Enrico Rava: Lulù

At first glance, this summit of leading Italian and American jazz musicians might seem to present an incongruous combination. The world may be getting smaller in a virtual sense, but even today U.S. and European jazz bands usually embrace different conceptions of the beat, of melodic development, even contrasting approaches to pacing a solo. Yet the lineup here is quite an inspired combination. These are five world-class musicians who are also great listeners. From the opening whispers between Bollani and Motian until the final outside-the-chords wail by Rava over the rubato rhythm section, this music proceeds as a hypersensitive polyphonic dialogue, in which even the silences seem charged with significance. Despite the CD title New York Days, a European aesthetic is at work here; but Motian, Grenadier and Turner must have worn their Armani suits to this gig—certainly they sound perfectly at home, and thrive in the floating funhouse sprung from Rava's fervent imagination. All-star lineups of this sort usually last for one CD, then the artists move on to different projects; but I would be delighted to see this band reunited for another date. Maybe Milan and Manhattan are getting closer together.

January 31, 2009 · 0 comments

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Marc Copland: Like It Never Was

On this fine trio recording of a Drew Gress composition, the normally cacophonous drummer Bill Stewart exercises unusually restrained cymbal and brushwork to add to the somber and almost eerie introduction before Marc Copland's pensive piano takes hold. Copland's raw sensitivity is always evident in his playing. He builds tension with the artistry of a painter applying splashes of color, each stroke a dynamic expansion of his musical ideas, with his bared soul on display in some uniquely vulnerable way. Not since Bill Evans has a pianist so thoroughly exposed himself through his music. Every understated note or chord is full to the brim with unspoken emotion. His music is dynamic without exhibitionism or brashness. It builds from some deep and hidden source that allows him to express himself so beautifully.

Gress and Stewart are exceptionally sympathetic to Copland's delivery. Gress takes a short and equally pensive solo about halfway through, content in knowing that his fellow musicians are faithfully executing the integrity of his composition. This trio has refined its message and mastered the art of tension and release. Stewart, of whom I have not been a big fan in the past, expertly uses a series of cymbal crashes and, to my ears, an unusual screeching of the cymbals' surface to create a surprisingly effective finish to this modern masterpiece.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Responsibility

MPS has taken on the mission of releasing 1960s and '70s European jazz and jazz rock classics, Jan Hammer's Maliny Maliny among them. This music fan says, "God bless MPS!"

Hammer may have been thinking ahead of himself in 1968. The head arrangement of "Responsibility" would be the perfect theme song for a TV drama. He could update it a bit by trading the piano for a synthesizer like he used for Miami Vice, and it would work today. The tune's midsection would not be good for the theme to anything. It is an exercise in free jazz. That is great for those who appreciate such things. I have written elsewhere that I can take only so much free jazz at a time. But when you put it between a meaningful beginning and end, I am fine with that. (For future reviews I will call that a "free jazz sandwich.") Hammer, drummer Cees See and bassist George Mraz do some serious plumbing on this number. The TV theme-sounding melody returns for the ending. We can then turn the show off because "Responsibility" is the last cut on the album. We are happy campers because the band lived up to the song's title.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Domicile's Last Night

When listening to a new piece of music, do you ever get that weird feeling that it's familiar but not familiar at the same time? Like meeting a new friend who reminds you of an old one. The notes aren't the same. The structure is completely different. But there is still this oblique déjà vu that you enjoy but can't shake. "Domicile's Last Night" always reminds me of Woody Shaw's fantastic composition "Moontrane" as played by Shaw and Larry Young. That would make some sense I guess because both Young and Hammer are playing the B-3 organ. But the two tunes are nothing alike. Can you explain that? I can't. I can say this tune was recorded the last night of Hammer's trio gig at Munich's Domicile nightclub. I can also point out that drummer Cees See has that Elvin Jones growling thing down pat, and that bassist George Mraz is a damn good musician. Oh, and of course Jan Hammer is a genius. Put that all together and you have quite an impressive straight-ahead organ trio romp whether it reminds you of "Moontrane," "Moon River," "Blue Moon," or better yet since we are talking about Jan Hammer, "Moon over Miami."

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Braching

When 1968's Maliny Maliny was released on LP in the USA in 1976, it was retitled Make Love. Many years later, I asked Jan Hammer what the hell "Maliny Maliny" meant? He laughed and told me it translated from Czech to "Raspberry Raspberry." He had no memory as to why the album and a song were named that. He thinks he may have just been silly at the time.

There is nothing silly about "Braching." Jan Hammer performs the piece on piano. It is a serious blues that has some regimented riffs that sound almost like marching music. Cees See offers a drum cadence and is joined in unison by bassist George Mraz and then by Hammer. There are several sections to the performance. The introduction has that quasi-militaristic feel. The next segment is a flying piano blues. That Hammer guy has some mean chops! Mraz is then given an extended-duty bass solo at which he earns a promotion. The main theme returns to end the exercise. At Ease!

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Brad Mehldau: Fear and Trembling

Brad Mehldau is one of the most exciting voices in jazz piano today. "Fear and Trembling" demonstrates his compositional prowess, incredible instrumental facility, and the ability to lead a trio that plays with a togetherness few can match. As the pianist departs from the head, Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy are with him every step of the way. By showing enormous contrasts in his playing, Mehldau develops a lengthy solo that never loses the ears of his listeners. Using both short, percussive phrases and long strings of notes, Mehldau possesses a wealth of creativity that shines in his improvisation.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roy Hargrove: Strasbourg / St. Denis

Introduced by Danton Boller's bass groove, "Strasbourg/St. Denis" is a refreshingly simple but catchy track. After a head that consists of a bouncy, staccato melody and some interplay between Hargrove and altoist Justin Robinson, Gerald Clayton takes control with a funk-inspired piano solo. Clayton starts simple and grabs the listener's ears with just a few notes, at times sitting on one note and reaching into the piano to mute its strings. Pushed by the solid groove laid by Boller and Montez Coleman, Clayton builds his solo and passes the torch to Hargrove, who brings the energy back down again.

Each soloist offers a unique take on the funky feel of "Strasbourg/St. Denis," and the rhythm section's accompaniment helps make each solo entirely different from the last. Hargrove delivers a series of short but meaningful statements that are a testament to the importance of tasteful phrasing and rhythmic variance. Robinson offers a truly exciting interpretation that is punctuated by a very impressive triplet figure by Coleman as the quintet moves back to the head. Not only is the playing superb, "Strasbourg/St. Denis" is an innovative composition that proves a tune does not need to be a lesson in music theory to be memorable.

January 30, 2009 · 1 comment

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Ran Blake: Lost Highway

Many years ago, I attended a concert by pianist George Winston. While the ornate hall was way too full of tweed outerwear and heavy-handed perfume, I must admit that I did enjoy Winston's playing. It gets tagged as New Age, which usually has the effect of instant dismissal, at least by the person doing the tagging. Yet Winston himself has called what he does "rural folk piano," which gets closer to the truth. There came a moment in his show that at first seemed out of place, with Winston playing a stride piano number, followed by a switch to the guitar for a Hawaiian slack-key tune. What amazed me was any connection at all between Winston's own music and the more rootsy music he also presented. Ah, but it was definitely there.

I feel exactly the same way when approaching Ran Blake's take on "Lost Highway." What would Mr. Blake, who so loves to deconstruct things, do with a fairly simple tune, one made famous by Hank Williams? Easy! Take the simple harmonic and melodic elements of the song and stretch them out to infinity. It's almost like the song has been drifting through space since the Big Bang, and Blake caught the material just when it passed through his life space. Yes, I suppose that explanation is more than a little New Agey. But pure beauty is sometimes difficult to describe.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eva Scow & Dusty Brough: Bird With Beastlike Qualities

The impatient ear might toss this in the World Music bin, but that's a lazy move. Sure, Scow & Brough employ acoustic instruments to fill out a series of chord changes with strummed passages and arpeggios. Closer listening, though, reveals interactions between solo and comping roles, giving the music more relationship with Shakti than your generically labeled "World" fare. This is reminiscent of classic fusion without the bravado (and volume!) but still reveling in texture and breathtaking solo flights. Great stuff.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Luba Mason: From Me To You

Sometimes, you just can't explain the "why." Why am I so attracted to this voice? Surely it's the sultry Latin influence, but Luba Mason brings more to the table. "From Me To You" can be fairly labeled as pop music with Latin shadings … with echoes of jazz phrasing … and with the directness and organic feel of modern folk music. Of course, this big pile of descriptive letters doesn't really get to center of the attraction. Maybe some things are better left to the ear than to the brain?

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Seth Walker: Lay Down (River of Faith)

Folksinger Greg Brown has created the perfect description for most contemporary Christian music: "Praise the Lord, let's go to the mall." Ouch. (Hey, a man whose father was a minister should know!) In truth, much of the music labeled "praise" is very bland, having lost most of the connections to early gospel and jazz. Seth Walker, while more of a blues and folk musician, gets the true feel of gospel going on this one. All roots, no mall … so the intermingling of blues and jazz and the spirit (via the B-3, the Dobro and Walker's very soulful voice) is allowed to shine through.

January 30, 2009 · 2 comments

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Nora McCarthy: In the Early Morning Light

During a recent conversation with a friend, we got into the worth of poetry. He wondered why anybody would bother with a "clever" rendering of something when a more direct description would suffice. I tried to steer him to the fact that most poetry attempts to distill a particular idea to its essence (something lost on most high-schoolers, who are drowned early on in things like rhyme schemes and other poetic minutiae). A good poet can tell a story with a minimum of text. So when Nora McCarthy tells the story of lies that have been "swept under the carpet / all scramble like roaches in the early morning light," she extends the idea in a couple of directions at once – with a kind of vocalese, aided by skittery piano bits. The presentation says far more than a couple of paragraphs could, that's for sure.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sarah DeLeo: Rockin' Robin

Oh man, here I have to admit that I used to have a cassette tape copy of the Jackson 5 doing this song way back in the day. Maybe a bit of redemption can be scored by saying that I'm pretty sure there was a Joe Tex song on the tape? (OK, never mind.)

Vocalist Sarah DeLeo, thankfully, has a completely different delivery from the Jacksons. On top of a fairly sultry vibe (thanks must go to organist Brian Charette and flutist Jay Collins), DeLeo lives inside the tune. I wouldn't have thought this combination would work, but that's just my fading memory of the Jackson 5 taking over. DeLeo has a nice voice and uses it to great effect on this one.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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La Tanya Hall: A Lazy Afternoon

Sometimes, it's all about the textures. I have a friend who thinks I'm crazy because I don't care about the lyrics in most pop and rock music. Sorry, if the music's not happening, I'm just not interested. It's a voice such as La Tanya Hall's that reminds me of why that philosophy is so comforting. Hall manages to be pure of tone while retaining many textures and shadings. She is also at home playing off her side-musicians – just witness the vocal line following the shifting piano chords. Subtle but very effective. As the tune nears its end, the interplay between David Heath's flute and Hall's voice is gorgeous, and just a little bit sexy, too.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Neil Haverstick: 667 Shuffle

Some people don't like the blues. Can you imagine? I have this friend whose music-freak level almost rivals mine, but blues doesn't make his list. He's been known to joke, "Yeah, I heard that blues record once." Right, they all sound the same. Well, my friend needs to hear Neil Haverstick. While his first love is obviously the blues, he's also heavily involved in microtonal music. To the uninitiated ear, microtonal compositions (where the scale is built on an octave subdivided by a number other than twelve) can be somewhat unsettling. I've likened the experience to the aural equivalent of looking diagonally through an aquarium. Personally, my ears like it, partly because it's a step away from the Western norm. Anyhow, "667 Shuffle" takes a blistering walk through blues changes and then slathers them with some of the most passionate and twisted lines imaginable. It's like, well … OK, maybe it's not like anything you've heard before.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jason Rigby: The Archer

Every time I hear music like this, I remind myself that there was a contingent of listeners who hated Miles's electric period. It seems so weird to me, considering how that stuff was all about the funk. What about Sly and Parliament? I mean, it was OK for them but not for Miles? Geez … whatever!

I bring this up because on "The Archer," the groove burns so hot that I worry they'll hurt somebody in a live setting someday (including themselves). Seriously, the rhythm section absolutely smokes, as does Rigby – partly when he takes his own inspiring solo but especially when he pulls out those sly Ornette-isms with trumpeter Russ Johnson. Drawing a parallel back to the Miles/fusion thing (like an archer draws his bow), it still amazes me that the genre was rejected.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jeff "Tain" Watts: Return of the Jitney Man

If you didn't know the name of the bandleader, you might think the CD title Watts referred to the high-voltage luminescence of the all-star ensemble gathered here. Certainly no one can complain that the wattage—or the Watt-age—isn't high enough on this track. This is clearly the drummer's date. After the melody statement, the waves of percussion overwhelm McBride's bass (perhaps Christian didn't show up the day they did the mix, or maybe the producer, a Mr. J. Watts, decided on the balance), and with no chordal instrument to counter the attack, Tain sounds like a one-man rhythm section. And a fine one at that. Branford Marsalis responds with a very free, very hot solo, and shows he doesn't need conventional chord changes to impart a sense of structure to his improvisations. Blanchard follows in a very aggressive mood, yet I am struck by how beautiful his sound is even when he is trying to be raw and out. In fact, each of these four players comes across as more "out" here than you might expect, given their individual histories and predilections. But while so many "freedom-is-still-now" musical manifestos provide more heat than light, the Watt-age here keeps things bright.

January 30, 2009 · 1 comment

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Jan Hammer: Goat's Song

I first saw this record in a store in 1976. The album art featured the backside of a greased-up naked woman whose private parts were strategically hidden by a butterfly with wings splayed. Despite my hopes, I quickly discovered that the butterfly was not a removable sticker. (That's a joke!) The album, without Hammer's knowledge, had been renamed Make Love for U.S. consumption. According to the CD release liner notes, the new cover and title was a miscalculation on the part of a marketing company that thought it understood the U.S. consumer. The angle of view of the woman and the strange-looking grease applied to her back, thighs and buttocks actually took away from any titillation the female form may have offered. The image was really quite gross. But there is more to discover in the new liner notes. We now learn that the naked lady wasn't a lady at all. It was actually a work of sculpture! I say ick and double ick. MPS has thoughtfully included an image of each of the three different album covers Maliny Maliny releases have used.

"Goat's Song" is an organ blues groove performed with a frenetic urgency. Bassist George Mraz walks his bass at jogging speed as drummer Cees See spends most of his time applying brushes to cymbals. Hammer's right hand plays skittering yet fluid B-3 leads as his left comps and occasionally holds down a single note for an unusual sustain counterpoint. This is a killing organ trio. If Hammer had pursued this side of his career vigorously, we would be talking about him in the same breath as Larry Young and Jimmy Smith.

Ask nowadays about Jan Hammer, and people will say he was an important composer who helped introduce and revolutionize keyboard synthesizers in music. His skill on piano and organ, the synthesizer's root instruments, is often overlooked. That is why the CD release of Maliny Maliny is such a big deal. A great musician just doesn't appear out of nowhere. In this music you hear how part of Hammer's mind worked before he was introduced to synthesizers or was influenced by Indian music. If those things had not come along, he still would have been considered a great artist. That they eventually did was lucky kismet for us all.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Maliny Maliny

Another one of the great ideas of my life that I never took to fruition occurred to me the very first time I put the LP version of Maliny Maliny, then known as Make Love, on my turntable back in 1976. From the start, I was bothered by the crowd noise from this live recording. You could hear glasses clink and silverware clang. It disturbed me. As I became a more educated listener through the years, I came to realize that such noises were integral parts of performance, and I came to love them. But I was still comparatively young and inexperienced in 1976. I immediately put my mind to thinking about how to eliminate those awful sounds from any future nightclub recordings. It came to me during the second or third cut. Of course, rubber eating utensils were the answer! And why not rubber drinking glasses too? What a brilliant idea. It was such a brilliant idea that it appears no one has attempted it yet. The way live music venues are going out of business these days, the market for "nightclub utensils" has probably dried up anyway.

There is some clinging and clanging that ushers in the title cut. And the crowd talks though much of this quiet ballad as well. But don't let that bother you. Drink it all in. The tune's introduction is a deep Hammer piano exploration. The piano drops out. Bassist George Mraz expresses his feelings in a solo of his own. The trio then introduces one of the loveliest melodies ever to come out of Hammer's head. You can imagine this piece being played in any style with any instrumentation. It would be satisfying under all circumstances. Even as the tune takes on a swinging attitude, the melody remains in your head. After some impressive riffing measures, the gorgeous theme returns to end the piece. You are gloriously sated. "Maliny Maliny" is a beautiful statement of intent and resolution. (Rubber utensils or not.)

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever featuring Chick Corea: The Game Maker

Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy marked the beginning of Return to Forever's rise in the jazz-rock fusion pecking order. The band's previous incarnation as Latin-jazz provocateurs, which featured the whispery vocal stylings of Flora Purim and percussion efforts of the great Airto, was now a thing of the past. That husband-&-wife team would go on to some success. But RTF's upward mobility eclipsed most everybody else's in the genre. New band members guitarist Bill Connors and drummer Lenny White added the power to the band that Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke were looking for.

"The Game Maker" is borne of Corea's gentle electric piano flourishes and a strummed acoustic guitar. Lenny White enters with a drum roll. The switches are flipped. We have power. The tune has little of the Latin overtones previously associated with the band. If anything, the performance sounds a bit like Larry Coryell's Eleventh House. It goes beyond that comparison with an added distortion, probably created by a ring modulator or similar toy. Some fantastic unison and trading between Connors and Corea ensues. White seems to strike a drum with each individual note. The new band is part RTF, part Mahavishnu, part Larry Coryell, and now part of the jazz-rock revolution. Indeed, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy is a game maker.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Chick Corea & Return to Forever: Light as a Feather

Light as a Feather was Return to Forever's second album. Because the first record, Return to Forever, wasn't released in the United States until 1975, many have mistakenly believed Light as a Feather was the band's debut effort. The first incarnation of the group was a Latin-leaning, mostly acoustic jazz ensemble that got by just fine without a guitarist. Not until Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra did they decide to turn up the power by going full electric with guitarist Bill Conners in tow. It was the second band's lineup and then the third's that secured Return to Forever's place in jazz fusion history. That great success has sometimes blunted the appreciation of Corea's first band. The Return to Forever of 1972 was a great band.

"Light as a Feather" is purported to be Stanley Clarke's first major composing effort. The guy didn't think small. Though much of the tune is an impressive exposition of Corea, Clarke, and Joe Farrell soloing over changes, the melody is gorgeous. It didn't hurt that one of the most distinctive jazz singers of her day, Flora Purim, was singing or that she wrote the edifying lyrics heard at the beginning and the end. Purim possesses one of the purest voices in jazz. Her lyrics are sung, almost spoken, in time with each syllable of music. It is a wonderful display of artistry. Percussionist Airto, Purim's husband, was also a large part of the track's success. "Light as a Feather" knocks you over with a feather from introduction to coda.

A parallel can be drawn between this Return to Forever group and the great Sergio Mendes's Brazilian jazz/pop crossover band Brazil '66. RTF's formula could have been changed slightly, and commercial success would have been theirs for the taking. But then they would've had to trim "Light as a Feather" by about 8 minutes. Chick Corea and Return to Forever '72? Never mind.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Waltz for Ivonna

On Jan Hammer's debut record as leader, he switched between piano and organ for each number. (At least, that is how it is presented on the record.) It provides a nice sonic balance for this classically trained keyboardist to be heard in two very different but standard jazz contexts. Hammer's organ trio, as heard on this cut, is more traditional than his piano trio. His sound and approach are not that different from Larry Young's pre-Tony Williams Lifetime output, but Hammer focuses more on melody. Which makes all the sense in the world, since writing good melodies is one of his greatest strengths.

I have mentioned in other Hammer reviews that he seems to come from a simple place and incorporate all of his knowledge to build from there. The same is true on "Waltz for Ivonna." The simple becomes more engaging as it grows. He is joined on this live recording by fellow countryman bassist George Mraz, who would soon thereafter immigrate, as would Hammer, to the United States to study at the Berklee School of Music. His performance on this tune justifies that scholarship. The Dutch drummer Cees See filled out the trio. He was best known for playing with Klaus Doldinger, and holds up his end of the bargain for this triad. MPS has done all of us a great service by releasing this historic recording so it could be heard for the first time on CD. It gives us a very good sense of Jan Hammer's jazz bona fides.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gene Harris (featuring Stanley Turrentine): The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Julia Ward Howe wrote the most spirited and rousing of our "national" anthems. Her Civil War foot-lifter, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," quickly morphed from campfire song and derisive march (once "John Brown's Body") to warrior hymn, but the right hands or voice (Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin, for example) later could make it sound like a spiritual or gospel number ("Be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet"), most certainly when pummeled into believing submission, as in this live version. (The original LP left the titular "Plus One" unidentified for contractual reasons, but listeners quickly understood that the wailing sax belonged to Stanley Turrentine.)

Positioned at the end of a soulful, happily up-tempo album (check Gene's smiling face in the cover photo), this 8-minute romp syncopates and revitalizes the abolitionist lady's song. Harris starts the performance mysteriously, tune and direction hidden in a slow, bluesy feint, but then swiftly advances (willing volunteers Brown and Roker joining up) into a series of hard-charging, drive-the-keys choruses – Battle Hymn swing and gospel shout – that trample the grapes of wrath and set the stage for some tenor fire. "Mr. T" leaps in to blow several more rounds in staccato, prayer-meeting mode, till the united four move on out and then down in a braking, slowing, quieting fade that finally … halts, as the witnesses whoop and holler.

Maybe the best irony is that Howe's song is still often played at the close of Republican Party Conventions (which occasioned the Paul Desmond number called "Battle Hymn of the Republican"), and that Gene beats the naysayers simply by wielding his democratic piano.

January 29, 2009 · 1 comment

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Pat Martino: Blue in Green

Pat Martino fans rejoiced when this CD arrived in 1994. After his long recovery from a brain aneurysm and other personal setbacks, the guitarist was finally back to the brilliant form he had exhibited in the '60s and '70s. In fact, if you compare his versions of "Catch" and "Blue in Green" from Interchange with those on the widely acclaimed Live at Yoshi's six years later in 2000, it would be fair to say that Martino has been again at the top of his game since the mid-'90s, and that Interchange was his coming-out party.

"Blue in Green" captures Martino's lyrical and soulful sides, with an unhurried lucidity and discernment. Martino plays the calming, circular theme with a dampened yet penetrating tone, elongating notes for dramatic emphasis and leaving open space to effectively frame the gradually increasing ardor of his heartfelt and surging extended runs. Ridl's comping is both purposeful and unobtrusive, and the pianist's neatly constructed solo reveals a particularly strong and creative left hand. Martino's reprise draws on bent notes and darkly throbbing chords far more than did his opening treatment, as he closes out a lovely interpretation of the ballad Miles Davis first introduced on Kind of Blue.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Neil Haverstick: T Bone Ford

On this CD, Neil Haverstick's original compositions allow him to acknowledge the stylistic conceptions of a variety of his influences, ranging from T-Bone Walker to Jimi Hendrix, and even jazz guitarist Joe Pass, while also adding his own personal approach and vision to each absorbing and meticulously executed selection. On "T Bone Ford," for example, Haverstick captures the mellow richness of Walker's sound and the clarity and fluidity of his jazz-flavored single-note lines, which paved the way for everyone from B.B. King to Chuck Berry to Mike Bloomfield. Drummer Ernie Crews sets up a distinctly Walker-like shuffle rhythm as Haverstick plays the catchy riff-based theme. The guitarist's subtly embellished riffs that comprise the gist of his flowing solo are performed with an intoxicating rhythmic drive. Haverstick's playing is every bit as self-assured, self-contained and moving as that of T-Bone himself.

The 57-year old Haverstick has been a key session player in the Denver area for many years, as well as an educator who teaches the theory of microtonal tuning systems. He may have slipped under the radar of many guitarheads, but here's a chance to experience a masterful blues-rock oriented guitarist at his very best.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Neil Haverstick: Birdwalk

Colorado-based guitarist/instructor Haverstick is a longtime proponent of a microtonal tuning system that takes the usual 12 equal tones per octave of Western music up to as many as 19, 31, 34 and 36 equal tones through the use of additional frets and/or his highly developed technique. On this CD, Haverstick pays tribute to such guitarists as Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix and even Joe Pass, with his conventionally tuned 12-tone playing bringing out the best of their stylistic identities as well as his own. However, he also plays two blues in "19-tone equal temperament," and one of them, "Birdwalk," is quite simply a tour de force by this immensely talented guitarist.

Haverstick's unaccompanied intro to "Birdwalk" starts out like something by the Ventures, although with a slightly fractured meter due to the alternate tuning. Soon a Sonny Sharrock-like dissonance and intensity enters the mix. Stribling's rock-hard bass and Crews' kick-ass drums now introduce the foundation for Haverstick's riveting solo, which summons the phrase "sheets of sound," sometimes used to describe John Coltrane's playing. This is certainly not some kind of dry, theoretical exercise, but rather a serving of highly entertaining and definitely rousing blues-rock guitar. In 2007, Guitar Player magazine named Haverstick among "101 Forgotten Greats and Unsung Heroes." Based on this track and CD, he deserves wider exposure and recognition.

January 29, 2009 · 1 comment

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Dizzy Gillespie: The Eternal Triangle

The 2006 recording by James Moody and Hank Jones of Sonny Stitt's "[The] Eternal Triangle" brings to mind this 1957 version featuring Stitt with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. It's been said that Gillespie slyly tried to stir up the competitive juices between Rollins and Stitt by telling each beforehand that the other intended to outplay him, although the naturally combative Stitt would have needed little prodding in that regard. By 1957, finally stepping out from behind Charlie Parker's shadow, Stitt was considered a prime contender for Bird's vacated bebop throne, whereas Rollins was the winner of Downbeat's "New Star" award (Way Out West, Newk's Time and A Night at the Village Vanguard all came out that year). With or without Dizzy's scheming, the stage was set for excitement.

The title, "The Eternal Triangle," is a perfect description of the threesome's interaction on this memorably scorching 14-minute track. The stirring theme is forcefully handled by the horns, after which Rollins is off and running, his biting tone hurling the listener through a nonstop series of sinuous extended lines played with a darting and dazzling rhythmic vitality. Stitt follows with a density and inventiveness of phrasing that resembles more than differs from Rollins's own. The boisterous exchanges between the two tenors mesh without any friction, as they appear to be responding to one another in concrete and sensitive ways, rather than trying to impress with empty displays of flashy technique. The momentum and fresh creativity each sustains is admirable. Gillespie's own solo is softly articulated before accelerating brashly to the upper register and then developing into a number of striking motifs and clarion calls. Ray Bryant's boppish blues-inflected solo, and Dizzy's fiery trades with Persip are still other highlights of this fully packed performance.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Grachan Moncur III: Thandiwa

The only chord change-based tune on an album of otherwise free-form pieces, "Thandiwa" is an angular waltz made up of 4-bar phrases in AABB form. Of the four solos, the leader's is, oddly enough, the shortest and most tentative. Shorter stretches out, exploring the tune from every angle, developing short motives, toying with the rhythms, and dissecting the changes before winding things up with some quiet sheets of sound. It's nice to be reminded of how great Herbie Hancock sounded on a real piano and in the company of his peers. Though the personnel consists of 3/5 of the Miles Davis Quintet at the time, Moncur's music puts things into an entirely different sound world.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Curiosity Kills

Drive was Jan Hammer's first real album of original music for several years not connected in some way with television, movies or an audio-visual presentation. His recent most successful releases had been related to the Miami Vice TV show or the audio side of the multimedia production Beyond the Mind's Eye. Those projects sold CDs and videos by the boatloads and helped keep Mr. Hammer quite comfortable, thank you.

Drive came out smack dab in the middle of the Smooth Jazz (barf bag, please) movement, and much of the album trends in that direction. As much as I may not care for some of Hammer's music during this period, it is undeniable that even the weakest pieces are full of inventive ideas and melodies that stick in your head. Producing memorable music in any genre is difficult. It speaks to Hammer's brilliance that he did so in such disparate undertakings as jazz, fusion, rock, and TV and movie soundtracks. There are different skill sets required for each discipline.

"Curiosity Kills" is a good piece of pop-fusion music. It does start off as a TV soundtrack-sounding number with its clicking drum pattern, throbbing bass and emphatic keyboard chords. This reassuring groove will follow the song the rest of the way through. Saxophonist Michael Brecker and special guest Miles Davis then play the tune's engaging main theme. Wait a minute. That is not Miles Davis! That is Jan Hammer on synthesizer playing a muted trumpet patch sounding exactly like Miles post-Tutu. There is no bigger fan of Miles Davis than Hammer. Yet this was not an attempt to phrase or sound like Miles at all. Hammer was able to get a synth patch more to his liking from a muted trumpet. It was as simple as that. Hammer admits being greatly influenced by Miles, but says he was totally unfamiliar with Davis's late period. To him it was all about the Miles who played with Wayne and Tony, et al. The fact that Hammer sounds just like the later Miles on this cut is thus even more interesting. I submit that, unconsciously, Hammer picked up on where Miles may have gone without even knowing it! For all intents and purposes, Brecker and Hammer sound like two great horn players laying it down for the people.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Robin McKelle: Lover Man

Featuring a decidedly funky bass solo by Mike Velario to start things off, Robin McKelle tackles the song made famous by Lady Day. In McKelle's version, the tempo is a bit more robust than the classic Holiday version, while the vocal expression plays nicely off the punctuating big band sound.

McKelle sings with confidence as she modulates her voice through the turns of this torch song with great aplomb. She has a strong instrument that is softened by her fine improvisational expressiveness and amazing control. She wisely shows restraint in not using her voice too gymnastically, though one can sense that she has the goods to compete for a gold medal if so inclined.

Alain Mallet takes a nice turn on a bluesy piano solo, while pumping trombones and crassly played trumpets expertly punctuate with authority in classic big band style. Mallet and McKelle should be applauded for their arrangement, which distinguishes this performance from most treatments of the song.

It is satisfying to hear a singer who can stand up to the muscular presence of a big band and more than hold her own. Robin McKelle effectively puts her mark on this song. While it will never replace Lady Day's, it is a fine addition to the standard's discography.

January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Robin McKelle: Save Your Love for Me

It is a joy to hear an accomplished and talented singer backed by a kick-ass big band arranged to precision and playing with abundant enthusiasm. That is what you get from Robin McKelle's Modern Antique.

Robin's voice is at times derivative of a young Nancy Wilson's jazz sensibilities crossed with the pop sensibilities of Anita Baker. On "Save Your Love for Me," which Nancy performed so poignantly on her 1962 album with Cannonball Adderley, Robin puts her own stamp on the slow blues classic of forlorn love, with the aid of fine big band arrangements including a full string section. I am usually not a fan of overly produced music, but in this case it works.

Robin has great control over her powerful voice, extracting tremendous feeling from this soulful lament for the first part of the song. About midway through, the band kicks into a higher gear, sparked by Andy Snitzer's gutsy tenor sax solo. With a rhythmic piano line leading to the song's finale, Robin lays it all out with a stirring burst of serpentine vocal modulations that are reminiscent of Anita Baker in her prime.

January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jerry Goodman & Jan Hammer: Full Moon Boogie

I could do without the vocals on "Full Moon Boogie." You could too. Most are uncontrolled shouting peppered with some off-kilter choruses. Still, they have sort of a democratic charm that would not have been out of place on, say, an early Frank Zappa album. I agree with a lot of the critics who reviewed Like Children at the time. I forgive Jerry and Jan for their singing efforts. They were only trying to have some fun. This is especially true on this number. But the vocals play second fiddle to the outstanding music that dominated them anyway. Hammer and Goodman play all the instruments. They sound just as whole and powerful as any fusion quintet could. It is an impressive exhibition. Once the opening vocals are disposed of, the tune does become a fully fueled fusion boogie. The two musicians trade energetic salvos over a throbbing riff-based groove. Jerry Goodman is a damn good guitar player. Did you know that? Jan Hammer is a damn good drummer, too. Did you know that? They just aren't very good singers. But you already knew that.

January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Hyperspace

There are slim pickings for fusion fans on Melodies. Jan Hammer's new direction was clearly evident by this time. The album contains plenty of wonderfully fleshed-out ideas as expected. But the attempt to go mainstream with a mix of those ideas, R&B and soul vocals created a genre all its own that was not to the liking of many people I knew. Tony Smith and Fernando Sanders, the other members of the Jan Hammer Group, are great musicians and could sing. But I must admit I still cringe at the entrance of their voices on Melodies. To me they impinge on the great fusion festivities. I would say the same if Stevie Wonder and Al Green were the vocalists! If it ain't broke…

"Hyperspace" is a worthwhile cut. Written by gifted violinist and composer Steve Kindler, it mixes classical music, electronica and jazz opera. The piece would have been a good fit on Hammer's earlier classic The First Seven Days. The two musicians create a palpable drama. The music is precise and ingratiating. The synthesized electronics, for those days, give "Hyperspace" an added attraction. Only the allusion to improvisation exists. But the tune could be dropped into the middle of any fusion anthem and work.

January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Your Love

Melodies was not exactly your fusion fan's wet dream. In fact, it was more of a nightmare. The pioneering jazz-rock star Jan Hammer was leaving the fold. There had been earlier indications of the move, but Melodies sealed it. For those of us who'd been feeding on a steady diet of superior fusion music from Hammer, it was like losing a brother. I had a gig as a jazz DJ when the record came out. To this day I remember searching each cut frantically for the Jan Hammer I loved. Instead I heard vocalized R&B and soul ballads. Those were OK for those who wanted to hear them. But you could count me out. I began to sweat. I may not have eaten lunch that day. Years later as I listen to the album again, I am heartened that nowadays you can download a single cut here and there to fill out your musical needs. So allow me to cherry pick.

"Your Love" was the album's final cut. If it had been the first selection, my panic attack would have been delayed by 3 minutes and 43 seconds. It is an instrumental featuring only Hammer and violinist Steve Kindler. It is beautiful. Once again Hammer displays his great composing skills and effecting playing style. The tune is performed on piano and violin with a synthesized backdrop. Hammer adds some synthesized flourishes. On its own, "Your Love" would not be considered jazz-rock. But a lot of fusion consisted of written-out arrangements that could be dropped into larger improvised pieces. This song would fit that category. And needless to say, compared with the rest of the album, this is fusion!

January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Make Love

Maliny Maliny was Jan Hammer's first album as leader. Recorded live in Germany, the recording was very much unknown outside of Europe. Eight years later, after Hammer had made a name for himself with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and his own solo recordings, the album was released in the United States under the new title Make Love. Finally, through the good graces of MPS, the album is available on CD under its original title. Detailed liner notes explain that the record actually was released under three different titles over the years. It is an interesting story, and I will not spoil it for you. I would rather that you obtain the CD and read for yourself. The liner notes also reflect that MPS took the release of this historically important recording seriously. Even so, bear in mind that due to translation issues and a few faulty memories, not everything you read may be entirely accurate. And sometimes it's even a bit funny.

Twenty-year-old Jan Hammer's trio included bassist George (Jiri) Mraz, who would go on to a highly successful career as well, and drummer Cees See. If you were told the piano player on this cut was Ramsey Lewis playing live in Hermosa Beach in 1966, you wouldn't doubt it for an instant. You don't realize it yet, but this performance will be Hammer's most out-of-character on the record. This type of piano jazz was popular at the time. Perhaps Hammer wanted to be hip in order to grab the attention of the club's patrons, many of whom were still eating. (Clanging silverware and glasses give that away.). Mraz does take a bowed solo that would be unusual on any of Ramsey's pop-oriented performances. The trio returns to the Lewis-like groove to finish things out. It took only one such performance for fusion fans to have a brand new appreciation of Jan Hammer and his roots. The greatest fusion musicians were great jazz players first.

January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Manic Depression

I had a chance during this period of Jan Hammer's career to see him perform with his new band at Shaboo, which was a club in Willimantic, CT. I went with much trepidation. I had recently heard Hammer's new album Black Sheep. I hated it. That record confirmed my worst fears about Hammer's developing musical direction. Every song had vocals. I loved Jan Hammer and still do. But those vocals were not good. There is no other way to put it. I have always posited that it is a rare fusion song that can accommodate vocals. The different time signatures and odd meters usually required of the best fusion numbers make it virtually impossible for vocals of any kind to succeed.

There is one tune on Black Sheep that is worth your time. Jan Hammer had been pushing his role farther and farther into that of lead guitarist. Keyboard synthesizer technology was growing in leaps and bounds, and the latest advances not only allowed Hammer to get very close to an actual electric guitar sound, but the revolution in miniaturization and design was now allowing him to strap his synthesizer around his neck just like a guitar. So it was no surprise that he decided to play a Jimi Hendrix piece. "Manic Depression" was the perfect Hendrix cover for Hammer to show off his new instrumentation and rock attitude.

I'll never forget hearing Hammer's band kick into the number during that live show. You have to remember that just getting that sound out of this strange-looking keyboard that nobody had ever seen before was a thrilling experience. But to see Hammer swinging the device like a guitar and bending notes like you never thought possible on such an instrument was mind-blowing. He had every aspect of Hendrix down. The topper was that he could still add a fusion sound to the performance. Naturally you don't get the visual with the record. But the experience of listening to it the first time was pretty much the same. You wondered how Hammer was doing it. Colin Hodgkinson also did a yeoman's job with the vocals. It was the one vocal track on the whole album that worked. In my fusion-biased opinion, "Manic Depression" was the lone jewel among the Black Sheep rubble. This performance marked an important transition in Hammer's career that I am not a fan of. But it also marked an important milestone in the development of synthesizers, of which he was a towering figure.

Oh, by the way. That show at Shaboo was a killer. As I recall, the band did not once raise its voice in song. I have been told by some that they probably did on "Manic Depression." I don't remember it. But I would have approved anyway.

January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Neal Schon & Jan Hammer: The Ride

This isn't the heaviest lifting either one of these guys has ever done. Cheerily joined by bassist Colin Hodgkinson, Schon and Hammer take us for a little trip through a countryside amusement park. It's a bright sunny day. The smell of popcorn and cotton candy is everywhere. There is a bounce in everyone's step, and in Jan Hammer's fingers. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the sounds of a futuristic calliope. Schon sticks mostly to pleasant power chords until he rides the Goliath. He decides to shred for that. Good for him. I would puke. Roller coasters scare the bejesus out of me. Listening to "The Ride" isn't what I'd consider an E ticket. But it is fun. I would call it jazz fusion served up in a snow cone.

