Air: Abra

Not many bands in the history of jazz were more adept than Air at combining the open spaces of free playing with gutbucket expressionism. Much of that owed to Henry Threadgill, of course, whose gritty, bluesy R&B alto and tenor sounds were used to convey remarkably abstract thoughts. Not to be overlooked, however, are bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall, one the truly great rhythm sections, who provide the backbone of this track. Hopkins's expansive sense of swing works in tandem with McCall's; the pair creates a constantly ebbing-and-flowing, alternately swaggering and vulnerable ambience. Their work is fraught with drama, imbued with passion. Threadgill's composition is slight but essential, providing the performance an almost perceivable (mainly rhythmic) hinge on which it swings to great effect.

February 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Air: Let's All Go Down To The Footwash

Ah, the 1970s … that golden epoch when major record labels actually saw fit to record cutting-edge jazz. Actually, it was considerably less than an epoch—more like the blink of an eye. Still, a few bands benefited, one them being Air, the redoubtable trio composed of saxophonist/hubkaphonist Henry Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall. This track comes from one of a pair of late '70s releases the group did for Novus. Recorded live at the Montreux Festival, "Footwash" is an 11-minute performance emphasizing the group's gift for collective free improvisation. The soulful Threadgill sounds like the kind of saxophonist who would walk the bar at some nightclub co-managed by Albert Ayler and Anton Webern. Hopkins's arco bass provides a texturally capricious foil for Threadgill, while McCall ingeniously fills in the rhythmic spaces and swings some sharp elbows. The composition is credited to Threadgill, but it's spare to the point of being nonexistent. The music is largely—perhaps totally—improvised. As a result, it lacks the defining character provided by Threadgill's more considered compositions. Still, while this bracing spasm of intellect and feeling isn’t the best of Air, it's pretty darn good.

February 28, 2009 · 1 comment

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Katia & Marielle Labèque: Florianapolis

The sisters Labèque are world-famous duo classical pianists. Though they play separate pianos as well, their most famous collaborations have been at the same piano. Their rapport is so telepathic that they have been described as being "one superhuman pianist with four hands." While it is not clear on Love of Colours if the pianists play the same instrument together on every tune, it seems obvious on a couple of numbers. Then again, with the different instrumentation and the wonders of a recording studio, who can say for sure?

Katia and Marielle Labèque are not jazz pianists. They see themselves, especially Katia, as interpreters. Over the years, Katia has put out several such interpretative recordings (e.g., Little Girl Blue) and has collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and other legendary jazz keyboardists.

John McLaughlin's composition "Florianapolis" has appeared on several of his albums over the years. It was first recorded on Mahavishnu's Adventures in Radioland in 1986; it surfaced again on the John McLaughlin Trio's Live at the Royal Festival Hall in 1989. Katia, who was connected to John during this period, no doubt heard the tune many times. As one would expect, the Labèques' version features a more delicate approach. But still there are 20 fingers flying across all 88 keys with a joyous abandon. How they don't accidentally scratch each other is a wonder. There is no improvisation. (If there had been, my rating would have been 96.) Instead, the music was written out by McLaughlin as if improvised. The mind boggles at the ink that had to be used. There are a million notes in this tune. The sisters carry it all off brilliantly. The interplay, counterpoint and intuitive nature of the performance is proof that genetic heritage is about more than just DNA.

February 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Katia & Marielle Labèque: Blue in Green

Love of Colours is dedicated to Miles Davis. That had to do with more than how much duo-pianists/sisters Katia & Marielle Labèque liked "Blue in Green." After all, former Davis sideman and partner in fusion crime John McLaughlin produced this album. And through the McLaughlin association, Katia came to know Miles himself, who thought enough of her to name not one but two songs after her on You're Under Arrest. The Labèques acknowledge they are not jazz artists. The classical 4-hand duo has performed with symphony orchestras all over the world for three decades. But they also love jazz and believe it deserves classical interpretation, an idea that has been growing in the classical community. There is a school of opinion, in which I am enrolled, that holds jazz will become the classical music of the future.

The Labèques try something on "Blue In Green" that for them was quite different. Both players use a MIDI piano. Katia also plays a synthesizer. She was familiar with that because of her stint in McLaughlin's band The Translators in the early '80s. But certainly keyboards that controlled other sounds and created electronic swaths were not in the arsenal of these grand-piano ladies. The MIDI piano controls a lush, breathy sound. The reverberating MIDI notes, which sound like they have built-in drum brushes, levitate over new piano notes. As each tone decays, it is replaced with the silent texture of sadness. This performance, which is slower than usual for "Blue In Green," is a beautiful and sad rendition. I wonder if Miles had a chance to hear it.

February 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Arthur Blythe: For Fats

Arthur Blythe's barebones sax/tuba/conga trio approaches "For Fats" almost as if they were a conventional sax/bass/drums free jazz group. Tubaist Bob Stewart plays a composed ostinato under the head, then mixes in an interactive walking bassline during Blythe's solo. He maintains the pulse throughout, regardless of how far afield the improvisation gets, much in the same way that a bassist such as Fred Hopkins or Malachi Favors might. Ahkmed Abdullah doesn't have a ride cymbal or hi-hat to reinforce the groove, but keeps the polyrhythms flowing on conga, his lines inventively intertwined with Stewart's. Blythe burns over the rhythm section, biting off long phrases with cocky self-assuredness. A palpable silence behind the group serves almost as another band member—framing the performance, providing a buffer that allows every gesture to be heard and absorbed. Blythe didn't pursue this direction for long, but it was great while it lasted.

February 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Arthur Blythe: Bush Baby

Arthur Blythe's outstanding '70s trio with Bob Stewart and Ahkmed Abdullah was unlike any other in jazz at the time. Indeed, it is unique in the history of jazz. The band's music hearkened back to early jazz (using a tuba instead of a string bass) and jazz's pre-origins in Africa (hand drums rather than traps), yet adopted techniques of the post-Coleman avant-garde.

Of course, other bands at the time combined African elements with a free jazz sensibility. Blythe's vision differed by virtue of its particular stripped-down sound and his willingness to explore certain primordial aspects of funk. "Bush Baby" is perhaps the consummate example of this. Stewart lays down a funky, repetitive bassline, over which Blythe blows the riff-based melody and an in-the-pocket-but-out-to-lunch solo (think Maceo Parker meets Eric Dolphy). Abdullah's rhythmic accompaniment is funky in its way, but extremely varied and complex; it's left to Stewart to hold down the groove, which he does in tandem with Blythe until there's nowhere to go but "out."

The spare instrumentation—in particular a lack of high, metallic sounds in the form of cymbals and/or snares—throws Blythe's sound in relief. It exposes the altoist's every nuance, which is a good thing. For all its earthiness, this is extremely subtle music, and the more interesting for it.

