Ray Brown Trio: F.S.R.

“F.S.R.” was one of the Ray Brown Trio’s most popular songs. The story is: It was a Milt Jackson record for Pablo called A London Bridge with Monty Alexander, Ray, and Mickey Roker, and they were recording “Doxy.” Ray, of course, always in arranging mode, came up with a shout chorus to play after the solos. Apparently, Ray and all of the guys liked the shout chorus so much they said, “Well, why play ‘Doxy’? Let’s just make the shout chorus the actual chorus.” Allegedly, Ray said, “Yeah, that’s right. F— Sonny Rollins.” So that’s where “FSR" came from. So this is Ray’s take on “Doxy.”

Once he made that transition as the teacher, always hiring guys like Keezer and Benny Green and Larry Fuller, and Kareem Riggins and Greg Hutchinson and George Fludas, it was great to hear Ray keep these cats on their toes---almost like Betty Carter and Art Blakey did. These guys would be sweating hard. They had that look on their face, like “I’d really better come through, or I’m gonna be flat on my ass.” This is a really good example of Ray just in the pocket with these young cats for a good 7 to 8 minutes, walking his ass off. It was beautiful to hear them pushing Ray, and Ray pushing them back, and this real hard-core swinging tension in the middle of it all.

October 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joey DeFrancesco: Fly Me to the Moon

I can appreciate the nuances of chamber jazz or Third Stream experimentation even when the music is recorded in the sterile solitude of the studio. But the organ trio always sounds best in a live setting. Maybe a scientist will someday discover that those Hammond drawbars have a hidden connection to the central nervous system, thus drawing on the collective energies of the audience. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy those memorable live recordings of the great organists of jazz past. On the current roster, Joey DeFrancesco holds pride of place, and establishes his credentials again on this live recording made in March 2009. As on those historic live albums by Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and other pioneering organ donors to our collective welfare, the fans make their presence felt on this track. One shouts out during the intro, and even while he is digging into the keys DeFrancesco acknowledges his father in the audience, Papa John DeFrancesco—an organist himself—who requested "Fly Me to the Moon." Papa can be proud. DeFrancesco pushes the groove even while displacing the underlying 6/8, along the way sneaking in "Everything's Coming Up Roses" as a bouquet for dear old dad. Even so, Paul Bollenback's guitar solo is the highlight for me here. When the band falls out, his conception goes so far beyond the conventional that you might think that he is moving to another song entirely. When he settles back into the changes, our trip to the moon resumes. I hope they have room on the capsule for the Hammond organ, just in case they have jazz clubs and live recordings up there.

October 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ike Sturm: Kyrie

For a music so closely associated with vice, from Storyville to the speakeasies and beyond, jazz has developed a surprisingly robust tradition of sacred music. Artists as diverse as Duke Ellington and Vince Guaraldi have recorded sacred concerts; both Dave Brubeck and Mary Lou Williams composed extended liturgical works after their conversion to Catholicism; and, in fact, many of the finest jazz performers of the modern era—John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett's American quartet come to mind—manage to evoke a quasi-ritualistic spirituality in the midst of purely secular outings.

Ike Sturm works within this niche tradition, and matches up a top drawer jazz combo with strings and choir for a full mass, from Kyrie to closing hymn, in a manner that avoids the typical pitfalls of the genre. The most common shortcoming of such works, in my experience, is that the jazz elements are so chastened by the liturgical framework that they lose their bearings. The resulting work runs the risk of undermining the potent intentionality we associate with great jazz.

Sturm proceeds with a different game plan here, however, and his jazz combo successfully maintains its own personality, while situated in the midst of strings and voices that handle the heavy metaphysical lifting. The combination is effective on the "Kyrie," the only element of the liturgy sung in Greek, especially with the soulful opening passage and the swirling coda. In these final moments, fervent jazz arises unexpectedly from the sacred mists and shows us how this dialogue is supposed to work. This is a daring and heartfelt work, and it's a shame that no label is behind it, and (as of this writing) the CD is not even available on Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble's website.

October 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Hank Jones & Oliver Jones: What Am I Here For?

I am just pleased that the label didn't go for a cornier joke in the title. Have You Met Mr. Jones? Me and Mr. Jones? Keeping Up with the Joneses? After all, these are serious artists and among the eldest of the elder statesmen, the venerable Hank, a month shy of his 90th birthday when he made this recording, and the relative youngster Oliver, a spry 74-years-old at the time. The newcomer here is the song, a fine Ellington composition from his great early 1940s band which deserves to be heard more often. Matching up two jazz pianists is not always a smart idea. Twenty fingers can stir up plenty of commotion, and create murky new chord voicings that, like the sweet melodies in Keats's poem, are better left unheard. But when two gentlemen of the keys with such taste meet up, no clash and clang disrupts the proceedings. The Montreal native Oliver is up first here, followed by Detroit's finest Hank, and if there is any competition here, it is to see who can swing most effectively with the rhythm section. The Canadian entry is a bit more forceful, while the Motor Town alternative shines with a sweet touch. Call it a dead heat, and put it on a second time. What else are we here for?

October 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Loren Stillman: Man of Mystery

In the hands of Loren Stillman, jazz is an austere art. His music is purged of licks and thrives in a funk-free zone. Melodic lines from various members of the band meet and participate in an uneasy dance, but never embrace. Phrases are angular and prefer to ask questions rather than resolve them. Instead of navigating through chord changes, the band delivers a shifting array of textures. The musicians sometimes hint coyly at a pulse, but like a prim first date, won't let you feel it for a more than a moment. Stillman doesn't look to his bandmates for support, but rather as a maze through which he works his own intricate path. His labyrinthine solo is the highlight here. No, you won't hear this music on the smooth jazz station, and maybe not on any radio station at all. But Stillman has his own voice on the alto, and in an era of tribute albums and imitators, his daring attitudes are a brisk rebuttal to the status quo.

October 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Samuel Blaser: Red Hook

It’s free and a little out there, but “Red Hook” does have a definable head that quickly afterwards probes deeply into the harmonic possibilities introduced by the dissonant theme. Morgan suggests the main lines before stating them outright in his solo, and then Blaser slows down the proceedings to ruminate for a while. The oddity---and indeed, the special allure of this song---is derived from Neufeld; juxtaposing his modern rock-ish guitar against sixties “new thing” jazz creates a tonal footprint like no other. He spars with Blaser and prod Sorey, using the forceful, amped sound of his guitar as an instigator as much as he does with his phrasing.

After a sudden signal by the leader, the wickedly tricky theme is played faster to take the song out. “Red Hook” is undeniably avant garde, but there’s as much purpose to it if not more than there is to be found in traditional hard bop.

October 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Egberto Gismonti: Sertões Veredas

When jazz musicians compose orchestral works, so many things can go wrong. Often the artist's distinctive personality disappears in the translation into complex scores; or the influence of models from classical music overwhelms the jazz ingredients; or—perhaps the most common problem—the rhythmic vitality, so essential to jazz music, is missing in action, either because it never made its way into the notation or due to the inherent difficulty in getting symphonic players to assimilate a groove outside their previous experience. "Symphonic jazz" may not be a oxymoron, but its success stories are as rare as steak tartare.

But Egberto Gismonti's Sertões Veredas avoids the pitfalls, and emerges as a masterpiece of classical-jazz cross-fertilization. I'm not sure if this has any connection to Gismonti's subtitle—a "Tribute to Miscegenation"—but clearly the music itself has a lineage that spans several continents. This artist has shown his versatility in past outings, and I still can't decide whether I admire Gismonti more as a guitarist or as a pianist. With both instruments, he has developed an exciting, highly personal style—furthered by his exceptional skills as a composer. His talents are equally evident in this massive work, comprising seven movements and some seventy minutes of music. It is to Gismonti's credit that he has been able to translate so much of the creativity and visceral energy of his solo and combo jazz performances into this string orchestra work, where he sits on the sidelines, not even showing up as guest soloist or conductor. The mood shifts, the textures, the counterpoint . . . indeed, the sheer confidence and scope of this piece demand respect.

Even so, it will be hard for fans to "place" this work in the context of a career that is already so broad. I sometimes wonder why Gismonti's name doesn't show up more prominently in the various polls and nominee lists when awards are distributed. Certainly his versatility, which refuses to be pinned down to a single instrument or style, contributes to this sad state of affairs. Sertões Veredas will not make it any easier for those who need a pigeonhole in order to appreciate an artist. Yet for those who value music for its vitality and not its kowtowing to the accepted categories, the arrival of this recording is an event to celebrate.

October 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jon Irabagon: January Dream

Did you ever have to make up your mind? asks an old rock song. For many jazz musicians, the answer is a resolute no. Jon Irabagon, who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2008, is still in the early stages of his career, but he is already hard to pin down. His last release excited the influential clique who are convinced that progressive jazz must charge into the future imitating models from fifty years ago. For my part, I have a hard time gorking the concept that the future was then—there must be some Einsteinian time-space angle on it beyond my grasp—but I do relate to the grooving, straightahead swing of Irabagon's new project The Observer. "January Dream," the opening track, is old school, with its slow ramble on Blue Note-ish changes in Rudy's star chamber. The rhythm section is made up of the same guys Stan Getz was gigging with a quarter of a century ago, and though they might be the last folks you would expect to see along with Irabagon, they play admirably. The saxophonist for his part delivers his phrases with conviction and a very big sound—which I like, but I can hardly believe that this is the same horn player I heard back in his Charles Barkley days. In short, I am ready to buy in to this version of Mr. Irabagon, but I have no confidence that his next appearance will bear any resemblance to the artist presented here. Did you ever have to finally decide?