January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Neal Schon & Jan Hammer: Arc

Journey founder and guitarist Neal Schon got together with Jan Hammer to produce some really good jazz-rock fusion for 1981's Untold Passion. The album was about a 50-50 mix of rock vocals and fusion instrumentals. I prefer the fusion stuff by a ratio of about 30 to 1, but the rock songs weren't all that bad. I am just grateful the duo decided to offer any fusion at all, considering that the genre was disintegrating before my very ears. My guess is that it was Schon's idea to play some of the jazz-rock numbers on Untold Passion. He had been a huge Mahavishnu fan as a young musician. Hammer was heading in the opposite direction with his music at this time. But how can you play with Jan Hammer and not want to play fusion?

"Arc" is a killing number. Hammer and Schon go at it hammer and tongs. The tune begins with some rather clichéd rock-guitar riffs and drumbeats. But within 20 seconds an all-out fusion sonic power ballad is in full stride. The players trade off at ridiculous speeds. Schon has plenty of fusion licks in his arsenal. His lines are blues-influenced, which makes for a good mix with Hammer's output that, no matter how twisted, has a European flair. There's a bit of the boogie found on this "Arc," too. (Or is it "in this Arc?") There are also some allusions to the Jeff Beck Wired vibe from Hammer's mid-'70s days with the legendary guitarist. This is great stuff that should be played at high volume. I wish these guys had collaborated more.

January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Neal Schon & Jan Hammer: Untold Passion

When guitarist Neal Schon, the founding father of the mega-rock band Journey, started playing with fusion legend Jan Hammer, it really cemented Hammer's move into the rock mainstream. Or did it? Surprisingly, Untold Passion contains its fair share of non-vocal fusion numbers among its rock entries. There was still hope! At the very least, it suggested that Schon had great affinity for fusion music. To those who are familiar with Schon's background, this should not have been a surprise. The guy was a certified Mahavishnu Orchestra freak when he was young. (He has said in interviews that he still is a fan.) When Journey first started out, it was also heavily influenced by the Orchestra. To make the big rock bucks, that had to change and did. Enter vocalist Steve Perry.

"Untold Passion" is a superior piece of music. Schon and Hammer begin with revolving synthesizer arpeggios. Hammer, as drummer, kicks in with a backbeat as we hear his overdubbed synthesizer expose the melody. It is simply beautiful in a fusion sort of way. Schon then contributes an equally effective statement. The players trade off as the intensity continues to build until a cavernous edifice is created. In the Fusion dictionary, a picture of this song is shown next to the entry "Fusion Anthem." So it turns out that jazz-rock was still alive in 1981 and could be found lurking on a Neal Schon & Jan Hammer rock record! Yes, maybe there was still hope.

January 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio: Cherokee

American enthusiasts of the Hot Club Swing Revival all face the same challenge: where do you find a truly hot Gypsy jazz/hot-swing group this side of the Atlantic? If you're in New York, you have a few options, but none hotter than this sizzling trio, led by the smoldering Mark O'Connor, whose confident technique and chops evoke the spirit of Eddie South as well as that of Stéphane Grappelli. Captured live in a warm, clean and faithful recording, O'Connor delivers the goods with solid support by the remarkable Jon Burr and Frank Vignola, one of the best jazz guitarists in a town crawling with great jazz guitarists.

Mark O'Connor's accomplishments span several genres; his compositions have been performed by classical artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Sharon Isbin, and have been choreographed by contemporary dance legends Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp. But his metamorphosis into a jazz violinist began with his discovery of swing fiddle pioneer Benny Thomasson, and continued under the tutelage of Stéphane Grappelli. Listening to this rendition of "Cherokee," it's obvious that his classical training and clear understanding of the Grappelli esthetic give him the power and depth to own this music. His authoritative lines soar effortlessly, never seeming frantic or edgy, even when playing at this breakneck tempo.

Guitarist Frank Vignola demonstrates a clear understanding and command of Djangospeak, but is as modern and deadly in his attack as Biréli, Angelo or Stochelo, his Sinti contemporaries across the pond. Even though the trio lacks a rhythm guitarist to provide a pompe platform during his solo, the playing here is so strong you don't really miss it.

My one complaint is that the track ends too soon. Still, this is a high-octane "Cherokee," all the more remarkable for being served up in a flawless live performance by a powerhouse jazz Manouche trio and a fiddler who is definitely off the roof.

January 27, 2009 · 1 comment

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Keith Jarrett: The Song is You

I wouldn't be surprised if this live recording is someday reissued with a name like The Great Concert of the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio or some other grandiose moniker. The stars were clearly aligned for Messrs. Jarrett, Peacock & DeJohnette at their July 1986 Munich performance, and almost every track is at a high level. But Jarrett's piano intro to "The Song is You"—one all-too-brief minute of ecstatic improvisation—makes it onto my short list of favorite moments. Here the pianist marries the finest aspects of his "Solo Concerts" with the canonical approach of the Standards Trio, and the results are brisk and compelling. My immediate reaction when the rest of the band enters is disappointment . . . I would like this solo section to continue for several more minutes. Yet Peacock and DeJohnette quickly show that they also can rewrite the old repertoire. I'm not sure whether the trio had originally planned to play this song for 17 minutes, but I can easily believe that they just went with the flow. And it is a rapturous flow that carries them along. There are many, many fine recordings that demonstrate what this ensemble is all about, but this is not a bad place to start if you want to take the measure of their mastery.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Autumn Leaves

The Keith Jarrett Standards Trio has recorded frequently, and maintained a high level of inspiration for more than a quarter of a century. But it is hard to top this 1986 live recording in Munich for sheer inspired interaction and unbridled intensity. There is much to admire here: the disjunctive rhythms, the simmering energy, the shifts in mood, and above all the ability for each player to stand tall and assert himself without rupturing the overall union of the three voices. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette take on "Autumn Leaves" with the zeal of a S.W.A.T. team knocking down your front door. This is assault jazz of the highest order, and if they can do it to "Autumn Leaves" . . . well, I guess they can do it to about anything, huh?

January 27, 2009 · 1 comment

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Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (with Keith Jarrett): Secret Love

This song was a number one hit for Doris Day in 1954, and won an Academy Award for its role in the film Calamity Jane. But if you want to hear calamity, check out Keith Jarrett's piano solo on this live version of "Secret Love" from the Lighthouse in 1965. Jarrett was only 20 years old and full of fire. Everyone else on the bandstand might have assumed that they had been hired to play hard bop. But not the young pianist. He puts such a strong personal stamp on the music that for a moment it is no longer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, but something completely different, fresh and potent and free. The other players shine (and give props to the oft-maligned Chuck Mangione, who contributes a fine solo), but Jarrett's take is so strong that everything else is obliterated in his wake. On the basis of this track alone, you could have predicted grand things for this pianist.

January 27, 2009 · 1 comment

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Keith Jarrett: Strollin'

Here's an odd turn of events. Back in his youth, Keith Jarrett was a member of Jazz Messengers, and he completely deconstructed its repertoire on the one commercial recording he made with the band. Listen to Jarrett on "Secret Love" from 1965, and hear an iconoclastic pianist who reconfigures the music to suit his own dramatic vision of aural possibilities.

Now fast-forward 35 years and Keith Jarrett covers a composition by a charter member of the Jazz Messengers, Mr. Horace Silver. The young revolutionary has now become very respectful, and plays the song with deference to the composer's original vision. It's hard to complain when the band plays as felicitously as this trio. But I, for one, would like to see Jarrett & Co. rough up these songs a bit more. I can't help comparing this track with an earlier "Standards Trio" live recording from Munich in 1986, when the group did so much damage to "Autumn Leaves" that there wasn't a twig or branch left by the time they were finished. Here we are merely "Strollin'"—pleasantly enough, it's true—but I wonder what Jarrett would have done to these changes if Art Blakey had called this same tune on the bandstand at the Lighthouse back in '65.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Intro / Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

This Jerome Kern standard is probably more popular with the general public than with jazz musicians—in other words, you are more likely to hear it tinkling in the background at the cocktail lounge than at a Berklee jam session. Jarrett himself recorded it previously as part of a session, under Bob Moses's leadership, alongside the late, great tenor Jim Pepper. The pairing of Jarrett and Pepper seemed like a jazz dream date, but the music on that late-1960s date didn't tap into the full potential of the players involved. This version of Kern's warhorse, performed by Jarrett's "Standards Trio" at a concert in Tokyo, is more focused and coherent. The intro is a piece unto itself, a wistful minute-and-a-half meditation, all too brief but enough to demonstrate how deeply Mr. Jarrett immerses himself into the inner feeling-state of the music. When Peacock and DeJohnette enter, it is with gentle whispers and smoke floating past your eyes. Jarrett has achieved great things in his career, but one shouldn't minimize the importance of taking the old songs and making them fresh again. This may not be as dramatic as a piano concerto cadenza, but it's no less valuable as a lesson to the rest of us.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Red and Orange

Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964) There was a classic science-fiction movie made in 1964 that very few people seem to have seen called Robinson Crusoe on Mars. (Watch, I'll go on the Internet and find that the movie has a zillion underground fans and has spawned a religion. Give me a minute while I search. [Waiting … waiting ….]  Alright, I'm back. Well, no new religion, but Wikipedia says the movie is "beloved" and a DVD came out in 2007. I question that "beloved" assertion.) Semantics aside, I think of the movie every time I hear Jan Hammer's masterpiece composition "Red and Orange." There is a 3- or 4-note repeating theme in the movie's soundtrack quite similar to a recurring element in "Red and Orange." You will have to hear this track (or John Abercrombie's Timeless featuring Jan Hammer) and see the Robinson Crusoe on Mars DVD to appreciate what I am talking about. All I know is that this very short motif has stayed with me for 45 years.

"Red and Orange" first appeared on Abercrombie's Timeless, where it was performed as a standard organ-guitar-drum trio number. While the instrumentation was standard, the performance from those future fusion stars was not. On this version from a couple of years later, Hammer is fully armed with synthesizers. The mode is still cosmic mystery but modernized, which is strange because we had still not yet put a man on Mars. In the movie they put a couple of men and a monkey on the Red Planet. One of the men, played by Adam West, dies when the spacecraft crashes onto the planet. The opening strains of "Red and Orange" would be perfect for the rocket descent. The survivor, played by Paul Mantee, hangs out with the monkey for the rest of the movie. This very odd couple finds a guy who looks like an American Indian, and discover they don't need oxygen to survive on Mars. That's as far as I will go. I don't want to be a plot spoiler. (Apparently Wikipedia has no qualms about that, though.) If they ever remake the movie, I demand they contact Mr. Hammer. The combustible energy of "Red and Orange" will consume all the oxygen on Mars and create a very dramatic plot twist.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Twenty One

"Twenty One" comes as close to sounding like a Mahavishnu Orchestra tune as any on Oh, Yeah? You could easily imagine Jan Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman playing this piece's riff-based head arrangement on any Mahavishnu album. It wouldn't take much more imagining to hear John McLaughlin joining in, either. But alas, there is no guitar. There is, however, the fantastic violinist Steven Kindler. His live performances with the second Mahavishnu group, on which he filled in after Jean-Luc Ponty left, and his time with the Jan Hammer Group still have people talking all these years later. From what I have gathered, though, Kindler sometimes walked to the beat of a different violinist. Artists can be that way. (Kindler would eventually try his hand at New Age music a few years later. I don't know what forces made him stray from jazz-rock, but I would suggest they were evil.) Influences aside, "Twenty One" is a very good fusion workout. Especially rewarding is a Hammer solo over Tony Smith's churning drums. Bassist Fernando Saunders gets plenty of opportunities to throw in some funk lines, and takes his own impressive solo to close out the piece. "Twenty One" ain't Mahavishnu, but its pedigree came from there. For a fusion fan like me still reeling from Mahavishnu's breakup, "Twenty One" was a welcome salve.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Evolove

I still remember my original Oh, Yeah? record with its strange colored LP center label and even stranger label name Nemperor. (In the first printing of my Mahavishnu book, I spelled Nemperor wrong. No one caught the mistake because that is such a weird-looking word!) Nemporer Nemperor was the label controlled by Mahavishnu Orchestra manager Nat Weiss. I didn't know that at the time. But I did know that the composer of "Evolove" was former Mahavishnu bassist Rick Laird, so I looked forward to hearing the connection between Mahavishnu and the "new Jan Hammer."

Hammer's keyboards and Steven Kindler's violin mesh perfectly as they share and alternately trade Laird's low-key but sinuous fusion ballad. The tune's funk-veering midsection allows for some great Hammer soloing. No one controlled a synthesizer the way Hammer did. He was not trying to be flashy. In many regards, he was actually offering simple lines. But it's how you play those lines and where you place them that counts. Hammer is a master of positioning. The musicians drive "Evolove" to Groove Street before returning home.

It would be possible to think that since Rick Laird had been in Mahavishnu, and both he and Hammer wanted the opportunity to offer more of their own compositions to that band, that his buddy Jan Hammer could be throwing his old mate a bone by inviting one of his compositions. But this tune makes it on the merits.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Magical Dog

In 2006, Wounded Bird released 1976's Oh, Yeah? for the first time on CD. Prior to this you either had to have the original LP record or be satisfied with a couple of the tunes from that album that could be heard on the CD compilation The Early Years. That was not good enough for a fusion classic. Oh, Yeah? was Hammer's follow-up to Like Children, the record he made with ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra bandmate violinist Jerry Goodman. In essence it was Hammer's first solo album after Mahavishnu.

"Magical Dog" was the introductory song of his new band the Jan Hammer Group. At this time, electric guitar was the dominant sound in almost all of popular fusion. But there was no guitar within 50 miles of Hammer's new music. Slowly and surely his synthesizers would allow him to become "the guitarist" on his records. But the technology, or Hammer's desire for a guitar sound, wasn't quite there yet. Would fusion fans miss it? Maybe some did. But Hammer's music was so dynamic that only the anal retentive among us complained. "Magical Dog" was every bit the quality of music heard on Mahavishnu or Billy Cobham's Spectrum. Drummer Tony Smith, percussionist David Earle Johnson and bassist Fernando Saunders were big-time jazz-rock operators. Hammer was clearly the best musician on synthesizer at this time. Violinist Steven Kindler, fresh from the new Mahavishnu Orchestra, proved to be a real talent. Here, Hammer's composition had him and Kindler trading at fusion overdrive speeds. And it was all very musical. There was still a Mahavishnu sound to it all because of Hammer and the presence of a violin. But it was Jan Hammer music. "Magical Dog" was a favorite tune of the band to play live. I can understand why. It appeared that Jan Hammer would be among those who took fusion successfully through the decade.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: Let the Children Grow

"Let the Children Grow," along with the vocal number "One to One," was another tune on Oh, Yeah? to be suspicious of. What is Jan Hammer up to? Tony Smith could sing pretty well, and the melody is catchy. You get to hear plenty of Jan Hammer's keyboard mastery, too. But why more vocals? This is supposed to be fusion. Anyone with a brain knows that vocals don't work in jazz-rock. But as much as I wanted to dismiss the tune at the time, I could not. I still dug it. Adding to the pluses already mentioned were a couple of more intriguing elements. The main vocal section, and even the sentiments of the lyrics, had a lot in common with the song "Moving Waves" from the progressive rock/quasi-fusion band Focus. I loved that song. How could I not feel the same about this one? Also, and I understand this more clearly today, there is a vocal chorus section in "Let the Children Grow" that is very reminiscent of something the Beatles might have done. I was unaware of Hammer's love of the Beatles back in the day. How could I be? You didn't hear that in Mahavishnu. At least I didn't. Now aware of that influence, I say: "Of course!" I'll be honest with you. Hammer would soon lose me, as his music went completely over to the dark side of pop. Tunes like "Let the Children Grow" and "One to One" were small steps toward that period. Which is why I still resent these songs today, even if I can recommend them. I don't resent Jan Hammer in any way, however. We must all find our own way.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Hammer: One to One

"One to One" was a musical harbinger, a clue well placed by Jan Hammer that he wasn't going to be just about jazz-rock instrumentals anymore. He would branch out. There were going to be attempts at R&B and even pop music in the future. I wish I had known at the time to what extent this would transpire; I would have looked at this tune more harshly than I did then. It is actually a good song. The instrumentation had fusion overtones even if the lyrics and Tony Smith's vocals did not. Tony could sing. I never heard "One to One" performed live, but one song like this per set never hurt anyone. I probably would have bobbed my head and smiled as this distraction prepared me for another fusion onslaught. But if I heard another song just like it next, I would have started sweating in panic. I review jazz, progressive jazz and jazz-rock for jazz.com. If I reviewed R&B and pop I would rate "One to One" an 89. But I do not.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Speaking of Sounds

One of four fine Thad Jones originals from an album in which all the material was written by current or former Basie band members, "Speaking of Sounds" is a little-known example of New Testament Basie with a few interesting twists. Several of Basie's arrangers at the time, most notably Quincy Jones, made imaginative use of flutes, usually in combination with a muted trumpet or two, but here we have Thad Jones employing an uncharacteristic (for Basie) woodwind section sound.

The theme is stated by brass in hats with answering phrases by the reeds. The next half chorus features a written duet for Thad and Eddie Jones in which both melody and backgrounds contain a combination of angularity and swing that was unique to Thad's writing. Thad follows with a solo that grows out of the written duet like a healthy plant. Another unusual touch is provided by Freddie Green's use of a tubular shaker instead of his venerable rhythm guitar. This is not a minor detail, given the integral role Green's guitar played in shaping the Basie sound. The shaker fits the groove here, and Green used it on other pieces such as Quincy Jones's "Jessica's Day." As Thad's writing grew less Basie-ish, The Count allowed him to take a bunch of his last charts for the band with him when he left. These "Basie rejects," as Thad called them, became the cornerstones of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Band's library.

January 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sarah Vaughan: Maria

"The most beautiful sound I ever heard...." So begins in wonder the central song of West Side Story, Tony's expression of the lightning-strike of love. As many times as that tune has been played or sung over the years since 1957, surely one of the loveliest and most startling performances occurred on Sarah Vaughan's live recording in 1963. Once you get past the minor word changes needed to allow Sassy to sing on Romeo Tony's behalf, her sound begins to sink in. This is Sarah the matured singer, Sarah in diva mode: the arrangement only mildly jazzish, the piano/bass accompaniment mostly quiet, swing forgone for the space of this song, the powerful vocalist unleashed.

"And suddenly I found / How wonderful a sound / Can be...." There was no need for other instruments, really, when Sarah's had become so nuanced and expressive, her voice ranging from contralto to higher-than-high as the song progresses. The words flow and her voice rises and falls; there are moments of sprechgesang and sudden leaps of range and joy.

"Say it loud and there's music playing / Say it soft and it's almost like praying...." Tony's song is a lover's secular prayer after all, and we are reminded that his Juliet's magical name is actually thoroughly commonplace thanks to a Mary of long ago. (We may also recall another miraculous Vaughan recording, from a decade earlier, recasting the "Ave Maria"). As Sarah builds this performance from musing on a single word, to the gradual rising near song's end, and then reaches for the last high phrase (top notes whether sung by tenor or soprano), she unexpectedly takes her voice even higher, adding a few brief melismatic notes beyond the range of all but a few jazz or pop singers, or divas – a show-stopping finish indeed.

"All the sounds of the world in a single word?" Sarah.

January 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Meryl Romer: Bluesette

If, as the liner notes indicate, Meryl Romer has just embarked on her jazz vocal career at the age of 51, then it gives all of us past the mid-century mark some hope that we can still follow our dreams and pursue other paths – if the will is strong enough!

On this Toots Thielemans classic, Romer shows she hasn't wasted those formative years. Opening with a crescendo-building piano line by Deutsch, nimbly accentuated with a table-setting saxophone solo by Kyle, Romer easily glides through the undulating melody with the ease of someone who has sung this song many times. Deutsch's arrangement builds nice tension at the midpoint, punctuated again by Kyle with another journeyman sax solo. Romer scats a bit awkwardly midway through the song, but her strength is her straight-forward, nonchalant delivery. Her voice seems to have a limited range, but she stays within her comfort zone throughout and delivers "Bluesette" with appropriate joie de vivre.

January 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Greg Skaff: Tropicalia

According to the liner notes, "Tropicalia" was inspired by Greg Skaff's reading of Caetano Veloso's autobiography Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil. Veloso is a musician and political activist and the father of Tropicalismo – the melding of Brazilian pop, rock 'n' roll and avant-garde music, poetry and theater – in part a protest to Brazil's military dictatorship of the 1960s.

In this classic demonstration of the art of the guitar/organ/drum trio, Messrs. Skaff, Colligan and Strickland prove they are up to carrying on the great tradition of those who went before them. Skaff, with a distinctly Wes Montgomery-sounding guitar tone, starts this piece with a samba-like octave riff that is repeated to set the melody line. The music evokes the image of lightly swaying palms in a windblown breeze. His solo excursions are smooth, mellow and inventive without any flash, in the tradition of the practitioners of this laid-back cool sound. Much-in-demand keyboardist Colligan, besides his well thought-out comping behind Skaff, offers his own brand of cool on a bouncy B-3 solo. Drummer E.J. Strickland keeps impeccable time throughout. As the tune enters the coda Skaff, sounding amazingly like White Rabbit-era Benson in his phrasing, trades riffs with Colligan, as Strickland actively punctuates the proceedings.

This trio gigged around the New York City area together before making this recording – according to Colligan, in one sitting. They ably demonstrate how, when the spirit moves, you can cook with the coolness of dry ice.

January 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jake Hertzog: Oberon

Opening with an electronically enhanced repetitive guitar line that infectiously provides the song's rhythmic underpinnings, Jake Hertzog weaves a hypnotic melody with an almost medieval sensibility that could easily be mistaken for part of Jethro Tull's repertoire.

Oberon was king of the fairies and a character in Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream. In this self-penned composition, Hertzog creates a sound impressionistically consistent with its title, while simultaneously blurring the lines between genres. His guitar riffs are apparently overdubbed atop his own rhythm guitar playing, the electric bass of Harvie S and the snappy drums and crashing cymbals of Victor Jones.

"Oberon" has a whimsical, singsong beauty that provides a wonderful vehicle for Hertzog's deftly alternating picked solo lines, done in time with Harvie's bass, and seamlessly integrated chord-based runs. Within this deceptively simple context, Hertzog demonstrates a lithe, lyrical technique, rendering this unusual format accessible. You can almost see fairies leaping through the forest to the rhythm of his guitar.

Jones is accorded a brief, somewhat heavy-handed solo where he trades hard-hitting tom shots with alternating snare rolls, finishing with crashing cymbals before the song returns to the repeating melody and a crisp finale.

January 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jake Hertzog: In Your Own Sweet Way

Jake Hertzog can perhaps best be described as a hybrid guitar player. In this case, Hertzog blurs the lines between jazz and blues/rock in a way that I haven't heard before. His guitar sound is distinctively, almost annoyingly, heavily treble in tone. He seems to favor playing a solid-bodied Fender Telecaster through an old Fender tube amplifier. The combination gives little depth or timbre to his sound. Despite the limits set by his choice of tone, Hertzog is the real deal on many levels. His musings are not of a pyrotechnic nature; instead he relies on harmonically challenging expansions. You can never be sure where he's heading, as he fearlessly blazes his own trail and ultimately pulls it all together, creating interesting and original music along the way.

Hertzog is joined by the versatile bassist Harvie S, who seems to enjoy the guitarist's path and can equally explore the harmonic boundaries when his intuition prods him. Onetime Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz drummer Victor Jones is listed as a longtime friend, and his symbiotic playing within Hertzog's at-times-disjointed melody lines is apparent.

On Dave Brubeck's classic "In Your Own Sweet Way," Hertzog effectively deconstructs the classic melody and rebuilds it in his own sweet way. Giving the song a whole new feel, he deploys numerous single-lined note progressions that are fresh and unpredictable. He occasionally lapses into tasty blues-oriented riffs for good measure, and finishes his solo with a crescendo-building chordal progression that follows a sinewy but clear path to its tension-building peak. When Harvie S solos at about 5 minutes into the song, obviously inspired by the young guitarist's unorthodox projections, he creates an equally counterintuitive bass statement from his own imagination. Jones wisely plays in an understated, complementary way. Hertzog ends the tune with a rock-like repetitive chord progression to a fadeout.

Among the innumerable versions of this song performed by countless artists, Hertzog's is one of the most original I have heard. Simply a marvelous cover.

January 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Here Lies Love

"Dave Brubeck? Oh, he can't swing, just clobbers those keys; weird galumphing rhythms and oddball time stuff. Without Desmond he'd never have gotten off the West Coast!" Not long ago, one would encounter such pronouncements regularly; even now, as the mighty Dave shoulders on, nearing 90, a few stubborn Jazzoids still make the claim. But Brubeck always heard things differently, some strange combo of Native-American drumming, Bach-analian counterpoint, and Milhaud modernism; he loved to hit block chords, counter a solid drummer, shift the tempo sideways, and mostly leave the melodic stuff to Paul.

Yet sometimes he'd go for beauty, his touch feather-light, the result as soft as a lover's whisper. In the early formative days of the Quartet, most of the group's big recordings came from college concerts. But Dave sounded even better on several performances taped during dates at Boston's Storyville club by some fan with a $100 recorder. (Fantasy and Columbia both issued selections from those serendipitous recordings.) The most tender are his inspired no-drums versions of "You Go to My Head" plus "Over the Rainbow" (both from October 1952). Nearly two years later, Brubeck and Desmond returned to Storyville, and one senses they had those earlier, peaceful moments in mind.

On the entrancing 6-minute "Here Lies Love," Dave introduces the hypnotic melody, and Paul makes a brief restatement, then Dave takes over to walk with Bob Bates's bass up and around the tune, building the intensity some, but still resisting his favored mode of cross-rhythms attack. Paul reenters to float one of his lazily ethereal solos up and across the club's smoky ceiling, offering a couple of casual nods to Classical themes en route, then settling lower, returning to the melody, right in tandem with Dave to take it out. No fireworks, no bombast (another anti-Brubeck word), just quiet beauty carried by the gentle touch some say this pianist never had.

January 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tommy Dorsey: Lonesome Road

Early in his career, while writing arrangements for local bands near his home in Rumson, New Jersey, Bill Finegan also taught arranging on the side—to, among others, Nelson Riddle. As for this ambitious arrangement of "Lonesome Road," Bill later admitted it was of the "kitchen sink" variety; that is, written to show off anything and everything musically that was under Finegan's command. To say that Tommy Dorsey, the Sentimental Gentleman of Swing, was impressed would be an understatement. Hardly any bandleader recorded one arrangement over both sides of a single record, especially of a song that was several years old. But Dorsey was a musician as well as a businessman; he couldn't shorten a good piece that showed off his band so well.

From an opening on piano and striking brass chords, the melody is played by the leader in his distinctive style. After this first chorus, Russin solos under more brass chords, then there is a showoff section for trombones, a brief statement by Lawson, and a key change based on musical material in the introduction. (This is where side 1 ends.) A rather quiet saxophone soli with clarinet lead starts side 2, solos by Smith and Mince, then another key change and the band playing full out. There is another short sax soli, some brass, Dorsey again, and the ending using the introduction, concluding on a seventh chord.

No description can substitute for hearing this excellent first recorded glimpse into the mind of one of our great American composers. "Lonesome Road" illustrates Finegan's clear form, balance, and opportunities for most of the players to shine, individually and as sections. Add to that the 2-beat style of Lunceford, and this is a major event. (As an aside, Dorsey was to hire Lunceford's main musical arranger soon after this record was made, the one and only Sy Oliver.)

Unfortunately, on this CD reissue the two sides are not joined together to allow the piece to be heard as one unit, and the silence between tracks is jarring (one of your few bad decisions, Orrin Keepnews). But neither should something this good have sat in a vault collecting dust.

The story has a happy ending. Dorsey couldn't hire Finegan full time, but did recommend the arranger to a buddy of his who was leading his second band and needed an arranger desperately. In fact, Dorsey had invested some money in this band. Glenn Miller was the beneficiary of Dorsey's good deed, and Finegan would remain with the Miller band until it disbanded in 1942. Dorsey finally did hire Finegan fulltime in '42, and Bill wrote for the band until 1950.

January 25, 2009 · 1 comment

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Michal Urbaniak: Chinatown (Part 1)

In the 1970s, Polish violinist Michal Urbaniak made his bid to join Jerry Goodman and Jean-Luc Ponty in the forefront of jazz-rock fiddle players. He was a composer of merit, had a great sound and possessed incredible technique. What he did not seem to have was consistency. He could be counted on to produce one or two outstanding cuts per album. That may be a little unfair because perhaps we can look back at those compositions that didn't quite work as being outside the box of formulaic fusion. (Yes, even fusion had a formula.)

Urbaniak's talent and potential ensured he could get some of fusion's best musicians to play with him. Thus it was on "Chinatown (Part 1)." The introduction is a bit Jean-Luc Pontyish and Mahavishnu-like. But it was hard not to be in those days. Urbaniak and Abercrombie wail over a funky keyboard. Steve Gadd and Anthony Jackson play a complicated and pleasing unison run that vocalist Dudziak, Urbaniak's wife, joins. Her tone almost sounds like a violin itself. This harmonizing riff section becomes the most memorable part of a high-energy workout. This performance stands up to the output of any fusion band playing at the time.

Though Urbaniak never broke through in a big way, he still must be listed among the finest jazz violinists ever. His important contributions to fusion are part of the record. He continues to ply his trade quite successfully in Europe.

January 25, 2009 · 1 comment

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Michal Urbaniak: Bloody Kishka

From what I have read, the phrase "bloody kishka" is redundant since a kishka is an Eastern European sausage made with pig's blood. Redundant title or not, a cute, sing-songy violin and percussive intro sets the stage for this track's European jazz funk fest. By "European jazz funk fest" I mean funk that sounds like it was played by European jazz musicians. The oomph isn't quite present. This often occurs regardless of a band's international makeup if the leader of the session is European. It's not a bad thing, just a stylistic phenomenon. Urbaniak lays back somewhat on this piece and is happy to let Coryell do the screeching over the repeating pattern. Keyboard player Wlodek Gulgowski adds Moog touches. The music doesn't travel very far but it is an enjoyable running-in-place number that features some pyrotechnics from Coryell and a hum-able melody. It most certainly isn't like listening to sausages being made.

January 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bob James: Feel Like Making Love

Bob James reprised his role on the more famous Roberta Flack version of this tune, but his rendition of "Feel Like Making Love" is an extravaganza for his own clean and soulful R&B stylings. Smooth blacktop roads of harmony and melody are rolled down as a number of string-playing companions accompany him and his slinky rhythm section for the ride. The music is underscored by an acoustic guitar that adds a beautiful character to the excursion, while each chordal resolve results in smooth, polished grooves more sophisticated than most of the era's radio fare. Certainly the lessons learned by James as an arranger for others explain this, and as a lead player he holds the listener's interest for more than a few bars. James's Fender Rhodes keyboard tone is instantly recognizable, and his classy individualized twists are tough to replicate. This track is a brilliant example of the Bob James Brand of artistry, falling in line with most critical and commercial expectations. Because it was so well performed, produced and conceived, it surely can be classified as "easy listening."

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Laswell: Activate

Introduced by a strangely metered 7-note sequence, "Activate" is a truly magical ride through the cosmos guided by multi-instrumentalist Bill Laswell. The track's audio collage quickly establishes itself, fusing indecipherable electronic sounds generated by the use of several processing units key to the final product. However, the big mystery is what the actual musical concept is, as constant bass solos compete with horns and strings that merge to imitate airplanes, car horns and whooshing winds. These effects are somewhat drowned out by the upfront percussion, driven mainly by closed hi-hats, which provide the catalyst for everything else that occurs. The music is too jarring for conventional listening; it seems carefully crafted with the goal of breaking down technical limitations, and the basic motif is proof. Built on purposeful disharmony, the melody is established by single-tone synthesizer stabs that sink into the background as part of the orchestration, and from the outset several layers combine to create music without true definition or precedent. It is a unique sound and style that takes patience to fully appreciate.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Tutu

Cut late in Miles Davis's career, "Tutu"'s shuffle lick is recognizable to most jazz fans, as it stands out amidst his '80s discography. Composed by Marcus Miller, this ode to the South African cleric is basically constructed around a 5-minute Miles solo, and in utilizing a single key, the form and sounds are easy on the ear. While Miller's production style incorporates drum machines, slap bass and über-reverb (all of which typify the sound of '80s Smooth Jazz), Miles sounds experienced yet youthful as he glides through the track unfazed by the synthesizer maze and effects designed to mimic air and wind. It is an updating of the Miles Davis sound for contemporary audiences; most of Miles's post-1967 compositions were built upon a single chord, and this cut is no exception. However, the fact that he is the lone soloist is the basis for the track's recommendation. While he breaks no new ground, this recording does prove that his playing chops remained unmitigated near the end of his life. While there are better tracks that showcase his twilight-era genius, such as "You're Under Arrest," "Tutu" is a very solid recording.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: You're Under Arrest

Written by guitarist extraordinaire John Scofield, Miles Davis's "You're Under Arrest" places the focus squarely upon Miles, whose soloing defies his age (58) at the time of the session. Years of experience can be heard in his flawless phrasing, yet a vitality is exuded that transcends the dated '80s synthesizer-dominant sound that stamps the music's production. The highly advanced musical techniques practiced here incorporate herky-jerky backbeats and an expansive arrangement that highlights the players' strengths. Even though this was a new sound at the time, the clashing, jittery sounds of the electric guitar, slap bass, and diminished chords still permeate today's jazz. The twitchy rhythms characterize most of Davis's up-tempo tunes, but this recording does not resemble much of his previous or subsequent work.

Most interesting is that, erected upon several chord combinations, the songwriting is more structurally challenging and complex than the majority of tracks the bandleader cut following the dissolution of his 1960s quintet featuring Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams. This recording is a surprising find in a vast catalog of works where, due to sheer volume, some important pieces are undeservedly ignored.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Earl Klugh: Captain Caribe

"Captain Caribe" is the initial track from Earl Klugh's Living Inside Your Love, and its hyperactivity still sounds fresh today. Klugh rises to the occasion and gives every ounce of himself. True to the song's title, the music utilizes bright Polynesian-sounding rhythms and scales performed on synthesized marimbas and vibes. They perfectly complement Klugh's steel-sounding acoustic guitar, and even though several effects are present, the music is not over-drenched in reverb. This brings the performance's true sound to life. Obviously, Klugh's soloing provides the focus. His intonation is perfect as he wrestles the soul from his instrument at a high rate of speed and with absolute control. Fortunately, since his lines are essential, his volume is placed somewhat atop the rest of the mix. As he lays down the written melodies, he expounds on them in a variety of ways. Regardless of whether his soloing is chordal or based upon single notes, Klugh is simultaneously confident, proficient and technically fluid. "Captain Caribe" accurately represents his personal attributes as a player.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Earl Klugh: Living Inside Your Love

This is one of the world's most mainstream jazz tracks. Earl Klugh's "Living Inside Your Love" lurches on unidentifiably, featuring light music, repetitive female vocals obviously indebted to soul music, and Klugh playing a glut of heavily arpeggiated, lazily rendered solos more adequately and imaginatively presented by George Benson on his landmark Breezin' album. With Benson's spirit looming large over this session, Klugh sounds like that legend's ghost resurrected in many places, as the track relies on Creed Taylor-type string orchestrations and Jorge Dalto-style synthesizers to add color and weight to what is essentially a very dull musical template. All the pieces are in place to re-create Breezin', but the real George Benson is sorely missed here because of the composition's flaccidity and the recording's lack of personality and heart. The artist's desire is to compete with pop ballads like "Can't Hide Love" by R&B giants Earth, Wind & Fire, but while the vocal melody is actually memorable after a few listens, the tune reflects the vision of record-label executives instead of great jazz musicians. No purists bought this recording, that's for sure.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: The Bomb

Featuring smooth production by Heatwave's Rod Temperton ("Always and Forever"), Herbie Hancock's "The Bomb" seems aimed for the charts. Its arrangement would have programmed well on any urban FM station, as its emphasis is on its big-sounding dance beat. The music is better described as R&B, as its relation to jazz is minimal. Lyrics chronicling encounters between men and women at nightclubs are obscured by loud horns and synthesizers, but since the sophomoric storyline is straight out of Beavis and Butt-head ("She's a motion motivator / Filled up with feelings that you want to ignite / A thousand megatons, she's the bomb"), the production is actually one of the track's strengths. "The Bomb"'s sadomasochism is limited in appeal, as the lyrical clichés barely make sense, the composition and production lack passion, and the bridge, which compares a woman to a president leading a nation into war, is downright ugly. Ending with an effect approximating the sound of an exploding atomic bomb, this track would be considered a complete joke without Hancock's 30-second solo, which blends well into the background yet shines brighter than its surroundings. Even with it, though, this uninventive cut signifies the nadir of Hancock's recording career.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Magic Number

"Magic Number" is one of Herbie Hancock's better vocal recordings. Featuring sexy bass singing by disco diva Sylvester and scratchy funk guitar patterns by Ray Parker Jr. of "Ghostbusters" fame, the track is radio ready, with big-budget production that should have competed with larger sellers by Earth, Wind & Fire and the Commodores. In fact, the recording sounds like it could have been cut by either of those groups, with the common link between them and Herbie being their heavy jazz orientations. At 3:30, Parker's guitar sounds as if it formed the basis of every subsequent Prince recording. Then Herbie takes over with some minor-chord Latin jazz stamped by his distinctive altered voicings. His unmistakable style forms the basis of the entire second half of the tune, yet there is a lingering strangeness that results from hearing him combine more traditional R&B and funk elements with sounds straight out of the Miles Davis Quintet songbook. It all sits together well, though, making it regrettable that this recording has been universally ignored since its release. It is ultra slick and a great example of wide-ranging stylistic fusion by a master musician who defies categorization.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Spyro Gyra: Shaker Song

Perhaps the glossy '80s production is the reason this entire brand of jazz has been eliminated from the history books, but Spyro Gyra's "Shaker Song" is excellent. The audience's attraction to the band is clear, as rousing sax solos fuse the influences of the most renowned jazz giants while the percussion and vibes always soar high. Forethought was clearly involved in the music's preparation, as the players sound like their destinations are mapped out in advance with a clear trajectory in mind. On behalf of each player, however, an amazing level of impressive improvisatory talents is apparent. What is mind-boggling, though, is why the group is not mentioned more by ardent jazz fans. With recordings such as this in their canon, their particular take on the jazz genre (which incorporates percussive and scalar elements of world music) is formidable, and while this track is performed at a relaxed tempo, the interplay throughout remains intense. The personnel are well rehearsed, functioning as a slick, well-oiled machine, and their multi- directional solos catalyze the rhythm section. Often, lead players are accompanied by flourishes from other instruments that match the soloist's tone exactly. As a complementary ensemble, it's tough to top this crew.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Unsquare Dance

Even at 2:02, "Unsquare Dance" lingers in the listener's memory long after the tune has ceased. As a pop hit, it is familiar to anyone, and its un-imitated sound is energetically driven by snappy drums, handclaps and finger snaps that fall precisely on the beat and complement the percussion well. Dave Brubeck's short yet sweet piano motifs seem influenced by both classical and early American music; the entire Time Further Out album is constructed in a similar manner, and this cut fits in well with the disc's intended concept. Riffs that echo Chopin intertwine with a quick run-through of "Turkey in the Straw," and, without Paul Desmond's usually omnipresent sax or even much content, the tune floats atop slight yet unsubtle rhythmic variations meant to push through the boundaries defined by the composition's odd time signature. Ultimately the music is engaging, and instead of dancing (as per the title), listeners will prefer to hum along to Brubeck's brief melody and tap their feet with the constant rhythm that the bass and drums outline. The Wright/Morello duo forms the composition's core; they are responsible for its destination, and the track winds up in uncharted territory.