February 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Margo Reymundo: Wrapped Around Your Finger

The liner notes of My Heart's Desire claim that Margo Reymundo's music is "rooted in jazz and pop," and that her influences are "clearly Ella and Sarah." The notes depict a stylist who is creating a new form of vocalizing she calls "organica," which is a "world constructed of unfettered vocals that rivals anything created with synthesized sound."

Here's the deal. I don't hear that much jazz influence. There is some here and there in a phrase or motif. But this is a pop record. I don't hear any Ella or Sarah influences, either. Maybe I am missing something. What I do hear is a very distinctive vocalist who deserves as much recognition as she can get. Reymundo has a beautiful and memorable voice, and should obtain a fair amount of commercial success. This is one talented woman. In fact, I think so much of her singing that I am stretching my definition of jazz just to review her music on jazz.com, in the hopes that folks will make an effort to hear it.

Reymundo approaches Sting's "Wrapped Around My Finger" in a totally different and engaging way. The hint of jazz phrasing passes from her lips, which are most often used to offer a slight reggae. Her voice is a breathy less-jazzed-version of Sade's with some Stevie Nicks thrown in for good measure. It is emotive and a trademark if she puts it to good use. Her backing band finds a good blues-rock groove to help carry the performance. But her voice will have you wrapped around her finger. (I could not help myself.)

Margo Reymundo is a singer you should make a point to hear. I would be happy if she someday comes over to the dark side and records some real jazz. There is no doubt in my mind that she would be good.

February 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pete Zimmer: Judgment

George Garzone was Pete Zimmer's mentor while the latter studied at the New England Conservatory for two years, during which time he got to fill in on numerous occasions in Garzone's enduring Boston-based group, The Fringe. A few years later, Garzone returned the favor by participating in Zimmer's third recording session, Judgment, for Pete's own Tippin' label. The addition of Garzone's formidable tenor supercharged Zimmer's already dynamic hard-bop/post-bop quintet.

On the album's title track, Garzone and fellow tenorman Joel Frahm glide silkily through the harmonically appealing modal theme. Garzone builds a solo that employs subtle overtones at first, and more intense tonal distortions as he progresses, telling his story with a typically distinctive combination of logic and abandon. Frahm succeeds him in even more heated fashion, with extended lines that sometimes ascend from the lowest depths to the higher octaves, as well as adding stimulating call-&-response motifs along the way. Pianist Toru Dodo impresses with a sharply focused yet varied 2-handed attack. The two tenors then enter a series of exciting, mutually challenging exchanges, the rising young player Frahm more than holding his own with the intrepid veteran Garzone. This 10-minute track brings new delights each time you hear it.

February 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pete Zimmer: Road Taken

About half of the 2009 Grammy Awards went to independent artists and labels. Now more than ever, a musician or group cannot wait patiently for a major record company to come calling. Pete Zimmer put out Common Man on his own newly formed label in 2004, after unsuccessfully shopping the demo around. His impressive quintet has garnered positive reviews and growing word-of-mouth ever since.

The ballad "Road Taken" shows off the talented drummer's composing abilities. Trumpeter Michael Rodriguez plays the poignant, rather uplifting theme alternately with Joel Frahm's tenor. Bassist John Sullivan contributes to the dreamy mood with a lovingly lyrical bowed solo. Rodriguez follows with a notably gorgeous sound, and a confidently relaxed authority and technical facility. Pianist Toru Dodo plays a radiant improvisation ranging from wistful to earnestly expressive. Frahm then undertakes a daring statement that restlessly explores various tonal effects and phrase structures, displaying the adventurous influences of both Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. If you somehow had initial reservations as to the beauty and originality of the theme, the reprise should put them to rest. "Road Taken" is a polished work of art. Pete Zimmer may not be taking the road less traveled stylistically with his quintet, but it is a securely confident and rewarding unit in the mode of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers.

February 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Shirley Horn: You Go to My Head

The main ingredients ensuring the success of a jazz recording session usually include the chemistry between the musicians involved and a relaxed atmosphere. In the case of Shirley Horn's The Main Ingredient, you can add good home cooking and "some booze." This was an onsite production over the course of four days at Horn's Washington, D.C., home, with Shirley doing the cooking while her manager, Sheila Mathis, took care of the technical issues. Included in the CD's notes is the singer's recipe for "my famous beef-and-beer," the contents of which include "1-beer (Heineken)" and "1/2 pint Wild Irish Rose (wine)." Yes, a good time was had by all.

Considering the "intoxicating" culinary setting, this marvelous 9-minute "You Go to My Head" should come as no surprise. Joe Henderson slowly unfurls the melody at a trademark sauntering Horn tempo. Her extremely sensitive comping matches his detailed and sultry-toned delivery, while Elvin Jones's exquisitely executed brushwork is skillfully captured by the great engineer David Baker. As Horn next breathily contemplates the words, Henderson's spacey, fluttering, and sometimes serpentine responses continue to reveal how emphatically attuned the vocalist and tenorman are to one another. After the track ends, you might not even realize that neither Horn nor Henderson soloed. Their subtle shadings and the collective impact of their miniature commentaries are so overwhelmingly absorbing as to require no extended individual elaborations. This is a wonderful home-brewed treatment of the well-known standard. Let's eat in tonight!

February 26, 2009 · 1 comment

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Jacques Gauthé & The Creole Rice Jazz Band: Blues for Bechet

For many years, one of the unexpected pleasures of visiting New Orleans was discovering the masterful Jacques Gauthé, either while he was sitting in with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band or leading his own Creole Rice Jazz Band at its home base for many years, the plush Meridian Hotel on Canal Street. Gauthé, who passed away in 2007, was born and raised in France and inspired to take up the clarinet by a Sidney Bechet concert he attended in Paris as a young boy in 1951. He moved to New Orleans in 1968, and worked as a chef before turning to jazz fulltime in 1984, whereupon he began doubling on soprano sax.

In 1997, New Orleans took part in the Centennial Celebration of Sidney Bechet's birth, a perfect time for Gauthé to record a tribute to his idol. In addition to recording 15 tunes Bechet had written and/or played, Gauthé included his own noteworthy composition "Blues for Bechet." Gauthé's stirring soprano, with its wide vibrato and rich, fully rounded tone, unavoidably evokes Bechet. The piece shifts from a melancholy, almost dirge-like opening theme played by Gauthé, to an upbeat, more joyful quality when the horns join him – a structure reminiscent of the two faces of a New Orleans-style funeral procession. A string of solos featuring Owen's vibrant trombone, Heitger's vigorously buoyant trumpet, Pistorius's honky-tonk piano, and Edegran's delicately articulated acoustic guitar, all prove that this is no one-man band. Gauthé soars on the out chorus, as the full band drives home its message with both authenticity and verve.

February 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Manitas D'Oro (For Paco De Lucia)

"Manitas D'Oro" (hands of gold), dedicated to Paco De Lucia, is not to be confused with the famous flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata (hands of silver). Nor should it be associated in any way with Walter Kolosky, aka Manitas de Tin.

