Mike Longo: Tell Me a Bedtime Story

Pianist Mike Longo must be in a pugilistic frame of mind. He follows up his 2007 CD Float Like a Butterfly with his current effort Sting Like a Bee—both titles coming from a famous self-description by boxer Muhammad Ali. On "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" the emphasis is more on float than sting. Yes, the boxing gloves need to come off at bedtime. After a fortissimo intro, the trio settles into a languid and nuanced rendition of the Hancock piece. Longo has picked some fine sparring partners here, and Cranshaw and Nash play with such relaxed swing that it would be easy to overlook their contributions, but the success of this track is very much centered in the pulse. I played it for a listener who knew little about jazz, who responded to the beat first and foremost. But musicians are more likely to enjoy the crisp chord changes and the subtle way blue notes are integrated into the melody line. Longo is willing to stretch the harmonies with his phrases, which sometimes bristle in an arrangement that seems to invite gentle tinkling. Definitely a heavyweight contender.

November 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tinsley Ellis: Speak No Evil

The title might be a fake-out for jazz fans. No this is not a Wayne Shorter tribute. Tinsley Ellis's Speak No Evil is fervid electric blues with plenty of soul. Then again, given the evolution of the genres, it is sometimes hard to determine the dividing line between electric blues and rock. Often the giveaway is the gray hair of the musicians—rock celebrates youth while blues venerates its elders—and some telltale signs of superior musicianship and maturity. When I hear music of this sort, I sometimes think this is how rock music should sound: raw but real; happening now but built on the tradition; hot but not mindless. If you put it on the radio, people would get the message immediately. But for the time being, music of this sort circulates like samizdat on the fringes of our culture. You are invited to take a taste, but be forewarned, you may not want to go back to those teenage bands after a dose of this.

November 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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David Murray & the Gwo Ka Masters (with Taj Mahal and Sista Kee): Southern Skies

David Murray returns to the studio with traditional Guadeloupian gwo-ka percussionists, and this time brings along Taj Mahal and Sista Kee as guest vocalists. As you may know, Taj Mahal comes from a blues perspective and Sista Kee a gospel-rap orientation, but, honestly, there aren't enough genres to go around here. The Caribbean participants deliver a blistering world music beat, while Murray and the rhythm section superimpose their brand of heavy James Brown-ish funk. So this is one occasion when the well-known guests on the date adapt to the hosts rather than the other way around. Murray contributes an aggressive solo over a static harmonic accompaniment, but this isn't the place for fancy chord changes. The rhythm, hot and unrelenting, is the centerpiece here, and David Murray risks coming across like a sideman at his own date. Even the mix sends that message. It sounds like the rest of the band has been pushed back behind a partition of percussion. Is it jazz? Is it dance music for the block party of all time? I'll leave the labels to others, but I will validate the potent rhythm content, which is filled to the brim and spilling over the sides.

November 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jonathon Haffner: New Year

The review copies of Christmas CDs started arriving in my mailbox around Labor Day, but poor New Year's Day only has this one tribute so far this season. But any smart bandleader would trade five reindeer for one Jonathon Haffner in a heartbeat. Here he works with producer David Binney (who, sad to say, left his horn at home) on a probing project in the company of some like-minded associates. "New Year" starts with a nostalgic theme, more fitting perhaps for throwing out the old rather than bringing in the new, over a medium tempo that always seems on the verge of unwinding into free time. The drums play around the beat rather than push it, and result is an open aural terrain which sets off the soloists all the more vividly. Taborn arpeggiates himself outside conventional harmony, but in a manner more controlled than your typical free solo, then returns to the changes just before passing the baton to Haffner. The bandleader builds his improvisation out of the main melody—a concept that many musicians praise but rarely try to pull off in performance. His conception, which reminds me at times of Jan Garbarek's, emphasizes the power of small phrases, which makes his double-time excursions all the more effective when they arrive. Okay, "New Year" will be too much for those looking for easy-going holiday music, but if your New Year's resolution is to open your ears to less formulaic sounds, this one is worth adding to your playlist.