January 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wynton Marsalis: In This House, On This Morning

There are many tempting pigeonholes in which to place this 2-hour work by Mr. Marsalis. You could call it his personal variant on the old Ellington Sacred Concerts. Or you could look it as an apprentice effort pointing toward Marsalis's later Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Blood on the Fields. You might even see this as a historic moment in the institutionalization of jazz. (This was the trumpeter's first commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center.)

Or you could do as I suggest, and actually listen to the music and let it speak to you on its own terms. Of course, it is much more convenient to have a readymade opinion about Wynton that exempts you from actually having to hear his music. But if you put your ears to the test you will encounter many aural moments of high distinction, from that expansive opening motif of "Devotional" (vaguely reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere") which will return to greet the perspicacious listener from time to time, to the glorious and free-ish trumpet speaking-in-tongues of "Call to Prayer" and the 6/8 cool jazz stylings of "Hymn." And let me call attention (to pick a few more pleasing examples) to the horns that sound like church bells in "Recessional" and Wynton's celebration of his New Orleans roots in his concluding "Pot Blessed Dinner."

The third movement is my favorite. Here Reginald Veal's opening bass solo is raw and meaty, and prepares us for some soothing horn strains that begin setting the tone at the 5-minute mark. This interlude measures how much Marsalis had changed since Blues Alley: much of this writing here is built on long held notes, sweet-and-sour textures that create tension by implication rather than demonstrative excesses. In fact, that is true of this whole composition, where background riffs and rhythmic patterns are given plenty of room to make their point, and soloists wait for the right moment to make a big statement. At times, the piece risks collapsing into pastiche—this is always the dark storm cloud on the horizon in mid-period Marsalis—yet this artist's high seriousness generally keeps him on the high road. His success in this regard is all the more telling when one considers how much "low road" pastiche was circulating in the New York jazz world during this era.

The trumpeter had appeared on more than a dozen releases during the four years leading up to the debut performance In This House, On This Morning at Avery Fisher Hall on May 27, 1992. By releasing so many recordings during this period, Wynton didn't make it easy for his audience—or even jazz critics—to keep up with him. Nor does Columbia make it easy now, by keeping this double-CD out of print (although the music is available as a digital download). But those who spend some time with this work will be rewarded for their efforts.

January 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jack Wilkins: Invitation

Jack Wilkins first impressed as the very hot guitarist in the small group that Buddy Rich led in the early '70s at his new jazz club in New York, Buddy's Place (hear the CD Very Live at Buddy's Place), an ensemble that also included Sonny Fortune, Sal Nistico and Kenny Barron. That gig, plus Wilkins's own at another New York venue, Sweet Basil, ultimately resulted in his being called on to do two albums for Chiaroscuro in 1977, which were later combined for this 1992 CD release. These albums are considered by many of those fortunate enough to have heard them to be among the finest jazz recordings of the '70s.

"Invitation" features Michael and Randy Brecker, both taking a respite from the funk/R&B/jazz fusion of their Brecker Brothers band to vigorously exercise their formidable, undiluted jazz chops. The 13-minute piece begins with Michael's commanding tenor slowly playing the theme with a lustrous tone and alluring embellishments, while Wilkins provides intriguingly creative accompaniment. Michael's tone hardens as he enters what will be a tempestuous and probing solo, with Jon Burr now initiating a propulsive bassline. Michael delivers an endless, mesmerizing string of winding extended lines and jabbing motifs, building in intensity as he utilizes various provocative tonal effects to enhance his improvisation. Wilkins follows with his distinctively light guitar sound, piling on layers of inventive chord progressions and intricately constructed phrases and runs. Randy Brecker's mellow, fully rounded flugelhorn is an apt successor to Wilkins, although his attack is actually very trumpet-like in its stimulating urgency. Michael then returns to revisit the theme, this time with a looser, more swinging pulse, only to be joined first by Wilkins and then by Randy for a swirling contrapuntal fadeout ending. This is timeless music.

January 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sarah Vaughan: The Island

Sarah Vaughan self-produced Crazy and Mixed Up, her final and perhaps finest album for Norman Granz's Pablo label. They're all outstanding due to the fact that Vaughan's voice had by then taken on an unsurpassed richness, range and flexibility. She chose two Ivan Lins songs, "Love Dance" and "The Island," for this project, and "The Island" is undoubtedly one of the sexiest, most emotionally unrestrained tracks that she ever recorded. Of course, it helps that the English lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman transformed lyricist Vitor Martin's original rather philosophical musings in Portuguese for "Comerçar de Novo," into the thinly disguised salute to ecstatic physical lovemaking of "The Island."

Roland Hanna's pensive intro is followed by Vaughan's wordless incantation of the melody, highlighted by swooping drops to the depths of the lower register. When she takes up the lyrics, her sensually expressive interpretation seamlessly adheres to the symbolic meaning of the words. Her gliding arpeggios, resonant chest tones, and flawlessly executed crescendos and decrescendos build to the dramatic, scorchingly hot climax: "I can see the island / Shining in the distance / Now we are getting closer / Just keep your arms around me / Come my love … / We're there." Vaughan had ended a troubled marriage to trumpeter Waymon Reed, 16 years her junior, not long before the Crazy and Mixed Up session, and she never involved herself in another romance. Her astonishing performance of "The Island," however, indicates that her flame was still burning bright.

January 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kevin Mahogany: Lush Life

Billy Strayhorn's harmonically sophisticated and lyrically artsy "Lush Life" was first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1949 (not counting the composer's own then unreleased version), and thus began debate and controversy that has endured to this day. Strayhorn took affront to Cole's mangling of the lyrics and the structural distortions caused by Pete Rugolo's arrangement. In 1963, Johnny Hartman (with John Coltrane) recorded what is still considered by most to be the definitive vocal interpretation, although that hasn't stopped singers ranging from Linda Ronstadt to Sarah Vaughan from trying to do justice to Strayhorn's challenging rubato masterpiece, not to mention numerous instrumentalists. Sinatra loved it, but finding it too difficult put off recording it, at first temporarily (in 1958) and then permanently. Clarinetist Tony Scott perhaps typifies (to an extreme) the view of some towards "Lush Life," writing on his website: "The greatest singers have sung 'Lush Life' wrong." Among those either singing or playing it incorrectly, Scott cites Cole, Ella, Vaughan, Hartman, Oscar Peterson, Coltrane, Joe Pass, and Strayhorn himself!

So now we come to Kevin Mahogany's version. One of the finest voices to emerge in jazz since the '90s, Mahogany humbly places "Lush Life" 11th and dead last in the track order on his My Romance CD. He also sings "I Apologize" two selections prior, maybe subconsciously wishing to placate in advance those who might take exception to his singing of "Lush Life," or even just attempting it. Mahogany and pianist Bob James beautifully navigate the lyric and chordal minefields of Strayhorn's tune, both artists understated but assured. The warm purity of Mahogany's voice, and his clear and graceful articulation of the words help ensure his success. From his opening foghorn-like "I …" to his daringly near-falsetto closing "too," Mahogany is in full control. Yet even he flubs a word or two, singing "wheels" instead of "wheel," "hearts" instead of "heart" (the latter at least according to Strayhorn's biographer David Hadju, although everyone pluralizes it). He also enunciates "distingué" rather awkwardly, as if wanting to make sure that no one thinks he's singing "distant" instead, as many other vocalists have carelessly done.

January 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gene Ammons & Sonny Stitt: We'll Be Together Again

Gene Ammons & Sonny Stitt rank along with Al Cohn/Zoot Sims and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis/Johnny Griffin as the best-known, on-again/off-again, tenor sax duos in jazz history. A few years removed from their days with Billy Eckstine's exemplary big band, Ammons and Stitt first recorded together in 1950. On August 26, 1961, they did a session for Prestige, and the following day were recorded by Verve (Boss Tenors). A year later, Ammons began serving a 7-year prison stint on drug charges, and by the time the '61 Prestige date was belatedly released in 1968, Ammons's return was much anticipated, hence the hopeful title We'll Be Together Again. (The two tenors would finally get to record "together again" – for the final time – in 1973.)

The title track's 4-minute length doesn't allow for much stretching out, but these two masters make the most of it. Ammons, notwithstanding his meaty tone, treats us to a yearning and tender reading of the theme, as pianist John Houston's delicate chords enhance the mood. Ammons's mastery of dynamics and dramatic tension is fully evident here. Stitt has the spotlight the rest of the way, his fluent, authoritatively delivered lines intermingled with bluesy exhortations as well as more gently considered passages. His brilliant coda is a lesson in technically proficient bop, and Ammons joins him near the end for a sympathetically harmonized resolution. It's hard to believe that Prestige sat on such great music for almost as long as Ammons was incarcerated. May it remain available forevermore.

January 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Bad Plus (with Wendy Lewis): Lithium

If the jazz world were a fancy party, The Bad Plus would be the unruly people who just crashed the gate. And they've brought with them various illegal substances to liven up the proceedings. The contraband, in the case of the band's new CD For All I Care, consists of "songs" by Milton Babbit, György Ligeti and The Flaming Lips, cover versions of the uncoverable, so to speak. And, of course, Nirvana. The Bad Plus is the band (need I remind you?) that transformed Kurt Cobain into a composer of jazz standards.

But even when you think you know all of this trio's tricks, they continue to surprise. In this instance they have added vocalist Wendy Lewis to the line-up (a move which group members discussed with Stuart Nicholson in a recent interview on jazz.com). I have written elsewhere about what I call the "new way of phrasing" in jazz—a method of articulating notes that hits them dead in the center, almost the way a keyboard would do. Singer Lewis is very much in this camp. You will find more bends in the Bonneville Speedway than in her vocals, which dismiss the microtonal buzzes and go straight to the punchline. This is very much aligned with the current jazz zeitgeist. Yet in other regards, Lewis seems to plugging into vibes from outside the jazz idiom. The end result is a paradoxical way of delivering lyrics that sounds highly stylized while at the same time aspiring to what Roland Barthes called the 'degree zero' of style. I find this approach very appealing, and perfectly suited to this song—but I suspect that other listeners may struggle to get beyond the faux blasé exterior.

And how does the The Bad Plus work behind a singer? Don't expect traditional comping. At the outset of the track, Anderson and King lock together in an odd start-and-stop rhythm that sounds like your car right before the transmission goes on the blink. And where is Mr. Iverson? He lays out, until Lewis delivers the phrase "I've found God" . . . and then he arrives like a deus ex machina with blazing chords from on high. No, this is not your typical jazz performance. But the party is definitely picking up steam.

January 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wynton Marsalis: Knozz-Moe-King

The title of the song may demand "No Smoking," but this band is clearly in violation of the city ordinance. In fact, if you are looking for a smokin' Wynton Marsalis performance, this track from the trumpeter's December 1986 engagement at Blues Alley is a good place to start. At age 25, Marsalis was playing with a technical mastery and burning energy that few horn players in the history of this music have ever matched. In a short while, Wynton would take on a more traditional approach, and enter into an Ellingtonian-ish phase of his career that still marks his music today. But there are no signs of that looming change on the Blues Alley date. Marsalis plays fast and hot, with long loping lines that feed off the rhythm section. And what a rhythm section! For sheer unbridled drive, it would be hard to top this combo. The piece is off in modal land, and is quite malleable; but Marsalis and company push it about as far as it will go without breaking. You can check out the other versions for comparison. (This is the longest—and fastest—of the three versions of "Knozz Moe King" from the Blues Alley album.)

January 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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David "Fathead" Newman: Hard Times

By the late 1950s, jazz had become recognized as an art form . . . and was losing its mainstream audience. But you can't blame David "Fathead" Newman for that. His 1959 debut as a leader, released with a little help from Ray Charles, grabbed listeners by the lapels and wouldn't let them go. "Hard Times" was a very popular track, and remained a signature song for Newman for the rest of his career. And you can easily understand why. Newman tempers his jazz with a double dose of R&B, and his very strong outing on alto is supported by Mr. Charles himself at the piano. This type of jazz was able to please the serious fans and delight the casual listener. It still does today.

January 22, 2009 · 2 comments

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David "Fathead" Newman (with Ray Charles): Willow Weep for Me

David "Fathead" Newman first made his mark as a member of the Ray Charles band. But a talent this large was not destined to remain a sideman. Yet what a coup for Newman to have his debut as leader take place under the auspices of Mr. Charles himself—on Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David 'Fathead' Newman. Here the saxophonist picks up the alto to deliver an impassioned rendition of Ann Ronell's 1932 standard "Willow Weep for Me." Even before you get to the solos, Newman puts so much oomph into the melody statement that you already know that you are in the presence of a world-class artist. Not to be outdone, Ray Charles (in a rare sideman role) shows off his jazz chops. Charles gives a passing nod at Art Tatum's famous arrangement of this song in his intro, but then gets into his own distinctive bag of funky tricks. Newman would continue to delight jazz fans for another half-century, but even at this young age was a confident stylist with a sound all his own.

January 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nora McCarthy: The Shadow of Your Smile

"The Shadow of Your Smile" is the best cut on this album from songstress Nora McCarthy. Accompanied ably by pianist John DiMartino, McCarthy presents a collection of standards and self-penned numbers. The well-regarded McCarthy is not a jazz singer in the traditional sense. Rather she is a balladeer who veers toward jazz interpretation, as on this cut, where she offers up an expressive slow scat section. You can hear this woman's life in her voice, cracks and all. That's what life is about. Music is communication. You don't need to be Jenny Lind (the 19th-century "Swedish Nightingale") to get your point across. After listening to Nora McCarthy, you sense that you know her. I don't think we could ask more of any artist.

January 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sarah DeLeo: Stolen Moments

"Stolen Moments" is the jazziest number on vocalist Sarah DeLeo's I'm In Heaven Tonight. The familiar strains of this Oliver Nelson standard are put across quite effectively by a first-class band. Say, why does that organist sound so familiar? Why, it's Brian Charette, whom I recently reviewed favorably right here on jazz.com!

In approach, if not in tone, DeLeo approaches this cut as Peggy Lee might have. It turns out that Peter Richmond, who wrote the book on Peggy Lee, is a fan of DeLeo and penned the liner notes for this album. So the connection is clear. The arrangement calls for Ms. DeLeo to sing a little faster and higher-pitched than the very cool Miss Lee. But it is Peggy she evokes, at least on this number. (Elsewhere on this album, in her rendition of "In the Cold, Cold Night," DeLeo may actually be channeling Lee.) As the liner notes suggest, this is music presented by a very talented song stylist you may expect to hear at an upscale establishment. If you can't afford that night out, there's always this CD to transport you.

January 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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La Tanya Hall: Straighten Up and Fly Right

It takes more than a great voice to be a great singer. You need musical intelligence, taste, style, consistency and an attitude. La Tanya Hall exhibits all those qualities on It's About Time. There is not a clunker performance among the dozen cuts. Hall shines on ballads and up-tempo numbers and all in between. She is backed by an orchestra led by arranger/conductor Angelo DiPippo that successfully creates a modern-day sound reminiscent of the great swing bands that often backed Sinatra.

On "Straighten Up and Fly Right," Hall's pipes aren't tested as much on some other numbers on the album. But her engaging storytelling ability, phrasing and hip attitude are on full display. Hall's distinctive smoky smooth voice is a pleasure to hear as she runs through Nat King Cole's narrative. It's fun. It's nonsense. It's swing. You get the whole package from this artist. Ladies and gentleman, La Tanya Hall is a real honest-to-goodness jazz singer.

January 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Steely Dan (featuring Wayne Shorter): Aja

Steely Dan's claim to fame is high-minded jazz-rock presented in a radio-ready format. "Aja," the title cut from their blockbuster 1977 album, is what results when Becker and Fagen forget about airplay. Fraught with more subtleties and tempo shifts than a symphony, this song contains highly unusual chord changes for the genre, yet with a melody that always manages to find its way back home. This is also a showcase for some of the era's finest studio musicians, featured in an extended instrumental segment that gives these cats room to untie one of the knottiest compositions in all of rock.

The three guitarists do great work in that stretch, but the climactic interaction between Wayne Shorter and drummer Steve Gadd is one for the ages. Gadd's muscular, off-center flurry of fills ranks near the pinnacle of this renowned session-drummer's career. Shorter doesn't compete with Gadd, but opts instead to gradually build momentum with many notes held long, some cascading down and often running just slightly behind the beat. A short slower interlude gives him just enough windup time to bring his solo to a peak that invokes the angular blues-based tough tone of his Blue Note years.

When performing such a complex song, Steely Dan recognized that only the very best will do. Even if the best—Wayne Shorter—normally doesn't do session dates.

January 22, 2009 · 1 comment

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Denny Zeitlin: All of You

The thickest piano chords come from the Windy City. You don't hear people talking about a Chicago School of Jazz Pianism (except for me, that is), but how else to account for those orchestral changes and radical reharmonizations from keyboardists who came of age in the chilling breezes off Lake Michigan. Just check out early Chicago-era Lennie Tristano, or Herbie Hancock or Chris Anderson or (little known) Billy Wallace . . . and, of course, Dr. Denny Zeitlin. Sometimes Denny will even construct a chord with more notes than his hand has fingers. (Pianists take note of those voicings with the thumb playing two notes simultaneously.) This 11-minute version of "All of You" could serve as a case study at Berklee. Lots of pianists change the changes, but few with such aplomb. It almost does a disservice to call them voicings; they are more like free-floating sound textures. Melodic and rhythmic possibilities expand in this alternate aural universe, and the result is a very fresh take on an old tune. Buster Williams is a master at navigating through this mist of harmonic indeterminacy, and Matt Wilson knows how to turbocharge a medium-slow standard without overwhelming it. A first-rate trio outing!

January 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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La Tanya Hall: Bluesette

According to the liner notes, La Tanya's Hall's performances were recorded back in 2006. But for some reason, the CD was not released until December 2008. Do you mean I could have heard this first-class talent sing earlier? I consider my life the lesser for having been deprived for all those months!

Before I discuss Hall's voice, I must say that everyone associated with this album should be lauded. Arranger and conductor Angelo DiPippo has created some of the best modern big band arrangements I have heard in ages. Leading the assembled musicians through his scores may have been hard work, but considering the high-quality musicianship on display (including Hall's), it must have been simultaneously a pleasure. Sometimes you just know you are involved with something special, and work is a joy. (If that was not actually the case, I don't want to know!) Audio engineer Fred Guarino must also be commended for a beautifully crafted CD. I can't say enough about how fantastic this recording sounds. Every dynamic is dead-on PERFECT.

It would have been a crime against music to not surround La Tanya Hall's voice with the best in every capacity. The woman is ripe with talent. Her slightly husky smooth voice is a wondrous instrument, put to good use on the classic "Bluesette." Her phrasing and intonation are impeccable. Her interpretative skills are a marvel. Has Toots Thielemans heard this version yet? If not, someone must FedEx it to his attention pronto. This song cannot be performed any better.

Part of my late discovery of Hall has to do with the fact that, after years in the business, It's About Time is her first solo record. What took so long? This reviewer is blown away. I hope Hall's next recording will be released in a more timely fashion so I don't have to suffer through the waiting.

January 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Derek Trucks Band: Maybe This Time

Now that Derek Trucks has recorded with McCoy Tyner, maybe jazz fans will start paying attention to this exceptional artist. His previous CD, Songlines (2006), has been a frequent friend to my CD player, and this follow-up, Already Free (2009), maintains the same high standards. It's hard to pick the best track on this CD, but "Maybe This Time" is a contender. You may want to pigeonhole this guitarist as a blues or rock act, but if you listen to Trucks's solo on this track you might be reminded of a sitar player or a kora-equipped griot. What you won't find here are stale blues licks. In short, haughty jazz cats could learn a thing or two about improvising from Mr. Trucks. And the rhythm section is happening . . . and I mean Steely Dan-level happening. The jazz purity police may want to stop you from listening to Derek's music, but in this instance civil disobedience is highly recommended.

January 22, 2009 · 1 comment

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The Guitar Trio: Letter From India

"Letter from India" is a duet featuring John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia, the two members of The Guitar Trio who were getting along personally at that time. The title and composer would suggest another Indian-influenced piece. But au contraire, mon frère. (Or should I write "Kayal acha hai par," which is as close as I could get to the French phrase in idiomatic Hindi?) This Spanish-tinged ballad is right in the wheelhouses of both players. A gentle melody is introduced. The two guitarists trade calls and responses, and provide chord backing for impressive but low-pressure improvisational runs. For the uninitiated, this music may sound like the most intricate guitar work ever heard. But for these masters, the tune gave them a chance for a few minutes of introspective and calming interplay. This is verified by Paco's relaxed voice at song's end: "Nice, eh?" Yeah.

January 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Guitar Trio: Le Monastère Dans Les Montagnes

It's such a shame. Despite a growing personal rift between Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin and their trio partner Al Di Meola, The Guitar Trio's music seemed to be only getting better. The trio really shot off fireworks on their early 1980s efforts Friday Night in San Francisco and Passion Grace & Fire. For this reunion, the band still had plenty of those fireworks. But a refinement of approach and taste had been added in the ensuing years of experience. Despite the simmering acrimony, the guitarists managed to create some off-the-scale beauty on The Guitar Trio album. A tour followed the CD. But the behind-the-scenes arguments ruined the magic. These gifted guitarists will never perform as a trio again. McLaughlin and De Lucia will certainly continue their longstanding history of collaboration at some point. But Di Meola is the odd man out.

"Le Monastère Dans Les Montagnes" is a reverential exercise. McLaughlin, who studies Buddhist writings, had Zen in mind when he wrote this composition. For that reason, it is centered. The players occasionally add fiery lines, sometimes played in unison, but the overall vibe is one of virtuosic restraint. (Restraint from these guys is great exertion for others.) For a few minutes you can forget about the world's problems, the Guitar Trio's and your own. Close your eyes and you can feel the pulse of life in this music.

January 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Guitar Trio: Passion, Grace and Fire

The Guitar Trio's Passion Grace & Fire was the follow-up to their highly successful and influential debut Friday Night in San Francisco. That first album had been recorded in front of a wildly excited audience that gave the record an additional kick. The tunes heard on PGF were all studio recorded. What this sacrificed in the buzz of audience participation, it gained in dynamics. Each note was now more open to scrutiny. Fans expected perfection, and they got it. There is not a flubbed note to hear.

The title cut was written by Al Di Meola. It comes in several sections. The first is clearly one of searching. One foot is in the water. Then two and three and four and six feet get wet. The midsection is a fun Spanish reggae of sorts, leading to playful soloing that includes plenty of fusillades. The tune turns introspective as smartly played arpeggios are presented in round-robin, tandem and in opposition. This creates a pensive but hypnotic atmosphere that carries the piece to its fading conclusion. Passion, grace and fire are all heard. I am just not sure they appear in that order.

January 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Guitar Trio: Orient Blue Suite

"Orient Blue Suite" is one of Al Di Meola's more touching and dramatic compositions for The Guitar Trio. It is presented in three distinct parts. "Part I" features a reverberating melody floating above a bed of articulated chord and arpeggio patterns. Each player takes a turn at the dreamlike theme. In "Part II," McLaughlin, Di Meola and De Lucia offer sympathetic support for each other as they explore the tender side of acoustics. It is quite a beautiful exposition. But as often was the case with The Guitar Trio, even sections of music as effectively entertaining as "Part II" serve as an introduction to pyrotechnics. "Part III" is a frantic riff fest as each player turns up the intensity and notes-per-second quotient. No guitarists besides these three were capable of playing this fast together without losing focus on being part of an ensemble playing real melodies. Di Meola's Latin leanings take over as the piece comes to a rousing end – rhythmic handclaps and all.

January 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Medeski Martin & Wood: Beeah

Intensity from the word go is the operative take on "Beeah." The insistent groove-rhythm opens a wormhole straight through your earwax into your cerebrum. This is not a happy groove. There are some malevolent intentions going on here. If you were previously dancing to MMW's infectious grooves, you have now stopped, questioned the band's motives and looked for nearby exits. Do these guys like me? Do they like themselves? Why am I digging this anyway? Certainly they will be easing off soon.

Nope. Right in your face. This is music that will not let you off the rope. I love it when music makes us feel uncomfortable.

January 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billy Joel (featuring Freddie Hubbard): Zanzibar

The storyline is that Billy Joel went for a jazzier approach on 52nd Street, the chart-topping sequel to his breakout The Stranger. In reality, he made only some nods in that general direction on three or four cuts, because Billy Joel was/is an unabashed pop practitioner of the grandiose style.

One of those nods came on "Zanzibar," which has more going on under the hood melodically than the showy confection of tracks extracted for radio play. While Joel sings that he's "got a jazz guitar," he does not play one. Instead, he lets Freddie Hubbard play a jazz trumpet. Good move.

Also a good move is shifting the song from a mid-tempo rocker to double-time, bass-walking classic bop for the trumpeter. Hubbard gets not one but two of these instrumental breaks. He does nothing in these brief interludes but cook and glide through the changes in his trademark virtuoso style.

Hubbard's appearance on a Billy Joel song isn't as unforgettable as Phil Woods's because his solo doesn't blend into the overall song as effectively. But Freddie was well worth creating the space for.

January 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Vinnie Cutro: Time Will Tell

"Time Will Tell" features a repetitive intro line carried throughout the song by Jay Anderson's plucky basslines and Charles Blenzig's supportive piano backing. Anchored by the metronome-like rim-based timekeeping of a very understated but effective Billy Hart on drums, this rhythmic backdrop allows the two frontline horns to play their nonlinear progressions in classic synchronicity. New Jersey educator and trumpeter Vinnie Cutro has written this tune with a bow to the influences of his predecessors Woody Shaw and Lee Morgan, and succeeds in bringing us back to that distinctive sound. He is effectively paired with powerful tenorman Jerry Bergonzi, the two executing their parts with a cool and coincidental efficiency.

Featuring his muted horn, Cutro extracts some distinctively evocative lines that are nicely contrapuntal to the persistently steady asymmetric melody line. Blenzig lends an important element to the overall sound with his thoughtful chords and quiet embellishments, and Hart and Anderson consistently but subtly keep it all together.

Vinnie Cutro shows he has the mettle to assemble and lead a swinging band of accomplished musicians, as well as write straight-ahead music that captures a timeless sound.

January 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Vinnie Cutro: Blues for Roy

With an explosive introductory drum solo by the inimitable Billy Hart, "Blues for Roy" is the perfect high- tempo blowing vehicle for these musicians to let it all hang out. Jay Anderson does a commendable job laying down relentlessly walking basslines behind Hart's splashing cymbals and crashing toms. Charles Blenzig likewise does a nice turn on the keys with a rapid-fire solo that takes some surprising twists and turns, especially when he demonstrates how he can separate time between hands with no loss of continuity. Jerry Bergonzi solos mid-course and demonstrates why he always has the potential to be incendiary. Leader Vinnie Cutro has a hard act to follow, but comports himself well with his own atmospherics.

With the featured playing of Hart dominating the intro and the final solo, "Blues for Roy" might justly be called "Blues for Billy to Swing On." Hart demonstrates why he is one of the most sought-after drummers on the scene today. His enthusiastic wellspring of polyrhythmic ideas is a joy to behold and the surprise gem of this piece.

January 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mark Rapp: 1st Minute, 1st Round

Did Miles ever employ a didgeridoo? Well, if he didn't, he should have. This tune totally cooks, thanks to a relentless groove provided by Mark Rapp and his rhythm section. Rapp rides over this groove with his trumpet, giving a kind of Miles electric-era feel minus the darkness. The horn solo's angularity and energy definitely amp up the slippery groove, so much so that it almost felt dirty! Not a bad thing in my book at all. At song's end, the energy is dialed back as a few subtle keyboard phrases echo out under the decaying trumpet pulse. Think of it as the happy and inverted cousin of Miles's "Jean Pierre."

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Razl: Glow Pig

OK, I loved the title. I admit it, so can we move on? The (very) happy coincidence here is that guitarist Razl has brought in Frank Zappa alum Mike Keneally on guitar. This is a great guitar collaboration, one not muddled by excessive 6-string hyperbole. Instead Razl and Keneally drive through the composition, adding spice via inspiring solos, breathtaking unison runs, and start-&-stop surprises. This is Fusion with a capital F, proving that there's no shame in revisiting the past when the results are this good.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Donald Vega: Scorpion

I have this problem with piano trios. It's not that I don't like them. I mean, Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, Paul Motian … what's not to like?! No, the problem is that the first trio I really latched onto was Chick Corea's A.R.C, with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. My young ears and intellect honestly had no idea what was going on there. Somehow, though, I was attracted to the group interplay that seemed to make the somewhat chaotic music hold together. So it's difficult for me to not think of that first experience when listening to a new piano trio. You might think that this leads me to shy away from more traditional jazz trios, but what instead happens is that I focus on the group interactions.

With "Scorpion," the opening chords and connecting right-hand melodies are full of energy, but things really get cooking during Vega's solo. Bassist David J. Grossman walks a brilliant line that manages to stay locked into the pulse (thank you, Lewis Nash) while providing beautiful counterpoint to Vega's harmonic constructs. The music contains none of A.R.C's chaos, but does present that cohesive feel. Great stuff.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bebo Valdes & Javier Colina: Waltz for Debby

This Bill Evans classic never gets old to my ears. With the beautiful combination of Bebo Valdes's piano and Javier Colina's very expressive and woody bass, "Waltz for Debby" is given the full-on stately treatment. Valdes glides through the introductory passages with grace before Javier Colina steps in to crank up the swing quotient. This does not stop Valdes from tossing out many lightning-fast arpeggios and extended chords that push the energy level without being needlessly flashy. Valdes was in his mid-80s when he recorded this date, and the music shows how the Cuban jazz icon had lost nothing.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billet-Deux: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

The promo material asks the listener to consider what a modern take on Django Reinhardt might sound like. Well, I have to say that hearing Mingus given the gypsy jazz treatment takes nothing away from either genre. (Yeah, Mingus really was his own genre.) This tune's modern blues becomes more introspective as guitars take a first pass at the well-worn theme. The introduction and truly swingin' gypsy jazz segments are bridged by a short passage featuring long cello lines and circular guitar figures, the brooding nature of which totally enhances the uplift to follow. I'm not sure what was more fun: hearing the two guitars play off each other, or witnessing the cello taking on the role of Stéphane Grappelli. You'll have to decide for yourself.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Baione: Oh Yeah!

The title just about sums it up. With the descending unison lines building a high-energy vibe, pianist Toru Dodo sets off on a fabulous solo that takes the thematic material in several directions. Leader Joe Baione then takes over on the vibes, blistering his way through several swinging choruses. Extra credit goes to bassist Corcoran Holt and drummer Jerome Jennings for pushing the swing factor to a high level. A little tension is built via Jennings's drum solo, which gives way to a restatement of the head followed by some nice call & response between the piano and vibraphone. That last segment was far too short for my taste, as I found the urge to crank the volume irresistible.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Search: The Laws of Gravity

Many people have read descriptions both formal and informal of Ornette Coleman's approach to music, and have come away scratching their head, muttering something approximating "Hwuh-buh?" Of course, a much larger group of people have had that same reaction induced by actually listening to his music. This has always seemed like a minor tragedy to me. After all, the idea is simple enough: collective improvisation that lacks a key center and traditional harmonic structure. The members of Search, having spent a great deal of time discussing music with Ornette, seem to have resonated with his message and philosophy. "The Laws of Gravity" launches with a jagged line that features sax and trumpet in unison, reminiscent of Coleman's "Focus on Sanity." The harmolodic fun continues as saxophonist Matthew Maley and bassist David Moss trade ideas in an extended duet. This is really exhilarating stuff, respectful of Ornette while tossing a pile of new ideas on the table. And really, it's OK if you stop and say "Hwuh-buh?" on first listen.

January 20, 2009 · 1 comment

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Eliane Elias: Chega de Saudade

Bossa nova puts me into a kind of altered state in which perception of time loosens up, as does the attitude. There must be something about those rhythms that provides comfort at a subconscious level. Eliane Elias opens "Chega de Saudade" with her sultry and breathy vocals, accompanied at first by acoustic guitar and percussion. Liftoff is achieved when her piano kicks in, urged on by Marc Johnson's subtle and swinging basslines. It's amazing to me that bossa nova is celebrating a half century as a genre. This song feels like it's been around forever.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Stiebel: Dance With Me

OK, it's time to admit the obvious: I have somehow become a sucker for jazz covers of pop tunes from the 1970s. "Dance With Me" was a pretty big hit for the group Orleans, and though I was a fan at the time, I can sense that part of me likes this cover for the nostalgia factor. Let's face it, each of us enjoys music for different reasons, and sometimes those reasons can cause more than a bit of cognitive dissonance. As a jazz guy, I can't deny that the percussion here leans a little too much toward the "happy" (read: Smooth) side of things. And speaking of happy, the violin that takes the role of the vocal melodies is just, well … bursting! The same can be said for the horn flourishes. Oh, and then there's the funky guitar bits, which have a sort of Chuck Mangione "Feels So Good" vibe. And yet … ah, screw the reasons. This is simply a load of fun, just like the original tune. So there!

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Desmond: My Funny Valentine

Sometimes I'm amazed at the good music I found in my high school days when I was just starting to learn about jazz. I bought this double-LP set when it first came out, and instantly fell in love with this version of "My Funny Valentine." Thirty-four years later, it still makes my heart flutter. Not even the Miles Davis versions (1956 and 1964) eclipse this one for establishing and maintaining mood. Desmond's tender reading of the melody and impassioned solo, Bickert's understated comping, Thompson's active (but always nuanced) counterpoint and Fuller's glorious brushwork are all part of the mix, but there's more than the ingredients at play. These were musicians who understood each other and instinctively knew what to play in order to make this performance greater than the sum of its parts. And as is true with much of Desmond's solo work, it's all so quiet and understated that you could just lose yourself in the music and miss all that happened.

January 20, 2009 · 1 comment

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Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine (1964)

Without a doubt, this is an essential Miles Davis recording. Full essays have been written about this performance, and there's no way to do it justice in a couple hundred words. So, assuming you already know that Miles and his second quintet perform one of the most amazing transformations of a popular song, let's focus on a pair of important highlights. First, there's Miles and his sound. Unlike the tightly controlled Harmon-muted sound of his Prestige recording, here he plays through open horn with a tone that seems … bruised. If the earlier version sounded like the nervous anticipation of a new love affair, the later version is the pained sound of a messy aftermath. It is well documented that Miles was having a tough time in his personal life during this period, and it's not much of a stretch to feel that pain reflected here. The other important highlight is the sensitive work of Tony Williams. He was 18 years old in 1964. Now think of every 18-year-old drummer you've ever heard (are you cringing?), and then listen to Tony on this recording. Not only did he play with extreme taste and restraint, he knew when not to play! In fact, during about 5 minutes of this 15-minute recording, he doesn't play at all. Would there be more musicians with that amount of good sense.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine (1956)

Miles's first recording of "My Funny Valentine" was made at the end of a marathon session designed to complete his contract with Prestige Records. All the music on the Cookin' / Relaxin' / Workin' / Steamin' sessions was part of his quintet's working repertoire, and every issued recording from the sessions was a first take. Despite this casual approach to posterity, Miles's quintet turned out one masterpiece after another, capped by this version of the Rodgers & Hart standard. With the benefit of hindsight, we know how Miles eventually transformed "Valentine," but the Prestige version was not simply a reference point. Indeed, had Miles never performed the song again, the Prestige version would still be one of the great jazz classics.