Years ago the Guitar Trio, featuring John McLaughlin, Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola, was on a world tour. At the last moment, Di Meola cancelled out on a gig in South America. This news was announced to the audience just before show time, and those wishing refunds could leave the venue. No one left. Who would even think of it? On top of that, reviews claimed it was a better concert without Di Meola. Those comments were not meant to disparage Al. Rather, they pointed out that sometimes three guitarists create a situation in which there "were too many cooks." Everyone also recognized that McLaughlin and De Lucia had a special rapport above and beyond the trio's interrelationship. Personally, I prefer jazz quartets over quintets because I can listen more closely to the components of the music. The same theory applies here.

"Manitas D'Oro" is a typical McLaughlin/De Lucia excursion. The two meld jazz and flamenco seamlessly. Because the tune was written for Paco, the flamenco elements dominate. McLaughlin's composition is a touching ballad. At times it even comes across as a Spanish lullaby. The two players race up and down their respective fretboards like nobody's business. But it is the somehow gentle beauty of these speed runs that catches your attention. They are not assaults or excuses to show off. In one lyrical passage after another, the players demonstrate that musical cultures can come together through understanding and virtuosity. This was recorded early in the history of McLaughlin's and De Lucia's collaborations. Brilliant as this performance is, it still only hints at the future.

February 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Will Sellenraad: It's Been A Long Time

The title came about probably because drummer Victor Lewis wrote it a long time ago, but finally brought it to light specifically for guitarist Will Sellenraad's quartet. A blues at its core, it's nicely varnished with a hard-bop sensibility, and Lewis adds flourishes to keep the swing factor high. Bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa takes the first solo, and for nearly two minutes weaves dulcet maneuverings out of his vibrant tone between both ends of the register. The guitarist mixes easy flowing single lines with full and half chords so subtly it never sounds labored. Saxophonist Abraham Burton supplies the most powerful statements, but tempers his edginess with a reverence for tradition and a sensuous approach. There's nothing complicated here, but top-notch playing makes the simple sublime.

February 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Zamfir

This band, casually known as The Translators, is perhaps the most unsung of John McLaughlin's groups. After he switched record labels from Columbia to Warner Bros. in 1980, Belo Horizonte was his first release. The attendant advertising campaign implied that, despite McLaughlin playing acoustic guitar, the band was more electric than it really was. Of course that did not affect the musical quality, but I wonder how effective the campaign was, since this beautiful album failed to register on any scale or chart I was aware of. It seemed to appear and disappear overnight. Time has passed, and its brilliance is now acknowledged by many McLaughlin fans and guitar aficionados.

A sophisticated European jazz elegance permeates this album. The understated lush ballad "Zamfir" exemplifies that elegance. A short lyrical introduction is presented. McLaughlin and keyboardist Francois Couturier provide the gentle backdrop for the lovely bass of Jean Paul Celea. It is masterful playing of a touching theme. A slow, almost samba-like jazz swing takes over, mostly courtesy of drummer Tommy Campbell. McLaughlin now solos in the center channel. The melody is based on a few simple notes that he exploits to their limits. What a beautiful harmonious sound. At the time, McLaughlin gave several interviews about his new direction. He said he wanted to show the beauty of the acoustic guitar. In his long career, McLaughlin has put out many great acoustic-guitar albums. Musically, some are better than and some not as good as Belo Horizonte. But for the pure beauty of what an acoustic guitar can sound like, nothing matches this album. "Zamfir" is further proof that the best sounds on this earth are the most natural.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Waltz for Katia

"Waltz for Katia," written for John McLaughlin's love at the time and keyboard player in this band, has a fun Gypsy spirit running through it. McLaughlin does his usual stuff on acoustic guitar. You know … he bends time, alters dimensions, and things like that. I would have liked to hear him play this piece with Stéphane Grappelli. That is not meant as a slight to Augustin Dumay. He plays fantastically on this cut. The honoree herself plays an impressive section of piano runs. Although Katia Labeque was a world-renowned classical pianist, jazz wasn't her bailiwick. She did not improvise in McLaughlin's band. John wrote all of her music out as if it were improvised. It is quite remarkable to listen to. I must also mention that this performance contains a John McLaughlin career guitar-playing highlight. At the 2:46 mark, he defies all the laws of space, time and gravity, the axioms of propulsion and momentum and the Pythagorean Theorem.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Fallen Angels (live)

"Fallen Angels" had appeared on this band's previous studio recording The Heart of Things. I have a small complaint with the tone, and thus the mix, of John McLaughlin's guitar. I think it should have been sharper and louder. It gets lost in the unison lines with saxophonist Gary Thomas. You can still hear a hint of McLaughlin, and the lines played together are hauntingly beautiful. Maybe that is what he had in mind. You know the ensemble thing? I guess it is a little issue, but I felt I had to mention it.

This is an outstanding fusion album, and "Fallen Angels" is one of the reasons. The long intro is really a wonderful soundscape. McLaughlin and Thomas take turns playing fluttering notes amidst the electric textures of bassist Matt Garrison and keyboardist Otmaro Ruiz. Dennis Chambers remains patiently subdued, working only brushes and cymbals. (That could be Victor Williams as well.) The true head of the arrangement appears. "Fallen Angels" becomes a melodic dirge. Chambers loses patience and begins hitting loud accents. The band sounds almost like a revving engine. Yet even as the power builds, the tempo slows. That's unusual. McLaughlin takes a pensive solo. You can hear him fine here. The band leaves lots of open space, providing plenty of room to fit everything into our ears. The music is now almost a whisper. But a few heavy strikes from Chambers bring back the volume and the tension. This live cut is a good representation of the song, but doesn't do justice to the intense dynamics in the venues I attended.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Allen Toussaint: Tipitina and Me

From the early '50s "Tee Nah Nah" by Smiley Lewis and the answering "Tipitina" by Professor Longhair through the high-energy madness of Huey "Piano" Smith's Clowns, strutting brass bands, and various Mardi Gras "Indians," to Dr. John's psychedelic voodoo and James Booker's eye patch, there's been a whole mess o' NOLA nonsense unleashed on a deserving world. Multitasking producer/songwriter/pianist/ hitmaker/label owner Allen Toussaint had a hand in much of it, but his own releases over the decades were mostly quieter affairs, befitting a musician with some classical and jazz interests, which culminated in a couple of high-profile, post-Katrina albums with Elvis Costello.

