Steve Allee: Bus to Belmopan

One of the most gifted and versatile keyboard artists in jazz today, Indianapolis-based Steve Allee was just 19 when he joined Buddy Rich's band in the late '60s. Unfortunately, since 19 was also the magic age for Selective Service, the Vietnam War intervened and he found himself in the U.S. Army. I first encountered this amazing keyboard artist in 1970, at a tiny hole-in-the-wall jazz pub in Raleigh, North Carolina, called the Frog and Nightgown, where he and an L.A. bass player named Don Felix were doing a house gig. Not believing my ears, I had to ask: what was a guy whose playing sounded like an amalgam of Herbie, Oscar and Chick doing in Andy Griffith Land? The answer, of course, is that he and Don were stationed at Fort Bragg, 45 minutes southeast of "the Big R." It is indeed fortuitous that during the tragic days of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military saw fit to issue Steve Allee a piano instead of an M16.

Decades and many musical accomplishments later, Steve Allee may not be a household name, but there are few pianists who can match his depth and vision. Equally at home with an intimate trio, big band or full symphonic orchestra, he is much in demand for his evocative film scores, and has written themes for several major television shows, including NYPD Blue and Chicago Hope.

Steve Allee's compositions tend to be vivid musical landscapes. On "Bus to Belmopan," we are packed into a colorful jitney bounding across Belize en route to a lighthearted, Afro-Cuban feast peppered with McCoy-isms and the rich-textured seasoning of Rich Perry's tenor. This is an enticing recording with warmth and clarity. One can almost taste the plantains and feel the wind through the swaying trees.

June 30, 2008 · 2 comments

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John Tchicai: One Way Ticket

In the 1970s, John Tchicai was still playing the alto sax and living in his native Denmark. Here, with two of his compatriots, he plays a type of jazz that is both very melodic and very free – a personal folklore, perhaps, that can hardly be related to anything except Ornette Coleman's melodic conceptions and Don Cherry's approach to interplay. Each instrument plays its own line, melodically and rhythmically, sometimes evolving in parallel, sometimes intertwining in a soft and unpredictable manner. Besides Tchicai's sound, which wasn't heavily documented in those years, the most interesting performance here is that of NHØP, who was more often heard with less modern musicians such as Oscar Peterson than with such open improvisers as Tchicai and Dørge.

June 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mário Laginha: Fado

Notwithstanding its title, this song is not a "fado," the most popular type of Portuguese music. Still, it does have the nostalgic quality of such songs, plus a beautiful melody that Laginha improvises upon after its exposition. His piano's singing quality is fitting, for Laginha is the usual accompanist for one of Portugal's greatest singers, Maria Joao, and thus has a deep knowledge of voices. Here the pianist combines a great sense of structure and rhythm in the left hand, with a wonderful mastery of melody and touch in the right. Its quality allows this performance to stand on its own, halfway between the formal perfection of classical music and the carefree musings of jazz improvisation.

June 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gordon Beck: Sagittarius

For about 1½ minutes, the fiery tenor of Stan Sulzmann, supported only by bass and drums, tackles this fast post-bop tune in a way that shows us how much wider recognition this remarkable British saxophonist deserves. Then Gordon Beck's piano joins in, lending a strong harmonic dimension to his composition. Beck also displays his unconventional comping and soloing talents to great effect, reminding us of the pianist's tenure with Phil Woods's European Rhythm Machine some 40 years ago. Beck hasn't lost a bit of either his punch or his musicality, but outside the UK how many people are aware of it?

June 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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David Binney: Out Beyond Ideas

David Binney was among the initiators of a sound that has more or less become attached to Brooklyn- produced recordings. It is both soft and dense, partly due to a tight bass-and-drums team playing rhythm in a loose, relaxed way. Combining several instruments in simple melodic unisons or in canon, each retaining a distinct sound, creates a thick but not heavy carpet. When a solo instrument emerges, it seems a natural outgrowth of the organic whole. This collective approach, exemplified by "Out Beyond Ideas," brought a whiff of fresh air to modern jazz. But it has by now been so imitated (mostly by students of jazz schools) that we could use a new whiff of fresh air. From Brooklyn or elsewhere.

June 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Kate McGarry: Let's Face the Music and Dance

Vocalist Kate McGarry just gets better and better with each CD. And ever more daring! Fred Astaire would hardly recognize this version of one of his trademark themes. This is more film noir-ish than all-singing-all-dancing, full of a late-night moodiness that is deeply affecting. McGarry is absolutely heartrending - she puts her whole soul into this performance. But this is more than just an emotional lament; her melodic lines are brilliantly conceived and executed. Yet even without the vocal, this track would be worth hearing just for Donny McCaslin's sax solo, where every phrase sounds spontaneous and loose and free. The whole band shines here, floating effortlessly yet also raising the intensity level at just the right junctures. McGarry moves into the big leagues with this impressive release.

June 30, 2008 · 1 comment

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Too Blue Lou and the Groove: Blue in Green

According to the April 19, 2033 newspaper article located inside the CD case, this album represented the first instance of a new form of music that would become known as Hip Bop. Soon-to-be-famous music writer Gregory George Aston calls it a "unique blend of groove-oriented improvisations, scat vocals and rap, played over heavy beats and a traditional walking bass." He goes on to claim that this music would help spawn a whole new jazz dance movement. Indeed, as I write these words, my young daughter is dancing to the music unprovoked.

I am not particularly a fan of hip hop or rap. It seems the best music from those genres is made only when infectious music samples or popular hit song melodies are used in the mix. That mix occurs in the opposite way on The Birth of Hip Bop. The beats of rap, hip hop, scat singing and rap vocals are heard here. But they are still mainly seasoning. The main ingredient is some very fine jazz playing with interesting compositions and arrangements.

I prefer the album's pure instrumentals. The best of the bunch is an absolutely inspired take on "Blue in Green." Too Blue Lou and the Groove have turned this classic ballad into a true progressive jazz anthem. As far as I know, "Blue In Green" has never been approached from this aggressive angle. We usually want to hear how beautiful the piece is played, rather than thinking of the tune as a great power showcase. This performance has propulsive rhythmic force and melodic imagination. Though the whole band is in the groove, saxophonist Huff is especially impressive. This is a performance worthy of hitting the repeat button.

Since 2033 is still a few decades off, Too Blue Lou and the Groove have plenty of time to prove the words in that newspaper article are true. I am not so sure, though, that there will be newspapers in 2033.

June 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lennie Tristano: Ghost of a Chance

The day before this Halloween concert in Copenhagen, Tristano shared the stage in Berlin with Bill Evans, John Lewis, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines and Jaki Byard. He griped afterwards about the constraints and short solo space allocated to him in this all-star setting, branding the event as a "commercial performance." For this follow-up solo recital, Tristano was in a cerebral, noncommercial mood, and works through "Ghost of a Chance" with dense, dissonant chords played at a languorous tempo. One can almost see the overtones lingering over the Steinway, like wisps of smoke from a smoldering cigarette. Midway through the bridge, Tristano seems ready to modulate into something completely different, and it is actually something of a surprise when he returns to the chords of "Ghost of a Chance." In moments such as this, Tristano is out in his own unique galaxy, freed from the gravitational pull of Tatum and Powell and the other keyboard legends who captured so many others in their orbit. This is his sound, his style, his personal conception, set forth in architectonic structures of imposing grandeur. Moreover, he achieves all this while staying loyal to the sentimental pop tunes of yesteryear (this one was introduced by Bing Crosby back in 1933) that always formed the core of his repertoire.

June 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lennie Tristano: Expressions

The mid-1960s was a period of ferment and experimentation in the jazz world, and Lennie Tristano continued to develop and expand his keyboard conception. Of course, fans would hardly have been aware of this. At the time of this concert, Tristano could look back at the previous decade and count only one session that had shown up on LP. He had no manager and told an interviewer during this European visit that playing jazz was only possible if one were "making a living some other way."

But the fire still burnt inside Tristano, and he takes total command of the piano on this dense, percussive performance. This artist had been publicly critical of the Free Jazz movement, but he partakes here of its guiding spirit (as he had, indeed, even before Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor made their mark, as demonstrated on his 1953 "Descent Into the Maelstrom"). "Expressions" finds him again pushing the limits of tonal improvisation. Bristly and brilliant, this is one of the finest solo piano recordings of the decade. One wonders what Tristano might have accomplished as part of the Blue Note or Impulse stable of artists during this period, collaborating in combo settings with the cutting-edge artists of the mid-1960s. Certainly Tristano, circa 1965, was playing at the peak of his career.

But who knew? . . . since record labels had bypassed this artist. Even today this little known track, from one of Tristano's last recorded performances, is a hard-to-find collector's item. Yet those who go to the trouble of hunting down the scattered relics of late-vintage Tristano are unlikely to be disappointed.

June 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wadada Leo Smith: Rosa Parks

Smith joined the AACM back in 1967, and has witnessed the whole life cycle of the avant-garde from its origins on the fringes to its second career in academia. The outsiders somehow managed to become insiders -- and I'm not just talkin' chord changes! Smith himself is now Director of the African American Improvisational Music Program at Cal Arts. But this music doesn't belong in the ivory tower . . . not a bit. Smith lingers at the meeting point between free and modal on this track. "Rosa Parks" begins and ends with extended solo trumpet sections, understated and haunting. But in between, the listener is tossed into a cauldron of grooving sound. The trumpeter, for his part, feeds off the energy of a world-class rhythm section. Smith's so-called "Golden Quartet" has changed its personnel over the years, but this lineup of Iyer, Jackson and Lindberg keeps things edgy and full of surprises. Old jazz revolutionaries never die . . . they just take another chorus!

June 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Narcotango: Mejor Asi

Tango continues to evolve in the new millennium, as demonstrated by Carlos Libedinsky's Narcotango, which draws on the rich traditions of the genre while mixing in loops and samples and other digital paraphernalia. Yet the effects are never an end in themselves, and Libedinsky succeeds through an artful combination of diverse elements into a fresh hybrid that both respects the music's heritage while taking it in new directions. He has built a global audience for this music -- half of his CD sales now come outside of Argentina, and Narcotango makes regular overseas tours. Here chill-out ambient sounds cross paths with music for a sensual dance in one of the most intriguing world fusion projects of recent years.

June 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Reich (featuring Pat Metheny): Electric Counterpoint

A certain ineffable jazziness can often be discerned in the music of composer Steve Reich, but it comes to the fore in this 3-movement piece performed by Pat Metheny. The work makes use of Reich's longstanding interest in overdubbing and tape manipulation. Here the soloist prerecords as many as 10 electric guitar parts and 2 electric bass parts, and then performs an 11th guitar part "live" against the composite. As always with Reich, the surface simplicity hides deeper currents of intricacy. This is a multilayered work that draws the listener into its sonic landscape. And jazz fans will enjoy a pronounced Metheny flavor to the proceedings. In his notes, Reich thanks Pat for his guidance in making the guitar parts more "idiomatic." I'm not sure what this amounted to, but certainly the end results bear the personal stamp of this seminal guitarist.

June 28, 2008 · 1 comment

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Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi

Minimalism, when it succeeds, captures that elusive moment when the repetitive and predictable create a virtuous circle, self-reinforcing and building inwardly on its own energy. Yet this transcendence comes at a risk: a thin line separates the mesmerizing from the boring. Alas, too often, I find Philip Glass lingers in the realm of ennui. But here, in the opening track to his breakthrough score for the film Koyaanisqatsi, Glass hits a rich musical vein. To achieve the full effect, you should see the movie. Yet the CD is not to be scorned. The vocal by Albert de Ruiter is so far down in the bass clef, you would need to send down divers in pressure suits to ascertain which notes he is hitting. But the organist bravely volunteers to make the plunge, and delivers a passacaglia, full of gravitas, to explore the dangers of the deep in tandem with the singer. This is Philip Glass at his most austere—no migraine-inducing patterns, no chords hammered at ad infinitum—and the results are impressive.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tony Scott: The Murmuring of the Mountain Stream

This recording from 1964 comes with a lot of baggage. It is the father of New Age music, some suggest, or maybe a cheesy type of bland background music. But we urge the listener to adopt the zen mind and LET GO OF THE BAGGAGE!

Put aside the dogma. Forget the liner notes by Alan Watts. Just listen to this track as a duet between clarinet and koto. Appreciate the give-and-take, the graceful interaction, the sensitivity to sound and space. This is breathtaking music, and very deep. Ten months after Scott recorded this LP, John Coltrane entered the studio to make A Love Supreme, and one would not be remiss in finding a connection between these two projects, despite their much different sonic textures. Scott, like 'Trane, was probing a spiritually-charged approach to improvisation, one that went beyond traditional definitions of the jazz vocabulary.

'Tis pity that the jazz critical establishment has forgotten this recording, or at times actually disowned it. Don't you make the same mistake. This is fresh, experimental music that still retains its pristine power more than four decades after its initial release.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tony Scott: Is Not All One?

Some people will tell you that this album represents the birth of New Age music, back in 1964. Or is it a pioneering World Music collaboration between East and West? Or, as I prefer to see it, a forerunner of "Ambient Music" before Brian Eno coined the term? Alas, the jazz world has never taken much interest in this release, even though it represents collective improvisation of a very high order. Of course, the jazz folks have never really come to grips with Tony Scott in any shape or form. Here was a guy who thwarted all their expectations, spending time in all the wrong places to build a jazz career . . . from his early training at Juilliard to his time overseas immersing himself in Asian musical and mystical traditions; from his trips to South American and Africa to his final move to Italy. Another mark against Mr. Scott: he played the clarinet, championing it when almost every other reed player signed up in the camp of Adolphe Sax. Someday the jazz world will achieve blissful Zen enlightenment and figure out that someone this creative and daring should be championed as a hero of the art form. But you don't need to wait for that to happen. You can check out Scott's oeuvre, and this fresh, beautiful recording, right now. Happy satori!

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments

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Diana Krall: How Insensitive

It's not easy to sing bossa nova. Diana Krall just makes it seem easy. Krall has tackled bossa before, demonstrating a preternatural knack for this style. Krall manages to find just the right balance between relaxed languor and bittersweet emotion. She does it again on this exceptional track. Very few non-Brazilian jazz singers can match her on this terrain. Others will over-sing or clumsily impose jazz phrasing on the Brazilian idiom. In Rio de Janeiro, they describe something indigenous to the city as Carioca, which comes from the Tupi word Karaioca. Well, let me coin a new word . . Krall-i-oca, to signify that rare U.S. singer who can capture the ambiance of this music with such intimacy and assurance.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments

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Diana Krall: It Could Happen to You

This is retro-Krall, with an Eisenhower-era flavor. Don't get me wrong, the 1950s were a great time for pop-vocal-plus-big-band recordings. But a singer with this much talent should aspire to more than just reproducing jazz styles from ancient history. Krall, for her part, slides effortlessly over the vocal the first time through . . . then she delivers the words all over again, with jazzier phrasing and moving farther and farther away from the Jimmy Van Heusen melody. In neither case does she bring out the sly humor in the lyrics, which are intended to amuse with their lowdown on what could happen to you. In all fairness, Krall never makes a bad recording, and this track declares its slick competency from the outset. Even so, those who haven't experienced her artistry may want to start elsewhere -- for example, with her remarkable version of "How Insensitive" from this same CD.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wes Montgomery: West Coast Blues

Probably the greatest jazz solo ever played on the guitar, Wes Montgomery's legendary 9-chorus improvisation on "West Coast Blues" (from his 1960 landmark recording on Riverside) is also the perfect summary of his style. All the elements that make up his unique musical universe are showcased here more brilliantly and succinctly than ever. His three main improvisational devices – single notes, octaves, and chords – are given 4, 3, and 2 choruses respectively. But above all Wes's astonishing melodic inventiveness, i.e. his ability to improvise marvelously beautiful and strikingly original melodies (an ability that arguably only a handful of musicians in the history of jazz possessed to a comparable degree), is displayed in every single phrase of his solo. This is followed by an equally melodic solo by piano giant Tommy Flanagan, who by the way did some of the most brilliant and lyrical playing of his career on this recording. Essential.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stephane Wrembel: Eternal Cycle 2: A Child's Dream

Growing up near the final resting place of Django Reinhardt could be both a blessing and a curse for any aspiring young guitarist attempting to walk in his celebrated footsteps; few have been up to the challenge. But Stephane Wrembel has proven to be one artist who could not only tread in Django's footsteps with remarkable fidelity, but cut a fresh new path for Gypsy jazz guitar as well. Born in Paris and raised in Fountainbleu, Wrembel studied with Sinti guitar master Angelo DeBarre, among others, and mastered the Django technique fairly early. While few contemporary guitar players sound stronger or more convincing in the jazz Manouche style, Stephane Wrembel has taken this legacy in a new direction with his Brooklyn- based trio. While remaining faithful to the dynamics of the Selmer-style acoustic guitar favored by the Romani guitar legend, he has revamped the format to include drums and other percussion instruments – even a washboard, on occasion.

"A Child's Dream" could almost be pigeonholed as a traditional-style Gypsy jazz valse; but Wrembel's improvisation reflects influences from Eastern Europe, Latin America, India and the Middle East, resulting in a fresh, world beat sound. Without words the gifted 34-year-old guitarist draws from his Buddhist-Taoist philosophy to convey his concern for the stewardship of this planet. Part of a common theme throughout the album, the subliminal message of peace and global unity speaks gently through this music with the clarity of still water – and, as they say, still waters run deep.

June 28, 2008 · 1 comment

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The Tango Project: Por Una Cabeza

Okay, they aren't Argentinean . . . but then again, neither was Uruguayan Carlos Gardel, the tango legend who composed and popularized this song. Yet this group is one of the most widely heard tango ensembles of recent decades. This is the band and song that Al Pacino dances to in a famous scene in Scent of a Woman. And the future governor of California strutted his stuff with Jamie Lee Curtis to this same version of "Por Una Cabeza" in True Lies. In short, here is elegant parlor-room tango with just the right touch of sensuality.

But don't get too caught up in the romantic mood. If you hear the words to this song (not included in this instrumental version), you will find that it is about a horse race lost by a head (hence the title). Yes, a woman does show up too -- but I put my money on the horse. Tango fans are encouraged to find and compare the great Gardel recording.

June 27, 2008 · 1 comment

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Carlos Gardel: Volver

Three quarters of a century after his death in a plane crash, Carlos Gardel still inspires passion and fanatical devotion among his legions of fans. At the dawn of the recording age, Gardel defined tango as commercial music and was a megastar throughout Latin America. Had he lived longer, he would no doubt have become a household name in the United States, and probably a major Hollywood draw. But this hit-maker was much more than a pop music act -- he was also an artist of the highest rank, a consummate vocalist who counted the great Caruso among his admirers.

"Volver" comes from a historic recording session that produced a half-dozen tango classics, and shows off Gardel's forceful baritone and emotional fervor. What an amazing voice! Yet Gardel delivers more than just belt-it-to-the-back-rows power. He is also the consummate storyteller, drawing the listener into the high drama of his music. Even today, folks in Buenos Aires will say Veinte años no es nada ("Twenty years is nothing"), drawing on a well-known phrase in this song. Ah, when it comes to the enduring fame of Gardel, "The King of Tango," the fourscore years since his death are nothing. His legacy remains a defining element of tango even in the new millennium.

June 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Hilde Hefte: Quiet Now

There has been a longstanding belief among medical professionals that, if you can get through med school and survive a residency, you are capable of doing anything – fly an airplane, write a bestselling novel or even play jazz. Of course, any bona fide jazz musician who has ever been invited to sit in with a "doctors' band" will attest to the fallacy of that notion. One rare exception is critically acclaimed jazz pianist, composer and, yes, psychiatrist Denny Zeitlin, who penned the haunting ballad, "Quiet Now."

Hilde Hefte, one of Norway's national treasures, has teamed with her longtime pianist and arranger Egil Kapstad and the Prague Philharmonic to offer a dreamy, luxurious treatment of what is arguably Dr. Zeitlin's finest composition. As always, Ms. Hefte's relaxed interpretation reveals a musician's sensibility and the wisdom to let the melody speak for itself. Dare I say this could be precisely what the doctor ordered?

June 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Rollins: Change Partners

Sonny Rollins takes a quartet through a pleasant rendering of this Irving Berlin classic written for the 1938 film Carefree. Fred Astaire introduced the song for that feature, and the giant of the tenor makes his way through this performance with dancer's finesse. That robust creamy tone is in evidence here as the leader pushes the edges of the harmony, all the while keeping the original melody close to your ear. Pianist Scott plays a particularly warm solo completely apropos to the melancholic yet joyful feeling of this recording.

June 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Eric Dolphy: Straight Up and Down

In his liner notes, the composer states that this performance reminded him of a drunk walking. Listening to the head that frames this wide-ranging free piece, one hears the analogy is apt. Dolphy's use of angular melodies incorporating intervallic leaps and rhythmic irregularities always catches my ear, and his passionate improvisational skills simply mesmerize. The rest of the cast gets plenty of space to expand on the leader's blueprint at a relaxed and leisurely pace. The interaction of vibes, bass and drums in particular makes for amazing shifting textures under Dolphy and Hubbard. It's still remarkable to recall that Williams had just turned 19 and Hutcherson 23 when this recording was made.

June 27, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Hamilton: Blues in My Music Room

The leader is primarily known for his long association with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He took over the clarinet/tenor chair from Barney Bigard in 1943, and remained until 1968. With Ellington's busy schedule, Hamilton didn't get many opportunities to record on his own, and these tracks (originally recorded for the Urania label in 1954) have a unique sound. The two-guitar lineup in the rhythm section, instead of the usual piano, is especially noteworthy. Galbraith stands out in his solo turn, and his ensemble riffing almost lends an R&B feel to this track, which is not strictly a blues.

June 27, 2008 · 1 comment

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Yannick Robert: Driving in Cairo

One of the more interesting fusion artists coming out of Europe in recent years, French guitarist and composer Yannick Robert truly conveys a world vision, mixing a wide spectrum on his sonic palette, from "Celtic jazz" to funk. Equally at home on fretless guitar, archtop or solid body rocker model, he stretches out with an assured independence in an electric trio setting. In Yannick's solos you can hear the Metheny influence; in his compositions, there are harmonic similarities to Swiss guitarist/trumpeter Thomas Moeckel – and that's not a bad thing.

Vaci Utca is the perfect soundtrack to pop in you car's CD player, whether traversing the boroughs of New York City or the boulevards of Budapest. On this track Robert takes us to the bustling streets of Cairo, where he lays rich harmonic textures over a spirited, free-wheeling shuffle. Vanerstraeten's solid bass pulse and Agulhon's tasty contra-rhythms provide atmospheric setting for Robert's lucid improvisation. "Driving in Cairo" is a modal day-trip sure to beckon even the most world-weary. Maestro, a little traveling music, please!