Miles's fragile muted trumpet invokes the unheard lyrics even as he moves away from the melody. Paul Chambers's bass dances along in obbligato, offsetting Miles's melancholy. And as Red Garland's joyful piano solo takes the spotlight, Philly Joe Jones lifts the performance with a subtle move to double-time. As with Miles's later versions, what amazes is what's not there: while John Coltrane might have provided a remarkable contrast to Miles's statement here, Miles must have felt that the performance was better balanced without him, and consequently this track is the only one on the first session where Coltrane sits out.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jim Hall: My Funny Valentine

This is an astounding attempt to use the duo concept from the Bill Evans/Jim Hall 1962 recording of "My Funny Valentine" and translate it into a trio version. If it doesn't quite match up to the earlier version, that is no criticism of the musicians involved, who are listening and responding as intently as Evans and Hall did 26 years earlier. Indeed, there is an incredible amount of interplay in this recording, and intriguing harmonic avenues are explored. But the medium tempo, while quicker than most versions of "Valentine," doesn't quite jell the way Evans/Hall's quick tempo did, and the necessary spark needed to re-create such a masterpiece is missing. Still, this is a solid performance that works well on its own terms.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Giuffre: My Funny Valentine

A quick look at the instrumentation will explain why this is one of the more unusual versions of "My Funny Valentine." It's an odd mix of a classical woodwind quartet with a very jazzy and soulful ostinato bass part. Giuffre had studied composition with Dr. Wesley La Violette, and one wonders if this arrangement began as a homework assignment. Although none of the woodwinds plays in true classical style, the mix of jazz and classical doesn't quite work. Giuffre's subtone clarinet clashes with the strident sound of the double reeds, and while the performance has some level of emotion, it is all so reserved that one wonders about the point of the entire experiment. Giuffre's work deserves to be reexamined, as he created an amazing body of recordings. Unfortunately, this is not the most interesting example.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Shirley Horn: My Funny Valentine

While Miles Davis tribute albums are legion, none is more heartfelt than Shirley Horn's I Remember Miles. Horn got one of her first big breaks from Davis in 1961, when the trumpeter insisted that the then-unknown singer open for him at the Village Vanguard. A Davis sketch of the two adorns the cover, and a vintage photo (presumably taken at the Vanguard) appears inside the package. One imagines that those images were in her mind, if not in the studio, as she made this album. Throughout, it's as if Horn is singing directly to her late friend and supporter. Her version of "My Funny Valentine" starts with a stark reading of the bridge before settling into her patented slow groove. As the performance grows in intensity, Horn makes us think about every word, and each melodic variation seems to emphasize the lyric. And when she reaches the word "stay," everything stops so she can make the most out of the last line, repeating it several times to bolster the final point. Perhaps that final word ("stay") was Shirley's wish that Miles— who'd passed away six years before—would never truly leave us.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ruby Braff & Ellis Larkins: My Funny Valentine

Because the lyric is gender-specific and character-driven, the verse to "My Funny Valentine" is rarely performed. Yet Ellis Larkins plays it as an introduction to this austere duet version. (Aside from a couple of instrumental recordings featuring Tubby Hayes, I've never heard another recording of the verse.) On this track, Larkins's rubato reading of the verse leads to Ruby Braff's glowing reading of the melody, which is also out of tempo. Braff might have been labeled as a traditionalist, but few musicians could sing through their instrument as he could. When Larkins takes the solo spotlight, he establishes a walking tempo with his beautifully flowing version of stride piano. When Braff comes back, the tempo recedes and disappears, and the cornetist shows his rhapsodic side to close the recording.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sarah Vaughan: My Funny Valentine

As her voice became deeper and richer, Sarah Vaughan's interpretive powers grew even more profound. As Gunther Schuller has noted, she had "an arsenal of vibratos, ranging from none to a rich throbbing, almost at times excessive one, all varying as to speed … size and intensity at will." Further, she could move freely from one part of her voice to another, performing leaps that would shred a lesser voice. This remarkable version of "My Funny Valentine" was recorded live, and there is a concentrated intensity by both performer and audience as Vaughan completely reconstructs the classic song. Her interpretation goes far beyond basic variations and represents an aesthetic towards her material that was different from any other singer now or then. While it's possible to point out specific harmonic and melodic risks she takes (and there are many), it is more important to hear Vaughan's statement as a whole. Almost more Vaughan than Rodgers & Hart, it is unparalleled in the history of vocal jazz.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: My Funny Valentine (1953)

While Chet Baker was widely known for his vocal versions of "My Funny Valentine," he first recorded the song as a trumpet feature with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Both the Fantasy and Pacific Jazz versions were recorded live, but the Pacific Jazz is the longer and better take. Bunker's opening tom-tom roll announces a dramatic start, and suddenly it is only Baker with Smith's spare bass backing. But listen again, and faintly in the background are the unison singing voices of Mulligan, Smith and Bunker! Baker's plaintive solo displays his natural sense of melody and phrasing. He says so much with the simplicity of his ideas and the burnished sound of his horn. Mulligan was a superb ballad player as well, and his more complex solo acts as a fine counterpoint to Baker's statement. And this time, Baker leads the vocal background, which in keeping with Mulligan's multi-noted solo is more intricate than the backgrounds for the trumpet solo.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fred Hersch: My Funny Valentine

Put simply, Fred Hersch is one of the world's finest jazz pianists, and every day that he can share his musical vision with us is a blessing. This version of "My Funny Valentine" shows how he and his trio bring fresh light to a familiar standard. Hersch shifts from the song's usual key of C minor down to A minor, giving the entire performance a different feel. Gress and Rainey provide an unusual and subtle beat that lightly pulsates rather than swings. Hersch's ultra-lyrical lines float above the time through most of the performance until near the end, when he picks up an insistent rhythmic motive hinted at earlier in his solo and builds it to a peak. Gress contributes a lovely solo based on a single melodic idea, and Rainey's brushwork is tasty throughout.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker with Stan Kenton: My Funny Valentine

Yes, Charlie Parker actually recorded with Stan Kenton! And unlike the electronically created collaborations that are released today, the only "electronic miracle" in this case is that someone had the good sense to record the concert. In 1954, Kenton presented a package tour with Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, Candido and Lee Konitz as featured soloists with his orchestra. While Konitz's performances from the tour have not surfaced, a week after this concert, he recorded the same Bill Holman arrangement of "Valentine" in the studio that Bird had performed live with the band. Konitz's cool, detached performance pales in comparison to Bird's white-hot intensity. Set to an aggressive Latin beat that later gives way to a powerful 4/4 swing, Parker stays close to the melody at first, using his searing tone and flawless melodic sense to accent the important notes. When he starts to improvise, things really heat up as he builds to an astounding climax, where a stutter-tongued figure tied to a descending idea moves up in pitch and intensity until he's wailing over the Kenton brass section. One of Bird's best.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billy Joel (featuring Phil Woods): Just The Way You Are

Billy Joel might have created the consummate piano lounge song here if he hadn't already done so four years earlier with "Piano Man." This ditty alone must have paid for a couple of houses in the Hamptons plus a few divorce settlements, as it still gets played every day at wedding receptions, karaoke bars and oldies radio stations. For a song that was schmaltzy and mushy to begin with (but eminently hummable and catchy), producer Phil Ramone pulled out all the stops to make it even more so, with a warm electric piano, heavily reverbed sound, infinitely layered choral backing vocals and, of course, a sultry saxophone.

At least Ramone chose wisely when it came to who would play that most romantic of instruments. Alto giant Phil Woods, having made his mark in bop decades earlier, had already proved remarkably adaptable to pop on Steely Dan's "Doctor Wu." Now he outdid himself. His sweet, sympathetic lines fit Billy Joel's pop standard so perfectly, they become essential to it. Woods delivered arguably the most recognizable sax solo in all of adult contemporary music.

Despite its mawkish tendencies, "Just The Way You Are" does hit the bull's-eye on soft rock, even if that might be a dubious dartboard for some. But Woods's sax work is an unequivocal delight.

January 20, 2009 · 3 comments

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Bill Evans & Jim Hall: My Funny Valentine

Stripped of any sentimentality, this fast aggressive version of the Rodgers & Hart classic shows Bill Evans and Jim Hall—two of the best-matched musicians in the history of jazz—engaged in a sprightly give and take. As they intensely listen to one another, there seems little either can play without the other finding a pithy and entirely appropriate answer. To cite just one example, near the end of the solos, Evans plays a fiercely rhythmic three-against-four pattern and Hall picks it up instantly; it turns out to be the climax of the recording. On the alternate take included on this CD, Evans merely hints at the pattern and not much happens. We don't know how many unissued and undocumented takes may have transpired between those we have, but there's little doubt that the two musicians had intensified their listening by the time the master was made.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Sullivan: Once Around

With a freewheeling sense of joy elicited by Paul Lieberman's delightful flute work, backed initially by the lone basslines of Wadopian, this Paul Sullivan composition has a light, infectious air of fun. In its exuberance and flow, the song evokes a happy, more carefree time. Sullivan and crew seem most at ease with uplifting tunes. This one suggests a soundtrack for a movie where the main character dances through a park after meeting the girl of his dreams. Such a sense of idyllic abandon is not a bad feeling to evoke in music.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Sullivan: Rain on the Lake

Starting with the gentlest of piano voicings by Paul Sullivan and deftly backed by wind-brushed percussion, hollow flute tones and rustling shells for good measure, this double-timed piece is a joyful adventure into impressionistic music. Using the rarely heard piccolo to great effect, Paul Lieberman prances through this rhythmic-centered tune while Sullivan, his two percussionists and bassist Wadopian drive the music through its serpentine curves. The staccato quality of the melody line opens to nicely cascading sounds that effectively emulate rushing and falling water. The music builds to a beautifully rhapsodic pinnacle of tension as Lieberman's pointillistic piccolo meshes precisely with Sullivan's wistful piano. They provide a complementary call and response that codifies into a swirling, almost classical break before returning to the original melody line, commandingly followed by a crescendo-building finale to break the spell.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eddie Daniels & Roger Kellaway: I'm Getting Sentimental Over You

In a flurry of joyful stride-like piano lines, Roger Kellaway sets the tone for this swinging little number. Establishing both the pace and feeling he is trying to portray, Kellaway's intro prods a dancingly joyful Eddie Daniels to add his tonally brilliant clarinet to the tune. These veteran instrumental masters venture into a kaleidoscope of ideas as they skillfully play off each other's phrasing, teasing one another down new roads of expression.

Kellaway is quite comfortable in the solo piano format, expressing a wellspring of ideas through a veritable encyclopedia of styles that nonetheless coalesce brilliantly into a unified statement. Inspired by Kellaway's adventures, Daniels offers his own equally daunting solo that explores both the tonal qualities of his instrument and the outliers of his ideas. The two seem to feed symbiotically off each other and create a stream of consciousness that is a wonder to behold, much to the joy of their respectful and appreciative audience on this live recording.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eddie Daniels & Roger Kellaway: Blue Waltz

In the liner notes to this offering, Paquito D'Rivera talks of the "Miracle of the Lead Sheet." The lead sheet is a sparse musical outline consisting of the basic melody, chord symbols and cues used by the musicians, leaving them plenty of room to explore uncharted waters around the barest of structures. Using only lead sheets for this venture, Eddie Daniels and Roger Kellaway create spontaneously evocative music from their combined deep well of experience and musical rapport.

On Daniels's wonderful "Blue Waltz," the ease with which he evokes such strong emotional sounds from the uniquely woody sound of his clarinet bears witness to a master at work. This difficult lead woodwind was once revered for its immediately identifiable timbre and hauntingly hollow-toned fluidity. Put in the driver's seat by the likes of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman, the clarinet subsequently took a back seat to the more immediate and urgent tenor sax. That is too bad, for in the hands of such an accomplished player as Daniels, the "licorice stick" rivals the most expressive of saxophones. Daniels's clarinet is unmatched in its purity of tone, and his flawless execution through the most challenging improvisations creates a unified mellifluous sound that is a unique voice in jazz.

Daniels's "Blue Waltz" is also the perfect vehicle for Kellaway's pianistic musings. His inventive excursions into melodic wonderland are always surprising. With a technique ranging from delicately tickling to harshly hammering, Kellaway is an inspired solo performer. He is also an accompanist par excellence as he masterfully and empathetically dances around Daniels's poignant notes in the most complementary way. Together these underappreciated titans of jazz are paired to great effect and to the joy of their grateful audience live at Los Angeles' Jazz Bakery. Thankfully this collaboration was captured for all of us to enjoy.

January 20, 2009 · 1 comment

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Martial Solal: Corcovado

When Martial Solal played the Vanguard alone in 2007, he was the second pianist ever, after Fred Hersch, to be granted such a privilege. It's definitely an honor, especially for a European musician. But after more than a half century of playing and recording all over the world with an international reputation, it can't be considered undue. The press clips say that the Vanguard was packed every night, and the reviews were excellent. The record is, anyway, and on this track Solal plays a Brazilian standard he'd never recorded before, as far as I know. To him, all music is just music, so he won't really care if it's Brazilian or Norwegian; it's basically food for his brain and fingers.

He starts, as often, by getting at the theme from a side angle, with one hand, then two in unison. Next he exposes the theme with more and more rhythmic, harmonic and melodic alterations until hitting a brief stride passage followed by virtuoso scales. Here you may fear the worst, but the theme comes back and undergoes more metamorphoses, including a short coverage in the very low register that is surprisingly musical. And just when you are beginning to get used to Solal's way of dealing with a standard, suddenly it's over. Applause, laughs, speechless signs of surprise (one supposes) … That's about the diversity of reaction that Solal expects from a listening audience, and one wishes that all the musicians who played the Vanguard before him had found such a rapt and respectful reception.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal: Cortancyl

Martial Solal loves writing for large ensembles and has done so as often as he could, which is not very often, at least on record. He led a big band in the early '80s, then his "Dodecaband" in the late '90s and early 2000, and was enticed to start again with a "Newdecaband" by the sound of his daughter Claudia's voice, which he decided to use instead of a sax section. Well, that's not the only difference between the Newdecaband and a traditional jazz orchestra, but isn't "difference" more or less Solal's middle name?

This track is actually a small piano concerto. Solal starts alone at a rather slow pace, then the brass blow a couple of riffs before the voice joins in and, along with the brass, sings intricate melody lines with drum punctuations. A trio passage segues, on the same melody that the brass and voice had played, and the rest follows more or less the same pattern of piano and rhythm alternating with voice and brass. It may all seem a bit formal—and it actually is in the beginning—but the overall sound is gorgeous and very original. Besides, the electric bass gives a punchy yet mellow feel to the whole thing, and the piano part is some high-level stuff: sound, touch, phrasing … Solal has often composed and played for contemporary music, and it shows in his jazz orchestral writing. But how can European musicians refrain from copying the American tradition if they don't search for their own ways? And, as on this track, find interesting paths.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal: Triangle

When Martial Solal looks for American musicians as partners for a trio session, he goes for the best: Teddy Kotick and Paul Motian in 1963 at Newport, Johnson and Erskine here, Gary Peacock and Motian again in 1997 in Paris. Of course the virtuoso pianist's music is difficult to play and requires mature sidemen and consummate instrumental technicians. But everyone knows that a summit meeting can never guarantee an optimal musical result. On this track, which Solal penned specially for this record, the relationship between the three masters is good, but there's a slight sense of stiffness that prevents the music from flowing effortlessly. The song is interestingly melodic, with a somewhat Ellingtonian feel at times. Solal is in a comparatively discreet mood, refraining from his frequent virtuoso streaks. Johnson and Erskine have short solo spots, and are as musical as ever as accompanists. But one can't help thinking that if this studio session had been recorded after a couple of live dates, the empathy between the players and the intensity of the music would have benefited. A record producer's ideas are not always best.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal: A Night in Tunisia

It's utterly impossible to predict how Martial Solal will play the most familiar standards. He's likely to start at the end, the middle, the second half of the beginning, put it upside down or play different sections with each hand. The man is totally unpredictable. He knows it, likes it, and so do we. From September 1993 to June 1994, France Musique, one of the French state radio channels, invited Solal to improvise every Sunday afternoon in one of their studios, in front of an audience, and these concerts were broadcast live and recorded. On this Dizzy Gillespie classic, Solal has all the fun he can get: heavily rhythmic chord clusters to begin, bits of melody among flurries of arpeggios, a true demonstration of piano pyrotechnics that would be overwhelming if the lightness of touch and the constant rhythm changes didn't continually keep our attention sharp. Then the theme becomes increasingly clear, the left hand maintaining a stride- like comping as the right frolics randomly. And we slowly realize that Solal not only does whatever he wants with whatever he wants, but has given us a lesson in jazz history by bringing the Gillespie theme backward to the prewar era, and forward to … himself.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal & Stéphane Grappelli: Nuages

Both are internationally known historical figures of French jazz. Each played with Django Reinhardt: Grappelli on their famed prewar recordings, Solal on Django's final 1953 studio session (where the Gypsy genius used an electric guitar). But they had never played together on record. What was to be expected from such a late meeting, taking place more than a quarter of a century after Django's death? The best! And it's obvious from the piano intro on. Solal wrote a dreamy impressionistic prelude to one of Django's most famous tunes, and when the violin enters on the theme itself, the piano alternates between this harmonic atmosphere, served by a beautiful touch, and a more rhythmic approach. Grappelli basically remains himself, halfway between a tradition that he comes from and a taste for innovation that has always been present in his improvisations and choice of partners. Solal also remains himself, playing around both the violin and the theme with respect towards each. He obviously has ventured farther from tradition than his elder, but his style is deeply rooted and can be highly melodic, as this track beautifully demonstrates.

January 19, 2009 · 1 comment

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Martial Solal: Cherokee

This truly is a reunion of European virtuosos. Solal, the French pianist, Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen, the late Danish bassist (with whom Solal had recorded a duet for the same German label two years before) and Daniel Humair, the Swiss drummer (who had been living in Paris for quite some time and by then was more or less Solal's regular drummer). Together they tackle the Ray Noble standard in a very "Solalian" way, which means that you'd better have the original melody and chord sequence well memorized if you want to recognize it. But even if you don't, you should have just as much fun if you like breakneck tempos, speedy turns and unannounced twists as much as these musicians do. NHØP opens with a swift 1-minute solo intro, then is joined by Humair for another minute before the leader joins in. Almost as soon as Solal has entered with a couple of fast arpeggios, the rhythm team leaves him on his own. He changes pace to a quiet ballad before switching again to a speedy tempo. Then his right hand introduces original melodic bits, a short quotation of "Take the 'A' Train" and even—believe it or not—a reworking of the Ray Noble melody that most listeners will have a hard time recognizing at this tempo and with these alterations. But if you never hear the original melody, don't be disappointed: Solal shies away from clichés (even his own) and never has more fun than when toying around with familiar chords or a timeless melody until he's made it totally his own. Here, obviously, he found two playmates totally attuned to his twist of mind.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal: Accalmie

You can always count on Martial Solal for a pun. Many of his titles play on words that can't be translated from French into any other language. This album's title, for example, has to do with the unusual type of trio that Solal chose: piano and two basses. Literally in French the title means "without drum or trumpet." But it also means "unobtrusively, without any fuss," exactly the sort of double-entendre that Solal likes.

How about the music? Much less complicated than the wordplay may suggest. First it's a quiet piece, as it's title says ("lull," in English), and the gentle walking of the two basses while the piano plays simple chords in the beginning establishes the general atmosphere. Tempo changes, which Solal often favors, are rare here, going from slow to medium fast with an emphasis on melody that is unusual for the pianist. Obviously the context of two low and soft instruments helps him find other grounds to explore. Solal chose two basses in the first place because his drummer, then a substitute, had failed him for a trio concert. Thus pushed in new directions, Solal assembled a brand new repertoire for this group. But the trio sounded too new at the time in France, and Solal had to disband it after having recorded what he still considers one of his best discs.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Martial Solal & Lee Konitz: Stella by Starlight

This track is a historical event: it was recorded during the first meeting between Solal and Konitz. It's also the only duet taped that afternoon, and the first of a long series the two musicians would subsequently play together onstage or in the studio. Indeed, as soon as they met, Solal and Konitz were like brothers, and still are more than 40 years later. This may seem strange, given the difference in their styles: Konitz's laconic, linear phrasing and rather thin sound as opposed to Solal's extrovert, baroque approach to the keyboard and his tendency to change tempo without notice. In fact their association works marvelously, as they drag each other onto one another's playground in a fascinating cat-&-mouse game. This playground is often founded, as here, on the standards they both love. To such familiar patterns they in turn bring the element of surprise. Indeed, the main common ground between Solal and Konitz may be that they hate to repeat themselves. Indeed, surprising themselves and each other is the engine that powers this unlikely but immensely likable duo.

January 19, 2009 · 1 comment

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Martial Solal: Suite pour une frise

Martial Solal had already recorded this "suite" the year before with his French trio, but to present this 11-minute piece to the Newport audience with sidemen who were unfamiliar with his playing was a bold gesture. In fact, though this music was actually played live on stage, this track, like all others on the album, was taped a few days later in a New York studio, with overdubbed applause. All the same, Motian and Kotick, who had to learn the themes by heart, must be praised for a great job. Solal hardly auditioned this former Bill Evans rhythm team, which was proposed to him on his arrival in the USA, where he had never before performed. But the French pianist was so familiar with American musicians either living in Paris or passing through that he felt totally at ease with pickup American sidemen. Solal's music may have seemed strange to them and to the audience, since virtually nobody stateside played like him back then. But in 1963 his main influences were still American, and it's more his synthesis of styles from Tatum to Phineas Newborn through Bud Powell, and the form of this lengthy tune with constantly shifting tempos, that may have surprised. Actually, the virtuosity and modernity of Solal's playing might leave some listeners dumbfounded even today.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mark Helias: King Judas

Whatever they play, these three will make it sound special because each has a most distinctive approach. Coupling the huge, yet sometimes soft, yet sometimes shrieking tenor sound of Tony Malaby, the crisp, dynamic and melodic drumming of Tom Rainey and the bouncing, supple yet at times aggressive bass sound of Mark Helias could just be a jazz fan's dream. Fortunately it was also Helias's dream, and he made it come true under the name Open Loose, one of the most stimulating groups to come out of the New York jazz crucible in the last decade. This track is from their third record, and knowing that they refuse to stop growing makes it a little frightening. It's literally free, full of fresh ideas and surprises, and the musicians have so much fun playing that anybody without prejudice is bound to want to go along with them and find out what they're after—which is simply their own way of playing music together. And that's a lot.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jobic Le Masson: Hill

The title of this track has nothing to do with geography or landscapes. It's a dedication to the late Andrew Hill, one of Jobic Le Masson's big influences along with Thelonious Monk. And indeed, the angular yet beautiful melody the French pianist has composed is much in the style of those two masters, while having a personal twist. Which figures, since neither Le Masson nor his partners are youngsters. Though this is his first record as a leader, Le Masson is in his early 40s and lived, studied and played in the Boston area in the 1980s before returning to Paris. John Betsch and Peter Giron, fellow American expatriates in Paris, are both seasoned musicians. Besides, this trio has a long history of playing clubs in and around the French capital before they recorded. So naturally they don't sound like your average young hip trio that looks towards either EST or Brad Mehldau. These three know better than to go with the current flow. They have strong roots, tons of musicianship and a vision that goes far beyond the prevalent fads.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Martial Solal: Just Friends

These two had played together on and off for 15 years at the time of this meeting, and each time they reunited showed the same empathy and telepathic relationship. So, although they talk about themselves as "brothers," it's only natural that they should tackle a tune called "Just Friends." Konitz begins alone, tentatively turning around the melody that he states in an oblique way only when Solal joins him. The alto then becomes more voluble, often rising to the upper register in a most expressive manner, while the piano comps in a comparatively restrained way. Only when the alto leaves him alone does Solal let his brilliant, extrovert style overwhelm the keyboard. And even then, he may be considered moderate. Which gives us a clue to the relationship between those two musicians: they tend to give one another what they possess, and their partner has less. Moderation from Konitz to Solal; extroversion from Solal to Konitz. Just friends? Much more than that, obviously!

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Buddy DeFranco: A Bird in Igor's Yard

George Russell was born in 1923, became a drummer, and learned the basics of music theory and arranging while recovering from tuberculosis. In 1953, the first edition of his Lydian Chromatic Concept was published, and quickly became one of the most influential theoretical texts in modern jazz. Bill Evans, Art Farmer and Miles Davis were among the first to be impressed by the fertile musical materials available using the Lydian mode and scales based on it that were created by Russell. Russell opened the door to the use of modes in jazz and designed a way of thinking about music based on scale theory that was unique in world music. It is safe to say that Kind of Blue would not have been made if it weren't for Russell's concept, but concert composers such as Japan's Toshiro Mayuzumi also praised the concept and proved that it wasn't just to be used for the language of jazz. Russell's own compositions appeared on an album in the Jazz Workshop series on RCA Victor in 1956. Big band albums on Decca and small group sessions on Riverside were highly praised in the jazz press, but Russell's real triumphs were in Europe, where he lived, toured and taught for several years during the 1960s and '70s. Returning to the U.S. to teach his concept at the New England Conservatory, he continued to write challenging music for European ensembles, which often confounded his listeners. In time he became one of the world's most honored and respected musicians.

But back in 1949, he was finding his way, part of the group of musicians that included Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, John Carisi, John Lewis and Johnny Mandel who put together a rehearsal band later known as the Birth of the Cool. He'd already written "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" for Dizzy Gillespie, and was writing for the Claude Thornhill and Artie Shaw bands when he wrote "A Bird in Igor's Yard" for a record date led by clarinetist Buddy DeFranco with an all-star big band. The recording went unreleased for decades, and was one of those curiosities that was often discussed when Russell was leading his own groups. What did Russell's music sound like back in 1949?

In a word, unusual. Bird refers to Charlie Parker, and Igor refers to Stravinsky, one of the composers Evans & Co. studied and respected. (Some of the others were Ernest Bloch and Sergei Prokofiev.) It is hard to discuss this piece without a score, since there is so much going on. (I once tried to obtain a score of this piece from Russell, and he wanted an astronomical amount of money, too much for a 19-year-old to get then.) After an introduction by the band, DeFranco improvises over a contrapuntal background where lines bounce all over the band. The ensemble finally breaks out into a swing rhythm with DeFranco sailing over it. Al Cohn and Gene DiNovi have brief solos, and then the second part of the piece begins, where DeFranco improvises over a broken rhythm. The midsection of this part is an unusual musical line that is tonally based but does not sound like it. This line keeps repeating as the band plays layer upon layer on top of it. DeFranco reprises the beginning of the piece, and it finally ends on a minor chord.

This is an ambitious work that DeFranco later stated he should not have recorded, and Russell has not revived. It reminds me more of the music of Stefan Wolpe than of Stravinsky. (Wolpe was an influential composer and teacher whose students at that time included Carisi, Ed Sauter, Bill Finegan and Tony Scott.) Wolpe's music was way out for that time, and some is still difficult to listen to. That "A Bird in Igor's Yard" is not entirely successful in my view is not the point; it was an important statement in the growing vocabulary of the big band, and a stepping stone for more assured work by Russell. It certainly should have been heard, as it is hardly as loud and "out" as some of the recordings of Stan Kenton's band from earlier years. It does come with a strange footnote: the Duke Ellington collection houses a copy. Seems that composers sent Ellington their music all the time, and some very famous names are represented. In some cases, the only existing pieces from some big names can be found there.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Matthew Shipp: GNG

The idea of displacing a repeated melodic motif to create syncopation is as old as ragtime, but Matthew Shipp does it with such jarring effectiveness in the head of this track that you may think that your CD is mistracking. No, it's just Shipp's serpentine melody turning in on itself. This 5/4 gem is like "Epistrophy" on steroids. And (like Monk) Shipp doesn't just jam on the changes when the melody is over, but pursues a holistic vision linking the composed and improvised sections of his piece. The meter shifts for the piano solo, but Shipp maintains the ambiance with his distinctive phraseology, building his solo from fragments of increasing complexity while laying down contrasting chords that are big and thick like pillars holding up a cathedral. No empty flourishes or practice-room licks here, just probing piano trio work from one of the most distinctive musical voices on the scene.

January 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: Basin Street Blues

Bob Wills's syndicated radio show distributed by Tiffany Music in 1946-47 found his Texas Playboys tackling a wide range of material, encompassing country, jazz, blues and traditional songs. Here they deliver a carefree "Basin Street Blues" with a Dixieland sensibility. Tommy Duncan impresses with his conversational vocal delivery—was there was ever a more plainspoken jazz singer? Wills interrupts with his usual shtick, but can't dislodge Duncan's poker face. Louis Tierney, for his part, sets down his fiddle to fiddle with the sax and Alex Brashear offers up some credible New Orleans trumpet. But the highlight here is Noel Boggs's steel guitar, which sounds like it just came back from a luau. Is there a Basin Street in Honolulu? Put some pineapple on my po' boy, and please play that record one more time.

January 17, 2009 · 1 comment

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Jan Savitt: It's a Wonderful World

During the big band era, songwriters were usually under contract to publishers, who would in turn hound bandleaders and A&R men at the labels to record new songs. There are few instances of a homegrown song, written by a bandleader and a staff arranger, becoming a standard that is still performed many years later. "It's a Wonderful World" is one of those, having been covered by numerous artists, including Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie. Like Jan Savitt's other huge hit, "720 in the Books," the song has a memorable melody that stays with you. This track is a fairly straightforward, swinging affair, with a great vocal by George Tunnell.

January 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Savitt: 720 in the Books

Jan Savitt's band began at radio station WCAU, moving later to KYW, both in Philadelphia. Its reputation spread via recordings on the Victor Bluebird label, and they soon became a national attraction. The band was thought to be a bit loud, but its shuffle rhythm was infectious, and Savitt himself was a nice guy to work for. "720 in the Books" was originally an instrumental written by staff arranger Johnny Watson, but this simple riff tune was too good not to have lyrics added and sung by "Bon Bon," perhaps the band's biggest star. The title was a natural; it was the 720th arrangement in the band's book, or library of music. One of the biggest hits of the big band era, perhaps it is time to retire "In the Mood" and play this tune for swing dancing instead.

January 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: Twin Guitar Special

This performance, coming at almost the same moment that Charlie Christian was recording "Air Mail Special," shows that Benny Goodman wasn't the only major bandleader of the day who understood the potential of electric guitar. Bob Wills is often remembered for his endearing "Western Swing" classics, but he also played an important role in establishing the guitar as a key component of jazz and country bands. Of course, Eldon Shamblin and Leon McAuliffe are doing the heavy lifting here, and clearly deserve a tip of the cowboy hat—not to mention more recognition in the music history books. The mixture of electric guitar and steel guitar with Louis Tierney's fiddle works like a charm. This is one of the great combo sounds in mid-century American music.

January 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: Take Me Back to Tulsa

This song had been a part of Bob Wills's repertoire for quite some time before this session—he had performed it as "Take Me Back to Texas" when he was with the Light Crust Doughboys. But after Wills changed his home base to Oklahoma, the song got a new name. When Wills beefed up his Playboys with jazzy reeds and brass, this downhome song not only stayed in his book but became one of his most popular songs—Wills's performance of it in the 1940 movie Take Me Back to Oklahoma certainly helped. Here the band dispenses with horns and shows off its guitar talent. But the real star is vocalist Tommy Duncan, who puts his stamp on this song with his confident, affable delivery. At a time when thousands of people from Tulsa, and elsewhere in Oklahoma, had moved to other parts of the U.S. in search of stable employment, this song must have reminded many of them of the life they left behind. You can still pick up those sweet longings in this music today.

January 17, 2009 · 1 comment

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Richie Goods & Nuclear Fusion: Desert Song (long version)

Those of you paying attention to anything I write on jazz.com have probably determined I am a sucker for fusion music that incorporates Eastern or Far Eastern musical modes. This is one such song. Though a tinge of Spanish influence leaks through Helen Sung's electric and acoustic keyboard work (sounding like Chick Corea at times), the dominant scalar characters come from the Arabian deserts and Indian plains. To capture some of the Indian tradition, guitarist Jeff Lockhart often slides up and down his strings to mimic Indian string instruments. Goods's own bassline sounds more Arabic. Drummer Clark's excited percussion is Western in nature. That's why they call it fusion. You mix things together. This is a very good world fusion number. Whether the band did all of those things I mentioned on purpose or not is irrelevant. The music speaks for itself.

Nuclear Fusion has great potential. I'd like to hear them a couple of years out, if this is a long-term project. I felt I had to give a little advice to Goods in my review of the band's performance of "Snake Oil." I feel compelled to add some advice here, too. But it is because I dig the music and want the best for the people creating it. "Desert Song," listed as such on the outside of the CD but named "Desert Jam" on the inside cover, appears in two versions on the album. One version is shortened for the radio. Please don't do that again.

January 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Richie Goods & Nuclear Fusion: Snake Oil

I must say it makes me feel good to see a musician name his group after two dirty words. That can take some guts in today's overly sensitive commercial market. It is also good to hear Richie Goods & Nuclear Fusion tackle the old second-edition Tony Williams Lifetime's "Snake Oil" from the Believe It! album.

According to what I am hearing on Live at the Zinc Bar, Nuclear Fusion is really a funk band that plays fusion music. Lifetime's bassist Tony Newton, credited on this CD as Antonio Newton, wrote "Snake Oil" over 30 years ago. It is only fitting that a modern-day bass contemporary chooses to cover it. The musicianship on this performance is top notch. Goods's opening bass, on which he plays the same lines and effects as Newton did, serves as the hub of the performance. Guitarist Jeff Lockhart handles the Allan Holdsworth parts with great skill. Keyboardist Helen Sung plays the required chunky staccato chords necessary for this thing to work. Drummer Mike Clark is given the heavy task of being Tony Williams. He is not Tony Williams, but he is very good. Nuclear Fusion effectively captures the constant tension of the original cut and adds about 10% more funk. You can consider this cover covered. I look forward to hearing more fusion goldie moldies from this band in the future.

I do have a slight and friendly warning for Richie Goods. My rating would have been a little higher had the sound not been so clean. Think about that, Richie.

January 17, 2009 · 4 comments

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Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: Take the 'A' Train

Just take the A Train, if you want to get to a hoedown in a hurry. . .

On the Tiffany Transcriptions, which capture Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys on a series of post-WWII radio broadcasts, the band goes beyond its "Western Swing" stylings and shows off the full range of its repertoire, covering signature songs from Count Basie, Benny Goodman and this swing tune from Duke Ellington's orchestra. This is a lighthearted version of "Take the 'A' Train" with hoots and hollers and a running commentary from Mr. Wills, who comes across like the caller at a square dance. Like many of the Tiffany tracks, this one emphasizes the strings to good effect, and the end result is like a cowboy version of Django's band, an expanded Quintette du Hot Club de Texas. I didn't know the New York subway line went that far, but this is one ride that's worth an extra token.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sam Rivers: Cyclic Episode

Sam Rivers and Tony Williams, friends from their days in Boston, were a perfect pair at this stage of their careers, matching each other's ability to fluidly move between rhythmic and metric ambiguity and well- defined, hardnosed swing. It's no surprise that young Williams recommended Rivers for what turned out to be Sam's short-lived tenure in Miles Davis's group earlier in 1964.

On "Cyclic Episodes," Rivers alternates long, boppish lines—precise and direct in their melodic nature—with edgier free statements that blur barlines and hover above the harmonic structure. The rhythm section excels throughout, especially during the interlude, beginning at 3:25; Carter slides through double stops, Byard rolls out impressionistic and evocative chords, and Williams reflects silently behind the kit at times, and at others implying 3/4, 6/8 or 4/4 time. Rivers's debut was a major statement by a fresh new voice on the 1960s jazz scene. Sprinkled with hints of the freedom his later work would attain, Fuchsia Swing Song is an essential album for fans of exploratory 1960s post bop, yet still accessible to less adventure-seeking listeners.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Terence Blanchard: Innocence

Former Jazz Messenger and Spike Lee soundtrack star Terence Blanchard really stepped into the jazz spotlight with his masterful 2003 Blue Note debut, Bounce. Not only were the leader's ever-improving trumpet chops and compositional elegance on wonderful display, but the cohesiveness and collective creativity in his outstanding group is a testament to his bandleading skills as well. Bassist Brandon Owens's "Innocence," melodically simple and heartbreakingly gorgeous, is just one of this album's many highlights. With three chordal instruments, one might expect some toes to be stepped on, but such is not the case. Parks, Glasper and Loueke know their roles and those of their individual instruments: Parks's acoustic piano is the main accompanying voice; Loueke unobtrusively slides in and out with well-timed accentual flourishes; and Glasper's richly sonorous Fender Rhodes adds a sustained, underlying harmonic bedrock. Parks's comping behind Winston's soprano solo is majestic and brilliant, especially considering he was not even 20 at the time. Blanchard's Bounce set high standards and must be held as an esteemed benchmark for 21st-century jazz.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Prince Lasha: Congo Call

Prince Lasha grew up with Ornette Coleman in Fort Worth, TX, playing with the great altoist in R&B and church groups. As adults their paths diverged, but their music continued in similar stylistic directions. Yet they found vastly different degrees of notoriety, with Lasha attracting attention briefly in the early 1960s only to thereafter disappear from the jazz world. Here he teams with Sonny Simmons, an altoist who owed much of his sound to Coleman. On the African-inspired "Congo Call," Lasha's and Simmons' vibrato-less tones blend well as they piece together an exotic melody over an octave-doubled ostinato by bassists Peacock and Proctor. Though both Simmons and Lasha stay mostly inside the minor harmony, there are a few exciting moments that indicate their cutting-edge interest in freeing their improvisations from conventional norms. While Simmons's brittle, wailing tone is reminiscent of Coleman, his playing is more precise and with no superfluity. Lasha articulates the blues of his Texas upbringing during his solo, while developing a few distinct themes. Hypnotic, dramatic and evocative, "Congo Call" is an undemanding and under-recognized early free jazz recording.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Smith: Open House

For this extended blowing session, Rudy Van Gelder opened his house to Jimmy Smith's core trio and a formidable front line of soloists. Each horn man is given ample space to stretch out in this 16-minute blues opus, and the results are thoroughly engaging across the board. Blue Mitchell exhibits his crystal-clear warm tone and reminds us exactly why he was given his nickname. Jackie McLean's Bird-influenced choruses are splendidly constructed, and Ike Quebec, gruff and rough, is all blues all the time. Drummer Bailey's shuffling swing and Smith's full-bodied organ and walking bass inspire each soloist without overshadowing them (as the organist was occasionally known to do on blowing dates). The intensity peaks when guitarist Quentin Warren chimes in, adding some R&B-influenced comping behind Smith's climactic solo (note their call and response at 13:29 and Warren really digging in at 14:00). A fun and groovy straight-ahead track, "Open House" is one of Blue Note's best blowing sessions.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jack DeJohnette: Bayou Fever

From the only studio recording by Jack DeJohnette's short-lived supergroup, "Bayou Fever" is essentially a formless atmospheric piece, bookended by a one-line melodic phrase played by unison trumpet and guitar. The middle 8 minutes are foreboding and dark, filled with interesting nuances, witty musical dialogue and impulsive subtleties. Though the men never reach a catharsis, their ominous ruminations remain faultlessly engaging. Abercrombie's playing is limited to textural ambience, and though his sounds are essential to the song's mysterious ambiguity, one might wish he were a touch more prominent. DeJohnette, as always, is consistently surprising and alert. The group's most arresting ingredient is the trumpeting of Lester Bowie. The late AACM founder's vocal-like quality is uniquely his own; his use of half-valves, smearing, mumbling low notes and howling high register gives his playing an incredibly wide range of emotion, further enhancing his innate blues and spiritual expressiveness. This track is a fine introduction to Bowie's one-of-a-kind trumpeting.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Fringe: The Response

When asked once how it felt to be the world's greatest jazz saxophonist, the late Michael Brecker said, "I wouldn't know. Go ask George Garzone." An educator at Berklee by day, Garzone is surprisingly unknown to even some serious jazz fanatics. One listen to this track and you'll never forget his name. His trio, The Fringe, has been performing for 36—yes, 36—years. Garzone and drummer Gullotti have been members since the group's conception, and Lockwood replaced original bassist Richard Appleman in 1985. "The Response" is solidly based in bop, though harmony and rhythm are loosely defined. The conversational interaction between Garzone and Gullotti may be the finest example of telepathy from a saxophone/drum duo since Coltrane and Jones.