October 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joel Frahm: Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most

Archie Shepp once said "Ballads are the biggest challenge. You can hear every minute of every hour of every year a guy has put in on his horn with a ballad." If that is the case, Joel Frahm has put in plenty of quality time on his horn. His stunning version of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" is a highlight of his CD, We Used To Dance. Frahm plays the entire song--verse, tag and all--and he has the good sense to let the song stand by itself. The flourishes and interpretive devices are kept to a minimum, but not so much that Frahm's identity is lost in the process. The rhythm section here--Kenny Barron (piano), Rufus Reid (bass) and Victor Lewis (drums)--played together with Stan Getz, and while Frahm's lyric improvisation features Getzian ideas, his beefier tenor sound makes the solo his own unique interpretation. The opening of his improvisation is very well-constructed with each of his first three phrases expanding and developing on the last. It is an excellent example of a player literally composing on the spot. Kenny Barron provides a sparkling piano solo which leads back to the tune. In the final section of the tag, Reid and Lewis (who had provided excellent support throughout) drop out, and Frahm and Barron perform a touching reading of the final bars. Such a wonderful interpretation leaves me wanting more. Let's hope that a tasteful all-ballads album might be in Frahm's future plans.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Cunliffe: Yearnin'

The Blues And The Abstract Truth, take 2 is pianist Bill Cunliffe's tribute to the classic jazz album by Oliver Nelson. Less remake and more re-examination, Cunliffe's arrangements of Nelson's compositions are faithful to the originals while allowing Cunliffe to sound his own voice. "Yearnin'" might be the furthest diversion from Nelson's arrangement, in its updating of the harmonic language and in the lead soprano sax of Bob Sheppard. Sheppard is also heard soloing on tenor sax right after the head, so either he made a lightning-quick change of horns or the solo was dubbed in later. Sheppard's tenor sound has a hollow sound that works well within the blues context. He shows great control of the horn and a wealth of ideas. Terell Stafford is next and his trumpet style bears more than a passing resemblance to Nelson's original trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard. Stafford plays a fiery solo that ranges all over the horn, and like another of his idols, Clifford Brown, Stafford's sound stays big and full no matter how high in the stratosphere he goes. Cunliffe's short piano solo is exceptionally well-crafted, using single lines throughout, with intriguing note choices at the beginning and deft rhythmic displacement at its peak. Mark Ferber uses mallets on tom-toms to bring back the original misterioso mood. While it would be impossible to top the original album, Cunliffe's tribute enhances the original with fresh approaches to these classic tunes.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Max Roach: For Big Sid

“For Big Sid” is one of three drum solos that Max recorded on Drums Unlimited, along with “The Drum Also Waltzes” and the title track. He had previously referenced that composition quite a bit, but to my knowledge, this was the first time it was released. Just the fact that he had those drum solos on the album, and the way he presented them, seems pretty revolutionary to me. I think it’s one of the great albums in the history of jazz music, not only for interspersing the solos between the other songs, but also the quality of those tunes, such as “Nommo.” It’s what he played, how he played it. In this music, you always find historical connections and threads, and even though Max was always forward-thinking, he also referenced the past. This is a perfect example. “For Big Sid” references the tune “Mop, Mop,” which Kenny Clarke developed, and is also a direct reference to Sid Catlett, who recorded that tune with Art Tatum in 1943. It’s like he’s killing two birds with one stone.

Call-and-response is always present in Max’s approach to soloing as well as comping. Here it’s like he’s playing a melody and comping for himself—all of it happens at the same time. It’s a supreme example of theme-and-variation, where he initiates a theme, and answers himself. He continues that pattern all throughout the piece. He takes a motif, flips it around, inverts it, elongates it. Same initial phrase, but it gets longer—different dynamics and so on. Max always said that he didn’t really play melody, that he played form and structure and shape. He meant that within the course of the framework of the song, the harmony and so forth, he was creating those shapes and following the form. But he always did it so cogently, with great clarity. This is a perfect example of that quality.

What he played was individual to who he was, and how he synthesized all of his experiences. He preached that mantra, but he also followed it. He referenced numerous sources—from the Caribbean and Africa, from the church, from Western Classical, rudimental solos, and Wilcoxsen. All of that is expressed when he played, and it’s certainly evident here. You see his technical virtuosity, but you also see how he uses space. It’s as though the things he doesn't play is just as important as what he does. Regardless of what he played, he always used that call-and-response---and there’s so much call-and-response from phrase to phrase within the context of this solo in the way he builds it and creates the architecture, and also in the tones he uses to express it. Sometimes Max goes from left to right, right to left, and then he comes out from another angle. It’s almost looking in a kaleidoscope. You see the shape, then you twist it, which changes that shape. It’s coming from the last one, but it’s still related to what came before it. All his stuff is related to what comes before, and then he recapitulates to the beginning.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Max Roach-Anthony Braxton: Tropical Forest

My younger brother is like a renaissance man; he does all kinds of things. A few years ago, some of his friends would come by our studio and hang out, playing chess, and they’d put on this record. These people were in their early twenties, they weren’t musicians, though some of them were dancers, and they really got into the music. I found that very interesting. This date is a set of extemporaneous compositions. They’re just hitting. But man, these people played this thing over and over again. It spoke to them in a very powerful way. So I guess music can transcend boundaries of the acceptable or the unacceptable, or what people call “avant-garde” or “free.” This is a jewel right here!

It’s all beautiful to me, but on this particular cut what strikes me is that Braxton is playing clarinet, and Max is only playing the hi-hat and also a pitch-bending floor-tom, almost reminiscent of the tympany. Max wasn’t afraid to take chances. I don’t know anybody else who had that on their set—the pitch-bending floor tom with the tympany-like pedal. This piece sounds like, I would think, cut-and-splice—they went in and hit for however long a period of time, and took what they liked. “Ok, this is kind of a song form; let’s deal with this one right here.” This one starts out like that. Max initiates a basic phrase on the hi-hat, Braxton comes in and starts responding to that, they’re still having a conversation, and then Max opens up a little bit to the cymbals, and then he goes to the floor tom and alternates between the floor tom and the hi-hat. That’s it. He doesn’t touch any other part of the set for a little over five minutes. But he creates such a wonderful setting.

In a lot of Max’s tunes, the title creates a certain image, and I wondered why they called this “Tropical Forest.” But then I realized that Braxton sounds almost reminiscent of those crying birds, like a toucan. I started seeing a rainforest setting—tropical colors, yellows and oranges.

This made about as powerful an impression on me as when I heard Roy Haynes play “Subterfuge” on Andrew Hill’s Black Fire. Roy just plays hi-hat the whole track, but still projects the force and drive as if he was playing the ride cymbal. Just that same phrase. I got the same feeling when I heard this track. Sonically, it’s almost a three-part structure, but they transmitted the feeling so effectively. That’s one I’m going to have to go back and revisit a lot.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Max Roach-Hassan Ibn Ali: Din-Ka Street

Jason Moran brought The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan to my attention, and it really speaks to me---one of my favorite records, period. The whole record is a departure from traditional piano trio playing I’ve heard up to late 1964, when that was recorded. It isn’t the piano player solos, and then the drummer and bass player are in support mode, like the Oscar Peterson Trio, or any other trio. Everybody is soloing almost at the same time, or collectively, in the sense of New Orleans collective improvisation. That’s the historical reference I draw from it. Max never just plays the swing pattern and comps for Hassan while he takes a solo. They’re always back and forth, a true conversation. Everybody has individual responsibility as to what’s going on.

The tune starts with an arco bass thing at the beginning, he plays the melody, then a solo section. There’s no real TING, TING-TA-DING, TING-TA-DING swing going on through it. It’s referenced, it’s intimated, but it’s not really that. Max isn’t really playing the hi-hat on 2 and 4 either. There’s no regimented feel throughout the course of the piece. The rhythm they're all using is pretty advanced. Hassan is playing phrases in 5 and in 7, and they’re all playing over the bar, even on the trading. It's all right on the edge. All of them are virtuosos, but they’re taking it to the apex in terms of creativity within the framework of a trio. Even Elvin Jones, as influential as he was in terms of phrasing, generally rooted everything with a 2-and-4 thing on the hi-hat. Max abandoned that in certain situations---this, as you can clearly hear, was one of them. He told me there were certain techniques you could use to play that way and still maintain the groove—the groove isn’t abandoned, but he’s still not playing 2 and 4 on the hi-hat. It’s more of a dancing feel. I’ve heard older musicians say that to drummers and to bass players, like, “Yeah, ok, we’re walking, but I want you to dance.” So everyone in the group has more freedom in approaching the rhythm.

Max also makes some ride cymbal distinctions on this tune which reference back to Kenny Clarke. In terms of the music’s evolution, I always think of Papa Jo Jones establishing that ride cymbal pattern, and then Kenny Clarke embellishing on that with techniques like “dropping bombs,” syncopating more between the bass drum and the snare drum, and also varying the ride cymbal pattern, using the ride cymbal more in terms of accents—meaning not playing four-on-the-floor all the time. On this particular cut, as on the whole recording, Max takes these ideas to another level in the phrases he’s playing in conjunction with what Hassan and Dr. Davis are playing, in the ride cymbal pattern associated with the omission of the 2-and-4 on the hi-hat. Everybody is listening hard, too, responding and reacting to each other. It’s not like anybody is just doing their own thing. There’s a true synergy. No automatic pilot.

Max changes the texture when the bass solo occurs by switching to the brushes. That takes the flow from a more interactive quality to just straight quarter notes, and changes the dynamic of the piece—more like a movement in a symphony. They’re constructing the music in a way that goes out of the framework of the regular song. From the bass solo in the introduction, to the piano rubato, to the tune, then back to the bass solo—the form is pointing forward, elongating. It’s different than the regular 32-bar or 12-bar blues that some people associate with “jazz music.”

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Max Roach-Abbey Lincoln: Triptych: Prayer / Protest / Peace

First and foremost, this recording was really important because of its social implications. The liner notes begin with an A. Philip Randolph quote”: “A revolution is unfurling—America’s unfinished revolution. Masses of Negroes are marching onto the stage of history and demanding their freedom now.” That’s where I assume Max copped the title, which was very powerful and definitely indicative of what was happening in the country in 1960. The Civil Rights Act wouldn’t be signed until 1964. There was a long way to go. Black people in America were living under very severe conditions, and Max addressed that in the music.

It’s a powerful piece. It’s a duo between Abbey and Max, presented in three parts. Max did a lot of duo work during the course of his career, which speaks to his musical sensitivity, because in every situation, even though he plays some similar language, he presents it differently—and it always seems so fresh and creative. The other day [pianist] Connie Crothers told me they had done a recording on which, he told her, he played some things on brushes that he had never played before. So he was always in tune, always searching for something outside his usual language. We all have language that’s usual to us. I use certain words and phrases more often than others. It’s the same with music. Even a genius and virtuoso such as Max Roach always referenced certain phrases—you can hear them on “Triptych.”

“The Freedom Now Suite,” was a collaborative piece by Max and Oscar Brown, Jr., but “Triptych” is just a duo, which it seems like an extemporaneous composition in three parts. The first part is “Prayer,’ which is the cry of an oppressed people. He starts with a simple phrase. That call-and-response, that antiphony, is always present in his playing. He starts, Abbey is singing, like a prayer, and then the protest emerges from that, where she’s screaming and yelling, and Max is rumbling. There is a definite sense of anger, but there’s also, especially in Max’s playing, a sense of organization. Taking it out of the musical realm and applying it to the social: People had been killed and mistreated for hundreds of years, so there was tremendous anger and resentment, but organization was essential to achieve the goal. I received that message especially in this part, because even though Max is playing aggressively and intensely, it's intense, it's big, but there is definitely a logic—he conveys the message. Abbey as well.

The last part is in 5/4. But Max also references that “Drum Also Waltzes” motif in this section of “Triptych.”

So the image that was created with this song was powerful and pretty clear. “Triptych” is a piece of art that has three panels, usually the middle one being the larger. That definition doesn’t necessarily apply to this piece; the movements all seem almost equal in length. But I got a very clear visual image from it. Not too long after Miles passed, in late ‘91 or early ‘92, Max organized a memorial for Miles at the Cathedral of St. John’s The Divine. Judith Jameson was there, Maya Angelou, different people, and there was some dancing going on. I drove up to the church with him, and we were listening to “Bitches Brew” in the car. He went, “oh, man, I can see these evil-assed women brewing some shit.” He was hearing the music and he was relating it directly to the title. He said, “I can see them stirring up some brew to fuck up some cat.” He said it sounds like that.