June 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans: Very Early

This recording was not released until 11 years after Evans's death. Featuring one of his last trio lineups, it was recorded outdoors on a chilly Canadian late-summer night. Evans had to have a space heater nearby to help keep his hands warm. After the show Evan's expressed frustration that the conditions didn't allow his fingers to quite keep up with his brain. No one in the audience would have noticed.

"Very Early" is perhaps the prettiest jazz song ever composed. The tune is written in waltz time. The opening chord structure is nothing short of brilliant. Brief and subtle low-register runs and lush block chords dominate. The opening strains of this tune, no matter who plays it, remind us of the hopeful innocence of childhood. But to hear the great Bill Evans perform his own composition in his strangely confident yet fragile way is even beyond any hopes and dreams of youth. His playing creates a sentiment so evocative that it seems to encompass your past lives as well. The body of this version is a bit sped-up. Certainly that was an approach Evans, and others who have covered the tune, sometimes took. Still, despite the wonderful improvisational forays, this slightly disturbs the euphoric trance the introduction had put you in. At midpoint Eddie Gomez, Evans's famous sideman for more than a decade, takes bow to bass, playing beautifully. Marty Morell makes extensive use of his brushes for texture's sake. The tempo slows as the gorgeous theme returns. "Very Early" ends very well.

The rating base point of this performance is 100. Ten points are deducted because of the decision to up the tempo. Seven points are returned because of the very real possibility the band played faster to keep warm.

June 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Body and Soul

Coltrane recorded only a few standards when he was with Atlantic Records, and "Body and Soul"—a warhorse for tenor players—had to be among them. But paradoxically it's featured on a record that was only released four years after being recorded, at a time when Coltrane had gone way beyond his style of 1960. In fact, Coltrane doesn't sound too interested by this tune. In his intro, Tyner drags it towards the modal mood his leader increasingly preferred, instead of tackling the complex harmonies. And indeed the only real solo is played by the pianist in the middle of the track. Coltrane merely contents himself with toying around the melody at the beginning and end, in a strangely unconcerned way.

June 26, 2008 · 1 comment

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John Coltrane: The Night Has a Thousand Eyes

Lifting this song from a 1948 Edward G. Robinson film noir outing, Coltrane makes it his own with no small help from the powerhouse that is Elvin Jones. The drummer drives the tune, seamlessly jockeying between Latin and swing feels with complete finesse and the right weight of authority. Trane's mastery of his instrument and his art are displayed through the distinctive, confident tone and the unfolding development in his insightful improvisation. Tyner steps inside the changes with his usual fearless aplomb while Davis is rock solid throughout.

June 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mitchel Forman: Hand Made

The man just never fails to offer consistently affecting music no matter his role. Whether as a standout sideman for Wayne Shorter or John McLaughlin or as composer or leader of his own projects, Mitchel Forman has excelled at every turn. He can always be counted on to produce music of great quality. To me, Forman is one of the most important jazz pianists of the last 25 years. Many musicians agree with me. Yet he is still woefully underappreciated.

"Hand Made" is yet another example of Forman's wonderful writing skills. It is a languorous ballad full of ingratiating hooks. Forman spends the majority of his time eschewing single-note runs in order to present the deeper meanings of his beautiful chord shadings. Saxophonist Drewes becomes the tune's lead voice. He plays the uplifting melody with the confidence needed when every single breath-filled note is heard in slow motion. The tension of the layered melody builds to minor anthem status before the band gently settles in for a soft landing. Soft is not smooth.

More people need to hear Forman. Can somebody in the movies finally discover him and hire him to write a soundtrack?

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Danny Gatton & Joey DeFrancesco: Well You Needn't

Danny Gatton never achieved a modicum of the fame he deserved. He was a true phenomenon. His guitar style was a crosspollination of jazz, blues and rockabilly music, all picked at astonishingly high speeds. As is sadly often the case, it was not until after his tragic death that his legendary musical prowess was more acknowledged.

Ever since childhood Joey DeFrancesco was on track to become the rightful heir to Jimmy Smith's B-3 throne. His dad, "Papa John" DeFrancesco, was an accomplished organist. So DeFrancesco grew up with an appreciation of jazz history and took advantage of every opportunity to capitalize on his situation, including tutelage supplied by his dad.

In February 1994, just 8 months before Gatton's death, these two monster players recorded Relentless. It is an apt name for this CD.

Gatton and DeFrancesco tackle Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't" with a fervor almost beyond description. Gatton "chicken picks" the familiar melody to start. With the fine support of bassist Previti and drummer Biery, Gatton and DeFrancesco turn into whirling dervishes. During a freakishly quick-tempo call-and-response section, Gatton's retorts to DeFrancesco's rapid-fire exultations with his own riffs played at the speed of light. These blurs of sound are made all the more remarkable by the clarity and ring of each individual note. It would be really scary if someone convinced me these guys were not pushing each other to the limits. A contagious high energy is maintained throughout this performance. Good thing it's the CD's last tune. I cannot imagine wanting to hear anything else right after this.

Gatton has entered the esoteric postmortem realm along with guitarist Lenny Breau as two of the greatest players that ever lived without the knowledge of the masses. DeFrancesco continues to be the king of the B-3 Hammond jazz movement. His performance on "Well You Needn't" is just one example of why that crown fits so well.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mario Pavone: Hello Again

Forty years ago, Mario Pavone joined forces with pianist Paul Bley and drummer Barry Altschul in one of the great piano trios of the era. In this new release, Pavone reunites with Bley, and also brings along fine drummer Matt Wilson. The resulting trio creates vibrant, interactive improvisations that can stand comparison with that great late-'60s Bley group. The conversational give-and-take between the three players is fresh and exciting. This is "free" jazz in the best sense of the word, free of agenda or ideology, and totally committed to collective creativity without preconceptions or limits.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis (with John Coltrane): Ah-Leu-Chah

Of course, we’ve heard Coltrane, Miles, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums as a combination on many recordings through the years. I love the way they play on this tune (which I’m pretty sure was derived from the sequence of “Honeysuckle Rose”-“Scrapple From the Apple”), the way it’s structured with the little drum-breaks and all the nuances—the beautiful feeling in the beat and the way they moved through the harmonies. They weren’t just playing over chords and playing 32 bars. They were exploring a way of playing together.

It was Miles’ group, someone has to be the leader, to organize things, but it’s really the community of players that make the music. Each one of my ensembles has been inspired by that particular realization about what is happening on the scene, creating situations for the community I live in. My nonet has a certain repertoire, a certain community of players. We’ve been playing together for years. Now, I’m the leader. I’ve organized and developed my career to a point to be able to put it together. But it’s the community of players that is making music, too. In 1956, Miles and these guys were living this music together, and you can feel how much they loved to play together. Round About Midnight was one of the first records that totally captured me and gave me a lot of ideas, and I wore it out two or three times.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Impressions

While I was on tour with McCoy Tyner in April 2008, I found this in a record shop in Basel, Switzerland. I’d never seen it before. This version of “Impressions” starts the concert. It’s at a slower tempo, almost like the tempo at which they played “So What” with Miles. It’s an amazing, short version of this tune with no solo by McCoy. I love the way they play the theme together and the way Eric answers and plays in the spaces of the melody. Coltrane plays around nine beautiful choruses, then Eric comes in and plays nine or ten choruses himself—some of the most beautiful Eric Dolphy with Coltrane on record. After Dolphy, Coltrane comes back in, and plays another two or three choruses before they take the theme out. You can feel that Coltrane was inspired just by having Dolphy on the scene. He hands it over to him in a way where he’s saying, “Okay, man, what have you got to say?” Then when Dolphy ends his chorus, Coltrane has to come in and play again because it’s at this beautiful place in the whole structure of the piece.

Coltrane came up in an era where you played in bands with other saxophone players a lot, and he recorded with a lot of different saxophone players. Some of it was documented—there was a great record with Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley; he recorded with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Hank Mobley as a quartet; did a record on alto with Paul Quinichette, Pepper Adams, and Gene Ammons; and of course the sextet with Miles and Cannonball and the quintet with Cannonball—but I’m sure through the years he was in tons of bands, and many jam sessions and situations where you shape the music together spontaneously right at the moment with other saxophone players. Later, his collaborations with Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, and others really stand out as some really beautiful collaborative group explorations. Throughout his career, I think he enjoyed, as I do, feeding off other people, especially if they have a strong personality and ideas and have their own statement. So it was great to hear him with Dolphy and have Eric’s voice, not only on alto, but bass clarinet and flute.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Expression

This is from Coltrane’s last session meant to be released. We just recorded it with the Saxophone Summit on our latest release, Seraphic Light. It’s a continuous melodic flow. When you’re playing that theme over and over, alone on the saxophone, implying some of the harmonies and roots, it’s like the most beautiful prayer.

I don’t think Coltrane ever explored this tune much in concert. This date was near the end of his life, and he might have brought it in for the first time at the recording session for the whole group. Now, of course, he and Alice might have been playing it as a duet, which I would love to have heard. Alice came into the band after McCoy and played with a harp-like approach, playing the full piano in her accompaniment, which seemed to relax Coltrane—he played off of more of the spectrum in the harmonies. He was playing a harp-like approach also at that point. They always talk about sheets of sound. When you slow that down, it becomes very harp-like, very open. Now, on the duets, Interstellar Space, which was done in the same month or week of 1967, he was playing through things very quick, with flurries of notes throughout the harmony, whereas he stretched them out a little bit on “Expression.” I think we would have heard another side to Coltrane had he lived and been able to develop during the ensuing years.

"Expression" was one of the songs that inspired me to find a way to play through harmonies in a free-flowing manner, without a quarter-note or metronome-type beat—an open beat, but still moving through a sequence of chords. I learned a lot about trying to approach improvising with that aspect of meter. I’m scratching the surface on that now.

June 25, 2008 · 1 comment

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John Coltrane: Dear Old Stockholm

I love this version of “Dear Old Stockholm” with Roy Haynes on drums, and I listen to it a lot. A certain freshness and different feeling happens when Coltrane plays with Roy Haynes. His ideas take different shapes rhythmically and melodically. His recordings with Roy Haynes inspired me to realize that the music within the music comes from the people that you’re playing with at the time. Through the years developing with the people that I’ve played with, especially drummers, like Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Mel Lewis, Paul Motian, and Elvin Jones, I’ve realized that you can play the same tune, but when you have a different feeling in the rhythm section, you should play with a different feeling as a soloist. On this version of “Dear Old Stockholm,” I love the ending, the way they play over the form, the way they explore. They could have played that all day and night.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost

If you break down that melody and just play it like a scale, it’s a simple, beautiful meditation on those intervals and themes, played through all the keys. That’s another record that my dad really loved, and he went down to the basement to put it on a lot, so I heard it often without actually listening to it myself. At the time, I was trying to learn how to play the saxophone, so I was more into Bird and Diz, earlier Coltrane, and Sonny with Max, but subliminally, from hearing this piece in particular, “The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” all of a sudden I found myself practicing a different way without even thinking about it—just simple little things on the horn that I was working on, but playing them in different keys, practicing them in a more peaceful way instead of just running through them technically on the horn. There were some things in that approach that have stayed with me, that I’m trying to develop to this day.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin and The Heart of Things: Mother Tongues

John McLaughlin's Heart of Things was a hot band. But you would really have to hear the group live to buy into that proposition. The band's earlier studio album The Heart of Things never quite caught fire. McLaughlin went the umpteenth mile to create an ensemble feel, and may have overdone things a bit. When he did play, McLaughlin's guitar tone didn't help either. In a carryover from his Free Spirits band, his warm guitar tone would often get lost in the mix. Live in Paris was a totally different experience. McLaughlin took a lead playing role on this tour. And thank God you could hear him. His tone had been tweaked just enough so you didn't have to strain your ears. He also employed a good amount of distortion to get his points across.

"Mother Tongues" first appeared on McLaughlin's album Live at Royal Festival Hall a decade earlier. In that instance, the song was a showcase for the remarkable Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu. That was an acoustic performance. "Mother Tongues" in Paris was pure electricity. McLaughlin starts the piece with some rhythmic grunge chords before the awesome Dennis Chambers kicks in. The head arrangement is a pulsating blob. Saxophonist Gary Thomas inserts a long, middling solo that seems to serve more as a jumping-off point for what is to come rather than a showcase for his musical scope. At solo's end the tempo picks up appreciably, and we hear the main event. McLaughlin and keyboardist Otmaro Ruiz engage in a phenomenally entertaining call and response. This duel ranks right up there with any I have heard McLaughlin partake in. That is a strong statement, considering McLaughlin's musical partners over the years. Tension is built on each turn as the tempo picks up speed a millisecond at a time until about the 30th turn, when everyone is ready to burst. This section includes fun, tension, ridiculous speed and virtuosity. The crowd wildly cheers the split-second this frantic call and response gets hit by a bus. The main theme, for all its complicated syncopation and twists and turns, is played as if the band members were one organism. "Mother Tongues" speaks loud and clear.

Live in Paris indicated to McLaughlin fans that he was once again ready to claim leadership of the best jazz-fusion band around. But within a year, he was back playing Indo-jazz with a newly reformed Shakti. You can never trust McLaughlin to stick with anything for very long. It is frustrating and invigorating at the same time.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Chim Chim Cheree

This is an amazing version of “Chim Chim Cheree” on soprano saxophone—the groove, the interplay, the flow of the quartet. To come off having such success with “My Favorite Things,” and then to play an interpretation of “Chim Chim Cheree” that was so wide open and exploratory, and just, like, SERIOUS. He wasn’t playing it just to play it. You could feel that he was into exploring what could happen off of that theme, and the way they put it together is a beautiful, joyous journey. This was in 1965, and one of his later studio recordings on soprano. His sound and approach and focus on that horn on this recording was instrumental in giving me confidence to try to play other instruments and explore the possibilities of tonal energy that comes off of the different horns you play. During that period, when I was a teenager, 16 or 17, I’d heard James Moody live and Sonny Stitt live and Rahsaan Roland Kirk live. Sonny Stitt played alto, and then put it down and played tenor. Moody picked up the flute. Rahsaan played all these horns, not only at the same time, but to play each one as his voice for the moment. The focus of sound and energy from the instrument came through. I really felt Coltrane’s focus and sound on “Chim Chim Cheree,” the energy that the instrument gave him, how he executed ideas off that inspiration.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Venus

This is a duet with Rashied Ali on drums, playing brushes. It’s a ballad-like, lyrical, rubato piece, and the way they improvise together is so captivating and beautiful, you want to keep listening to it over and over again. Interstellar Space was a recording of four duets, four planets— "Mars," "Jupiter," "Saturn," and "Venus." I brought this recording home and played it for my Dad, and he really dug it. After I moved to New York in the mid ‘70s, one of the first places I went was Rashied Ali’s club, Ali’s Alley. I’d been playing a little with [pianist] Albert Dailey, and he told me he was playing a gig there with ‘Shied and that I should come, which I did. I sat in with him that night. It was one of the thrills of my life at that point, calling home and telling my dad I sat in and played with Rashied Ali!


                John Coltrane, photo by Herb Snitzer

On “Venus,” compared to a piece like “Vigil” from a year and a half earlier, which had a certain energy and swing and drive that Elvin and Coltrane hooked up on, Coltrane was dealing with a new approach to rhythm and flow—playing counterpoint within the rhythm. It was still swinging and moving in a certain forward motion, but it wasn’t a quarter-note swing beat. It was a very open beat that gives you a lot of room for expression. In a way, Rashied Ali was playing more like a soloist along with the soloist, but they were finding all kinds of beautiful unisons within the counterpoint that they were creating with each other. From that moment, I’ve been trying to develop that way of playing in my expression. Those directions put me in a path to play with Paul Motian through the years. At that same period in the ‘60s, Paul was also exploring a very free approach in his accompaniment on drums, flowing with the soloist and not just playing the beat that everyone expects you to play. Feeling the beat and then improvising with it.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Vigil

My dad had Kulu Se Mama, which this track is from, so I didn’t have to buy it. He listened to this all the time. I was very lucky that my dad had a hip record collection, and had these records from the different periods of Coltrane. He met Coltrane in the early ‘50s and played a jam session with him in Cleveland. Coltrane was playing alto; he was in town with a blues band led by a guy named Gay Crosse, who was a Cleveland cat. During that time, you might stay somewhere for a month or two and play every night. Anyway, they were one year apart—my dad was born in 1925, and Coltrane in 1926. So they came up in the same generation, the same music. My dad played at this session with Coltrane, and he never forgot that, man. So through the years, he had all his records. But Kulu Se Mama was one that my dad loved to listen to.

This piece, “Vigil,” is a duet with Elvin Jones. It was incredibly well recorded. My dad had a nice stereo with speakers all over the basement, so wherever you were down in our basement it was great sound! So when you listened to this in our basement, at forte, it was like they were in the room with you. The sound of the drums and the way they played together was so beautiful and organic. It might have been one of the first times I really heard a saxophone-and-drums duet on a recording.

In 1965, when this recording was made, he seemed to fill the room with his tone in a different way. In the early ‘60s, he was playing through his horn and flying around his horn—his sound attacked you, it came at you. As he developed more towards the end of his life, his tone was more majestic, and had a much more spiritual and open feeling to it—to me. Even though he was still playing some ferocious, incredible things around his instrument, his sound was even more beautiful and deep than it had been. That’s what captured me on this duet as well.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Body and Soul



       Coltrane for Kenyon
     (by Michael Symonds)

My dad played Coleman Hawkins’s solo of “Body and Soul” and he knew it back and forth. I’d hear him play those lines all the time when I practiced. Hearing Coltrane’s interpretation, his own perspective through incorporating his different harmonic sequences of “Giant Steps,” developing different ways of modulation through the harmony, which he was doing on a lot of standard songs during that certain period, was beautiful. It taught me a lot about substitution chords, how to incorporate those things as you’re playing through any given tune—and how it related to the blues as well. It’s one of the most soulful, beautiful versions of that tune.

Later on, Dexter Gordon used them. Dexter gave Coltrane a mouthpiece early on. It might have been the mouthpiece that he was using during a certain early period with Miles. Coltrane was one of Dexter’s disciples, along with Bird and others. You could hear Dexter in Coltrane’s playing at a certain point, and later you hear Coltrane in Dexter’s playing. That mix teaches you a lot about what an amazing, multigenerational, multicultural music this is. We all influence each other in different ways at different times in our careers and personalities.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: The Night Has a Thousand Eyes

"The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" feels like a totally integrated quartet—the form of it, the feelings, the way the rhythm shifted, Coltrane's ideas throughout the sequence of the harmonies, the different inflections that Elvin Jones was playing, the way McCoy comped, little pedal points in the bass. It wasn't just Coltrane soloing over that tune or with a rhythm section. This track was instrumental in my discovering the approach to playing within the group you're in, whether you're soloing or not. As a young player, I played a lot of drums, and practiced saxophone and drums at the same time. Playing along with Elvin and McCoy and Coltrane on that recording on drums taught me everything about form and following the line and the soloist. Doing that taught me a lot about everything.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Chasin' the Trane (master take)

All the different versions of “Chasin’ the Trane” through the years from Coltrane’s live recordings hit that same incredible level of creativity on the blues. It was a whole side of the Impulse record, Live at the Village Vanguard, and Coltrane plays from start to finish—Eric Dolphy comes in at the very end. Later, they released other takes where Dolphy plays and McCoy plays. The first time I heard this, I listened to it all day. I kept putting the needle back at the beginning of the recording. After a while, I realized it was a blues. I was a teenager, and the energy, the focus, and the swinging, beautiful exploration of Coltrane’s choruses was really some magic. Moving to New York, playing at the Village Vanguard with the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, presenting my own groups there, recording live there, feeling the spirits in that room—it goes back to that first time, checking THAT piece out.



        John Coltrane, artwork by Michael Symonds

Trane was moving on in his playing and his approach, becoming a leader, having his own band, focusing totally on what he wanted to play. That in turn created a lot of ideas. He was always dealing with how he played, as well as what he was playing, and his approach widened through the years. We all study the elements in the music, and deal with things today that we dealt with on Day One. If you don’t do that, then I don’t think you can really play with the depth of your soul. If it only becomes a technical thing to get around your horn and execute what you’ve practiced, you’re not executing your feelings. Coltrane went through periods earlier-on where he was documented as a very technical player. But every step of the way, you hear the evolution of how his feelings came out in his music, through hundreds and hundreds of songs. That was a beautiful study for me. The soulfulness of his playing, of his journey, came out in his playing at every moment.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Three Little Words

It’s incredible to hear Coltrane play on standard songs with this rhythm section. Hank is very free in the harmonic sequence, and is feeding him harmonies and voicings; Coltrane is taking him places that give him ideas and open up what he’s playing harmonically as well. Also, Milt Jackson is one of the great lyrical improvisers in jazz music, and to hear them balance and play off of each other on a tune like “Three Little Words,” playing a few choruses each, sustaining the mood, was a beautiful journey on their part. Digging Coltrane playing standards showed me the depth of repertoire that he knew, how much ballads and the blues were in everything he played, and how it all came through in his solos. No matter what he played, his focus on the material and the people he played with drove him and fed him ideas. It wasn’t just what he was practicing on his horn, even though that was a big part of the way he played.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Good Bait

This is from Soultrane, one of the first significant Coltrane records that I lived with as a real young player and listener. "Good Bait" was written by Tadd Dameron, who’s from Cleveland, where I’m originally from. My dad played with him. Hearing Coltrane’s incredible, lengthy exploration on “Good Bait” inspired me, and taught me a lot about how I would have to deal with this music, and learn to play the saxophone. It’s a timeless recording that sounds as fresh today as when I was a kid.

As a saxophonist myself, understanding all the things you have to deal with to execute your ideas, I realize that every stage of the way is a different development period, and Coltrane’s experience and journey to that moment in 1958 was intense. He had come up playing Tadd Dameron’s music, playing with Johnny Hodges’s band, Dizzy’s band, Miles’s band, Monk’s band, and he was just starting to form a conception about who he was and how he wanted to present himself in the music. Playing with Thelonious Monk got him to be even more articulate than he was doing on his own. His execution, articulation, rhythm, phrasing and ideas were all one, and his tone was crystallizing—he was fusing together all of the elements of playing music and playing the saxophone. He was a virtuoso on his instrument, and he was able to communicate his ideas in lengthy open solos. “Good Bait” is a prime example of him really stretching out and playing through that piece of music with his own approach.