Garzone perfectly balances and complements the "in"—linear, melodic phrases—with the "out"—bursts of controlled explosiveness (masterfully exemplified in his passage from 1:46 through 2:21). Although obsessively passionate, Garzone's playing is never self-absorbed or overblown by his own enthusiasm. Unlike most free tenormen, he does not resort to abrasive screaming or squawking, instead effortlessly using the entire range of his horn from honking lows to beautifully controlled falsetto. Praise for Garzone is limitless, and though the phrase is tossed around all too often, he truly is one of the seriously under- appreciated jazz masters of his time.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Donald Byrd: Estavanico

Electric Byrd is Donald Byrd's most appealing effort from his brief fusion period, which predated his R&B work with the Mizell brothers. While the Miles Davis influence is undeniably present in Byrd's conception and trumpeting, the group's overall sound differs considerably from Davis's fusion outfits. "Estavanico" is much less abrasive than the Davis sound, focused on dreamy textures and shadings. The 6-man front line also gives Byrd the arranger plenty of options in his instrumentation and harmonization. The rhythm section—wah guitar, electric piano, acoustic bass, Airto's extensive percussion arsenal, and Mickey Roker's resourceful drumming—creates many transcendent moments and builds ethereal soundscapes for soloists Byrd, Lew Tabackin and Frank Foster to explore in their improvisations.

Especially noteworthy are the contributions by Duke Pearson, not only as the electric pianist but more importantly as producer. The warm and comforting electric sounds and layers of textures will transport the listener to another world, and the abundant reverb further enhances this already dreamlike sonic experience. For instance, the reverb applied to Foster's tenor solo is simply marvelous—each successive line dances with the echo of his previous, twisting around one another as they drift away into infinity.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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CTI All-Stars: Red Clay

While too much of CTI's output is proto-Smooth Jazz, the listenable portion of the discography is chockfull of bluesy funk performed at the highest level. With this lineup, the album was bound to be a classic. On "Red Clay," Freddie Hubbard shows off his jaw-dropping technique during a chopsy trumpet workout (with his ubiquitous touch of narcissism), while the ever-soulful Stanley Turrentine stays closer to the blues.

Five years prior to singing himself to pop stardom via "This Masquerade," it was George Benson's phenomenal guitar playing that was turning heads. After listening to his blistering choruses here, you may find yourself wondering if there was anything this man couldn't do with six strings. Carter's unaccompanied bass solo is a bit of a buzz killer considering the energy generated by the previous three soloists and the intense drum work of Billy Cobham, but overall the CTI All-Stars assure us that jazz was indeed a living and breathing entity in the 1970s. The huge, lively crowd audible on this recording proves that when packaged appropriately, jazz was still commercially viable and possibly more accessible than ever.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Chico Hamilton: Lady Gabor

Though they are not recognized as often as other Hamilton-led groups, this may have been the drummer's finest. After Charles Lloyd was appointed musical director earlier in 1962, the young tenorman disbanded Hamilton's outdated chamber jazz group and reformed with younger progressives eager to forge ahead on the trails blazed by Coleman, Dolphy and Coltrane.

"Lady Gabor," written by guitarist Gabor Szabo, indicates exactly where this new Hamilton quintet was heading. The 6/4 groove is hypnotic and mysterious, with repetitive contrapuntal figures from Szabo and trombonist Bohanon lurking beneath Lloyd's eerie flute melody. A unison rubato section by Lloyd and Bohanon leads into the solo vamp, during which the flutist balances his Memphis blues background with non-Western melodic influences and a mystical airiness. In Szabo's mesmerizing solo, he sustains a drone with ringing open strings and the natural resonance of his guitar's body, while simultaneously creating haunting, sitar-like quarter-toned improvised lines. Lloyd and Szabo's unaccompanied duet at 11:43 shows not only their shared interest in Eastern music, but also their rapport with one another. A fantastic and spellbinding track.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Ensemble of Chicago: Oh Strange, Pt. 2

This is the second portion of an extended collective improvisation, recorded live in concert by the Art Ensemble during its late-1960s Paris residence. Part 2 takes up where Part 1 leaves off, meaning it's a continuation of the latter's dense, percussion-laden free play. The music exudes intensity; these guys may not have been overly concerned with form (or harmony, or even melody, at times), but they're extremely focused in terms of emotion and ensemble interaction. Like Part 1, Part 2 is murkily recorded, so much so that it occasionally resembles a sort of modern, lo-fi ambient music. Not for the passive listener, this recording demands active engagement, which may be asking a bit much. Still, if one is inclined to strap on a pair of cans and kick back for a half hour of concentrated listening, the rewards are apt to be far from negligible.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Chet Baker: Lady Bird

Chet Baker's catalog is frustratingly inconsistent. On certain dates the trumpeter sounds brilliant, sharp and inventive; on others, incoherent and confused. On "Lady Bird," taken from his 1959 sessions in Milan, we hear Baker on one of his better outings, his tone and attack clear as a bell, his ideas well defined, complete and decisively executed with a graceful flow. In some of Baker's lesser efforts during his darker periods there is a distinct sadness in his playing, but not here. The audible joy in his sound is unsurprising given his love of Italy and the Italians' reverence for him (not just for his trumpeting—Baker starred in a few Italian movies in the 1950s as well). He plays confidently and with a touch more aggressiveness than one normally expects from the Prince of Cool, backed by a more-than-competent Italian quintet well studied in American jazz.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Morgan: Cornbread

Though Lee Morgan never scored another hit after 1963's "The Sidewinder," he continued to churn out some of the grooviest cuts in the Blue Note archives. "Cornbread" was one of his catchiest. The trumpeter explodes into his solo and then sassily slides and smears his was through three downright filthy choruses. Hank Mobley—whom critic Leonard Feather dubbed the "middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone"—sounds pumped up for a title bout. Morgan may captain this ship but his rhythm section is roiling the waters. Hancock lays down some of his funkiest comping on record, and Higgins's sturdy R&B groove carries the band while his punchy snare drum pokes at each soloist, inspiring some spirited blowing.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tony Bennett & Count Basie: Ol' Man River

Antonio Benedetto of Astoria, NY, might have sung bel canto, but Tony Bennett (as he became) actually loved to "rock his baby 'round to Ellington or Basie." And Tony's first chance to work a stage with the Basie Band came in November 1958, when the dual forces tried to record a live club date together. Whatever went wrong, Bennett and the orchestra instead wound up back in Columbia's studios, where applause and crowd noise were added to the new session results to simulate that "live" atmosphere, but where all definitely went right otherwise. Fifty years on, the album is still a highlight of Tony's storied, ongoing career, and the churning performance of "Ol' Man River" the linchpin climax of it (the original LP, that is), coming hard-on-the-heels of a happily gate-swinging version of "Lullaby of Broadway," and the two linked by rowdy crowd excitement.

The available CD has removed those extraneous sounds, but the "River" arrangement's surprising approach is preserved: swirling flute from Frank Wess, hot sparks of brass, the surging rhythm of the vaunted Basie machine (even with Bennett's accompanist Ralph Sharon filling in for the absent Count), and Gatling-gun percussion courtesy of guest conguero Candido Camero (including his speed-changing solo), all taken at an up, way up tempo that makes shambles of the Showboat tune's funereal tread, and that Bennett rides with ease. If there's an unspoken subtext here—the racial plot of the original musical, which featured Paul Robeson as rumbling stevedore singer; that profoundly basso vocalist and the Basie mob later flailing like punchy boxers in their one attempt at a recording ("King Joe [The Joe Louis Blues] " was the 78)—well, let the Broadway babies rock it, because Riverboat Tony and the Bargin' Basie Gang made this version dance.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Vienna Art Orchestra: Jelly Roll, But Mingus Rolls Better

Despite two obscure recordings that preceded it, Concerto Piccolo is widely considered the Vienna Art Orchestra's (VAO) debut release, featuring them live in all their unpredictable, eccentric, eclectic, irreverent and musically accomplished glory. Leader, composer and arranger Mathias Rüegg assembled a fearless group of gifted musicians, whom he challenged as much as they so often challenged themselves and each other. While Duke Ellington, Eric Dolphy, Anthony Braxton and Ornette Coleman would be among those receiving Rüegg's attentions over the years (at least from the jazz world), Charles Mingus was on his mind from the start.

The appealingly titled "Jelly Roll, but Mingus Rolls Better" opens with sinister-sounding harmonized horns leading up to a free-form duet between Scherer's whirlwind piano and Wuchner's thumping bass, before Dudli's high-impact drums join the fray. The horns, along with Newton's amazing voice, perform the first of a series of infectious vamps (mostly derived from Mingus compositions) to appear periodically during the course of the piece. Schwaller's tenor solo is forcefully modal in attack and remindful of Michael Brecker in terms of vibrato, command and intensity, with Scherer's tenacious accompaniment adding greatly to its momentum. Puschnig's brilliant alto next takes over, fleet and exciting, followed by Fian's exuberantly blaring trumpet solo. This is just about the quickest, most diverting 12 minutes you'll ever spend.

Note: The VAO's complete instrumentation has been listed here, since it's impossible with this orchestra to know for sure which of their many instruments are actually being played on a given track, unless you are seeing them in person—and what a treat that has always been!

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Regina Carter: Our Delight

When Regina Carter joined the String Trio of New York in 1992, she succeeded Charles Burnham, and before him Billy Bang, as the group's violinist. Bang's and Burnham's distinctive styles seemed to be most influenced by Leroy Jenkins and Ray Nance, respectively, while Carter's gorgeous tone, relaxed swing, lyricism and classically polished technique brought to mind a refreshing blend of Stuff Smith and Stéphane Grappelli. Eight years later, in duets with Kenny Barron on the CD Freefall, all of Carter's early promise would be fulfilled in a glittering series of emotionally satisfying and precisely articulated improvisations.

The seed for that memorable encounter with Barron was planted two years earlier on Carter's first session as leader for Verve, when the pianist played on four selections, including "Our Delight." Lewis Nash nearly steals the show with his crisp drum dialogue with Carter as she heartily navigates the theme. The violinist's solo has a bluesy lilt to it, as she uses a rich, penetrating vibrato to course through a variety of continually changing phrase structures, in a statement that overall never loses its airtight logic. Barron's solo glides breezily over the classy Nash's adroitly executed pulse, before Carter and trio once again do admirable justice to Tadd Dameron's familiar line.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Bley & Sonny Greenwich: Steeplechase

Paul Bley and Sonny Greenwich finally achieved their goal of recording together, during the week that each played separate concerts at the 1994 Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. "I felt like we were brothers; there was a kinship," said Bley, adding, "We're the same generation and both Canadians." Although Bley has long been associated with the avant-garde, and Greenwich is looked upon as primarily a modal player influenced greatly by John Coltrane, their playing on the riveting Outside In duet CD is surprisingly catholic, thus pronouncing or affirming (depending on your point of view) the breadth and depth of knowledge, and assured facility, each artist possesses over many diverse jazz idioms.

Bley played with Charlie Parker on a Canadian TV show in 1952, so it's instructive to hear how he and Greenwich, a guitarist rarely heard playing bebop, approach Bird's "Steeplechase." Bley plays the melody conventionally as Greenwich joins him at the bridge. Sonny solos first (miked acoustically it seems on this track), his melodic creativity mesmerizing, as is Bley's aggressive comping. Bley then takes the lead, soon introducing somewhat reflective rubato lines propelled by urgent left-hand figures. Short and inventive exchanged passages ensue, with Bley at one point cleverly adapting a motif similar to Monk's "Misterioso." A long free-form joint conversation blooms, replete with asides, rejoinders and mutually compatible flights of fancy. Bley treats the theme differently the second time around, toying with the rhythm, unexpectedly crashing out certain notes. Two individualists at the peak of their powers, and highly recommended.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Johnny Adams: Dreams Must Be Going Out of Style

After a long career of singing and recording R&B, gospel, blues, soul and even country, The Verdict was only Johnny Adams's second jazz album, a follow-up to Good Morning Heartache. Possessing an expressive voice of extremely wide range from high falsetto to guttural lows, Adams was truly one of New Orleans' greatest musical treasures, albeit a somewhat underappreciated one, up to the time of his death in 1998 at age 66. "The Tan Canary," as Adams was known, had a particular affinity for the songs of Doc Pomus and Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John), and Doc and Mac in turn were among his biggest fans. In 1959 Rebennack produced Adams's first single ("I Won't Cry"), and in 1962 wrote Adams's first national R&B hit ("A Losing Battle"), while the singer recorded an entire tribute CD of Pomus tunes (the majority co-written by Rebennack) in 1991, just months after Pomus's passing.

"Dreams Must Be Going Out of Style" was a previously unrecorded Pomus/Rebennack collaboration, and is an absolute gem. Masakowski's acoustic guitar intro is enchantingly folksy and wistful. Adams sings the lyrics almost conversationally, but also intimately and straight-from-the-heart, expressing the no-frills emotion of Pomus at his best—think of his old tunes for the Drifters such as "This Magic Moment" and "Save the Last Dance for Me" and you'll get the idea. "I know it's gonna be cloudy tonight / 'cause I want to make a wish upon a star." Adams fully restrains the natural power of his voice to deliver a beautifully subtle performance. His backing trio is in unerring rapport with him all the way, including the delightfully drawn-out ending. This is a prime Johnny Adams track.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Medeski Martin & Wood: Strance of the Spirit Red Gator

There is a constant buzzing through most of "Strance of the Spirit Red Gator." It immediately evokes the unintentional buzzes and crackles heard in the poorly recorded Tony Williams Lifetime album Emergency from almost 30 years earlier. The fact that this time the buzz is on purpose is absolutely great. In fact, this strangely named piece reminds me of Williams's band in other ways. Bassist Chris Wood's electric playing does sound like guitarist John McLaughlin's low distorted notes from time to time. Medeski also over- modulates his keyboards à la Larry Young. Drummer Billy Martin isn't Tony Williams, but he is still a propulsive force to be reckoned with. There appears to be a great deal of overdubbing on this cut. But today's musicians can be so gifted and today's instrumentation and recording technology so advanced that you can never quite be sure. Due to the distortion heard in "Strance," I leave open the possibility that Chris Wood's "electric bass playing" referred to above could be Medeski on keyboards. Sometimes you don't know. I just write it as I hear it.

The original Tony Williams Lifetime would probably never play a song this slow. But the spirit of that band is heard here whether intentionally or not. It seems each time I listen to Medeski Martin & Wood, I become more impressed with the breadth of its players' influences and skills.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Medeski Martin & Wood: Macha

The tune "Macha" (named after the Irish Goddess?) appears on the EP (extended play CD) Bubblehouse. The trio sets out to find its usual groove. Organist Medeski focuses on staccato chords. A cowbell and lighthearted organ runs indicate a relaxed and hopeful outcome should be expected. That is what we get: Medeski Martin & Wood laying back for a spell. That's OK. They deserve to do that from time to time. All music needs contrast.

"Macha" is not one of the more intense Medeski Martin & Wood workouts. I would even go so far as to say it is light duty for these fellows. That doesn't mean it is not worth listening to. It is. But I do believe it would be more successful as an introductory section to a longer exposition. The only thing holding back this tune is the listener's high expectations. You can blame Medeski Martin & Wood for that. Their subtle side is other bands' high energy.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Medeski Martin & Wood: Where's Sly?

Upon first inspection, the modern jazz number "Where's Sly" would appear to be a horn-led session. The distinctive and pleasing melody, dominated by Josh Roseman's trombone, is brass heavy. If this song had come out in the 1960s it might very well have become a jazz standard. You could easily imagine J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard or Dexter Gordon adding it to their repertories. But this is Medeski Martin & Wood, so you know at some point standardization will not be allowed. It isn't long before the music changes. Drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood play supportive roles in Medeski's composition. Pianist Medeski, on the other hand, takes it out against a backdrop of right-angled horn riffs. This conflicting arrangement shouldn't really sound good. There is probably some theory only known to Nicolas Slonimsky that explains why it works. I don't think Johnson, Hubbard or Gordon would have played the tune's second half the way it is heard here! Due to Medeski's good sense, however, the main theme returns from time to time during the musical melee. "Where's Sly" is more proof positive that MMW is capable of jumping out of its groove-monster persona to put forth a toe or two into the modern jazz mainstream.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Arthur Blythe: Break Tune

Imagine a time when major record labels recorded jazz that didn't conform to archaic conceptions of what jazz should be. Such a time existed as recently as 1986, when this music was recorded. Da-Da wasn't one of Arthur Blythe's best efforts for Columbia. That list is topped by Lenox Avenue Breakdown, his first album for CBS, recorded in 1979. Da-Da isn’t nearly so uncompromising. Indeed, Geri Allen's synthesizer solo on "Break Tune" hints at a desire to pop-ify Blythe's music. On Da-Da, Blythe or Columbia or both seemed somewhat more concerned about sales numbers.

Still, Blythe's playing and group concept was inimitable, and thus mostly carries the day. "Break Tune" is played by Blythe's electric band (a distinct entity from his acoustic band, which also performs on the album). Tubaist Bob Stewart holds down the basslines, with a rhythm section that includes a young Ms. Allen, drummer Bobby Battle and guitarist Kelvyn Bell. Trumpeter Olu Dara shares the front line with Blythe. A riff-based cross between Ornette Coleman's harmolodics and New Orleans funk—with just a hint of Afrobeat thrown in—the tune presents Blythe in good form, spraying his rapid-fire, freebop filigree in all directions at once. Bell plays a fine Blood Ulmer-ish guitar, and Dara's solo makes one wish he had been more active as a cornetist.

The less said about Allen's contribution, the better; she mostly gets in the way, and her solo is tastelessly extroverted. The recording quality is murky, which also damages the effect. Yet there remains an enduring freshness to Blythe's approach that makes this appealing, for all its faults.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Medeski Martin & Wood: Night Marchers

This live performance of "Night Marchers" is a bonus cut that appeared on MMW's compilation Last Chance to Dance Trance (perhaps): Best of 1991-1996. The tune has the prerequisite distortion and drive of a typical Medeski Martin & Wood excursion. The distortion might actually be a bit greater. Bassist Wood plays electric bass on the piece. He even takes a short solo during this performance, which is something this ensemble rarely does. Medeski gets to toy around with some electric sounds to varying degrees of success. Drummer Billy Martin is relentless. The tune is a bit of a mishmash of detached diversions. But the experimentation and the live atmosphere of a vocal crowd make it a worthwhile listen. You certainly don't want any group to always sound the same. Risk isn't always pretty. A lot of blood can be left on the floor. I say better blood than no blood.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Medeski Martin & Wood: Hermeto's Daydream

I have become quite used to MMW's organ-grinding jazz-based jam-band forays. They always manage to cut a groove as deep as the Mariana Trench. To get out of some of those grooves, you need to be brought up in a decompression chamber. Thumping acoustic bass, pounding drums and a distorted organ make up the group's calling card. But a little change is good for the soul. John Medeski plays acoustic piano on "Hermeto's Dream." This is immediately intriguing. The trio shows its ambient side first with bursts of textured sounds. Then the guys kick into a bit of driving jazz before they go the free jazz and dissonance route. Bassist Chris Wood keeps the groove going, but he is down in the mix and not the dominant force he almost always is with this band. Disconnected themes emerge. "Hermeto's Daydream" probably loses some of the band's more jam-band or casual listeners. What is this music? Medeski is playing some far-out shit. He sounds like Cecil Taylor on a bender! (You younger jam-band fans can go look up Cecil Taylor in jazz.com's Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians.) Medeski Martin & Wood's music is full of pulsing creativity, grooving power and occasional anarchy raised from a great depth.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Medeski Martin & Wood: Bubblehouse

"Bubblehouse" is built on a very simple blues riff progression. We know that Medeski Martin & Wood are not going to leave things alone. That is not their way. The band plays the riff faster and faster and faster. A strong backbeat enters and the riff's speed continues to increase exponentially. Then as if the sound were connected to a knob, the tempo is dialed back. It ain't easy to do that without some seams showing. A drum break introduces a nasty funk of bass, drums and distorted and spacey organ. Distortion can be a very useful musical tool in the right hands. How can you not move to this stuff? Impossible, I say. The group eschews the main riff for a bit. But it eventually returns in all its simple grandeur, and the band plays it out as the tune's coda. The best improvising musicians build, destroy and rebuild. Or, in this case, blow a bubble, burst it and blow another.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Matt Criscuolo: Tell Me a Bedtime Story

Here is a self-produced CD that stands out from the pack. There is a lot to admire here, but I am especially impressed by the most primal element of all: Criscuolo's sax sound. His is one of the most human and haunting alto sounds on the scene today. Even his simple phrases are infused with lots of emotion. I don't think you can teach this—unless there is some secret course at the Manhattan School of Music that the rest of the students know about—but I sure enjoy it when I hear it. Elsewhere on this CD, Criscuolo delivers a short version of Wayne Shorter's "Miyako" where he stands out just stating the melody. But here he stretches out a bit (not enough for my taste—I would like to hear what he could do a few more choruses), and shows he knows how to construct a solo. The rest of the cast helps too. The rhythm section is happening, and Willis's charts make effective use of the string quartet.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Medeski Martin & Wood: Nocturnal Transmission

The sound of this recording is immediately identifiable as Medeski Martin & Wood. Showcasing light, lilting jazz for the first few minutes and then transforming itself into "Shaft"-style music, the track fuses the trio's always-apparent electronic music fetish with brassy funk. This musical fusion is in full bloom here, with the second half of the tune containing some of the most tantalizing grooves that the players have achieved in the studio. Of course, MMW has done this before with the same results on most of their recordings, but a heavy Joe Zawinul vibe can be heard on the track, and "Nocturnal Transmission" adds a sexy R&B edge that recalls such early Weather Report recordings as "Eurydice" and "Umbrellas." The three compositions share a commitment to bass-heavy '70s soul stylings that bubble just under the surface, differentiated only by MMW's use of horns. While keyboardist John Medeski skates upon a blacktop of fun, lurching rhythms, he surpasses most of his own creations on this 6-minute delight. Listeners should allow this cut to lead them on a rich musical journey, because it functions as a great soundtrack for any occasion.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Blue Note 7: Little B's Poem

Here is one measure of how much thing have changed in jazz. When the Blue Note label tried to brand a band back in the 1980s (with the group Out of the Blue), they relied on young players who represented the future of jazz. But the new Blue Note band clearly looks back to the past for inspiration. Yes, we have moved from the Age of the Young Lions to the Era of the Tribute Band.

But it is hard to complain about this lineup, stacked with bandleaders in their own right. So let me be among the first to pay tribute to this tribute band. The choice of songs also helps. Bobby Hutcherson's "Little B's Poem" is a joyous composition with a sly hook at the turnaround. Those six chords, coming at the soloist over the course of six beats, are like a race with a half-dozen high hurdles placed right before the finish line. I would have liked to have heard Coltrane and Payton improvise over the form, but solo duties fall instead to Steve Wilson (who also contributed the chart), Bill Charlap and Peter Bernstein. I give them high marks and also doff my hat to the rhythm section. But my favorite ingredient here is Wilson's interlude for horns and flute right before the final melody statement. This may be B's poem, but the band gets an A.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker: Lester Leaps In

Charlie Parker's live version of "Lester Leaps In" is marred only by noises that sound like the track was lifted either from an old LP or radio broadcast. Also, sloppy editing occurs in three sections that disrupts proper timing. Fortunately, what is salvaged is a brilliant mosaic of a bygone era, characterized by an apparent aura of cool. While the turbulence of Bird's personal life is absent here, his playing is surprisingly sunny and crisp. Uncharacteristically on top of the changes at all times, he sounds close to his peak as a player. His confidence is infectious, and the song's composer, Lester Young, also chips in with some hair- raising licks that will leave listeners wondering why his breathy tone is not as instantly familiar as Parker's. The duo conjures up an atmosphere of innovation, and while Parker steals the show with barnstorming improvisations, it is obvious that the level of genius being displayed on the stage is far beyond that of the average musician. There is power and force in what is being performed, and despite the production, the music is basically the benchmark for everything that followed.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Derek Trucks: Footprints

Derek Trucks's version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" provides ample proof of Trucks's designation as one of Rolling Stone's 100 Best Guitarists. The production is clear. The recording contains tasty jamming and group interplay that emphasizes the individual parts being played and the actual sound of the tracking room. There is no doubt as to whose showcase this is; Trucks is clearly up front as he slices and dices his way through several hot, dominating solos. He single-handedly drives the rest of the band into hysteria, as Todd Smallie and Yonrico Scott's rhythm section gradually heats up and Trucks's playing consistently burns. Both Smallie's animated bass and Scott's hard-hitting, fleet-footed percussion seem to solo alongside Trucks, yet they never shift the focus away from him. The musical subtlety and grace places all three of the players in the top tier of musicians, and while Trucks's fluid instrumental tangos dance around the bass and drums with a youthful ferocity yet to be challenged by anyone, he amazingly manages to transcend quite a few of his influences on the cut. Add in obvious reverence to the Shorter original, and the results of this progressive jazz track are definitely worth investigating.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: I'm a Fool to Want You

On Billie Holiday's rendition of "I'm a Fool to Want You," a huge discrepancy exists between the quality of the vocal production and the sound of the orchestra, which clashes badly with Holiday's creative, nuanced singing. The orchestra is undynamic and easily forgotten amidst its banal facelessness. In fact, the horns and strings sound recorded at lower fidelity than Holiday's vocals and are easily overlooked when focusing solely on her singing, which was captured well enough to expose many of her most personal nuances. Up close, listeners can hear slow breaths, purposeful flattening of certain notes, and an intimate creative atmosphere for which she alone is responsible. It sounds as if she was having a great day; she obviously enjoyed the tune and was well prepared to interpret it. It fit her style well, and the emotional resonance she displays is tremendous. Her vocals are great, the remastering helps balance things out somewhat, and the song itself is a gem. However, repeated listening does not obscure the fact that the ensemble's lack of personality leaves no impression. If the song's co-writer Frank Sinatra ever heard this cut, he probably loved Billie's vocal while simultaneously bemoaning the weak musical accompaniment.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Larry Coryell: Spaces Revisited

Spaces Revisited reunites jazz legends Larry Coryell and Billy Cobham in a sequel to Coryell's classic album Spaces. They appear alongside two new cohorts, guitarist Biréli Lagrène and bassist Richard Bona, and those expecting them to re-create the original sounds of John McLaughlin and Miroslav Vitous, respectively, will be quite disappointed. The players add a fresh dimension to jazz fusion, and also the styles of both Coryell and Cobham exude a maturity stemming from ages spent as seasoned pros. This particular session finds them fusing their original, youthful fire with a more disciplined, experienced approach, and everything is performed effortlessly. It is easy to forget that the rhythm patterns are changing during the tune as Cobham's drums shift dynamics on a dime. The changes go unnoticed due to the liquid swing and adroit talents of all players, and both guitars manage to sound like a single instrument regardless of the soloist. Cobham's pacing drives the forceful Coryell/Lagrène duet, while Lagrène's blue tone matches Coryell's existentialist mastery well. The track's most enduring quality, despite the awesome rhythmic interplay, is hearing both guitarists bounce and share ideas back and forth, and the track finds everyone involved reaching career peaks.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Frank Sinatra: Love and Marriage

Thanks to FOX, the first thing listeners will think of when hearing Frank Sinatra's "Love and Marriage" is not the Chairman of the Board. The cut is best known today as the Married With Children TV theme song, but on the Capitol Collectors Series it appears in its entirety and contains several lines that were edited out upon its resurrection. At some point in the recording's past, the track would not have been as instantly recognizable. After being introduced by Sinatra for a 1955 television production of Thornton Wilder's 1938 play Our Town, it must have remained at least fresh enough to warrant this rendition a decade later. As the popular FOX television comedy has consistently aired for 20 years, though, this familiar recording is much too overexposed to consider as anything other than a cliché of '80s pop culture, regardless of its compositional elegance. However, the track does benefit from strong orchestration and decent vocalizing, and it is easy to understand why it experienced new life during the Reagan era: Jimmy Van Heusen's lyrics evoke a cowboy romance amidst perceptions of carriages, gentries and horses, and such imagery was true to the myth of the former TV show host turned President.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Thelonious Monk: Thelonious

Monk's tribute to himself is a linear swing that surprisingly does not deviate far from the chart. The tune is performed well, but it represents a second-tier Monk recording in many obvious ways. Certainly he is best known for bending chords, notes and phrases so far out of whack as to extend their sustain far beyond merely a few measures. However, this track is short and succinct, and, although it has been featured on Monk compilations, those seeking more of the interplanetary explorer in him should look elsewhere. Even though the track is brief and the form is easy to grasp, it is not one of his more cryptic statements. In Monk's case, his reputation rests on the pursuit and presentation of thought-provoking music, and while "Thelonious" is excellent, it does not even begin to scratch the surface of what this genius was capable of. Music does not have to be challenging to establish relevance, but even those who are familiar with few of Monk's works will be disappointed by the lack of abstractness. The recording winds up in more commercial territory due to its predictable, straightforward nature, sounding much less "underground" than the CD title suggests.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Larry Coryell: Good Citizen Swallow

An audible vocal countdown by guitarist Larry Coryell kicks off "Good Citizen Swallow," an upbeat original featuring earthen grooves and incendiary playing. Coryell's support band conjures up a loose, nimble sound that befits both the environment of the Jazz Showcase and the chart basics, and, while the changes are simple and repetitive, the space between each player's note choices lets the trio add kaleidoscopic melodies on top. Coryell, in particular, sounds ready to tackle the number; his sprinting solos fluidly span the entire guitar neck and set a direction that the musicians willingly accept and follow. The pace is quick, the group's intricate playing is always accurate, and Coryell sounds confident in his surroundings. His ensemble locks things down even without his colorful accompaniment, while their solos are joined by Coryell's sporadic chords that add a twisted, progressive element to a rather straightforward progression. As for the production, the edges are clean, and the take was captured well. It does not sound, from the results, that the band's performance included much roughness anyway, so the smooth surface only enhances an excellent concert recording and one of the album's highlights.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Frank Sinatra: The House I Live In

There's more to this than meets the ear …

Frank Sinatra: The House I Live In (1945) "A certain word, democracy." That's one answer to the big question "What is America to me?" posed by Frank Sinatra in the 1945 10-minute film The House I Live In. The scrappy kid from New Jersey had been looking to move past the bobbysoxers who adored him, plus he was pretty liberal back then, too. So he was, well, jazzed to appear in a film extolling religious tolerance and ethnic equality, and to protect a scrawny Jewish boy beset by a gang of bullies. Frank dissuaded the little hoodlums by declaiming the title song: "The faces that I see / All races and religions / That's America to me."

Over the next year Frank got lots of favorable press and the film even won a couple of awards. Neverthe- less, the political Right attacked Sinatra relentlessly, hating his liberal beliefs and his gangster pals, while the Left distrusted his pop-centrist success and libertine ways. Plus lyricist Abel Meeropol, who also wrote Billie Holiday's scarifying "Strange Fruit," was angry because the film, and Frank on a 78 and in perfor- mance, omitted the outspoken racial-tolerance lines "My neighbors white and black" and "A home for all God's children."

But the real problem was the Red Scare, about to paralyze Hollywood. Within a few years the film's writer, Albert Maltz, composer Earl Robinson, and to some extent Meeropol—Lefties all—would be experiencing the unspoken blacklist, which rendered many of the lyrics ironic: "The howdy and the handshake / The air of feeling free / And the right to speak your mind out …." Frank too began feeling the HUAC heat, losing label, agent, voice, and much of his popularity until the famous early Fifties comeback.

Still, the song was taken up by Paul Robeson and Josh White, and even Sonny Rollins a decade later, and also kept alive by Sinatra, who revisited it several times over the years, eventually singing it at the White House for a President or two. This early version was recorded live about 1946 during an unidentified radio broadcast and then sent out on an Armed Forces Radio transcription disc. There are some nice touches, quietly patriotic moments in Axel Stordahl's arrangement: a snippet of "America the Beautiful," a brief trumpet fanfare, swirls and waves of strings, then a drum roll at the climax and a final peaceful tag, without words, brotherhood found "from sea to shining sea." Frank sings almost peacefully, with low-key ballad dynamics, offering more nuance and less schmaltz than are found in his lip-synched, slightly hammy film performance and the string-drenched 78. Calm, yet committed, he sounds like a believer.

Looking back, we know that Sinatra, to be perfectly Frank, had to reinvent himself again and again—become a convincing actor, swing through hundreds of recording sessions, cavort with the Rat Pack, slip in and out of bedrooms and, politically, from Left to Right. But the image of the underdog kid stayed with him. And the spirit of jazz, if not the sound and rhythms, fills this all-American "House," which was in the mid-Forties and remains to this day the nation's metaphoric residence. Now that the White House has opened its doors to an African-American President, perhaps the song's 21st-century version could resurrect some other lyrics Frank discarded: "The words of old Abe Lincoln / Of Jefferson and Paine / Of Washington and Jackson / And the tasks that still remain."

Democracy, like Jazz, is a complex gig … whether improvised or arranged.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Allan Holdsworth: The Things You See

At first I thought I was listening to the opening of "In a Silent Way." Maybe I was. But on this live performance of Allan Holdsworth's golden oldie "The Things You See (When You Haven't Got Your Gun)," the introduction quickly changes character from its spacey opening to the more familiar tune. Boy, can Holdsworth play some beautiful chords! He should take out a patent on those things. Soon all semblance of chord structure is gone and Holdsworth takes flight. The man soloing does not believe in texture as best I can tell. If there is a space, he needs to fill it. That's his way and it has worked for him even if it has cost him many fans within shouting distance of the mainstream. You can't help but be caught up in the whirling dervishness of his explorations. His bandmates sure are. Screw texture and screw subtlety. Then again, Holdsworth's chord playing is full of both. It's the yin and the yang, I guess. Either way, it is the thing we hear with or without our guns.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Allan Holdsworth: Lanyard Loop

All Night Wrong was Allan Holdsworth's first official live recording. According to the scuttlebutt, it seems remarkable that any live recording would come out at all. Holdsworth is a perfectionist and a harsh critic of his own music. Many fans were surprised that he could ever be satisfied with a live recording, considering that mistakes happen live. Holdsworth hates mistakes. But he was pleased enough with this performance to allow its release. (Watch. We will find out that he really wasn't in favor of this CD coming out and that he despises everything about it.)

In terms of lineup, this is a standard guitar power trio performance. Holdsworth plays it straight with the possible exception of an infrequent guitar synthesizer turn. (The way he makes a guitar sound, you can never be quite sure.) "Lanyard Loop" begins as an exposition of beautifully formed and played ascending and descending chords. You hear no string strikes. It is almost as if the fretboard were a keyboard and Holdsworth was pushing the strings down rather than hitting them. Of course Holdsworth eventually rips out a legato-infused solo. Playing on the periphery of the beat is where it's at for Holdsworth. You won't find him in the normal places. Slippery guy, he. Bassist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Chad Wackerman prove to be fine foils. This is really good fusion music stamped with the unique style of Allan Holdsworth.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gary Husband's Drive: Take Five

It is a very cold morning as I write this review. I just came back from dropping my daughter off at school and have decided to hit the keys to toss off a few reviews. I thought I would start by listening to Gary Husband, one of my favorite progressive jazz players. But for some reason I can't hear his band's interpretation of "Take Five" though my headphones. Every knob is turned. Every button is pushed. Software is checked. No sound. I reach to adjust my headphones. What's this? Damn. I still have my earmuffs on!

The P.R. material that came with Gary Husband's Hotwired indicates the multi-instrumentalist and composer wanted to pay tribute to his influences such as Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette and others, and also to capture the "American" or "New York" sound of the wonderful jazz bands that used to visit the London jazz clubs he frequented. I don't think you can pick a more "American" jazz tune than Paul Desmond's "Take Five."

The piece starts with Husband adding drum flourishes in a slightly prolonged intro. To my unmuffled ears the most dominant influence in Husband's playing on this cut comes from Tony Williams. Bassist Michael Janisch thumps the tune along. I love the way Husband mixed the bass and drums on this album. They are very upfront. Saxophonist Julian Siegel and trumpeter Richard Turner play off each other for the tune's head arrangement. The head-nodding quality of the original tune's melody is maintained even through some rather darker passages are presented. "Take Five's" midsection is taken over by expressive and sometimes violent free-jazz blowing before things calm down. This is not your father's "Take Five." If Husband wanted New York City, he got it. This music would have been perfect to follow the rough-and-tumble private-eye Mike Hammer around.

Husband's new band Drive proves to be a powerful unit quite capable of constructing and then deconstructing original musical ideas. Just make sure it is your headphones you are listening through, and not your earmuffs.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gary Husband's Drive: Heaven In My Hands

Drummer/keyboardist/composer Gary Husband's original intent was to form a new trio. But after hearing trumpeter Richard Turner he changed his mind and formed a quartet he calls Drive. For reasons stated later we will realize why this was a good idea.

Husband is best known in jazz circles as a highly sought-after drummer and keyboardist for such heavyweights as John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, Jack Bruce and Billy Cobham. He has also released two highly acclaimed solo piano records that offer his unique interpretations of McLaughlin's and Holdsworth's music. As composer and bandleader he has helmed several interesting projects, including a critically acclaimed series of concerts under the moniker "Force Majeure." Though Husband is best known for his contributions to the progressive jazz and jazz-rock genres, he is also familiar to some as the drummer for two stints in the English pop-rock-funk-fusion band Level 42. His interpretation of Level 42's "Heaven in My Hands" evokes his first time through with that band.

The opening melody is very beautiful. Husband's piano notes and the reverberating phrases from young trumpeter Richard Turner and saxophonist Julian Siegel hang in the air. You can reach out and pluck them. Once the introduction is put aside, a more aggressive up-tempo section enters. Bassist Michael Janisch takes his bass for a fast jog to offer rhythmic support along with Husband for some fine playing from trumpeter Turner and saxophonist Julian Siegel. This music wouldn't quite have worked right with only one horn. Some electronics are heard. A Milesian vibe takes over. Influences from the spatial elements of In a Silent Way and A Tribute to Jack Johnson are clearly heard and explored. Turner's trumpet in particular benefits from this reference. I suggest you listen to the tune six times. The first time listen to it as an organic piece of music. Then the next four plays, focus on one instrument each time. Finally, listen the sixth time for a full understanding. After hearing this music I am very interested in where Gary Husband's Drive will take us next.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Don Byas: Cherokee

A veteran arranger I know used to refer to Don Byas as "The Stone Age Coltrane." Byas was an important figure during the time of jazz's transition from swing to bop. Like all soloists at the time, he was a product of big bands, notably those of Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, and Count Basie, and was also a member, with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford, of the first bop group to appear on 52nd Street.

Byas's style in 1945 was an unusual combination of swing and bop elements. He employed a big, warm sound with a deep vibrato à la Hawkins and Webster, and his rhythmic placement was mostly on the beat as per common Swing Era practice. His harmonic approach was quite a bit more advanced, though he was basically, like Hawkins, a vertical player. His ace in the hole was his dazzling technical command, which let him take a back seat to no one at handling fast tempos.