November 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Marc Copland & Gary Peacock: Blue in Green

In a more discerning universe, Marc Copland would be far better known. I first encountered his music in the mid-1980s, when an acquaintance sent me an amateur tape of a NY club gig by the pianist. I was deeply impressed then, and expected a grand career from this artist. Copland has not disappointed me—his music-making has repeatedly lived up to the highest expectations—however the jazz audience has surprised me by not embracing his bracing pianism. Copland has recorded extensively, invariably drawing on the finest collaborators, and has proven again and again that his own playing is at the same world class level as his better known associates. Yet, despite his considerable musical achievements, Marc's name recognition, outside of a small, knowledgeable inner circle of musicians and admirers, is modest.

One cannot say the same for his music, which is probing and provocative, more a dissection of compositional structures than the usual tributes at the shrine of the American songbook. Here Copland and Peacock take a very familiar jazz tune, already burned into our collective consciousness in definitive performances by the standard-bearers of the art form, and manage to stretch it into limber, new shapes. The duo adopt such an elongated sense of time, that the pulse is more an occasional reminder of the beat rather than a constant timekeeping. Copland doesn't so much reharmonize the song as impose new chordal structures on top of the old ones, which exist concurrently. His solo structure has plenty of drama, but no false bravado, and some of the strongest effects come through the juxtaposition of silence rather than the assertion of sound. Peacock, for his part, plays with a zen sureness that is centering even as it adds to the deconstructive spirit of the date. The result is that charming exception: a cover version that somehow manages to sound like its own original.

November 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Houston Person: Lester Leaps In

The CD is entitled Mellow, but Houston Person closes it with a track that is anything but. Lester Young's personal take on "I Got Rhythm" changes serves as a platform for hard-swinging at a pace somewhere north of 300 beats per minute. Person may be best known for his soulful tenor stylings and his many years spent accompanying Etta Jones, but this outing is situated at that intersection where bop and Kansas City swing meet. And, frankly, if you plan to hang out at any intersection, you could hardly pick a better one, my friend. Person shows off more technique than usual, and the rhythm section plays with confidence. Drummond sticks to walking lines, even during his solo, but he is a major source of swing here. But at a little over three minutes, the track is all too short. Next time invite Lester to stay awhile.

November 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stefano Bollani: Orvieto

The Italian jazz piano tradition is especially distinguished, with artists such as Enrico Pieranunzi, Franco D'Andrea, Dado Moroni, and Giorgio Gaslini having set the standard, over a period of years, with an impressive body of work. Despite the quality of their music, however, these artists are still mostly forgotten when American critics vote in their various polls and hand out "best of year" honors. But Stefano Bollani, the relative youngster here, is proving harder to ignore, and even the jingoistic reviewers who seem to root invariably for home town talent need to pay attention to this exemplary pianist from Milan, whose improvisations are so fresh and untethered to the conventional. Once again on this track from his 2009 CD Stone in the Water, Bollani puts together the whole package. His touch is clear and crisp yet with almost no unpleasant bite or aftertaste, none of the brittleness one hears in so many of his peers. He works with bass and drums and never tries to dominate them, yet he doesn't need to, given the forcefulness inherent in his method of understatement. He brings an advanced sense of rhythmic phrasing to his music, but never tries to show off with eccentric displacements. Instead he lets the intentionality of his melodic lines find their own paths, based on musicality not licks. Probably his only limitation is the audience—can they dig an artist who does not resort to flamboyant methods and flashy tricks? Only time will tell, but count me in as an admirer.

November 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Komeda Project: Ballad for Bernt

Tribute bands, for better or worse, are increasingly setting the tone for the jazz scene. But a tribute band dedicated to an artist outside the American hegemonic sphere is unusual, and even more so when the focus is on a musician best known as a film composer. Yet Krzysztof Komeda (1931-1969) is a deserving figure, and his work back in the 1960s played an important role in establishing the European jazz aesthetic that has spawned so many later bands and recordings. As a follow-up to their 2007 CD Crazy Girl the Komeda Project has returned with Requiem, and here they present a composition drawn from the score for the Roman Polanski film Knife in the Water. The piece is a languorous ballad in a Strayhorn-esque vein, and Russ Johnson steps to the fore on this track with a moody solo that extends the mood of the written melody. Even so, I found myself paying more attention to the rhythm section, and in particular Nasheet Waits, who manage to maintain the emotional temperature of Komeda's work, while instilling some sweet momentum on a chart that could easily drift away into the clouds.

November 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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