This has the same effect. I got a very clear picture from “Triptych,” referencing clearly what was going on at that time in America. Max had a lot of problems getting work during this period, from making his political statements. He said a lot of times he went somewhere, and they’d say, “I love this music, but can you just not say anything about this?” He’d say, “No, I have to talk about it.” It was taking money out of his pocket—him and Abbey. I know that she suffered quite a bit as a result of their actually taking a stand and being as vocal about it as they were. Financially speaking, their careers took a hit. So Max always put his money where his mouth was. He was really dedicated. Really high integrity. Willing to sacrifice financial security to get across the message.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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M'Boom: Onomatopoeia

M’Boom is an all-percussion ensemble, a special group formed in 1970; this recording is from 1979, so it was a while in the making. The initial members were Omar Clay, Warren Smith, Joe Chambers, Roy Brooks, Max, Freddy King, and Freddie Waits, who was my father. Ray Mantilla came in later.

“Onomatopoeia” is a word that describes a sound. M’Boom is an onomatopoeic expression. I’ve always thought of it as bass drum to floor tom and cymbal — MMMM-BUM. Tympany. This piece is a perfect example of seamless transition; not a lot of stops and starts. Themes and phrases overlap and others emerge—one thing happens, an undercurrent of something under it comes to the forefront, this recedes, something else comes in. Polyphony all the time, shifting dynamics, the different instruments introduced in a staggered way. The piece is in 11, it starts off with the chimes, then the vibes and marimba enter, then after that’s established, the tympany and drumset come in, which kind of solo over that hemiola that’s repeating in 11—that’s Omar and Joe on drums, I believe, and Warren on tympany. That’s the first portion of the song. Then they make a transition. They stay in 11, but instead of playing 11 quarter notes, they start playing 4 half-notes and 3 eighth-notes, and they go from the marimba and vibes to membrane. I remember playing this song, and they would always be like, ‘Membrane! Membrane!”—meaning going to the skins. If you’re playing a timbale, play the center of the timbale; if you’re playing congas, the center of the conga. No rims. That creates an interesting counter to the xylophone, which is in a different type of register. Max takes the xylophone solo.

Max always used to tell me, “Get to your shit quick” when you’re soloing. He’d go, “Yeah, you’re making some nice statements, but get to your shit quick.” In live performances it might have been different, but for this recording everyone gets their ideas out quick. Regardless how wild or expressive they may be, there’s always that very clear message, to me—not only from Max, but everybody. Warren Smith takes a solo on tympany after Max, then they transfer the phrase from the membrane to the rims—in other words, to the metal. Then he takes a solo on the membrane of a tympany. It switches up. That theme also occurs in a lot of Max’s work, whether solo or with bands—a juxtaposition of different feelings or sounds or meters against each other.

All the members of M’Boom were adept at making those types of rhythmic changes and comfortable with that variation, to the point where the transition from one to the other was seamless. The different textures create a different feeling for the listener. In certain instances, it creates a sense of power, and then when they go to the metal, it sounds a little more frenetic, more like an anticipation of the climax, which is coming next.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Fleurette Africaine

“Fleurette Africaine” is my favorite song off the legendary Money Jungle record with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. So how can I not include it as one of my favorite cuts that Max was involved in? The great star power of those three individuals together on a record is phenomenal. Actually, to be truthful, I don’t know if Max and Mingus really had that great a connection in terms of the rhythm section. In fact, Max told me about some things that happened at the session... What happened is probably legendary.

Max was connected to Duke; he’d played with him at 16, his first gig with a signature person, sitting in for Papa Greer [Sonny Greer] for a few nights while Sonny wasn’t feeling well. Here, twenty years later, Max is somewhat of a star himself, and of course, Duke influenced Mingus so much as a composer. To have them all there is special thing. A lot of times, those kind of pulled-together all-star situations don’t work, but this is one of the best dates of that kind.

The Bandwagon recorded “Wig Wise” from this session. I’d never heard it before we recorded, but when I listened, it definitely sounded like they’re at odds, and there’s a lot of aggression coming from Mingus. I dug it, though! It definitely sounds frantic and tense. But this song doesn’t have that quality, which is maybe why it’s my favorite from the album. It’s melancholy, in a way, almost softly sad.

To me, Max provides that calmness. He’s playing mallets, and the feel is subdued throughout. The whole piece sounds like a ballad-fairy-tale song. This is 1962, still the era of the Civil Rights movement, so the fact that they’re referencing something African as beautiful, and equating that with black people, was important. Nowadays it might not necessarily be as important, but then it really was. The “Fleurette Africaine” title references the times—1962 is the year Algeria got its independence from France, and the African nations generally were coming out of the colonial grip. I think the musicians were conscious of that, and were using their music to convey a kinship to those people who were struggling for their independence, because we were doing the same thing over here.

A lot of times it seems that Max is playing the opposite of what Mingus is playing. Mingus goes DING-DING, DING-DING, he’s up in there, and then Max is playing longer. When Mingus is doing the opposite, then Max is rolling. The sound of Max’s playing gives me an image of water in a shallow river bed over small rocks. It sounds like there’s small rocks under what he’s doing. Gentle, sensitive, inobtrusive playing. Very simple melody. Beautiful.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Max Roach: Garvey's Ghost

This is one of my favorite cuts of music of all time. It’s another example of how the title really speaks to what’s happening in the music. This references Marcus Garvey, the great Pan-Africanist in the States during the late '10s and ‘20s, ‘who died in England in 1940, mistreated, and his organization decentralized by the same tactics used against the Black Panthers some years later. The piece references that history, talking about self-determination, but then it also has a haunting, ghostly quality—the melody is so powerful, as is the fact that Abbey doesn’t sing any words.

Max wrote the song. The solos by Booker Little and Clifford Jordan are straight fire! Then again, we see that juxtaposition of rhythms against each other, because he has Patato playing the congas and Carlos Eugenio playing the cowbell—Max is kind of playing in 6 but also in 3, in the way he’s swinging, and keeps that pattern almost all throughout the piece. But the way he comps, pushes Booker Little and Clifford Jordan through their solos---he sustains that ride cymbal pattern the whole time, along with the other percussion---is reminiscent of one of his solos. But everybody has a certain freedom within what they’re doing. Even the cowbell's cascara pattern is not fixed. Max’s ride cymbal pattern is, but the other shit he’s playing completely is not. It’s not like any traditional comping. It’s like collective improvisation. Then he solos over that cascara and the congas, and, as he often does, he utilizes a lot of space. He always plays something and then leaves some space, and then plays something else and leaves some space. He calls, he answers, he answers, and then he leaves some space. He always used to say that there’s always room. “Get to your shit quick, make a statement, and in making that statement, the things that you don’t play are just as important as the things you do.” That always seemed to be a theme for him, and he utilized it in every component of his career. Always some space for others.

That’s the way it seems he led his life in aligning himself with different people, like the record with Hassan Ibn Ali, where he gave him the opportunity to present his original music and placed "the legendary Hassan" on the title. That was Hassan's only recording except for one by Odean Pope that I don’t think was ever released. Or the fact that he aligned himself with Clifford Brown and said, “Let’s lead the band together.” I don’t know if he really had to do that. Also the different duo situations. Always on the cusp, but then also, in a sense, very selfless. To be as prolific as was he had to have a strong sense of self---as I know he did, because I was around him. That strong sense of self allowed him to let other people shine as well. It was never, “No, it has to be me, and you can’t do your thing.” It was “come on and do your thing.” This is a perfect example. It’s not like he has to growl over the whole thing. He leaves some space, and then he’ll talk to one of the cats, and communicate. Everybody’s listening. This is a year after We Insist, and Max was still on the same path. There’s tunes like “Man From South Africa,” in 7/4. He’s still making that commentary. He’s still on the soapbox, because it’s important and it’s still current, still developing in America.

In 1990 or 1991, I remember doing a Sacred Drums tour with Max here in America, one of my very first gigs out of town. Tito Puente was on it, and some of these Native American drummers, some koto, things like that. Max was playing with Mario Bauzá, who had a small orchestra. He was doing multiple things as well as solo stuff, playing with the small band, and this was one of the other portions of the show. Patato was in the band, too. During one of the rehearsals the piano player came up with some arrangements for Max to read, and he called over to me—I was there as a stagehand, his P.A., setting up the cymbals and stuff like that. He was just trying to put some money in my pocket and help me out. Max said, “come here, man. Play this.” So he got me down to play the show, and got me my first traveling gig—with Mario Bauzá! I had no idea then who he was. I didn’t know what I was doing with clave and so on. I remember Patato looking at me like, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.” The other cats in the band were very encouraging, but Patato didn’t want to give it up. Which I understood, though, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Some years later, I did a recording with him and Michael Marcus and Rahn Burton, and he was cool—maybe I had gotten a few things together. He tuned my snare drum, tightened it in a certain way, and that snare drum still sounds great to this day. He showed me how to tune the bottom a little tighter than the top. He had that pitch. That snare drum was singing for years.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker: Donna Lee

I could have accessed so many pieces from this era, but I really like “Donna Lee.” It’s a great band, a revolutionary band, with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Max, each a legend in the creation of jazz music. And it’s a great piece of music. It’s an abbreviated song—Charlie Parker takes two choruses, Miles and Bud split one, and then they take it out. I like the fact that everyone was able to say so much within that period of time.

The horns were so much out in front on recordings from this time, it’s almost difficult to hear what everybody else was doing! But still, you can hear so well on this tune how Max could propel a soloist—the way he builds through the course of the song, the way he accompanies the melody and then the soloist. He always pays attention to dynamics; when the piano solo comes, Max takes it down. But during Bird’s solos, he’s never playing anything corny, like when an accompanist uses exclusively the same rhythmic language as the soloist to converse. They’re congruent with each other, but they aren’t necessarily using the same language. It’s almost like they’re parallel and connected at the same time. So they’re cross-sectioning, but they’re also parallel—Max is egging Bird on and answering his phrases, like they’re speaking different languages but talking about the same thing. I find that fascinating.

Max was such a risk-taker. He had to have received a lot of criticism for playing that way, because nobody else was playing like that in 1947. He was playing with the people who were at the edge of creativity, and he himself was pushing it forward. Where he was placing his phrases was completely unconventional as far as the rhythmic language of the day. As I listen, I keep wondering, “where is the impetus for you to do that?”