This performance is shaped by the wide disparity in harmonic and technical command between Byas and the workmanlike rhythm section. The blazing tempo forces the bassist to play in 2 throughout while the others hang on for dear life as Byas eats up the changes. Though his solo eventually takes on the character of a technical etude, it is still a dazzling virtuoso display. A couple of choruses even include some chromatic II-V substitutions in the first four bars, as if "Cherokee" didn't already have enough chord changes, though these passages were obviously part of a set routine rather than a spur-of-the-moment inspiration.

January 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong (featuring Lonnie Johnson): Savoy Blues

This is the third of the classic Louis Armstrong Hot Five recordings with the special addition of jazz and blues guitar great Lonnie Johnson.

In this recording, unlike the other two, Armstrong does no singing; it's a pure instrumental. Armstrong and Johnson once again stimulate each other with cornet-guitar exchanges and create a song that builds and flows and produces a coherent work of musical art. Armstrong on cornet and Ory on trombone give us some good old New Orleans blues smears and lines, along with Johnson's typical fine, bluesy finger work on the guitar. And the three of them build to a rousing, climbing crescendo towards the end, finalized with a subtle effect at the very end, with Johnson's guitar having the last word.

Two downsides are Lil Hardin Armstrong's rather plodding piano, from the beginning; and the bulk of the track doesn't quite reach the heights of intense, dynamic, innovative ensemble work that "I'm Not Rough" and "Hotter Than That" achieve. An interesting side note: Original New Orleans-style banjoist St. Cyr plays guitar here, rather than banjo. But one could not call it a guitar duet with Johnson. St. Cyr's rhythm guitar work serves its foundational purpose, but when Johnson comes in he shows how he is light years beyond the traditional rhythm guitarists, even in this more modest workout.

January 14, 2009 · 1 comment

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Lonnie Johnson & Eddie Lang: Midnight Call Blues

At least three of the nine other extraordinary guitar duets recorded by Lonnie Johnson & Eddie Lang in 1928-29 are better known than this track (one being "Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues"). But this track is my favorite.

As best we can tell, there was a basic agreement as to the essential structure of what they were going to play on these recordings, but there was ample room left for improvisation; and improvise these two early masters did, in such exquisite, innovative and moving ways that the duets became landmarks in guitar history.

In these duets, Johnson used a uniquely tuned 12-string guitar (to the best of our understanding). The artistry this afforded the virtuoso Johnson is most strikingly heard on this track. At the beginning, he creates a fascinating zither-like sound, giving a wonderful, exotic feel, ringing above Lang's rhythmic and harmonic foundation, rising to musical heights and elegantly descending. Then, in the third chorus, the musical feel changes, as Lang takes a one-chorus lead, playing a simple but deep-toned bluesy line while Johnson strums chord backings that, on that 12-string, are so rich it strikes the ear like a combination harp-zither-guitar. They finish out the song with the usual brighter-sounding, sophisticated, inventive lead lines by Johnson, all combining in a beautiful thematic coherence. I can't think of anything else that sounds quite like this.

The sophisticated interplay and combined artistry on these duets by an African-American from New Orleans and an Italian-American from Philadelphia, in the first full-partner interracial recordings, is something special—in music and in American society.

January 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Rocco John Group: Mischievous Mystic

Blues forms in jazz are as common as polka in Eastern European music, but mutated blues forms are typically more interesting. That's what Thelonious Monk loved to do and Rocco John Iacovone does on "Mischievous Mystic." The lack of a chordal instrument puts some of the responsibility of carrying the melody on bassist Aaron Keane, but he doesn't do it entirely, and that's intended. After a brief statement of the lumbering theme by both horns, it's up to the listener to fill in those blanks.

The spartan arrangement serves to accentuate the lonely, fragile quality of Iacovone's alto. Even more haunting is when Irwin begins the handoff from Iacovone by making his trumpet weep. Both play a game of harmonic shuffleboard, getting as close to the edge of tonality without falling off.

Iacovone has stated that he wrote this song in tribute to Monk. No one can truly capture Monk's style of composing; the best one can hope for is to approximate his "mischievous" spirit. On this tune, Rocco John and his group do just that.

January 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billet-Deux: Four on Six

Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, the band Billet-Deux, which roughly translates into "two bills" (bills referring to paper money) is a unique collaboration of artists who have been inspired by the gypsy jazz traditions of guitarist Django Reinhardt and his Quintette du Hot Club de France cofounder violinist Stéphane Grappelli. In this more contemporary, sometimes bordering on new-age sounding edition of the Parisian café music of the past, we have the guitar musings of Troy Chapman and the somber emotion-filled cello of James Hinckley .

Having always been a big fan of anything Wes Montgomery, I was immediately attracted to "Four on Six" to see what these musicians could do with this fabulous swinger. I was not disappointed. As the group states the core melody line in seamless synchronicity, it is obvious that they have played together for some time. Hearing Hinckley's sober and solemn-sounding cello swing is surprisingly entertaining in a strange way. Chapman takes his turn with a guitar solo, briefly quoting from "My Favorite Things" for good measure. There is no overt show of virtuosity on display here, but rather a sincere effort to portray the music in a loving and unfettered way. It is the interacting of the whole that makes this work as a total concept, easy to listen to and ultimately enjoyable.

January 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billet-Deux: Sarita

Billet-Deux is a unique string-oriented band with roots in the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt. On Troy Chapman's original "Sarita," the opening refrain is a gently repeated guitar line that leads into the wistful and melancholy melody played to emotional perfection on James Hinckley's cello. Bennett's subtle hand percussion and Hunner's rhythm guitar work effectively together. Chapman delivers a complementary guitar solo with sensitivity and little flash, as he seems correctly more concerned with the overall group sound. "Sarita" is a pleasant excursion that doesn't challenge, but at the same time doesn't disappoint.

January 13, 2009 · 1 comment

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John Lewis: The Golden Striker

When Gunther Schuller (classical musician with jazz interests) collided with John Lewis (jazzman classically trained), the resulting … not explosion, more a puff of smoke or tempest in a teapot … the result, anyway, was Third Stream Music, a largely forgotten, bastard genre beloved of partisans and certain scribes, but ignored by most gigging musicians and fans. The Third Stream's odd mix of toney instruments, transcribed compositions, jazzy aspirations, and a gruntled measure of swing created works (think of the verb subsumed in that noun) that often seemed as leaden and clangorous as a split cathedral bell.

Still, a few diehards managed to teach the no-jazz straights how to tap their feet, if not actually step out, and Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet was instructor extraordinaire. The brilliant composer of "Django," "La Ronde," "Cylinder" and other titles Italian and/or geographical could go for Baroque or back to Bop in a New York minute. He had the knack and the smarts, the elegance and the will, to propel (or maybe drag) others in his wake; just think how he managed to keep players as diverse as Milt Jackson and Connie Kay together, and wearing black tuxedoes, for decades.

Away from the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lewis mostly stuck to conducting/writing for Orchestra U.S.A., the American Jazz Orchestra, and other lightly avant-garde ensembles. But he also recorded a few sterling examples of what Third Stream Music could be under the right conditions, and the most spirited of these is the brass-drenched, stereo-demonstrative Atlantic album titled The Golden Striker, a wonderful combination of fanfares à la Gabrielli and complex yet swinging longer pieces from the pianist's trick bag, played by a steady mix of jazz cats and classical gassers. The emblematic title track, driven by Duvivier's dancing basslines and Lewis's own Basie-esque piano (minimal notes and maximal pulse), bespeaks a smiling demeanor. Like clock-tower mechanical figures that mark the onward march of the minutes, Lewis's staccato melody alternately halts and surges, striking brass-choir sparks amid the rhythm section's very "timely" five minutes—a dance of the hours as it were, and a fanciful pleasure for both curious hipsters and "serious music" tourists alike.

January 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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John Lewis: The Golden Striker

When Gunther Schuller (classical musician with jazz interests) collided with John Lewis (jazzman classically trained), the resulting … not explosion, more a puff of smoke or tempest in a teapot … the result, anyway, was Third Stream Music, a largely forgotten, bastard genre beloved of partisans and certain scribes, but ignored by most gigging musicians and fans. The Third Stream's odd mix of toney instruments, transcribed compositions, jazzy aspirations, and a gruntled measure of swing created works (consider the verb subsumed in that noun) that often seemed as leaden and clangorous as a split cathedral bell.

Still, a few diehards managed to teach the no-jazz straights how to tap their feet, if not actually step out, and Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet was instructor extraordinaire. The brilliant composer of "Django," "La Ronde," "The Cylinder" and other titles Italian and/or geographical could go for Baroque or back to Bop in a New York minute. He had the knack and the smarts, the elegance and the will, to propel (or maybe drag) others in his wake; just think how he managed to keep players as diverse as Milt Jackson and Connie Kay together, and wearing black tuxedoes, for decades.

Away from the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lewis mostly stuck to conducting/writing for Orchestra U.S.A., the American Jazz Orchestra, and other lightly avant-garde ensembles. But he also recorded a few sterling examples of what Third Stream Music could be under the right conditions, and the most spirited of these is the brass-drenched, stereo-demonstrative Atlantic album The Golden Striker, a wonderful combination of fanfares à la Gabrielli and complex yet swinging longer pieces from the pianist's trick bag, played by a steady mix of jazz cats and classical gassers. The emblematic title track, driven by Duvivier's dancing basslines and Lewis's own Basie-esque piano (minimal notes and maximal pulse), bespeaks a smiling demeanor. Like clock-tower mechanical figures that mark the onward march of the minutes, Lewis's staccato melody alternately halts and surges, striking brass-choir sparks amid the rhythm section's very "timely" five minutes—a dance of the hours as it were, and a fanciful pleasure for both curious hipsters and "serious music" tourists alike.

January 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Larry Coryell: Rene's Theme

"Rene's Theme" was written by the Belgian Rene Thomas, a gifted guitarist who caught the attention of such jazz stars as Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker and Stan Getz, each of whom asked him to perform with them. Yet despite his high standing in the jazz business community, he never achieved any reasonable amount of fame outside it.

Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin present "Rene's Theme" as a Django-inspired acoustic duet. Both players would often pick up an acoustic guitar in those days, even though their stars were rising due to their electric work. For that reason, inclusion of this piece was a surprise. But what a performance it is! The two players trade off at high velocities. Each provides the traditional rhythmic backing chords necessary to make each other's single-note runs sound as if they were coming straight out of Paris from the 1930s. Well, maybe not quite like that because there are modern flourishes thrown in. But you get the idea. The trading back and forth is phenomenal. The duo has it all together from melody and fast-lick improvisation to stellar timekeeping. This is one of the all-time great acoustic guitar duets. Coryell has often said he believes McLaughlin's best playing appeared on the Spaces album. I think that is a bit of wishful thinking based upon pride of ownership. But I would say that some of the best of Coryell's own playing appears there. That can happen when great musicians push each other.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Larry Coryell: Spaces (Infinite)

According to the book Milestones 2: the Music and Times of Miles Davis Since 1960 by Jack Chambers, up-and-coming guitarist Larry Coryell was sitting in the crowd at Count Basie's nightclub in 1969 for a performance of the Tony Williams Lifetime band. Williams's outfit featured guitarist John McLaughlin and keyboardist Larry Young. At this time among jazz cognoscenti, Coryell was considered the next guitar superstar. But according to Coryell, "After 30 seconds of his [McLaughlin's] first solo, I turned to my wife and said this is the best guitar player I've ever heard in my life."

Shortly thereafter Coryell invited McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Chick Corea and Miroslav Vitous into the studio to record Spaces. What a lineup! This was a veritable who's who of jazz fusion before they were anybody. It is why Spaces is now a legendary recording.

The writing credit for "Spaces (Infinite)" is given to Julie Coryell, Larry's then-wife, to whom he uttered the above quote (which, incidentally, Jack Chambers took from a Leonard Feather article). She also wrote one of the first books about fusion, which was reissued a few years back.

Coryell and McLaughlin offer background strums as Vitous bows an ominous opening. A bit of dark funk dominates the scene. A slow melodious passage is heard. Vitous puts down the bow and begins a quick walk. Coryell solos first. He strikes rapid truncated notes over McLaughlin's accompanying chords and Cobham's aggressive rhythm. He plays some killer arpeggio runs as he hands off to McLaughlin. He offers more twists and turns and texture in his playing. Both players succeed in being strong and original without getting in each other's way. Chick Corea does not appear to have played on the tune. "Spaces (Infinite)" appeared as the first cut of the album and turned out to be a very good indication of the brilliance awaiting the listener. I give credit to Coryell for bringing McLaughlin into the studio. It showed he was a brave and confident musician.

January 12, 2009 · 2 comments

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Lee Morgan: Hocus-Pocus

I get to see a lot of CDs reissued from the original vinyl recordings. Very often I find some horrific mistake in the liner notes. A recent compilation from Europe was filled with about 30 egregious errors! They have people working at these companies now who don't give a shit about the music or the artists. This is especially true when it comes to jazz. Most of these loads don't know the difference between improvisation and instant messaging. And whatever happened to proofreading and fact checking? I guess we should just consider ourselves lucky that any jazz reissues come out at all. I want to be fair. Most of these botch jobs are coming from the big companies that once took pride in their jazz rosters. They long ago abandoned those stars and now just reissue jazz that some computer program has told them will sell well enough as long as the company doesn't have to pay too much money, or any money at all, to the artists.

The venerable Blue Note label is not one of those companies you would expect to produce a sloppy reissue. But that is what they did when they initially reissued Lee Morgan's Sidewinder on CD back in 1989. To me, the fact that it happened 20 years ago is an even worse crime than if it happened today. There were less diversions then. Bassist Bob Cranshaw is listed on the front of the CD as "Crenshaw." Meanwhile, the back cover spells his name correctly. Didn't anyone look at both sides of the CD? But that mistake is minor compared to what they did with the song title encoding on the CD itself. You may think you are listening to "Gary's Notebook," but you are really hearing "Totem Pole" (alternate take). You may think you are listening to "Boy, What a Night," but you are really hearing "Gary's Notebook." So forth and so on. How maddening! This is the type of stuff I lose it over. I hope whoever allowed these mistakes to happen has led a miserable life since. The music and the musicians deserved much better. End of rant.

The title cut proved to be a big commercial crossover for Lee Morgan. But there is much more of value on the album than that crowd pleaser. "Hocus-Pocus" is a quick-paced modern jazz workout. It lacks the commercial hook of "The Sidewinder," but the same hard-bop sensibilities rule. It's an upbeat number that will have you tapping your toes to the rhythm section of Cranshaw and drummer Billy Higgins, and rockin' your head to the solos of Morgan, saxophonist Joe Henderson and pianist Barry Harris. Great tune! Great band!

Reviewer's Postscript: By chance of a Christmas gift card, I was browsing the Barnes & Noble limited and overpriced jazz CD section today, and came across another more recent Blue Note reissue of the album. The spelling of Bob Cranshaw's name had been corrected. I could tell from the song listings that those earlier mistakes had been fixed as well. The album had been reengineered and also featured new liner notes from noted jazz writer Bob Blumenthal. That's more like it, Blue Note!

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Tomorrow Night

This song was the biggest hit of Lonnie Johnson's career, selling in large numbers in 1948-49. For many, it was one of those songs that captured the feeling of the time and came to be a key soundtrack of people's lives that year. The great blues guitarist Buddy Guy told me that the song meant a lot to him in his teen years.

But in pure musical terms, this track is not innovative, nor does it display striking virtuosity or power in the performance. It is basically a very nice ballad, with an engaging and memorable melody and lyrics, that appealed to many people and was sung well (though Johnson's singing on another 1948 song, "Backwater Blues," is better—in fact, masterful).

Still, the song had considerable impact. In fact, a guy named Elvis covered it at the start of his own career, and actually just copied Johnson's vocal approach and technique.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Falling Rain Blues

This was Lonnie Johnson's first hit (backed with "Mr. Johnson's Blues"). Instead of his noted guitar, he plays violin, the instrument his father started him on, to accompany his singing. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there is no digitally remastered copy of this song; the old, scratchy 78 record—and acoustically recorded at that—is all that's available, which tends to be tough for some to listen to. (A well-performed and well-recorded version was, in coming-full-circle manner, the last song on his final major recordings in 1967, Lonnie Johnson - The Complete Folkways Recordings; he plays guitar on that track.)

The general historical importance of this recording, beyond beginning a great career, is that Johnson took the expressive capacity of the violin and applied it to the guitar, which contributed to how he changed guitar-playing and popular music in general. Now, to many the idea of blues violin playing might seem like an oxymoron. But Johnson adds to his singing interesting and inventive lines on the violin, with a blues feel, and an extended bridge in the middle; the violin work complements well the vocal lines. Johnson's singing in these 1920s recordings was merely pretty good to good; from the late 1940s on his singing had become outstanding to great (such as on "Don't Ever Love" and "Mr. Blues Walks"). His guitar playing during that period was masterful.

Editor's Note: At the time of this posting, the Amazon.com Download Links provided with this review had the wrong album cover, but connected respectively to the right track.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Don't Ever Love

This is the first track on the first album made after Lonnie Johnson was "rediscovered" by Chris Albertson in Philadelphia in 1959 (making it Johnson's second "comeback"). Most striking is Johnson's vocal artistry; the man who was one of the ultimate guitar virtuosos sings with such power, nuance, dynamics, expressiveness, timing and phrasing to show that he could be not just a very good singer, but a great one. Johnson's guitar work was so exceptional that it tends to distract attention from his later vocal mastery. One good listen to this extraordinary performance will set that straight.

This track shows two other things beyond some fine work on the electric guitar. Johnson is joined here by two first-rate jazz musicians, saxophonist Hal Singer and pianist Claude Hopkins, along with good men on bass and drums. The track shows how well Johnson worked with a fine jazz group; these guys click musically as if they'd played together as a unit for years. Johnson also shows how he felt no need to hog the spotlight, giving space for a full soulful, soaring sax solo by Singer. The track is also one of those ultimate demonstrations of how the blues is a prime foundation of jazz and adds such emotive and textural depth to that music. For anyone who loves jazz and blues, this is must-have music.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Broken Levee Blues

The great Mississippi River flood of 1927 inspired a series of songs. Probably the most famous is Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues." This track is Lonnie Johnson's musical response to the big flood. It opens and continues with that inimitable Johnson touch, tone and rhythm on guitar, and his usual exquisite sense of harmonics that not only augment the pure music and add texture to the song, but often impressionistically complement and enhance the meaning of the lyrics. The words, in classic blues form, do a marvelous job of conveying the natural disaster and its human impact. The blues melody is memorable and expressive. Johnson's singing here is better than on his 1926-1927 recordings, and starts to demonstrate the vocal mastery he fully developed by the later 1940s. This Great Mississippi River Flood song is not as widely known and lauded as Bessie's, but it deserves to be.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Mr. Blues Walks

In 1965, 71-year-old Lonnie Johnson was invited to Toronto to play with a good traditional jazz band in a popular club called The Penny Farthing. They wondered whether the old man could keep up. But it was the young upstarts who had to summon all they had to play at Lonnie's level.

This album was recorded after the band, with Johnson, had become a big Toronto-area hit at the club. This track, like Johnson's "Don't' Ever Love," beautifully demonstrates the blues foundation of jazz, and shows Johnson's capacity for masterful singing later in his career.

The track opens with an excellent, bluesy overture, with characteristic Lonnie Johnson figures and riffs on electric guitar. His lyrics, in classic blues form, artfully tell a real blues story in a powerful and engaging way. "When the town is fast asleep, Mr. Blues be gettin' 'round; (repeat;) every time he knocks on somebody's door, he leaves them with a mournful sound." The lyrics are perfectly punctuated by some fine cornet work. These are blues lyrics, but the music is jazz. As author Stanley Crouch put it, "In jazz, sorrow rhythmically transforms itself into joy, which is perhaps the point of the music: joy earned or arrived at through performance, through creation." The sheer feeling one is left with after listening to this track is exactly that.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: Lady McGowan's Dream

This has to be the only composition named after a nymphomaniacal woman who held orgies in her hotel room for members of the Herman band, and later disappeared without paying her bill. As it turns out, this is one of Ralph Burns's masterpieces, as well as an important long work for jazz orchestra. Yet despite its length (split into "Part 1" and "Part 2" as originally released, occupying both sides of a 78), it tended to be overshadowed by another Burns masterpiece, the 4-movement "Summer Sequence," particularly after Herman recorded Burns's rearranged fourth movement for Capitol Records as "Early Autumn," with a stunning, influential solo by Stan Getz. "Lady McGowan's Dream," however, is important on its own.

After an intro by baritone sax and a rhythmic figure by the trombones, Herman's sensual alto introduces the melody. Throughout the piece, the listener becomes aware that Burns is exploring the orchestrational aspects of the jazz band, not only by voicing the ensemble in unusual ways, but using striking colors as accompaniment figures. (One moment I love is when the brass is playing the melody in harmony and the piano and vibraharp play a fast-moving figure behind them, creating a shimmering effect.) Herman's alto is also the main voice when the band breaks into swing, and this transitional figure introduces the next section of the piece, tied together by the trombone rhythmic figure heard at the beginning. I admit I am a sucker for harmonized saxophone soli, but this one based on the blues is particularly gorgeous, and we also are reminded of the dynamics Burns asks for and gets from the Herman band. The entire orchestra goes full out now, also playing a harmonized blues. Flip Phillips has a short improvised statement after a transition. Herman returns with his alto, and the piece ends as it began, except that in the final seconds, the trombone plays a figure in another key, creating a musical question mark.

Burns should have become a major composer, but alcoholism and other problems caught up with him in the early 1960s, and even though he never lacked for work, he never got the kinds of album composition projects that such composers as Manny Albam and Shorty Rogers did. (An LP on Decca from 1959 called New York's a Song was ambitious, made up of settings of songs dealing with New York. One hopes it will be reissued on CD at some time). Burns was busy on Broadway and in Hollywood, winning an Academy Award for his musical direction for Cabaret.

He left a handful of major works, of which this is one of the most important. It is a treasure, and is one of my favorite recordings of all time.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Starbright

Jarrett's "Starbright" is a consummate example of stride being used by a post-1950 modern jazz pianist while not sounding like a quotation, anachronism, or stunt.

"Starbright" is from the masterpiece solo recital Facing You. Right from the beginning, the spacious chords in the left hand imply something more like Earl Hines than anything else; although above, the pretty melody in sixths is quite dissonant and bitonal.

Jarrett takes half the performance to work up enough steam, but eventually lurches into a convincing left-hand "oompah" as his right hand delivers the iridescence suggested by the title. It's a major success, and one well worth considering for those looking to take stride into the 21st century.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Thelonious Monk: Dinah

Monk was the consummate modernist of common-practice jazz. He was arguably the consummate historian, too. Consider:

Of his peers and followers, Monk showed the most interest in performing repertoire composed before 1930 ("Dinah" is from 1925). Pianist Herbie Nichols, in the first-ever review of Monk in 1944, wrote he would rather hear Monk play 'Boston' than anyone else. ('Boston' is more or less the left-hand 'oompah' of stride, but filled out and played by both hands behind a singer or band - Count Basie did it especially well.) Monk Plays Duke Ellington was one of the first and still one of the best tribute albums by a major jazz artist. And producer Orrin Keepnews reported that after listening to the playback of 1957's "Functional," Monk declared, "I sound just like James P. Johnson."

"Dinah" is the first, fastest and most Harlem-esqe performance contained in Solo Monk, the most stride-reliant album in Monk's discography. I wonder about two possible tributes: "Dinah"'s lyrics refer to "Carolina" - could that be James P., yet again, whose own "Carolina Shout" and "Carolina Balmoral" are key stride pieces? "Dinah" does lead off Solo Monk; I can see Monk saying, "Just to be clear, this is for James P." Also, the closing trill: Monk almost never trills otherwise, but he can't seem to stop himself from ringing that bell at the end of several striding tracks on this disc. Is that a hat tip to Fats Waller, who constantly trilled too?

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Donald Lambert: Anitra's Dance

I believe this performance is technically impossible. I have heard (and now seen: YouTube! ) it many times but still refuse to accept it!

Lambert's left hand on up-tempo showpieces like "Anitra's Dance" makes me think of an old-time movie projector, flickering from still image to still image but nevertheless creating the impression of smooth motion.

Donald Lambert tombstone

Edvard Grieg's "Anitra's Dance" is a light classical staple always included in various "Best-loved Classics" anthologies found hidden away in most old piano benches. "Ragging the classics" was standard procedure for this era of pianists; Lambert's "Anitra's Dance" is surely the summit of this practice. There is a studio recording from the 1940s which is also amazing (and basically the same arrangement), but I chose this version since it seems to have more limitless fire.

Unfortunately, having a real gig like the one at the Newport Jazz Festival documented on YouTube was a rare triumph in the Lambert saga. At this point, Lambert was mostly an alcoholic barroom pianist forgotten in New Jersey with just a couple years to live. Instead of a conventional epitaph, Lambert's grave in Princeton has the musical phrase "In some secluded rendezvous" (from "Cocktails for Two") carved in granite.

January 12, 2009 · 1 comment

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Erroll Garner: Frantonality

Garner's style was mostly based on a chomping 4/4 in the left hand more related to rhythm guitar than James P. Johnson. However, "Frantonality" is a clear homage to Harlem stride. It's also a relatively rare example of a Garner original besides "Misty"; the fact that it is a serious stride composition in a minor key is also fairly uncommon.

Of course, the presence of a minor key doesn't stop the endless cheer of a good Garner performance. He was the kind of musician who saw no division between 'entertainment' and 'art' in jazz. Frankly, I'm not sure the way jazz rigorously defends its 'art' turf these days is so good for the music. At any rate, both Garner and Earl Hines could be seriously considered by young players today looking for unclichéd inspiration.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Across the Track Blues

As the premier bandleader of the 20th century, Duke didn't really need to maintain the stride abilities he acquired as a youth. But once in a while he opened up the left hand a little bit and you could tell he played the Harlem rent parties of the 1920s, too.

This dance-band performance starts with a couple of vague choruses of stride. It's not the greatest playing Duke ever did, but it is the perfect curtain raiser for an astounding document of a classic Ellington band at its best.

0:00 Somehow I think that even Duke is uncertain what the next tune will be. He starts in the wrong key, G, and but then changes his mind and tonicizes D.

0:14 Sonny Greer, the original leader of this band, hears where Duke is going and begins checking Duke's forward momentum a little bit. "Not so quick, Duke! Sheesh, I always have to make sure you don't rush."

0:16 D major is a strange key, so the band fiddles on their horns to confirm it. Well, there's only one tune in the book in D --

0:48 Duke plays the correct piano cue that's on the studio recording. Jimmy Blanton thinks about coming in, but stops to take another drink or something. There's just a little erratic 2-beat in this chorus from Blanton, matching the 'oompah' of Duke's left hand.

1:20 Trombone choir, but also Freddy Guy comes in on rhythm guitar and Blanton (putting down his drink?) begins walking. Blanton, Greer, Guy: The beat could not be more earthy or swinging from now until the end of the performance. So far, this is my favorite Blanton performance that I've heard. As with Tatum, Blanton's undeniable virtuosity could obscure what a fabulous time player he was. Bonus: You get to hear Duke verbally control the arrangement, asking for additional choruses of Barney Bigard and Rex Stewart.

It's a superb example of early jazz's 2-beat - which is stride piano smoothly moving into a more modern 4-beat. But the continuum also runs backwards: pianists of this generation always show some echo of the 2-beat (and stride) in the modern 4, too. In fact, I can hear a left hand connected to stride in 1950s performances of Bud Powell, Al Haig, John Lewis, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Herbie Nichols, Hank Jones, even Dave Brubeck.

Certainly, regardless of changing fashion and a resolutely walking bass, until the end of their careers both Ellington and Count Basie could occasionally stick some stride in there without anachronism.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum: Runnin' Wild

Any Tatum performance could be selected as the final word on common-practice stride. I chose this one because it is the title piece from the James P. Johnson revue that exploded "The Charleston" the world over. Tatum had tremendous respect for Johnson (and Fats Waller too). It is easy to hear this version of "Runnin' Wild" as a tribute.

One detail under-discussed in the Tatum literature is his swinging beat. It is almost too much: Not only is Tatum the greatest pianist technically, among the most advanced harmonically, and unrivaled when casually recasting a pop tune's melody as an improvised effusion - Tatum swings incredibly hard.

Occasionally I see reference to Tatum as a glorified cocktail pianist or a musician unconversant with the blues. These charges are ludicrous. Tatum was just the best, that's all: it may be hard to accept, but it's true.

I am not religious, nor even particularly spiritual. But when I consider the depth of accomplishment Tatum had from a youthful age, as a nearly blind, black man from Toledo, Ohio in Jim Crow times, I can't help but acknowledge that he must have had unearthly assistance. Fats Waller said it, when Tatum dropped by his gig: "I play the piano, but God is in the house."

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Sullivan: Gin Mill Blues

Joe Sullivan was a powerful pianist associated with the other great white Chicago jazz players of his era. Like Waller's "Numb Fumblin'," "Gin Mill Blues" just saunters along without trying too hard. (There are plenty of trills here, too, including one in double thirds!) Especially charming is the ending, with a chromatic flourish wistfully resolving to a soft simple triad in the high register.

In Ross MacDonald's The Moving Target (1950), private eye Lew Archer gets hung up on this track while failing to successfully interrogate his suspect Betty Fraley:

But hot piano wasn't my dish, and I'd picked the wrong words or overdone my praise. The bitterness of her mouth spread to her eyes and voice. "I don't believe you. Name one."

"It's been a long time."

"Did you like my 'Gin Mill Blues?'"

"I did," I said in relief. "You do it better than Sullivan."

"You're a liar, Lew. I never recorded that number. Why would you want to make me talk too much?"

"I like your music."

"Yeah. You're probably tone-deaf." She looked intently into my face. "You could be a cop, you know. You're not the type, but there's something about the way you look at things, wanting them but not liking them. You've got cop's eyes - they want to see people hurt."


"Gin Mill Blues" is right: Sullivan, like too many of the other pianists on this list, sadly died of alcoholism. It was an occupational hazard, since standing the working pianist rounds at a convivial gathering is only the right thing to do.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Echoes of Spring

The 'Lion' liked to act and talk real tough, but paradoxically he was the Harlem stride master most interested in gauzy, impressionistic harmony and classically structured piano pieces. Duke Ellington always credited Smith as an important influence.

"Echoes Of Spring" features an unforgettable melody floating over arpeggios before the heat gets turned up a little bit. Although Smith never really plays the requisite left-hand 'oom-pah' in this piece, the stride feeling is there somehow.

I'm not sure if we always get the real deal with Smith's records. While his compositions are supremely beautiful, there is something occasionally self-conscious, rushed and even sloppy about his performances. Not everybody records as easily as the next person, and I wonder if the Lion was really comfortable in the studio.

Highly recommended is my pal Spike Wilner's book of Willie 'The Lion' Smith transcriptions with accompanying essay (The Lion of the Piano: 8 Piano Compositions by Willie 'The Lion' Smith). These wonderful compositions are surely ripe for an interesting contemporary repertory project.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fats Waller: Numb Fumblin'

Waller was the most overtly humorous of any serious jazz musician. Nothing could be more ironic than his title for this spacious, slowly paced but bouncing blues.

Waller had the best trills of any jazz pianist. He shows them off here not only as single notes but in double thirds as well. Waller said offhandedly that he studied with classical über-virtuoso Leopold Godowsky; as far as I know, this is unproved, but the last chorus of high-register passage-work in "Numb Fumblin'" has a kind of effortlessly manic Art Nouveau elegance not far from Godowsky's world.

The emotion of "Numb Fumblin'" is perverse, joyous, and groovy. Classic Fats!

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Earl Hines: A Monday Date

The solo rendition of this Hines standard is even better than the famous Hot Fives version with Louis Armstrong. (Important note: I am discussing the 12/8/28 version timed at 2:53, not the one recorded the next day.)

Hines must have had enormous hands to play those big marching and striding tenths so quickly and authoritatively with his southpaw. His right hand grabs big clusters and chords, too: this is a hell of a lot of piano.

There's always something engagingly ragtag about a Hines performance. In fact, those signature weird stops and pauses - surely only Hines was doing this in 1928! - are really off the grid, sounding dangerously like moments of free improvisation. Hines always keeps the beat, of course, but not even Art Tatum is as fearless about pursuing the unknown - or rather letting the chips fall where they may. (Hines's piano break on "Savoyager's Stomp" with Armstrong - also 1928 - is the height of avant-garde.)

Of all the pre-bop pianists, Hines had the longest career as a solo pianist - his final recordings from the '70s are as interesting and provocative as his first 1928 sides.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jelly Roll Morton: Grandpa's Spells

This was recorded after "Keep Off the Grass," but it was reportedly composed a decade earlier. (At any rate, Morton is usually considered the influence on James P., not the other way around.)

"Grandpa's Spells" is nearly a rag in feeling, except with a swing beat and a generally rougher feel. A lot of the time Morton plays overtones in the left hand (usually the fifth note up from the bottom) that imply drums while the brilliant graces on top imply New Orleans-style clarinetists. The F-major trio features a left-hand smash, a dark cluster tossed off casually like a whiskey bottle kicked under the piano.

The sheer strength of Morton's playing is remarkable. Sometimes I read that such-or-such stride or early jazz pianist has a 'delicate' or 'subtle' touch. There are complicated and refined elements in all the pianists on this list, but all of them also knew how to make the piano project: you could hear them even through a wild revel.

Morton is commonly considered the first great composer of jazz. He was also surely one of the greatest dance pianists in history.

January 12, 2009 · 1 comment

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James P. Johnson: Keep Off the Grass

They called him the father of stride piano, the king of the Harlem rent party.

In terms of keyboard geography, the space between the "oom" and the "pah" is always very far in James P's left hand. This piece is also quite fast; few other jazz pieces from this era are as brisk. Everything considered, "Keep Off the Grass" is fearsomely difficult to play.

Part of the real Harlem stride style is how single notes do not dominate the melody; instead, constant constellations of double notes (and sometimes chords) brassily sing on top. The first strain of "Keep Off the Grass" has a mysterious chromatic "thumb line" (the lower note of the dyads and chords) that, if isolated, would be quite Monkish in nature.

The last (and most improvised) strain is composed of falling diminished chords. After nearly a century of increasingly advanced jazz harmony, it is hard to hear them as provocative today. In 1921, though, I'm pretty sure James P. would have meant those chain sequences of diminished chords to mean uncertainty and perhaps even sadness: the tear beneath the smile.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Thingin'

"Thingin'" is Lee Konitz's personal vision of the "All the Things You Are" chord sequence, and he has recorded it in almost every second record he's made during the last 10 years or so. This shows how imaginative one can get on such an ageless pattern, even in a trio context such as this, where the harmonic support is scarce. Actually this track begins with a long solo intro by Steve Swallow's electric bass, weaving beautiful elastic lines around the harmonic structure of the theme for more than 2 minutes before Paul Motian enters, then Konitz. Both play in a very free yet melodic way while Swallow keeps the time, and hearing Konitz explore once more the secret angles of this theme is a lesson in improvisation. As for Motian, his drums sing as much as they beat. In fact, Konitz waits until the last minute of the song before stating the melody he penned on the Jerome Kern harmonies. But who cares? These "three guys" have taken us by the hand along an unusual road full of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic beauty, and shown us on the way that old and new are useless notions when one is led by such creative artists.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Idris Muhammad: GCCG Blues

Say what you will, there's a good chance this blowing session is so warm and uninhibited because three of the musicians involved are Southerners. Aside from bassist Ray Drummond, the odd man out from Massachusetts, we have leader Idris Muhammad from Louisiana plus saxophonists Coleman from Tennessee and Sanders from Arkansas. Of course there are good musicians everywhere, but when it comes to being oneself on blues changes, as on this medium-fast Coleman composition, it's hard to wail in a more natural and a looser way than those Southern cats. So forget about supposed styles (Coleman= hard bop, Sanders=free, Muhammad= R&B) and listen to them surprise you on these familiar chords that nowadays are often dealt with as if they were a scholarly exercise. Coleman solos first, followed by Sanders and, whether you usually like them or not, I'd be astonished if anyone had anything to object to the way this two-tenor quartet gets down, with all its heart, to the nitty gritty of one of America's cultural treasures: the blues.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roy Haynes: Dear Old Stockholm

This version of a traditional Swedish tune favored and popularized by one of Roy Haynes's former employers, Stan Getz, is rather fresh and interesting. Unfortunately, Haynes behaves here like a despot, and his loudly recorded drums tend to overpower his brilliant young sidemen. All three musicians are masters of their instruments. The trio also has a personal vision of the song, and their arrangement respects the beautiful theme by adding melodic turns without overloading its simple beauty. The interaction between Perez and Patitucci (who were not yet members of the Wayne Shorter Quartet) is optimal, and they both favor musicality over virtuosity. So, paradoxically, it's Haynes's constant use of his drums as a soloist rather than an accompanist that partly spoils the overall interest of this track. Is it because he was playing with musicians who could have been his children, and wouldn't listen to them? Or because, except for a great record aptly called We Three with his peers Phineas Newborn and Paul Chambers more than three decades earlier, Haynes was never such a great leader for trio sessions?

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billy Bauer: Lincoln Tunnel

Nowadays, few listeners are aware of the art of guitarist Billy Bauer, and that's a shame. Of course, this consummate accompanist – best known for his work with Woody Herman, then Lennie Tristano – released only one album under his own name. When this unique mid-'50s leader session was recorded, Bauer was active mostly in recording studios, which is where he enlisted sidemen for a short-lived quartet that never appeared publicly. If it hadn't been for producer Norman Granz's determination to record Bauer, the informal session, and in particular this gem of a track, might never have occurred. Bauer's guitar is backed by a solid rhythm team and by the comping of Andrew Ackers, a discreet, unobtrusive, little-known pianist. Throughout "Lincoln Tunnel," where he is the main soloist, Bauer displays a boppish phrasing totally his own: brisk, inventive, full of unexpected twists, along with a firm touch and great sense of rhythm. All this pleads for the rediscovery of a musician who, though now largely forgotten, was widely appreciated by his peers and, out of the sunlight, carved his own style.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: Wild Root

Once upon a time, an alternate take of "Wild Root" was the more commonly heard performance whenever the title would be reissued by Columbia, probably an accident since it is marked Take 1. It's is a perfectly good performance, but Take 2, the original choice for issue, is clearly the gem. The solos by Flip Phillips, Bill Harris, Herman himself and Pete Candoli show each at the top of his form, and the band blasts through this Neal Hefti original with the force of a rocket blasting through space. If you know someone who has never heard any recordings of the First Herd, this is the place to start.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: Laura

This track was the first recording made for the first session in Herman's contract for Columbia Records. Herman had led a pretty good band for several years that played major venues and made some good recordings on Decca, but by 1943 he was beginning to shift direction to music that was more modern and exciting. With the hiring of Chubby Jackson, Herman had a new bassist who recommended excellent other young musicians; from Charlie Barnet's band alone came pianist/arranger Ralph Burns, vocalist Frances Wayne and trumpeter/arranger Neal Hefti. Herman found Bill Harris, who'd been fired by Benny Goodman for poor music reading. Dave Tough was also a Herman choice. Older than the other musicians and active since the '20s, he proved the biggest surprise with his modern, subtle style, which the musicians loved. A regular radio program for Old Gold cigarettes in 1944 was good exposure for Herman's new direction, and by the time his Columbia contract began, the musicians were roaring.