More haunting, however, is "Tipitina and Me," his second contribution to Our New Orleans 2005 (first being the funk-rouser "Yes We Can Can," which has a familiar ring). It's a perfect slice of the Crescent City, past and present. In the course of less than three minutes, the engrossed listener hears Jelly Roll Morton's Spanish tinge (the Caribbean Creole habanera sound plus Louis Moreau Gottschalk) and mad 'Fess's sly key-tickling, as well as some Slavic Classic sadness mixed with bayou blues; you experience the pianist's personal grief but profound hope too, and all carried on a rolling rhumba rhythm. It's as though he were saying, "We may be down … but we're not out, not by a Congo Square jump-up, or a long chain of cheap plastic beads." And just to make the point, after striking the last chord of "Tipitina," Toussaint adds a few faint notes from the intro to Professor Longhair's perennial fave as his own final message: "Go to the Mardi Gras."

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: The Peacocks

The Promise runs the gamut from high-intensity fusion workouts to blues to ballads to flamenco-tinged acoustic forays and heartfelt tributes. Here John McLaughlin takes the same tack with Jimmy Rowles's piano ballad "The Peacocks" as he did on his tribute album Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans, treating a jazz composition as a classical piece. This version stays pretty close to the original in melodic approach, although McLaughlin's acoustic rendition naturally creates a lushness not heard in other versions. McLaughlin improvises, but it's less jazzy. While there are speedy runs incorporated within the framework of this slow-moving ballad, they are performed so sensitively you forget all about velocity. Yan Maresz and Philippe Loli do a fine job providing the bottom and backing chords. But like almost every other McLaughlin acoustic performance, it is his sheer virtuosity and taste that will linger in your ears.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Shin Jin Rui

John McLaughlin and saxophonist David Sanborn have known each other for many years. Three decades ago, Sanborn appeared as special guest on two of McLaughlin's albums, Electric Guitarist and Electric Dreams, and has jammed with him on stage. In 1995 McLaughlin invited Sanborn back into the studio for this performance. As best I can determine, "Shin Jin Rui" is the Japanese equivalent of "Generation X." Why McLaughlin would refer to it is beyond me. Perhaps there is a deeper meaning in Japanese or Zen culture.

The tune begins with the sounds of a babbling brook and singing birds. McLaughlin and Sanborn play the somewhat dark and mournful intro in unison. They know how to mesh. The other musicians provide a cautious subterranean mood for reinforcement. The tune begins in earnest. It is a more hopeful blues shuffle with a touch of funk. Sanborn solos first. He can play the pop stuff, straight-ahead jazz, and hang in there with the best of them on fusion pieces. After a percussive section featuring the superb duo of Chambers and Alias, McLaughlin enters. It is a good solo that would have been better without the ring- modulator. But he gets the point across as even Sanborn begins to play with distortion in the calls and responses that bring us to the end. You can't go wrong listening to music made by McLaughlin, Sanborn and band. It may not be easy to discover what "Shin Jin Rui" means. But it is easy to define this music as good.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: No Return

I have been dreading writing this review. But the time has finally come. I must listen to "No Return" again. In the last 20 years, it has been my least favorite John McLaughlin composition and performance. I'm sure it was fun imitating Miles Davis's voice at the beginning, and endlessly repeating the catchy funky riff on the keyboards. I know it was cool to hear organist Joey DeFrancesco play trumpet just like Miles Davis too. The overly talented DeFrancesco can really do that. No doubt the special-effect voices and noises also added to the joy of creation. McLaughlin's solo is undeniably hot. The interplay between the two players is understandably tight because of their familiarity in The Free Spirits. All the elements for a joyous result are in place.

Alas, the decision to play the same fun but simpleton riff over and over throughout the entire song was not good. I would be happy to rate this 7-minute track a 90 if they had cut out most of that repeating riff and left the good stuff. (The new tune would have only been about 3 minutes long, however.) I cannot deny the superior musicianship here. For that reason alone, it is a noteworthy performance that deserves attention from skeptics. And in fact I have had arguments with those who think this is a fantastic piece. To them I say only that the irritating riff at the core of this cut is my Telltale Heart. For me, the title of this tune is an order I shall henceforth obey.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Amy and Joseph

I'll never understand the criticism of John McLaughlin that says he is all about just playing guitar really fast. Yes, he can and does. I would argue that when he plays fast he still produces music that is melodically and thematically strong. But the man has also written and performed lush ballads and soundscapes that can take your breath away. They just don't get the attention that the speed burners do. Such a piece is "Amy and Joseph." Preceded by a soothing Dante verse read by Stephanie Bimbi, it is a brief two minutes of pure emotive affection. The song, written for McLaughlin's best friend and his wife, is played on acoustic guitar overdubbed on top of McLaughlin's textured keyboards. You almost can't play guitar as slow or as intimate as this melody sometimes is. "Amy and Joseph" is only two minutes of music, but you get lost in its beauty.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Thelonius Melodius

John McLaughlin's Free Spirits featured Dennis Chambers on drums and Joey DeFrancesco on organ. It was the standard B-3 organ jazz trio format that McLaughlin had always loved. Of course, this trio was different. The playing was more aggressive (read that as fusion) and music from a wider swath was played. I like the B-3 sound okay, and DeFrancesco is a killer player. But I have my limits on the instrument. Yet more than that, McLaughlin's guitar tone was so similar to DeFrancesco's organ that when they played together you couldn't hear McLaughlin. In concert this was less problematic because you could see, but it was still there. This performance of "Thelonius Melodius," recorded during the band's Blue Note gig that yielded their Tokyo Live, was not included on that earlier album. I suspect this track was mixed differently, since you can hear McLaughlin much better!

"Thelonius Melodius" is a whirling blues romp that in many ways harkens back to McLaughlin's Tony Williams Lifetime days. There are stops and starts, sudden minor chord progressions that take the piece off center, plenty of unison playing, and energetic calls and responses. The only thing missing from the Lifetime sound is the distortion. McLaughlin can be clearly heard on this cut. It was always such a shame to know that he was playing something fantastic yet we couldn't quite hear it on the Live album. The interplay between Chambers, DeFrancesco and McLaughlin is at telepathic levels. The Free Spirits was far from my favorite McLaughlin band. Still, they were killing. Ironically, if this performance had been on Tokyo Live it would have been the album's best cut.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: The Divide

Live in Paris is a candidate for best fusion album of the 1990s. John McLaughlin made sure he had the drummer he needed to lead such a powerful band: Dennis Chambers. McLaughlin also chose rising bass star Matt Garrison, son of legend Jimmy Garrison, to hold the floor boards down. The original keyboard player Jim Beard was unavailable for this tour, so McLaughlin invited wizard Otmaro Ruiz to take his place. Then there was saxophonist Gary Thomas. McLaughlin called him "revolutionary." I listened and wasn't so sure. I am still not. Is he a brilliant player or just average? It is possible that seeing Thomas in performance may have tainted my opinion. He is a hulk of a man, but barely moves during performance. I never get the feeling he is enjoying himself. But I am 100% sure of a couple of things. You can't be a slouch and be invited to play with John McLaughlin! And Gary Thomas wrote the most dramatic composition on Live in Paris.