June 25, 2008 · 0 comments

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Deborah Henson-Conant: On The Rise

I am a huge fan of Elements, the experimental jazz group formed over 20 years ago by bassist Mark Egan and drummer Danny Gottlieb. Every few years they come out with some new music. There have been some albums of uneven material. But the band, which uses revolving musicians to play with Egan and Gottlieb, has for the most part produced wonderful music. Why all the talk about Elements when I am reviewing a cut from the fine harpist Deborah Henson-Conant? The answer is simple. "On The Rise" is basically an Elements song with Henson-Conant's harp sitting in for the guitar of Stan Samole or Steve Khan. Café and Clifford Carter were also frequent Elements collaborators. "On the Rise" is even co-written with Egan. Henson-Conant acquits herself well on this involving sound exploration. The harp isn't exactly the type of instrument that allows you to cut glass. But Henson-Conant knows how to use its timbres to fill out a lush fusion piece.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Franco Ambrosetti: Frasi

Born and still living in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, Franco Ambrosetti is a veteran of European jazz and a master trumpeter, though he is not strictly speaking a professional musician because he's always had a day job in business. In the course of his career, he's had occasions to hire both European and American partners to record with him, ranging from Miroslav Vitous and Daniel Humair to Michael Brecker and Kenny Barron. Here, the first class rhythm section led by Uri Caine is perfectly at ease with Ambrosetti's beautiful ballad, and the trumpeter himself displays a lyrical sound showing that, besides his abilities in the hard-bop and fusion fields, he has never forgotten his Mediterranean roots.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Brian Blade: If You See Lurah

Besides being among the most in-demand drummers of the last ten years in both the jazz and pop fields, Brian Blade has formed a group that doesn't sound like most drummers' bands. In fact it doesn't sound like any other band, and there are reasons for this. First, Blade is at least as much a musical drummer as a rhythmic one. Second, he also plays the guitar and often composes on this instrument, which gives his songs a totally different harmonic tinge than those composed on the piano. Third, the lineup of his band, where guitars (among them the pedal steel) and reeds dominate, provides a thick and mellow sound unheard in jazz before the end of the 1990s. This track is an excellent example of how Blade's Fellowship blew a whiff of fresh air into jazz: gorgeous multi-instrumental voicings, frank melodies, long notes instead of breathless solos, and soft yet firm drumming to knit everything together.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Christian Scott: Litany Against Fear

The atmosphere is dark and poignant: we are in Hurricane Katrina's wake, and Christian Scott has very efficiently rendered the feeling of sadness and agony attached to the ordeal that his native city underwent. A modal piano romp, a heavy, almost ominous drum beat, a guitar ostinato, and above all the slow moan of a muted cornet establish the frame. And when the melody appears and the song starts modulating, it all sounds like a lament with Hispanic undertones, with the sober interaction of the five instruments beautifully arranged around the trumpet's poised main voice.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chick Corea & Gary Burton: Señor Mouse

We live in an age of remakes, in music no less than in movies and fashion. But why should master musicians Corea and Burton tackle the same repertoire all over again almost a quarter century after the original? Sure it makes sense to play it live in front of new audiences. But recording a new version of "Señor Mouse," which opened the first Crystal Silence album (on ECM) with a magic of its own, doesn't really seem appropriate. There is virtuosity in this remake, of course: "virtuosity" could be Corea's and Burton's middle name. But where is the freshness and where are the nuances in this new 9-minute version?

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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André Previn: I Feel Pretty

André Previn was among the first to record a jazz version of West Side Story songs, and his adaptation has a very West Coast tinge. No wonder, with such sidemen as Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne. The trio takes "I Feel Pretty" at a brisk tempo, exposing its melody in a fugue-like manner. The improv part has a more abstract aspect, with Previn in a percussive mood, shifting tempos, alternating chords and single lines. This creative approach reflects Previn's ability as an organizer of soundscapes, a talent that led to a long career as one of the world's premier symphony orchestra conductors. Indeed, the main goal here is not to play pretty but to build a whole new tune around the melody, harmonies and rhythm of Bernstein's tune.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Johnny Griffin: The Way You Look Tonight

During the 1950s, Johnny Griffin built a reputation as "fastest horn in the West," and his rendition of this standard on his first album as a leader exemplifies that aspect of his playing. On the theme, the "Little Giant" sets a pace that's not much faster than average for this tune, but when it comes to improvising he dashes through the chord changes with supernatural speed. And this doesn't hinder the utter relevance with which his imagination produces bop and blues patterns one after another. Of course the Kern & Fields love song doesn't retain much of its original meaning during this vigorous treatment. But if one accepts the idea, one can only be impressed by the tenor stampede that charges through Kern's chordal corral with such youthful exuberance.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Ask Me Now

Joe Henderson came late to the tenor trio (at least on records), and acquired an immediate reputation in this format thanks to the mastery he had developed in other contexts. On this Monk standard, and with this rhythm pair, Henderson develops a soft-toned yet adventurous way of winding through the repetitive ballad harmonies. The bass is the tenor's main partner, while the drummer's brushes maintain a steady tempo and Henderson's blowing soars in a succession of bluesy choruses punctuated by occasional — and all the more expressive — honks and squeals.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Grossman: Over The Rainbow

This is exactly the kind of song that suits Steve Grossman's deep, lyrical tenor sound. He tackles it in a basically old-fashioned way while playing the theme, but when it's time to improvise he shows that his inspiration is rooted in the art of such modern elders as Sonny Rollins. When he's in top form, as he is here, Grossman delivers some of the most satisfying interpretations you can hear on standards in the mainstream to hard-bop styles. His reputation as a former alumnus of the "electric" Miles Davis shouldn't fool anybody about that aspect of his playing. Surrounded as he is on this track, Grossman sounds like one of the '50s masters who didn't matriculate from jazz schools, but had their own style that attracted countless followers and admirers.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck (with Paul Desmond): Blue Moon

At the start of this 1953 track, Brubeck actually plays "Blue Moon" straight, sticking to the original chords and not engaging in any of his usual games. Ah, but we know this won't last for long. Brubeck and Desmond always had some tricks up their sleeves, especially during this early period, when no standard was given the standard treatment. Midway through Desmond's solo, the band moves from major to minor, and the altoist starts playing unexpected variations on "Lullaby of the Leaves," which another famous West Coast quartet had recorded five months earlier. Brubeck is not to be outdone, and kicks off his solo with some off-the-wall counterpoint, before showing that he can also play the major-to-minor switcheroo. Before they have called it a night, this band has played "Blue Moon" and "Red Moon" and "Tangerine Mood" and every other shade they could muster on the fly. These early Brubeck-Desmond sides are always a delight, and sound very spontaneous. You can hear the fun these two creative minds had in playing off each other's wildest flights. A winning moment from a historic band.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Orchestra Baobab: Pape Ndiaye

Fans unfamiliar with the odd twists and turns in the history of Afro-pop might be surprised by the Cuban flavor in this Senegalese band. But there is a long history of Latin idioms permeating African music styles, much of it stemming from the popularity of Franco and other Congolese musicians who developed a pseudo-rumba sound that swept the continent. Orchestra Baobab has long been renowned for its mastery of this style, which manages to combine a rhythmic fervor with a languid sensuality. This music, a modern reworking of an old griot song, is like a drowsier salsa, mesmerizing yet also relaxing. This ensemble has enjoyed a wide following since the 1970s, but disbanded for a period. Yet on this opening track from their new Nonesuch release, they reassert their mastery of a style that has lost none of its appeal with the passing decades.

June 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bireli Lagrène: Hips

While "Hips" is not one of Bireli Lagrène's best compositions, it did mark a stylistic change for the guitarist. By this time he had moved past his Gypsy and Django roots to play some distinctive electric fusion music, some of which can be found on this album. However, "Hips" and several other cuts (most notably "Action") could easily fit into the smoother trend that players such as Larry Carlton were developing at this time. This was not quite Smooth Jazz (pardon me while I gag), but was dangerously approaching that cliff from which many listeners would be forced to jump. This willingness to change his style showed that Lagrène was quite capable of playing music that might prove more palatable to the commercial market. This may have pleased his bank account and record label, but was generally a bad sign for those of us who really care about the music.

"Hips" is a bit '80s jazz-rock formulaic in the sense it has a strong backbeat that at times seems almost robotic and trends toward the funky. The staccato synthesizer sounds used by Carter were dated even back then. The synthesized horns in particular are a bit annoying. That is not his fault. He was just going with the flow of the times. Underneath the simplification and warning signs, "Hips" was still a rocking jazz-blues number played by fine musicians. It did make you want to swing your hips. Looking back, we can now see where this music led. My guess is that Lagrène was a little too close to the forest. Perhaps he was pushed there. In any case, Lagrène never really forced his fans off that cliff. Close call. In recent years he has revisited his Gypsy heritage and toured with Larry Coryell and Billy Cobham, playing good old fusion music and showing he is still one of the world's greatest guitar players.

June 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mahavishnu Orchestra: Lotus Feet

"Lotus Feet" is noteworthy for several reasons. First, its overt Indian character indicates the tune was clearly written with the future in mind. That future would be McLaughlin's Indo-jazz band Shakti, already in the forming stages during the recording of this album. Mahavishnu always had an Indian element to its music. But it was understated compared to the vibe that permeates "Lotus Feet." Second, it was arguably the first time McLaughlin successfully employed an early guitar synthesizer. While other tunes on the album used the synthesizer, they did so in conjunction with electric guitar or to create sound effects. Here it is the primary instrument. Third, "Lotus Feet" would become perhaps McLaughlin's most enduring composition. Over the years he has also performed it with Shakti and Remember Shakti, and employed its melody as the thematic linchpin in the movie Molom, for which he and Trilok Gurtu provided the soundtrack. The tune has even been popularly covered by others such as pianist George Winston.

On an album full of surprises (some welcome, some not), "Lotus Feet" provides a respite. Meditative in nature, the tune is built around a simple Indo rhythm played by Walden on congas and sleigh bells placed over the top of a drone box. McLaughlin plays his guitar through a patch that makes it sound almost like a wooden flute. It takes about three seconds to fall in love with the melody. It is that beautiful. This is McLaughlin, both as composer and player, in restrained mode. Stu Goldberg also plays synthesizer in the form of the mini-moog. At times it becomes a bit difficult to tell the two apart, which is a problem that has always been intrinsic to the nature of the technology. Unless you're writing a review and trying to distinguish who is playing what, this quirk is of little significance.

I would not mind at all if the strains of this wonderfully executed piece followed me around as my own personal soundtrack. There is no doubt my stress level would be appreciably lower.

June 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Anthony Davis: Wayang No. 5

The history of jazz piano and composition has always been maximalist, almost as a core principle. Jelly Roll Morton started borrowing and incorporating everything he could find into his music a hundred years ago, and the expansionary policy hasn't been renounced by any of his successors. Somehow Davis manages to stay true to this tradition, while using hypnotically repeated rhythms with a quasi-minimalist flavor as the foundation for this composition. But Davis also finds sustenance in many other places, from gamelan music to atonality. At times, it is hard to pin down this artist's true allegiances, and fans have been as likely to hear his work in an opera house or Broadway theater as in a jazz club or symphony hall. There are moments on Wayang No. 5 where he sounds like Philip Glass on acid. But then Davis will shift gears entirely, putting on a Cecil Taylor attitude or dipping into a Muhal Richard Abrams bag. But his music is entirely free from the conventional or trite, and his best work can be riveting.

June 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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György Ligeti: Lux Aeterna

Minimalism was a new fragrance in the air when Ligeti composed this densely compacted work. In 1966, however, the Romanian-born Hungarian émigré was unfamiliar with the work of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Yet you can tell that Ligeti was a kindred spirit, another visionary looking for an escape hatch from the maximalist spiral of Western musical thinking. The harmonic movement in this work for voices moves at about the same pace as a sunset. Each individual modification in the sound tapestry is so delicate that one can barely perceive it at the time, only looking back later and seeing how the whole horizon has changed color and dimension. Ligeti embraces a big "M" word to describe his procedure. No, not Minimalism, but rather "Micropolyphony," which he defines a "polyphonic texture so thickly woven that the individual voices become indistinguishable, and only the resulting harmonies, blending seamlessly, one into another, can be clearly perceived." This music is timeless in the deepest sense of the word, looking back to the past in its references to the Latin requiem, yet so futuristic that Stanley Kubrick included this unconventional piece in the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Decades later, the composition still sounds fresh and impenetrable.

June 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lennie Tristano: Yesterdays [Glad I Am]

Here is one CD that you can't judge by its cover. The song is listed as "Glad I Am," but is actually "Yesterdays." Tristano is credited as composer, when Jerome Kern should get the nod. The cover of the CD promises a quintet live at Birdland in 1949, but this track is a solo piano selection from Chicago in 1945.

Ah, these are quibbles. Don't let the phony factoids stop you from checking out the music. This track is an inspired exercise in harmonic reconstruction, unlike anything else in jazz, circa 1945. Tristano takes the song at a leisurely pace, and the chords move slowly enough for us to savor the wry dissonances and the curious progressions, unexpected changes sometimes unfolding with four-surprises-to-the-bar. I have heard Tristano's protégés play standards in a similar manner, without ever resolving into a tonic key—an odd and unsettling philosophy when applied to a sentimental old ballad. Lennie stops short of such in-your-face atonality here . . . but just barely. Everything fits together, and resolves, but the games he plays in the process are fascinating to observe.

Yet pick up another Tristano CD and you will probably hear him play in a completely different manner. It's to this pianist's credit that he was able to forge such an identifiable sound, while making so many changes in his approach. I wish he had recorded more music in this vein—heck, I wish he had recorded more music in any vein—or perhaps had attempted to translate this approach into a combo or big band concept. As it stands, the 1945 solo piano tracks are just more outliers on the elongated Tristano bell curve, idiosyncratic performances that give little sense of where this artist would be a few years later, but still stand out as essential listening for anyone with a deep interest in piano jazz.

June 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Do You Hear The Voices You Left Behind?

Somehow over the years the original and correct name of this album has been changed. This is irritating and bothersome. But I guess we just can't beat The Man.

Johnny McLaughlin – Electric Guitarist, the actual name of the album based on the first business card McLaughlin used, was an all-star affair celebrating McLaughlin's return to the electric guitar after a two-year hiatus playing acoustic music with his Indo-jazz band Shakti. McLaughlin gathered past collaborators and a few new ones to run through some challenging new fusion material. The band for "Do You Hear The Voices You Left Behind" was comprised of four giants from the jazz and jazz-rock world.

"Do You Hear The Voices You Left Behind" is dedicated to John Coltrane, upon whose "Giant Steps" its changes are predominantly based. McLaughlin uses a new electric guitar that features a scalloped fretboard. This design, based upon the Indian stringed instrument the vina, allowed McLaughlin more room between frets to push down on the strings. This created note bends that you needed a decompression chamber just to fathom. At breakneck speed, each player skitters above the quickly paced chord changes. Chick Corea gets two solo turns – one on piano, the other on mini-moog. Despite the electric nature of the tune, Clarke plays acoustic bass. The quartet is killing on this number, and you can bet that Coltrane knows it and appreciates it.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Steve Reich: Piano Phase (1967)

In 1967, when Steve Reich composed Piano Phase, he was working primarily with minimalist sound collages created by means of tape loops and splices. Often no music, in the traditional sense, was employed in these works, with the manipulation of taped spoken language creating the building blocks of his throbbing, repetitive soundscapes.

Piano Phase is a meeting point between these early efforts and the composer's later instrumental works. The piece was conceived originally as a juxtaposition of two piano parts, which start by playing repetitive phrases in synch but gradually fall out of phase. Eventually the parts come back into alignment, and the performers are again playing in unison.

Reich found that it was possible for musicians to perform this work live, perhaps lacking the exact precision that tape manipulation allowed, but with a close enough approximation. From the perspective of the musicians, the process was surprisingly similar to jazz performance. True, the music was built on notation rather than improvisation; but the notated music was quite simple, while the challenge of performance was to listen intensely to the other musician and adapt rhythmically to create the intended displacement of the two parts. Few classical compositions put a higher premium on total absorption into playing off the "rest of the band" (so to speak). The work also conveys a modal flavor that invariably reminds us of the turbulent non-classical musical scene, circa 1967. No, my dear jazz cats, it's not A Love Supreme . . . but this music is a reaction to many of the same stimuli that fed into the work of Coltrane, Miles and others during this era.

Reich's greatest music was still ahead of him. Even so, Piano Phase reveals the composer's early preoccupation with the interaction between repetition and gradual changes in texture that would inform his Music for 18 Musicians and other mature works. Even more important, Reich showed that experimentation in composition could be sound-driven rather than ideology-driven. In time, a lot of theoretical baggage would be dragged into the debates over minimalism. But these early works captivate because of a child-like sense of playfulness that was a much needed tonic during a period in which the composition of classical music was gradually becoming the pursuit of academics holding (or seeking) tenured positions in elite institutions.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sean O'Bryan Smith: Tapestry

Some music comes perilously close to crossing the Smooth Jazz line (pardon me while I gag). My first quick impressions of this CD were leading me toward that awful boundary. This reviewer would rather cut off his foot than step into that listening territory. But a few seconds of patience proved quite rewarding. This is not Smooth Jazz (pardon me while I gag) in any way, shape or form. It is full of risk and virtuosity. Smith is a top-notch composer and an even better bassist.

"Tapestry" is an ambitious amalgam of African nature sounds, Arabian scales and fusion rave-ups. Outside the Arabic nature of the main theme, the music sounds very much like what Béla Fleck and the Flecktones might without Béla Fleck. Smith's bass talents are instantly evidenced. He does sound like the Flecktones' Victor Wooten at times. The textured keyboards throughout are also very impressive. Guitarist Rich Eckhardt submits a fusion solo in keeping with the genre's promise.

Smith's composing and playing also remind me of bassist Mark Egan and his work with the under-praised fusion band Elements – though Smith throws in many more ethnic elements. "Tapestry," both title tune and album, contains strong melodies and is expertly performed. When you open the jar the top surface may be smooth. But as soon as you take a spoonful, you realize it is chunky style.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Pascal Bokar: When Lights Are Low

For over 20 years, Senegalese (now USA-transplanted) guitarist Pascal Bokar has been melding African traditional dance music with jazz. Along the way he has played with such jazz titans as Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Haynes and Donald Byrd. He has been releasing records of his own for over a decade.

Bokar's interesting and pleasing interpretation of the Benny Carter-penned "When Lights Are Low" is an exception among the bebop-inflected standards, permeated with an abundance of African rhythms and occasional vocalese, that comprise Savanna Jazz Club. Bokar is a fine jazz guitarist more than capable of sustaining absorbing straight-ahead or bebop lines that stand up against the quality of the best players. But while the "African-ness" is at a lower ebb than on most of the other cuts, this track retains a distinct and unusual African character thanks to Bokar's unique style of occasionally striking muted strings in a melodic yet percussive manner. It almost sounds as if he is playing the kalimba, an African percussion instrument. He uses this style to great success in establishing the tune's opening theme. According to the liner notes, Bokar calls this style "balafonics." Whatever it is called, it is cool to listen to.

Bailey, Greensill and Williams ably assist Bokar in taking this sing-songy number into an impressive blues realm before returning to the uplifting kalimba-sounding introduction for its coda. A fun time has been had by all.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Reptet: Danger Notes

What are they putting in the coffee up in Seattle? Chicken or Beef? is one of the craziest jazz albums I've ever heard. In 2006, Earshot Jazz gave the Reptet its award for "Best Outside Jazz Group," and this 2008 release is certainly "outside jazz." Half of the tunes are outside any genre I am familiar with. They are part jazz, part classical, part serious, part parody, part free jazz, part virtuosity – and wholly entertaining. Think Frank Zappa at his wackiest getting together with Stan Kenton to beat up Spike Jones. The album's first half is actually the band playing as straight ahead as you will get from this aggregation. After that, the vocals and craziness begin. The album's title tune and most unusual cut doesn’t come close to jazz, so I cannot review it here. But it's impressively bizarre stuff.

Chicken or Beef? opens with the horn-heavy, tightly played chaos of "Danger Notes." The rhythm is jam-band in nature. The solos tend to lean toward the free school. What little texture exists is reserved for the bassist and other string players. But no sooner have I written those words than the band is off on another exploration, and the open spaces are gone. The tune's midsection is more thoughtful. It soon gives way to a heavily syncopated…and then…next… I give up! There are too many stylistic changes to keep track of. But, whoa! It ends just like that. Cool.

Like the other first-half tunes, "Danger Notes" is a well-played trick to totally unprepare you for the lovable nonsense that will be slapping you across the face in a few minutes. I doubt that even my warning will soften the blow. Need a little wakeup in life? Put this disc in your player.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Cobham: Total Eclipse

After the original Mahavishnu Orchestra disbanded, Billy Cobham seemed undecided as to which direction his music was going to take. Spectrum, recorded while still in Mahavishnu, was a balls-out electric fusion set. The follow-up album, Crosswinds, was a tasty collection of more refined numbers dominated by the jazzier sounds of horns. Luckily for Cobham's fans, both directions were pleasing. The first half of "Total Eclipse" definitely fits the mold created by Crosswinds. Conversely, the second half could have been lifted right off Spectrum. A relaxed and enjoyable melody is established by keyboardist Leviev, the Brecker brothers, and trombonist Ferris. The Breckers and Ferris skillfully play off each other as leader Cobham pounds away in the background. A Michael Brecker sax solo leads to a quiet midsection dominated by a low-key Leviev. John Abercrombie's appearance marks an increase in tension. The tune builds into a screeching electric exclamation point. If the first half of the tune was the sun, the second half was the moon.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Alphonse Mouzon: Nitroglycerin

It is not surprising that Alphonse Mouzon's "Nitroglycerin" sounds like Larry Coryell's Eleventh House unit, Billy Cobham's Spectrum band and the Mahavishnu Orchestra all rolled into one. Mouzon was Eleventh House's drummer. Tommy Bolin was the wunderkind guitarist for Cobham and a great admirer of Coryell and John McLaughlin. Bolin almost mimics his Spectrum performance in the introductory section, weird special effects and all. He makes his guitar-player admiration clear in his first solo by playing a section à la Coryell and by virtually lifting, in tribute, several of McLaughlin's riffs later in the piece. Bolin could play! So could Mouzon. If there were any challengers to Billy Cobham's power fusion drumming crown in those days, it would have been Mouzon, who was just as "heavy" though not as dynamic. "Nitroglycerin" may be somewhat derivative, but it is still a first-class fusion rave-up. Even forgeries can be great works of art and complementary in some ways.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Terry Riley: In C

This composition, dating from 1964, did more than any other work to give impetus and momentum to the minimalist aesthetic. Much like a jazz song, "In C" can be substantially different every time it is performed. The lineup of instruments can vary, as well as the length of the performance. But nothing is left to chance (or, as an academic composer might say, to "aleatory factors"): every participant must progress sequentially through a series of 53 musical phrases, repeating each motif an indeterminate number of times before moving on to the next. The concept is elegantly simple, but the layering of the different fragments creates shimmering superstructures of sound. There are many recorded versions of "In C" on the market, some jazzier, others more cerebral. But I still prefer this brisk and stark 1968 recording with Riley in the band, made at a time when this music was less a masterpiece to be revered, and more a wakeup call to sonic seekers of all stripes.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Toots Thielemans: Blue N' Green/All Blues

In some ways the great Toots Thielemans has been overlooked by the jazz world. That can happen when your main ax is a harmonica. Harmonicas and accordions are forever to be outsiders – never let into the club in which overwhelming virtuosity on an instrument is highly admired by legions of aficionados. It doesn't help that Toots is also a guitarist, a superlative whistler or that he had a hit tune with "Bluesette." These seem not to have added enough to his bona fides. There is a big difference between being called "the greatest jazz harmonica player" instead of "one of the greatest jazz musicians." Thielemans is both and jazz people in the know, know it.