However, they also played Ralph Burns-styled ballads. This theme from the movie of the same name was a major hit for Herman, and the recording has everything: a great song, wonderful vocal by the leader (who also introduces the theme on alto sax), an excellent, romantic arrangement by Burns, gorgeous playing by the individual sections and the entire band, a pretty transition by vibist Marjorie Hyams, and then a kicking solo by Harris based on the melody. Also note baritone saxophonist Skippy DeSair's anchoring of the entire band: his sound rings through the entire ensemble at some points in the recording.

This track is a sensational beginning to a distinguished series of recordings by one of the most popular big bands of all time.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Rick Frank: You and the Night and the Music

New England Conservatory alumnus drummer Rick Frank, a student of drum master Alan Dawson, works with Peruvian bassist Oscar Stagnaro and his percussionist brother Paulo for a short but telling straight- ahead rendition of this standard. Hatfield states the melody in the opening before Stagnaro is featured mid-tune with a subtle but effective bass solo. That is followed by the flowing guitar of Robitaille, who comfortably darts around the rhythm section of Frank and the brothers Stagnaro. The tune ends with a return of Hatfield on piano restating the melody and embellishing it to the coda.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Rick Frank: Yellow Mountain

"Yellow Mountain" effectively commemorates drummer Rick Frank's trip to China. A picture of what appears to be a temple atop Huang Shan, which translates to Yellow Mountain, imposingly decorates the album cover. The song with its "carpet of sound" by pianist Brad Hatfield is a tip to that style's master, McCoy Tyner. It forays into a rhythmically driven extended piece of improvisational jazz with some nice soprano work by Bruce Abbott. With Frank and Synder effectively laying down the tempo off which the others feed, this is a nicely crafted piece with Eastern undertones. Jim Robitaille's Metheny-like guitar work in the final solo adds another element of texture to this piece that sets it apart from its predecessors.

January 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!

It consistently amazes me how arrangers could take a brand new song and create an interesting, original framework for a large ensemble like a big band on short notice. If only all Christmas songs were as wonderful as this one, and while it never became the monster hit that "White Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" became, this song has in fact grown in popularity to where it is now heard on many TV and radio commercials each year during the holiday season.

Those who know Neal Hefti only from his themes for The Odd Couple and Batman, and his instrumental pieces for Count Basie such as "Cute" and "Li'l Darlin'" may be shocked listening to this brilliant setting for The First Herd. While the introduction was originally much longer (and unfortunately is lost forever as Woody's book from that era was destroyed), enough of it begins this recording. Musicians will also be surprised that the first part of the arrangement is in the key of E, which creates an immediate intonation problem … for most bands. In the hands of these musicians, this music is lovely and exciting. A relaxed Herman vocal leads to a sudden modulation to Ab and a solo by Sonny Berman, who left us all too soon because of drug problems. Bill Harris takes up the solo as the background slyly shifts key, finally landing on D. The solo continues as the background shifts key again, with Herman returning in F. It looks like the setting may very well stay in this key, except that a series of loud, held chords finally end the piece … in the key of C!!!

Yes, pop records once sounded as powerful and beautiful as this one.

January 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: The Good Earth

This was in the Herman book for almost a year before it was recorded for Columbia Records, and was originally called "Helen of Troy." Neal Hefti has said that he was heavily influenced by the trumpet stylings and modern vocabulary of Dizzy Gillespie, and this setting would have been right at home in Gillespie's own big band book. From Herman's brief clarinet utterances, Filp Phillips's solo statement, to Dave Tough's amazing and colorful drumming, the highlights fly fast and furiously. Equally important, this is no simple riff-tune with some backgrounds and a slam-bang finish. This is a structured composition that can be danced to; one idea leads to another effortlessly. Hefti's pre-1950 output continues to amaze with its excitement, colors and compositional sensibilities.

January 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: All the Things You Are (1957)

This recording was part of a project that "might have been." Columbia Records producer George Avakian asked Mulligan to record an album with a big band. Mulligan wrote a few scores and recorded them over two days with an all-star group. He wasn't entirely happy with the results, later saying that the rhythm section didn't have the looseness he'd achieved with his small groups. However, he cited "All the Things You Are" as one of the recordings he was particularly pleased with. An earlier version of this arrangement was written for the Stan Kenton Orchestra; along with the original pieces Mulligan submitted to Stanley during this period, he was assigned arrangements for dancing, which he considered "dog work." Obviously there was enough interest in this setting to cause him to revisit it. Beginning with an introduction in 3/4 time, Mulligan plays the melody. He is joined in the next chorus by a contrapuntal dialogue between himself, Lee Konitz and trumpeter Don Joseph. The orchestral statement that follows is similar to the Kenton version, and the arrangement features a lovely out-chorus with the 3/4 intro returning.

Avakian shelved the tapes on Mulligan's request, and the project officially died when Avakian left Columbia. Gerry would remember the lessons he'd learned from this abortive project when he formed his Concert Jazz Band, which did have the looseness of a small group.

January 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joshua Redman: Round Reuben

Elsewhere on his Compass CD, Joshua Redman embraces a subdued Transatlantic ethos. But this track starts out with a hot serving of free-range Yardbird in a boppish broth. Ah, it is only an appetizer. At the close of the head, Redman moves outside the tonal center, leaving bassist Rogers to solo in a chord-free zone. For a moment, Rogers thinks he spies some Shorter-ish footprints on his desert island, but then he wanders farther and farther from his starting point. When Redman returns, he engages in an astringent dialogue with his trio cohorts. Then the tempo takes off in fast fours, and we are back in Bopville in time for the party. Redman always seems to be a restless traveler on his horn, but he really covers a lot of territory here. For a while I feared he would never find his way back to the head, but after one final dalliance with the outer limits of the chords, he slips back into the main theme. No wonder he calls this CD Compass.

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joshua Redman: Moonlight

Who can predict the unpredictable Joshua Redman? When he plays funk he relies on a tiny band without bass or percussion. But when he performs Beethoven, he doubles up on the rhythm section. Most of his Compass CD sounds like one of those stylish Euro bands with their attenuated sense of rhythm. But here we reach the realm of the super-cali-fragi-listic-hyper-attenuated. The pulse is a snail's marathon, inching forward at little more than 50 beats per minute. The rhythm section strives with valor against the odds, and Redman tries to put some deep feeling into his sax phrases. But the "Jazz in Vienna" arrangement clearly limits what mere mortals can do, even with a mighty horn in hand. Joshua, come back to America! We miss you!

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joshua Redman Elastic Band: Shut Your Mouth

Most funk bands bring in a whole posse to slam that backbeat into submission. But a funk trio with no bass guitar? And no percussionists to keep company with the drummer? Leave it to Joshua Redman to try to stretch his Elastic Band to build such a big sound with so small a cadre. Of course it helps that Sam Yahel has more electric equipment plugged in than a Best Buy on Labor Day weekend. But drummer Jeff Ballard deserves special credit for keeping this number simmering for the full 5½ minutes. And our star of the sax acts like he trained his axe on stacks and stacks of Stax. Tawdry crossover, you say? I reply: "Shut your mouth!"

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Whiteman: Blue Belles of Harlem

Paul Whiteman's final "Experiment in Modern Music" featured Artie Shaw, Whiteman's large orchestra, and a lot of new music written by old friends (Ferde Grofé) and new ones. Whiteman commissioned six composers to write pieces based on bells to be combined into a suite. Besides Ellington, contributions were made by Bert Shefter, Walter Gross, Fred Van Epps, Roy Bargy and Morton Gould. "Pops" took these concerts seriously (he was always hoping to discover a work comparable to Rhapsody in Blue, the standout of the first experiment back in 1924), and by including Ellington, Whiteman clearly believed Duke to be an important composer. As it turned out, "Blue Belles of Harlem" (aka "Blue Belle of Harlem") is a minor work at best; notice the spelling of "belles" not as noisemakers but as young women, a singularly Ellingtonian touch. A lead sheet of the piece was given to arranger Fred Van Epps to prepare for Whiteman's mammoth orchestra, and Charlie Teagarden, Al Gallodoro (one of the most technically amazing musicians of the 20th century), Miff Mole, Jack Teagarden and Sal Franzella are all heard playing bluesy written and improvised short statements at one time or another. (Whiteman certainly featured his all-star musicians at these concerts.) The piece would be substantially reworked by Billy Strayhorn into a mini-concerto for Ellington's piano and orchestra for the 1943 Carnegie Hall concert when Black, Brown and Beige was premiered.

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ravi Coltrane: Shine

This track may remind you of the work of a famous quartet that recorded for the Impulse label a few decades ago. But—surprise!—I am not talking about the famous band led by Ravi Coltrane's father. Rather, I am referring to Keith Jarrett's "American Quartet" of the 1970s. "Shine" reminds me of those pastoral Jarrett pieces that never settle into a groove, but develop (often at great length) a flowing, rubato ensemble sound dancing around an ever shifting pulse. Here Ravi Coltrane allows the music to build in waves, cresting and falling in unpredictable patterns. He has found a way of playing muscular tenor in free time, which is no small feat. His phrases sound almost like a prayer or incantation. Strickland extracts splashes of color from his drums and Perdomo finds a way of comping with melodies instead of chords. This is a rare breed of jazz that manages to be both rhapsodic and austere.

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Stiebel: Midnight Fifty

Miles Stiebel leads an orchestra that is in demand for political and corporate events in and around the Washington, D.C., area, and is also president of an entertainment agency he founded in 1983. While his Excellent Distraction might provide too concentrated a dose of "contemporary jazz" for the hard-core jazz listener, there's no denying the excellent musicianship of these players. Also, it's refreshing to hear an accomplished violinist as the lead voice in a genre that is almost exclusively dominated by saxophonists.

The first track, "Midnight Fifty," provides perhaps the most straight-ahead, non-formulaic performance on the release, with an attractive arrangement by Stiebel and guitarist Gerry Kunkel. The horn section is vigorously tight, and Fidyk maintains a driving but not overbearing backbeat throughout. After Stiebel intones his soulful, infectious theme, he delivers an exhilarating solo with a piercing tone and expressive phrasing. BarenBregge's promising wailing alto solo is regrettably short, but pianist Reynolds has longer to show off his creatively melodic talent. There follows an unusual arranged section that pairs the spirited horns with meandering, wispy synthesizer washes. Stiebel then treats us to his likable theme once again to take out this winning piece.

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stacey Kent: The Ice Hotel

Stacey Kent's Breakfast on the Morning Tram has been nominated for a 2009 Grammy Award as Best Vocal Jazz Album, and the composition "The Ice Hotel," with intriguing lyrics by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) and music by the singer's husband Jim Tomlinson, won the 2007 International Songwriting Competition in the jazz category. Those unaware may assume that "The Ice Hotel" is a clever Cole Porter-like fantasy, but in truth the original Ice Hotel (yes, there are others!) is above the Arctic Circle in a Swedish village, and is elaborately sculptured entirely of snow and ice. "The bed you sleep on," vows the ICEHOTEL web site, "consists of an ice block and a thick mattress, covered with reindeer skins. You sleep in a sleeping bag." Inside, "the temperature is never colder than -5°C to -8°C." Sound comfy? Even so, you are warned, "If you take your luggage with you to your room, it will freeze."

Kent's girlish yet knowing voice, falling as it does somewhere between Karrin Allyson and Blossom Dearie, is perfect for this oddly romantic track. "What other place could serve our needs so well / Let's you and me go away to The Ice Hotel." Harvey's cascading piano intro precedes Kent's silky vocal, with the pianist then providing an effective repeated motif. Tomlinson's arrangement slides the piece in and out of a Latin rhythm, as guitar fills and then a brief but pleasing guitar solo enters the mix. Kent now resumes her seductive proposal: "This is no whim of the moment / I want you to realize / Let's go away to that palace made of ice." If there were still such a thing as standards, this offbeat creation could very well become one.

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters: Isabella

Ronnie Earl made his name as a member (from 1979 to 1987) of the popular Roomful of Blues, whose emphasis on swinging jump blues enabled him to incorporate some of the sophistication of jazz into his incisive blues guitar style. In the '90s, Earl led a resourceful and versatile all-instrumental quartet, and the group's Grateful Heart CD won the 1996 Downbeat Critics Poll for Best Blues Album, one that Earl dedicated to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, John Coltrane, Duane Allman and David "Fathead" Newman. Not many blues musicians other than Earl were recording versions of tunes such as Monk's "'Round Midnight," Coltrane's "Alabama" and Bobby Timmons's "Moanin'," so it wasn't surprising to find Newman guesting on this session, and Earl electing to do an old Kenny Burrell ballad, "Isabella," which first appeared on Burrell's 1966 LP The Tender Gender.

"Isabella" is one of those typically catchy, deceptively uncomplicated Burrell themes. Earl is tenderly passionate in playing the melody, with Katz's fervent and compatible comping. The pianist's solo is straight jazz, featuring lush chords and sparkling runs. Newman's discourse is blues-inflected tenor at its most majestic, his full-bodied tone and swirling phrases transporting the listener as Katz, Carey, and Hansen offer their sensitive support. Earl is reflective in a solo that contains glowing, pliant strummed passages executed with a pleasingly delicate touch, as well as tastefully apt allusions to "It Ain't Necessarily So," to which "Isabella" bears some similarity. Even the fadeout ending works for once.

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pierre Dørge's New Jungle Orchestra: Hawk Meets Sun Ra

Pierre Dørge's New Jungle Orchestra has been Denmark's answer to Austria's Vienna Art Orchestra led by Matthias Rüegg. Both Dørge and Rüegg are extremely eclectic, each for many years offering music that encompasses all styles of jazz, European classical music, and various World musics.

If the Hawk reference in the title of Dørge's composition "Hawk Meets Sun Ra" is Coleman Hawkins, the connection to the tenor great is nowhere evident in the music, solos or arrangement on this track, unless the central repeated riff of the theme harks back to an undetermined Hawkins tune or solo. The Sun Ra influence is primarily found in the African-tinged rhythms that introduce this pianoless piece, setting a stalking, ponderous tempo, as trombones and cornet phrase energetically above it. Trauberg's cornet impresses with both his strikingly rich tone and the boisterous content of his improvisation. The insistent repeated riff appears just prior to a rambunctious trombone solo by either Agerholm or Hyhne, which soon evolves into stabbing contrapuntal jousts with altoist Mygind before the trombonist resumes his journey. The initial rhythmic pulse is reinstated along with tantalizing horn motifs, and the spirited riff quickly follows. A heady group improv is now launched, leading to a decrescendo that ends in a whisper. "Hawk Meets Sun Ra," containing neither a saxophone nor a piano solo, is nonetheless irresistible.

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Freddie Freeloader

During the first 13 months following jazz.com's launch, our team of 50 contributors reviewed nearly 4,000 tracks, including the entirety of Kind of Blue—except, that is, "Freddie Freeloader." As the writer of many jazz.com reviews, and editor of even more, I'm as guilty as my colleagues of overlooking this lone holdout from jazz's all-time bestselling album.

Clearly the public does not share our indifference. Among the five selections that comprise Kind of Blue, Amazon.com ranks "Freddie Freeloader" as a less popular download than "So What" and "All Blues" but more so than either "Blue In Green" or "Flamenco Sketches."

So how to explain the lack of interest in "Freddie Freeloader" among 50 conscientious and prolific jazz reviewers? I suspect it has to do with the conspicuous absence from that track of pianist Bill Evans, whose role elsewhere in these sessions is widely regarded as second in importance only to Miles Davis himself.

Thematically, "Freddie Freeloader" is something of an orphan in Kind of Blue. In his liner notes for the original release, Bill Evans describes this tune as "a 12-measure blues form given new personality by effective melodic and rhythmic simplicity." But that new personality is to this collection as a thumb is to its four adjacent fingers: part of the family, but stuck below and oriented 90º away from its siblings. As Ashley Kahn notes in his book on the album's making, the initial tune recorded was also its "least melancholy." Not coincidentally, it's the only one on which the famously melancholic Bill Evans does not perform.

Yet melancholy would've been wholly unsuitable for this particular musical portrait. The tune's namesake, Fred Tolbert, was a Philly bartender and hanger-on whose business card cheerfully read "Freddie the Freeloader" and who was described by Miles's soon-to-be-wife Frances as a harmless kook.

Red Skelton

For contemporaneous Americans, the name also evoked the comically endearing tramp character played by Red Skelton on his long-running TV show. So think of "Freddie Freeloader" as the Skelton in Kind of Blue's closet.

In this case, though, the star tramp is Wynton Kelly, by then the regular pianist in Miles's band. Kelly is way more than Bill Evans's stand-in here. After Kelly's lightly dancing fills behind the minimalist theme lend the piece its character, his leadoff solo finds him as boppish as Bud, as elegant as Hank Jones, and bluer than a bull's balls in Antarctica.

Miles follows, and will surprise anyone who doesn't readily think of him as a blues player. The long tones, deliberate phrasing and perfect note selection are as authentic in their way as Robert Johnson's midnight deals with the Delta Devil.

Up next, Coltrane wields his inimitable steak knife cutting through rebar. Among tenormen, Stan Getz had dibs on the nickname "The Sound," but Coltrane was if anything even more distinctive. Two notes and you knew exactly who it was. (Of course, by the time your ear registered two notes, Coltrane had played 137.)

Finally Cannonball, one of modern jazz's premier bluesmen, caps off the horn solos with a typically warm embrace, like a hug from that big ole bear of an uncle you can never quite get enough of.

In sum, "Freddie Freeloader" is a delight. Of course, in saying that, I'm not telling jazz fans anything they don't already know. It's we reviewers who sometimes need a while to catch up.

January 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Stompin' at the Savoy

Whatever the contractual agreements were that allowed Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to record together for Verve Records over a year's time (1956-57), owner/producer Norman Granz managed to sponsor some truly classic jazz vocalizing in that brief window of opportunity: three fine albums spread over five LPs. It was a bittersweet mix of massively talented yet totally mismatched voices, of course; just the question of what key to choose was a repeated challenge, mostly resolved by careful key changes in the midst of songs. ("And now you has jazz," as Satch would opine elsewhere.)

The magic was certainly working overtime when they met for the Ella and Louis Again sessions, and most specifically tripped the light on a superb "Stompin' at the Savoy." In earlier times, that big band ditty had Lindy Hopped right out the Savoy doors and around the block in high-stepping versions by Ella's old boss Chick Webb, busy hitman Benny Goodman, bandmeister Isham Jones, and umpteen others, but nothing could match the hi-fi swing plus ultra of Satch and Miss E.

Granz favored jam sessions, head arrangements, and one or two takes, all to foster what he insisted was true jazz improvisation. On this track (so say the original liner notes), he happened to be rolling tape during the first rehearsal of "Stompin'." The rhythm section locked into a quiet groove, Ella and the quartet on tiptoes at first, and then the happy feet jumped higher, called out by rowdy drums and scatting and that sudden, romping trumpet. As Ella and Louis both began stomping through their own new lyrics to replace forgotten or unwanted words, the magic of jazz was right there: the contrast of voices smooth and rough, of aural sugar and spice, perfect-on-the-notes Ella and perennial trumpet/vocal phenomenon Satch, each inventing interjections and half-words and new notes on the fly, and the rhythm with them every step of the way.

Cue it up and you'll hear the sound of two masters (six, rather) in the cheery throes of creation, finding the spirit of the Savoy Ballroom alive in a Hollywood studio, having the tap-your-feet time and bouncing fun of their lives … one perfect definition of Swing.

January 09, 2009 · 1 comment

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Garaj Mahal: Ishmael and Isaac

Leave it to Garaj Mahal to come up with a meshing of Jewish and Arabic music, with an American twist. A veritable whirlwind of Middle Eastern, Eastern European and good ol' vintage Yankee jazz-rock, "Ishmael and Isaac" deftly combines humor, virtuosity and multiculturalism.

Some klezmer kitsch at the beginning belies the sharp turns the song soon takes at 90 mph. In the middle of this cheerfully reckless trek across traditions are the twin highlights of Haque's sublime acoustic guitar solo during a gentle, melodic passage, and Levy's torrid Moog call & response with Haque and Eckhardt. After taking in "Ishmael and Isaac," I'm beginning to think that a song combining Japanese sato kagura music and Afrobeat could work … as long as Garaj Mahal is handling it.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny: Travels

Works is a compilation album featuring selected cuts from Pat Metheny's ECM catalog released from 1979 through 1983. "Travels" first appeared on the Travels LP released in 1983.

"Travels" was recorded live in concert. This lovely ballad is performed at a snail's pace. It is lush with the sounds of Metheny's gorgeous trademarked tone and slippery lines. Drummer Gottlieb spends most of his time on the brushes. Bassist Steve Rodby is asked to mimic Metheny on the melody from time to time while co-composer/keyboardist Lyle Mays adds tonal colors. My hunch is that this performance followed an up- tempo number and was designed to have a calming effect on the audience. There was one of those at every jazz concert I ever attended. I don't know about you, but when I hear a beautiful tune like this at a live show, I close my eyes and absorb it. I have always found that act a bit ironic. We go to a show to see the artists and then close our eyes while listening! But I guess we must subconsciously think that by shutting down one sense, we increase another. Ah, such is the power of great music.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny: Sueño Con Mexico

Works is a compilation album featuring selected cuts from Pat Metheny's ECM catalog released from 1979 through 1983. "Sueño Con Mexico" first appeared on his album New Chautauqua.

Metheny has enjoyed a long and successful commercial jazz career. I seem to be in the minority among his fans. I like most of his stuff, but much prefer him in experimental or "outside-the-box" mode. For instance, his controversial 1994 album Zero Tolerance for Silence caused such a stir among his legions of fans that many thought he had gone off his rocker. Many music critics believed the same thing. How could a deeply sonorous guitar player such as Metheny produce an ugly record full of cacophonous electronics? Many people were offended. But I found it to be brave.

In a different way, I find his performance of "Sueño Con Mexico" to be brave as well. In form and substance it is the opposite of anything on Zero Tolerance. For starters it is Metheny on acoustic guitar. But the tune hangs there like an impressionistic painting. It is not full of the infectious propulsive hooks most Metheny aficionados love. It is a beautifully subtle and nuanced ballad painted with pastels. It was designed to give you a gentle introspective nudge, not knock you over with a blunt instrument.

I look for risk taking in music or any other art for that matter. It does not always have to be there. But it has to be there sometimes. Risk can come in different forms. A quiet musician may play loud. A loud musician may play quiet. Melody may be sacrificed for tension and vice versa. There are a million ways to take a chance. A musician must do so in order to fulfill his or her potential. I often wonder how artists who do not take chances live with themselves.

Pat Metheny is one of those rare jazz musicians who can play accessible commercial jazz music and not be considered to be selling out in some way. He has found a way to use his virtuosity to bridge that unseen gap between expectations and results. That in itself is a substantial achievement. But he can only do that because he occasionally plays music that some of his fans may not expect or even like. This proposition applies even to such a pleasing tune as "Sueño Con Mexico."

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Franco & TPOK Jazz: Alimatou

Franco maintained his supremacy among soukous bandleaders by hiring the best talent he could find, sometimes stealing it from his rivals. But the addition of vocalist Sam Mangwana in 1972 was a big coup. Mangwana ranks among the finest soukous singers of the era, and had made his own reputation, starting with his work in L'Orchestra African Fiesta a decade before hooking up with Franco. Here he sings about a married woman trying to hide her affair. Many in Kinshasa thought Franco's songs were vulgar, and a few years later he would even be jailed briefly on obscenity charges. But fans liked the spicy lyrics as much as the spicy music, and "Alimatou" proved to be a big hit for Franco and Mangwana. During this period, many other bands were trying to bring rock rhythms into the local music scene, but Franco here stays true to the African rumba style, with all his signature elements: relaxed vocal harmonies, breezy guitar with those bright, simple Congolese chords, and a light cushion of percussion, all spiced with just a flavor of horns.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tony Williams: Neptune: Creatures of Conscience

"Neptune: Creatures of Conscience" is the third and final part of an unnamed suite. The song is a true showcase for one of the greatest jazz drummers who ever lived. I would describe the tune as a series of drum breaks buoyed by complicated, syncopated unison melody lines. The music is performed with great skill. It is not easy to be this tight. The sidemen sound fantastic, but they are here mainly for support of Williams's chops. Making the obvious even more so, Williams's drums appear louder in the mix than the rest of the ensemble. The melody makers provide the accents on this performance.

So how does Williams sound? What kind of stupid question is that! He sounds great. He plays with a controlled fury and a rhythmic imagination only he possessed.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong (featuring Lonnie Johnson): Hotter Than That

Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings are fundamental documents in the history of American music. By emphasizing a featured soloist, rather than the ensemble band music of New Orleans, they served as a foundation for the entire superstructure of jazz to come. For this particular edition, the Hot Fives became in effect the Hot Six, thanks to the inspired addition of virtuoso jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson.

In "Hotter Than That," Armstrong continues to develop his historic instrumental power and expressiveness. He also revives the scat singing (nonsense syllables delivered in a rhythmic vocal style) that he first put on record in the previous year's "Heebie Jeebies." Here he scats in a marvelous call-&-response dialogue with Johnson's guitar, which sometimes echoes—or saucily mimics—the scat line and sometimes complements or comments on it. As the distinguished music scholar and composer Gunther Schuller says in Early Jazz, "Lonnie Johnson's swinging, rhythmic backing and his remarkable two-bar exchanges with Armstrong are certainly one of the highlights of classic jazz." Special punch and poignancy come when the exchanges culminate in four dramatic stop-time effects, with an Armstrong wail followed by Johnson's perfectly attuned, punctuated guitar response. These two masters brought out the best in each other.

Johnny Dodds also contributes a scintillating clarinet solo, with a fine blues feel, evoking the original New Orleans jazz milieu, as does Kid Ory's classic tailgate trombone.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong (featuring Lonnie Johnson): I'm Not Rough

Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings are not just jazz classics, they are among the most important and influential recordings in American music history. They essentially laid the foundations of jazz for the ensuing decades, evolving from the original pure ensemble band music of New Orleans to the use of a featured soloist, in this case the developing ultimate master of jazz and popular music, Louis Armstrong. All the Hot Fives musicians except Lil Hardin Armstrong were from New Orleans, including the special addition of great jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson for three tracks.

"I'm Not Rough" has a distinctive, powerful and memorable melody and lyrical theme ("I ain't rough and I don't fight / But the woman that's got me got to treat me right / 'Cause I'm crazy 'bout my lovin' …"). The musical lines emphasize the theme of the lyrics; the music soars in perfect accord with those lyrics. With constant swing and momentum, they build musical crescendos that give punch and emotion to the message.

Armstrong's ever-developing instrumental technique punches out accents, dynamically flows through the melodic theme lines, and uses slides, slurs and bent notes to dramatically demonstrate how the blues is a prime foundation of jazz. Lonnie Johnson's playing starts with guitar trills, adding intensity and texture to the music. Then his guitar/voice exchanges both complement and stimulate Armstrong. Johnson's ringing and intense but smoothly flowing guitar solo in the middle adds a new dimension to the Hot Five (here expanded to six). Also standing out from the ensemble work, Johnny Dodds adds some soulful and lyrical clarinet lines.

In my opinion, however, Armstrong's singing on this track was still developing; it is a bit crude, especially compared with the striking, absolute mastery of his vocal work on the 1950s and '60s recordings.

January 08, 2009 · 1 comment

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Lonnie Johnson: Away Down in the Alley Blues

Lonnie Johnson's first hit was released in January 1926. By early 1928, Johnson was a premier virtuoso guitarist in both jazz and blues. "Away Down in the Alley Blues" is an early solo instrumental masterpiece in his long career. (He recorded the equally dazzling instrumental "Playing with the Strings" during the same session.)

This track exemplifies Johnson's special talent for sophisticated guitar work, with exceptionally quick fingers and a bluesy feel, and yet the music was very accessible to a broader public. The song illustrates Johnson's statement that "I don't play country blues, I play city blues" (and jazz). As with other Johnson gems, this song has a fine thematic coherence. It is also a good illustration of Johnson's influence on B.B. King, with the unparalleled vibrato, the unique touch and tone. Lonnie made his guitar sing. And he keeps an underlying propulsive beat going. This exemplifies how Johnson enlarged the language of the guitar for jazz and blues, and it's why B.B. King said of Johnson, "The man was way ahead of his time."

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson: Uncle Ned, Don't Use Your Head

Of Lonnie Johnson's playing on "Uncle Ned," outstanding jazz guitarist Jack Wilkins marveled to me: "This can't be just one guitar! That track just blew my mind. To this day, I play it for my students and they can't believe it—especially when I tell them it was done in 1931!"

Johnson takes this old Negro folk song and turns it into a vehicle for the most dazzling, blazing-fingered, virtuoso guitar work. The bebop or rock guitarists who thought they were the fastest thing on a fretboard should have gone back and listened to this recording. But beyond the speed, Johnson's playing here has his usual exquisite touch and tone, nuance and fine thematic coherence. This version of the lyrics ranges from funky to silly; but they should be heard as simply an impressionistic story background to the guitar work.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lonnie Johnson & Eddie Lang: Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues

By 1928, Eddie Lang, ethnic Italian from Philadelphia, and Lonnie Johnson, African-American from New Orleans, were recognized as top guitar masters. This track, one of 10 extraordinary duets they recorded in 1928-29, proceeds at a rather stately tempo, unlike some of the other duets. As Johnson said, on this track, as in the other duets, "Eddie could lay down rhythm and bass parts just like a piano." This song shows how the two guitarists took the basic music and bent notes and slurs of the blues, and added sophisticated and intricate interweavings of Lang's solid rhythm and harmonics with Johnson's lead work. Lang occasionally takes the lead, as in the fourth chorus here (sounding more heavy-handed than Johnson), but usually it is Johnson in the lead, managing to combine an often light, jazzy skipping quality with a rich tone and bluesy feel, as his inventive melodic lines soar above Lang's foundation. They are so attuned to each other that they are like a pair of superb longtime dancers whose two bodies move as one. The magic of these duets has been seminal in guitar history.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mike Clark: Loft Funk

Mike Clark was immortalized for his mercilessly funky rhythms on Herbie Hancock's 1974 fusion classic Thrust. Thirty-five years later he can still lay down "Palm Grease" licks, and what's even more remarkable is that he can propel a groove just as hard with an all-acoustic band, as he does here on "Loft Funk." Selecting the right personnel for this task helped. Christian McBride's standup bass is so in the pocket with Clark, he makes you wonder why Fender bothered to create an electric bass. Patrice Rushen's syncopated comping completes an airtight and righteous rhythm section. The horn-led theme sounds like something the late Eddie Harris could have dreamed up; later, Donald Harrison even slips a Harris quote into his solo. "Loft Funk" is an organically deep groover with no additives or preservatives.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Donald Vega: Nostalgia

It was not until after I listened to pianist Donald Vega's "Nostalgia" that I received an email from his publicist suggesting I read Vega's biography, which tells the story of a young Nicaraguan child whose family was torn apart by civil war and who was also afflicted with a disfiguring medical condition since birth. Eventually he was smuggled into the United States and fought many court battles to remain. His musical talent was noticed and rewarded by the Los Angeles jazz community. They came to his side in his battle to stay in the country as a political refugee. Ultimately the final determination was in the hands of a judge. According to the bio, the judge asked Vega if he liked John Coltrane. Vega answered in the affirmative and was granted asylum! The jazz community went even farther, as philanthropist and jazz fan Helen Bing paid for the necessary operations to ameliorate Vega's disfigurement. Other jazz fans and musicians were also quite generous. Vega found religion and spent time recovering from the many surgeries that were required. He didn't play jazz for a decade. But he rediscovered it in 2004, and earned two Masters Degrees in music. Now he has released his first album. Tell me this story of tragedy, humanity and rebirth wouldn't make a great jazz movie.

It turns out I really didn't need to read Vega's biography to know his story. I learned everything about him the first time I listened to "Nostalgia." It's all there in each beautiful note and well-placed accent. The song has true moments of melancholy, retrospection and hope. It is played by three expert musicians who know what evocation is all about. Vega has a special gift for telling a story through music. That can really come in handy when you've led the life he has and you can play the piano the way he does. With any luck the future chapters of his biography will all be about the wonderful music he is bringing to our ears.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Donald Vega: Wake Up!

I saw drummer Lewis Nash play with pianist Tommy Flanagan one time. He was good. And he has been good with many other great musicians as well. When I saw his name on the credits for pianist Donald Vega's new album Tomorrows, I jumped to the conclusion that Vega must be good as well, if Nash is playing with him. As fate would have it, Nash opens the album's first cut, "Wake Up!" with a brief drum flourish. It took all of about two seconds after that to determine that Vega was indeed good. Bassist David J. Grossman is good too. Vega's composition is a subtle melody that the band swings aggressively. Vega proves to be quite the soloist and accompanist. Grossman does a lot of walking and doubles-up on some of the accent notes of the tune's head. Nash is given several breaks on which he takes full advantage. The superior material Vega has created must be a treat for musicians of this caliber to tackle. It would be hard to find any progressive jazz piano trio out there these days that could play better than these guys.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Franco & TPOK Jazz: Marie Naboyi

Franco was the great master of soukous, that hypnotic Congolese musical genre that often sounds more Cuban than African. On this almost eight-minute long track, Franco starts with a typical African rumba sound, but midway through the performance the band shifts abruptly and gut-wrenchingly into a funky horn-driven groove. Yet the band abandons this experiment only a few seconds later, with an electric guitar vamp now establishing its dominance. This rhythm is also disrupted in turn for a plaintive, almost rock-oriented beat. This is nothing less than a suite in four movements, each with a distinctive quality. These types of mid-song shifts are typical of Franco's work, but rarely are they employed so starkly as on this track. "Marie Naboyi" also shows off the other distinctive qualities of TPOK Jazz, especially its conversational vocal harmonies and sweet guitar lines. It's hard to believe that this song, which sounds so lighthearted, was inspired by fraternal strife between Franco and his younger brother Bavon Marie-Marie Siongo, who would soon die in a tragic car accident.

January 08, 2009 · 2 comments

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Franco & TPOK Jazz: AZDA

When this song was released in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1973, few paid attention . . . at least initially. But over time, it spread across Africa and into Europe, where it introduced many new listeners to the sound of the now legendary Franco and his band TPOK Jazz. Many assumed that this gently lilting performance was a love song. But A.Z.D.A. was actually the acronym of a Volkswagen dealership with outlets located in a number of Zairean cities. When the band starts singing Vay-way, vay-way, vay-way, vay-way vay-way, a chant that takes up about half of this lengthy track, they are simply relying on the local pronunciation of VW.

Yet there is much to savor in this song beyond the astute product placement. "AZDA" sounds deceptively simple, but the structure is intriguing. An odd call-and-response serves as the centerpiece and "hook" to the tune, and is based on a lopsided repeating five-bar structure. The call is one bar of solo vocal with four bars of harmonized response—not a pattern that you would find in Western commercial music, but it works in this context. This peculiar interlude kicks in around the two minute mark, and seems to go on forever (actually three minutes of official iPod time). When it finally ends, we get a taste of horns—but only a taste: few recordings bring along so many musicians for so little work. Then comes dessert, an electric guitar solo. But instead of the single note lines one would encounter in the West, we are treated to some classic Congolese guitar: a kaleidoscope of sound built on pinging, open chords, sometimes little more than two notes, played strong and bright. The energy level picks up, and even the hornplayers decide they need to put in some more work in order to earn those free Volkswagens (24 musicians in the band reportedly got a free car). They come back from their break in time for the fadeout as we approach the eight minute mark. Don't tell the AZDA folks, but this song is a Cadillac, pure and simple.

January 08, 2009 · 2 comments

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Razl: Rotonova

Smiling Bob

Before the law caught up with them for fraud, the makers of Enzyte intermittently ran a short late-night TV infomercial. Enzyte claimed to be a "male enhancement" formula. Bob, the star of the infomercial and supposed satisfied user of Enzyte, was constantly shown with this goofy but confident shit-eating smile on his face. The music used for that commercial was very similar in mood to "Rotonova." Listening to guitarist Razl's hipper and more intricate song will make you smile just like Bob. The 1:20 tune is part bossa nova, part blues, part traditional jazz organ trio and all fun. On the album it acts as a perfect transition to the next tune. You should check out Razl's music when you have a chance, even if you feel you have no need for enhancement.

Disclaimer: "Rotonova" has not yet been tested by the FDA to determine its efficacy.

January 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Razl: Snail Underground

Spanish guitarist Razl (real name Raul Huelves) is a real find. Rotonova is his debut album. Almost as entertaining as his music are the album's liner notes and song titles. Razl appears to be a very talented artist who takes music quite seriously but doesn't necessarily take himself that way. I have always felt that's the right attitude for musicians who play any form of jazz. Sometimes would-be fans are turned off by the overly serious jazz artist. It's OK to be a lighthearted human being sometimes, I always say.

"Snail Underground" is a blues-funk fusion dosed with an infectious and dastardly undertone. In ways the piece is a really fast modern version of "St. James Infirmary" combined with Béla Fleck's "Sinister Minister." (You can't get more descriptive than that, my friends!)  Razl cooks. The heavy Leslie organ grooves and Hugo Astudillo's saxophone make good impressions too. Influences are heard. There's a little Zappa, a brief snippet of the progressive jazz-rock of Return to Forever, a smidgen of the Allman Brothers and a vocal section that for some strange reason made me think of Iron Butterfly! How wonderfully strange this is. Of note is bassist Bryan Beller, whom I recently had the pleasure of discovering for the first time. He is a talent who deserves close watching. Leader Razl is no slouch either. He's got the attitude, composing skills, chops and imagination to put together the right players for a very engaging outing. I suggest you drop your needlepoint and listen to this music now.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Enrico Rava: Outsider

Although I can't read Enrico Rava's mind, "Outsider" could just as well refer to his late mentor Steve Lacy, who spent most of his career outside the normal conventions of jazz. Even as Manfred Eicher's lofty production and Rava's European mannerisms remove some of the edgy tone of Lacy's approach, the adventurous and searching spirit remains in full.