On “Donna Lee,” even when the melody is being played, Max is playing a kind of counter-melody against it. Arthur Taylor used to talk about “Confirmation,” how there are hits in the course of tunes like that, that are the tune. That’s how Max is playing that in “Donna Lee.” He’s playing off of the melody, playing in the holes of that melody, almost like he’s creating an alternate melody, an accompanying rhythmic melody.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Max Roach-Clifford Brown: Love Is A Many Splendored Thing

Clifford Brown And Max Roach At Basin Street is one of the albums that I played along with the most when I was younger, and—along with Round Midnight by Miles with Philly, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, John Coltrane’s Crescent, and Horace Silver’s Silver’s Serenade, among others—it’s one of the classic albums that anybody who is interested in pursuing a career in the music really needs to check out. Even though it was only together for about a year, it’s one of Max’s most important bands, with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown on the front line. I love the arrangements and the way that band played together. The stuff was tight. It was a true band—a perfect example of the best. I hate to use that sort of terminology, but that’s the way I feel about it. These cats were executing at such a high level, and the music was so refreshing. It’s still refreshing, to this day.

This one starts off with a little, one-bar intro on the bell of the cymbal, and then they go into five, and then come the solos—Clifford, Sonny, Richie Powell, and Max. One thing that attracts me to this take is the way Richie Powell plays coming out of Max’s solo going back into the top of the song. It’s a seamless transition, like they’re coming together from different places, right into the theme.

It’s important that they were playing in 5/4 in 1956. In American culture most music is in four. It’s just those 5 beats, but with a little lopsided feeling. Now, if we were raised in India or Iraq, we would be accustomed to feeling those rhythms—but we’re not. So the fact that they were using it in “popular music” meant something in pushing the music forward—initiating something that hadn’t been widely accepted, as happened when Dave Brubeck did did “Take Five” a few years later. So this is an important document in terms of recorded history. Once an idea is documented, it becomes a possibility. If you were a younger musician in 1956 listening to this for the first time, it may have been the first time you’d heard someone do it, or play a different time signature—and the presentation is so beautiful. Max was part of so many movements where he was ahead of his time, or pointing to the future, part of the vanguard of musicians who always did something challenging.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Max Roach-Dollar Brand: Streams of Consciousness

This is another one of Max’s many extemporaneous compositions. On the jacket he writes: “This music is an expression of pure improvisation. Mr. Brand (this is when he was still Dollar Brand) and I had no rehearsals or plans, written or otherwise, as to how or what we were going to record...the resulting cohesiveness, I am sure, had much to do with our environmental similarities.” Another piece on this album is titled “Consanguinity,” and that’s what Max was talking about—the connection between people who are descended from the same ancestry. He’s talking about the fact that he and Abdullah Ibrahim, who was a South African pianist, were equally involved in the struggle for the freedom of their people—or had been involved, because by this time conditions had changed in America, though not in South Africa yet.

But the first cut, which runs about 21 minutes, is called “Stream of Consciousness.” To a certain degree, it’s a spontaneously organized suite that occurs in different movements. They definitely played some construct songs; I don’t know if Abdullah Ibrahim had previously played them, but they were definitely tunes. In between the tunes, a drum solo brings about the transition. That is, in between each statement, there’s a small drum solo, then there was another idea collectively expressed. There are 5 or 6 movements. It goes from drum solo, to interlude, to a 7/4 thing, then the drums initiate a faster 7/4, then they play a couple of blues, a solo—not really any solo piano except when Abdullah Ibrahim plays a little solo at the beginning, and then Max plays some. There are some church inferences after that. You can hear some South African themes, but not as pronounced as you might expect.

It’s another example of Max’s social consciousness and awareness, and also his ability to put himself in an unconventional situation—duo with drums and piano isn’t done that much. In all honesty, the sound is terrible. The bass sounds like a big drum, like he might be using some oil heads or something. The drums themselves don’t sound that good. But the magic between Max and Abdullah is pretty special. It’s obvious that they have a kinship in what’s being played. I think it’s ultimate artistry, not to plan or discuss what’s going to happen, to feel each other out, to let it fly and be open to whatever happens.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Max Roach: Variation on a Familiar Theme

This is an amazing piece—another example of seamless transitions. It runs 2-minutes-20-seconds, and it’s a variation of “Pop Goes The Weasel.” Theoretically, the configuration is like a predecessor to M’Boom. I don’t know if that idea had anything to do with Max’s decision to pull these musicians together, but this was something completely different. He was just guest soloist with the Boston Percussion Ensemble. Harold Faberman did the arrangement.

Here Max is playing within the conventions of orchestral percussion, but from the first time you hear him on the brushes it’s unmistakably him—the same phrasing, the same sound out of the instrument. Regardless of the setting, the language was so indigenous to his person, you know it’s Max regardless of the setting. There are several sections. Max initiates some time with the brushes, then they come in with a theme, then they switch up from 4/4 to 3/4, and he makes that transition, too. A different theme is initiated, and then they transition back into four. This often happens in Western Classical music, but here it’s an interesting juxtaposition of time signatures and also of genre. It’s the “jazz feeling” or whatever, because Max is playing some time countered against what the orchestra is doing with the structure. He kind of solos in the piece, but he’s also weaving in and out of it, and he is used to accentuate certain portions. It amazes me that Max was so open and flexible and willing to put himself into so many different positions throughout his career.

I have a degree in music, but the way I learned the music was kind of on the street, watching my Pops play and so forth. I’ve never studied Western classical pedagogy. Now, Max went to Manhattan School of Music and studied it, but here it sounds like he’s using the techniques that he mastered from his experiences, not from the Western pedagogy. Within the framework of this piece, the music has a certain time feel. When I played with an orchestra, it was always challenging from the downbeat, because when I see the conductor come down, I’m thinking that’s the downbeat, but it’s not. Then it’s weird. It’s the downbeat-AND, and everyone’s responding to that. Visually, it was so challenging to de-condition yourself—in jazz, it’s always the downbeat, so everyone enters there, whereas in the orchestra the AND after the downbeat is the place. So the fact that Max was able to integrate what he does within that setting so seamlessly, to play the music so impeccably, was impressive—to say the least!

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ben Allison: Fred

Most new millennium jazz talents show off their influences with such zeal, that there is little left after you peel away the post-Blue Note, post-Brecker, post-Trane, post-whatever elements in their music. But Ben Allison is not that kind of artist. His compositions are beguiling structures of sound seemingly constructed on their own in-born impulses. There are clever touches, but they are woven so well into the flow of the song that the casual listener will hardly notice.

Check out "Fred," for example, with its nice turnaround at bar eight, leading into a restatement of the A theme which—surprise!—is two bars longer the second time around. Then the bridge stretches out to an unconventional 18 bars, which is not comme il faut but not really asymmetrical any more, since the two A themes also added up to 18 bars. No, a 36 bar structure is not your typical song form, but it sounds fresh and free here.

Allison throws in a spacey interlude, and by the time you get to the violin solo, you may have forgotten this is a jazz track. It sounds like a soundtrack to a state of mind. The band, for its part, has left the standard virtuoso demonstrations of technique back home, and instead aims to match the mood of the music, which it does with perfection. All in all, you won't find much ostentation here, but make no mistake, Allison's group is one of the finest chamber jazz ensembles around.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jeff Hamilton: The Serpent's Tooth

Miles Davis wrote "The Serpent's Tooth" for a 1953 recording date he led featuring the enviable two-tenor lineup of Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. Unfortunately, neither tenor man was at his best that day, and MIles' fine composition has not been covered much in the intervening years. Jeff Hamilton used it as the closing number on his trio CD, Symbiosis, and bassist Christoph Luty's ingenious arrangement abruptly takes the tempo down to half-speed at the beginning of the bridge, only to gradually accelerate back to the original fast tempo in the first four bars of the final A section. While the tempo changes do not occur during the solos, the two appearances of the accelerating passage show just how well this group plays together. All three members of the group solo here. Pianist Tamir Hendelman gets the lion's share (or serpent's share?) with a dazzling solo that starts in straight-ahead bop style but moves in and out of more advanced harmonic territory. In his last chorus, Hendelman incorporates an exciting shout chorus to offset his improvised ideas and to offer a thrilling conclusion to his solo. Luty's solo sticks in the bebop style and features stunningly articulated hornlike lines which most bass players wouldn't dream of trying. Hamilton roars through his spots with rapid-fire movement between his toms and tenor drums. An excellent performance by one of the best mainstream groups in jazz today.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tamir Hendelman: Sycamore

While he can wow the crowds with outrageous piano flights a la Gene Harris, I am much more enamored of Tamir Hendelman's sensitive ballads. He has a delicate touch that he saves for ballads, and he instinctively knows how to temper his technique in order to maintain the mood. His beautiful composition "Sycamore" is a highlight of his debut CD, Playground. Written in memory of the boyhood walks he took with his father, the melody is simple, childlike and touching. The bridge features John Clayton bowing a bass formerly owned by his mentor, Ray Brown. Hendelman's solo starts seamlessly from the melody, and in its dreamy world, there is a perfect balance between the multi-note runs and leisurely rubato ideas. Like Hendelman, Clayton's solo draws from elements of the melody and draws its strength from its restraint. Throughout the performance, Jeff Hamilton provides welcome splashes of color with his exquisite brush work. This was undoubtedly a special song for all three of the musicians, especially Hendelman, who as a young father, must now be looking forward to spending the same quality time with his children as his father did with him.

October 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Janine Santana: Red Clay

I'm not a big fan of Latin remakes of jazz standards, but in the case of "Red Clay", which seems forever locked into its original arrangement, changes and adaptations are more than welcome. Denver percussionist Janine Santana's arrangement of the Freddie Hubbard classic effectively straddles the line between Latin and funk, splitting up the melody between short Latin grooves.The horns get the major melodic lines up front, but later, the rhythm section plays the ascending line from the B section. The rhythm's part is so well-written that the passage is well underway before the listener grasps what is happening. Trumpeter Greg Gisbert and alto saxophonist Richie Cole share the solo spotlight with Santana. Gisbert's solo is filled with unusually-shaped ideas and spectacular passages in the high register. While it sounds like he's playing into an echoplex, the sound and late echoes are all acoustic. Cole's solo, while exciting and well-played, is considerably more restrained than his wild playing from the late 70s. Santana's brief spot offers effective counter-rhythms over the churning rhythm team. Overall, a fine alternative approach to a jazz chestnut.

October 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quartet San Francisco: Strange Meadowlark

One of the best aspects of jazz is that it constantly refutes any ongoing assumptions about its essence and nature. Think you can define this music? Just try and soon enough, someone will come along with a new style that is undoubtedly jazz, but not within your definition. And if the Turtle Island and Kronos quartets haven't shaken your concept of what string quartets can do, just listen to Quartet San Francisco's CD of Dave Brubeck compositions for a fresh approach.

Brubeck's "Strange Meadowlark" was the only tune in 4/4 time on his album Time Out and in 2001, violinist Jeremy Cohen created an arrangement for Quartet San Francisco based on the slow outer sections of Brubeck's classic recording. For their new all-Brubeck CD, Cohen rewrote and expanded the arrangement to include the middle swing section and to incorporate the improvised solos by Brubeck and Paul Desmond. The QSF is very comfortable with this material and there's a wonderful rhythmic looseness in their version. And while Desmond's and Brubeck's solos are played note-for-note, the way that the notes are played is quite different from the original recording. Desmond and Brubeck used fairly marked articulation in their solos, but violinist Cohen and violist Keith Lawrence use a lazy legato sound and slides in creating their own interpretation. Cohen takes Desmond's solo for himself, but Brubeck's solo ideas jump back and forth between violin and viola, offering a fine contrast in instrumental timbres. The final melody chorus, originally solo piano, is orchestrated for the full quartet for a superb and fulfilling ending. While the approach to this tune might not be to all tastes, it is certainly worth a listen.