For all intents and purposes, "Blue in Green" (listed here as "Blue N' Green") serves as a prelude for Thielemans's take on another Miles Davis classic, "All Blues." The medley begins first with pianist Fred Hersch and Thielemans taking wonderful solos extolling the thoughtful melodic virtues of "Blue in Green." Their measured but expressive endeavors serve as a melancholy introduction to "All Blues." The band goes up-tempo as Johnson and Baron propel the piece. Hersch and Thielemans once again take turns playing over the rapid changes. After several minutes of high energy, the two slow the number down with some touching counterpoint and a loving restatement of the theme. Thielemans's harmonica is as expressive as any mainstream instrument could ever hope to be.

Being a jazz harmonica virtuoso and a jazz whistler has some advantages. You don't have too much competition. You get some nice movie soundtrack jobs (Midnight Cowboy among others). A TV commercial can come your way here and there (Old Spice). And you can become known as perhaps the greatest jazz harmonica player/whistler ever. That will have to do for now.

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Terry Riley: Arica

Terry Riley is not known as a jazz pianist. I repeat: he is not a jazz pianist. His reputation is as a composer of (so-called) classical music. Then again, you would never guess it from listening to this track -- or, for that matter, to the entire Lisbon Concert. Riley's phrasing at the keyboard, his rhythmic feel, his melodic flow are exceptional, and very idiomatic when viewed from a jazz perspective. This CD could show up on the ECM label, and it would fit perfectly on your iPod playlist alongside Jarrett, Bley, Corea, et al.

So is this minimalist classical music or jazz or something else entirely? Frankly, I don't care to pigeonhole it. Even more, I would suggest that the freshest and most exciting music of our times is frequently situated in a similarly ambiguous position. The interstices between the genres are where the action is. Terry Riley himself had built his whole life around the vitality of sounds and their interrelations, realizing that the words and labels are more a hindrance.

So I will resist the temptation to label this as a jazz recording. Let's just take a tip from the AACM and call it creative music. (But I will say this . . . I would love to hear another CD like this one, but with bass and drums.)

June 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roberto Goyeneche: Buenos Aires Conoce

Roberto Goyeneche's distinctive singing captures perfectly the louche and bohemian ambiance of 1950s-era tango, evoking a lifestyle even more than a musical genre. Then again, it's a bit of a stretch to call this singing . . . Goyeneche's performances linger at the halfway point between vocals and declamation, sounding more like a spirited exhortation to true believers. He cuts off his phrases, rolls his consonants, and never really settles into the melody -- almost the antithesis of the great Carlos Gardel. Goyeneche's nickname was El Polaco (the Pole), due to his blonde hair, but his mood is pure Argentinean, especially on this wistful track with its celebration of the spirit of Buenos Aires.

June 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sebastian Giniaux: Viper's Dream

The term "viper" is 1930s slang for one who habitually partakes of marijuana. By most accounts the author of this piece, Fletcher Allen, was an enthusiastic viper. Since Django Reinhardt recorded this quirky number in 1937, it has been a staple of the jazz Manouche repertoire, covered by Stochelo Rosenberg, Bireli Lagrene and many others.

Sebastian Giniaux, one of the five extraordinary guitarists invited to play the venerated Selmer 607, had his musical beginnings on the violin at age 6, not picking up the guitar until 19, when he became enthralled with Gypsy jazz. On this track the fruits of his efforts are abundantly clear. His guitar work manifests the confidence of one born to play the instrument, and is yet one more reason the Selmer #607 album is a must-have for any jazz guitar enthusiast's collection.

Sebastian's "Viper's Dream" is a marked departure from the typical arrangement. Starting with the tune's standard intro and head played in a relaxed, confident strut, the ensemble makes a sudden transition into a frantic, up-tempo 2/4 solo section, a runaway caravan on a rollercoaster descent into madness. Over this furious vamp, Giniaux roams free, throwing nearly everything from his extensive vodjangulary into the mix but the proverbial kitchen sink. Insane? Over the top? Sure, but why not? This is, after all, the 21st century – with a world on the brink, even our vipers have reason to panic.

June 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gene Bertoncini: You'd Be So Nice to Come To

Guitarist Gene Bertoncini has built a career, over a period of decades, on intelligence, talent and taste. He is a musician's musician, and although he is not a household name with crossover hits to his credit, the guitarists know how good he is. Many have studied with him -- at Eastman, or at clinics -- or learned indirectly from his records or his instructional DVD.

On this stellar all-strings release, Bertoncini taps into his contacts at Eastman to find some brilliant string arrangements that don't sound like your typical commercial studio gig fare. Fred Sturm, who was a professor at Eastman for more than a decade, contributes a creative chart for "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." Even without the guitar part, you would want to come home to this performance.

But Bertoncini is at top form here. He kicks off with a quasi-classical guitar melody statement, but by the time he gets to bar 7, he is working through some glorious thick chords that hint at the jazz riches to come. The string quartet gets an interlude to strut its stuff, then the guitarist returns with another melody statement (but check out the chords again) before taking a crisp, swinging single-note solo.

Certainly there are many fine recordings on the market by this artist, but his fans will want to add this release to their collection; while those who haven't had the chance yet to hear Bertoncini may want to start with this CD.

June 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Denis Chang & Fleche D'Or: Donna Lee

It has been suggested that the Hot Club Swing movement led by Django Reinhardt was dealt a death blow with the advent of bebop. But Django himself had enthusiastically embraced the emerging force and was already breaking away from the standard Hot Club la pompe format, recording with more mainstream rhythm sections and even jamming with Dizzy, then on a postwar European tour. Since the legendary Romani guitarist never had the opportunity to share the stage with Bird, one can only speculate what direction jazz guitar would have taken had they met. On this track, Denis Chang offers a hint of what such a summit meeting may have produced.

Having forged his reputation as one of the world's top instructors of the jazz Manouche guitar style, Canadian guitarist Denis Chang has effectively debunked the old saw that "those who can't, teach." Chang obviously can, and his impressive command of the lingua Djanca is in full throttle as he and fellow soloist Ritary Gaguenetti tackle one of the most challenging anthems in bebop. Following tenorman Sean Craig's blistering up-tempo charge, the Selmer-style petite bouche guitars sail smoothly through turbulent bebopian waters. We can only dream of what might have been, but Denis Chang & Flèche D'Or have brought us closer to answering the question, "What Would Django Do?"

June 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charles Mingus: Dizzy Moods

It seems like such a cliché to refer to a Mingus arrangement as eccentric, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. "Dizzy Moods," based on Gillespie's "Woody 'n' You," is not your typical jazz piece from 1957 (or anytime?). The front line's short opening fanfare is followed by the individual members of the rhythm section introducing themselves and then the theme starts. One can certainly hear Mingus's devotion to the craft of Duke Ellington in the ensemble sections, but this casual idolatry falls away in short order to reveal a singular vision. This music always sounds so loose despite the metric shifts here and there, which for experienced Mingus listeners may not seem jarring, but I'm trying to think how I would have reacted to this music for first time back in the day.

June 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Chasin' Another Trane

1961 was a big year for the recorded legacy of John Coltrane. Early in the spring he worked with Miles Davis for the last time, and a couple of months later recorded his two Africa Brass sessions. The other major event was his 4-night residency at the Village Vanguard. This legendary stand included several additional musicians (oboe, contrabassoon, oud) who added a real sense of experimentation to the proceedings. While there might be as many as eight people onstage at one time, this track is essentially a quartet, though McCoy Tyner can be heard comping for the first couple of choruses before dropping out. For all the enthusiasm and intensity that Coltrane brought to his performances, I always feel that playing with Eric Dolphy brought out something additional in both men, as evidenced here. It's just a little odd that this was thrown on a CD called Newport '63.

June 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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James Blood Ulmer: Jazz Is The Teacher

James Blood Ulmer found his way to New York in the early 1970s and by '74 was recording with Ornette Coleman. He has stated in interviews that Coleman had a profound effect on his music. I find it interesting that his tenure with the composer/saxophonist marked the beginning of that leader's use of the guitar (often multiple players) for the next 20 years in his own music. This tune is a simple blues with lyrics utilizing the standard verse setup. Ulmer solos first and is his usual jagged and unique self. His use of the wah-wah pedal creates the effect of notes bubbling up from the primordial ooze. That's not a negative, and if you stripped away all those added colors there would be a great jazz solo underneath. The second solo, by Drayton, while well played just seems a little too mainstream and superfluous.

June 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jackie McLean: Melody for Melonae

The incisive altoist Jackie McLean started in the bop camp, then became a core member of the Blue Note label's hard-bop contingent. But the new currents of modal and free jazz in the early 1960s made a deep impression on McLean's style. These came to the fore on his dramatic 1962 release Let Freedom Ring. The music on "Melody for Melonae" follows pared-down chord changes which convey a modal sensibility even while stopping short of pure modal improvisation. Similarly, McLean keeps within conventional tonality . . . but just barely. He pushes at its edges, especially with his much-noted use of shrill high-register squeals. This track is testimony to the greatness of the Blue Note label during these turbulent years in the jazz world, revealing its artists' ability to assimilate edgy, new sounds, while still retaining elements of the hard-bop sensibility that had drawn audiences to these musicians in the first place.

June 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Cobham: Life & Times

Life & Times is generally considered to be an uneven album. But the title track is one of Cobham's stronger post-Spectrum tunes. "Life & Times" begins its life as a series of disembodied ambient sounds, which soon fall away to an urgent theme. The style of the syncopated main melody comes straight out of the early Frank Zappa wing of jazz-rock. For the best comparison, listen to "Zombie Woof" from Over-Nite Sensation. Cobham and Scofield play their asses off. We always have high expectations when listening to such superstars. In a way, this does a disservice to their performances. We can never be surprised. But keyboardist Dawilli Gonga steals the show here. He is every bit as good as Jan Hammer on this blazing cut. You say you never heard of Dawilli Gonga? And if he is so great, what ever happened to him? Dawilli Gonga was actually former Zappa sideman George Duke, who used this pseudonym from time to time. (In a deep voice), "And now you know the rest of the story…"

June 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Robin Nolan & Friends: Once In A While

The greatest musicians in the world all have one thing in common: the ability to expose their heart and soul through their playing. Few jazz guitarists do this better than Robin Nolan. Renowned and respected for his contribution to the Gypsy jazz revival, he was also a favorite musician and frequent guest of the late George Harrison, and has earned the admiration of an eclectic group of notables from Bill Wyman to Willie Nelson. Robin has never limited himself to any one style; but whatever he chooses to play, the warmth and depth of his passion are clear.

On the 1937 standard "Once in a While," Robin shares solo time with Jesse Van Ruller, swingin' all the way. While guitar duets can frequently degenerate into duels, chops blazing at high noon, there's none of that nonsense here. With mutual respect and admiration, the two trade solos with judicious phrasing and impeccable taste. Nolan's bluesy, confident lines, seasoned with the occasional Django quote, are perfectly balanced by Van Ruller's enticing bebop palate. Bassist Simon Planting digs in with characteristic finesse, supported by the gentle pulse of rhythm guitarist Kevin Nolan. Through it all, you can't help but feel the love.

June 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wynton Marsalis: Stardust

This much beloved jazz standard has its own deeply ingrained personality, and you tinker with it at your own risk. The verse is as interesting as the main theme, and the whole melody is so well written, it could stand comparison with the finer classical art songs. In other words, you just can't blow on these changes like they were "Blue Moon." Marsalis understands this implicitly, and he lets the mood of the piece inform his solo. His tempo is just a tad faster than your typical ballad, the pace of a lazy stroll. Wynton plays sly cat-and-mouse games with Hoagy Carmichael's melody, hinting at it at some moments, while elsewhere coming up with something novel that still reminds us of the distinctive intervallic leaps of the original. Even when the trumpeter tosses off some high notes that swing triumphantly like the man on the flying trapeze, they still flow naturally from the emotional temperament of the song. This is a very mature performance by the artist, who was 33 at the time of this Village Vanguard session, but played like a seasoned veteran.

June 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Hugo Diaz: Milonga Triste

You may have heard this haunting theme on the soundtrack to the film The Tango Lesson. Diaz eerily evokes the sound of the bandoneón on his harmonica. Yet one can also hear hints of the U.S. harmonica tradition here, and the spirit of what is called the "deep blues" permeates this performance. Blind from the age of five, Diaz moved as a teenager to Buenos Aires, where his music encompassed everything from traditional folk songs to jazz. He met Larry Adler and Toots Thielemans in Europe during the 1950s, and later had the opportunity to play with Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson in the United States. But Diaz did not make a tango recording until 1972, when he shifted from his typical folkloric material to present this remarkable track. His emotional affinity with the tango stands out on "Milonga Triste," and his work in this vein found a receptive audience. Diaz made several more tango recordings -- much cherished by fans although often hard to find -- before his death in 1975.

June 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Cobham: Taurian Matador (revised)

"Taurian Matador" famously first appeared on Cobham's legendary release Spectrum. This performance, recorded live at the Montreux Jazz festival, is a reworking of his composition and features an expanded lineup featuring the great Brecker Brothers. As would be expected, the addition of a horn section gives the tune a different vibe than its earlier performance. Though this arrangement is not as frantic as the original – and thus not quite as good – it has other qualities to commend. Since its jazz sensibility is higher, more improvisation is heard. Michael Brecker really shoots for the moon during his solo sax turn. Keyboardist Leviev takes a different tack than Jan Hammer did on Spectrum. He plays it cool and relaxed in a slow section. This was probably a good decision. Any effort to match Hammer's blazing playing would have been disastrous. Guitarist Abercrombie is fantastic on this piece. However, since Leviev does not play his foil as Hammer had for Tommy Bolin, Abercrombie's performance gets a little lost in this band's horn-heavy bombast. What to say of the leader on drums? At the time he was the standard all fusion drummers were measured against. This performance is just one more example why.

June 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Cobham-George Duke Band: Almustafa the Beloved

In other jazz-rock reviews, I have suggested that it is rare for a vocal performance to succeed in the realm of the fusion milieu. It did and does happen, but such occurrences are difficult to find. I am still not quite sure the vocals work on "Almustafa the Beloved." But I give this tune a mulligan by placing it in my own personal Guilty Pleasures collection. I can't help it. I get caught up in the groove.

The piece opens with the narrator's resonant voice informing us of the legend of Almustafa the Beloved. A pleasant fusion musical background is presented as the vocalists then groove on several purposeful and soulful riffs. A hint of funk enters after the vocals before the band plays the number to its pleasing end. No big solos – just a story told.

Now a word of caution from your friendly reviewer: That "hint of funk" I alluded to would soon fester and infect much that Billy Cobham and George Duke would play for several years hence. With each succeeding album it became more integral to their music. At some point it went over the demarcation line for me. There was still some good music presented by these jazz warriors. But it became harder to find. Don't get me wrong. Good funk is good funk. But I never felt that the style of funk of these two fusion heroes quite met that criteria.

June 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gustavo Assis-Brasil: The Same Day

Assis-Brasil is a guitar player we need to pay special attention to. He studied classical guitar in Brazil. Growing up, he was interested in all musical forms, but really developed a love for American jazz. He eventually came to the USA and studied at Berklee, where he received a master's degree in 2001.

"The Same Day" is the opening cut on Gustavo Assis-Brasil in Concert, which is a DVD/CD combo pack. Captured live before his hometown crowd in Santa Maria, Brazil, the CD is exactly the same music as on the DVD. The latter product, however, shows how easy Assis-Brasil makes it look stretching his fingers for some very difficult chords. Great guitarists can do that. (I am jealous.) He also plays some weird-looking guitars.

The first thing that grabs you about "The Same Day" is that, despite the names of the band members and the audience to which it is being played, this will not be a bossa nova. In fact, little if any Latin influence is heard. The chord-heavy music is part modal, part mainstream and full of dashes of bebop. Assis-Brasil has a vast array of chords at his disposal, and his use of them may be the strongest aspect to his playing. That is not to slight his single-note playing, which brings out the bebop influence previously mentioned. Many of his lines also show a similarity to the type of guitar playing John McLaughlin was doing on 1969's Extrapolation. But the "The Same Day" derives its identity from the imaginative chord progressions. The rhythm section also has its act together. Particularly impressive is Zotterelli's solo turn atop Assis-Brasil's beautiful complementary chords. Gustavo Assis-Brasil in Concert bespeaks the talents of a fantastic guitarist and promising composer. Keep an eye out for this guy.

June 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sergio Mendes: The Look of Love

It must be tiring to build your career by jumping on trends. Sergio Mendes has been doing just that for 40 years. He followed the U.S. craze for Brazilian music back in the 1960s, late to the party but still able to parlay it into substantial sales. He came up with the brilliant(?) idea of adding dates to the names of his bands (Brasil 65 or Brasil 66 or Brasil 77) to make sure everyone knew he was keeping up with the times. And now in 2008, he mixes in rap and programming and anything else he can beg, borrow or steal. But the song itself is a 1967-vintage tune, dustier than Dusty Springfield, that Mendes recorded as a Top 10 hit 40 years ago. But (did I say this already?) he has brought it up-to-date with some trendy gimmicks.

Now for the good news . . . Mendes possesses genuine talent and a great feel for commercial music. His records are usually smartly produced and quite listenable. Moreover, the lounge music revival of recent years plays to his strength, which is to craft a higher class of chill-out music. This critic wishes that he had taken a more artistic path over the decades, rather than sniffing out the money trail. I have listened to many of his recordings, enjoying them at times, but I still get no feel for his personal vision or character. Sergio Mendes might be the name of a corporation or syndicate for all the individuality of these tracks. But you have to take these CDs as they come to you. In this instance, Mendes has crafted a very clever arrangement with a potent beat. This disk has earned coveted shelf space on your local Starbucks counter, and I can envision legions of commuters bouncing brightly behind their steering wheels as Sergio Mendes guides them on their way to work. Well done, Mr. Mendes.

But what will you do next year?

June 17, 2008 · 1 comment

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Lennie Tristano: Background Music

The sound quality is quite poor, and the performance is incomplete. But Tristano's solo here is absolutely riveting, full of intensity and élan. The track starts without the melody statement . . . Tristano is in full flight, tossing off chorus after chorus of improvised lines—fast, intricate phrases that go on and on and on. So little of his work from this period is available on record, that it is easy to think of Lennie as having lost his edge, embracing the quiet life of a teacher and mentor to others. But this performance, taken at a demonic tempo, tells a much different story. This is fiery music, and full of surprises. At one point, Tristano lets loose with a barrage of majestic syncopated chords, breaking up the tapestry he is weaving out of single-note lines, and sounding as if he is ready to take off into the stratosphere. This is some righteous piano playing, let me tell you. And if it is true, as many assert, that this pianist wouldn't let a drummer challenge him, you wouldn't be able to prove it by this performance. Stabulas is very aggressive, and Tristano clearly feeds off the energy. If this is background music, I advise you to steer clear of the foreground.

June 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sauter-Finegan Orchestra: These Foolish Things

This is more a tone poem than a big band chart. You will find no battling horn sections here, no kicks in the pants from the rhythm section. The attitude is sweet and cool, rather than hot and harried. From the introduction, the listener is tantalized with a shifting palette of instrumental textures and subtle harmonic movement. This band plays great attention to dynamics, and generates no wasted energy. Rex Peer and Nick Travis handle the solo duties, and the latter impresses with his lyricism and tone control. Travis, who died at the age of thirty-eight (from complications linked to ulcers) spent too much of his brief career doing studio work, but this track shows off his considerable skills as an improviser.

June 17, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tim Hagans: Over and Back

Having recently reviewed two Marc Copland albums, one of which featured Tim Hagans on trumpet, I'm hard-pressed not to consider Alone Together an extension of Copland's cerebrally evocative work, as opposed to Hagans's own unique offering, especially since Copland composed 4 of the CD's 7 cuts. To be fair, Hagans's smooth sound is pleasant and probing, and seems particularly suited to Copland's airy compositional skills. His instrumental enunciation is creative, even if his ideas at times challenge his technical facility. On the cleverly composed "Over and Back," the mood is set by Copland's ascending and descending melody lines, punctuated by a staccato duet break by Gress and Copland. Gress's subtle solo takes the syncopated turns with grace and harmonic interest. Hagans's slurring trumpet predominates in middle-register runs and darts around the pulsing rhythm carried effectively by a busy Ruckert on drums and Gress's throbbing bassline. Hagans here seems much more of an embellisher on the mood than a true improviser. Copland's solo turn is unusually sparse, yet manages to climb up and down the scales in unpredictable, interesting and delicate ways. Ruckert's husky polyrhythmic solo is marked by his cluttered but impressive use of the toms. The total package works surprisingly well and bears repeated listening.

June 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wynton Marsalis: The Majesty of the Blues (The Puheeman Strut)

This performance marks a major turning point in the career of Wynton Marsalis. Before this recording, Marsalis was a futurist, working on elaborate polyrhythmics, playing fast and hard, and moving in a post-Miles direction. Then—seemingly overnight—he becomes the grand traditionalist, and shows off a killin' pre-bop sound, built on down-and-dirty textures reminiscent of Bubber Miley and King Oliver.

'What's going on?' as Marvin Gaye might ask. This stylistic shift seemed like a step backward at the time. But was it really? To move from playing discrete notes to undulating sound textures was, circa 1988, a pretty radical step for the most prominent young musician in jazz. Marsalis's solo, unlike anything he had recorded previously (although a harbinger of much to come) is artfully constructed, and took him outside the invariable comparisons with Miles and Brownie, Dizzy and Freddie, and the like. In short, Wynton had changed the rules on us without any warning.

To some degree, a traditionalist bent had already entered the jazz world before this recording, but The Majesty of the Blues took it to a new level. Yet for all that, there is a wicked, modernist undercurrent here. The stately 6/4 meter is played with a panoramic, open pulse, and sounds very up to date. Marcus Roberts is decidedly not trying to channel Earl Hines, and Veal and Riley are collaborating on their own happenin' groove. This is a coronation march for a nightlife diva, a mixture of the majesty (announced in the title) with something grittier and darker, but all steeped in the New Orleans tradition. The chord progression is a blues, but the stretched-out bar lengths give it an unconventional twist. The horn writing is sparse, but with a growling Ellingtonian quality that is quite effective.

All in all, this track represented a stunning turn of events for the artist who had just turned 27 the week before the session. To some degree, the jazz world is still dealing with the aftermath.