Bassist Larry Grenadier plays a crucial role by setting tempo and introducing the note-chasing theme, perhaps the only pre-composed part of the whole piece. In the middle, Rava and pianist Stefano Bollani engage in musical chatter, and right at the point where the chordal root breaks free, a single note from the trumpeter reins it back in. But it doesn't happen all at once. Players come in and out of the song, leaving behind snippets of free improv before fading away again. Grenadier signals a return to the rapid string of notes he stated at the beginning, only this time it's declared by Rava and Turner.

And somewhere from his special perch in jazz heaven, Steve Lacy looks down approvingly.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, Paco De Lucia: Fantasia Suite

The first time the record listener heard The Guitar Trio as a full group was on this track. There is no telling if it was the first tune heard in live performance that Friday night. It would be good to know. Regardless, the crowd's giddy anticipation is still palpably felt during the performance. Audience members gasp at the technique and interplay they are hearing, and even yell out inappropriately in support of "their man." It's funny how these concerts worked sometimes. It depended on where you saw the group as to who was the crowd's favorite. I would say on this evening, there was a slightly larger Di Meola contingent in the audience. I saw the trio in Hartford one time, and it was clearly a McLaughlin crowd. I assume that when the trio played in Spain, De Lucia was the star.

"Fantasia Suite" is not the cleanest performance you will hear. There are enough flubs to count. And at times it suffers from the "too many cooks" syndrome. But considering the heat and energy that was being created by 30 fingers and 18 acoustic strings it was a wonder that the group didn't spontaneously combust on stage à la one of Spinal Tap's drummers. It was hard enough for two players to play a lightning-fast unison run that contained 337 notes. But three? Detractors say it is all about fireworks. I agree. Much of it was about fireworks that those same detractors couldn't play themselves. It is pure jealousy on their part, if you ask me. Besides, what's so bad about fireworks if it gets your blood flowing? Isn't good music supposed to do that? This is show business after all.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Al Di Meola & Paco De Lucia: Mediterranean Sundance/Rio Ancho

Their historic shows worked this way. Each guitarist would come out alone for a solo set. The third artist would remain seated after his performance. After an appropriate dramatic pause one of the other players would come in from the shadows to tumultuous applause to play in duet. The round robin would continue until the three possible combinations were heard. As the stage was emptied, the audience would be buzzing about what they had just heard. Some time passed. More time passed. Then The Guitar Trio would make their first entrance as a unit. The adulation was deafening. But as great an album as Friday Night in San Francisco was, it didn't come close to catching the true dynamics of these shows. If the album were to be recorded and released today on CD or download, we would hear the solo performances as well. You need to hear the preliminaries to fully appreciate the finals.

Di Meola and De Lucia had played "Mediterranean Sundance" together a few years earlier on Di Meola's Elegant Gypsy album. So their rapport was a known commodity when Di Meola replaced Larry Coryell in this trio. The tune begins the album, and along with De Lucia's "Rio Ancho," which is part of this two-song medley, effectively sets the stage for the acoustic magic to follow. Before an adoring and raucous crowd, the two players take little time in igniting Latin fireworks. Yes, it is a riff fest. Single notes come at you at a-millionth-of-a-second intervals. Excesses were cheered. But there is melody and dramatic interplay, too. And don't forget the crowd. They are a huge part of what was happening here. To hear such a reaction over acoustic guitar music in an electric guitar world was something entirely new and exciting.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: Duke's Place (aka C Jam Blues)

If you ever get the Blues in Paris, a visit to Duke's Place ("love that piano sound") will drop you off in Harlem, with azaleas and cottontails ya just can't forget, and the Satch master of trumpet to scat and snap and blow you smack out of those dull drums. Beginning to see the light? Feeling like a lucky so-and-so again?

Well, you owe it all to the Ellington-Armstrong lovefest that's come to be known as The Great Summit: those two perfect jazzmen together in a New York studio for several hours over two days in April 1961, crafting 17 classic performances amid a group of Armstrong All-Stars, the late-career recordings clearly not the elders' all-time best but timeless nonetheless. Especially notable are Louis's vocal adlibs on "Drop Me Off in Harlem" and his take-charge trumpet work on "The Mooche" (and the alternate version of "I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So" found on a surprisingly listenable second CD of outtakes and false starts); the Ducal pianistics on "Cotton Tail" and, indeed, supporting Armstrong everywhere; mellow-toned musicianship and meaningful swing from Trummy Young and the others; above all – the very antithesis of any mooche's mood indigo – Satch ushering you over the riffs into that C-jammed scene Chez Ellington, where saxes do their tricks, fellas dig their chicks, and everyone gets their kicks. As Duke ticks the keys to his note-limited, swing-limitless tune, the band climbs aboard the society-wide bus, and Louis... ah, Louis... the inimitable Satch takes you to a world where jazz conquers all. (If only we lived there.)

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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David Murray: Ming's Samba

As remarkably prolific a recording artist as David Murray has been since his debut in 1976, it took 13 years before Ming's Samba became his first release on a major American label. With the aid of an ace rhythm section, the album, produced by Bob Thiele, showed off Murray's well-rounded and well-grounded skills, plus his ability to engagingly blend bop and free jazz with the gospel, R&B and funk roots of his youth.

On the captivating 10-minute title track, named for his wife, Murray swaggers with the rhythmic assurance and relentless creative momentum that Sonny Rollins displays when attacking a calypso. Murray's timbre here also seems closer than usual to Rollins's own. His long solo, at times dense and convoluted, is always highly entertaining. He toys with upper-register shrieks and overtones, but maintains a relatively restrained straight-ahead approach for the most part. Drummond contributes a playful solo delivered with a pulsating, bottomless tone. Hicks is smoking as always, exhibiting a spirited drive and all-encompassing, variegated command. Blackwell's totally compelling feature contains subtly evolving motifs and distinctive cymbal accentuations, and is a fine, concise example of his unique stylistic approach. Those listeners hoping for a more audacious Murray performance might find this track a mite disappointing, whereas those who've never heard him play so unpretentiously could find this to be a pleasant, revelatory surprise. The bottom line: it's uncompromisingly enjoyable.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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David Murray: In the Spirit

This session brought together, in David Murray and Don Pullen, two musicians whose styles confidently straddled post-bop and free jazz. The end result was similar to the inside-outside modus operandi of the provocative quartet Pullen co-led for years with tenorman George Adams, except on Shakill's Warrior Pullen plays organ instead of piano. Pullen had played organ in R&B groups in the 1960s and in Harlem nightclubs in the '70s, and was a soulfully proficient master of the instrument.

"In the Spirit" is a wonderful gospel-based Pullen composition given a mesmerizing performance. Murray softly delineates the luminous, prayerful theme, backed by Pullen's mellifluous long tones. Pullen's solo is remarkable in the way it combines reverent emotion with technical panache. Murray takes the prevailing sanctified spirit to even greater heights, utilizing winding, passionate lines and effective variations in dynamics. The melody's reprise is even more tenderly projected than in the initial reading, and Pullen also adds some tweeting, burbling references to the old spiritual "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." This is a woefully unrecognized classic Murray track.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: Deception

It's hard to believe that the complete Birth of the Cool, including all 12 studio tracks recorded in 1949 and '50, did not see the light of day on one LP until 1971. Eight titles were collected in 1954, 11 in 1957, but that was it until a Dutch subsidiary of Capitol compiled the 12 titles in 1971.

The Miles Davis Nonet was essentially a streamlined model of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, aiming to add fresh and welcoming coloration and texture through written arrangements to the prevailing technically brilliant yet often intimidating bebop methodology of the day. In 1991, original Nonet member Gerry Mulligan decided it was time to record a new version of Birth of the Cool. Miles Davis was interested in participating, but his untimely death resulted in Wallace Roney taking his place. Another Nonet alumnus, Lee Konitz, had prior obligations and was replaced by the "hotter" Phil Woods. Mulligan was able to recruit Bill Barber and John Lewis, who had performed together on a good number of the original tracks, including "Deception."

"Deception" is a reworking of George Shearing's "Conception," which Davis had performed at Birdland a month before his Birth of the Cool recording, captured in a live broadcast with Stan Getz. The 1950 Nonet rendition was dominated by two run-throughs of the arranged section, with limited solo space available for only Davis and J.J. Johnson. While the "Re-Birth" interpretation follows the same arrangement, its longer length allows time for solos by Roney, Mulligan and Woods, as well as brief fills by bassist Dean Johnson and trombonist Dave Bargeron. The lithe theme, the woven lines of the trumpet and alto parts, and the intricate and pleasing ensemble harmonies are all superbly executed. Roney's warm, logically built solo is Miles-like, as is his wont. Mulligan is probing and inquisitive, while Woods is more biting and urgent, thanks to his darting runs and broad vibrato.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Scott Hamilton: Young and Foolish

Scott Hamilton emerged in the 1970s as a polished mainstream pre-bopper at a time when most players of his generation were exploring hard- and post-bop, fusion, or free jazz. He has been a consistently tasteful saxophonist ever since, with a style that contains elements of Zoot Sims, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Don Byas and, as evident on this track, Stan Getz. Never an innovator, never very adventurous, Hamilton can frustrate those who wish he would let loose a little more, especially when he unexpectedly veers towards more modern (for him) boppish phrasings. Since he's an authoritative and moving ballad player, his With Strings CD, especially thanks to Alan Broadbent's lush arrangements, stands out for the grace and clarity of his theme readings and improvisations.

If Hamilton's interpretation of "Young and Foolish" doesn't grab you, then none of his work ever will. Broadbent's enchanting string writing for the opening verse has the flavor and impact of a memorable movie theme, perfectly setting up Hamilton's purring articulation of the poignant melody, with shades of Webster's breathy vibrato peeking out at times. Hamilton's solo is most often remindful of Getz, especially in his hurtling runs, phrase construction, and occasional rasps that supplant his primarily lustrous tone. Overall, a solo that is sensitively conceived and detailed, and totally absorbing. The finale is an exquisitely realized dual coda for strings and then sax.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Suarasama: Fajar Di Atas Awan

Suarasama was founded in the mid-1990s by Irwansyah Harahap and Rithaony Hutajulu, ethnomusicologists at University of North Sumatra. This exceptional ensemble draws on Indonesian musical traditions from North Sumatra, flavored with a dose of commercial pop world music stylings. Fajar Di Atas Awan was recorded by Philip Yampolsky, a major force in preserving Indonesian music, back in 1997. I have a dozen or so of his stellar recordings for Smithsonian Folkways, which are absolutely the place to begin in approaching the music of this region. But this particular project was available only in a hard-to-find French edition until this 2008 release on the Drag City label. Hutajulu's voice is angelic: she is not your typical academic-turned-singer, but one of the finest vocalists you will hear on the world music scene. Harahap's accompaniment is a gentle ebb-and-flow in the background, impeccably played and sensitive to the aural atmospherics. This would be an easy recording to miss, even for those who seek out new and exotic disks from afar; but it is worth tracking down.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gil Evans: Bird Feathers

Gil Evans has long had the well-earned reputation as jazz's supreme orchestral colorist. There was, however, a lot more happening in his music than innovative tone colors and impressionistic harmonies. Maybe there is some deeply encoded Kabalistic mystery in the name itself, but it seems as though Gil and Bill Evans share the unique distinction of their music being largely misunderstood by disciples and detractors alike in the same ways and for the same reasons. (This is starting to sound like it belongs in a separate blog, but please bear with me.)

Both Evanses are imitated or dismissed based on listeners' impressions of the surface elements of their music combined with widespread lack of insight into the total package. Regardless of Gil's brilliant orchestral colors or Bill's gorgeous harmonies, the reason they were both great jazz musicians is that they were masters of rhythm. The Evans/LaFaro/Motian trio's greatest innovations were in the areas of rhythmic freedom and interplay. Gil Evans's best-known recorded work involved providing frameworks for soloists, most notably Miles Davis, and the fact is that the hippest voicings and most distinctive tone colors are useless in supporting a jazz solo if the writing lacks rhythmic cohesion and fails to give the soloist some breathing room. Yet to this day many admirers of both men pay "tribute" by producing music that is all about surface beauty and negligent toward rhythmic concerns. (Ah, I feel much better now.)

Oh yeah! The track! "Bird Feathers" is a blues with harmonic substitutions similar to other Parker lines like "Sippin' at Bell's" or "Chi Chi". The arrangement has a feeling of loose spontaneity combined with a unified overall plan, which is an aspect of rhythm on a larger scale. It begins with the melody played with brushes on the snare drum, then by flute and muted trumpet in bare unison and then with a harmonic background. There are fine solos by Adderley, Rehak, Coles and Chambers, with backgrounds and ensemble interludes that sound like they were derived from Parker solos, giving the arrangement a great sense of overall cohesiveness. The trombone section deserves kudos for the fine execution of some tricky soli passages. Blakey's solo choruses are followed by some 4-bar exchanges with the full band. Cannon reenters over a beautifully scored ensemble passage, after which the opening choruses of the theme appear in reverse order, providing an overall arch-like form to the performance.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Avishai Cohen: First Drops

There are few harder things to pull off in jazz than the slow vamp. Unless maybe it is a trio project without a bass. Or perhaps writing an exciting jazz piece based on . . . water. But trumpeter Avishai Cohen attempts all three of these in this opening track from the second installment of The Big Rain. Give Cohen credit for pulling it off. This type of music-making takes extraordinary patience, and the trumpeter demonstrates it here. The performance builds slowly—trumpet doesn't even enter until the 2:30 mark. The piano sets the mood, with percussion providing querulous rejoinders in an austere dialogue. When Cohen descends from above, it is with a poignant dirge. He nudges the accompanists into a loose rhythmic pulse where a wave-like 3/4 begins to flow over the basic duple beat. Changes here happen at their own pace, organic and without ostentation. In the world of fiction, critics talk about the "psychological novel." I'm not sure whether there is such a thing as "psychological jazz," but if there is, this mature, introspective track would be on the playlist.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Henderson: Never Make Your Move Too Soon

Bill Henderson was celebrating his 81st birthday, which had taken place three days before this gig at The Vic in Santa Monica. You might be expecting gentle nostalgia, especially when the CD of the performance is called Beautiful Memory. But Henderson is definitely in the moment, delivering a raucous version of "Never Make Your Move Too Soon" (or just "Never Make Your Move" as it is abbreviated on the CD track listing here). I dug this song when B.B. King recorded it back in the day, and it still sounds very timely now. The rhythm section is keyed up for the birthday bash, and won't allow a senior citizen to relax. But Henderson doesn't seem interested in relaxation. He belts it out to the back row and beyond, and I imagine a few cars on Main Street even honked their horns in appreciation. You can always retire, but if you're Bill Henderson you should never make that move too soon.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Denny Zeitlin: Mr. P.C.

Back on his first leader date in 1964, Denny Zeitlin chose a lengthy minor blues ("Blue Phoenix") as the centerpiece of his trio album. Four decades later, Zeitlin features a different extended minor blues as the launching pad for a trio project. In both instances, Zeitlin incorporates unexpected tempo changes into the performance, juxtaposes ensemble and solo passages, and generally impresses with his chops. This version of "Mr. P.C." starts out at a very fast clip, dangerously close to 400 beats per minute. Williams and Wilson deserve kudos for swinging with gusto at this frantic pace. But they soon fade out, and let Zeitlin loose on a solo excursion. He covers all the bases - from cerebral to sensitive - before letting his bandmates join in on the fun. This artist has never enjoyed widespread fame, but I assure you that other pianists take him quite seriously. I remember a poll that Gene Lees conducted among keyboardists some years back, asking them about the piano peers they admired. Zeitlin finished toward the top of the list - all the more remarkable when you consider that he has spent most of his career in medicine, with jazz as a sideline only.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Denny Zeitlin: Blue Phoenix

Producer John Hammond did so much for the Columbia (now Sony) label, earning them millions by signing acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But when will the label return the favor? It could start by releasing those great jazz piano albums Hammond produced for Columbia, such as Friedrich Gulda's Ineffable (I haven't even seen a copy in 30 years), Adam Makowicz's Adam, and (yes!) the Denny Zeitlin trio dates. Zeitlin's leader debut, Cathexis from 1964, is one of the great jazz albums of the era, and is only available now because a small firm has been able to license the music. The corporate honchos who "own" this "intellectual property" (what a quaint phrase) couldn't care less about making classic jazz music available. I still remember hearing this track on the radio in the mid-1970s when I was a teenager—I immediately drove to a record store to buy a copy. Ah, the LP was already out-of-print and a collector's item. I eventually found Cathexis and all of Zeitlin's other Columbia LPs, although it took several years of hunting and gathering to collect a complete set.

This scintillating track is a good place to start in appreciating the artistry of Dr. Zeitlin (M.D. Johns Hopkins, 1964). Seldom has a jazz pianist done more with a minor blues. Denny plays it slow; Denny plays it fast. He takes it solo; he does it in ensemble. He plays it straight; he changes the chords around. So much here to savor: his walking lines on the piano; his dulcet touch; the thicker-than-a-Manhattan-phone-directory chord voicings; that accelerating passage right after the 10-minute mark where Zeitlin shows that a Steinway can go from zero to 60 in just a few seconds. But my favorite part is the wild "freedom is now" counterpoint that starts infiltrating the music a couple minutes later. Finally we return to the slow minor blues, and it so so so soulful. This is heady stuff indeed. The folks at Columbia may hide this music under a bushel, but no matter where you lock it up, "Blue Phoenix" remains a masterpiece of the jazz piano trio art.

January 05, 2009 · 1 comment

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Keith Jarrett: You Took Advantage of Me

This trio's reputation for delivering well-worn standards with the utmost reverence and professionalism is richly deserved. Sometimes they make some surprising, nifty little moves, such as the delightful ragtime rendering of "Honeysuckle Rose" from My Foolish Heart: Live At Montreux. Here Jarrett recalls another early jazz style, playing unaccompanied stride at the beginning and end of the tune. In between he reverts to his more modern, single-note manner. With Peacock's heavy encouragement, though, the tune swings, and swings hard. His big, bouncy basslines sync up with DeJohnette's hi-hat taps like a well-oiled rhythm machine. As performed here, "You Took Advantage of Me" epitomizes what is great about jazz, spanning eras and resurrecting the best parts from each.

January 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny: April Joy

"April Joy" is notable for Mark Egan's lovely fretless bass work, which dominates the tune's opening strains. This melodious sound would become his trademark. I prefer the Pat Metheny Group's 1977-80 lineup to any subsequent units. This band with Egan, Lyle Mays and Danny Gottlieb achieved a sublime cohesion that few combos ever have. "April Joy" was another fantastic Metheny composition. Aptly titled, the gentleness of the introductory passage does indeed remind you of an April morning. The body of the song is meatier. Part of the secret of Metheny's guitar playing is that he is aggressive without sounding so. His tone and attack emphasize smooth transitions over abrupt changes. Even when there are abrupt changes, such as for the tranquil midsection of this song, they don't slap you in the face. It is all in the transition. Here, the spatial introspective middle section carries through to the end of the piece. To this day when I really want to hear some Metheny, I pull out this Pat Metheny Group CD. It still pleases three decades later, whether it is April or January.

January 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans: What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?

I know I age myself terribly with some of my older recollections. But what can I do? They are part of me and influence how I think. I remember when "What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?" was a big hit. Everyone and his or her brother were singing it. One day on the Mike Douglas TV show a little-known singer came on and said she was going to sing the song. Douglas, normally an affable singer/talk-show host who had perfected the art of reading cue cards, decided to adlib. He told the vocalist that he didn't care for the song! He thought the words, "What are you doing the rest of your life? The North, East, South and West of your life…," were silly. Even as a six-year-old child I was flabbergasted. (Okay, okay, I wasn't six.) I'll never forget the look on that poor singer's face. She then had to turn around and sing the song! Yikes!

Bill Evans didn't have to worry about lyrics for his 1974 live performance of composer Michel Legrand's ballad in Hull, Canada. But lyricism was still at the heart of his performance. His trio was in top form for this outdoor performance held on a cooler than usual night. Bassist Eddie Gomez is particularly impressive in adding shading and melodic flourishes. It isn't the easiest thing to play outdoors and achieve the kind of intimacy heard on this performance. But it is there in every note Evans played.

January 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans: So What

Sometimes I wonder how hip a crowd is. If I were there for this concert, I would have started applauding when bassist Eddie Gomez kicked into the famous opening "So What" riffs that give the song its identity. There was only silence from this audience. From all accounts, it was a very chilly evening. Perhaps that explains things.

Evans, Gomez and drummer Marty Morell do Miles Davis proud with this aggressive rendition. The trio plays a swinging version full of creative improvising from Evans and Gomez. The best musicians play with a flowing ease that makes it all seem so simple. You don't think until afterward what great skill was required to pull off what you just heard. You too get caught in the flow. The finest music happens when you are bowled over without realizing it. The greatest musicians understand that and exploit it.

As this performance ends, the audience finally erupts. I guess they just needed to be warmed up a bit.

January 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Reginald Foresythe: The Melancholy Clown

Britain's Reginald Foresythe is little known today, but there were many musicians of stature who either collaborated with him or admired him during the 1930s and '40s on both sides of the Atlantic. His interesting compositions were played by Earl Hines, Paul Whiteman and Louis Armstrong. These syncopated little miniatures remind us that there were other composers besides Raymond Scott who wrote music to be played by jazz musicians that could not really be considered jazz, albeit they might sometimes feature improvisation.

I guess to illustrate the two conflicting emotions of a melancholy clown, a rhythmic figure is established by the clarinets at the start of the piece, but when the melody comes in two bars later, it is played in another key, creating an unsettling mood. That mood is suddenly broken by both clarinetists trading 8-bar solos, first Goodman, then Mince. (Interestingly, they would also trade solos 25 years later on Arthur Godfrey's radio show when Goodman was a guest and Mince was part of the house band.) The ensemble then takes over again, building on the musical material behind the soloists. Foresythe plays what sounds like a written solo while the bassoon plays figures behind him. Clark also solos, and then after some development, the piece recaps as it began, finally winding down with a strange chord and a last utterance from the bassoon.

January 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Brian Charette: Missing Floor

As everyone knows, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But if we all took that route the world would be a mighty boring place. Organist Brian Charette is one guy who eschews straight lines. Good for us. Charette and drummer Jochen Ruekert have a death grip on the thick groove that supports "Missing Floor." Charette gets it going with a hypnotic walking bassline. Ruekert's brush work is fantastic. At some point he adds a tabla, or facsimile sound. This takes us even farther into the mantra that the duo has developed. We are now firmly stuck in its vortex. I must say that Charette and Ruekert are playing some of the most intriguing and compelling music I have heard of late.

Let's get back to that "straight line" metaphor. Charette plays either the note before the one you'd expect or the one after. It reminds me of my daughter telling me to stay on the same color tile at the mall no matter how far her aging daddy has to jump, or to avoid the cracks in the concrete so as to not to break my mother's back. Charette does the jumping and he plays the cracks. There are no straight lines for him.

January 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Brian Charette: Moontrane

Sometimes a composition is so compelling you can never seem to hear a bad version of it. Thus far that has been true for me when it comes to Woody Shaw's "The Moontrane." I have heard this tune in all sorts of instrumental configurations. I have listened to both Woody Shaw and Dexter Gordon play it. I have even heard them play it together. But my two favorite interpretations are by B-3 organists. Larry Young's version on Unity is the benchmark. Granted, it didn't hurt to have the song's composer on trumpet, Joe Henderson on sax and Elvin Jones on drums! Still, the thrust of the melody came from Young. To my ears the organ gave "The Moontrane" more of a solid groove than the trumpet or saxophone did. Alongside Young's performance now stands Brian Charette's.

This "Moontrane" is short and stripped down. (Even its song title is truncated, with "The" falling through Charette's Missing Floor.) By simplifying the instrumentation to just himself on organ and Jochen Ruekert on drums, Charette gives the composition more room to breathe. This duo swings like hell. Your head will be involuntarily nodding in approval upon your first listen. Charette is not Larry Young. He makes his own way, as evidenced by the rest of this CD's wildly disparate cuts. Even so, he listened to Larry Young. And he knows that Young was a real killer on this number. Charette took a risk covering it, but his spare yet inventive approach paid off. You pay homage to your influences by sharing their taste but not their style.

January 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento: San Vicente

This song, from the outstanding Miltons album, opens with Nascimento singing plaintively over a rubato guitar accompaniment, the music matching the dreamlike ambiance of the lyrics. Coração Americano, acordei de um sonho estranho. That gently tinkling piano in the background is Herbie Hancock. In the second chorus the tempo solidifies, and Hancock no longer accompanies but pushes the rhythm. Nascimento responds by raising the intensity of his vocal. At the 3-minute mark, the song seems to be coming to a gentle conclusion on one of those beautiful arcing vocals in the stratosphere that Nascimento delivers so well. But this is only an April-in-Paris fake-out. After a brief pause, the piano-guitar vamp returns, then the energy level kicks up into high, high, high gear. Hancock delivers one of the most spirited solos of his career, a real gem. There are so many aspects to this pianist that it's easy to forget at how good Herbie is at delivering an old-fashioned groove. Remember "Watermelon Man" and "Cantaloupe Island"? Well, this is similar, though less R&B-ish and more diatonic, but above all more Brazilian in feeling . . . yet still intoxicatingly intense. This sounds like a Herbie Hancock who grew up in Minas Gerais instead of Chicago. There is no reprise of the vocal, but that was a wise decision. After all, how could you top such a piano outing? This one will hit you like the third caipirinha on an empty stomach.

January 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Maria Kannegaard: Bits

This top-notch European release is now available in the U.S. at a reasonable price. Jazz gods be praised! Maria Kannegaard is a focused and creative pianist who deserves a wide hearing. "Bits" is appropriately named. It starts in a pointillistic mood, with bits of piano shrapnel flying in various directions, while the arco bass lurches back and forth trying to avoid a direct hit. Midway through the performance, Kannegaard toys with a repetitive vamp, only to subvert it with sudden outbursts of . . . silence. The conclusion is all sunlight and rapture, as the pianist lets loose rich tremolos and orchestral colors. At no point does she rely on the clichéd or familiar. So much here is unexpected, yet it all feels so right. Don't be put off by the strange CD cover—which makes the trio look like a crazed group of assembly-line workers. This is some deep jazz indeed.

January 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Barney Kessel: Viva el Toro!

The late-'50s craze for jazz versions of Broadway and television shows scored hits (several fine Porgy and Bess albums; the jazz-paced Peter Gunn and Staccato private-eye TV series) and silly misses (Victory at Sea? The Sound of Music?). One odd release had no contemporaneous referent, but was great fun nonetheless: Bizet's beloved opera Carmen as jauntily reshaped by Barney Kessel, and played by the guitarist, Andre Previn and Shelly Manne (all popular Contemporary Records regulars) plus a smattering of saxes, brass, woodwinds and others.

The album's cartoon cover of a mean-looking yet comical bull (a parody, rose-in-his-teeth Ferdinand looming over Kessel's abandoned specs) warned of the album's good-humored intentions, as did the very first cut, "Swingin' the Toreador," with reeds and ready guitar atop Joe Mondragon's walking bass. But hipper and cooler (yes! the West Coast Fifties!) is the track "Viva el Toro!" merrily reworking Bizet's "March of the Toreadors." The ensemble steps out in a sprightly non-march, letting the lightly Latin beat remind us of the familiar tune, and then sideslips into a cowbell-driven Afro-Cuban montuno, accented by the counterpoint of Herb Geller's alto, Ray Linn's trumpet and Harry Betts's trombone – the soloists bobbing and weaving in and out and over each other, Africa to Andalucia, Havana to Hollywood.

Latin Jass: in the parlance of those cheerier times, not profound maybe, but still a gas.

January 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paco De Lucia: Chiquito

"Chiquito," Paco De Lucia's tribute to Chick Corea, first appeared on The Guitar Trio's Passion, Grace and Fire. De Lucia, Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin burned on that version. This performance also kills but in a different way. The lead melody is played by flutist Jorge Pardo. His notes flutter into the French air giving the tune's melody a better chance to shine than on the earlier interpretation, which was more rhythmic in nature. Soon De Lucia and Ramon DeAlgeciras are strumming their asses off. It is a challenge for your listening to keep up. The crowd reacts with a yelled-out passion at each dramatic turn. Eventually the breakneck Spanish rhythms propel the music into the olésphere. This live recording is so "alive" that you feel you are there cheering the brilliance on. I thank my stars for the day flamenco giant Paco De Lucia got interested in jazz.

January 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jim Beard: Holodeck Waltz

I have been familiar with keyboardist Jim Beard for over 20 years. He is a wonderful musician and composer. For his own sake, I wish he had a better stage presence. He sometimes seems to disappear. Musically speaking, though, he must be held in the highest esteem by his contemporaries. He is always called on by the best, and doesn't seem to have any problem attracting the best for his own projects. The players present on this cut from his Song of the Sun album reflect his standing.

A "holodeck," as best as I can figure, refers to the virtual reality deck that featured interactive gaming and exercising on the spacecrafts and space stations in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series (1987-1994). Isn't it amazing that such concepts are now already being sold as toys for kids? Assuming my interpretation is correct, it is no surprise that Wayne Shorter is one of Beard's guest stars. That comment is meant in a good-natured way. I often see other musicians make such kidding jibes about Shorter. (Wink, wink.)

"Holodeck Waltz" is a bit spacey. Its introduction is right out of the Weather Report style book. (At some point I am going to have to realize that many of the Weather Report influences I cite in reviews are really Wayne Shorter influences!) This tune was written as a showcase for Shorter. He playfully toys with the main melody in counter to Beard's synthesizer sing-songy arpeggios. This creates a calliope effect that is quite pleasing and interesting. It is one of those songs that you want to replay just to listen to a single instrument over again. Us jazz fans are like that. How can we not be when you have Jim Beard, Wayne Shorter, Dennis Chambers, Don Alias et al. to study more closely?

January 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jim Beard: Song of the Sun

I am cutting keyboardist Jim Beard some slack in this review. "Song of the Sun" has a fun melody and is played to the hilt by very talented musicians. But about 90% of the tune is Smooth Jazz. (Where is the Ipecac when you need it?) The saving grace is that composer Beard amps-up the dramatics as the tune closes out. That calls for electric guitarist Jon Herington to wail away. You'd never hear this solo on Smooth Jazz radio! (Hey, I found the Ipecac!) The whole thing reminds me of when boxers Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard would wait until the last 30 seconds of a round to throw about a hundred punches to steal the round. It works here, too. Under the "10-Point Must System" Beard loses six rounds 10-8 and two rounds 10-9. He wins the final two rounds 10-2. The decision goes in Beard's favor 86 to 84. But he'd better not box – I mean, play – in front of less forgiving judges for a while.

January 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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World Saxophone Quartet: Sweet D

The World Saxophone Quartet's brief association with Elektra/Nonesuch in the late 1980s resulted in some the group's most polished work, not the least attractive of which is Dances and Ballads, the album from whence this track comes. The record's title is descriptive of its content: all the tunes are either groove- or ballad-oriented, in varying degrees. "Sweet D" belongs to the dance half of that musical dyad.

Written by the late Julius Hemphill—arguably the group's most ambitious composer—the tune is built on oddly syncopated vamps played by the tenor and bari. Over this, the altos blow a long, abstract and funky harmonized melody, which leads into a collective improvisation. The WSQ's ability to sustain defined individual ensemble roles in the transition from a composed to an improvised section is why such extemporaneous episodes maintain as much coherence as they do. Bari saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett is especially adept at this. He eases gradually into the improvisation; his part morphs into something that maintains the character of the composed bassline, yet never strays so far from the groove that the feel is lost. Tenor saxophonist David Murray bends the funk without breaking it, as well, while the altos venture farther afield in terms of rhythm and melody.

The sound quality has a rather remote air, as if the microphones were set up some distance from the horns. This helps give it a sonic gloss somewhat characteristic of a classical recording, which complements the band's roughly hewn aesthetic surprisingly well. Here, as with most of the original World Saxophone Quartet's oeuvre, the amalgam of intellect and earthiness results in superb music.

January 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Hot Club of San Francisco: Vendredi 13

Sometimes it's reassuring just to know there are artists out there who not only have the wisdom to avoid reinventing the wheel, but are willing to keep the wheel well oiled and firmly on the road. Enthusiasts of the Hot Club Swing Revival will be happy to know that, with this take on the Reinhardt classic "Vendredi 13" (Friday the Thirteenth), the prolific Hot Club of San Francisco has all the wheels on the Django wagon rolling at a comfortable pace.

After a solid, gutbucket intro by guest pianist Jeffrey Kahane, the Quintette settles into a swinging pompe propelling the spirited violin of Evan Price, one of the West Coast's top Gypsy jazz violinists. Guitarist Paul Mehling follows with crisp, flowing lines sounding fresh and spontaneous, reminding us why the Selmer- style acoustic guitar is such a guilty pleasure to hear. As any jazz guitarist making the stylistic transition from mainstream to jazz Manouche will tell you, this is easier to accomplish in theory than in practice.

A word of caution may be in order regarding the album as a whole: bebop enthusiasts will not find much familiar ground in this ambitious recording. But those with a sense of history will recognize the connection between modern jazz and impressionist music. In keeping with the album's theme, the addition of piano on "Vendredi 13" is a nod to Maurice Ravel. According to the Bohemian Maestro liner notes, the famed composer enjoyed listening to and occasionally sat in as pianist with Reinhardt and his Quintette du Hot Club de France. Lovers of the art of jazz who approach this music with an open mind may be gratified to rediscover some valuable and sometimes forgotten roots.

January 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Drew Gress: Chevelle

Drew Gress is a highly intelligent composer, and it shows on "Chevelle." The harmonic line and rhythm, pinned down solidly by Gress, Taborn and Rainey, takes a jagged path but always reaches its destination. Even Alessi's and Berne's short horn chart zigs and zags around that elusive melody. In the midst of Gress's controlled storm of sounds are Taborn's calm, minimal chords that balance out of the rest of the instruments. As Gress and Alessi solo, the pianist chooses his spots carefully, giving the horn men space to express themselves effectively. About five minutes in, the choppy groove gives way to an extended free-flowing coda. It's in essence the same motif, but slowed down and given a slightly exotic flavor with discreet electronic washes. "Chevelle" revels in changing and conflicting moods that Drew Gress has deftly orchestrated.

January 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Brad Shepik: Blindspot

Tiny drips of attackless guitar, trumpet phrases, hi-hat clicks and organ blurts reverberate against the wall. It seems that "Blindspot" is destined to be an all-ambient suite. But a circular figure pops out of Brad Shepik's guitar, inspiring the rest of the band to follow suit. With two-thirds of the timeline left, the song becomes instead a burning fusion workout that uses that initial arpeggio as fuel. The heat really gets turned up during the Shepik/Alessi/Versace guitar/trumpet/organ solo passages. All players provide angular and fast-paced improvisations that build on each other. Subsequent solo turns really bring it. By the time the head was revisited, I was sweating!

January 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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The October Trio & Brad Turner: Bird Colony

In what might seem like a nod to the early music of Ornette Coleman, The October Trio draws out a musical line of logic by using reaction and interplay as a building block. Brad Turner starts things off with a wandering trumpet line that is commented on by Evan Arntzen's saxophone. Momentum is built underneath by the rhythm section as the horns play off each other's ideas in a more insistent fashion. With a little over half a minute to go, the tempo drops off as trumpet, sax and bass engage in a mournful call & response. Really great stuff.

January 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Marco Benevento: Friends

To be honest, I was never a big fan of Led Zeppelin III back in the day. I wanted all of my music to sound like a freight train running directly over my head. What's with all this acoustic nonsense? Well, it took me years to really appreciate the fact that Page and Plant were showing even more of their roots, expanding beyond the blues to English folk music. What's interesting about Marco Benevento's cover of "Friends" is that it deals with both the acoustic elements (the off-kilter opening riff, presented on the original with acoustic guitar) and the bombast that was sure to follow: the ominous Mellotron background and especially Robert Plant's shrieking voice. In an odd happenstance, Benevento's late-song piano frenzy ends up reminding me of The Who's "Quadrophenia."

January 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Matthew Shipp: Quantum Waves

Matthew Shipp's piano and Joe Morris's bass fall uphill, with Shipp's busted series of lines setting the tone. Mid-composition, the piano sits on a single, ominous note that ends up being a resting point as the general upward motion continues. This note-of-doom model is reprised as the bass skitters and shifts direction. Hats off to Joe Morris here, as his use of bowed bass is highly effective, producing lines that neatly extend Shipp's pianistic mode of thought.

January 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jim Hall & Bill Frisell: Migration

It's been written that if Bill Frisell were to play without his electronic effects, he would sound like Jim Hall. It's an interesting notion, but I'm glad it hasn't been followed for Hemispheres. This is a dream duo pitting jazz guitar sonic extremes: pure tone (Hall) vs. well, whatever the heck it is that Frisell does. On "Migration," Frisell uses his guitar wizardry to create a musical foundation for Hall's improvisations. The results are pretty spectacular as Hall, no stranger to angularity, toys with phrasing that brings in elements of blues as well as atonality. At a few points, the music has an almost psychedelic quality, with Frisell bending the sonic bed in a funhouse-mirror kind of way. Highly recommended.

January 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Clayton Bros.: Where Is Love?

Part of me, the part that detests musicals, says that there's just no way I should be enjoying this tune. However, the more rational side of me knows that a great melody is just that. By itself, this wouldn't necessarily get me all the way there. I mean, we wouldn't be here if Kenny G covered this tune. (Leonard Nimoy did a version, which isn't really relevant but sure is funny.) No, the key is Jeff Clayton's gorgeous run through this classic Lionel Bart melody. Even better is an arrangement that bookends Jeff's saxophone with John Clayton's bowed bass and Gerald Clayton's piano. My inner show-tune snob has been won over.

January 01, 2009 · 1 comment

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Lisa Hearns: Easy Living

Being a guitar nut, I find myself going back & forth on this: is it Lisa Hearns's voice, full of expressive inner detail and coy vibrato? Or did the name Howard Alden first attract my attention? Well, Alden does deliver a very fine solo, but Hearns's voice finally drew me in. There are so many female jazz vocalists out there, all vying to be heard above the long shadow projected by the likes of Abbey Lincoln, Ella, and Billie Holiday, that a singer must have that kernel of distinction. Hearns provides this with phrasing that reminds my ear of Billie with the modern spin of a Katherine Whalen. OK ... and Howard Alden doesn't hurt either.

January 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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