"The Divide" is downright nasty. The opening unison salvos from Thomas and McLaughlin are bad intentioned. Nothing but doom could come from these gnarled patterns. Thomas solos first, in a halting fashion sometimes plumbing the depths of despair. Okay. He is pretty good here, I must admit. He continues, caught in a whirlpool and being pulled down fast by the textures and rhythms surrounding him. At solo's end, the band revisits the opening theme, which now firmly has you in its grasp. Chambers and Garrison keep this drama on the road. I do not like it when John McLaughlin runs his guitar through a ring-modulator, but the ugliness of "The Divide" calls for it. It sounds terrible. He is grinding meat bones with grizzle still attached. Let's get farther down! Then we are thrown for a loop. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Playing great synthesizer, Otmaro Ruiz enters the bloodbath determined to raise everyone's spirits. It is fun – for a minute or two. But Ruiz knows what tune he is playing on. Fun now becomes fear. Ruiz builds tension that can only be released by the reemergence of the master melody. And here it comes, just in time. Another moment or two, and we might be considering suicide. Even so, we would die exhilarated and happy.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Seven Sisters

"Seven Sisters" opens the very fine Heart of Things album Live in Paris, the first time many people heard the band performing live. Their previous studio album, The Heart of Things, had disappointed some fans, who were bothered by two main issues. First, there seemed to be a concerted effort towards an ensemble sound. Second was the ongoing issue of John McLaughlin's guitar tone. Lots of fusion folks didn't like it. That would include yours truly. It seemed too warm and muted. There wasn't enough bite. And McLaughlin was all about bite! Add the first to the second and you had an album on which McLaughlin took few solos, and the ones he did take were hard to hear! So, as you can imagine, longtime fans approached Live in Paris with trepidation.

Luckily, most of the concerns proved unfounded. McLaughlin's tone still wasn't the best, but it had been vastly improved. The live setting also improved things because musicians had more space to fill. There were more solos all around.

The opener comes complete with gentle McLaughlin and Otmaro Ruiz's keyboard arpeggios. Saxophonist Gary Thomas plays a nice melody above them. A Chambers smashing drum cues the band into a fusion groove. The tune has all the things you expect from a McLaughlin-led band. There is tight unison playing, twists and turns and meter changes, trading at breakneck speeds, explorations at a snail's pace. Both McLaughlin's and Thomas's solos are surprisingly restrained. Nonetheless, they are cleverly part of a slowly building tension that is almost imperceptible. This is how great musicians can control time. The band goes from control to frenzy and then to peaceful resolution. "Seven Sisters" hit just the right notes to whet the appetite for what was to follow. Old fans sighed in relief.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)

This recording of the de facto Jazz National Anthem is my favorite of the Ellington versions or anyone else's. After an Ellington mood-setting lead-in on piano, Armstrong states the theme, at the end of which he blows an extraordinary descending line, cascading down in steps, with unique phrasing and timing; the line is reminiscent of his awe-inspiring, historic opening for "West End Blues" in 1928.

Satch then starts on the marvelous, essence-of-jazz lyrics by rhythmically talking the opening line in very cool manner, then sings the rest of the verses with great verve and jazzy playfulness, as Ellington stylishly comps with a repeated figure. Barney Bigard's clarinet provides beautiful, lyrical lines, with his trademark exquisite swoops up and down the scale, and adds outstanding accents and harmonic complements in support. Trombonist Trummy Young provides fine support as well; and when Armstrong says, "take it Trummy," Young produces a powerful, impressive solo perfectly attuned to the character and flow of the song. Throughout this track, these guys demonstrate the meaning of the title by swinging like mad—and obviously hugely enjoying what they are creating. If a Martian should drop by and inquire what is this thing called "jazz," play him/her/it this track.

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: Mood Indigo

It's interesting to compare this recording of "Mood Indigo" with Ellington's December 1930 version, the more instrumentally filled out of his three original 1930 recordings of the tune. Doing so, we hear an innovative work with unique voicings; as Ellington expert John Edward Hasse has explained, Duke and co-composer Barney Bigard "turned the usual roles of trombone, trumpet and clarinet on their heads by assigning the trombone the high notes and the clarinet the low, creating a blend of tonal colors probably never heard before in all of music history."

In this 1961 rendition we hear Ellington, with Armstrong, Bigard and Trummy Young, turn that original piece into a sublime work of musical art. In the 1930 track, we also hear the origins of the remarkable clarinet part played by Bigard on this recording.

A distinctive Ellington mini-prelude begins things, and Armstrong follows with a majestic statement of the theme. Barney Bigard next takes the lead and plays some ineffably beautiful, exquisitely shaped, lyrically flowing lines, with gloriously rich clarinet tone, parts in that low range Hasse noted in the original record.

Louis then sings the lyrics, which transition into a scat section, the latter part harmonically complemented by Trummy Young's muted trombone; and that leads into a lovely, soulful, unique high-range trombone solo, with striking tone—and breath—control. In the midst of that solo, Armstrong (rhythmically) says, "Oh, listen to ol' Trummy blowin' that pretty horn." That's an example of a nice, collegial thing Armstrong would do: compliment by name a band member playing especially well, giving him special recognition; he'd also say, "take it" so-and-so as he signaled a bandmate for a solo, giving a special platform for the musician's performance. The tune finishes in beautiful "mood indigo" manner with Armstrong's vocal, assisted by Young's continued, subtle trombone work, Ellington and the rest backing them.

Finally, another of my jazz heresies: In this particular case, I think the piece would actually be better without the lyrics/vocal. (This comes from a musician/songwriter whose best musical ability is his singing and his lyrics!) I just don't think the lyrics are especially good; the musical composition, with those instrumentalists playing and improvising so extraordinarily, is so good there is need for nothing else.

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Ode to a Cowboy

The first track on the first Dave Brubeck Jazz Impressions album (released in early 1957) cheerfully proclaimed what became a career-long vocation: composing jazz tunes occasioned by the sights and sounds – and travails – of global travel. But Brubeck's journey of many thousands of miles began with one small step, the tune "Ode to a Cowboy," which vaguely saluted the American West (and possibly Dave's ranch upbringing), but by way of the Argentine pampas!

A quasi-tango rhythm announces this lanky gaucho, with Brubeck's staccato melody offering a faint ghost of some "Old Cowhand" or other. Then Desmond's lonesome alto sings to the night herd over a loping 4/4, followed by Dave at a typical sidestepping trot as bass man Bates walks on – till all the hands are reined in by that dislocated tango once more. Morello's sticks gallop off, horsing around to the very end. (Enough with the wordplay. Other than by title, if this number is really owed to a cowboy at all, I'll eat my Stetson.)

