, and any true Head Hunters fan should like it, regardless of subsequent releases where Herbie sings through a vocoder.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Sly

Like Miles Davis and so many other jazz musicians, Herbie Hancock was influenced by funk, soul and R&B when those dominated the musical mainstream in the late 1960s and early '70s. This song is Hancock's homage to Sly from Sly and the Family Stone. It comprises the usual funk elements heard from the Head Hunters band: a driving drum beat, effect-laced clavinet and Rhodes comping, and groundbreaking solos from Hancock and Maupin that influenced the next generation of jazz performers. This is a definitive track from one of the best bands in jazz.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Vein Melter

Following releases with his Mwandishi group, Herbie Hancock set out for new commercial territory with his formation of the Head Hunters. He struck fusion gold with this album. "Vein Melter" is a laid-back song in which Hancock employs synthetic and Rhodes textures to create a smooth blend of discovery and exploration. The song could be considered too slow for some, but it pushes the musical boundaries of its era and is timeless for that reason alone. This is a signpost for the trail Hancock would blaze for the rest of the mid-1970s.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Actual Proof

Mike Clark starts this song with one of the funkiest drum beats ever recorded. The compositional value here is so high on my chart I don't know where to start. This song has multiple meter changes and pushes the envelope of jazz-fusion to its fullest extent. Hancock highlights the first and only real solo with his usual bag of tricks that set him apart from most other musicians of the last 40 years. His exchange with Clark is exceptional and is only further catapulted into musical heaven with their fantastic use of dynamics. This is, as bassist Lucas Pickford has called it, "the funk song to end all funk songs."

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Butterfly

Herbie Hancock, the musical chameleon of jazz, struck gold with Thrust. This song is no exception as it cements the sound of this band, which other than Weather Report was arguably the most innovative fusion group in jazz. Paul Jackson's bassline is so funky my grandmother might even like it. Maupin and Hancock both solo wonderfully over the Fm7 form. Hancock is a master at backgrounds, which here are striking and hypnotic at the same time. One of the best songs this band ever recorded, hands down.

December 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lionel Loueke: Benny's Tune

Like several of the other songs on Karibu, the groove on this one is very familiar. Both Biolcati and Loueke open with a unison line over a funky beat by Nemeth. The song slows a bit but goes right back into the feeling heard at the beginning. Loueke's vocals are a nice departure for me, since I like hearing the acoustic guitar matched with vocals as opposed the George Benson style with electric. This song might lose some people, as the solo section is a little slower than the A section, but it still captures Loueke's genius.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lionel Loueke: Seven Teens

What happens when the music of Western Africa meets Herbie Hancock? The result is the song "Seven Teens." This is a perfect platform for Hancock, who dazzles and hypnotizes with his use of diminished overtones and chromatic lines. Most of the song is given to him, although Loueke plays an excellent solo with his added vocal style of singing the solo. It's not a surprise that Hancock and Loueke work so well together, as the magic heard on this track is also heard on Hancock's River: The Joni Letters, in which both musicians exchange ideas with familiarity and extreme clarity.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lionel Loueke: Karibu

Since arriving in the United States from his native Benin, in Western Africa, guitarist Lionel Loueke has blazed onto the jazz scene with a spark unseen from a foreign musician in some time. On his Blue Note debut, Karibu, he and his band groove through the title track with ease. Drummer Ferenc Nemeth provides an excellent backdrop for Loueke's vocals and guitar solo when the swing section starts. This album might have been the start for Loueke in the USA, but he is someone the jazz community will be listening to for years to come.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mark Rapp: Who's the Man?

On his web site, trumpeter Mark Rapp describes his sound as "… bridging the gap between modern jazz and contemporary music. There's a wide division between the two, both artistically and in the audiences. I'm connecting the best of both worlds." My own jaded interpretation of those words is that Rapp is trying to walk the tightrope between contemporary jazz and Smooth Jazz (gag, choke, puke) without offending the expectations of either genre's fans. While I believe he is playing a dangerous game, he seems to think there is plenty of room to do that. I wish I were as confident as he seems to be. Then again, based upon what I have heard from Token Tales, he may be on to something.

"Who's the Man?" is a jazz-funk number that could be the theme of one of those blaxploitation films updated to modern times. Wesley Snipes would star as an undercover vice agent who lives the seedy life while struggling to visit his children, who live with his estranged wife (Gabrielle Union), who couldn't take the lifestyle anymore. This music would play over the opening credits as Snipes ends a nightlong stakeout and drives back to the old neighborhood to watch his kids leave the house to go to school. Sadly, he employs the same stakeout methods to view his own children as he just had on the job. My feeling is that any music that can make you conjure up such a scenario is worth listening to. Perhaps you should put some time aside and keep your own close watch and listen to what Rapp is doing. I am still a bit concerned about Rapp's musical mission. He faces a dangerous road ahead. Here's to a safe and rewarding journey.

December 18, 2008 · 1 comment

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Mark Rapp: Incense and Peppermints

I didn't know until researching it that Strawberry Alarm Clock's '60s pop smash "Incense and Peppermints" was originally supposed to be an instrumental. According to some band members, the vocals were foisted upon them by management in an attempt to get a big hit. That worked! The tune wasn't even sung by a member of the band. They brought in some 16-year-old kid to do the chores. Strawberry Alarm Clock's Mark Weitz and Ed King, who probably wrote most of the melody, claim they were ripped off and never received a penny of income from the song. I am presenting their side of the story as found on the Internet. But from what I can determine, their version seems the most plausible. In a way, trumpeter Mark Rapp has brought the tune full circle by presenting the composition sans vocals.

The last thing I ever expected to hear in my life was a jazz version of this half-bubblegum half-psychedelic number. A few years ago the song was perfectly used in the Austin Powers movie soundtrack. Its catchy melody instantly transported you back to the age of Flower Power. Rapp plays the same melody. After listening to this cut, you will be humming it again and again the same way I have for the last few days. But then Rapp takes another approach. He and his band treat the pop song as a serious composition worthy of an aggressive jazz interpretation. And it works! Rapp captures a bit of Miles Davis flavoring at times. What was once a cute tune becomes imbued with dramatic tension. I suspect no one in Strawberry Alarm Clock could have conceived such a presentation. It will be interesting to see if anyone comes forward claiming credit.

My rating includes 5 extra points for the imagination shown by Rapp in choosing to cover this golden oldie.

December 18, 2008 · 3 comments

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Autechre: Outh9X

I heard a story on the radio a few years back about how, with no distortions of pitch, Scandinavian sound artist Leif Inge d i g i t a l l y  s t r e t c h e d  B e e t h o v e n ' s  N i n t h  S y m p h o n y to last 24 hours. In "Outh9x," Autechre explores a similarly otherworldly musical landscape, weaving together extremely simple lines that become, if not exactly jazz, quite jazz-like. What gives the piece an organic feel is the interplay conjured by the basslines running in soft parallel motion. This then slides back into a very meditative section where the overtones are allowed to gather, pool and disperse. Remember 2001: A Space Odyssey? This music could have been emanating from the monolith.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Nels Cline & Gregg Bendian: Venus

Some folks might think it takes a lot of guts to brave the mountain that is Coltrane's Interstellar Space. Maybe so. Perhaps even more ballsy is the idea that an electric guitar might be a suitable replacement for Trane's wall-of-sound horn. You may detect in these statements a whiff of hyperbole, but remember that Coltrane's album really drew a line in the sand with his followers, the idea being that perhaps the great Trane had gone completely off track and was just tossing incomprehensible statements to the wind.

As it turns out, Coltrane and Rashied Ali knew exactly what they were doing ... and so do Nels Cline and Gregg Bendian. With "Venus," they catch one of the few pensive Interstellar segments. Even though both players remain in constant and edgy motion (particularly Bendian), the melodies sketched out early have a searching quality that becomes increasingly anxious and fiery as momentum builds. Just when you're certain that an explosion is imminent, Cline dials it back to mere fragments and Bendian takes over the heavy lifting, doing some amazing things with just cymbals and snare. This take on Trane's latter-career classic might lean more heavily on the space (as in spacey), but it certainly remains true to Coltrane's spirit.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Barrett Martin: Agbadza

Barrett Martin is a musical polymath whose interests and talent have been spread over rock music (as drummer for Screaming Trees), percussion-driven instrumentals (Earthspeaker and others), and the unclassifiable music of Tuatara. Barrett's solo work has a meditative feel where ideas slowly unfold over initial and subsequent listens. On "Agbadza," as an insistent groove is set up, a series of arpeggios provides harmonic underpinning. As parts of the main theme are repeated and transformed (I'm thinking of Martin's use of vibraphone and steel drums), other players swoop in to take impressive and impressively unified solos. Particularly effective are Craig Flory on flute and Dave Carter on trumpet and flugelhorn. As you might expect, Martin holds it all together with grace and fluidity behind the kit.

December 18, 2008 · 1 comment

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Bill Cole's Untempered Ensemble: If a blacksmith continues to strike an iron at one point, he must have a reason

Without applying much thought, it would be far too easy to attach the "world music" moniker to what Bill Cole's ensemble does. Just a few minutes into the track, when you've heard the didgeridoo hold down its drone beneath all of that light, chiming percussion, you might be thinking of one of those attractive, multicolored-artwork world music compilation-type things. Further (and more attentive) listening will reveal the heart and spirit of Coltrane: the tuba hints at a bassline (which William Parker completes and extends), the vocals soar out in passion, and the saxophone plays the blues. Such joyous music as this can sway even the unconverted jazz neophyte. That might not have been Bill Cole's intention, but it's surely one of the results.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Pete Rodriguez: Scorpion

I don't know what it is, but when musicians take off on unison runs, it really amps up the energy level. "Scorpion" finds leader Pete Rodríguez and tenor saxophonist David Sanchez whipping through some knotty passages, aided by bubbling percussion underneath. Luis Perdomo's piano then ups the ante a bit more with similarly angular riffs. The tension drops back as the rhythm section takes on a more conventional comping role for Sanchez's rising sax solo. As far as energy goes, the key here is percussion. Between Roberto Quintero's rippling congas and Henry Cole's tireless kit work, there's no danger that the group will lose momentum. This enthusiasm transfers directly through the solos of Rodríguez and then Perdomo. Relentless.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Andy Scherrer: Karma

An impressionistic, Bill Evans-kind of chord progression, with a chorus that placidly ascends to the clouds, "Karma" is a fragile piece of musical poetry set to 3/4 time. If that's all there were to Dré Pallemaerts's fine ballad, it would still merit mention, but Andy Scherrer's estimable ensemble propels the performance to a level of excellence.

Scherrer seem less concerned with notes and scales than with applying meaningful shapes to his tenor solo: searching, yearning and emoting his way through an ethereal showing. Carrothers and Gisler follow Scherrer's lead and also provide unhurried, soulful notes. Gisler's bass in particular sings seemingly on intuition alone.

"Karma" means destiny or fate. As interpreted by Andy Scherrer and his cohorts, it also means sublime, heartfelt post-bop.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Boogaloo Joe Jones: Right On

As the 1960s turned into the '70s, soul jazz co-opted bigger chunks of contemporary R&B, resulting in funkier, deeper grooves. Lou Donaldson, George Benson and Charles Earland all made records that closely identified with the style, as did "Boogaloo" Joe Jones.

Built entirely from a 2- chord riff, "Right On" has a very straightforward mission, but it was carried out by those best equipped to do so. Boogaloo had the great organist Earland on board, after all, in addition to Rusty Bryant and "Pretty" Purdie. Bryant turns in a muscular tenor sax solo, while Earland contributes a well-constructed, boiling cauldron of soul that he was so well known for. Still and all, Purdie's trademark shuffle is where the funkiness begins. As for Jones, he wasn't blessed with the range or harmonic sophistication of Benson, but he could nearly match him on torrid single-note runs and likewise play with a great rhythmic sense. Those were qualities that were optimally suited for "Right On." When everyone is getting the maximum mileage out of a groove, a 2-chord riff is all that's needed.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny: Back Arm & Blackcharge

When Pat Metheny is feeling randy, the results can be unpredictable. In this case, however, the chaos is well under control. Sanchéz leads off with a wicked backbeat that heralds P.M.'s bellowing guitar playing a rapid succession of notes, punctuated by the last one repeated over two beats. What follows is a dizzying array of nifty tricks that would send most highly regarded musicians back to the woodshed: lightning-quick fractured lines, start-and-stop rhythms, and McBride's acoustic bass keenly aware of what the others are doing and matching them pulse for pulse. Metheny's guitar tone says Hendrix but the hillbilly jazz approach evokes Danny Gatton. It's jazz-rock that has all the intricacies of jazz and all the raw energy of rock.

Not all Metheny fans can warm up to "Back Arm & Blackcharge," but the sheer level of musicianship and creativity required to pull this off (in a live setting, no less) is undeniable even to those who count "Last Train Home" among his best songs.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Abercrombie: Timeless

Guitarist John Abercrombie, keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette made for an extremely pleasing fusion trio. Outside a small cadre of true fans, however, Abercrombie's Timeless remains rather unknown. That is not to say it has been totally neglected. It was favorably reviewed at the time and today is listed by some knowing jazz-rock critics as a truly important fusion performance. Still, I would argue it has been relatively overlooked.

The title cut was the album's last song. The beginning of the tune sounds like a cross between Indian Classical music and the opening moments of "In a Silent Way" from Miles Davis's album of the same name. Jan Hammer displays his own Indian music influences by producing a low-end drone that serves as a bed for the song's introductory section. In some ways this introduction acts as an Indian Classical alap. An alap is a long introductory and usually slow passage in Northern Indian Classical music that prepares you for what is to follow. The musicians are empathetic to the nth degree. They respect space, time and mood. The Indian elements eventually fall to the wayside as a spatial vibe continues the allusion to "In a Silent Way." Abercrombie tosses in some blues licks for good measure. Hammer increases the tension slightly with a Moog exploration. But the vibe remains deep and calm. This is slow meditative fusion that reaches the mind's inner recesses. This tune was a good way to end an exciting album and would be a good way to end your frenetic day.

This trio would have made a fine touring band. Strangely Hammer and Abercrombie have never performed together live. I say "strangely" because the two were roommates in their early days in Boston.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Al Di Meola: Cruisin'

1982's Tour De Force "Live" is a hit or miss affair. The same can be said for most of Al Di Meola's career output. He has been part of some of the best fusion music ever played. But he has also been guilty of releasing some of the most indulgent shit you are ever likely to hear under the guise of "fusion guitar hero." That's just the way it is. It is no accident that the strongest cut on this album was written by Jan Hammer. When it came to fusion music there weren't many composers who could latch onto a jazz-rock groove the way he could. The studio version of Hammer's "Cruisin'" (whose original title was "Tri-Oval") first appeared on Di Meola's Electric Rendezvous a year earlier.