October 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Archie Shepp-Horace Parlan: Go Down Moses

Archie Shepp is no stranger to the duo, having performed/recorded in direct dialogue with Max Roach, Charlie Haden, Dollar Brand, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, and Richard Davis, among others, throughout his career. His most common duet partner, though, was pianist Horace Parlan, and this groundbreaking 1977 duet performance, consisting entirely of spirituals and black folk songs, represents a career highlight for both players. While the song formula from track to track here is fairly static, with Shepp stating the melody and building to a primal climax, the exclusivity of the project, the eloquence of Parlan's support, and Shepp's heart-rendering deliveries yield an intensely affecting listening experience from beginning to end. As with only the best music, "Go Down Moses" has such emotional depth that it's up to the listener to discern whether sorrow or splendor ultimately reign here. It's not an easy task, perhaps because Shepp was pondering just that during his performance, of which he once said: "I was afraid for a moment that I wouldn't be able to make the recording because I felt so full, so full of tears." The most forceful of jazz tracks.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Lovano: Dewey Said

In explaining the origins of “Dewey Said,” a track from Joe Lovano’s second Soul Note release, Village Rhythm, the saxophonist explained that it “was written for both Miles Dewey Davis, and Dewey Redman. The first four bars are reminiscent of a phrase that reminded me of both of those cats.” Those justly inspired first four bars are encapsulated from quick solo bursts from Paul Motian, followed by a clamorous, clever, tuneful drum solo after the head. After a brief statement from Werner, Harrell enters with his clean and crisp, equal-parts-horizontal-and-vertical solo statement. Then Lovano enters at an already raised intensity level and delivers a statement complete with extended, across-the-changes lines and rhythmic unraveling through the altering of accents and/or riff placement within a measure, as evidenced by his run from about 3:40-3:55. As has become expected in Lovano’s world, the end of the solo climaxes with intense upper register screams, heightened by his ability to continue incorporating legit melodic moves while living up there in the stratosphere. A fine representation of early Lovano.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ben Perowsky: Shema (Shaharit)

Ben Perowsky is a dynamic drummer who has successfully balanced work in straight-ahead jazz, experimental/free jazz, and rock/pop music over the last twenty years, with sideman credits including James Moody, Rickie Lee Jones, Mike Stern, John Scofield, and John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, among many others. A highlight from his thriving career as a bandleader is Camp Songs, a piano trio session featuring Uri Caine and Drew Gress made for John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

As it turns out, Perowsky’s camp songs were Jewish songs, and his modest, musical arrangements of some of Judaism’s most commonly sung (and agonizingly catchy) tunes are presented here, not at all as a vehicle for tongue-in-cheekness but rather a genuine attempt to adapt sung prayer into jazz melody. While the first few tracks are the most recognizable, “Shema (Shaharit)” is a deconstructed mid-record highlight. These three musicians meld perfectly here – Perowsky’s brushes-then-sticks work shows that he’s mastered the art of placing straight sixteenth notes in various spaces within a swing groove, and Caine’s and Gress’s two-as-one movements simultaneously display Caine’s rhythmically modern, classically melodic phrasing and Gress’s unrelenting harmonic aid. A personal and personable track.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Krantz Carlock Lefebvre: War-Torn Johnny

I’d wager that on average, when Wayne Krantz gets together with long-time trio mates Tim Lefebvre (bass) and Keith Carlock (drums), seven of every ten music-making minutes are collectively improvised. Throughout their many years of gigging at Krantz’s Thursday night residency at the 55 Bar in NYC, the trio thrived after the main head was played, when Krantz would conduct this tightest of groups through multiple, spontaneous tempo shifts and groove makeovers within a single tune’s ten-to-fifteen-minute open yet purpose-driven jamming sections.

“War Torn Johnny,” like the rest of the recently released Krantz Lefebvre Carlock, is a bit of a departure from the abovementioned agenda in that it is a bit more of a compact electric fusion record. Their signature straight-and-swung grooves, blinding chops, and collective improvisations are still present, but the desire to present a slightly more musically (commercially?) available record is undeniable.

“Johnny” is an instrumental (there are vocals from Krantz elsewhere) that perhaps best combines the previous candidness of the Krantz experience with a slight nudge towards user-friendliness. Note the epitome of the modern Krantz sound in the “A” section, a “B” section that sounds like it's borrowed from his work in the early ‘90s, and the New Orleans-inspired breakdown groove that dominates the proceedings beginning at 01:30. A fine example of one of the most under-heralded trios of the last decade that’s sure to reach a wider audience with this new record, and deservedly so.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bobo Stenson: Send in the Clowns

The blend of Bobo Stenson’s pensive delivery of this famed melancholy melody and the freely moving, pulsating bed of rhythm that Jormin and Motian provide bears one of the more striking opening tracks in recent memory. As the melody unfolds and casts a gradually darker shadow, the dynamic variation intensifies, with each player choosing their own space to claim temporary headship before recoiling to concentrate on mood and texture. The spontaneous rhythmic output ranges from quick bursts, as evidenced by the perfectly poked-out bass line at 1:18, to extended runs, exemplified by Motian’s web of polymetric thoughtfulness from 1:32 to 1:42, at once intensely daring and elegant as only this drummer can supply. Far from your typical “get through the head” mentality in order to usher in the improvisation, this four-minute extended statement of “Send in the Clowns” proves that, when in doubt, melody is enough.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Todd Sickafoose: Invisible Ink Revealed

Bassist Todd Sickafoose’s music is highly original and unconventional, and some will surely hesitate to call it jazz. He belongs to a generation of musicians who are familiar with the jazz language and have mastered it, but have also listened to rock and to folk music during their teenage years (and still do), who occasionally enjoy playing with a pop singer (Ani Di Franco, in Sickafoose’s case) and who, beside their talents as instrumentalists, have a strong taste for composing and arranging. Brian Blade would be the most famous example of this type of contemporary musicians, and the atmosphere of the present composition by Sickafoose is not very far from that of some of Blade’s “Fellowship” band tunes. There’s no real solo nor melody in this song, which starts with the bass playing a bouncing romp over hand-claps, while the horns and reeds blow parallel lines with a strong vibrato. When the electric guitar enters with a short melody, followed by the drums playing a rock beat, the sound becomes heavier, but a trickle of notes from the piano soon brings a whiff of lightness, as does the acoustic guitar that comes next. While the strings dominate the sound spectrum, we’re in a soft folk-rock atmosphere until the horns reenter and give the whole thing a mild latin tinge, mixed with a twist of the Miles Davis early seventies experiments, courtesy of some moderate electronic effects. In all, one admires the art of sound blending that Sickafoose displays on a tune that definitely has its own sonic density and seamless organic construction, without ever sounding devised in an intellectual, formal way.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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CéU: Vira Lata

It's been a comedown for CéU. Her last CD enjoyed a cross-promotion with a Starbucks coffee bean sub-brand, and her visage with its "come hither" glance showed up on cardboard displays in ten thousand stores. Not this time. But her music is still heavily caffeinated, even if it no longer arrives with your morning java. Here she is joined by Luiz Melodia, a singer whose work I first encountered during a visit to Rio some years back, but whose rich baritone is not as well known as it should be outside of the region. Imagine a Brazilian Johnny Hartman or Billy Eckstine, and you will get some sense of his very appealing approach. The horn arrangements here are pop-oriented, and the rhythm section is more subdued than one normally hears with CéU. But the vocals are first-rate and the interplay between the two singers makes one wish that Melodia (what a perfect name for this artist!) showed up elsewhere on this CD, and not just this track. And while we are talking about names, when will CéU's handlers agree on the spelling of hers? Half the press material has the 'U' capitalized and the rest lower case. With just three letters, it should be possible to reach a consensus, huh? There's no confusion about the music, however, and this artist looks like she has the staying power to build a significant global following.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gerald Wilson: Detroit

A nostalgic, backward-looking quality permeates this late vintage work by veteran bandleader Gerald Wilson. And certainly Wilson, who celebrated his 91st birthday a few weeks before the Detroit CD was released, has plenty to look back on, and a fair portion of it centered in the city celebrated in this composition. Wilson is closely associated in the mind of fans with West Coast jazz because of his fine California-based bands, but he spent much of his early life in Detroit, where he graduated from Cass Tech, for many years the city's only magnet school, in the mid-1930s. The commission from the Detroit International Jazz Festival must have been a spur for him to look back at his own early years, and the result is a sentimental song rather than a musical evocation of auto assembly lines and other Motor Town symbols and signifiers. "Detroit" the song is languorous and melancholy, with exactly the emotional temperament one would expect from a composer mulling over le temps retrouvé. The solo from Kamasi Washinton on tenor is gentle, and perhaps too respectful at first, but cuts off just as he seems ready to get into the flow. Sean Jones delivers a sweet, polished flugelhorn improvisation. Nonetheless, the centerpiece here is the gray-haired bandleader, who has delivered a dreamy, eulogistic piece for a city on hard times but with a grand jazz tradition to which he is a significant contributor.

October 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum: Elegie

This was the side of Tatum that drove his critics mad. Instead of trying to raise jazz composition to the next level, he was out there "ragging the classics" like the old stride players. And not even the serious classics. The numbers he favored, such as "Elegie" and "Humoresque," are more often played by clumsy piano students than real concert hall artists. But Tatum snubbed his nose at the highbrows, adding flourish after flourish in his grandiloquent reworkings of middlebrow parlor favorites.

Respect "Elegie" you must, however, since no one has ever topped this way of one-upping the virtuoso tradition of the classical world from an outside perspective. Tatum at age thirty was a monster at the keys, and his dynamics, tone control, and clarity of execution are little short of stunning here. The performance itself may be more a game than a serious attempt to grapple with the potential of jazz, yet even games have their masters and moments of profundity. If you want to understand Tatum, you need to sample this side of his multifaceted musical persona.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum & Roy Eldridge: Night and Day

Art Tatum had performed with Roy Eldridge back in 1944 at a famous concert by the Esquire All-Stars, but their paths rarely crossed afterwards until Norman Granz brought them into the studio a decade later as part of the producer's "Group Masters" project. The idea of matching Tatum with top-notch horn players sounded fine in theory, but with some exceptions, found the pianist playing over rather than with his colleagues. Yet his outing on "Night and Day" with trumpeter Roy Eldridge coheres better than one might expect. Eldridge was no stranger to battles on the bandstand, but here he focuses on sheer swing rather than try to match Tatum note-for-note. Simmons and Stoller are energized by his presence, and create a more supple pulse than one usually finds on the Granz-Tatum projects. The pianist is hardly chastened by this change of affairs, and continues to throw out his baroque runs and elaborate reconfigurations, but even he is infused with the groove. This may not quite match the impromptu give-and-take that Tatum achieved after hours in casual jams, but it comes closer than most of his studio sessions to capturing that ambiance.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum (performance recreated by Zenph Studios): I Know That You Know

Fats Waller once famously introduced Art Tatum with these oft-quoted words: "I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight." Well, this performance concocted by the tech wizards at Zenph Studios must qualify as the artificial intelligence equivalent of God. Richard Dawkins will be happy about that, but jazz fans have even more reason to celebrate. This recording takes Tatum's brilliant 1949 concert at Shrine Auditorium, with its murky sound quality, and recreates it with Zenph's proprietary and controversial technology in a crystal-clear modern digital version.