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tierney Sutton: Cry Me a River

I have been skeptical about Tierney Sutton in the past, accusing her of twisting her interpretations of standards so much that they no longer match the temperament of the lyrics. But she has made me a believer with her 2009 CD Desire. Here she tackles 11 songs of longing, and though she still deconstructs the tunes, she does so in ways that deepen, rather than falsify, their meaning. Her arrangement on "Cry Me a River" (as throughout the CD) is inspired. Sutton builds off a creative conflict between a fast 6/8 pulse (usually signaled by the bass, but sometimes moving to piano or drums) and a more open and uncluttered duple beat. Sutton's vocal floats over these rhythmic shifts, drawing energy from them yet keeping free from their gravitational pull. To her credit—to the whole band's credit—the song's mood is maintained throughout, and the clever arrangement never calls attention to itself, but rather supports an emotionally charged performance.

February 24, 2009 · 1 comment

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Tierney Sutton: It's Only a Paper Moon

Jazz singers are supposed to put their own stamp on the old songs, but too often these days the song controls the singer. The task of interpreting a standard such as "My Funny Valentine" or "Body and Soul" is approached by many new-millennium vocalists as an act of veneration, one more tribute in a jazz scene that is dominated by tributes.

In this context, Tierney Sutton's achievement here is all the more impressive. "It's Only a Paper Moon," a hit for Paul Whiteman back in 1933, is hard to modernize, with its nursery rhyme melody anchored by chord tones, its old-fashioned two-beat feel and Prohibition-era harmonic movement. Sutton doesn't just update it, she completely re-creates the song from the ground up, with admirable help from her band, yet she maintains absolute fidelity to the emotional temperature of the lyrics. The arrangement is smartly crafted—you know something special is happening from the outset, with the interplay between the crickets-in-the-meadow drum part and the floating piano lines. But Sutton is the star, and impresses with her spot-on intonation and honeyed delivery. She takes the performance through several distinct moods, each one well conceived and artfully executed.

This is a standout track on a CD that will certainly rank among 2009's finest jazz vocal releases. No cardboard seas here; this is the real thing.

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Django

Guitarists John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck are great friends and admirers of each other's fretwork. Beck, who is only a few weeks away from being inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame as I write these words, has a rich history going back to the '60s and the Yardbirds. He was a pioneer of the English rock guitar sound along with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. McLaughlin, who would be in a Hall of Fame if they had one that covered all of the subgenres he has helped create, was in England the same time as Beck, but was part of the British R&B and jazz movement that was quite distinctive from the British Invasion and London pop scene. Beck was getting bored with music in the early 1970s. Then, while in the band Beck, Bogart & Appice, he heard McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. The next thing you know, Beck is playing jazz-rock with Jan Hammer and Narada Michael Walden and selling millions of records! Beck's and McLaughlin's bands began to tour with each other. The two guitarists would close out most shows with a guitar jam.

John Lewis, the sophisticated pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, wrote the beautiful jazz standard "Django." The composition is a fragile piece with a slightly swinging midsection. It became part of the MJQ's repertoire and has been covered many times. But I can assure you it was never covered by two electric guitar fusion gods until its appearance on McLaughlin's The Promise!

Keyboardist Tony Hymas provides a textural background as Beck plays the main melody. McLaughlin adds some accents behind him. What a sound Beck gets! It is gorgeous. He is more than just a guitar player. He is an amazing interpreter who knows how to shape his sounds. That slightly swinging midsection has been transformed into a blues vamp. It rocks and it rocks hard. This isn't a swing, it's a seesaw. Drummer Mark Mondesir and bassist Pino Palladino make sure of that.

It is McLaughlin's turn to play. The first impression is one of disappointment. You are not quite sure you like his guitar tone or the direction of his playing. This is an understandable reaction because you just heard the beauty of Beck's efforts. But soon you realize McLaughlin is building. You will be fully on board by solo's end. Beck is the yin and McLaughlin is the yang. They must sound different to create tension. Fantastic tradeoffs ensue. In the hands of these distinct, historic and powerful guitarists what was once a demure but impressive Modern Jazz Quartet staple has been turned into a fusion blues rave-up. No one wore a tux when they recorded this piece.

February 24, 2009 · 1 comment

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Tobin Mueller: Chaos of the Subconscious

Tobin Mueller's 13 Masks could make a good case study for the subconscious. What is going on in his head? Other reviewers have called this music a mix of "… jazz, 20th Century classical and post-New Age solo piano." The artist himself has coined the phrase, "progressive ragtime." I think the operative word in the last two sentences is "mix." Tune after tune is expertly played, but structure and style change so often that you can't pick out either. Don't get me wrong. This is not free jazz. There is direction. We just don't know where Mueller came from or where he is going. It is organized chaos. What is chaos if all that surrounds it is chaos? Does it become the norm and thus no longer chaotic?

These and other questions are pondered while listening to the entirety of 13 Masks. "Chaos of the Subconscious" is one of 13 synapse-challenging pieces presented by the pianist. One more thing about chaos: it's dramatic. If that is one of the thousand ideas Mueller is trying express, maybe subconsciously, he succeeds. I feel and think when I listen to his notes, chords and even unexpected empty places. This isn't the best music to read a book by. You have to really focus and pay attention. Some music demands that. You will either find something in it or not. I found it to be interesting enough to listen to repeatedly to figure out where this guy is coming from. I still don't know. But a little exercise for the brain is good for us.

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tobin Mueller: The Gumshoe Wears a Rag

Tobin Mueller plays 13 solo piano pieces on 13 Masks. I have been listening to the album for several weeks, and have made several false starts at reviewing it during that time. Usually something is triggered in my mind when listening to a piece for the first time. Once that trigger kicks in, the words flow based on experience. That isn't happening with "The Gumshoe Wears a Rag." Intrinsically I know this is good music. Mueller is a technically gifted player. But this pianist is doing things I don't understand. He changes mood, intent or style every few measures. The tune is playful, serious, introspective, not so much so, jazz and not jazz. It's like what they say about the weather in New England. "Wait an hour and it will change." But in this case it is, "Wait a minute…" Mueller's music is a whole boatload of briefly expressed ideas. And he does this 13 times! But instead of becoming a frustrated listener, we want to know what he is doing and why. Thinking is good. Admittedly, we must work a bit to appreciate 13 Masks. Perhaps sequentially peeling each mask off will let us see the music's whole face. I'm game if you are.

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Where Fortune Smiles

Saxophonist John Surman wrote the title cut for Where Fortune Smiles. He and John McLaughlin had shared lead playing on McLaughlin's previous recording Extrapolation. That album has now become part of British jazz folklore. Many people believe it is the greatest jazz record ever recorded in England. People don't feel the same about Where Fortune Smiles. Perhaps they will in a 100 years. Who knows?