There are elements of Hammer's composition that point in the direction of his seminal TV soundtrack for Miami Vice that would appear on the scene just two years later. The melody is a simple but ingratiating hook. That is part of the genius of Hammer. His music starts in a very simple place and branches off into different and interesting directions. This allows for instant identification and a resolution when the music inevitably returns to a familiar place. Di Meola and Hammer play much of the song in unison. There is a midsection that includes audience participation, which I don't care for. But it is quickly dispatched in favor of a Hammer and Di Meola call and response in which both players show off their blues chops. The duel leads into a restatement of the theme as the crowd goes wild at song's end. This is far from the best stuff Jan Hammer was ever a part of. But it is somewhere near the top of what Di Meola has done. That is not so much a knock on Di Meola, who is an important figure, as it is more a statement about Hammer's capabilities.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Peace Two

"Peace Two" blends classical extrapolations, progressive expression and Eastern themes. Featuring only acoustic instruments and a single horn, the track hosts a variety of groovy, eclectic instruments generally unheard in jazz and not limited to the sitar that ushers in the cut and shadows its entirety. However, you should approach this recording expecting to hear music more reflective of hippies and San Francisco than of Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin. While definitely not rock 'n' roll, given the absence of vocals and electricity, this music has a similar pathway as McLaughlin's work with Tony Williams Lifetime. Instead of the whimsy of Lifetime, though, we are met with a deliberate, ponderous intensity that sows the seeds of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This track's apexes were revisited in abundance on the first two Mahavishnu albums, and despite that group's focus being mainly electric, many of their sonic elements are already present here in the song structure, the inclusion of violin, and McLaughlin's distinctive guitar flair. More overtly dissonant, obtuse and versatile than most recordings in his catalog, this is an early example of John McLaughlin's genius.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Grant Green: Betcha By Golly Wow

After audible audience profanity during the intro drags this track down a notch, five minutes of chorus reiteration induces full-blown nausea. This take is very inconsistent; the winsome aura of "The Stylistics' R&B hit" is offered up with perfect pathos at first, but quickly becomes tedious due to its lack of challenges. It is a clear recording, but the place where it ends up is surprising, given the song's instant familiarity. The first two minutes contain gently building, subtle dramatics, but given its unflinching repetition, most of the performance is tough to digest.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Grant Green: Windjammer

Grant Green plays mostly rhythm guitar throughout this track, but it becomes the lead instrument anyway as he stays in the pocket with the rest of the band on this lengthy live cut. In an apparent race to the finish, the group grabs hold of a single chord as solos fly. Head-bopping drum patterns slay alongside a pumping bass and never let go, while both the sax and guitar rev up awesome leads. Green's own playing finds no precedent. More restrained than George Benson, yet less reserved than Joe Pass, he fills the middle ground between both players.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Frank Gambale: Major Fascination

Frank Gambale's "Major Fascination" is perfect for situations where background music is required because, while the sound is adventurous, it is familiar and therefore not intrusive. The group was hot at the session, and once it takes off the improvisations are first rate. Gambale's string skipping and polytonal shredding seem underappreciated in the oeuvre of contemporary guitar mastery; there are several documents of his instruction and playing out there, yet he is likely unknown to most. However, those who appreciate progressive instrumentals featuring lengthy, traded solos and shifting dynamics will find satisfaction here, since the group's heat remains unextinguished regardless of how much it is watered down by dated synthesizer overdubs and smooth surface sheen. The ghost of Jaco Pastorius haunts the basslines, and the group seems to be paying tribute to Weather Report throughout, but Gambale's gutsy playing places him on the same professional plateau as his contemporaries Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. Slow, moody melodies are instantaneously trailed by quick, shifting ones, and Gambale's fingers soar on the fretboard. His racing arpeggios are worth hearing more than once, and this recording provides many rich rewards for those who can pierce its surface sheen.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Orpheus: I Can Make the Sun Rise

Perhaps Orpheus was too ambitiously jazzy and orchestrated for commercial success, since this lush track is padded with strings, horns and smooth production. It is easy to see why their Ascending album won a Playboy jazz award, given their identifiable fusion of pop and major-seventh cocktail lounge music bolstered by drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie's intricate bossa nova rhythms. Vocalist Bruce Arnold has room enough to breathe, and he carefully intones several positively thoughtful lyrics with accuracy. His words fit into very short measures and, evoking a humanized image of God's supernatural powers, he shifts what on the surface seems a typical love song into a deep religious meditation. Pop-wise, the chord changes are as elaborate as many late-Beatles tunes, and the composition is just as emotionally spiritual as any George Harrison song. As for jazz, it reminds me of Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Tony Bennett; at times Arnold even sounds as if he has practiced with Nat King Cole recordings, which evinces his good taste. If Herb Alpert's "This Guy's In Love With You" is on your iPod, this should be your next download because it's similarly kitsch.

December 17, 2008 · 1 comment

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Bill Evans: Spring Is Here

A romantic nature is implied in this trio's sensitivity, even as everything about "Spring Is Here" points to an obvious willingness to try something new. Chords are either flattened or sharpened amidst plentiful substitutions. Seated on the outskirts of the measures, though, Evans's lengthy passages knock on the border doors but never step through them. The magic is in what is done with the chords, not in what has been written specifically for the chart, and Evans's phrasing adds a new palette to what, without it, could easily have been the world's most conventional jazz recording. Many times, improvisers are weighed down by a false sense of necessary aggression, but here Evans is expressive yet fiery in a subdued way. As the spring evoked by the track is one of frost thawing and the first signs of grass, his circular, swerving piano work befits the season. Free time is suspended in air, reined in by a swinging, tight rhythm section.

This performance of "Spring Is Here," recorded ironically in the winter of 1959, sounds exactly like what Kind of Blue would have without horns. Indeed, Portrait In Jazz, which also includes a trio version of "Blue In Green," can be considered an extension of Miles Davis's classic disc, recorded during the actual spring of that same year.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Pass: Stompin' at the Savoy

Joe Pass's hollow-body guitar is drenched in reverb and enhanced by low shelving; its trebleness is especially apparent during his solo turns, but even more so compared to many of his contemporaries. While their notes may outnumber his, Pass's lines are strategically placed along the fretboard, ringing out with force and passion and a captivating intelligence that is always on display. While his volume is miles in front of the rhythm section, the dynamics remain undamaged. They allow him to speak by simply sticking to the original arrangement, marching in lockstep on a straight-ahead plank. The ride-accented drums and standup bass recall traditional jazz, and the mellow swing does not break any new ground, but the groove is both effortless and engaging, and the track ultimately features many confident, uncomplicated bars of jazz. In flawless time, the players enhance the standard with charisma, the rhythm section perfectly complementing Pass's technical expertise. Their cool-blue gusto, obviously honed through nightly performance, rings true to the song's spirit. On an undemanding chart, the simplicity is never at odds with the cut's trajectory. Such clarity of vision is invigorating.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Kenny Burrell: Mule

"Mule" moves as slowly as its namesake. At the slowest pace possible, the group allows so much space to permeate the performance that it does not leave much of an impression. Burrell's soloing is lovely, as the cut is a great case study into his blue-note, pentatonic style, but Stanley Turrentine overshadows him here with a distinctive sax tone that sounds just as it would later on such classics as "Sugar" and "Speedball." He provides the sole excitement in a murky, anachronistic mix, as his solo and Burrell's introductory guitar lick provide the only memorable moments. The acoustic bass is so far back in the mix that it is barely audible (interesting given the fact that the player co-wrote the tune), and the hi-hat sounds even louder than Burrell's guitar. Notwithstanding the players' proficiency, without a creative edge, dynamics, or any sense of intensity this track suffers from a lack of direction and energy. It does establish the album concept of mixing dirges and upbeat tracks with the only real link between them being nearly identical blues changes. But "Mule" should not trail such a sultry bossa nova standard as "Chitlins Con Carne."

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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The Derek Trucks Band: Volunteered Slavery

Derek Trucks's "Volunteered Slavery" is a brief read of the Rahsaan Roland Kirk composition. In concert, the tune stretches out, but on Songlines it plays as an R&B tease. The group sings Kirk's melody while Trucks plays it on slide guitar, and the track is distinguished merely by Trucks's introductory solo. It is engaging and accurate, as the sound of the slide against flute, tambourine and hand percussion is fitting, given that the original incorporated most of the same elements. Kirk's version was guitar-less, but Trucks mimics some of Kirk's playing, and even manages to add some of his own flavor. While it is interesting to hear a band as youthful as Trucks's perform a song lingering in relative obscurity, there isn't enough content here to make a lasting impression on anyone unfamiliar with Kirk's version. On the Derek Trucks web site, singer Mike Mattison states, "I think Kirk intended the tune to be darkly funny," yet the track is performed without a hint of irony. Even though Songlines is much less jazz-oriented than the majority of Trucks's discography, there are better cuts on the CD.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Richard "Groove" Holmes: Misty

Richard "Groove" Holmes's version of "Misty" is certainly sunnier than most renditions of the classic tune. Its infectious joyousness transcends its posh origins and changes them into a whiskey-soaked celebration of nightlife. The musicians go with the flow as the track increasingly sounds nothing like the chord chart after it gains full momentum. When the chart is referenced, though, it stands on its own despite the completely different interpretation. One reason this rendition stands out is that the surroundings were set long before it was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, whose presence often lures musicians into higher forms of expression. Here, his precision helps distill the live essence of Holmes in a tidy yet muscular package. From a production standpoint, Holmes also generates some progressive sounds for the era on his instrument, best represented by a series of dual-fisted chords sustained for several measures and resulting in high-end sonic clashes that echo each other. The analog effect was created prior to the digital age, and, when considering that amplified electric guitar is played here with more punch than usual on a jazz recording from 1965, the approach can be considered an example of fusion in its infancy.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Williams: When Sunny Gets Blue

Joe Williams became primarily known as a rollicking blues shouter thanks to his illustrious 7-year stint with the Count Basie Orchestra, and his trademark "Every Day I Have the Blues." Lost upon many at that point was the fact that Joe was a rewarding balladeer as well. By the time the '80s rolled around, Williams had established his reputation as a superbly versatile jazz singer, but if anyone still needed a reminder, his two critically acclaimed CDs – Every Night and Ballad and Blues Master – both recorded in May 1987 at the Vine St. Bar & Grill, offered convincing, definitive proof. (The latter album won a Grammy award.)



                             Joe Williams by JC Jaress

"When Sunny Gets Blue" is not the most gracefully flowing of standard ballads, which makes the tune all the more challenging to pull off. Williams's silky timbre and articulate, warmhearted delivery grab you from the start. Taken at a slow tempo, the song allows full contemplation by both the audience and the vocalist, who sings it here in a tight, almost conversational range, with an occasional deep baritone note added for emphasis, such as on the last word of the phrase "memories will fade." His closing, tenderly held high note caps one of the best recorded versions of this standard. Pianist Simmons, always an exceptional vocal accompanist, provides profoundly complementary support to the then 69-year-old and still undiminished Joe Williams.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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New York Electric Piano: Road to Newport

New York Electric Piano was originally formed as a trio in 2003 by keyboardist Pat Daugherty to feature the Fender Rhodes, but has since expanded both in instrumentation and depth. The diverse and eclectic résumés of its members help explain the group's apparent ease with various types of fusion, whether the emphasis is on funk, jazz, blues, or beyond.

The concluding track on King Mystery, "Road to Newport," is a forceful take-no-prisoners romp in the best tradition and spirit of such groups as the Brecker Brothers, Spyro Gyra, and the Yellowjackets. The tune's title may be Daugherty's way of saying that this kind of groove could be their ticket to an eventual breakout appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival one summer, and he may be right. Till Behler's blaring tenor, along with Tim Givens's booming bassline, form an aggressive preamble that is followed by Behler and Daugherty's acoustic piano in a call-and-response exchange of an insinuating vamp. Daugherty's vigorous solo spot is driven by the insistent drumming of Aaron Comess. After a new melodic line is introduced, Behler solos concisely with an appealingly thick tone, as Daugherty offers robust interjections. The initial vamp returns, revisited this time by Daugherty on Fender Rhodes, as Leon Gruenbaum provides enticing background arpeggios on his keyboard invention, the Samchillian, which sounds like a cross between a synthesizer and a Theremin. Then Behler's wailing invocation of the vamp propels the piece to its final resting place. No long, rambling solos here, just a tightly conceived group effort, although you'd want to hear them stretch out on this in a live setting.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Etta James: (I Don't Stand A) Ghost of a Chance (With You)

The film Cadillac Records, which opened in December 2008 to mixed reviews, chooses to portray only one of the two Chess brothers (Leonard) and only one side of Chess Records' output: blues and R&B. The label's ignored jazz side (on its Argo and Cadet imprints) featured such respected artists as Ahmad Jamal, Gene Ammons, James Moody, Sonny Stitt, and Ramsey Lewis. Etta James grew up on gospel and jazz, admired Billie Holiday, but as a rebellious teenager in the '50s was ultimately drawn to R&B. "Besides," she said, "jazz required discipline, and I wasn't about to be fenced in." In the '60s at Chess Records, James's recordings of tunes such as "Stormy Weather" and "A Sunday Kind of Love" hinted at her affinity for jazz, but it was some 30 years later that she finally got to participate in her first undiluted jazz session, no less than a salute to the singer she had so idolized, Lady Day.

James's approach to "Ghost of a Chance" is far removed from feisty tunes like "Tell Mama" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," her intensely exclaimed '60s R&B hits. This is a more low-key, mature Etta James, inspired by Cedar Walton's expert arrangement and producer John Snyder's sensitive encouragement. James still sings primarily in her naturally soulful style, but when she isn't delivering bluesy note bends and sighs, more sophisticated jazz phrasing predominates. Here, she restrains herself from more powerful outbursts until the final chorus. Cedar Walton's effective intro and vamps for the horns, and Ronnie Buttacavoli's mellow flugelhorn solo, help elevate the impact of this notable track. Mystery Lady brought Etta James a Grammy for best jazz vocal album.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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James Carter: Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure

For Present Tense, producer Michael Cuscuna was able to rein in James Carter's sometimes over-the-top, unfocused tendencies, resulting in perhaps the saxophonist's finest outing to date. Carter reminds one in a way of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Unlike Kirk, he plays only one of his many instruments at a time; but he plays each with equally spirited proficiency, and has an eclectic taste that extends from traditional jazz to the avant-garde.