Purists have carped about this (don't they always?), but I find it hard to understand how any jazz lover can listen to this music and not be exhilarated. I have cherished the original Tatum performance since my high school years, but now I can hear nuances and aspects of this familiar track that were lost until now. "I Know That You Know" is impressive even by Tatum's high standards. This must be one of the fastest solo piano outings in the history of jazz, and there are points where the pulse reaches a defibrillator-charged 400 beats per minute. Even the uninitiated will be awestruck by the dexterity required, but I am just as impressed by the harmonic movement in the half-time section, and the odd displacement of the left-hand accents in the opening melody statement. This is Tatum the trickster at his trickiest, and anyone who is blasé about Zenph's miracle-making or the music presented here gets sent off for six months hard labor at Czerny and Hanon before they are allowed a second listen.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum: Sweet Georgia Brown

Jerry Newman was a student at Columbia University with a passion for jazz and—even more important!—a portable disk-cutting recording machine that he brought to some of the most exciting jazz events of the early 1940s. His archive of amateur recordings is a treasure trove of historically important material, but his documentation of pianist Art Tatum's work in casual after hours sessions is a revelation. André Hodeir and other critics have accused this pianist of playing elaborate set pieces rather than improvising, and true many of Tatum's recordings reveal the rote delivery of set arrangements. Yet the artist captured here is a different one entirely. After hearing this music for the first time, New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett concluded that there must have been "two Tatums": "one was the virtuoso who moved with consummate ease through a world owned and run by whites, and the other was the secret genius who went uptown after his regular hours and played unbelievable music for his own pleasure in black clubs for black audiences."

Balliett thought that Tatum might have been parodying the beboppers in the opening passages of "Sweet Georgia Brown," yet it is just as likely that Tatum was simply showing that he knew more tricks than the new cats on the scene. Based on the amused laughter from the audience, I assume that some bop player had been playing the piano shortly before Tatum took over the keys. But even more ear-shattering is a passage at the 2:10 mark that can be only described as a taste of Free Jazz, circa 1941. Trumpeter Frankie Newton tries vainly to follow Tatum's solo, but Art doesn't make it easy. He throws out substitute harmonies from another dimension, sometimes four to a bar, and even reprises his avant-garde bag in the background. There is plenty more here worth hearing—indeed, a whole alternative piano vocabulary that you won't encounter on the better known Norman Granz recordings of this artist. At more than seven minutes, "Sweet Georgia Brown" ranks as one of Tatum's longest recorded performances, but it still seems all too brief.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum & Ben Webster: My Ideal

Many superlatives have been lavished on the so-called "Tatum Group Masterpieces"—Norman Granz's mid-1950s recordings of the pianist in a range of jazz combos featuring many of the leading players of the Swing Era. Yet much of this work strikes me as the musical equivalent of an abattoir tour. Too many of these guest artists decide that they will match Tatum's speed and technique with their own best virtuoso devices, and the result is all too predictable. Not only can the pianist play faster and wilder, but he often refuses to wait for his own solo to prove it. His comping takes over the performance, leaving the rest of the band rattled and the listener dismayed. Tatum may walk away with the bloody victory, but at the expense of group chemistry and cohesion.

But Ben Webster knew how to deal with this situation. He refuses to play Tatum's game, but sets his own ground rules from the start. The pianist takes the opening melody statement, but when Webster enters he plays the melody again, and his rendition is gorgeous, full of the whispering and lingering tones that were the tenorist's calling cards. His solo is more of the same, and gets deep inside the inner meaning of the song—the lyrics are a bittersweet pledge of love to an imagined ideal partner who may never appear, or might possibly be waiting around the corner. I was so moved when I first heard this recording, years ago, that I learned the words and music of the song and added it to my repertoire.

Tatum came to every session with plenty of ammunition, but Webster has effectively disarmed him. The saxophonist has established a level of emotional honesty that forces the pianist into a completely different frame of mind. Strange to say, Art Tatum comes across more introspective and subdued here than on any of the other group sessions, and reveals aspects of his own musical personality that rarely surfaced on record. His comping stays in the background—never a given with this artist—and when it's time for his own improv, Tatum plays with a light swing that seems almost Nat-King-Cole-ish. This is not a characteristic performance by the pianist, but it is, nonetheless, one of his finest.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jackie Allen: Stardust

"Stardust" is among the most recorded songs in history. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the most-recorded song ever, and Tom Lord's "Jazz Discography" lists it as the eleventh-most recorded song by jazz musicians. The various legends surrounding the song's origins have it inspired either by the music of Bix Beiderbecke or the memory of a former girlfriend (and since it was written by Hoagy Carmichael, we might expect that it was a little of both). When the melody was composed in 1927, it was conceived as a medium-tempo instrumental, but by the time Mitchell Parish's lyric was added in 1931, it had been recorded at least twice as a ballad.

"Stardust" is a song ("Lush Life" is another) where the verse is as beloved as the chorus. Frank Sinatra's most famous recording of the song included only the verse, and the recording reviewed here, by Jackie Allen with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra, includes two renditions of the verse, with a single performance of the chorus in the middle. Arranger Frank Proto scores each version of the verse differently. The opening features a solo French horn, soon paired with Allen. Little by little, other wind and string instruments come in, building subtly to the chorus. Proto's writing for the strings is glassy and other-worldly, reflecting the dream-like state of the lyric. Allen maintains the atmosphere with a cool reading of the lyric, and by staying close to the melody. When the verse returns, the strings predominate the scoring at first, but then they yield to the woodwinds. The horn call comes back at the halfway point, and leads the ensemble nearly to the end, tying the arrangement together. The coda is remarkably understated, but very effective.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stacey Kent: I Get Along Without You Very Well

The full title of this song is "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)". Ay, there's the rub. It is not a song of triumph about surviving a breakup, but a song of intense loneliness and false bravado. It is one of the few songs where Hoagy Carmichael wrote both the music and lyrics, and the lyrics reflect a feeling we've all had when we've realized that it's just not possible to always make it on your own.

In her duet recording with guitarist Colin Oxley, Stacey Kent brings out the loneliness of this song even more than its better-known interpreters, Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker. She starts by singing the title line alone, and Oxley comes in only when she sings the line Of course, I have which is when the narrator starts to realize the futility of that statement. Throughout the recording, she expresses great vulnerability and adds intensity only as the lyric dictates. She never deviates from the melody and her slight bits of expression--a slide here, or a sigh there--don't detract from the message of the lyric.

The recording comes from an album where Kent pays tribute to her male singing role models. But in this case, she may have made the definitive recording herself.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ann Hampton Callaway: Skylark

As a bird, the skylark is indigenous to Europe, Asia and Africa. Yet, the bird is well known to the rest of the world due to the many poems that praise its song. A skylark's song can be heard on the ground even when the bird is flying 2 or 3 miles high. I don't know whether Hoagy Carmichael or Johnny Mercer ever heard a skylark in person, but their song "Skylark" is one of the masterpieces of American music. The melody seems to float over the time, so much so that even the most convoluted section of the bridge doesn't bring the melody back to the ground. The wistful lyric, in which a lover asks a bird for advice of the heart, is one of Mercer's finest creations.

Ann Hampton Callaway's stunning recording brings all of the elements of this standard to life. Bill Charlap's exquisite introduction brings on Callaway, and the two work as a duo for the first 16 bars of the opening chorus. In rubato time, Charlap ripples below as Callaway soars above on the melody. Callaway's rich, velvety voice envelops the melody, and her interpretation of the lyric starts conversationally and seamlessly moves into longer phrases. When the rest of the band enters on the bridge, Andy Farber provides a lovely accompaniment on tenor sax. Charlap plays a delicate solo in single lines with fine interaction from Peter Washington on bass. When Callaway returns, she makes a few well-chosen deviations from the melody, but we never lose the sense of the original line. At the coda, Callaway and Charlap are together again, and she brings her rendition full-circle by returning to the conversational interpretation where she started.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Irene Kral: Memphis In June

"Memphis In June" was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster, but the lyric veers close to Johnny Mercer's territory. The words set a scene of pastoral southern America with cousin Amanda makin' a rhubarb pie and Grandma sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. In this recording, Irene Kral captures the exact mood of the song with a vocal tinged with sweet nostalgia and home-spun warmth. Al Cohn's arrangement offers excellent support for Kral. In fact, everything is going just fine until the band comes in for its interlude. Jimmy Zitano plays a dramatic roll and suddenly all of the trumpets are playing in the stratosphere. All that Kral and Cohn have done to set a mood are completely wiped out within 8 bars. And then the band stops and we go right back to the pastoral mood of the opening chorus.

It's hard to puzzle out just how that odd 8-bar passage got into the middle of this arrangement, but here's a theory or two: First, Kral and Pomeroy were not well-known at the time, so the record company may have commissioned Cohn to write an "anonymous" arrangement that could be sung and played by just about anyone. Whether Cohn actually wrote the trumpets in the high register is questionable; the trumpet section might have decided to take it up an octave at the session. However, the high trumpets and a key part of Kral's resumé offer a clue to the second theory: that Cohn wrote this arrangement for Kral during the nine months when she sang with Maynard Ferguson's band, and Kral brought the chart to the Pomeroy session. Neither theory is air-tight (the other band parts seem to support the high trumpets during the passage, and Maynard carried only 6 brass players with his band, not the 8 heard with Pomeroy), but the shame is that the passage just doesn't work and it ruins the entire track. Irene Kral didn't record many albums (especially with big bands), so it's too bad that a momentary lapse in taste marred this otherwise exemplary recording.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fred Hersch: The Nearness Of You

Ned Washington's lyric to the Hoagy Carmichael song "The Nearness Of You" has always been a special favorite of mine. The thought of a person whose mere presence can be an inspiration speaks to the romantic artist in me. I suspect that Fred Hersch loves these words as much as I do. For even in his solo piano version of this song, the lyric's message comes through.

Hersch opens with an original introduction (not the original verse) and then he moves into the song with great tenderness, using a spare arpeggiated style in his left hand. While the left hand ideas grow in intensity as Hersch becomes more rhapsodic, they are never overwhelming, but are simply there to support the melody in the right hand. Hersch stays in a free rubato throughout the performance, but there seems to some underlying tempo as Hersch's ideas seem to ebb and flow in a rhythmic pattern. Early in his improvisation, he finds a wonderful little idea that he sequences through a number of keys before moving to another thought, which he also develops. He returns to the tune at the bridge and he emphasizes the end of that eight-bar section with held notes at either end of the piano followed by a dramatic pause, which reverts the mood back to that of the beginning.