June 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Esbjörn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.): Somewhere Else Before

In an art form based on heroic individualism, E.S.T. stands out for its attempts to forge a collective identity. Esbjörn Svensson's talent looms large here, and he could have cast himself in the starring role, but instead he collaborates with Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström in painting a stirring sonic landscape. The composition itself is deceptively simple, based on motives of two or three notes. But this modest melody gives us all the more reason to admire the tapestry of delicate sound colors that E.S.T. builds around it. The open spaces and understated pulse here are handled masterfully. This is a different type of piano trio, and perhaps a harbinger of fresh, new way of playing jazz.

June 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Gone, Gone, Gone

Act I, Scene 2 of Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess (1935) finds a roomful of destitute Negroes attending the sheet-covered body of a lately murdered man, their fellow Catfish Row denizen Robbins. Upon his chest, a large blue saucer beckons donations. Robbins, an unlucky gambler with no life insurance, left a widow and baby penniless. By custom in such cases, mourners must sing lamentations to attract neighborhood condolences in the form of coins to defray burial costs. Otherwise, the Board of Health will cart away the remains for deposit into the hands of white medical students. And that, it was agreed by one and all, would be a fate worse than death.

In a mere 30 seconds, with nary a word sung or spoken, Gershwin's stark orchestral music chillingly evokes the majesty and mystery of death. Similarly, Miles Davis and Gil Evans require scarcely more than two minutes to lift Gershwin's delicate dirge from funerary to phantasmagoric realms as spectral as souls raised from the dead. Abrupt tape splices badly mar this track, obviously a patchwork composite and not a continuous performance. But even so, Gil's arrangement and Miles's flugelhorn here are the stuff from which goose bumps are made. Spine tingling.

June 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Soprano Summit: Chalumeau Blue

From 1972 until they disbanded in 1979, Soprano Summit was the finest traditional/swing band of its kind, in great demand at jazz festivals and other venues worldwide. They reunited occasionally years later as Summit Reunion, the name changed because Kenny Davern had by then abandoned the soprano, playing clarinet exclusively. As Soprano Summit, he and co-leader Bob Wilber both doubled on soprano and clarinet. Wilber was heavily influenced by Sidney Bechet, while Davern was more in tune with the eccentric style of Pee Wee Russell and the more modern approach of Steve Lacy. Indeed, Wilber had performed with Bechet, and Davern recorded with Lacy.

The chalumeau was an early single-reed wind instrument, the forerunner of the clarinet. The term "chalumeau" later defined the lower register of the modern clarinet. On Wilber's "Chalumeau Blue," the two clarinetists play the soothing, ingratiating theme with a loping, almost martial rhythmic backing, their lines intertwining delightfully in the lower "chalumeau" register. Davern's solo, however, is all upper-register virtuosity, his phrases darting and swooping in typically unpredictable fashion. Wilber remains loyal to the lower depths of his instrument for his more sedate but no less winning solo, before Davern – still in the upper register – joins him for a breathtaking dual improvisation. They meet again in "chalumeau" for a reprise of the melody. They just don't make groups like this anymore, or at least not nearly as good.

June 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Queen Latifah: I Love Being Here With You

Dana Owens re-created herself first as the rap artist Queen Latifah, then again as a movie actress, which in turn led to her becoming a versatile soul, R&B, and jazz singer. Hearing her unannounced for the first time on jazz radio, your reaction would likely be, "Who is that? She sounds good." While not yet exhibiting the nuances and subtleties of a polished jazz singer on tracks such as "I Love Being Here With You," the potential is certainly there if she chose to focus on jazz exclusively, albeit an unlikely scenario. Then again, Diana Krall early in her career could not have sung this same song as brilliantly as she did years later on her Live in Paris CD.

John Clayton's arrangement is big, brassy and swinging. Queen Latifah's relaxed spoken and chatty intro leads to her singing of the lyric in a style very similar to Peggy Lee's. However, she comes off a little stiff and not totally at ease rhythmically. She also does not project much emotion or sexiness. In sum, Queen Latifah is playing at being a jazz vocalist, as it's not yet coming naturally. At this point, soul and R&B are more her thing.

June 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Paul Gonsalves: I Surrender Dear

There were good reasons why Duke Ellington put up with the drug and alcohol problems of Paul Gonsalves for so many years. "Paul Gonsalves is a wonderful musician," said Duke. "Highly skilled, with tremendous imagination, he is equipped to perform whatever comes into his mind." Of course, Paul's 27 choruses during "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which jumpstarted Ellington's floundering career, didn't hurt either. "I was born at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956," Duke later said. Yet despite those frenzied 27 choruses, Duke and Johnny Hodges always thought that Gonsalves was at his best on ballads.

While Gonsalves said that Coleman Hawkins was his main influence, he also admired Don Byas and Ben Webster for their sounds. On "I Surrender Dear," Gonsalves's yearning, unaccompanied rubato intro precedes his heartfelt reading of the melody played with a tone seamlessly blending Byas and Webster. His graceful arpeggios and subtle embellishments contribute to a totally riveting interpretation. Kelly solos briefly and sparsely before Gonsalves suddenly returns with a swooping run and then additional filigreed phrasings. Kelly gets down to business next with a more assertive, driving solo statement. Gonsalves reenters, this time with a Hawkins-like swagger and edge to his tone, before an abrupt ending that leaves the listener craving more.

June 13, 2008 · 4 comments

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Eddie Daniels: Falling In Love With Love

Eddie Daniels's welcome return to New York for the first time in 15 years for this live recording brought back memories of his holding down a tenor chair with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra on Monday nights at the Village Vanguard from 1966 to 1973, when he was fresh out of the Juilliard School of Music. Who knew then that such an exciting tenor player would essentially abandon the instrument in the early '80s to instead become one of the greatest clarinetists in jazz history.

For the IPO label, Daniels has recently begun to reestablish his credentials on tenor, and "Falling in Love with Love" is a shining example of his impressive capabilities on that horn. Daniels is in high gear from phrase one, with sizzling hard-bop lines and an urgent propulsion that keeps his solo flowing from one long, inventive passage into the next. His command is evident throughout, and his personalized inflections and swirling circular phrasings lend added zest to his creation. Locke's nimble solo is also inspired, as one hears him humming intensely along with his lengthy, undulating single-note lines. The underappreciated Rainier follows in contrastingly serene fashion initially, but soon ups the pace with some Oscar Peterson- influenced flourishes and deftly executed two-handed unison runs, with La Barbera booting him along insistently. Tenor, vibes and drums then trade off one another before Daniels's prancing theme restatement and a slickly worked out ending.

June 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Benny Carter: I Got it Bad (And That Ain't Good)

You could admire Benny Carter for many things -- his composing or arranging, or his work on a half dozen or so instruments. But this track will tell you why he is considered one of the finest alto sax soloists in the history of jazz. His improvisation on the Ellington standard has it all: a rich, creamy tone, fresh ideas, relaxed phrasing and a delicate sense of swing. Above all, the performance is perfectly aligned with the emotional landscape Ellington intended for this song. The rhythm section is packed with Hall of Famers, but they know to lay low and let Carter run the show. If you don't know Mr. Carter, this track is a perfect place to make his acquaintance.

June 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Cassandra Wilson: Lover Come Back to Me

The rhythm section adopts a retro pose on this reworking of a 1928 Romberg and Hammerstein standard. Sewell's chug-a-lug guitar work would not be out of place in the old King Cole Trio, and even Jason Moran surprises with some traditional licks . . . well, at least for the first 16 bars of his solo. Wilson creates great drama here by adopting a relaxed, behind-the-beat manner of phrasing, which contrasts markedly (and nicely) with the hard swing of the band. Few vocalists are freer or looser with the old songs than Wilson, and she delivers another top-notch performance on this solid track.

June 13, 2008 · 2 comments

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Eleventh House featuring Larry Coryell: Kowloon Jag

By 1976, Gerry Brown had replaced Alphonse Mouzon in Eleventh House's drumming stool. Terumasa Hino had also taken over for Mike Lawrence on trumpet. Although Aspects also featured guest stars David Sanborn and the Brecker Brothers, they apparently do not appear on this cut. (The liner notes are vague.)

"Kowloon Jag" is one of the most impressive performances from Eleventh House. Its opening measures feature Coryell playing quickly strummed minor 9th chords interspersed with twisted blues licks before a cascading unison riff comes closing in. I have said it before, but will say it again. The trumpet in Eleventh House plays the same role the electric violin played in the fusion bands featuring Jerry Goodman and Jean-Luc Ponty. The opening section of the tune comes as closest to sounding like Mahavishnu as Eleventh House ever did. John Lee's bass lays the groundwork for a Coryell solo workout. Reverb, distortion, echo and Coryell's great speed create the perfect atmospherics that defined a classic fusion guitar explosion. Keyboardist Mandel starts off a trading contest that leads to a John Lee and then a Brown solo. The players gang up again to restate the tune's kick-ass theme, which serves as the coda.

There is no denying Eleventh House's importance in the history of jazz-rock. But if the band had more performances of such a caliber as "Kowloon Jag," they would have ranked even higher in the fusion pecking order.

June 13, 2008 · 1 comment

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David Sancious: Suite (From the End of an Age)

You ever hear a comic that not too many people have ever heard of introduced to an audience as the "comedian's comedian?" This is generally done for two reasons. One – nobody has ever heard the guy's material. Or two – he is one of those comedians who is so talented and inventive that only other comics understand his material and appreciate it. As a general rule, comedian's comedians never make it big. When it comes to musicians, David Sancious falls under the last-named category. A gifted keyboard player and guitarist, he is the musician's musician. Sancious is probably better known for stints in Bruce Springsteen's and Eric Clapton's bands than for his outstanding fusion work in the '70s. It is a shame because, owing to lack of acknowledgement from a fan base, most of his jazz-rock music from that period is very difficult to find.

"Suite (From the End of an Age)" is broad in scope. At times, due to the way certain synthesizer patches can sound dated, the song sounds cheesy. At other times, the sheer musicianship on display is impressive and uplifting. The suite seems to be woven from 25 separate thread colors. Distinct sections may last a few seconds or a minute. There is no pattern except the lack of one. There is plenty of superior musicianship, but there are purposely no impressive solo turns. Did I mention there is an attempt at pop vocals that doesn't quite work despite a good voice from Kabir Ghani? Vocals in jazz fusion are rarely good. In fact, as a general rule, fusion vocals turn a jazz-rock piece into a progressive rock number. But every once in a while, the vocals in such a laudable fusion effort as this one are good enough to still make things work. Stanley Clarke's "Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra" is another example of this phenomenon.

My starting point for every review is 100. In this case, deduct 10 points for unintentional cheesiness. Take off 20 points for ill-advised vocals. Add back 11 points for overcoming those obstacles and for the creativity exhibited. You always get points for effort even if your experiment doesn't quite work.

Because Sancious is a musician's musician, he is still in heavy demand by some of the world's most famous musicians. And in a positive sign, over the last several years he has started putting out some of his own music again.

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Vijay Iyer: Comin' Up

The composition may have been written by bebop titan Bud Powell, but don't let that fool you. Few pianists of the current day show less bebop influence in their playing than Vijay Iyer, and his version of "Comin' Up" sounds nothing like Powell's original. Instead of crisp comping chords, Iyer sends out waves of sound from the piano. His phrases have none of the intricate chromaticism of bop -- in fact, one of the neatest tricks in his "Comin' Up" solo is Iyer's ability to emphasize single notes within the tempest he is brewing at the keyboard. They stand out as starkly as a piece of flying furniture in the midst of a tornado. Here as elsewhere, Iyer gets high marks for creating his own piano vocabulary, unhindered by the clichés of the past. I am surprised, however, at how everyone's playing on this track stays within neat, four-bar units. I would like to hear this pianist in a band that pushed back a little more, rather than followed in his wake. Here Iyer is a one-man dynamo, lighting up the city, and the whole performance feeds off his energy.

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: Demagomania

I wear the fact I have never seen more than 30 seconds of American Idol as a badge of honor. To me it is a farce. From what I have been told and read, at the start of each season, they purposely show tryouts from some of the most untalented people in the world before they pick their finalists. There is no other purpose behind this practice than to humiliate these people in front of a national audience. Worse still are that many of these helpless hopefuls don't even know the show is making fun of them. This is despicable. I have not even gotten to the fact that even the winners of the show are nothing more than corporate creations who will be dropped from their contracts in a New York second if they fail to sell a million records. Why all this talk about American Idol? Well, the television and music worlds would have been much better places if one of the show's judges, Randy Jackson, had stayed in the jazz business!

Randy Jackson is a great bassist. Early in his career he appeared on several jazz and fusion albums and played with the likes of Billy Cobham and Herbie Hancock. He infuses Jean-Luc Ponty's "Demagomania" with a throbbing bass which provides a funky support for Ponty's flights and a point of reference for drummer Mark Craney and keyboardist Chris Rhyne. The tune trends to the fusion anthem category but never engages in bombast. Though not credited, it sounds like there is some early computer keyboard sequencing used on the track. At times, Jackson even sounds that way. But in his case, it is just perfect timekeeping. Ponty is a bit restrained in his playing. But that is what this evenhanded, almost mantra-like performance requires.

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stanley Clarke: Stories to Tell

For "Stories to Tell," Stanley Clarke once again set himself up in a power trio format. This time the guitarist is Allan Holdsworth and the drummer is Stewart Copeland from the rock band The Police.

Despite the lineup, "Stories to Tell" is anything but a power fusion ballad or anthem. In a nod to Copeland's Police, the rhythm is lifted right out of that band's greatest hits book. Clarke plays a pizzicato introduction. For the first minute or so you keep expecting Sting to raise his famous voice in song. But he is not present. Instead, Clarke displays a stunning and beautiful virtuosity as he leads the song on a slow trek. The melody is absolutely gorgeous. Holdsworth also shows great patience and appreciation for harmony as he takes, what is for him, a very deliberate and somewhat touching solo. His guitar sounds nothing like a normal guitar. Yet its squealing somehow comes across as soothing. The Police-like shuffle returns as Clarke and Holdsworth do a bit of trading-off to culminate the tune.

The electric bass can be a very expressive instrument. Very few players know how to milk every possibility from it as Clarke does. He has a story to tell and a seemingly unlimited vocabulary at his disposal to tell it.

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stanley Clarke: Rock 'N' Roll Jelly

Modern Man was an attempt by Stanley Clarke to go R&B pop. The album featured orchestrations and vocals. The one exception was "Rock 'N' Roll Jelly." This was a very good thing. Clarke invited friend Jeff Beck back for an encore power trio performance similar in concept to "Hello Jeff" from Clarke's album Journey to Love. This time drummer Carmen Appice, Beck's band mate in Beck, Bogart and Appice, replaced Lenny White.

Clarke's chugging funky bassline lays down the rocking intent of the "Rock 'N' Roll Jelly" right away. He and Appice get the gears in motion for Beck, who charges out of the gate screaming one of the all-time great fusion guitar riffs. You can tell it is Jeff Beck halfway through the first note! As I wrote about "Hello Jeff," Clarke seemed to have honed in on Beck's unique guitar voice in order to write him the perfect riffs. These jazz-rock sounds would become very much a part of Beck's signature sound. Beck leans a bit to the blues for his solo. The tune slows down a bit for Clarke to explore some various characters on bass. Some impressive solo notes and chord shadings ensue. Riff-master Beck returns with the power of a violent warm front. Run for cover. There is dangerous lightning around.

A year after this recording, Clarke and Beck would go on a world tour solidifying their musical synergy.

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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James Blood Ulmer: Open House

The unique (to say the least) guitarist James Blood Ulmer is best known for the time he spent in Ornette Coleman's bands. He cites the saxophonist as a major influence on his own music and style. Most of Ulmer's music is hardly approachable. The fact that the strangely stationary but grooving "Open House" is among his most accessible offerings speaks volumes for his skill and musical integrity. Ulmer does not cater to desires or tastes. His own vision is paramount to his music.

"Open House" is a 5-minute exercise based on an acid-like riff or two. Ulmer makes no attempt to pursue a melodic direction or to vary his tonal or scalar approach to the riffs on display. His remarkable rhythmic picking prowess is on display to the point of disbelief. There is a short expressive section repeated several times that serves as the piece's linchpin. It is catchy, but I would hardly call it the composition's "head." Ulmer and percussionist Calvin Weston show a great affinity as they impressively team up to play the rhythm note for beat. This occurs over and over at high rates of speed. If "Open House" lasted just a minute longer, I would hate it. But it doesn't. I like it a lot. Ulmer is an important part of guitar jazz-fusion history, and while his sometimes perplexing approach has always seemed to find few takers, it does show there is room for subgenre contrarians even in a contrarian genre. You may not always, or ever, dig or understand what Ulmer does, but it cannot be denied that he is a great and underappreciated talent. Imagine being too out there for fusion! That's a guy with balls.

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Volcano for Hire

Weather Report's very first album, named Weather Report, came out in 1971. This album is also called Weather Report. It came out in 1982. Understandably, at the time this caused much confusion. But it was brilliant marketing. Create chaos in the marketplace. Get people talking. On the other hand, the Weather Report of 1982 was quite different from the first incarnation featuring bassist Miroslav Vitous back in 1971. So in that respect, using the same title made sense.

The 1982 Weather Report was the final recording featuring Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine as band members. The album is not one of the better received in the band's discography. Some argue that the group was having issues with its record label and purposely delivered something below their normal standards. True or not, the album did contain a couple of noteworthy Weather Report trademark grooves. "Volcano for Hire" is an example.

Zawinul's growing love for world music is evident here as international rhythms begin the piece. Zawinul plays no less than three keyboards simultaneously in an introductory motif. Shorter's solo comes before you think the introduction is over. It is a probing trip full of short bursts. Enter the groove. Zawinul dominates this section with layers upon layers of synthesizer work. Shorter and Zawinul then perform the piece's uplifting secondary theme as Pastorius offers a rapid walking bassline and Erskine and Thomas continue with their rhythmic exploits. The music ends on the rise.

Actually, I'm sorry more bands have not followed Weather Report in using the same titles for some of their albums. I could only imagine the wonderful confusion, controversies and arguments such a radical practice would create.

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Black Market (live, 1979)

It was no accident that Weather Report continued to thrive in the shrinking fusion world while other jazz-rock supergroups disbanded or lost popularity. Weather Report always maintained more of a jazz identity than most guitar-heavy fusion groups, who were highly dependent upon the continued support of young rock fans. To a certain degree this "more jazz/less rock" formula acted as the band's safety net. Though over the years they would continue to experiment and add new sonic touches and world music influences, Weather Report continued to be a jazz band. They could always count on a large group of followers who saw them in that light. Those fans would not abandon them as long as the group continued to explore.

A welcoming and anxious crowd greets the tune's opening jungle sound effects with a smattering of applause. A down beat from drummer Erskine and a Jaco Pastorius riff makes the crowd erupt. Despite its title, "Black Market" is a joyous romp. Pastorius and Zawinul play counterpoint until they join in a unison theme. Zawinul plays a simple happy melody. Shorter doubles up with Zawinul as the tune abruptly catches a groove that takes it and the crowd away. Pastorius's playing is fantastic throughout. Shorter takes a straight-ahead solo as cow bells and assorted percussion echo around him. Zawinul picks up where Shorter left off before letting his machines set off some fireworks. I mean the noises he makes sound like actual fireworks! The dominant riff returns taking the piece to where the musicians and the crowd want it to end up.

Weather Report was always best when they didn't take themselves too seriously. That is what happens on "Black Market."

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Warne Marsh: The Nearness of You

Warne Marsh's 1983 session for A Ballad Album seems to promise some lyrical, late-night performances from the celebrated tenorist. But Marsh is more the logician than the romantic on this track, constructing his lines with architectonic precision. Frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way. Few improvisers do a better job of building creative phrases to fit the old chord changes than Marsh, and he is one artist who is at his best when he is the most analytical. This ballad is like a slo-mo replay, in which the tenorist's relaxed approach and the slow tempo give us a chance to savor every little twist and turn. My only gripe is that Marsh doesn't stretch his solo out for another chorus or two.

June 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Don Immel: Long Way Home

This title track to trombonist Immel's Long Way Home CD captures a dreamy film noir quality. Immel has a deep background in classical music and clearly knows the jazz vocabulary, but he might want to consider a career shift to scoring soundtracks. His music evokes potent visual imagery and possesses a persuasive narrative quality. I wish the rhythms here were a little more potent. This artist might be better served by a setting that was not quite so smooth-jazz-ish. But Immel's trombone playing is first rate, and is especially noteworthy for his warm, full tone and great phrasing. Don't be surprised to hear this track on the radio.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: First Take

It is certainly no coincidence that the development of the rhythm section coincides with the progression of the great jazz bandleaders. This unwritten codependency is indispensable to jazz history. Ornette Coleman launched a series of firsts with Free Jazz, not least importantly the collectively improvising "double rhythm section" that ironically stripped away everything except the bare minimum of bass and drums. Also note- worthy is the reputation of section mates LaFaro, Haden, Higgins and Blackwell as consciously melodic players, contrasted by their intense, seemingly random playing here. But behind the occasional chaos of "First Take" ultimately lies the same melodic players searching for and finding their melody, forever legitimizing the option to be "set free."

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Art Pepper: Star Eyes

Art Pepper doesn't meet "a" rhythm section on this 1957 date – he meets the rhythm section. Best known for their tenure with Miles Davis (with whom they were still working at this time), Garland, Chambers and Jones combined the simple sophistication of Swing Era groups with the prodigious fire of the great bebop bands. They collectively improvised, delicately supported their leader, played comfortably fast, and perhaps most importantly artfully interacted on quieter mid-tempo tunes and sensitive ballads. This team therefore pioneered the all-encompassing post-bop rhythm section – even though they were often playing bop. Perhaps most illuminating here is the enormous amount of space left for Pepper, notwithstanding all three rhythm section mates playing plenty of notes. Their sympathetic musicality allowed for Pepper to take his improvisation wherever he wanted – an important development in modern jazz. The rhythm section, though, with their uncanny predictions, was always a step ahead.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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The Quintet: Wee

Yes, Mingus's discontent with the audio quality of this legendary concert and his subsequent overdubbing of the bass parts remove the critical interactive nature of these fine jazz musicians at collective work. Yet I'd say it's actually still quite absorbing. Plus, even though you must strain to hear the bass and drums clearly, there are remastered versions of the original mixes to explore. Nonetheless, the musical minds at work here make this an elemental rhythm section, especially since Powell and Roach stand alongside Bird and Diz as principal bebop architects. The ferocity (and ease of ferocity) that ensued when Mingus joined forces with Powell and Roach set a new high-water mark in the bop world. During the decade or so when speed and agility were the ultimate aims of the jazz rhythm section, no combination came close to Powell, Mingus and Roach.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weather Report: Boogie Woogie Waltz

Sweetnighter marked a change of direction for Weather Report. Through the appearance of some guest musicians, especially percussionists, the band decided to get down a bit. A constant groove is present in "Boogie Woogie Waltz." Zawinul makes full use of his synthesizer arsenal, sounding at times like a guitarist playing minor chords or adding jagged punctuations. At other points he adds sound effects in conjunction with the rhythms of the piece. The most apt comparison in sense of aural similarities would be with some of Miles's stuff from Live-Evil. But it is not nearly as jarring as that material. Its steady rhythm and lack of any far-out solos make it more accessible than most of Weather Report's previous work. Wayne Shorter is toned down but locked in. The dense sense of what we call today "world rhythms" is very obvious here and would become a trend, especially in Zawinul's music, from this point on.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chick Corea: Compadres

"Compadres" is the only recorded performance of the famous Return to Forever lineup of Corea, Clarke, Di Meola and White that appeared outside the auspices of the formal group. Recorded a year before a short series of RTF reunion concerts in New York City, the tune shows a more technologically advanced sound while retaining the band's core personality.