Carter unearths an endearing Django Reinhardt ballad, "Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure," that Django himself never recorded, and elects to perform it on soprano sax in a style that pays unabashed homage to the nonpareil Sidney Bechet. (For Carter's extended tribute to Django, check out his Chasin' the Gypsy.) Carter's wide, sweet vibrato, alluring lyricism, and technical control are the key components that make this track so successful. After Carter's glowing interpretation of the theme, Genus and Jackson follow with melodic, unpretentious solos that set the stage for the leader, who improvises with total command and great emotional depth. Midway through, Carter's tone hardens and he modernizes his attack by introducing more dissonant elements and some vocalized effects, while also increasing the density of his phrasing. However, his remarkable coda alone should satisfy and placate even the moldiest of figs. Bravo!

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shakti: Peace of Mind

With Shakti, John McLaughlin introduced a newly designed acoustic guitar commissioned from legendary luthier Abe Wechter. It had a scalloped fretboard that allowed McLaughlin to bend notes the same as on the Indian vina. But also of interest was a second set of strings placed diagonally across the sound hole. Many people mistakenly called these "sympathetic drone" strings, under the notion their main function was to vibrate when McLaughlin played his regular strings, creating an Indian drone box sound. Theoretically this could work. But in reality the 7 strings were actually tuned to an open chord using a tuning box located on the guitar. McLaughlin would strum them along in accompaniment as he or others played. I defy anyone to identify any drone sound these strings ever made.

The extra set of strings plays a large role on "Peace of Mind." McLaughlin strums the strings to provide both a melodic underpinning and rhythmic support on this lovely and somewhat sad ballad. He has to do both because there is no rhythm section on the piece. McLaughlin and violinist L. Shankar are the only performers. Shankar was a wonderful player. He and McLaughlin were perfect foils. McLaughlin is an enigma. Even in his sad songs there is a lining of hope. I have seen him refer to this more than once as "sadjoy." You have to listen to understand.

Soon after this recording, Shankar decided to try another musical direction, signing up with Frank Zappa and later Peter Gabriel for more pop-oriented material.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shakti: Happiness Is Being Together

As I write this review, John McLaughlin's Floating Point stands nominated for a Grammy as 2008's Best Contemporary Jazz Album. That CD is a West meets East electric fusion affair. Notice I wrote West meets East and not East meets West as you might normally read. McLaughlin gathered Indian musicians to play Western jazz fusion for the album. For decades these Indo-fusion experiments have come from the opposite direction. Western jazz musicians have dabbled in jazz influenced by Indian classical conventions. One of the problems with McLaughlin's commercial career is that he always seemed to be a few decades ahead of popular taste. Could the world have finally caught up to him? We'll see. But Shakti is a perfect example of McLaughlin's previous dilemma. As jazz.com's Ted Gioia recently wrote, "Coming on the heels of McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti opened up the ears of many jazz-rock fans to sounds they had never before, and helped set in motion the commercialization of 'World Music' as a marketing category." The irony is that Shakti itself did not benefit commercially from that movement.

The original Shakti's last album was Natural Elements. Shakti was East meets West. Natural Elements was by far the most accessible recording the group put out. Tunes were short and full of hooks. "Happiness is Being Together" sounds like it reads. It is a joyful romp of strummed chords, soaring Indian classical violin, Indian percussion and "La, La, La" vocals. McLaughlin's ethereal guitar solo captures the wonder of a new morning spent together with loved ones. It does not matter if you live in Boise, Chennai or Rio. You should try to start each day with a smile. If you need some help doing that, simply play this tune.

I don't know if John McLaughlin will win that Grammy. I guess I would bet against it because I still don't think deep down enough people are ready for the music. But the seeds of his current popularity can be found in the music of his own Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti and his later group Remember Shakti. I find irony in this, too. The influences of ancient Indian music are the basis for a modern music that always seems to be ahead of its own time.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans (sax): The Path of Least Resistance

As 2008 draws to a close, I have written more than half a thousand reviews for jazz.com. During this time, I discovered a few things that I was not expecting. First, there are far more creative young jazz artists on the scene today than I expected. There is no shortage of new good jazz music. I hear it every day. The problem is getting that music out to the masses so they can hear it, too. Second, I have always believed there was nothing greater than the initial moment of discovery. In regards to music, I can pinpoint my most important MOD (moment of discovery) to an early morning viewing of a TV concert show in 1973. It is a point in time I can never replicate. It changed my life. But I have discovered to my great joy that there is such a thing as rediscovery. In its own way it can be just as powerful as the original revelation.

One of my tasks here at jazz.com is to help fill out the history of progressive jazz and fusion. That gives me the chance to go back and listen to some music I have not heard in 20 or 30 years. I do so with a new perspective. New emotions arise that I was not equipped with the first time around. Life experience is a powerful force. It changes you in many ways. So when I listen to Bill Evans's (sax) "The Path of Least Resistance" after so many years, it is almost like listening to it for the first time. The music is the same, but the person with the headphones on is not. I enjoy subtlety more now than I did then. This tune is full of it. The band takes an unaggressive stance. Instead they are hooked into a nonthreatening groove that is part jazz shuffle and part pop without crossing over into banality. The melody is reassuringly beautiful. Let there be no mistake, this is still fusion music. There are chops enough to cut a cord of wood.

I loved this music, and music like it, the first time I heard it over three decades ago. Re-listening is a journey of confirmation and rediscovery.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans (sax): The Alternative Man

As I write this in late 2008, Bill Evans (sax) is enjoying a good career playing music he calls "soulgrass." This style is a combination of jazz, fusion and newgrass music, née "bluegrass." It is not my particular cup of tea, I must say. But he seems to be enjoying it and the commercial rewards are larger. That's the perfect storm for any musician. More power to him. But I do miss the old Bill Evans (sax). That would be the one who filled his albums with one ingratiating jazz-rock melody after another and gathered the best musicians to play them.

The Alternative Man came out in 1986. Evans (sax) was one of the few fusion players of the day who helped keep the genre alive. He led a series of outstanding jazz-rock albums that featured such wonderful musicians as Mitchel Forman, Clifford Carter, Mark Egan, Dennis Chambers and others. These players were literally fusion's life-support system through the end of the decade.

"The Alternative Man" is a whirling number. Evans plays the head in unison with Forman's synthesizer as Danny Gottlieb's electronic drums flail away underneath. Electric percussion can really sound artificial and, over time, dated. On this cut the electronic drums are used mostly for punctuation rather than for timekeeping. So it's okay that they sound artificial; they are just another effect. Anyhow, what a joy it is to hear Evans (sax), Forman and guitarist Jeff Golub tackle this composition. They go at it tooth and nail in unison, in tandem, in counterpoint and in calls and responses. I don't want to overlook bassist Mark Egan. His fretless bass work became a signature sound on many jazz-rock recordings of this period.

Altogether, the ensemble collected for this superior cut included some of the best fusion players on the planet at the time. "The Alternative Man" is a performance that validates my previous sentence.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: I Didn't

"I Didn't" is a rebuttal to Thelonious Monk's "Well, You Needn't," but more accurately, it's an accidental derivation of it. As stated by liner notes author Ira Gitler, Monk didn't think Miles played the bridge as Monk conceived it, so a "new" song was born.

What's more notable, however, is the performance. On this session, Davis was backed by what would soon be his regular pianist and drummer along with an all-world bassist. With a melody less fussy than the one it was intended to mimic, Miles glides right through the fewer changes with a confident stride and eloquent tone. Pettiford's firm walking-bass style allows Jones to play loose the way he loved to do, and Garland's economically swinging style is already evident in this early session with the trumpeter.

As a composition, "I Didn't" doesn't live up to the Monk classic that inspired it, but the playing was nonetheless inspired.

December 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Beauty is a Rare Thing

John Millington Synge once noted that for poetry to become human again, it must first learn to be brutal. Forget for the moment the precepts of harmolodics or the pieties of free jazz: Ornette Coleman's philosophy of music is not much different from the sentiments expressed in Synge's aphorism. This is the rare beauty he celebrates in the title of this seven-minute performance. The brutality in Coleman's instance was directed toward the vocabulary of modern jazz, which he pares down with a vengeance on this track. His solo is plaintive and liberated from any lingering traces of bop or blues or big band, those three B's of postwar jazz which were to Coleman's contemporaries as constitutive as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms to the symphonists of an earlier age.

Ornette starts with simple melodic phrases here, and when he finally moves beyond them it is to engage in some perfunctory squeals and shrieks on the horn—delivered, alas, without much conviction. (But his Free Jazz session, only a few weeks in the future, would be a different matter entirely.) Cherry is folksy in a diatonic way, but tosses in at least an occasional bit of syncopation to remind us that, yes, this is our jazz music. Blackwell fights his own battle against the tyranny of a swinging beat, and teaches us that the biggest challenge the freedom fighters faced was often in the persistence of the pulse, which typically proves more difficult to avoid than the chord changes. Haden is off in his own arco soundspace, and keeps the walking lines under lock and key. A rare thing indeed . . .

December 16, 2008 · 7 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Vision Towards Essence, Pt. 1

Muhal Richard Abrams is so well known and highly praised for his work as an avant-jazz composer, his piano playing is sometimes overlooked. This track is culled from his solo performance at the 1998 Guelph Jazz Festival, and provides ample evidence that he should be considered among the very best free jazz pianists. We hear how his aesthetic is heavy on impressionist, pan-modal, and quasi-serialist classical techniques, with (often nearly invisible) hints of jazz phrasing and harmony. He's a dramatic, romantic player, inclined to use great contrasts in dynamics, pulse, and texture. Few improvising pianists possess more chops. Even fewer use them to more graceful ends. This track is a lovely 21-minute opening to a nearly hour-long, uninterrupted improvised recital that was arbitrarily divided into three parts for the purpose of the CD release. It stands on its own well enough, but one should check out "Parts 2 & 3," as well, to get the full effect.

December 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles: Lava

In this live concert, the band transitions from John McLaughlin's tune "Marbles" into Buddy Miles's composition "Lava." The piece is based on a simple but piercing, driving riff that Santana, bassist Ron Johnson and possibly guitarist Neal Schon drive into the ground as drummers Miles and Gregg Errico wail away. Santana, through the use of some effects, plays a psychedelic freak-out solo. Hide the parents! Boy, do I miss those days! Just as it was ushered in by "Marbles," the tune returns to the head of that piece to bring things to a close as thousands of fans cheer their appreciation. "Lava" was a harbinger of more intense fusion eruptions in the near future.

December 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Criss: Black Coffee

As originally rendered by Sarah Vaughan back in 1949, "Black Coffee" was a slow-moving, bluesy number, and subsequent recordings tend to also be vocal jazz renditions. Not Sonny Criss's version, though. While he employs a similarly slow tempo, his alto sax voicings set this apart.

For the first three minutes, Criss squeezes out every last drop of blues with a lithe, buttery approach. As if to follow the lyric, "It's driving me crazy just waiting for my baby / To maybe come around," the altoist suddenly throws in flawless urgent bebop phrases, but without ever losing sight of the blues. After pianist Walter Davis's restrained solo, Criss returns to rekindle the dual blues emotions of sulking and frustration, as effectively before.

The top of the CD cover for This Is Criss states, "Here is an alto saxophonist whose consummate artistry approaches perfection." Listening to the first cut from this album confirms a rarity: Truth in advertising.

December 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Anthony Braxton: Played Twice

Love him or hate him, Anthony Braxton is definitely one of a kind. When playing his own compositions, Braxton plays by his own rules. It's a game he always wins. When he ventures outside his creative universe—as when addressing this tune by Thelonious Monk—he still wins, simply by making his rules fit a new set of circumstances.

A hardcore bebopper might listen to this track and infer that Braxton doesn't know what he's doing. After all, he plays fast and loose with the changes; "wrong" notes and irregular rhythms abound; uncertainty exists in almost every aspect of his playing. So if Braxton is doing everything wrong, why am I so blown away by this? Because, as the writer Deepak Chopra says, there is wisdom in uncertainty, in not micro- managing every tiny aspect of one's being, but trusting that one will have the resources to deal with a myriad of possibilities instinctively, as they arise. It's the essence of improvisation, and Braxton embodies it.

There are few things more uncertain than what Anthony Braxton might play next over a given set of chord changes, no greater example of a musician creating entirely in the moment. There are no fixed patterns in his improvising, no licks as such—just pure, spontaneous invention, and if it sounds utterly different from anything you might have heard anyone play over this familiar tune before ... well, so what? That's what jazz is about.

December 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Brad Leali - Claus Raible Quartet: Puddin' Time

A single low note played by pianist Claus Raible opens this old-school styled gospel jazz number. Seconds later, Brad Leali's alto sax begins a mesmerizing sermon divinely inspired by the almighty Charlie Parker via his disciple Hank Mobley. Brad's bellowing is enhanced by the kind of highly reverberant miking seldom heard since the salad days of Blue Note records. It's a mystery to me why that's so, especially considering how convincingly it brings out Leali's soul-drenched lines. When drummer Alvester Garnett launches into his mini-solo, its thunder summons the ghost of Art Blakey. All told, "Puddin' Time" conjures up a 1950s late-night jam session at a Manhattan nightclub. In other words, an image of jazz at its purest.

December 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ali Farka Touré: La Drogue

Red by Ali Farka Touré This record was once so rare, it seemed more a rumor than a real disk. BBC broadcaster Andy Kershaw says he "felt as a gambler must feel when he hits the jackpot" after finding a copy of the Red LP in the discount bin of a Paris record store. When he played this track on the radio, fans responded with a desperate enthusiasm, frustrated by their inability to locate the obscure release. This is magical stuff indeed, the musical equivalent of pixie dust. Touré is the master of his personal, sprightly 6/8, a groove that seems to turn in on itself under his hands. His vamps are simple, but delivered with a holistic purity that will enchant you, almost as if you looked up in the sky and saw that the clouds had started forming perfect concentric circles. A few years ago, the Red and Green releases by Ali Farka Touré were finally made available on an easy-to-find reissue. So you have no excuse for missing out on this artist. Even if you only plan to buy a handful of "World Music" CDs for your collection, this one must make your short list.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Frank Zappa: Son of Orange County

I was 16 years old or so and hanging out in my room listening to the radio. I think I was tuned to Boston's WBCN, a great radio station back in the days when there were great radio stations. People were more open to music and had not yet been brainwashed by the communication conglomerates that force-fed them cookie-cutter music like they were pâté geese. I could go on and on about crimes against listeners, but back to my story. On 'BCN it would not be unusual to hear a set consisting of Black Sabbath, Carly Simon and the Mahavishnu Orchestra! You could hear anything. People familiar with my views know that I believe the Mahavishnu Orchestra was the greatest band that ever was. That is why what I am about to tell you means something.