So, how does all of this relate to the lyric? It's not easy to explain, but I get a tangible feeling that the passion found in this recording has extra-musical roots. The romantic intensity of the lyric is transformed into a spiritual feeling that breathes through every second of this music. Creative musicians live for moments like this, where all of the elements come together and the music is elevated to a higher level. Inspiration and complete mental focus are a big part of the equation, and it's nearly impossible to reach those heights by just going through the motions. Whatever Hersch's inspiration was, he created a very special musical moment on that October night at Jordan Hall. We are fortunate enough to share it.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Georgia On My Mind

Recorded about a year before Ray Charles changed everyone's approach to the song, Dave Brubeck's recording of "Georgia On My Mind" is a quiet, reflective take on the Hoagy Carmichael standard, featuring some of Brubeck's most sensitive playing from this period. Brubeck has the opening and closing choruses of the arrangement to himself, with only light accompaniment from Gene Wright's bass and Joe Morello's drums. Brubeck makes occasional minor changes to the harmony, but for the most part, he simply enjoys interpreting the song as is. While Brubeck favored a strong attack in many of his performances, he could always play with a light touch, caressing the melody instead of hammering it. Paul Desmond glides in with his wispy tone and spins one beautiful phrase after another. Later, he makes a dramatic pause before improvising on the bridge. Brubeck's ensuing solo stays in single lines for the first half, then builds slightly into chords before Brubeck eases back into the tune. There is a slight crescendo as Brubeck goes into an unaccompanied solo which brings the performance to an end with a simple collection of repeated ideas.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Anouar Brahem: Stopover at Djibouti

The most striking aspect of Manfred Eicher's work as a producer may be its very invisibility. On his projects, the music invariably seems to define its own terms. Nothing is forced or contrived, and each song is given room to breathe. Other labels, in contrast, come across as heavy-handed in imposing concepts or jumping on fads or tinkering with the proceedings. The music arrives in your CD player or iPod with lots of baggage and a "story" straight from the marketing department.

One could hardly imagine Anouar Brahem showing up on a release at Verve and Concord, yet at ECM he is very much at home with a conception of jazz fusion that crosses centuries rather than genres. This absorbing track from The Astounding Eyes of Rita is a case in point. You could try to define the ingredients in familiar terms. The horn lines could, with different accompaniment, fit into a hard bop chart. The textures here would work on a soundtrack for a big budget film. The oud makes sense as one more flavor in the global village jukebox. But mix them together here, and the result is sui generis, a personal statement rather than a packaged deal from the entertainment industry. The pulse on "Stopover at Djibouti" sometimes superimposes a fast triple meter over a more deliberate duple pulse—this gives the song a chance to soar or float depending on which path it takes. At certain moments one could envision a dance arising from the sounds, but just as easily imagine them inspiring languor and a profound meditation.

In other words, this is music that doesn't jump on trends. Then again, it might just start one. And wouldn't that be something?

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Carmen McRae: Baltimore Oriole

I think that Carmen McRae was born to sing "Baltimore Oriole". For one thing, she was one of the few singers that could make sense of the song. With its myriad obscure references (no, the Tangipahoa river does not run through Baltimore; it's runs through Mississippi, where she is bound for) and oddly shifting narrative focus, the tune flusters vocalists by the score. But because McRae's style combines cynicism and tenderness, and she could change from one to the other at an instant, she creates a definitive reading of the song simply by embracing all of its idiosyncrasies. McRae word-paints (drrrrragggin' her feathers around in the snow), depicts loneliness (leaving her mate, she flew straight to the Tangipahoa) then immediately moves to disdain (where a two-timin' blackbird met the divine Miss O. I'd like to ruffle his plumage). Throughout it all, Ralph Burn's misterioso arrangement provides the perfect atmosphere, and Ben Webster's tenor solo takes on the role of a frustrated and pleading lover, and his last notes sound like a bird trying to shake the water off its back. Easily overlooked in the structure of the arrangement is the work of the under-rated pianist Don Abney, who provides tasty obbligatos in both vocal choruses.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jeri Southern (with Marty Paich's Dek-tette): Lazy Bones

I suppose it was inevitable that the two most "homespun" of song composers, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, would eventually collaborate. The two worked together for several years and while the partnership created the masterpiece "Skylark", they also produced material like "Lazy Bones" where the folksiness gets laid on pretty thick (for example, the song talks about making corn meal!).

Jeri Southern included the song on her first Roulette album, Southern Breeze, and she captures the humor of the lyric perfectly, assisted by a splendid arrangement by Marty Paich. Paich's ever-flexible dek-tette, in its first recording without co-founder Mel Tormé, plays in a light and subtle manner, offering only the necessary support for Southern as she off-handedly berates the song's title character. Southern's cool, understated approach keeps the humor low-key, and her superb diction makes every word crystal-clear. The slow, relaxed tempo only allows for a chorus-and-a-half (even though Roulette was a jazz label, they still marketed singles, so all of the tunes on this album range from 2 1/2 to 4 minutes each). When Southern finishes the first chorus about two minutes in, she yields to the laconic tuba of John Kitzmiller, who moseys through the melody, set off by exaggerated accents from the dek-tette at the end of each phrase. After Southern finishes the last chorus and Kitzmiller returns for the tag, Paich tries to nudge him into action with a series of sharply accented punches from the brass. No luck, though as "Lazy Bones" rolls over and goes back to sleep.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fats Waller: Two Sleepy People

"Two Sleepy People" may the most charming song Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser ever wrote. Even today, its simple story of young lovers can delight listeners. It even softened the heart of Fats Waller, who would mercilessly parody any song, even his own. Waller's was the first jazz recording of the song, preceding the composer's recording by exactly one day. Waller grasps the song's message instantly and he and his Rhythm perform a simple two-chorus arrangement. In the first chorus, Herman Autrey plays the melody on muted trumpet while Waller offers light commentary on the highest register of the piano. Waller's vocal takes up the second chorus, and somehow it seems that we can hear a twinkle in his eye as he sings. There is great tenderness lying below the exterior gruffness of his voice, and his only spoken retort is when he disagrees with the narrator's father about the merits of his girl. Perhaps he could relate to being part of a couple who were short of money and who usually stayed up too late talking. There was a lot of that going on during the Depression...

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mildred Bailey: Rockin' Chair (1937)

Mildred Bailey was one of the first white female vocalists to incorporate the sound and feeling of black singers into her own style. She was instrumental in starting Bing Crosby’s career with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and began recording as a solo artist in the late 1920s. By the mid 1930s, she had perfected a light swing approach and was a favorite among musicians.

“Rockin’ Chair” was written by Hoagy Carmichael as a pseudo-minstrel song. Bailey’s version overcomes all of the lyric’s obstacles, so much so that we think of it as a beautifully sung ballad, and not an embarrassing reminder of past racial attitudes. Bailey uses rhythm for expressiveness and subtle slides throughout (Slides were an integral part of Bailey's early style, but she overused them and her older recordings have not aged well). While she takes chances with the melody through the entire performance, her second chorus builds on what she sang before and contributes to an exquisitely developed interpretation. Bailey was so associated with this song that recorded it for 4 different labels and was affectionately known as "The Rockin' Chair Lady."

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Lazy River

I don't know how "Up A Lazy River" ever made it past a music publishing editor. The melody line is dominated by awkward leaps and a very wide range. Trained voices have a hard time negotiating the tune (especially the younger singers who don't know the song from recordings), and it must be nearly impossible for a layman to sing or whistle the song accurately. Yet somehow this song became one of Hoagy Carmichael's biggest hits. I suspect Louis Armstrong deserves some of the credit. On this recording (which was a big hit for Louis), he uses the ultimate economy by reducing Carmichael's melody to a single (and oh-so-right) pitch. His opening trumpet solo hints at the melodic reduction to come, and when the saxes play the original melody, they sound terribly old-fashioned, and only Louis' vocal retorts make the passage listenable. In addition to reducing the melody's scope, Louis also changes the phrasing by omitting some words and barely stating others: Up...lazy river...where...th'old mill runs. We get a second vocal chorus on this one, which Louis starts with an arpeggiated line (just in case anyone thought that he couldn't sing the original melody) and melds into a scat solo. He seems pleasantly surprised by his vocal creation and he breaks out of a scat line with the spoken "Oh, you dog! Ha Ha. Boy, am I riffin' this evenin'? I hope somethin'." He scats a little more, references the song's title and then introduces pianist Charlie Alexander, whose break allows Louis to pick up his trumpet. The final solo isn't quite as majestic as others from this period, but it is powerful enough to bring the track to a satisfying close.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra (featuring Bix Beiderbecke): Riverboat Shuffle

When Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines recorded 'Riverboat Shuffle" in 1924, it was Hoagy Carmichael's first recorded song. The present version is a superior remake from three years later. While the Wolverine version boasted a fine solo by Beiderbecke, the Trumbauer recording features improved sound (capturing the cornetist especially well) and a sprightly arrangement by Bill Challis. The tempo is faster and more urgent than the Wolverines, and in the opening and closing ensembles, Challis offers short breaks to all of the musicians. Bix takes the last break of the first chorus to launch his solo, a beautifully-sculpted chorus where the phrases are perfectly balanced even though they are of different lengths. His melodic line exudes confidence and a little brashness, and his rhythmic sense and swing are fine-tuned and far advanced from any of his bandmates. Don Murray's clarinet solo is melodically facile, but locked in the herky-jerky dotted eighth/sixteenth note patterns of the time. None of the other musicians can make the best of their breaks, and uncharacteristically, Eddie Lang rushes the time when his solo break comes around. Bix was often criticized for playing music with his friends instead of his musical peers, but considering that Hoagy Carmichael was one of Bix's best friends, Bix's musical favoritism had some merit, as it yielded the launch of a great songwriter.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wayne Wallace: Freedom Jazz Dance (Baile de Libertad)

Despite the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over the shrinking jazz audience, the Latin jazz scene seems to be thriving on the West Coast. In the last few days, Poncho Sanchez released his 24th album on Concord (more than a quarter of a century with the same label!); Mark Levine is garnering well-deserved airplay with his Moacir Santos tribute; and now Wayne Wallace continues his tradition of launching a hot Latin jazz release every year with ˇBien Bien!. I don't know if it is shifting attitudes, changing demographics, or just a favorable alignment of the stars Alpha Escovedo and Tjader Centauri, but clave is clearly alive and well on the Pacific shores.

In Wallace's case, it's even appropriating new territory. Eddie Harris's song "Freedom Jazz Dance" is now recast as "Baile de Libertad." In its original form, this song always struck me as a thinly disguised practice room exercise—the kind hornplayers work over to develop facility in playing interval leaps. In other words, it's a clever melody line but somewhat contrived. Yet "Freedom Jazz Dance" finds a new freedom here. The arrangement is smart, with new harmonies, changing rhythms, and a winning call-and-response vocal. Wallace contributes a fine solo, and the rhythm section gets high marks.