Strangely, Surman does not appear on the cut. The song is the most melodious music on the recording. Vibraphonist Karl Berger is the tune's gentle provocateur. He plays the understated theme and does the soloing. His sound is quite beautiful. His dynamics are nothing short of lovely. McLaughlin strums jazz chords and provides the occasional accompanying flourish. McLaughlin's jazz chords and occasional accompanying flourishes are like nobody else's. The combination is a winning one. This is a charming duet and provides a brief respite from the mostly unrelenting free jazz on the rest of the album.

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Wayne's Way

"Wayne's Way" is John McLaughlin's tribute to Wayne Shorter. Dennis Chambers's backbeat and Zakir Hussain's insistent rolling tabla rhythm serve as the song's intro and constant backdrop. Keyboardist Gary Husband adds color while bassist Tony Grey lowers a deep anchor. McLaughlin and Italian saxophonist Ada Rovatti play a unison riff consistent with the spirit of Shorter's being (i.e., somewhat strange but engaging). The music's sound and feel, though not its melody, are similar to McLaughlin's composition "Fallen Angels," which he performed with saxophonist Gary Thomas on The Heart of Things about a decade earlier. Rovatti, a fine player, and McLaughlin take edifying solo turns.

John McLaughlin has put tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and fusion power drummer Dennis Chambers together on several occasions. At midsection here, the two percussionists go into orbit. Their hands, feet and fingers fly so fast, they require no rocket fuel for takeoff. (I once asked Dennis Chambers about this performance with Hussain. He said that they have still not come close to what they are capable of doing together rhythmically. That is a truly scary thought!) As the two masters pound away at terminal velocity, McLaughlin and Rovatti share some dastardly riffs. The guitarist then takes a solo that is part melodic exploration and part rhythmic demonstration. He matches every lightning-quick beat with a note. It is a phenomenal display of musicianship. The opening riffs return in double time and double time again. "Wayne's Way" has reentered the atmosphere. Splashdown!

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Basin Street Blues (live, 1956)

This live recording opens with Louis Armstrong's spoken introduction of the song title. The immediate roar of approval from the audience is a good illustration of how, by the mid-1950s, so many reveled in Louis and his All Stars, and how the band had brought this music to a wide public and made something of a cultural icon of "Basin Street Blues," one of the songs that presents the essence and spirit of original New Orleans jazz. As Barney Bigard, the great clarinetist who formerly played with the All Stars and Ellington, said: "…it was just that the time was right. That band was to be the main group that brought jazz to the people, all over America and all over the world." And: "The band bridged the gap between show business and art."

It did indeed. With Louis Armstrong as the musical master of ceremonies and maestro of the trumpet, they brought this art to the audience in a most engaging way. "Engaging" is meant literally, as Armstrong's personal magic, love of the music, and unique connection with his audience brought them into active involvement with the experience of making this music (and thus, was an updated version of the original New Orleans jazz setting as a collective activity). One can hear this in the audience response; beyond the rousing applause at Satch's announcement of the tune title and the storm of applause at the end, the audience is part of the action when Armstrong, after singing "…in New Orleans, the land of dreams," goes into a scat line with flair (no doubt accompanied by some delicious mugging) with the audience's delighted response completing that part of the performance.

Musically, Armstrong is in fine form, playing with excellent tone, style and verve. Trummy Young adds his usual superb trombone work, as does Billy Kyle on piano; and adding to the rousing spirit of this refined New Orleans jazz, we are also treated to two bang-up drum solos by Barrett Deems. One negative here is the thin, shrill tone of Edmund Hall's clarinet. He swings like crazy, but the tone is hard on the ears. (For ultimate examples of good clarinet tone, check out Barney Bigard on "Mood Indigo" or "Black and Tan Fantasy", or Sidney Bechet on "Blue Horizon".)

February 24, 2009 · 1 comment

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Louis Armstrong: (What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue (1955)

That remarkable songwriter, musician and world-class character Thomas "Fats" Waller wrote this tune for the 1929 Broadway musical of and performed by African Americans, Hot Chocolates. "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue" was originally the lament of a dark-skinned woman who lost her man to a lighter-skinned gal. In Louis Armstrong's hands, it was transformed into an anthem of complaint and powerful protest against racial discrimination, as well as a magnificent musical creation. It is a testament to the power of Armstrong's recordings of this song that they moved Ralph Ellison to talk of their impact and beauty in the beginning of his landmark novel, Invisible Man.

Satch Plays Fats, from 1955, was a match made in jazz heaven. This track opens with a kind of overture, the band playing subtle, soulful variations on the marvelous and memorable theme. The "overture" and beginning of the tune are played at modest volume, allowing for a gradual buildup of intensity, as well as tension, as this profound protest and cri du cœur unfold. Satchmo plays his heart out, employing his superb tone and capacity to construct such marvelous musical lines, and using slides, slurs and at least one glissando to convey further feeling and meaning. Trummy Young's trombone, Billy Kyle's piano, and Barney Bigard's clarinet provide perfect support and added dimensions to the musical mosaic. Particularly noteworthy, at the end of the main set of vocal choruses, is Bigard's exquisite swoop up the scale, portraying both mounting pain and rising expectations.

This recording also demonstrates something not discussed enough. Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are rightly praised as early jazz landmarks. But listening carefully to his singing on those late-'20s recordings, we hear vocal tone and approach that are still fairly crude, even though his rhythmic feel and coordination with the instrumental music was excellent—and was beginning to change popular singing forever. But by the time of this recording, Satch's vocal work had developed extraordinary depth of nuance and expressive capacity, and his timing and phrasing had become sublime, in addition to that celebrated combination of grit and soulfulness in the character of his voice. All this and his experience as an African American he drew upon to sing these lyrics with profound poignancy and power. This is not only great music, it is also a very important cultural expression.

Its timing puts this impassioned performance in context, coming eleven months after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In the months before and after, there were a series of brutal murders of blacks in Mississippi and elsewhere (most famously, Emmett Till); and in December '55, Rosa Parks sparked the prime active phase of the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her bus seat. Two years later, Armstrong spoke out sharply against President Eisenhower's reluctance to act when African-American teens were barred from Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. All this was "in the air" at the time; Louis Armstrong and musical partners recorded an ultimate articulation of those concerns.

February 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Zawinul & Wayne Shorter: In a Silent Way

The performance here is a loose dialogue between a soprano saxophone, played by Mr. Shorter, and a garden of electronic sounds cultivated by Mr. Zawinul. It won't make anyone forget the version these same two artists recorded 38 years earlier with Miles Davis, but it is an emotionally charged performance nonetheless—mostly because Zawinul would be dead a few weeks later. He was hospitalized five days after this concert, and would succumb to Merkel cell cancer on September 11. A wistful, nostalgic quality permeates the music, and Zawinul gives Shorter the kind of space to stretch out that the saxophonist rarely enjoyed during his Weather Report days. Shorter, for his part, offers a lesson in Zen jazz. This is a 14-minute track, but instead of Coltranian extravagance, Shorter works his magic with bursts of sound color and tonal splashes. At the conclusion of the performance, Zawinul offers some touching comments about his longtime partner, calling Shorter "the greatest living musician in the world." Yet this was an even more fitting moment to look back on Zawinul's own career, and his commitment to synthesized sounds, an advocacy in which he persisted long after the Age of Fusion had ended, and into a day when most of the other jazz keyboardists of his generation had returned to the good ol' piano. Even at this closing moment in his career, Zawinul was tinkering with his futuristic sounds and pushing the old songs into new directions. How fitting!