The biggest sound difference from the mid-'70s aggregation is Corea on keyboards. The sound of his synthesizer is heavier and more polytonal. In fact, the first minute of the tune could easily be mistaken for Joe Zawinul and Weather Report. After the introductory section, the guys settle into the Return to Forever mode of Latin-influenced riffs and displays of singular virtuosity. The melody of "Compadres" is not the star. Each player except White is predictably given solo time. This is all very impressive. Meanwhile, White has plenty to do as he ratchets up the tempo until the tune becomes a driving blues-infected rocker. Also of note are some moments of humor. This is not something fusion music was known for. In particular, from left field Corea tosses in some short quotes from the old days. They sound so innocent in the context of the new music that you can't help but giggle a bit.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Wayne Shorter: As Far As The Eye Can See

While there are many popular piano and guitar trios currently making major strides in modern jazz, there aren't too many consistent rhythm sections backing musical masters. The giant exception is the Perez, Patitucci and Blade rhythm section that has backed Wayne Shorter on three successive albums. One can hear the entire history of the rhythm section in this group – the combination of classicism and modern experimentation, the blurring of barlines and great "ears" of all players in deep musical interaction, the application of Latin and African rhythms and complex American/European harmonies, and the immediate recognition of the singular sound of the Perez/Patitucci/Blade rhythm section. Note the sensitive dynamic variation behind Shorter's gradual build on this live track.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gary Burton: Country Roads

This all-star session is one giant rhythm section, and while "supergroups" often lead to a blowing session without much regard to musical interaction, this 1997 date is a fine example of many world-renowned musicians sacrificing their billboard-worthy names for high-level jazz. Holland and Haynes bounce quick ideas off of each other with the ears of seasoned masters. Whether Burton, Corea or Metheny are soloing, the others provide a gracious open space filled with tasty comping that never approaches overcrowding. The most collectively gifted rhythm section ever assembled? It's tough to argue against this one…

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Four

If there's one rhythm section that can rival the influence of the Classic Coltrane Quartet, it is Miles Davis's Second Quintet – performing during the same time period and offering a sound that is equally inventive yet poles apart yet. In contrast to the raw power of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams provided Miles with only the highest level of innate musical ability. Hancock took piano comping to new levels of harmonic, and most ingeniously rhythmic sophistication. Carter's perfection compelled listeners to concentrate on the bass (while Miles, Herbie, Wayne and Tony were playing!). And simply put, Tony Williams executed ideas with all four limbs that most only dreamed of. Miles plays with an uncharted freedom on this version of "Four," and it must be in large part because he senses that his rhythm section will support his every (unexpected) move.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Paul Bley: King Korn

It may surprise some listeners, but this 1964 rhythm section sounds like many of the rhythm sections playing in New York jazz clubs in 2008. Bley, Peacock and Motian combined elements that were just then being introduced, and created a dichotomous improvisatory style that gracefully balanced freedom and structure, chords and non-chords, classic rhythm section choices and brand new interactive experiments. On "King Korn," the telepathy between Bley and Peacock is predictably remarkable. Note how Paul Motian sounds exactly like the classic early bop drummers (especially Roach and Haynes), and in a matter of seconds creates an inventive run of never-before-heard rhythms that sounds like nobody but Paul Motian. Bley and his two famed counterparts were far ahead of their time.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Afro Blue

Everything changed during the tenure of the Classic Coltrane Quartet. The separation between leader and rhythm section members was completely and utterly blurred after Coltrane and Elvin Jones began interacting. Soloists had a clear decision to make after Trane/Elvin – either they wanted a drummer to push them to extremes, or they wanted to go in a completely different direction. Anything in between, from the mid-'60s on, would forever be viewed as a diluted imitation of Trane/Elvin. McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison are also keys here, of course – they created a building style (with McCoy's use of block chords and Garrison's careful use of repeated notes) that perfectly intensified as Coltrane and Elvin began their ascension. "Afro Blue" contains all the above, and more: classic Trane/Elvin encounters, McCoy/Garrison builds, the never-ending blurring of barlines, and the tightrope walk between straight and swung Latin rhythms.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jackie McLean: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Here is a very romantic performance by the often acerbic altoist from his late vintage ballad album Nature Boy. McLean glides over the chords with a lush tone. Instead of angular phrases or sharp tuning, we get unabashed lyricism and even a touch of sentimentality. The top-notch hard-bop rhythm section decides to follow the leader, keeping things gentle. Walton offers an especially tasty piano solo. Those who aren't familiar with this artist will want to check out his earlier Blue Note releases first. But McLean fans will enjoy this glimpse of a different facet of the altoist's musical personality.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Hank Mobley: Soul Station

Even though Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers are most often associated with Miles Davis (along with drummer Jimmy Cobb), this Hank Mobley date with drummer Art Blakey provides listeners with one of the ultimate hard-bop rhythm section lineups. The heavy swinging groove is rhythm-and-blues tinged, and the piano fills are saturated with soul and gospel music. A recurring theme of influential rhythm sections, they present a single, discernible sound that represents a distinct moment in musical time, yet they remain adaptable enough to fit that sound into any performance. On "Soul Station," they provide Hank Mobley with 9+ minutes of classic, unwavering, mid-tempo shuffle groove that contrasts with the other up-tempo or ballad tracks that dominate the remainder of the record.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Cozy Cole: Take It On Back

The universality and collective adaptability of this rhythm section allowed its various members to entertain with Cab Calloway, impeccably support Art Tatum, and just a few years later interact with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, quite literally creating the transition from swing to bop. On "Take It On Back," this group of 1930s Swing Era all stars joins forces on the eve of the aforementioned bebop (r)evolution to craft a pulsating, driving foundation that provides a blueprint for their success. Tiny Grimes is soulful on his 4-string baritone guitar (a fine aural link between the banjo and electric guitar), Slam Stewart's bowed/sung break popularizes the bass solo, and Cozy Cole's setups (might he have been the first to consistently set up hits?) propel the tune as only a melodic-minded drummer can.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Dance of the Gremlins

As evidenced throughout "Dance of the Gremlins," Jo Jones was the undisputed king of maintaining a swinging hi-hat pulse while communicating with the band through a snare or bass-drum punch. Walter Page – never one to phone in a bassline – created some of the first great directional bass performances that advanced the role of the bassist to the primary rhythmic and harmonic source. Basie and Green never seem to get in each other's way as they alternate rhythmic pulse and harmonic support. The laid-back beat placement and inventive dynamic variation of all four players throughout "Gremlins" (and nearly every other Basie track, for that matter) modernized and expanded the possibilities of the rhythm section.

It is the goal of every great rhythm section to sound like a singular, compact, swinging unit while simultaneously imparting their individual personalities into the music. None better epitomized this than the fabled "All American Rhythm Section" of Basie, Green, Page and Jones.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: A Monday Date

"Hey - say, say, say, Earl Hines – Why don't you let us in on some of that good music, Pops?" inquires Louis Armstrong at the top of this classic track.

"Well, c'mon, yeah – let's get together then," replies Hines, and in this seemingly matter-of-fact moment of friendly collaboration, the utterly inseparable relationship between the soloist/leader and his or her rhythm section is forever illuminated. Yes, even Louis needed a rhythm section to "let him in."

The music commences with a surprisingly odd 5-measure cymbal/woodblock break from Zutty Singleton (a 4-measure break and one measure of half-notes to bring in the band). Zutty reappears during Armstrong's solo, and then for a concluding 4-measure break that relates to but not does not duplicate his introductory statement. Zutty's presentation of these essential, minimal rhythms can be heard in the vocabulary of every subsequent jazz drummer, from Jo Jones to Roy Haynes to Tain Watts.

While it's always easy to glance over the banjoist, Mancy Carr's playing is a bit more nuanced than one may think on first listen. He carefully chooses accents that fit between Hines's comping to add an essential driving force to the track.

The rhythm section highlight here, to no one's surprise, is Hines himself, whose pre-dialogue introduction, pre-verse piano break, post-Armstrong-solo break, and stride comping under trombone, clarinet and trumpet solos are models for all future pianists. Note how Hines's style greatly varies when he's executing a solo break as opposed to his insightful playing behind a vocalist or instrumentalist. Early jazz interaction at its finest.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: My Man's Gone Now

British critic Max Harrison felt that the full potential of Gil Evans's charts for Miles Davis's Porgy and Bess was not realized in the recording. He based this belief largely on a letter he received from a musician on the date who claimed that the rehearsals were rushed, Evans was not a great conductor, and that as excellent as the end result turned out, it should have been even better. Harrison did not disclose the musician's identity, but Larry Hicock's biography Castles Made of Sound: The Story of Gil Evans (2002) quotes session participant Gunther Schuller by name and at length to the same effect.

Listening to a piece like "My Man's Gone Now," one could hardly imagine how it could be significantly or even noticeably improved. Serena's lamentation for her slain husband Robbins, "My Man's Gone Now" as reworked by Davis and Evans is mesmerizing from beginning to end. Miles plaintively caresses the melody with the support of Paul Chambers's resonant bass figures and an insinuating orchestral vamp, soon to be replaced by pungent brass punctuations. The tempo doubles as Miles solos thematically over the urgent pulse of Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. The orchestra's voicings display a resigned mournfulness in contrast to Miles's grieving flugelhorn cries, and the wailing brass exclamations in the closing section culminate in a dirge-like interlude by the full ensemble.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: It Ain't Necessarily So

The wistful, longing intro by Davis, cleverly utilizing the opening melodic line from "I Got Plenty of Nothin'," could just as easily have been attached to the end of the previous melancholy track, "My Man's Gone Now." It builds to a gradual crescendo before a blast from the brass that initiates Miles's improvisation on "It Ain't Necessarily So," underscored by Jimmy Cobb's kicking drumbeat. Miles then plays the theme, only to quickly enter phase two of his solo. His attack is aggressive and deadly serious, not at all jocular or lighthearted, a far cry from the tone of Sportin' Life's skeptical assessment of religion, the basis of this selection in Gershwin's opera. Miles seems to be affirming that life is, after all, very hard in Catfish Row. Evans's arrangement here is one of his sparsest, allowing Miles the spotlight except for occasional short, assertive interjections from the trumpet section. Miles ends the piece with one kissed, insolent little note, his only real acknowledgment of the cocky Sportin' Life.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Bess, You Is My Woman Now

Of the numerous jazz adaptations of Porgy and Bess in the mid-to-late 1950s – many motivated by the production of a Hollywood film version of Gershwin's opera – only one had the benefit of Gil Evans's orchestrations coupled with the lead voice of Miles Davis. Evans and Davis managed to be, at one and the same time, artistically uncompromising and popularly accessible. Ironically, the 1959 Porgy and Bess movie itself was a flop. In 1972, Ira Gershwin recalled the film rights and halted its distribution, having disliked this "Hollywoodization" of his late brother George's work. He, and subsequently his estate, proceeded to destroy every copy they could lay their hands on.

On "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," Miles's mellow flugelhorn hints at the melody in his brief intro prior to a sudden brass fanfare. Miles then delves into the theme wholeheartedly, this time answered by Bill Barber's profound tuba commentary. As Miles continues, the reeds and brass respond vigorously and sympathetically. Miles's solo is simply an exquisite melodic embellishment of the theme, his lovely and poignant flugelhorn tone carrying the day (and actually sounding more like muted trumpet). Davis is in arresting call-and-response mode with the orchestra as the piece winds down, and then in scintillating harmony with Evans's sonorous voicings at the very end.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Elli Fordyce: Dindi

Music is mainly mind-reading; it's psychokinesis among musicians, their listeners and back again. An apt singer can transmit their thoughts, and one can almost see Elli's expressions as she sings this Jobim gem. "Dindi" may mean "little jewel," or it might be taken from the Dirindi Forest near Jobim's estate; it could also be about a beloved Yorkshire terrier. With this inspired performance, Elli could make one believe almost anything. Assimilate a clairvoyant flugelhorn solo and perceptive percussion with a telepathic trio and you've got what is unknown as musical sixth sense. It's more fact than hunch that Elli was singing to her dog "Minty" and the spirit of her "Dindi," but you'd swear she's sending it out to you.

June 10, 2008 · 3 comments

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Yoon Sun Choi: Somebody Come and Play

A tribute album to songwriter Joe Raposo? If you don't recognize the name, you might be familiar with the music. And if you don't know the music . . . well you're what my young sons would call a geezer. The late Raposo (1937-1989) is the songwriter whose compositions graced Sesame Street, Electric Company and other TV shows -- especially programs (to borrow the appropriate jargon) targeted at the youngest demographic. But these songs are not for kids. At least not the way Yoon Sun Choi sings them. There is an invigorating experimental zeal that permeates this entire CD, and especially this opening track.

But maybe I spoke too fast. A certain child-like playfulness can be heard here, and the vocalist's clever reworking of this song is very much a testimony to the philosophy articulated in the its name. Somebody is coming to play here: the two artists in the recording studio. Indeed, I wish more singers would take chances like this, or bring along a pianist who, like Sacks, is such a daring accompanist. These two really go at it. I can't recall the last time I heard a vocal recording in which the pianist challenged the singer so aggressively -- and with such felicitous results.

You should also come out and play . . . play this CD, I mean. This small label release is one you might easily miss. But that would be a shame. This is one of the best jazz vocal CDs of the year.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Rollins: We Kiss in a Shadow

This 1966 date has long been a favorite Rollins recording. The title track includes Freddie Hubbard, but the remaining pieces feature this trio format – and what a rhythm section! Garrison and Jones set up the head right from the start with the bass playing it straight and the drums providing substantial interest. Rollins enters with that majestic tone, caressing this famous melody with the concentration and care one expects from his playing of this period. The short improvisation is all Sonny, but even a cursory listening to the simmering accompaniment provided by his coconspirators reveals the great ebb and flow these fellow travelers are capable of.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Django Reinhardt: Improvisation No. 2

The only solo piece on this CD finds Reinhardt doing what he does best. His explorations of melody and improvisation are legendary in the jazz canon, as borne out by this document. This is not a tossed-off bit of excess that Decca decided to release to pad a collection of outtakes. For all his blinding technique, this work finds the Belgian gypsy in a reflective mood, establishing a very cogent melodic statement right from the start. He then continues to elaborate and expand the thematic material for the rest of the recording. That said, there is a very definite structure to the piece that makes it difficult for me to envision it as completely off the cuff as one imagines an "improvisation" to be. I'm not complaining!

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck and Jimmy Rushing: There'll Be Some Changes Made

This performance erupts with joy right from the first bars of the rhythm section's introduction. Rushing's entrance sounds relaxed and perfectly in tune with his accompaniment, his great blues voice commanding the spotlight. The band sounds crisp and swings the hell off this 1922 chestnut, which was a #5 hit for Ethel Waters. Brubeck takes the first solo chorus followed by Desmond, and both get the job done in a spirited and concise manner. If I have a complaint about this gem it would be its brevity. It's over in 2:07, and I would have loved to hear everyone concerned stretch out some. Perhaps producer Teo Macero was looking for a hit single.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stanley Clarke: Hello Jeff

Jazz fusion received quite a boost when rock star guitarist Jeff Beck decided to enter the fray. Though Beck was not a composer, his stylish and engaging performances of fusion numbers written by Jan Hammer, Max Middleton and Narada Michael Walden, among others, brought more rock fans to the jazz-rock party. His getting together for this cut with Clarke and White, two members from the supergroup Return to Forever, was quite an event.

As evidenced by the song's title, Clarke really knew who he was writing for. "Hello Jeff" is drenched in Beck's guitar persona. His inimitable style makes him the owner of one of the most famous riffs Clarke has ever written. Rhythm section Clarke and White are highly paid and highly effective support players on the tune. The very accessible "Hello Jeff" could have easily fit onto Beck's mega-hit Wired without anyone batting an eye. Clarke's ability to write this type of hook-laden song kept him in the popular fusion spotlight for quite a few years.

As I write these words, Beck, Clarke and White have been revisiting fusion music. This is very welcome. I would not be surprised if they recorded again. Wishful thinking perhaps, but music this good needs to be further explored.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab

As Act II, Scene 3 of Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess (1935) opens, dawn breaks over Catfish Row. As always, daylight summons forth itinerant street peddlers. First the plaintive Strawberry Woman, and in turn the crabby Crab Man hawk their pitiful wares. In opera, expository material is often a necessary evil, throwaway stuff whose sole purpose is to move the plot along. Not so with Gershwin, who transforms the mundane into a masterful vignette of the struggle for survival. For this interpretation, Miles Davis and Gil Evans faithfully recapture the pathos of Gershwin's peddlers, yet add an ineffable, transcendent dignity. Through the gently breaking dawn of Gil's gorgeous flutes, muted trumpets and trombone/French horn choir, breaks Miles's heart-wrenching flugelhorn, crying across the ages, reminding us that just as the quiet desperation of everyday life is universal, so too is our ultimate triumph. These four minutes of music are as miraculous, mysterious and irresistibly beautiful as a sunrise.

June 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Torben Waldorff: Squealfish

The young Danish guitarist Torben Waldorff runs this catchy "Squealfish" through some relentless high-octane paces to create a compelling piece of music. The able assistance of drummer Wikan and bassist Clohesy keeps the rhythm of this weaving composition steady and always pushing forward. The singsong melody proceeds in a scalar form with synchronous playing by former Steps Ahead tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin matching the notes of Waldorff's guitar in unison. Pianist Sam Yahel takes a nice solo turn before McCaslin and Waldorff again play a series of complex duet lines that twist and turn along their orchestrated path, all the while backed by the rhythm and Yahel's pleasantly placed climbing chords. This bespeaks an accomplished piece of musicianship and simpatico. McCaslin creates an urgent sound on his horn, and Waldorff plays his guitar with a soft and muted tone so the juxtaposition of sounds works nicely together. When Waldorff solos, his guitar lines undulate smoothly and proficiently, yet his explorations feel like they are circling the music from the outside, probing until he can find the proper entry point within the proceedings, like an airplane waiting to be queued into a landing. When he does reenter the formation with McCaslin, he is immediately able to find his stride and meld beautifully. The song fades away in a final change of time.

June 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Teddy Wilson: More Than You Know

Teddy Wilson had already recorded this song as a sideman with Benny Goodman, and also under his own leadership with Billie Holiday handling the vocals. But it is a real treat to hear him, at the peak of his powers, tackle it in a solo piano format. We can enjoy his crisp touch and strong keyboard conception, still rooted in the stride piano style. A short while after this recording was made, Wilson's approach to the piano would seem old fashioned, at least to some younger fans, in the face of the mordant modernism of the boppers, but on these Keystone recordings he is very much at the forefront, ranking with Hines, Tatum and Waller as the defining keyboard stylists of the era. Here he opens with a leisurely ad lib chorus then falls into tempo with a confident two-handed conception, marked by the logic of its vertical construction and the stately momentum of his attack. I especially like the surprising harmonic movement in the coda, which was quite daring for the period.

June 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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David Sánchez: Manto Azul

This band plays with great vitality and the rhythm section creates a vibrant cushion for David Sánchez's confident tenor work. Sánchez's technical command is impressive, although I sometimes feel that he is presenting what he has worked over in the practice room rather than improvising what he hears in the moment. Guitarist Lage Lund takes a coy solo that provides a suggestive counter to Sánchez's heroics. But the star of this track, to my ears, is drummer Adam Cruz, who brings the whole composition to life. He never falls into an expected pattern, always running around the center of the beat rather than hammering it home, yet still managing to drive the performance.

June 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chubby Jackson: A Ballad For Jai

When we asked Jaijai Jackson, daughter of the late Chubby Jackson (1918-2003), to help us decipher "A Ballad For Jai," she explained: "My mother, Joan, is Jai. My father wrote the song for her, and I was named after her. When they first met, they both had the same last name. So, with all those J's around, he took to calling her Jai. The spelling was a bit different, a character trait my father was known for. With his effervescent personality, he always stood out from the crowd."

Indeed. While lamentably few present-day jazz fans even know his name, during the mid-'40s Chubby Jackson was the human dynamo who powered Woody Herman's phenomenal First Herd to levels of excitement rarely matched before or since. We therefore thought it might be "a bit different" to review not a barnburner, but one of Chubby's ballad performances, recorded a decade after his glory days with Herman (shown on the album cover conferring a diploma upon his nearly 40-year-old graduate).

Jackson's composition "A Ballad For Jai" is a lovely and dramatic 4-minute tribute, with Fred Carlin's arrangement effectively offsetting full brass voicings against delicate touches by flutes and bass clarinet. There are no improvised solos, but the entire band contributes a stirring ensemble performance that will linger in your mind's ear long after the track has ended.

Carrying on the family tradition, Jaijai Jackson is now a highly visible web jazz presence whose latest project, The Jazz Network, is a treat-filled virtual community of musicians, fans and friends from around the globe. She quotes her dad as once observing philosophically: "When it comes to giggin', it's either Carnegie Hall or Carnegie Deli." We think the Jackson clan, with its blend of class and corned beef, represents the best of both worlds.

June 08, 2008 · 3 comments

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Dizzy Gillespie (featuring Mary Lou Williams): Selections from Zodiac Suite

Zodiac Suite was the first of many long-form compositions Mary Lou Williams produced during her lengthy and distinguished career. By its 1945 premiere at New York's Town Hall, however, Williams had finished just three of Zodiac's projected 12 parts, each intended as a tonal portrait of her musician friends born under that respective sign. The under-rehearsed and poorly attended concert left Mary Lou traumatized, but the event nonetheless transformed her reputation from, as she herself noted, "Boogie Woogie Queen" to "musicians' musician."

Twelve years later, having essentially retired from public performance, the introspective perfectionist had to be coaxed by Dizzy Gillespie to appear with him at the Newport Jazz Festival—for a more musicianly than queenly fee of $300.

In these three selections, arranged by trombonist Melba Liston, an upbeat "Virgo" (The Virgin) depicts "more intellectual than emotional personalities" among Williams's circle. "Libra" (The Scale) honors such well-balanced lovers of art and beauty as her fellow pianists Tatum, Monk and Powell, plus Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. (The idea that Monk, Powell and Parker might be considered well balanced speaks volumes about astrology.) "Aires" (The Ram) signifies "moody pioneers" Billie Holiday and Ben Webster.