October 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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John Proulx: Let's Get Lost

Chet Baker may have sold boxcars of records as a vocalist, but that didn't prevent him from getting dissed by hostile critics, who found his singing too understated, too feminine, or (at times, in his later years) too out of tune for their tastes. But I am an admirer and feel that Baker's best vocal tracks from the early years are defining statements of the cool sensibility. John Proulx will walk into the same landmines as his predecessor on this project, in which he presents a tribute to Baker, and delivers the lyrics in a style that comes straight out of Chet's playbook. In other words, don't expect this CD to be touted by the arbiters of taste on their "best of year" lists. Even so, as much as this singer shows his allegiance to his role model, he is equally willing to incorporate some disruptive elements into the arrangements, quirky ingredients that impart a post-modern flavor to the proceedings. You could easily get lost in "Let's Get Lost" after he has reworked the chords and rhythm. At first, the rhythm section takes such a divergent path from the vocal that a listener might be tricked into thinking that this was one of those sampled mix-and-match recordings combining tracks that never were meant to go together. Yet everything coheres for the solos, and new smooth jazz sensation Dominick Farinacci shows off his tone and taste—he hints here that he could be a contender, but I fear he might end up another trend-chaser without a strong anchor. Proulx, for his part, maintains his likeable, low-key attitude throughout the proceedings. This CD won't replace the old Pacific Jazz tracks on my cool-down playlist, but I wouldn't be surprised if it attracted some of the younger generation both to Proulx and to the late Mr. Baker.

October 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Maceo Parker: Pass The Peas

This live cut of the James Brown classic “Pass the Peas” features his longtime horn section -- Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley -- at their absolute best. The group, a collection of James Brown alumni and other top-notch funk musicians, is much looser and improvisatory than the Brown band, and it's clear that each of the horn players relishes their musical freedom.

Fred Wesley kicks things off with the first solo, staking his claim as the funkiest trombonist of all time. Melodically, he rarely strays from the blues scale, but he builds a powerful and exciting solo by using short, rhythmically precise phrases and juxtaposing his ideas as if having a conversation with himself. By the time Maceo gets the crowd chanting "Fred! Fred!" his dark, juicy tone is sailing expertly over the groove.

Maceo adds his two cents afterward, and the group continues for nearly 12 minutes without losing that essential rhythmic feel. Guitarist Rodney Jones leads the way, and the crowd obviously eats it up. They finally build into a massive chordal explosion, giving the crowd a chance to cheer before moving on with the rest of their uncompromisingly funky show.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fletcher Henderson: Fidgety Feet

Fletcher Henderson's pioneering jazz band relied heavily on the talents of his sidemen, and his arrangement of “Fidgety Feet” calls for many of the vast solo resources of the band. While several other band members solo, the star of this track is trombonist Jimmy Harrison, whose aggressive breaks and virtuosic solo set the stage for the band's trademark swing feeling.

The arrangement uses Harrison as the spark plug to jump-start the first strain's driving two-feel. He has a solo break early in the chart which showcases his enormous, round sound and overpowering swing feeling. Later, other instruments get a chance at the breaks, but none convey the power of Harrison's trombone. Harrison gets his full solo about halfway through the tune. Here, he shows why he was considered -- alongside Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong -- to be the most sophisticated improvisers of his day. Rhythmically, his ideas fit right into the pocket, and melodically he incorporates wide leaps, expressive rips and even some chromaticism -- a difficult feat on his awkward instrument. The range he employs is also impressive; he pops out high notes as cleanly as he executes in the lower register.

Even during the cacophonous ending, Harrison's resonant sound rumbles underneath the rest of the band and supports the final hit, ending the song with the same booming exuberance with which he started it off.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kid Ory: Muskrat Ramble

Kid Ory is best known as the original proponent of the New Orleans tailgate trombone style, but he is often overlooked as one of the important composers of early jazz. "Muskrat Ramble" was his biggest hit, made famous during his tenure with Louis Armstrong.

This version, recorded almost 20 years later, has the hallmarks of the Dixieland revival style that Ory helped launch in the late 1930s: clean ensemble interaction, exposed sections for various soloists, and a more polished feel than the original recordings. Ory's trombone style had changed little; however, what he lacks in virtuosity and innovation, he compensates with a bright, exuberant tone, impeccable rhythmic sensibility and emotive growls and effects.

Although Ory never takes a solo per se, he gets many moments to shine, often shouting and growling through the trombone during breaks and belting out counterpoint underneath each melodic strain. His triumphant arpeggio after the final chorus gives him the last word, followed only by the final hit that ends the tune.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: Tenderly

“Tenderly” is a fascinating song, originally written in three and often played in four. It has remained a standard all these years later, and has had quite a few recordings by pop and jazz artists, many of which sold in large numbers (I admit a weakness for Rosemary Clooney’s version, arranged and conducted by Percy Faith).

Sims, Getz and Cohn were gone, but Bill Harris was back, Gibbs was contributing wonderful solos, and Shelly Manne was aboard now that Stan Kenton had disbanded and was making plans to be a psychologist (!). But attendance at gigs was dwindling thanks to the infant television, and the final straw was the presence of drugs in many of the player’s systems. By November, Herman disbanded, later calling this edition of his band “an albatross.”

That didn’t mean that the quality of the music suffered. Hefti’s setting is so clever that you may not realize it is in three until it is pointed out to you, and his gift for re-harmonization and transition really shows here. Herman’s romantic alto sax reminds us of the wonderful ballad playing he was capable of, and solos by Harris and Ammons are equally lovely, as is the brief saxophones soli toward the end.

Hefti was also to change direction in a few short months. Wanting to simplify his style of music, he would create memorable melodies that Count Basie would eventually make world famous.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: The Goof and I

Woody Herman’s second of his many herds was the most bop-oriented of all of them, and when we take into consideration the many musicians who became stars in their own right later on, then this is truly an all-star band. Much of the band’s best work went unrecorded due to a recording band in 1948, but luckily there are several off-the-air live performances available.

The track under discussion, Al Cohn’s “I Got Rhythm” variant, was originally written for the Buddy Rich Orchestra, and while that setting was very good, this one is even better. Like the previous Herman herd, this ensemble could whip up an audience to a frenzy, and then play a soft, beautiful ballad. Cohn’s new arrangement features solos by Chaloff, Swope and the leader. The out chorus really shows off how well this band played and sounded, now with one alto, three tenors (“Four Brothers” was recorded on the same day).and baritone comprising the sax section (the usual setup was 2 altos, 2 tenors and baritone).

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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J.J. Johnson/ Kai Winding Trombone Octet: A Night In Tunisia

In April 1956, eight of New York's top trombonists joined an all-star rhythm section to record Jay & Kai + 6, an album that has become a must-have for any trombone lover's music library. The historic recording was an expansion of the immensely successful Jay & Kai recordings featuring J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. Like the quintet recordings, Johnson and Winding take turns as featured soloists with the ensemble. Johnson is up first with his arrangement of the bebop classic "A Night In Tunisia", and he sets the bar high for the rest of the album.

Candido Camero's congas set up a trombone groove anchored by Varsalona and Mitchell's beefy bass trombones. Johnson enters a few bars later, gliding smoothly over the others with his pure, dark tone. At the bridge, Urbie Green's screaming lead precedes Johnson's recapitulation of the melody. Johnson's solo soars over his tight, hard-swinging arrangement which builds up to his final cadenza. A bright, dissonant chord caps off the exciting finish, and Johnson leaves one last improvised flourish to remind us of his status as the top dog among the bebop trombonists.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Frank Rosolino: I Love You

Frank Rosolino could burn through a jazz standard in a way that few other trombonists could. "I Love You", recorded in the Netherlands with a Dutch rhythm section five years before his death, stands as one of the most stunning documentations of Rosolino's prodigious talent.

Rosolino pulls no punches from the opening solo trombone intro; however, we soon discover that he's just getting started. His presentation of the melody sits perfectly within the tempo laid down by the rhythm section. Rosolino launches into a five-minute solo, implying the melody while engaging in nonstop trombone acrobatics. He spends most of the time in the upper register of the horn, creating an exciting effect that he sustains throughout the entire solo.

But it doesn't stop there: Rosolino takes the head out after short solos by van Dyke, Schols and Engels, but instead of stopping at the end of the form, he keeps blowing for another minute, just in case anyone thought he might be getting tired. As the track fades out to Rosolino's continuous burn, we're left wondering just how long he might have kept going were it not for the recording engineer's fade-out!

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Watermleon Slim: Wreck on the Highway

If blues artists have sung of trains and mules and other forms of transport, why not long-haul trucking? The cover of Watermelon Slim's new CD Escape from the Chicken Coop finds our star comfortably ensconced behind the wheel, jabbering on the ceebee and scouting the horizon for the next Denny's Grand Slam. Let's just hope he doesn't try to drive and play slide guitar at the same time.

You will be glad to learn that "Wreck on the Highway" was not inspired by Slim's own experiences on the road, but comes from Roy Acuff, who had a hit with it back during World War II. (And though Acuff is credited as composer on this CD, even he borrowed it from Dorsey Dixon—who did base it on a real car crash.) Yet Acuff rarely performed "Wreck on the Highway," because he didn't think the song was suitable for establishments where the clientele drink alcohol—and, yep, that pretty much rules them all out until that Carnegie Hall end-of-career retrospective arrives on the schedule.

Watermelon Slim stays true to the spirit of the song, serving up a moving gospel-ish rendition, with a deep, gravelly lead vocal over sweet harmonies and understated accompaniment. He takes it at a slower pace than Acuff and the processional pulse amplifies the grieving tone of the somber lyrics. Slim is a master of hot electric blues, but this is roots music for the porch swing in the evening. No dancin' allowed, and please nothing stronger than grandma's lemonade.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Poncho Sanchez: Cantaloupe Island

He is the miracle man of Latin jazz. Just breaking into the Cuban and Puerto Rican dominated Latin jazz scene was no small achievement for a Mexican-American from Laredo, Texas. But Poncho Sanchez has not only risen to a position of preeminence, but has somehow stayed with the same label for more than a quarter of a century. He now releases his 24th album on Concord. It's hardly the same label any more—new owner, new headquarters, new city, new management, even the LPs are gone—but Sanchez remains. And for a good reason: he delivers the goods, again and again, with effective charts, infectious rhythms, solid musicianship and smart song selection. Here he presents a deceptively simple version of "Cantaloupe Island," which reminds me of another standout Latin cover of a Herbie Hancock tune. But the casual listener might not notice the modulations and harmonic changes that give a fresh spin to a familiar song. Sanchez lays down a very crisp groove, and the song is ready for airplay straight out of the case. Are there still jazz stations out there looking for hip new songs to play? I'm not sure, but I won't bet against an artist who has always succeeded against the odds.

October 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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