So, I am listening to the radio and I hear a fantastic fusion number. It is awesome! And I get all excited because obviously there is a new Mahavishnu Orchestra album out! I wait for the DJ to announce the new album. Instead he comes on after the tune and says, "That was the latest from Zappa and the Mothers of Invention." Holy crap, jazzman! I knew about Zappa and "Call Any Vegetable." But I was unfamiliar with this side of him.

By the time I picked-up Zappa/Mothers Roxy & Elsewhere a year or so later, I had become quite aware of Zappa's jazz fusion leanings. Sure Zappa could be silly at times. I don't appreciate all of his music. But he always surrounded himself with superb musicians capable of being silly and virtuosic at the same time. When his bands got serious, it was time to really listen. "Son of Orange County," a bastardized version of several of Zappa's earlier tunes, is some serious message. It begins as a sweet R&B ballad with effective vocals from saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock. His words are a rather unveiled criticism of Richard Nixon, who was in the last year of his power. (For years I had thought George Duke supplied the lead vocals on this cut. But a Zappa fan site now says it was Brock.) As soon as the vocals end, the tune turns into a fusion blues. The horn section enters. Playing with a fuzz tone, Zappa lets loose with a fiery solo. He turns his chorus sound on, too. Keyboardist Don Preston jazz comps in the background. There is a driving rhythm. The full brunt of the band's jazz-rock power is now on display. This is one of my favorite Zappa performances. If he had decided to go the full fusion route back then, he might well be mentioned now by jazz-rock fans in the same breath as Mahavishnu, Weather Report or Return to Forever.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ali Farka Touré: Sidi Gouro

Red by Ali Farka Touré Ali Farka Touré has sometimes been called the "John Lee Hooker of Africa." Such a description tells us how crazy our musical genealogies have become. After decades of tracing the blues back to Africa, we are now tracing African music back to the blues. Yes, Touré's music is somewhat reminiscent of Hooker's hypnotic solo guitar work from the late 1940s and early 1950s, but the Malian musician captures a serenity in his performances that one will never find in American blues. The Green album (original cover shown to the left) is one of Touré's masterpieces, and finally available in a widely distributed reissue after many years as a rare collector's item. This opening track is so relaxed in ambiance, despite the fast underlying 6/8 pulse, that you might not pick up the deep melancholy of the lyrics, which translate as a sorrowful tribute to a friend from Touré's youth. In translation they read: As soon as I sit down my heart begins to weep. When I start to think, my heart begins to bleed. . . . And here we do find an uncanny parallel with early blues, that troubled performance art of introspective and largely unmediated self-expression in which personal tragedy was somehow transmuted into a commercial product. If you are looking for powerful songs that disdain the slickness, the market-driven focus, the chart-seeking vanity of our times, this is a recording that you will want to have.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stanley Clarke: Song to John (Part 2)

"Song to John (Part 2)" appears as a separate cut from "Song to John (Part 1)" on Stanley Clarke's Journey to Love. And indeed on the original LP the songs were on different sides of the record. Still, you can consider "Part 1" a prelude to "Part 2." Part 2 is diametrically opposed to Part 1. It is a high-tempo riff fest. Each master musician takes a couple of blistering solos. In the turnarounds they play in a frenzied unison. McLaughlin used his Shakti scalloped-fretboard guitar for this session. It is quite a treat listening to him and Corea mimic each other. Believe me, hearing these jazz-rock superstars play together in such a fantastic way was every fusion fan's wet dream. It is good to see that 30+ years later, Clarke is returning to this type of music. We have missed him.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stanley Clarke: Song to John (Part 1)

In 1975 you couldn't get three bigger fusion stars to play even one tune together on a record than Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin. But this trio plays two songs on Clarke's Journey to Love! Clarke dedicated his composition "Song to John (Part 1)" to John Coltrane. He decided he and his fellow performers should go the acoustic route for both this number and the separately presented "Song to John (Part 2)". That made it quite a departure in character from the rest of the album, which was a collection of electric funk and symphonic jazz-rock.

McLaughlin and Corea provide textural backing for Clarke's bowed presentation of the song's beautiful melody. McLaughlin, using a scalloped-fretboard acoustic, is next. He bends his notes to such a degree that unbent notes begin to sound foreign. Corea comps behind him until it is his turn. Corea offers more lush playing as McLaughlin and Clarke gently strum a rhythm. As great as these musicians are – and they are fantastically empathetic here – Clarke's gorgeous composition allows them to be even more so.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Frank Zappa & The Mothers: Little House I Used to Live In

As jazz.com's editor-in-chief Ted Gioia makes clear in his review of Frank Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia," Zappa possessed real jazz sensibilities. Jazz-rock would be the music he impacted. Fusion cognoscenti always include Zappa's music in any conversation of the genre. But sometimes jazzophiles give him less credit than he deserves because he didn't appear to be taking jazz seriously. His famous quote that "jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny" probably rubbed some jazz snobs the wrong way.

The first couple of measures of "Little House I Used to Live In" sound like Return to Forever. And Return to Forever didn't even exist yet! The tune quickly becomes a blues, then a funk fusion number with some nonsense vocals thrown in. (That's the stuff the snobs didn't like.) The band kicks into a double-time jam as Zappa shows off his playing skills. Of particular interest, though not heard much on this particular tune, is Don Preston's use of the Mini-Moog keyboard synthesizer. In 1971, this was a new and rare sound. Its inclusion in Zappa's band automatically made it sound fusion-like.

December 12, 2008 · 5 comments

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Francisco Mela: Benes

Composed by Lionel Loueke, "Benes" is Brazilian in mood but rhythmically located closer to the composer's native West Africa. Francisco Mela may be the leader, but this is a showcase for his guitarist. Loueke sets the tone alone with a syncopated, off-center repeating pattern. Starting with single-note lines, the Beninese adroitly transitions to a countermelody played in chords, and then back again. As he moves into the bridge, the playing becomes more fluid and his light phrasing evokes – without copying – Pat Metheny. Mela and Grenadier fill out the spaces underneath, with the leader dovetailing Loueke's syncopations and Grenadier sometimes doing the same, other times occupying more lyrical territory.

Mela perceptively saw the core beauty of an alluring melody that perhaps could have been performed easier by his full quintet, entrusting it instead mostly to Loueke. The guitarist delivers.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rokia Traoré: Dounia

Mali is a landlocked nation that stretches from the Sahara in the north to Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso in the South. It is one of the poorest nations on earth—the average worker makes around $30 per week. But its musical riches are the rival of any other country on this sonically charged continent. This country has given us, to list a few names, Afro-pop star Salif Keita, guitarist Habib Koité, the exceptional band Tinariwen, kora master Toumani Diabaté, and the late Ali Farka Touré, in my opinion the finest of the African guitarists. But this music is sometimes cussedly difficult to track down. You might consider attending the famous Festival au Désert in Mali, but you may change your mind when you learn that you need to fly into Timbuktu, and then make the trek to Essakane deep in the desert, a trip that according to the festival web site is "difficult and potentially hazardous." Fortunately the music of Mali is increasingly available on CD. Even so, it would be worth a long trip to hear Rokia Traoré. This singer captures the hypnotic rhythms, crisp guitar playing and in-the-moment performance style that we have come to associate with the best of Malian music. This artist deserves to be far better known, and this release is a timely reminder that Mali still has musical riches to share.

December 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bobby Watson: Isfahan

Since 1987 was the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, Bobby Watson decided to assemble a 9-piece band for a tribute to the "Rabbit" himself, Johnny Hodges, which was recorded live at Cobi Narita's hospitable loft (now defunct) known as the Jazz Center of New York. The performance of the evocative Hodges feature "Isfahan," named after the Iranian city, was one of the evening's highlights. Utilizing an arrangement similar to the original from Ellington/Strayhorn's acclaimed Far East Suite, Watson alters his usual easily identifiable piercing tone to sound instead eerily like Hodges, a sign of respect for the great altoist, although a more personal approach might have worked just as well or even better. In any case, the Dukish voicings of the other horns, and Mulgrew Miller's Ellington-inspired piano embellishments, are gracefully executed as Watson tenderly plays the opening and closing readings of the theme. Even Watson's fills possess Hodges's characteristic economy and subtle punch. There are no solos to disrupt the prevailing sweet-tempered mood, nor are any needed.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Elmo Hope: Vi-Ann

When Elmo Hope died in 1967 at just 44 years of age, it was believed his last recording had been the 1963 session Sounds from Rikers Island, the title of which hinted at the drug problem that tormented him over the years. Hope's original 1966 studio date went unreleased until 1977, when it was issued on two LPs as Last Sessions (Volumes 1 and 2), only to reappear in the '90's in more complete form on a 2-CD set retitled The Final Sessions. Hope was an early, relatively unacknowledged bebop pioneer, a close friend of Bud Powell, and also knew Monk and Herbie Nichols. Unlike the even more neglected Nichols, Hope at least got to record some of his distinctive compositions with horns, most notably four of them on Harold Land's classic The Fox. He also recorded with Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, Coltrane, and Hank Mobley.

"Vi-Ann" (complete and unedited on CD) is a good example of Hope's approach both as player and composer, each of which is closer to Nichols than to Monk or Powell. Classically trained, Hope had technique to spare, but even at this fast tempo a feeling of thoughtfulness pervades his improvisation. Hope's theme is a well-structured, ingratiating bop anthem that he expands upon inventively in his engrossing solo. The pianist's light, tinkling touch adds to the effect of his fluid extended lines, which he intersperses with sprightly repeated figures and riffs. Clifford Jarvis, a great but underappreciated drummer, is wonderful on this piece, from his cymbal/bass drum intro to his zesty accents and fills, and also in his forcefully expressive solo that utilizes the full resources of his kit in an artfully well-balanced manner. John Ore solos solidly as well, although Hope's shrewd comping during the bassist's creation dominates your attention. Hope's reprise of the theme features a memorable spaced-out single-note concluding progression, just before an answering final emphatic flurry from Jarvis.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Benny Carter: Blue Lou

Nat Hentoff's liner notes for the original Jazz Giant described it as "the first all-jazz, hot, small combo blowing album under Benny Carter's name" since the advent of the LP about 10 years earlier. That was a shame, but since Carter was almost completely immersed in his second career in Hollywood writing for film and TV, he primarily appeared on Norman Granz impromptu jam session dates and little else.

Whoever assembled this intriguing ad hoc septet was either a creative genius or just plain lucky, for it works beautifully. "Blue Lou" is a case in point. First introduced by Carter on a 1933 big band recording, "Blue Lou" was a Swing Era favorite, and the riffing melody with its animated bridge is given a respectful and enthusiastic performance. Ben Webster reminds us that he could still improvise fleetly and forcefully when the setting is right. André Previn is bluesy and flashy in an Oscar Peterson vein. Frank Rosolino's pungent trombone adds texture, and his solo features nimble, incisive phrasing. Barney Kessel's twangy improv is a joyful attention grabber. Finally, Carter takes command with an enticing logic and clever thematic reworkings, swinging relentlessly all the while. Vinnegar and Manne drive the group throughout, maintaining a stimulating pulse. The riffing conclusion comes across as a fitting salute to the big band era.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Warsaw Village Band: Wise Kid Song

The wedding is getting out of control. You have had too much ?ubrówka vodka, and even though you cut the last one with apple juice—the bartender called it szarlotka—the world around you starts to blur. The band is playing a crazy 6/8 number, the string instruments and voices in some drawn-out battle for supremacy. The words seem shouted rather than sung, or maybe it's a fight breaking out by the bandstand. You head toward the noise, but before you get there a girl in a peasant dress and intense hazel-colored eyes grabs you by the hand and pulls you into a dance. You can hardly stand, so how can you even think of mastering these movements. The voices have dropped out now, and the strings come together in a throbbing repetitive vamp, devilish music for a migraine mazurka. Somehow you fall into the proper steps—or maybe you just make up your own. This song seems to have taken up permanent residency inside your head, and you want to ask the girl in the peasant dress what the words mean—the singers have started shouting again—but your partner has gone. The music has subsided but it continues to play on in your memory. You have a hunch that this melody will stay with you for the next few days, unless you can kill it with something stronger. You turn toward the bar, in quest for another glass of ?ubrówka. This time, you will take it straight.

December 10, 2008 · 2 comments

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Ernie Andrews: Don't You Know I Care

Ernie Andrews was part of the vibrant Central Avenue jazz scene in Los Angeles during the 1940s, which he and other talking (and singing) heads discuss in the 1989 documentary Blues for Central Avenue. His high school classmates included Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Sonny Criss and Teddy Edwards, and while he had a couple of minor hit records early on, stardom eluded him despite recording with Benny Carter's orchestra in the '50s and Cannonball Adderley in the '60s. He began a comeback of sorts in the '80s, and 1992's No Regrets offers one of the better overviews of both his ballad and blues shouting styles.