This live recording is a mixed bag. Gillespie's overlong spoken and ultimately instrumental introduction consumes nearly 2½ minutes of a 10½-minute track. Once Zodiac Suite finally begins, its sole soloist Miss Williams sounds not the least rusty after her long absence from the stage. But the Newport piano is not as well tuned as it could've been, and the overall audio quality is less than ideal, even by 1957 standards. Moreover, as with most Dizzy Gillespie-led big bands, loudness is equated with macho conquest. Even so, this signaled a comeback of sorts for Mary Lou Williams, and everyone involved must be commended.

Thanks to what astronomers call "precession of the equinoxes," the 12 zodiacal signs in Western astrology no longer correspond to the original celestial coordinates of their constellations, meaning any link between a sign and its presumed divinatory functions is hogwash. Fortunately, you don't have to subscribe to the horoscope to appreciate Zodiac Suite.

June 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sonny Rollins & Coleman Hawkins: Just Friends

These two tenor legends may have been "just friends," but there is still an aggressive edge to this encounter. Rollins was flirting with the avant-garde during this turbulent stage in his musical development. But here, instead of Don Cherry, Coleman Hawkins is his front-line partner. Even so, Rollins still pushes toward the outside, especially during the closing moments of this track when he tosses out disjointed phrases behind Hawkins's melody statement. This partnership never really coheres to my satisfaction. Rollins is in an exploratory mood, while Hawkins is trying to get more of a swinging groove happening. Nonetheless, the individual solos are smartly done, and there is inevitably a certain fascination in watching so much sax history compressed into a 4½-minute track.

June 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ahn Trio: My Funny Valentine

Those Ahn sisters sure look great in their Vogue magazine feature. Wow, check out the Ahn sister in GQ. Did you see those Ahn gals in People? Their clothes are first rate. I wonder who picks out their wardrobe.

Oh, here I see in the liner notes: makeup by Elaine Madelon, hair by Christaan, jewelry by Marie Lee and wardrobe by five different designers! And further contributions by stylist Aeri Yun. They really pulled out the stops, and it shows in every snapshot. You go girls!

Ah, I see there is a CD that comes along with the photos. Hmm, pleasant background music for my perusing of Vogue magazine. And not too loud or noticeable, nothing to shake me out of my fashion reverie. Maybe a little schlocky and Muzak-ish. But who cares. These photos are hot!

June 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stanley Clarke: Lopsy Lu

The musicians on Stanley Clarke were a who's who of the early fusion movement. If basketball could be played with four players, this band would have been the Eastern Conference all-stars. Leader Clarke and guitarist Connors represented the Return to Forever team. Jan Hammer came from the Mahavishnu Orchestra team, and Tony Williams had been player-coach of his own trailblazing unit the Tony Williams Lifetime.

"Lopsy Lu" is a gallivanting number. Shooting guard Williams opens with a quasi-march beat. In rhythm with Williams, center Clarke starts some funky plucking from the top of the fretboard. The two mesh. The beat becomes very similar to that heard on Miles's A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Tony is Billy Cobham and Stanley is Michael Henderson. After a bounce pass from Clarke, point guard Hammer starts shooting jumpers. Nobody has ever played the Moog synthesizer like Jan Hammer. Guitarist and small forward Connors rebounds a Hammer riff and heads up court on a fast break. The team lays the basketball up and in. If they needed a fifth player to make things official, perhaps they could have invited a violinist. But this jazz-rock workout has plenty of scorers.

June 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Larry Coryell & Alphonse Mouzon: Transvested Express

Larry Coryell and Alphonse Mouzon were important factors in the early history of fusion. Power drummer and part-time movie actor Mouzon is probably best known in the jazz world for his stint with Coryell's Eleventh House band. Eleventh House, propelled by Mouzon's drumming on several of its releases and Coryell's fiery guitar on all of them, resided on the top step of the second tier of fusion band hierarchy. The band could be quite impressive, but never reached the performance levels of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report or Return to Forever.

Back Together Again marked a reunion for Coryell and Mouzon after Eleventh House. But, truth be told, it had been only two years since they played in that band. So these were not some long-lost souls getting back together after decades of separation. Coryell and Mouzon, as expected, show great affinity for each other's playing. But the joys of this track are its compositional scope, the interesting arrangement and interplay of Philip Catherine and Larry Coryell on acoustic guitars. The two players were frequent collaborators, so the quality of their sympathetic playing could be expected. However, the sound of two acoustic guitars playing the strummed-chords introduction provides a unique contrast to Mouzon's bashing. Catherine and Coryell bounce back and forth between acoustic and electric throughout. The tune sure was on some sort of express. Amid changing tempos, time signatures and instrumentation, the tune takes you on quite a creative ride.

You have to look at the title "Transvested Express" twice to make sure it doesn't read the way you thought it read. Even so, it is still difficult to understand its meaning. All of the definitions I could find lead in the same direction – or many changing directions – as the character of the composition implies. I suppose it could be just as simple as Philip Catherine having a man's first name and a woman's last name. Yeah, that must be it.

June 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever: Vulcan Worlds

Where Have I Known You Before marked the most significant change in Corea's Return to Forever group. It was on this album that a 19-year-old guitarist named Al Di Meola first appeared as a member of the band, replacing Bill Connors. This personnel change would create the band's most effective and ultimately most famous lineup.

The whole group burns on Clarke's "Vulcan Worlds." Corea began heavy-duty use of the new synthesizer technology beginning with this album. His style on the new toys, which he would further develop, is instantly unique. Di Meola's solo turn is a revelation. John McLaughlin had a new challenger for fusion guitar god! It's scary. As impressive as Di Meola's playing is on the cut, it still comes across as a bit tentative compared to the speed and relentless precision he would obtain on future records. Double scary. Clarke is even more impressive than Di Meola in the turn that follows. And speaking of double – Lenny White is in double-time most of the time. The tune ends with a rave-up fusion hymn. Good-bye old Return to Forever. Hello music history.

June 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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John La Barbera Big Band: Walk on the Wild Side Suite

Maybe it's the genes, or growing up in a musically nurturing upstate New York family, or both; whatever the case, the brothers La Barbera have founded a formidable jazz dynasty. Celebrated trumpeter/arranger/ composer/bandleader/educator John La Barbera made his mark with Buddy Rich, where he survived the gauntlet as a member of the trumpet section to eventually become Buddy's principal composer and arranger, an association that would last for 19 years. Additionally, his works have been recorded by Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Tormé and Phil Woods, among others. His older brother Pat, best known for his nearly three decades of tenor work with Elvin Jones, also performed with Buddy, as well as a range of notables from Woody Herman to Santana. Younger brother Joe forged his reputation on drums with Bill Evans, Chuck Mangione, Art Farmer and Tony Bennett.

Walk on the Wild Side, one of Elmer Bernstein's greatest soundtracks, gave life to the gritty emotion and hard-luck urban struggle of Nelson Algren's 1956 novel, brought to the screen in 1962 by director Edward Dmytryk. Here John La Barbera's electrifying arrangement manages to shed the stiff orchestral baggage of the original film score. After a short bass ostinato, the band swings hard into the now-familiar head, setting the stage for Pat La Barbera's throaty tenor. Growling and threatening, his solo is kicked along by brother Joe's tight drum work and a screaming horn section in a scorching 6/8 romp. As the band transitions into the suite's dreamy, plaintive middle sections entitled "Night Song" and "Rejected," Brian Scanlon's soprano sax poignantly conjures the lament of Algren's "po' buckra" white trash lost in a neon wilderness.

All in all, John La Barbera's "Walk on the Wild Side" is a seamless, volatile stroll down Perdido Street, a steamy detour on the way to Perdition. It is also a reminder of a time not so long ago, when big band jazz ruled the American film soundscape.

June 06, 2008 · 2 comments

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Sonny Rollins: Grand Street

Sonny Rollins had been recording steadily for 9½ years, but this was his first big band date. Of course, Sonny always did things differently, so in this case trumpets, trombones and tuba are offset by just one saxophonist. When the latter is Sonny Rollins, who needs more? Veteran arranger Ernie Wilkins, who began his own recording career two years ahead of Rollins with Earl Hines's big band, had since crafted charts for such big-name bandleaders as Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Dizzy Gillespie, Terry Gibbs and most notably Count Basie ("Every Day I Have the Blues"). If anyone could lay out a Sonny-set boulevard for Rollins' big-band debut, it was Ernie Wilkins. And sure enough, "Grand Street" is a broad Cartesian thoroughfare of intersecting treats. Given that Rollins had lately taken to working with a pianoless trio, the piano comping seems superfluous, and there's a lackluster guitar solo. But Nat Adderley's cornet is cogent, and Wilkins makes fine use of Don Butterfield's tuba. Best of all, the brassy trumpets give us a rare opportunity to hear one of jazz's great tenormen in an Elmer Bernstein-style 1950s crime jazz setting. Plus Roy Haynes! There are no wrong turns on this "Grand Street."

Caveat: Sonny Rollins & The Big Brass (Verve 557545) preserves the full-length version of this track, whereas some other releases offer a shortened edit with a truncated finish. You wouldn't think a few extra seconds could make much difference, but in this case they do. It's a great ending, and why any record label would see fit to amputate it defies rational explanation.

June 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: Egocentric Molecules

In the 1970s, it seemed Jean-Luc Ponty was putting an album out every three months. They say you must strike while the iron is hot. What better way to compress the time needed to produce an LP than by recording a live album featuring Ponty's hits culled from over the last several months? Boy, I miss those days. There was a new fusion record available every six minutes.

"Egocentric Molecules" first appeared on Ponty's Cosmic Messenger. It is given a wonderful frenetic treatment for this lucky crowd. The first solo is taken by guitarist Lieviano. It rocks! Ralphe Armstrong then puts his bass through the paces. He uses some distortion which was totally out of character for him. Ponty's solo wailing is reminiscent of his performances on Mahavishnu's Visions of the Emerald Beyond. His sustained notes fill a vacuum and eventually break though its container. An abrupt end to the song brings the crowd to its feet. Very few musicians could thrill an audience the way Ponty could when he was a fusion god.

June 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: Cosmic Messenger

"Cosmic Messenger" is a gentle spaced-out jazz-rock ballad. Guitarists Maanu and Lieviano create a slow spatial arpeggio round-robin. Ponty plays pizzicato through some sort of echo device. The guitarists then double-up on the theme. Ponty soon joins them in soaring mode. Ponty then goes effects crazy – although at a very slow tempo. Reverb, echoes and perhaps some early form of looping are all heard. Scheuerell's measured elastic drumming offers calming reassurance. The ambience created is meditative and relaxing. This is a state of mind I wish more messengers would deliver.

There weren't too many fusion ballads floating around back then. But educated jazz-rock audiences grew to appreciate them as diners appreciate a sorbet between courses. You need to cleanse that palate to get ready for the next over-the-top fusion anthem. There is something funny about fusion ballads. If you sped them up by a power of two, they became fusion anthems.

June 05, 2008 · 1 comment

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Jean-Luc Ponty: The Trans-Love Express

To many Jean-Luc Ponty aficionados, Enigmatic Ocean was the best album he ever released. Certainly this track is among his best jazz-rock forays. Ralphe Armstong, the bassist Ponty brought with him from the second incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, lays down a fat directional bassline. Holdsworth's solo is grungy enough to create a counterpoint to Ponty's clean violin lines. The slightest bit of funk enters via Armstrong and Smith. But it is that polite funk that doesn't harm anyone. Ponty mastered the commercial market for fusion at the time by providing hook-laden tunes of short, radio-friendly duration. Plenty of DJs found time to spin this 4-minute track leading into their hourly newscasts. It would still fit that purpose today – if there were any damn jazz-rock DJs left.

June 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: New Country

Arguably, "New Country" is the most popular tune Ponty ever wrote and performed. At the time of its release, you couldn't walk two steps without hearing it from some radio. It is a hook-filled hoedown of European fusion and bluegrass. At the time, this was not something you would ordinarily have associated with the French sophisticate Ponty. Would he next pull on a pair of cowboy boots? I guess, maybe. After all, he did play "Montana" with Frank Zappa.

The perfectly radio-timed 3-minute "New Country" is a toe-tapping and handclapping excursion. The rapid staccato opening and closing theme is played in unison by Stuermer and Ponty. In between, you can't help but be caught up in the song's aggressive swinging rhythms and ingratiating riffs. Ponty is a fiddler here, not a violinist. Stuermer's acoustic guitar playing is outstanding. The song is over before you know it. Pass the sarsaparilla.

Back in the day, "New Country" was my least favorite of all of Jean-Luc Ponty's tunes. I couldn't stomach even a hint of country music at that time. I still can't. However, over the years to a certain extent I have come to appreciate one of its progeny in the form of newgrass because of its jazz qualities. In hindsight, Jean-Luc Ponty's "New Country" was a major step for the "newgrass" movement of which he was not even a part. Years later in 2006, Ponty was asked to perform his composition with the leading newgrass star mandolin player Sam Bush on his album Laps in Seven. I think it is safe to say that "New Country" is probably the only fusion piece that has ever been played at a square dance.

June 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Benny Carter: A Foggy Day

Charlie Parker was the king of the saxophone when this track was recorded, and every alto player was under Bird's sway. Well, not every one . . . Benny Carter was laying down some heavy alto lines like bebop never happened. And it's hard not to be captivated by the proceedings here. Carter's tone, his ideas, his sense of swing were delightful then, and still are today. As with so many Carter solos, this is one that, after you hear it a few times, you will start singing along with the record. And if Carter is the Cosmopolite that gives this project its name, then Oscar Peterson is the ultimate gentleman, pulling out the Nat King Cole imitation that he saved for moments such as this, guiding the rhythm section and maintaining the Swing Era ambiance of the date.

June 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal: Here's That Rainy Day

Here's one version of "Rainy Day" where you can actually hear the storm. Martial Solal may have been almost 80 years old when he recorded this track, but he plays with the restless, probing energy of a much younger artist. This music is full of angular phrases and acerbic chords. Even his statement of the familiar Jimmy Van Heusen melody is indirect and attenuated. You may think that European pianism is mostly lyrical stylings, but Solal, the granddaddy of them all (he was gigging with Bechet and Django before the stars of the ECM roster were born) will quickly dispel that notion. This performance is like a ship on choppy waters -- you reach out and try to grab hold of something, and it quickly slides away. Many artists become rigid traditionalists as the decades advance, but Solal takes the opposite course, moving farther and farther out on a limb.

June 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: (If The) Misfits (Wear It)

Here is a glimpse of Keith Jarrett the avant-garde experimentalist, the combo leader who built a band around former Ornette Coleman sidemen, the artist who constantly staked out new territory with every LP. No standards here, I'm afraid. Jarrett was a different cat completely back during the Nixon administration. He plays with ferocious pianism in the opening moments of this track. Instead of the typical comping chords and jazzy right-hand phrases that most keyboardists bring to work every day, Jarrett dishes out flurries of notes, a biting sandstorm of sound. Then midway through the performance, he stops playing the piano completely, and we might as well be back in Ornette's band. "Chord changes? We don't need no stinkin' chord changes!" Later, when Jarrett starts playing soprano, matching up with Redman in the front line, who can be surprised? Fans of this band were so used to the unexpected that nothing could shake them by this point. But those who only know Jarrett from "Over the Rainbow" and "My Funny Valentine" might be shaken and stirred by this early vintage performance.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shakti: La Danse Du Bonheur

In the mid-1970s, "La Danse Du Bonheur" was a real showstopper in concert for Shakti. When the modern version of the Shakti band, Remember Shakti, hit the road again in the late '90s, the tune was resurrected with the same result. Co-written by McLaughlin and L. Shankar, "La Danse Du Bonheur" is the indo-jazz equivalent of a Western "feel good" song.

An engaging Indian vocal call and response (konokol) begins the tune. Per tradition, these voices establish the rhythm cycle of the upbeat, sing-songy piece. Violinist Shankar plays the melody and takes the only solo, with McLaughlin playing Western chords as backing. Climbing up and down the octaves with increasing rapidity and emotion, Shankar uses every possible position on the neck. The drumming is remarkably fast and precise. Brevity and harmony are not as integral a part of Indian music as they tend to be in the Western forms. But "La Danse Du Bonheur," almost more than any other Shakti tune, is shorter and contains more harmonic elements. This is perhaps the reason non-Indian fans of the new music this band brought to the table were better able to identify with it. They got swept up in its joyful message, which easily transcends any musical idiom.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ben Wolfe: No Pat No

Starting with Hutchinson's driving trap and cymbal work pushing Wolfe's plump basslines in the intro, we are led to the raucous horn work of Marcus Strickland, who plays tenor more like the biting alto of Jackie McLean to my ear. Perdomo's keyboard accompaniment behind Strickland is well matched. Throughout this tight, swinging 3-minute piece, Wolfe and Hutchinson play an up-tempo line that never falters, accentuated only by Perdomo's succulent solo keyboard work and the vital-sounding Strickland's pungent horn lines. Wolfe's subtle arrangement of backing strings is tasteful and subdued, adding just enough legato to the bassist's bouncing beat. He utilizes nice breaks in time and tempos to emphasize his musical statement, which is basically precision swing at its best. The melody line is catchy, and Wolfe should be commended for a triple threat here. He plays a fluid, driving bass throughout, he has composed and arranged a potent swinger that showcases his chops to great effect with well-placed breaks and bends, and he deftly inserts strings in a complementary fashion that is woven into the fabric of the tune and not just tacked on like some clever afterthought. A talent to be followed.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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George Schuller: The Survivors' Suite

In 1935, One Bull attempted to revive the Sun Dance among the Teton Sioux after decades of government prohibition, and his efforts contributed to the eventual reestablishment of a time-honored tradition that is now flourishing in Native American culture. George Schuller's recording of Keith Jarrett's The Survivors' Suite, some three decades after Jarrett's so-called "American Quartet" made its only recording of the composition, reminds me of this singular event. Schuller's successful staging of the Jarrett work takes on a larger ceremonial aspect that is in keeping with the character of this music. Jarrett's work from this period often reminded one of the depth and power of a ritual, and Schuller understands this aspect well. His performance builds with confidence, a stately and powerful unfolding that energizes almost 20 minutes of music-making. There is much to appreciate here: from the small details of percussion and bass counterpoint to the forceful sax contribution from McCaslin. But above all, the sheer sweep and vision of the compositional flow earn our respect. This, my friends, is not a mere "cover" version. Rather, as with any powerful ritual, this one channels its own unique energies by moving in the same paths as the most attuned spirits of the past.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Maxine Sullivan: Massachusetts

In contrast to Anita O'Day's 1942 Paul Revere-style charge through "Massachusetts" rousing Gene Krupa's Swing Era minutemen, Maxine Sullivan saunters around the Commonwealth at a leisurely pace, savoring the scenery from Charlie Shavers's trumpet-drawn carriage. With its hint of raspberry rasp and straight-to-the-point delivery, Sullivan's voice sounds like it's been lived in. And while the living ain't been easy, that don't mean you can't have a good time! Accordingly, Shavers's cup-muted trumpet and vocal interjections catch the lighthearted air with oxygenated mirth. Pianist Dick Hyman—decades before scoring many of Woody Allen's finest films, including the jazz-themed Sweet and Lowdown (1999)—joins trusty tandem Hinton & Johnson for an infectiously swinging rhythm section. But Maxine Sullivan, indigenous to another Commonwealth altogether (Pennsylvania), guides our tour through "Massachusetts" with the affectionate authority of a born-and-bred Bay Stater. This track is as quietly mischievous as young children hiding Papa's cell phone while he snoozes, then calling him from the land line. Their giggles are too sweet to scold.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stan Kenton & June Christy: Prelude to a Kiss

Stan Kenton is sometimes dismissed by his critics as the king of bombast. And in truth, Kenton often went for super-size when others would opt for Slim-Fast. But this session showcases the subtle side of Kenton, matched up in intimate piano-voice duets with June Christy. The setting gives us a chance to enjoy the pianist's rich harmonic palette, often lost amidst the juggernaut of his big band. At times on this track he sounds positively Ellingtonian. But Christy is the party who benefits most from Kenton's unilateral disarmament. Her voice blossoms in the open spaces and fresh air, and one can't help wishing that she had done more recordings of this sort. As it stands, the Duet project is one of her finest moments of the 1950s.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: The Survivors' Suite

As with so many other Jarrett extended combo works from this period (such as "Mysteries" and "Death and the Flower"), The Survivors' Suite takes on a majestic (and sometimes somber) ceremonial tone. Listening to this performance, I can't help recalling anthropologist Victor Turner's emphasis on the linkages between artistic performance and rituals, connections that have slowly been drained out of art-making in the postmodern era, where the sting of irony seems ever present. The Survivors' Suite, in contrast, is an irony-free zone, music-making as serious as the title might indicate.

The first movement's opening is almost an invocation, a summoning of spirits. The piano does not show up until almost nine minutes into the performance. But this is no surprise to listeners familiar with the work of Jarrett's so-called "American Quartet," which was a master of the slow build, of a gradually intensifying soundscape. Nothing is rushed here, and as in a ritual, even the smallest gesture resonates with rich layers of meaning. The second movement is freer and fiercer, a shaman's possession dance which resists limits and constraints, yet still retains its larger-than-life ceremonial aspects. Even when the tonal center emerges, and the chord changes return to guide the performance to its terminus, this sense of transcendence remains.

Those who know Jarrett through his solo piano efforts or his well-documented trio work should familiarize themselves with this piece, and the American Quartet's other works from the era. You may be surprised at how generously (and movingly) Jarrett sublimates his own pianism to a larger sense of combo and composition. All too soon, this period in his career would pass. Shortly after this recording, this fertile ensemble disbanded and Jarrett headed off in other directions.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Death and the Flower

Keith Jarrett delighted in subverting the familiar conventions of the piano-led jazz band with his early 1970s combo work. He relied on Redman and Haden, fire tested in the school of Ornette, who didn't really need chords from the keyboard to guide their musical journeys. And sometimes Jarrett would step away from the piano himself. The instrument does not even appear until some six minutes into this track. Instead we have a delicate web of percussion underpinning wood flute, and eventually Haden's bass enters throbbing like a slow heartbeat. But Jarrett's solo, when it arrives, is worth the wait. His touch and melodic inventiveness are shown off to good effect. Tone control, always one of his strengths, is especially evident here, with Motian and Haden giving him space and dynamic room to make best use of his ethereal pianissimo. Redman imposes a more macho attitude when his tenor enters the fray, and one can hear the whole group adjusting. In fact, the give-and-take throughout this entire performance is noteworthy. Jarrett doesn't so much lead this band as immerse himself into its suchness. Yet his composition serves as the fluid structure that makes it all possible. This extended work (some 22 minutes) is essential listening for anyone who wants to come to grips with the artistry of pre-Standards Jarrett.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Von Freeman: Portrait of John Young

Like father, like son? Not so in this case. Von Freeman's son, Chico, began recording regularly at age 27, but Von's first date as a leader didn't come until he reached 50, and even then only through the influence at Atlantic Records of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who also produced Doin' It Right Now. Freeman's playing here and on two Nessa releases to follow, Have No Fear and Serenade & Blues, secured the reputation of this legendary Chicago tenorman. For some, Freeman was an acquired taste. His wavering tone, especially on ballads, could lead one to conclude that he was out of tune or simply unpolished. However, once you accepted his idiosyncrasies and listened closely, his inventiveness and depth of expression could easily sweep you away.