"Don't You Know I Care" was introduced by Al Hibbler in 1944. Mance's winsome intro sets the stage for Andrews's authoritative and assured, drawn-out initial query: "Dontcha know ... I care ... or don't you care to know?" His voice seems to embody the best qualities of Hibbler, Big Joe Turner and Billy Eckstine, although Andrews himself cited Billy Daniels and Herb Jeffries as major influences. Person's obbligatos, as well as Mance, Drummond and Carvin's sensitive, unobtrusive support, help make this an essential Andrews track, not to mention the successive soulful improvisations by Person, Drummond and Mance. It is Andrews, however, who keeps the listener enthralled with his velvety smooth, naturally expressive delivery, down-to-earth yet sophisticated. A polished pro, who's still going strong today in his 80s.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Art Ensemble of Chicago: Magg Zelma

Following on the heels of Nice Guys—the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s extravagantly praised ECM debut—Full Force had a tough act to follow. In fact, it did not fare as well with the critics, though perhaps a reappraisal is in order these many years later. “Magg Zelma” leads off the album; its several-minute-long, collectively improvised introduction is played by the entire group on various small percussion instruments and noisemakers, getting things off to a quiet, almost sluggish start. Once the players pick up their main instruments, however, things get on track. By the time the rhythm section kicks into a cooking latin vamp approximately halfway through, the music begins to live up to the album’s title. Drummer Don Moye and bassist Malachi Favors demonstrate why they might have been the finest free jazz rhythm section, period. Both are tremendously skillful, passionate performers, with huge ears and generous musical personalities. They burn down the house on this one. Trumpeter Bowie is all over his horn, his trademark tonal eccentricities put to excellent use, as the saxophonists adopt a scorched earth policy. Composer Favors’ quasi-Mariachi theme appears at track’s end, defusing the extreme tension that’s built up, ending the performance with a smile.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Art Ensemble of Chicago: Charlie M

The “Charlie M” referred to in the track’s title is presumably Charles Mingus, who died in 1979, the year before this was recorded (which is perhaps just as well, since Mingus by all accounts disliked being called “Charlie” and might have given composer Lester Bowie a piece of his mind, or worse). The tune is reminiscent of "My Jelly Roll Soul," Mingus' own nod to premodern jazz; “Charlie M”’s two-beat rhythms, bluesy character, and Bowie’s over-the-top expressive trumpet effects hearken back to early jazz in a similar manner. Bassist Malachi Favors adds to the Mingus-like feel by channeling the master’s percussive, ultra-physical bass technique. Saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman (on tenor and bass saxes, though it’s not entirely clear who plays which) provide a hulking accompaniment beneath Bowie, whose solo is a witty, loving paean to the continuum of jazz trumpet from Bolden through Cherry. On “Charlie M,” the AEC brought a thoroughly modern sensibility to its interpretation of an archaic style, thereby avoiding the impression of intellectual slumming that so often mars such “tributes.” A great track by a great band.

December 10, 2008 · 1 comment

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Frank Corrales: Morena De Mi Amor

Guitarist Frank Corrales, who passed away in 2007 after a long battle with diabetes, first made his mark in Tex-Mex music by apprenticing with the masters: the great accordionist Flaco Jiminez and Flaco's father, the conjunto pioneer Santiago Jimenez, Sr. But when he tried to step out as a leader on his own CDs, Corrales met with resistance. Many distributors refused to carry his Border Spice release, claiming that there was no market for this type of crossover. Yet in time Corrales found a larger audience, and his Cantina Classics, from which this track hails, continues to be a favorite. Heck, some of his music is even showing up as ringtones these days (the ultimate sign of having arrived as a performer in the new millennium). His music has verve and personality, and also a certain staged over-the-top quality that only adds to its appeal. If you haven't experienced the joys of Tex-Mex guitar, here is the place to start.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Memories of You

Listening to the first eight bars of this performance, you may think that Dave Brubeck has mellowed with the passing years. He plays the old Eubie Blake standard like a throwback to the Harlem stride school. Has our arch-modernist become a sentimental traditionalist? But by the second eight bars, Brubeck is already playing his harmonic tricks. The passing chords come thick and fast, and by the time we enter the next chorus we are flying over polytonal territory. Passengers, look out your left window and see if you can recognize the changes below. For a moment, Brubeck dips back into his stride bag, but can't keep from tossing out those super-sized chords. Welcome to the world of Dave Brubeck, where even a stark miniature such as this keeps a few Wagnerian reminders hidden in the corners.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz: Nature Boy

Charlie Parker (and producer Norman Granz) really started something when Bird got his wish to record with strings. The critics and some fans weren't pleased, but Clifford Brown soon followed suit, and since then, every saxophonist (or trumpeter) worth a split reed has to confront his violins at some point: Hawk, Sonnys Criss and Rollins, Chet, Al and Zoot each, Arts Farmer and Pepper, Ornette, Joe Lovano … the list just goes on. Some, like Stan Getz, were strung out—so to speak—several times.

Getz's improvisations over Eddie Sauter's tunes and arrangements for the brilliant album Focus garnered the praise, but Stan had already recorded a ballads-and-strings LP for Verve; and anchoring Cool Velvet is his solo over Russ Garcia's chart for the fanciful song "Nature Boy" by odd cat Eden Ahbez. This melody has lured jazzmen from Nat King Cole to John Coltrane to Grover Washington, but none has given it a more anguished and passionate reading than Getz. The cry of his "voice" is more of a cri de coeur. Whatever was haunting him that day is right there in his horn and immediately in the hearts of all who hear, a precursor to the stripped-down "Blood Count" registered three decades later. Sax-and-strings albums are for life's Romantics. In that vein, one might say that "Blood Count" was to die for ... while "Nature Boy" demands that you live through and overcome.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stanley Clarke: Power

Any tune that begins with a Tony Williams drum solo is an important one to listen to. The aptly named "Power," which appeared on Stanley Clarke's second solo release, featured a slice of the veritable who's who of the burgeoning fusion scene. Clarke and guitarist Bill Connors were members of Return to Forever. (Connors was in the process of leaving the band at this time.) Jan Hammer was coming off his historic stint with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Tony Williams was between Lifetime bands. Clarke's record had a real Return to Forever meets Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Lifetime pedigree going for it.

Williams's solo sets the stage for "Power." At times on the fusion funk number, keyboardist Jan Hammer does sound like RTF's Chick Corea. I don't know if those were purposeful references or just what Clarke wanted. At any rate, Hammer becomes himself soon enough. Clarke and Williams partner-up on a repetitive bassline and rhythm to create a deep groove. Connors plays an outstanding solo. The tune's increasing intensity is ratcheted up even more as Williams kicks into double-time. The satisfying piece ends during ascension just as a Return to Forever jazz-rock anthem would.

This quartet would have made a really good permanent fusion band. I wonder if that was ever contemplated. I'll find out and get back to you.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York: Summer Suite

Now this is a big statement. At just a shade over 39 minutes, Satoko Fujii's "Summer Suite" employs everything from more traditional sounds to Ayler-esque squeals of passion. After the first few mournful minutes, when you're beginning to think that a New Orleans second-line thing is about to happen, a single trumpet and then saxophone introduce some full horn section unison lines. The next transition takes a more "out" route, with those lone sax and trumpet offerings deconstructed into squawks and moans. When the full band kicks in again, it seems like a celebration. And on it goes for the next half hour. I've come to think of the unaccompanied solo passages as the connective tissue between the muscle of the assembled horns. And let me tell you, they have the power to make any 'ole statement they please!

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sun Ra: Brainville

When a Sun Ra composition doesn't head directly into the land of the freaky, the spacey, the alter-destiny (which I think of as a special section of the Sun Ra Jazz Theme Park), more often than not you can still end up hearing the wacky bits as they float over the retaining wall. "Brainville" is no exception. In this case, a randy baritone sax struts in over the introductory piano vamp, leading to a full horn section building up the main theme. When solos are taken, the horns comp away using a variety of shapes and intensities. As you would expect, both John Gilmore and Pat Patrick (reprising the baritone) make their presence known with tremendously fun and swinging solos. This might be the "normal" part of the theme park, but it doesn't take a big stretch to imagine what's going down on the other side of that wall.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jonatha Brooke: My Flowers Grow Green

While this track isn't jazz in the strict sense (so you sticklers will just have to relax), the underlying spirit certainly heads in that direction. Jonatha Brooke wraps Woody Guthrie's lyrics in a blanket of lilting, waltz-time warmth and light swing that actually leans more toward gospel-inflected country than jazz (thanks in part to Joe Sample's B-3). By "spirit," I refer to the history of jazz, where the actuality of the American melting-pot was reflected in the progression of the art form. All I know is that Woody would have been pleased with the clarity and passion of Brooke's voice, to say nothing of the Charlie Haden-esque solo that Christian McBride gives us.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Peter Sommer: 'Round Midnight

Thelonious Monk's compositions have that deceptive, "Hey, that's easy" quality that can cause problems for the interpreter. What might seem like a simple blues is later revealed to have much more depth and harmonic possibility. This can make a cover attempt fall flat as it becomes obvious that all angles had not been considered. It's obvious, though, that Peter Sommer "gets" Monk. His sax runs (covering both the head and solo space) manage to retain an easy swing feel while more and more of the tune's structure is explored. Extra points must be given to pianist Eric Gunnison for providing some wide-open harmonic structures, guideposts that Sommer uses to great advantage.

December 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bob McHugh: Jitterbug Waltz

There's just something about that lovely series of descending notes in "Jitterbug Waltz" that gets to me. Though I'm known to be a kind of nostalgia freak, I have no history with this particular tune, so what gives? The song has not provided backup to any of my so-called "romantic moments," nor has it painted the mood along with any of my favorite film scenes. So why the attraction? Like many things musical, it seems that I must be content to allow the emotions to remain coated in my own mystery glaze. Bob McHugh's approach celebrates the spirit of Fats Waller while avoiding cloying sentiment – though I admit that such sentiment probably wouldn't bother me in the least.

December 09, 2008 · 1 comment

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Joani Taylor: Take Five

This is definitely a track to separate the men from the boys. Or is it the true believers vs. posers? Maybe it's the arrogant experts vs. the fans? Traditionalists vs. the modernists?

I have deliberately set up some ambiguous labels here, as Paul Desmond's classic has been on my mind lately. I used to listen to a jazz station on my satellite radio. The past tense became necessary as the percentage of repeats became intolerable. That and the fact that their Dave Brubeck selections made it seem as though Brubeck had recorded only two songs: "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo à la Turk." It's sadly ironic whenever a groundbreaking artist is forced into some unnecessarily restricted Museum of Jazz.

All of which makes this version of "Take Five" so refreshing. Here we have the original tune updated not only with a funky vibe and Joani Taylor's sensual vocals, but also with a little Hip-Hop crosspollination, and the throw-down of MC Jay Kin. Forget the labels, this is just too much fun.

December 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Patrick Rydman: A Heartache on the Side

Oh no … a jazz vocalist … an electric piano. Please, I've heard it before. We all have. Now, that might sound like the lament of a jaded writer, and surely that sentiment has (perhaps unfairly) colored many a negative review. "A Heartache on the Side" provides convincing evidence, however, that a closed mind tends to flush away great opportunities. Had I followed the usual groupthink, I would have missed out on this jauntily slinky track. With guitarist Henrik Cederblom providing thick and bluesy accompaniment, the song takes on an almost Tom-Waits-by-way-of-Southside-Johnny quality. Factor in the swingin' and randy lines of trombonist Markus Ahlberg, and you've got yourself a genuine good time.

December 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mark Zaleski: Care Free

Music writers are used to artist queries. "Hi, I'm John Q. Polytonal, and I was wondering if you'd be interested in reviewing my new CD …." Sure, I get them all the time. But it's weird when the artist's name seems so, uhm … familiar. The truth of the matter is that me and Mark Zaleski are not related, though I must admit I had my fingers crossed as to the quality of his music. I mean, the opportunity to have fun with the name would have vaporized if the music leaned toward the Kenny G end of things. Let's face it, all of those "poodle hairdo" and golf jokes have gotten stale.

The happy news is that Mark Zaleski and his band have a lot interesting things to say. "Care Free" flies out of the gate with the rhythm section setting up a fast-moving vamp over which the saxes wind their theme. It reminds my ears of Coltrane, but with a more modern flair, especially when the floating chords of guitarist Will Graefe are mixed in. After pianist Alex Brown takes a wide-ranging solo, Zaleski lays down the burn with a solo that traffics in heat, passion and angularity. I was almost disappointed when the head reappeared, mostly because Zaleski seemed to be having so much fun. But, hey, there's always the repeat button!

December 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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The Mannish Boys: Searchin' Blues

How many bands have taken their names from Muddy Waters's songs? A young David Bowie played in another group called the Mannish Boys, and we have also seen the Mojos, the Hoochie Coochie Men and (of course) the Rolling Stones. But this ensemble, with shifting personnel for their four CDs, is no unworthy pretender to the throne. Their hybrid of high-energy blues with a dose of rock definitely has some serious mojo of its own, and is perfectly crafted for crossover appeal. "Searchin' Blues" builds off one of the oldest slide-guitar vamps in the blues lexicon, but "Paris Slim" plays it as if newly minted; and "Big Foot" Innes contributes a very danceable beat. Mannish Boys may have started life as a one-shot studio project, but these Boys have coalesced into one of the finer blues bands on the scene. Let's hope they keep going, and continue releasing CDs this good when they grow up to be boyish men.

December 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Cedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm: R.L. Burnside

For better or worse, the blues world increasingly looks to the children and grandchildren of the great departed to carry on the spirit of the music. But what big frets to fill when you aim to continue the tradition passed on by the late R.L. Burnside, one of the greatest guitarists the blues world has ever known. Cedric Burnside, his grandson, pays tribute on this track, and along with guitarist Lightnin' Malcolm manages to capture some of the raw energy and unbridled drive that distinguished the departed artist's work. This is an odd combo for a blues recording, without bass or keyboard or rhythm guitar to support the groove. No matter, this duo is in absolute lockstep, and don't need anyone else to point the way. Malcolm is definitely a guitarist worth checking out—his sense of the pulse is riveting; and Cedric Burnside adds some serious gunpowder to the usually tepid world of blues drumming. Keep an eye out for these musicians, who have the potential to go far.

December 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Toumani Diabaté: Si Naani

The stereotyped view of African music presents it as dominated by drums—you remember the old Hollywood films with the rhythmic throbbing in the background and some old geezer in explorer garb pronouncing: "The natives are restless tonight." I hate to disappoint you, but many of my favorite recordings of African music have no drums on them. In fact, one could make a case that the string tradition is the crowning glory of the continent, and the various traditional cultures present us with countless instruments that remind us, in varying degrees, of our own Western guitars, harps, banjos, lutes and the like.

The kora has a special place in the pantheon of African string instruments, at least based on the hold it exerts over the Western imagination. This 21-string harp has long fascinated outsiders with its prepossessing appearance, the fragile beauty of its music, and its social role as accompaniment to the griots who are the preservers of local tradition and history. Toumani Diabaté is the leading exponent of the kora in the current day, and has been known in the West ever since the release of his Kaira recording in 1988. But Diabaté is more than the preserver of old traditions; he also has focused on bringing the kora into the modern day. He has collaborated with various jazz, pop and blues artists, as well as played a key role on several iconoclastic "world fusion" projects. His 2008 release The Mandé Variations is more traditional in flavor, but even here Diabaté shows off his innovative "Egyptian tuning" of the kora, which gives his playing a more exotic flavor. On this track, he puts his personal stamp on two traditional works—a love song from northwest Mali and a 19th-century griot piece praising Fula warriors from central Mali—and shows that love and war can coexist, at least in the world of musical performance. This moving 10-minute track, and indeed the whole CD, will leave you anything but restless tonight. This release is an important contribution to Diabaté's oeuvre and is one of the most important recordings of traditional African music in recent memory.

December 09, 2008 · 1 comment

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Dave Frank: You Stepped Out of a Dream

When I first heard Sarah Vaughan sing this Gus Kahn & Herb Brown song, it immediately became one of my favorite renditions of the standard. Later I was exposed to the idiosyncratic texturing of the same tune by the inimitable Anthony Braxton, and despite the vastly different approach I was equally hooked. Like all great vehicles of expression, this song can be used to great effect in many different ways.

Now comes a version by pianist Dave Frank that gives us a whole new take. He starts off with his relentlessly walking left-hand variations, slowly introducing the melody with imaginative musings on his wildly frenetic right hand. Frank clearly demonstrates the influence of his one-time teacher Lennie Tristano as he plays with an inventive, machinegun-like technique. After a carefully placed break, he employs a completely different left-handed approach that plays contrapuntally to the masterfully fluid improvisations of his blindingly quick right hand. With this offering, Dave Frank has created a rendition of this timeless song that will remain a member of my select elite.

December 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dave Frank: Snow Falls on 5th Ave.

Solo piano recordings are daring endeavors. Without a supporting cast, few musicians can generate both the harmonic interest and rhythmic variation necessary for sustained listening. With a nod to the notable players who preceded him in such efforts, pianist, composer and educator Dave Frank explores the nuances and complexities of solo piano techniques to create his own approach on this album. In his beautiful composition "Snow Falls on 5th Ave.," Frank shows his reflective side with emotive playing and a penchant for a fine melody in all its simplicity and timelessness. The sensitivity that swells from this song is inspiring and delightful. While other songs on the CD showcase his formidable technique, it is the simple beauty of this not quite 4-minute song that speaks volumes of what this pianist can communicate to the listener. Pure magic.

December 09, 2008 · 2 comments

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Saltman/Knowles: Bellport

The duo of bassist Mark Saltman and pianist William Knowles stems from their student days at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where they formed a lasting musical and personal relationship. This contemporary duo clearly has roots in the jazz mainstream, but with the addition of the talented and vocally acrobatic Lori Williams Chisholm, they create a unique sound. On Knowles's composition "Bellport," which according to the liner notes was named for a New York town that was once the scene of a less-than-hospitable experience for the band, Chisholm's vocal scatting soars in tandem with Trask's trumpet and Landham's sax. Her tone and control are superb, and her inventiveness is inspired. Saltman is the steady unassuming anchor on bass, who along with Jimmy Smith-veteran drummer Jimmy "Junebug" Jackson keeps things moving deftly. Fine solos by Knowles and Landham and smart breaks in the melody make this an overall enjoyable excursion.

December 09, 2008 · 1 comment

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Saltman/Knowles: A Study in Purple

On this Latin-inspired tune composed by bassist Mark Saltman, the infectious beat is perfectly comped by the brilliant vocalese interpretations of Lori Williams Chisholm. Her lilting vocals glide through the melody's slithering curves with the ease of a Ferrari negotiating the hairpin turns of the Autostrada. Trask's trumpet, Landham's sax and Saltman's bass all add to the infectious tap-your-feet feel. "Junebug" Jackson spreads the catchy beat throughout, and Knowles plays effective Latin-infused piano backing. But what makes this so much fun is Chisholm's fine vocal contribution, especially when she interacts with the musings of Trask and Landham at the coda in an explosion of expression.

December 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & The Gerry Mulligan Quartet: Too Marvelous For Words

The highly original alto saxophonist Lee Konitz came to prominence with small groups led by cool jazz pioneer Lennie Tristano in the late 1940s. But by early 1953 he was appearing as a featured soloist with Stan Kenton's big band. On nights off during the band's Los Angeles stay, Konitz joined Gerry Mulligan's popular pianoless quartet at a local club. "Too Marvelous for Words," with the altoist as the only soloist, was recorded live. It finds Konitz at the top of his game, generating a seemingly endless stream of fresh ideas expressed through a pure, Lester Young-influenced tone and a prodigious technique.

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Garoto: Nosso Choro

Garoto's death in 1955, a few days before his 40th birthday, robbed the music world of one of the most provocative guitarists of the 20th century. Even now, his name is typically unknown even to passionate fans of so-called "World Music," although his pioneering efforts set the stage for the rise of bossa nova a few years after his passing. Indeed, it comes as little surprise that Luiz Bonfá and Laurindo Almeida were among his protégés and that the master of bossa nova guitar João Gilberto has been active in preserving and spreading Garoto's music.

This solo track captures the distinctive virtues of Garoto's guitar work. A song such as this might fool you into thinking that it is some timeless folkloric piece . . . except that the sophistication of the harmonic movement is far too modern for any traditional work. Not until Antonio Carlos Jobim rose to fame would Brazilian commercial music have such a master of impressionistic chord changes. One suspects that this artist, born Anibal Augusto Sardinha in 1915, soaked up the sounds of American jazz when he toured the U.S. with Carmen Miranda in 1939-40. No, the rhythm is not bossa nova, but "Nosso Choro" captures the wistfulness of that later style of music. Above all, Garoto impresses with his tone control and relaxed mastery of the guitar.

Note: I also recommend Paolo Bellinati's impeccable recreations of Garoto's music. Those who find themselves put off by less-than-high-fidelity audio quality may want to start with Bellinati before moving to the original Garoto recordings.

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Really You Know

The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings says that Extrapolation, to which they give their "Crown" rating, was the most important jazz album ever recorded in Europe. That's open to some argument. But the fact that a bop record featuring a future electric fusion god is even in the conversation is remarkable in the first place.

Despite instrument shuffling and great thematic changes, Extrapolation was presented as one continuous performance. The introduction of "Really You Know" is a demonstration of the empathetic intricacies of a jazz guitar and upright bass duo. McLaughlin and bassist Brian Odgers (often misidentified as "Odges") show true simpatico. The ear could hear that this guitar player was different. He was playing jazz, but using a different vocabulary of jangly chords, snapping notes and changing time signatures that took a bit of getting used to. Drummer Oxley and saxophonist John Surman join the sad ballad's presentation to enrich its purpose even more fully. Surman was one of England's greatest jazz horn players. The album as a whole is just as much a showcase for his brilliance as for McLaughlin's. Tunes like "Really You Know," "Arjen's Bag" and others still possess a vital freshness four decades later.

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Every Tear From Every Eye

"Every Tear From Every Eye" is a mournful ballad from McLaughlin's all-star album Johnny McLaughlin Electric Guitarist. Of note is saxophonist David Sanborn's participation. How he and McLaughlin first hooked up is unknown. But over the years, Sanborn has appeared on three McLaughlin albums and is even known to have sat in on a live show. The modern jazz saxophonist is not really known for his fusion licks. That is why I so look forward to these collaborations because we hear a different side of him. McLaughlin's compositions require something apart from the commercial jazz for which Sanborn is best known.

On this track, Sanborn often doubles the melody with McLaughlin. McLaughlin was using his scalloped-fretboard guitar at this time. Sanborn matches the guitarist's stretched-out bends in a series of moving phrases that climb up and down the registers. McLaughlin solos first in fits and starts. Over a melancholy Patrice Rushen keyboard and slow-tempo rhythm section, Sanborn takes his turn. His playing is emotive. This is very affecting stuff. It would be tough not to be touched by it in some way.

I want to be fair to Sanborn. He is a musician worth respecting. He has made a career out of playing mainstream pop jazz whose most obvious attribute was a commercial hook. That is not always the most challenging music. But from time to time Sanborn has released albums such as Another Hand or appeared on less commercial recordings that showcase his true musicianship. He has done a lot for the genre.

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Night

The first record Jan Hammer made after the original Mahavishnu broke up was Like Children with fellow Mahavishnu bandmate violinist Jerry Goodman. "Night" originally appeared on that record and reappeared on The Early Years, a "best of" Jan Hammer compilation released in 1986.

"Night" is a dark dream of solitude. Hammer mostly stays in the background with well-placed keyboard accents and basslines as Jerry Goodman provides soaring lines that impart an air of deep mystery. The melody is hauntingly beautiful. Hammer occasionally adds his own moody atmospherics through use of a synthesizer that sounds like a brother to the violin. About three-quarters of the way into the song, Hammer starts drumming away as the two master musicians play off each other. This music represents those secret dark thoughts that only appear when we are surrounded by our demons that visit us in the night.

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Fourth Day – Plants and Trees

One of my favorite keyboard albums is Jan Hammer's Make Love. Actually, that was the title for its U.S. release. The original album, a late '60s Czech release, was called Maliny Maliny. As I write this review the album is a few months away from finally being reissued on CD. Hammer led a trio on which he plays piano and organ. There was no synthesizer in sight because there were no synthesizers anywhere in sight yet. Listening to that album gave me more insight into the true keyboard artistry of Jan Hammer because I could better understand where everything else had been coming from.

No one approaches an acoustic piano the way Hammer does. His choice of chords and single notes are not taken from the norm. That is not to say he takes "Plants and Trees" out as much as some of his other acoustic work. In many ways it is among the most restrained piano work I have heard from him. This song definitely has a root system. But perhaps the nutrients in the soil are different than other growers use. Maybe there is something in the water. It is just unknowable, yet you hear it. Hammer adds synthesized strings to this performance, but it is the beauty of the melody and the piano playing that will stay with you. Hammer should put out a solo piano album right now!

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wayne Shorter: Forbidden, Plan-iT!

A year before I was born, the movie Forbidden Planet came out. I probably first saw it on television when I was 10 years old or so. I remember that because it starred Walter Pidgeon. I had no idea there were stars named Walter when I was a kid. I don't think I knew about Walter Brennan yet, and since I hated to be called "Wally," I ignored Wally Cox. I also remember the movie because of Anne Francis's revealing outfits. Even at 10 years old I wanted to sign up for NASA to see space women dressed like that! The special effects and unique electronica soundtrack set science fiction standards that are still in place today. Forbidden Planet was one of the best sci-fi movies ever made. And Wayne Shorter is one of the best musicians ever made.

I have no idea why Shorter styled his song's title "Forbidden, Plan-iT!" in such a strange way, though there are some (and I mean this in a good way) who might suggest that Wayne himself may just be a visitor to our planet. I would describe this performance as sounding like Weather Report on helium. It is serious material presented in a light way. It is an ensemble effort with no real solos. The music maintains your interest even if you are not particularly moved by it. It is also good to listen to keyboardists Jim Beard and Stu Goldberg perform on the same cut. The double keyboard action makes the piece sound really full. The recording is marred by the dated drum programming that was then de rigueur. But still, it is Wayne Shorter and you should listen.

I always get a kick out of those old science fiction movies. Despite some visionary concepts, they still got so many things wrong. It is not the movie makers' fault. Some things are just unfathomable. But is there anything funnier than seeing deep space travelers reading meters with needles, talking into wired microphones or turning a doorknob to open a door into another cabin on a spacecraft?

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Vince Mendoza: All Blues

Stuart Nicholson sang the praises of this CD on the jazz.com blog in November 2008. And for good reason. Blauklang features some of the most creative writing for large jazz ensemble in recent memory. If you enjoy Maria Schneider or continue to listen to the old Gil Evans-Miles Davis collaborations, you'll want this CD. Like Evans, Mendoza knows how to shape orchestral colors that are more sound textures than harmonies. The intro is a minimalist buzzing, a postmodern nature walk, that eventually settles into that perhaps-too-familiar "All Blues" vamp. Familiar, but only briefly . . . Mendoza now unpacks his own bag of tricks, fake modulations, oddball counterpoint, surprising chords, novel mix-and-match instrumental combinations. Not just this track, but the entire CD is a real pleasure. Credit must be given to Nguyên Lê and Markus Stockhausen (son of the famous composer), but especially to Vince Mendoza, who can no longer be typecast as a behind-the-scenes orchestrator of commercial projects for singers. On the basis of this release, Mendoza has moved into a select group, and deserves recognition as one of the finest living jazz arrangers.

December 08, 2008 · 1 comment

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Radio.String.Quartet.Vienna: A Remark You Made

I'm not sure why this string quartet is not better known. Certainly fans of the Kronos Quartet or Turtle Island String Quartet would find much to enjoy in the invigorating music of Radio.String.Quartet.Vienna. But no dice . . . you need to add this CD to the growing list of exceptional releases on the ACT label that deserve better distribution and greater visibility. A year ago this group put out a brilliant recording of John McLaughlin compositions arranged for string quartet. This was one of the finest jazz CDs of 2007, but I see that it is still almost impossible to find in the U.S. and only available on Amazon.com as a $35 import. Now they follow up with an equally memorable project with guest artist Klaus Paier on accordion and bandoneón. Let's hope it finds a more receptive audience. This unusual combination of instrumental textures works well, with Paier giving some bite that counters the inherent fluidity of all string ensembles. Joe Zawinul's "A Remark You Made" is the perfect vehicle for this band. The musicians' shifts in dynamics, their free-flowing sense of time, and the arrangement by Paier all combine to create a touching tribute by a Viennese group to the most famous Viennese jazz artist.

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jim Hall & Bill Frisell: Masters of War

Over the past two decades, eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell ("eclectric" maybe) has become renowned for maverick tune selection, inventive picking, and an apparent willingness to play/jam with anyone; in the process he has defined an intriguing new jazz form: Americana meets roots meets improvisation. In the mid-'90s he was sideman on an album for grandmaster Jim Hall; now, over 10 years later, comes the brilliant sequel, their 2008 2-CD set for ArtistShare titled Hemispheres, chock-full of dueling duets and quartet quadrilles, sudden originals, moody ballads, standards turned sideways ... and a certain "Masters of War," which can safely be ascribed to Bill's big ears. Hear the duo dig in on Dylan's folk fretting, Bill's Telecaster effects laying a bed for Jim's solo stringing, the pair turning anger into beauty and revealing an unexpected kinship between Dylan's tune and "My Favorite Things"! The liner notes opine that Jim liked the lyrics. Well, we listeners like the picking and chiming of these Masters of Peace, the one forever young and the other bold beyond his ears.