Another local Chicago legend, pianist John Young, was on hand for this date, and Freeman unselfishly acknowledged him by recording "Portrait of John Young." The theme sounds almost like something out of Fiddler on the Roof, especially in the deliberate and yearning way Freeman initially approaches it. But as soon as he launches his solo, we enter the land of invigorating hard bop. With his swift, tumbling lines, punched-out notes and phrases, and fervent wailing inflections, his playing possesses a constant and quite compelling momentum and edge. Another Chicago tenor, Johnny Griffin, is brought to mind. Young follows with glistening runs and an attractive bell-like tone, his strong left-hand accents enhancing and complementing his relentless attack. Freeman returns with more heated expressions before revisiting the theme, this time at a more insistent up-tempo, which changes its character entirely.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chico Freeman: It Never Entered My Mind

Chico Freeman and David Murray both emerged onto the avant-garde jazz scene in the mid-'70s, and both would go on to embrace the Great American Songbook as well as more contemporary jazz standards. Freeman beat all his peers to the punch in that regard, however, with his unexpected 1979 Spirit Sensitive release. Given the influence of his father, Von, perhaps his choice of tunes such as "Autumn in New York," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and "It Never Entered My Mind" should not have been a surprise. "My father is so serious and dedicated," Chico said at the time. "I've seen that in his life every day. I used to listen to him practice all the time." While Chico sounds nothing like his father, his schooling in the jazz tradition was evident from his first recordings.

"It Never Entered My Mind" begins with Hicks's melodic piano intro before Freeman enters with a graceful arpeggio and plays the theme with a warm and rich Chicago tenor sound, tinged with a touch of that crying edge Coltrane possessed on ballads. Chico's solo is unabashedly melodic, surefooted and enticing. Hicks then solos rhapsodically, and Freeman reenters to sing the standard once again. The out-chorus is a delight. As Freeman introduces a dancing rhythmic pattern and switches to more intense multi-noted lines and swirling circular phrases, the piece suddenly turns into a heady Charles Lloyd/"Forest Flower"- flavored romp. Sublime playing that stands the test of time.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tete Montoliu: Straight, No Chaser

Thelonious Monk was unquestionably one of the greatest American composers of the 20th century. The fact that he also had a sparse piano style as distinctive and unique as his compositions put the final and definitive stamp on his body of work. A solo pianist such as Tete Montoliu, with his virtuosic and florid style, could either restrict his usual approach to better conform to Monk's roadmap, or just be himself and mold or adapt Monk to suit his own musical personality. Montoliu chose the latter path for his superb CD recital of Monk tunes.

The blind Catalonian could occasionally sound glib and superficial, letting his prodigious technique propel him through a piece with predictable, repetitious runs and little emotional depth. None of that is apparent on "Straight No Chaser." Tete starts out surprisingly with a tender, classically flavored short treatment of Monk's "Jackie-ing," with Monkish splays of dissonance for seasoning, before gliding seamlessly into the staccato theme of "Straight No Chaser." He unleashes daring single-note lines with firm left-hand commentary, sometimes bringing to mind the touch and glossy sound of Art Tatum, and at other times the exuberance of Bud Powell, as in his quick allusion to "Parisian Thoroughfare." Montoliu inventively mixes in a bluesy interlude, some pounding chords, and a walking bassline to add variety to his improvisation. The pianist's return to the melody gives way to a gentle coda and one final stabbed note in the best Monk tradition, as he craftily segues into the second tune of the program, "Reflections." This is Montoliu at his focused, creative best.

June 04, 2008 · 1 comment

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Gary Morgan & Panamericana!: Moragatu

Gary Morgan formed his orchestra PanAmericana! in 1997 to perform primarily Brazilian jazz composed by himself and others. His roots as an admirer of Gil Evans, as a student of Herb Pomeroy at Berklee College, and for seven years as a saxophonist with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, are all apparent in Morgan's full-bodied orchestrations.

There was a time when it seemed that the then wildly popular bossa nova was synonymous with Brazilian jazz, overshadowing even the samba. In recent years, however, Morgan, Hendrik Meurkens, Felipe Salles, Trio da Paz and many others have also been exploring various regional rhythms. "Moragatu" combines the baião and the maracatú. Except for Ben Kono's engaging hard-bop tenor solo midway, this piece is a showcase for Morgan's arranging skills. The sprightly theme appears to be played by flutes and clarinet with French horn counterpoint, but with textures this thick, it is hard to be certain. There are expressive written parts for plunger-muted "wah-wah" voicings by the trumpets, as well as for staccato bursts from open trumpets. The rhythm section and additional percussionists are outstanding, their stimulating rhythmic variations and overall emphatic support key factors in the success of this engrossing performance. In case you haven't noticed, Brazilian jazz appears to be in a renaissance, thanks largely to groups such as this.

June 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lenny White: Mating Drive

This performance was recorded while Lenny White was still an active member of Return to Forever. "Mating Drive" is an unrepentant riff-fest. White's proclivity to funk things up is totally absent. The tune opens with some atmospherics probably provided by the combination of Allan and Young on keyboards, who could make their instruments do some crazy things back in the day. White backs them with a rapid pulse beat. A melody is presented for a second or two and then dispensed with. Guitarists Gomez and Rodrigues go at it tooth and nail. Many times their unison lines sound like a single electric violinist. This sound was very "in" at the time. A great treat is to hear the legendary organist Larry Young on this unadulterated fusion paean. He plays a more straight-ahead organ on "Mating Drive," which is quite a digression from his other recordings during this period. What a player! This tune is principally made of one outrageous mantra-like riff after another. Good stuff!

June 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lenny White: Heavy Metal Monster

Drummer Lenny White's fortuitous inclusion in the fusion supergroup Return to Forever will always be his most famous calling card. But like other noted jazz-rock drummers of his day, such as Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and Alphonse Mouzon, White was deemed worthy by record executives to front his own band to try and grab a piece of the fusion commercial pie. White was different from other fusion drummers of the day, who really depended upon the muscularity of their drumming to carry the fusion banner. White had some of that power, though a bit less than the others I mentioned. White showed off the more funky side of rhythm, especially on his own records. This style was an acquired taste, and many rabid fusion fans (including myself) never entirely glommed onto it. But thousands did, and White developed a loyal following.

I am not sure "Heavy Metal Monster" lives up to its title, but it is a fine jazz-rock tune, full of sustained power guitar chords and modern 1977 synth sounds. While its underpinning is jazz-funk, there is enough full-strength fusion seeping out of its pores to claim its rightful place in the genre. Guitarist Moroch and synth player Gleeson carry on an aggressive and impressive call and response as White and bassist Blake funk it up – but not too much.

June 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Brian Blade: Omni

Brian Blade is one of the most vital and exciting drummers on the current jazz scene, and his presence has enlivened a host of recordings in recent years. Here he steps to the fore as a leader and composer. Throughout this CD, Blade dispels the stereotyped view that drummer-led bands quickly collapse into percussion excess. Indeed, at virtually every decisive moment on the Season of Changes release, Blade sublimates his ego for the greater good of the band. A track such as "Omni," with its slow and stately 6/8 rhythm, is anything but a drum feature. But make no mistake about it, Blade's superb drum work creates tremendous tension and excitement at every twist and turn in this performance. This is almost a textbook example of how to create ebb and flow in a musical work -- in particular check how the energy level builds during the tenor solo, only to crest and subside for Cowherd's pastoral piano interlude. No mindless beats here, no empty grooves -- this music lives and breathes.

June 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gong: Soli

Gong had gone through several incarnations by the time drummer Pierre Moerlen became firmly ensconced as its leader. This changing of the guard was made clear by the band's new name (Pierre Moerlen's Gong), which did not become official, however, until after release of this album, the last under the band's Virgin contract. Always a percussive unit, Gong became even more so after the leadership change and the inclusion of a new rhythm section member. Bassist Hansford Rowe, who had recently met Moerlen, became an important cog in the Gong machinery. Allan Holdsworth was still the fusion band's guitarist. Gong's music fell under the subcategory of "European fusion," which had a bit warmer side than its U.S. counterpart.

"Soli," composed by Rowe, begins with a short bass statement followed by Holdsworth's anthem-like rejoinder. The obligatory, but good, bass solo follows. From there the tune is dominated by its rhythms, which include Benoit Moerlen's timekeeping and melodic vibraphone soloing. The vibraphone, rarely used in fusion, became a real trademark sound for this band. Over the constant chug, Holdsworth reenters with some blazing exultations. Pleasing chord changes and a softer edge, provided once again by the vibes, permeate the remainder of the song.

In 1977 the fusion revolution was just beginning to wane. But this performance is further evidence that good music was still being produced, and that Gong continued to be among the best of the European jazz-rock bands.

June 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Pat Martino: Line Games

The very fine jazz guitarist Pat Martino has produced some wonderful music over the years. In the midst of the 1970s fusion movement, he was well on his way to making a huge mark. Before he could totally follow through on his promise, he was struck down by a life-threatening brain aneurism in 1980. Surgery for that condition caused him to suffer amnesia. He had to totally relearn how to play guitar! Martino successfully overcame his musical amnesia to become one of contemporary jazz's finest guitarists.

"Line Games" is the strongest cut on Joyous Lake. Martino and keyboardist Delmar Brown play the melody in unison before they go their separate ways. Martino's solo is a high-speed choppy whirl of scalar riffs and truncated arpeggios. When the theme returns it is an impressive display of modern bebop lines, with bassist Leonard much more involved. Drummer Dennard adds extra accents to bring the tune to an end during its speediest and most aggressive moments. "Line Games" is worthy of inclusion in the fusion-guitar hero library.

June 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: Upon the Wings of Music

Jean-Luc Ponty is the most commercially successful fusion violinist. On the face of it, that doesn't seem to be such a big deal because there were and are only a handful of them. But jazz-rock did allow a return to popularity of the jazz violin. Such legendary players as Stuff Smith, blueser Sugar Cane Harris, jazzer Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli had made their marks. But the violin as an instrument for the young jazz or rock fan didn't seem to be in the cards. That was changed by fusion players Ponty, Jerry Goodman, Zbigniew Seifert, L. Shankar, Allen Sloan and a few others. Ponty in particular, having played with old-school Grappelli and Smith and new-school Frank Zappa and Mahavishnu, bridged the generations. He also popularized the instrument enough to front bands that sold records by the ton and brought droves of younger fans to large venues.

"Upon the Wings of Music" is a typical Ponty performance from that time. Its title suggests its vibe. As a general rule, Ponty's tunes would be introduced by a minute or two of soaring electric bowing. In fact, the word "soaring" in the dictionary should have Ponty's picture next to it. There's a little more room on this tune for some improvisational light funk and jazz noodling, which Rushen, Armstrong and Chandler do quite well. But the overall feel is dominated by Ponty's melodious strains that quite literally allow you to float away on a cloud.

June 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: Is Once Enough?

"Is Once Enough?" is one the most energetic performances appearing on any Jean-Luc Ponty led recording. It is a true fusion ball-buster. Its engaging quick-tempo melody is an instant attention grabber. Ponty is a hot knife cutting through butter on this 5-minute piece, which seems to last only about 2 minutes. He is flying up and down the neck at breakneck speed and taking no prisoners. His sonorous runs overflow. Gifted keyboardist Rushen adds some nice touches. Frank Zappa alumnus Fowler plays a driving bass. Guitarist Stuermer comes to the party with his full arsenal. His solo is something any fusion guitarist would be proud to call his own. Though Stuermer proves to be his own man, at times here he sounds like a jacked-up Tommy Bolin.

This is harder fusion than generally appeared on Ponty's records. As the years would go by, most of this high-octane stuff would leave his repertoire, probably so as not to offend the marketplace. But that's just my theory.

June 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bud Powell: Just One of Those Things

Bud Powell, like most of the first generation of bop keyboardists, tended to favor bass and drum accompaniment, and rarely recorded in a solo piano setting. But Powell's February 1951 session for Norman Granz finds the pianist on his own, and the results include some of the finest playing of his career. On "Just One of Those Things," Powell has eliminated all the Tatumesque trappings and cocktail piano mannerisms that sometimes bog down his solo work. Instead, he plays with a slashing right hand supported by sporadic left-hand voicings. The sound is stark and hollow, almost as if Powell follows an imaginary bassist and drummer in his head that the rest of us are not allowed to hear. It would be easy to pick out the flaws in this performance -- Powell's execution is a little sloppy -- but the pianist's intensity and sense of urgency demand our attention. This is bop in extremis, completely purged of the slightest sentimental tendency. Even today this music presents a prickly, avant-garde exterior that has not been dulled by the passing years. This is not jazz for casual listeners. But those who want to appreciate how the modernists shook up folks back in the day may want to check out this track for a sense of the revolutions promised by the bop pioneers.

June 03, 2008 · 0 comments

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Allan Holdsworth: Velvet Darkness

It was guitarist Allan Holdsworth's turn to put out his own record. He had paid some early dues and tilted many ears with Soft Machine, the New Tony Williams Lifetime and the European fusion group Gong. The fusion movement was dominated by guitarists but still had plenty of room for another phenomenal player. Superstardom was his for the taking. According to stories at the time, Holdsworth was very displeased by Velvet Darkness. He felt it was not properly produced and opposed its release. He lost.

Despite Holdsworth's protestations, the title cut is quite an effective statement. Sounding like a cross between the music Holdsworth had played with Lifetime and something you might hear from Return to Forever, "Velvet Darkness" starts out as a serious proposition before changing character into more lighthearted funk with an occasional Spanish-sounding flourish. Holdsworth's guitar betrays a signature sound and style that would thrill many fusion fans. Johnson's bass is especially prominent, and the superb drumming of Narada Michael Walden is very reminiscent (continuing the comparative narrative) of both Tony Williams and Lenny White.

June 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Allan Holdsworth: Where Is One

I.O.U. became Holdsworth's first touring group. They made quite an impact upon many artists and proved to be commercially successful. Rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen and other progressive notables cite the band as a great influence on their playing.

If you didn't know better, listening to the opening strains of "Where Is One," you would swear this was Pat Metheny and not Allan Holdsworth. During the intro, Holdsworth plays some beautifully sweeping chords that would feel at home on any Metheny Group outing. But after the first gnarly note of Holdsworth's solo you know better. You were being set up for a fusion slap in the face. Holdsworth at first sneaks, and then forces, some dastardly twisted chords and obtuse scalar jaunts into the pleasant surroundings. He becomes unhinged. His notes are shapeless forms that first insult and then satisfyingly dissolve into the ether. The young and great drummer Gary Husband propels the piece. Carmichael also does a fine job.

I.O.U. proved to be one of the few bands that kept fusion alive in the '80s. Jazz-rock may have been in the I.C.U., but there were still signs of life.

June 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dizzy Gillespie & Stan Getz: It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)

Whenever Getz and Gillespie shared the same stage, it was more than music . . . it was a battle. Was there some bad blood between these two jazz giants? I was around Gillespie and Getz back when the two long time friend-adversaries were planning an ill-starred mid-'80s live recording with Gillespie that—alas!—was torpedoed at the very last moment; and Getz's private comments at the time made it clear how much respect he had for Dizzy. Yet if you listen to the recordings they made together, you can't miss the combative atmosphere. Their 1953 and 1956 sessions for Verve rank among the most intense dates of the decade. One senses that Gillespie is calling tempos as fast as possible, and trying to disrupt the serenity of the king of cool sax playing. Dizzy's trumpet work on this track is fiery and unrelenting. Getz, for his part, refuses to back down, and plays with an aggressiveness and speed that was out of character for this disciple of Prez. The proceedings are further enlivened by one of the fastest rhythm sections on the planet, circa '53. By my scorecard, Gillespie wins by the narrowest of margins on this encounter, but Getz comes back strong and wins the 1956 rematch—which may be even more impressive, since he takes on both Gillespie and the speed racer of the alto sax, Sonny Stitt.

June 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gene Bertoncini: Concierto de Aranjuez / Spain

Gene Bertoncini is best described as an elegant player. The fine veteran guitarist brings a gentle style to his playing that often understates his virtuosity. On this cut he plays with a string quartet and the masterful acoustic bass of David Finck, showing the bridge that can exist between classical and jazz when explored by willing and able artists. To this end, he is only partially successful.

The idea to do a medley of Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" and Chick Corea's "Spain" was one that fascinated me. Bertoncini demonstrates an intuitive feel for the inherent sensibilities of these disparate yet similarly inspired works. The string ensemble feels very comfortable in the classical mode and Bertoncini seems equally at home in this sensitive but deliberate setting, where he plays in an accomplished classical Spanish guitar motif. When the song switches abruptly to the "Spain" portion of the medley, Bertoncini and David Finck lead the way for the other strings punctuated by a rousing pizzicato bass solo that is free to be adventurous, especially in its aggressive tone, and pushes the pulse of the tune. Bertoncini comps with soft chords behind Finck's plucky bass until he starts his own solo, which he plays with a lightness and delicacy that is draped in the silky finery of his approach. The strings demonstrate their own unified voice in a tension-building arco chorus that just doesn't cut it for me and yields to an inappropriately sweet violin solo before Bertoncini returns it to the Corea melody line and then back again to the Rodrigo finale, tying the two melodies together for one last time. Clearly an ambitious undertaking that despite its shortcomings makes clear that both Bertoncini and Finck are adept enough to straddle the worlds of classical and jazz comfortably.

June 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Shakti: Face to Face

Though John McLaughlin never admitted it, the tunes on Natural Elements were written to appeal to a wider audience. After the mega success of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Columbia Records was none too happy with McLaughlin's new acoustic Indo-jazz direction. The previous two Shakti records presented tunes as long as half an hour. You are not going to get radio airplay with that stuff. For this turn, McLaughlin's and L. Shankar 's tunes are far shorter. A couple of them actually have some pop riffs and catchy vocal sections. None of this would increase the band's commercial viability, however. The group amazed those who saw and heard it around the world, but those were very few because Columbia's promo machine wasn't going to support this noncommercial music.

"Face to Face" features what may be McLaughlin's most impressive acoustic guitar solo. To get there he and violinist Shankar establish a bluesy shuffle. Shankar's violin pans as it plays the melody. The music is Eastern in style, but less so than most other Shakti tunes. The percussionists are their usual brilliant selves, providing rhythm and occasionally playing beat for note in some dazzling guitar and violin runs. Then McLaughlin lets loose with a torrent of single notes that come as close to being physically impossible as possible. His seamless runs are of a distinct beauty, but seem so difficult to execute that you wonder if he really did. He really did.

In the end, McLaughlin and his Shakti cohorts would have the last laugh. Their music helped spawn the world/jazz music movement and all of its offshoots, which continue going strong today.

June 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gregg Bendian's Trio Pianissimo: Ice Blue

The multitalented Greg Bendian, who has made a name for himself interpreting the music of John Coltrane and John McLaughlin and playing with such greats as Cecil Taylor and Jan Hammer, is also an inventive writer. This trio album shows it. Bendian is joined by his frequent collaborators bassist John Lockwood and pianist Steve Hunt for an angular display of interplay. They are musicians of the highest skills who know how to manipulate Bendian's compositions. "Ice Blue" is a jigsaw puzzle of a tune. Its collection of oddly shaped riffs and themes must be carefully fitted together. It doesn't help that the pieces are hand cut. Or that you are not allowed to look at the pieces. You must place them by feel. "Ice Blue" has a hundred or so such pieces. The puzzle's complete picture is only revealed at the very end. Even then it looks like a Picasso. And not from his blue period, either.

June 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: In A Silent Way / Shhh / Peaceful / It's About That Time

Make no mistake about it. There is controversy surrounding this recording. What the hell is a "reconstruction & mix translation" anyhow? The perpetrator in this case is the enigma known as Bill Laswell. In project after project, he attempts to turn music on its ear. He always believed that this early fusion from Miles had never been heard properly. I don't know what that really means. But I am not Bill Laswell.

For this medley from In a Silent Way, Laswell decided to go original producer Teo Macero one better. Macero was famous, or infamous if you prefer, for splicing the original tapes together without regard to beginning, middle and end. At any rate, it worked. The original "In a Silent Way" is a beautiful and lasting piece, as I said in my review here.

Laswell thought he could make the music work even better with new technologies and modern technological grace notes. The instruments have a warmer feel to them. Laswell has added some electronica atmospherics. The medley is now only 15 minutes long instead of its original 35. There is a distinct introductory section as beautiful as ever. There is a middle theme and a fulfilling ending. For many of us, those elements were already present in the original recording. But mad scientist Laswell has succeeded in presenting Miles's vision in a more distilled CliffsNotes fashion. Normally, that would be cheating. Here, however, it is enlightening. The nerve of this guy Laswell!

June 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jamie Baum: Solace

With the brilliantly laid rhythmic foundation of Colligan's ostinato piano chording, Weidemeuller's throbbing bass and Hirshfield's feathery cymbal work, Alessi and Baum play a delightfully lyrical flugelhorn/flute duet that ascends along an undulating path. Baum's composition rides the breeze with the grace of a falling leaf. Tossed by the musical winds, its free fall is suspended for a time in a dance of immeasurable serenity and beauty. The twists taken by this complex melody line are both beautiful and poignant. Alessi solos with requisite tenderness, concentrating on tone with a reaching quality that demonstrates great sensitivity. The carefully arranged French horn, sax and trumpets, along with a complementary rhythm section, perfectly balance the soaring solos of Baum and Alessi. Despite being the composer, Baum plays an understated yet distinctive role, preferring to let the music take precedence over her own prominence. When she does solo, her notes glide as gently as a kiss blown across the room. Her fluidity and grace have classical undertones that enhance the composition's free-floating airiness. At the coda, the rhythm turns samba-like, with Alessi and Baum trading phrases in a playful back-and-forth ending. An uplifting piece of music.

June 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mark Levine: I Didn't Know What Time It Was

In recent years, Mark Levine has gained increasing renown as a jazz educator. His jazz piano method book is one of the most widely used works of its kind. But his success in teaching should not distract attention from Levine's skills as a performing pianist. This 1997 recording showcases Levine's talent in a solid trio setting. I especially like his harmonic sense, which invariably works some interesting reconfigurations of the old standards he tackles. But this track is also noteworthy for the pianist's percussive sense, which seems to take inspiration from the presence of Eddie Marshall. Wiitala is also featured in a fine solo.

June 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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