December 07, 2008 · 1 comment

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Jimmy Giuffre: The Easy Way

The Easy Way was a transitional album for Jimmy Giuffre. By 1959, the ever-restless reedman had mostly drained his popular mid-'50s Swamp Jazz, but was not yet up to his ass in the avant-garde alligators that would soon ravage his popularity. A year earlier, the Jimmy Giuffre 3 had comprised Giuffre, his longtime collaborator Jim Hall, and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, forming one of the oddest instrumentations in jazz history. For this date, however, Giuffre reverts to his original 1956 trio format by enlisting Oscar Peterson's perennial bassist Ray Brown. Contrary to the liner notes, incidentally, nowhere on this album does Giuffre play the baritone sax. If he lugged his bari to the studio, it went unused. Instead he plays tenor sax on 3 of the 8 selections, clarinet on all others.

The easiest way to access The Easy Way is through its title tune, a bluesy, loping, quietly swinging Giuffre original that ropes you in as gently as an old cowhand lassoing a baby steer. The leader's breathy clarinet (think asthmatic Lester Young), Brown's bulwark bass and the willowy wallflower of Jim Hall's guitar (dig especially his bent notes around the 4:15 mark) perfectly complement one another. And, praise be, the proceedings were beautifully remastered by Kevin Reeves via 24-bit digital transfer in 2003. This is outstanding chamber jazz from a modernist master and two eminently sympathetic souls.

December 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: Once Upon a Dream

Years ago when I was young, I would travel with some buddies into the big city Boston to see what it had to offer. We preferred to take public transportation so that we didn't have to worry about driving a car in any altered state. (And I am not talking about Rhode Island.)

I remember vividly one freezing winter night going to the Museum of Science to see the new-fangled laser-light show at the Charles Hayden Planetarium (not to be confused with the Hayden Planetarium on Central Park West in another fine city 200 miles to the southwest). We were grateful to find a warm place to hang out and because the planetarium seats allowed us to lie back a bit. I am sure we would laugh today at how primitive the laser show was. But for its day, and our state of consciousness at the time, it was a wonderful experience. I have forgotten the actual laser effects. But to this day I remember the thrill that, for the first time, the show was presented with a music soundtrack. And not just any soundtrack. This was a jazz-fusion soundtrack! Fusion was in the mainstream back then. You could not imagine the nirvana I found myself in. What I remember most is that the majority of the music came from Jean-Luc Ponty.

An excerpt from "Once Upon a Dream" was among the slices of sound I heard that night. This cut is not one of the more aggressive jazz rock numbers. It contains plenty of fast playing, but the velocity is centered within a calm galaxy. Perhaps it accompanied the laser-light trip to Saturn. I don't remember.
All I can say is that the music was cosmic in nature and transported me into the light. Every time I hear it now, it still does. Funny how some memories remain so alive.

I added 2 points to my rating for personal sentiment.

December 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mahavishnu: When Blue Turns Gold

If you can always count on getting thrown a curve, is it still a curve? I ask because you can always count on John McLaughlin to throw you a curve. Take, for example, "When Blue Turns Gold." Tacked on to the end of the electric fusion debut of the new Mahavishnu group, this acoustic Indian-inspired song literally came out of nowhere. Katia Labèque introduces the piece with a frantic piano run whose notes are doubled by tabla master Zakir Hussain. Instantly the tune becomes meditative. Flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia is the core of the melody. He is one of the greatest Indian musicians. His playing defines deep emotion. McLaughlin strums chords as Hussain carries the rhythm and adeptly places tabla bass-toned accents. McLaughlin and Hussain add Indian Konokol vocals as the tune fades out. It was fitting the album ended with this gorgeous piece. It was three minutes of meditative music that could carry you for the next hour or so.

December 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe DeRenzo: She's a Woman

This performance included on the ESC collection Step Inside Love – A Jazzy Tribute to the Beatles first appeared on drummer Joe DeRenzo's fine album Core Beliefs. DeRenzo was out of the music business for quite a spell before he decided to reenter it a few years ago. After stints as an actor and photographer, he returned to his first love with a passion. Along with longtime collaborator pianist Tom Zinc, he interprets "She's a Woman" in the '60s mode of Ramsey Lewis. The tune begins with a group-inclusive vamp before it introduces Zink's Lewis-ish take on the melody. During his solo, Zink gets into the tune deeper than Lewis would have, without ever losing the vibe. Saxophonist Berger is also a standout, his solo being a particular highlight here. Throughout, the rhythm unit keeps things moving along jauntily. This is fun jazz. It is good to have Joe DeRenzo back in the fold.

December 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mitchel Forman: Here, There and Everywhere

Those of you who have read any of my many reviews of Mitchel Forman's music know I am an unabashed fan. I think he is one of the best pianists and composers today. On this ESC-produced collection, we get to hear how Forman interprets a classic Beatles tune. Needless to say, I think he is spot on here, too. The tendency for any jazz pianist covering a Beatles song is to reflexively make it swing. Forman does a little of that in sections, but even then he swings in unexpected places. It is Forman's imagination that sticks out to me. He never leaves the core tune far behind, yet somehow you forget you are listening to a melody you have heard a thousand times before. Forman changes the character of "Here, There and Everywhere" much the way you change the character of a house by painting it another color.

December 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tony Williams Lifetime: Vashkar

Tony Williams Lifetime sounds like it was recorded in a cardboard box. The poor sound quality of this band's recordings, especially Emergency, has become legendary in the fusion archives. But there is an accidental immediacy about the flawed recordings that gives this music a vitality above and beyond that a pristine master tape may have offered. You can picture this loud, distorted and wild performance taking place in your basement in 1969, recorded onto your portable cassette deck. You could imagine it was like hanging out with a futuristic punk rock band that could really, really play. (And thank God …did not sing.)

Carla Bley's "Vashkar" is quite a jaunt. The melody of the piece is an ascending riff followed by its near opposite descending riff. Young has his B-3 growling throughout as Williams chugs along at breakneck speed. McLaughlin is most effective playing the theme in unison with Young. The electric trio relentlessly pushes this piece through a small crack in the wall, causing a large fissure. The momentum cannot be stopped. Nonetheless, they do stop it on a dime to end things. You want more. But they are on to the next challenge. This is essential listening for anyone wanting to understand fusion music in any way.

December 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tony Williams Lifetime: Beyond Games

Someday I will very carefully ask John McLaughlin what he thought about Tony Williams's singing. There was a more democratic view of vocalists for a period back in the '60s. It was all about expressing yourself. Fans were willing to accept some voices that weren't necessarily the purest. (Bob Dylan, anyone?) Nevertheless, someone should have stopped Tony.

"Beyond Games" is an early fusion-blues-shuffle ballad played the way only Lifetime could. Williams's cross-rhythms keep a busy time. McLaughlin's distorted guitar supplies off-kilter minor chords, jangled single-note runs and dissonant harmonics. Somehow he finds a groove you can hook onto. Full chords from the great organist Larry Young serve as a dark reinforcement. This power trio had all the weapons. And they used them LOUDLY. Unfortunately, their sonic assault cost them commercial success.

We must return to Williams's vocals. They are so bad that at times we can let our guard down and believe they are sung out of a charming naiveté. But his non-melodious vocals hang in the air like a foul stench. I am truly sorry to say that. What about his lyrics? They are really quite silly too. Williams was one of the greatest drummers who ever lived. He was also a trailblazer who never quite got the acknowledgment he deserved. But he never should have tried to sing. His vocalizing efforts really don't diminish anything he ever accomplished because they were quickly forgotten in the barrage. But sometimes less is more. His legacy would probably be even stronger if he had not interrupted some seminal music by trying to sing.

My rating is based upon a 92 for the instrumental performance and a -15 for Williams's vocal efforts. I add three more points for Williams's balls (or misplaced vanity) to sing in the first place.

December 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: The Gardens of Babylon

The two most important fusion violinists were Jean-Luc Ponty and Jerry Goodman. Each had a classical background but branched out. Ponty came more from the jazz tradition and was European. Goodman entered the genre from the folk-rock angle and was a pure mid-western hippy. Goodman's sound was purposely rough around the edges. This gave his music a strong rock component that was perfect for the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. As Goodman's de facto replacement in the band's second incarnation, Ponty brought something different. His sound was purer, more European and more symphonic. That was perfect for the expanded Mahavishnu, which was now almost a real orchestra in size. Goodman's personal confidence issues have hampered his career for 30 years, but Ponty's stint in the MO led to a successful run that has kept him in the spotlight ever since.

"The Gardens of Babylon" was a typical Jean-Luc Ponty commercial vehicle of the day. Its cyclical melody would instantly find its way to the pleasure part of your brain and force you to buy the record. His guitarist Daryl Steurmer plays a pretty acoustic interlude before Ponty's long electric sonorous solo. There is much to be admired both in the tune's melody and the band's sound. This was a cleaner and more organized fusion. But therein lies the rub. This tune is very good, yet under its surface lurked the basic raw materials that would lead to the WAVE and Quiet Storm radio formats, which in turn doomed fusion as an escape from the mundane world. The seeds of Smooth Jazz (excuse me while I snap a violin string) were first planted in music like this.

December 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rebecca Cline and Hilary Noble / Enclave: Crossroads

Enclave Diaspora's liner notes inform us of the derivation of the words:

     ENCLAVE/DIASPORA, DIASPORA/ENCLAVE … two opposing yet connected poles …
     ENCLAVE implying the enclosed, the separate, the uncommon community …
     DIASPORA speaking to the dispersion of that community, its casting out,
     its "seeding forth" (Greek "dia": through, "spora": seed)

OK … whatever you say. I suppose a visit to Wikipedia will crystallize it all for me.

"Crossroads" is progressive jazz in the Afro-Cuban mode. Intricate rhythms are present from the riff-filled introduction. Hilary Noble's saxophone and Rebecca Cline's piano are involved in a give-and-take conversation. Cline takes the first aggressive Latin jazz solo. Noble follows with a more straight-ahead turn. At times he takes it out. The rhythms overtake the proceedings and lead us back to the catchy head.

I find the music easier to understand than the liner notes. But this is good music and is a pleasure to listen to. Who needs to read anyway? (I am kidding about that last part. Reading is very important.)

December 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joshua Redman: Alone in the Morning

Joshua Redman's third CD found him heading up what might be assumed to have been an all-star lineup assembled just for this studio date, yet this was indeed his working group at the time, and maybe the best he has ever led. Mehldau and McBride were just starting to record under their own names, and Blade would soon follow. Redman's liner note essay emphasizing the expressive nature of jazz, as opposed to "the popular perception of jazz as an intellectual exercise," fully applies to the inviting Moodswing, especially with such able and compatible "sidemen" as these.

Redman skillfully composed all the diverse tracks on the CD, and "Alone in the Morning" is a lilting bossa nova that Stan Getz would probably have turned into a hit back in the day. The floating, pleasurable theme is enhanced by Redman's bright, slightly grainy tone, and is played over Blade's expertly delivered rhythm. Redman's solo has all the characteristics that made his playing so appealing and kept his popularity on a steady rise: structural detail, fresh phrasing, vibrant runs, and a prevailing warm and welcoming essence. Mehldau succeeds him with a lightly intoned solo that features glistening runs and effectively sparse left-hand accents. When Redman once again lithely performs the melody, it sounds like a classic Brazilian creation by Jobim. If this is how Redman felt "alone in the morning" when he wrote this piece, then he definitely got up on the right side of the bed.

December 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charles Mingus: Sue's Changes

"They're among the best records I've made, " Mingus said of Changes One and Changes Two, which featured one of his finest groups, together (except for Walrath) for two years at the time of this recording. "Sue's Changes" was originally titled "Sue's Moods," and was not, Mingus insisted, about the "Changes" magazine Sue Graham published at that time out of a brownstone in the East Village of Manhattan, but rather about some of her "moods." (So why the name change?) Seventeen minutes in length, it's one of Mingus's most ambitious works, moving through various themes, vamps, tempos, and indeed moods, in the best tradition of other intricate and memorable Mingus compositions such as "Peggy's Blue Skylight," "Reincarnation of a Lovebird," "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love," and "The I of Hurricane Sue," the latter also inspired by Graham.

Walrath's glowing muted trumpet introduces the poignant main theme, followed by a short bridge and a reprise at shifting tempos, which builds to a mild crescendo. Adams then joins Walrath for a jauntier theme reading before the two horns engage in increasingly raucous counterpoint, only to step aside and leave Pullen in the spotlight. The pianist's improv ranges from delicately woven and rhapsodic passages to nearly totally free playing in his uniquely dissonant yet accessible style that never quite forsakes the "changes." Mingus's bass propels Pullen through several challenging time shifts as well. Adams solos next, his expressive vocalized tonal inflections personalizing his excursion along the fluctuating rhythmic trail, until his heated repetition of the piece's key vamp leads to his own free interlude, sparked by Pullen's frantic note clusters. Suddenly Walrath is back playing the central theme until the catchy vamp becomes the group focus, only to be succeeded by a stimulating all-out contrapuntal adventure that serves as the emphatic final exclamation point.

December 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz: Falling In Love

There are those who may not have realized that Serenity was recorded live on the same day in 1987 that produced Getz's magnificent Anniversary, given that between those two releases, several less than stellar Getz recordings were issued. Getz, who had turned 60 earlier in 1987, believed he could be terminally ill (he would survive four more years), and played his heart out during two sets at the Cafe Montmartre. In his biography Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz, Donald L. Maggin quotes Getz: "I thought that these concerts [that summer] could be my last ones, and that gave me the feeling of 'Now I really have to try my best.' I felt strong, although my life was in danger....In my fantasy, I was singing my musical swan song."

Not to be confused with "Falling in Love with Love," Victor Feldman's gorgeous ballad "Falling in Love" is just one of many stunning masterpieces that Getz spun out that night. Emotionally charged and heartfelt, his playing is never anything but sublime. Barron's rapport with Getz is uncanny and immediately noticed as such, while Getz plays the romantic theme with his unsurpassed, lustrous tone. (This is, by the way, one of the best-engineered live club recordings you'll ever hear.) Just as you begin to luxuriate in the leisurely pace and soothing, enveloping sound and mood, Getz surprises with some popped notes and an expansion of others that gives them an exclamatory, echoing urgency. His solo also picks up in both tempo and fervor before mellowing out to more tender embellishments at its conclusion, whereupon the awestruck audience gratefully releases its appreciative sighs and applause. Barron, whose playing seemed to attain a higher level in his years with Getz, displays a refined lyricism in his shorter solo, after which Getz returns at an accelerated tempo only to unwind into a more reflective state of mind once more. Getz's spellbinding coda is both loving and emphatic, and contains a seductive held note that you wish would never end.

December 05, 2008 · 1 comment

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Herb Ellis: Detour Ahead

This excellent session reunited guitarist Herb Ellis with Johnny Frigo, the latter on violin as opposed to bass, which he played with Ellis and pianist Lou Carter in the popular Soft Winds trio from 1946-1950. Despite his obvious talent as a violinist, Frigo was instead a studio bassist for many years, meaning his playing here with Ellis came as a revelation to most. Add the neglected, top-notch organist Mel Rhyne, whose claim to fame had been several recordings long ago with Wes Montgomery, and the end result is a surprisingly effective and stimulating chemistry.

The well-known "Detour Ahead" was co-written by Ellis and Frigo back in the Soft Winds period, and was thus a natural choice for this date. A loping, unhurried rhythm is maintained as Ellis plays the melody in his Charlie Christian-influenced style, while Rhyne provides gliding and soothing bass-pedal support. Frigo follows with a more embellished exposition of the theme, displaying a captivating swing style somewhere between Grappelli and Stuff Smith – no small achievement! Ellis responds with a blues-tinged improvisation that exudes the satisfyingly logical deliberation and slow burn that is also characteristic of fellow guitarist Kenny Burrell. Frigo reenters with yet a different approach, his violin now singing out with a more gypsy-like flair that includes dissonant overtones, before delicately reprising the melody for the final time.

December 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Stardust (aka Star Dust)

In his book Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller writes that the second and third measures of "Stardust" contain exactly the same notes and chord as two bars of Louis Armstrong's ad lib solo in "Potato Head Blues," recorded before "Stardust" was published. Others have likened the unusual intervallic leaps in Hoagy Carmichael's melody to his pal Bix Beiderbecke's cornet phrasing. Here, then, we have the unusual situation of Louis Armstrong, who possibly originated part of the melody, performing a song that also evokes his ill-fated contemporary Bix, who died three months before this track was recorded. And as if that weren't convoluted enough, Armstrong's "Stardust" veers so far from Carmichael's original that it might as well be a new song, without sacrificing the music's emotional essence.

Years ago, I tended to dismiss Armstrong's early-1930s work as a letdown after his trailblazing recordings of the 1920s. Not that I was alone. In the mainstream of received opinions, most critics show little patience with Depression-era Armstrong. But my editor at Oxford University Press, Sheldon Meyer (1926-2006), argued with me on this. A brilliant man who regrettably never wrote books himself, Sheldon was a big fan of those early 1930s Louis Armstrong sides. On his prodding, I spent considerable time with this music, and emerged convinced that he was right.

Admittedly, the band arrangements were inferior. Which is why these sides are usually forgotten, and why I'm surprised that the Recording Academy has honored this track as a 2009 inductee to its Grammy Hall of Fame. Yet Armstrong's trumpet work is so good that it's worthwhile blocking out the band and focusing on the horn. With evidence such as this, one could make a persuasive case that Armstrong reached his peak as an instrumentalist during the 1929-31 period. Not surprising, since a lot of trumpeters reach the height of their powers in their late 20s. But I would call particular attention to his range, his fluidity and his endless supply of swinging phrases. Armstrong's recordings from this period, also including "Shine," "Sweethearts on Parade," "Body and Soul," and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" are neglected gems that almost no one listens to these days. Heck, I'm going to pull out the CDs and listen to them again myself.

Editor's Note: On November 4, 1931, Louis Armstrong recorded "Stardust" twice, singing the words "Oh, memory" three times to conclude his vocal chorus on the slightly longer take but not on version 2. Over the decades, many collectors (reputedly including Hoagy Carmichael) have expressed a preference for the longer take. The Recording Academy, however, has not specified which take is being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

December 05, 2008 · 2 comments

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Robert Nighthawk: Black Angel Blues

Robert Nighthawk lived his life on the fringe, moving from place to place, changing his name to suit his various situations. He was born Robert Lee McCollum, but none of his records was issued under that name. Instead his discography finds him called Rambling Bob or Robert Lee McCoy or finally—and most famously—Robert Nighthawk. Of course, fame is a relative thing. At the time of his death in 1967, not a single LP had been released under his name. But the musicians knew that Nighthawk was one of the greatest exponents of electric slide guitar. Nighthawk associated with Robert Johnson, and he had the rare distinction of performing at Muddy Waters's wedding, where the music got people so hot and bothered, the dance floor collapsed from the strain. Here on a classic track from 1949, Nighthawk shows off his very deep blues. This is slide guitar the way it was meant to sound. Under other circumstances, Nighthawk would have been a star, but even though his career was spent on the fringe of the commercial music world, his posthumous reputation places him among the legends.

December 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Vai: For the Love of God

What a life story. Little Steve Vai starts out playing the much-maligned accordion, then advances to a high-profile role as tuba player in his high school band. But soon his love of the guitar comes to the fore, and he develops an almost legendary ability to transcribe the music from records onto staff paper. He comes to the attention of a great man with imposing facial hair, when he transcribes the daunting Black Page, and sends it to his idol along with a tape of his playing. Vai serves as an acolyte in the cult of Zappa, but soon develops a cult following of his own. And the boy—now grown to manhood—can play the bejesus out of the guitar.

But don't wait for the made-for-TV movie. Track down the CDs, especially Passion and Warfare, described by Vai as "Jimi Hendrix meets Jesus Christ at a party that Ben Hur threw for Mel Blanc." This track, recorded in the midst of a 10-day fast, is the ultimate guitar power ballad. There is so much electricity throbbing through those six strings that my lights flicker every time I play this song. The band hints at a tango-ish rhythm, and Vai is channeling something otherworldly through his improvised lines.

And just think what Vai might have done if he had stuck with accordion . . .

December 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charlie Hunter: Athens

Musicologists go home. The baboon on the CD cover is telling you there is nothing here for you to analyze. The melody sounds like an ambulance siren heading to the emergency room. The bridge is just some organ chords that a cynic could say were recycled from Edgar Winter's "Free Ride." If Tony Mason were pounding out the backbeat any harder, there would be a hole in his drumhead. And the big hook is simply a moment of silence that comes exactly at the one minute mark. No, all this doesn't sound very appetizing.

And yet, and yet . . . I could easily imagine this track becoming a hit. It captures a happy groove and holds onto it for the whole track. Most jam-band instrumentals make me want to send them back to the garage from whence they came, but a song like this shows you what this type of music is supposed to sound like. Give Hunter his props. But, honestly, I could do without the baboon.

December 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mark Weinstein: Canto de Ossanha

Former Herbie Mann sideman Mark Weinstein first became interested in Brazilian music about a decade ago. On Lua e Sol he pays tribute to the "dark" and "light" sides of the Brazilian music tradition.

"Canto de Ossanha," the popularly covered tune written by Baden Powell and Vinicus De Moraes, most definitely comes from the light side. Cyro Baptista's Brazilian percussion and Nilson Mata's bassline open the piece to make room for a beautiful-sounding acoustic guitar played by Romero Lubambo. Flutist Weinstein then enters to handle the lion's share of the lilting melody. This is followed by a long solo section on which Weinstein nimbly climbs up and down the scales quite nicely, thank you. Lubambo follows with a wonderful acoustic turn. For its climax, the song returns to its brighter-side-of-life roots.

I have alluded to something in other reviews of jazz flute music, and I'll say it again here. You have to be an exceptional flute player to hold most jazz fans' attention. Mark Weinstein can do that. To my ears, he is among only a handful who can.

December 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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(Devadip) Carlos Santana: Song for My Brother

Some Santana detractors claim he has been playing the same guitar solo over and over for 30 years. I can understand that from a purely technical viewpoint. But I would argue that he has placed that solo in different contexts and, because of that, its character changes. I am a jazz fan anyway, so I pay about 1000 times more attention to his jazz-rock work.

In any case, on his fusion forays Santana has always surrounded himself with fantastic players. On "Song for My Brother," you get to listen to Herbie Hancock, Harvey Mason and the underrated horn player Russell Tubbs. Santana sounds perfectly at home in this mix. Perhaps this is because he doesn't compete. Sure, this tune's melody is not a fusion minefield. It is based on a simple but uplifting riff that is enjoyable to listen to and probably pretty easy for all these guys to play. Virtuosity is a good thing to have, but isn't always the most important element to good music. Feeling is just as important, and Santana has that. If he has kept refining it over the last 30 years, that's OK with me.

December 03, 2008 · 2 comments

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Frank Catalano: My One and Only Love

If there were any more blood and grit in Frank Catalano's sax tone, they would need to send it to the M.A.S.H. unit for cleansing and dressing. This track starts with an Ayler-esque scream and finishes with a very astringent coda. In between, you will find many shrieks and growls and—yes!—quite a bit of raw soulfulness. The rhythm section bounces along from the opening measure, making you think they would rather be playing anything except a ballad. But the saxophonist hardly minds, since he had no intention of getting blue and sentimental. Many tenor legends have tackled this song before, but none of them has quite slapped it around the way Catalano does. Listen to it while you can—he may get a restraining order tomorrow.

December 02, 2008 · 2 comments

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Jerome Richardson: Warm Valley

Jerome Richardson was one of the best and most successful musicians on the New York scene during the last golden age of the recording industry. He combined a studio musician's versatility and professionalism with a jazzman's flexibility and intuition. In addition to being a recognized heavyweight among jazz flutists, he was seemingly the only saxophonist capable of playing first-rate jazz on all four saxes, from soprano to baritone, sounding like a specialist on each. His skills on the soprano inspired its use by Thad Jones, and thus Jerome can also be said to have indirectly had a huge impact on contemporary jazz arranging.

Jerome's baritone style combined a bebop-oriented harmonic conception with articulation and tone quality derived from Harry Carney. Though the Carney connection is thrown into bold relief by the selection of this Ellington masterpiece as a baritone feature, Jerome is totally his own man here. His sound employs a well-balanced combination of warmth and edge, and his articulation is crystal-clear in all registers, with none of the tubbiness that usually afflicts players who double on baritone. His solo is masterfully constructed, and his double-timing is fluent and always musical. His ability to combine boppish fluency with Ellingtonian warmth is beautiful to hear. Richard Wyands is his usual warmly lyrical self as both accompanist and soloist.

December 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gabby Pahinui: Hi'ilawe

Tracking down real roots music in Hawaii, amidst all the hotel lounge acts and tourist fare, is about as easy as finding a good surf spot in Bolivia. But if you persist, it can be done. I know, because I came back from the islands with a suntan and a stack of Gabby Pahinui records. Pahinui's pioneering 1946-47 recordings marked that decisive moment when slack key guitar playing emerged from its fringe existence as private entertainment in Hawaii and captivated the general public. But though Pahinui is to Hawaiian music what Diz and Bird were to bop, there were only modest financial rewards for this artist, who spent much of his career doing pick-and-shovel work on road crews.

This recording was made in 1961, but no labels were interested in it at the time, and the tapes sat on a shelf for almost two decades. Here Pahinui performs one of his trademark songs, "Hi'ilawe," in an understated, acoustic rendition that perfectly captures the artistry and personality of this seminal figure. His singing achieves a paradoxical combination of fragility and power, and his music manages (that greatest rarity in Hawaiian music) to transcend entertainment, instead communicating a sense of ritual invocation. In Polynesian cultures, people speak of mana, that supernatural aura of influence and authority that only rare individuals possess—call it Hawaiian mojo, if you will. Gabby Pahinui not only had it, he defines it.

December 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Nubian Sundance

Josef Zawinul really had a knack for composition. From the opening crowd simulation to the absolutely stellar work by Hadden and Romão on drums and percussion, this may be the quintessential Weather Report tune. At a time when the band was moving away from the improvised direction they had pursued on their first two albums, "Nubian Sundance" catches the group at its height. There's only one thing about this song that keeps me from calling it the best song Weather Report ever recorded: not enough Wayne Shorter. Avid fans recognize that there are tracks where Shorter could have been utilized more, and here's a shining example.

December 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Diana Krall: Have Yourself a Very Merry Little Christmas

Am I the only one who thinks the gifted Diana Krall has a tendency to come across as being somewhat depressed? I guess this works for her. It's her version of the saloon singer. But I would like to see this woman let loose and kick off a shoe every once in a while. I think it would do her good.

Of course, she is talented beyond all reason. Aided by bassist James Genus and guitarist Russell Malone, Krall presents a very evocative jazz trio version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." There is no heavy lifting here. Instead, the trio plays it in a slow blues. Krall's slightly smoky vocals are perfect, and her piano solo is requisitely charming.

Give me a comfortable couch, a warm apple cider and a depressed deeply gifted female jazz musician singing Christmas songs, and I am set for the season.

December 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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Anita Baker: The Christmas Song

This Anita Baker performance appears on the wonderful Jazz to the World CD, which was put together in 1994 to aid the Special Olympics. I highly recommend it. There are a few tunes that more than border on Smooth Jazz. (Excuse me while I burp up my eggnog.) But, it is a Christmas record. Even I can't be a humbug on this one.

Baker's rendition of "The Christmas Song" was recorded live in December 1994 at President Bill Clinton's Christmas Concert in New York City. That explains why the applause wasn't as gracious as it should have been. There weren't a lot of knowledgeable music fans in that crowd. That's not a political statement, just a comment on all the freebies that must have been handed out.

Though Baker has dabbled on the jazz outskirts from time to time, she has never fully jumped in, which is too bad. I know she has sold millions of records with her R&B soul. But it would have been nice if the jazz community could claim her as one of its own. She has a beautiful instrument that never fails to captivate. Her performance in front of a big band on this night was no exception. The woman has it all down. She has beautiful enunciation and mesmerizing phrasing. And most important, Baker conveys messages. She is so good on "The Christmas Song" that you could listen to this wonderful interpretation on July 4th and still think it was Christmas.

December 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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Frank Sinatra: Jingle Bells

What could be better than listening to Sinatra sing a swinging "Jingle Bells" every Christmas season? Nothing. For years, however, I was convinced there was an audio mistake on this cut. At the 1:25 mark, Sinatra sings "jing-jingle bells" The double syllable comes so quickly that it sounds just like it used to when a phonograph needle would repeat a groove on a used LP. (I feel so old.) To hear that sound on a CD, though, was confounding. So I finally took time to investigate the apparent glitch. It turns out Sinatra simply needed another beat to make things work musically, so he gave us an extra half a word. I wouldn't put up with that from just any croon-crooner. Merry Christmas!

December 01, 2008 · 1 comment

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