February 23, 2009 · 1 comment

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Dave Liebman & Gil Goldstein: A Boy Like That / I Have a Love

West Side Story revamps its Shakespearean source most clearly in the final scenes, as "Juliet" (that is, Maria) does not kill herself but instead pleads for peace between the rival gangs. Most jazz versions skirt the score's last few numbers, but saxman Dave Liebman and keyboard whiz Gil Goldstein link two of them in eight minutes of astonishing, adventurous balladry. That actually summarizes much of West Side Story Today (released originally in 1991), with Dave taking almost all the solos and Gil providing backdrops ranging from Weather Report synth-funk to bizarre mecho-screaming.

The medley "A Boy Like That / I Have a Love" dances around dated synthesizer sounds. Leibman sticks to tenor sax, talking with it in the first tune, getting at the number's back-and-forth argument, over a bubbling pseudo-organ that riffs from soul-trio grease to horror-film suspense. Moving seamlessly into "I Have a Love," Dave plays pretty the rest of the way, shifting high and dropping back, exploring the tenor's upper range while Gil, on his programmed keyboard, taps out gentle chords and thoughtful notes that resonate like vibes.

In his historical and somewhat spiritual liner notes, Liebman names "I Have a Love" as his favorite tune from the musical, and it definitely shows, beautiful to the end.

February 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: New Place, Old Place

Vibraphonist Karl Berger's curious riffs call for an answer. Guitarist John McLaughlin quickly responds. Saxophonist John Surman adds an exclamation mark. Drummer Stu Martin and bassist Dave Holland add their own punctuation. This is going to be a cool piece. Then, to the horror of any grammarian, all semblance of form and structure is quickly abandoned. There are no rules left. There is interesting noise for a few minutes. After that? Get me out of here!

But wait, we are being saved by a hint of the opening riff. It means safety to us at this point. Here we go! Alas, it is not enough. We are left hanging by our sliding-down-a-chalkboard-fingernails to get through this thing. What's worse, we are not even midway into the tune! The call-&- response patterns of the cool riff return again. It is again an interesting sound. Still it is not enough to rescue this music.

These are all great players, yet the music just doesn't work. As a standalone piece, uninfluenced by outside issues, "New Place, Old Place" would have no place in my CD player. But of course there are outside issues. This song rates a 75 only because there is value in hearing how these influential musicians were trying to find their way. Clearly, this is one journey of discovery from which they never returned. But great failures can be as important as great successes. There are seeds scattered in this performance. You just have to get down on your hands and knees with a sifter to find them.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Earth Bound Hearts

This slow, melancholy ballad is one of only two straightforward jazz cuts on Where Fortune Smiles. It is performed in duet by guitarist John McLaughlin and saxophonist John Surman. The two had quite a history with each other, which among other things included their critically acclaimed collaboration on McLaughlin's Extrapolation. McLaughlin would eventually rise to superstardom. (That fame resulted in the re-release of this record under his name. In reality it had been a group project.) Surman's fame would become notable as well, but was limited to the European side of the pond. Their empathy and mutual understanding comes through every note and measure of this performance. Even though "Earth Bound Hearts" was written by McLaughlin, he never takes a solo turn. Instead he offers dark and sad shadings to help Surman deliver his lament. Where Fortune Smiles is not easy to get comfortable with. "Earth Bound Hearts" would be more at home on many other McLaughlin or Surman albums. Here it is a strange but welcome visitor.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Glancing Backwards

Where Fortune Smiles is a real curio for fusion and free jazz devotees. Of interest to jazz-rock fans are McLaughlin's pre-Mahavishnu dispersed guitar riffs and nasty solos. This is a mining trip because there are not many here. "Glancing Backwards," penned by saxophonist John Surman, opens with a catchy intro as do most other pieces on the album. Soon after, however, the music devolves into a free jazz free-for-all. Vibraphonist Karl Berger actually maintains a modicum of structure in the cacophony. Saxophonist Surman does not. He honks and squeals his way through. Free jazz folks will dig it. Others, like me, will suffer until McLaughlin takes a ripping electric solo. McLaughlin was in between Tony Williams and Mahavishnu at this time, and his playing reflects that. Bassist Dave Holland is the last to take a turn before the head returns. The tune would get a 90 rating if the free sections were cut down by 90%. That is my prejudice. But, from a historical view, the music deserves to be heard to gain perspective of the careers of these players, particularly McLaughlin, Surman and Holland. It's always good to understand the journey.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Will Sellenraad: Prayer

You might think that a tribute to the great Elvin Jones would be a thunderous song, to represent the drummer's monumental fills and polyrhythmic timekeeping. But composer Will Sellenraad had in mind a softer, soulful side to Elvin. "Prayer" has just such a transcendent quality, centered on merely two chords, given depth and warmth by Sellenraad's guitar, then gently nudged along by bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and another preeminent drummer, Victor Lewis. While saxophonist Abraham Burton locates the passionate notes on the higher end of the scale, it's Lewis who, like Jones would have done, provides just the right dose of fills and soft bombs. The leader follows with a flawless demonstration on maximizing the value of each note instead of maximizing the number of notes played.

Sellenraad says that the melody for "Prayer" appeared in his head when he woke up with it at 3 a.m. That must have been one vividly colorful, peaceful dream he had that night.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Siren

"Siren" is a spacey shuffle that was probably the midsection of a longer tune. (For anyone unfamiliar with the infamous sound editing and mixing history of Devotion, see my review of "Purpose of When.") A lot of echo was used in recording this piece, imparting a strange rebound sound to McLaughlin's muddy electric chords and riffs. It does the same for Buddy Miles's drums and Larry Young's organ. It is quite possible the shuffle effect is the result of the recording process itself. It is hard to tell. I would not call "Siren" a song. The performance is a collection of interesting chord progressions that sometimes fade in and out, purposefully or not, leading to another series of riffs and some cool guitar effects. While "Siren" is probably damaged goods, there are enough far-out sounds to interest any McLaughlin fan or fusion fanatic. I would rate it higher had it been located in its original place as McLaughlin had intended. I can't blame McLaughlin for the studio screw-up. But I need to be honest about the music.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Purpose of When

As mad as guitarist John McLaughlin was that his album Devotion was botched in the editing process while he was away, there is no denying that four decades later it remains one of the great guitar grunge records of all time. It is said that the master tapes were damaged and cut up so badly that the reassembled parts never matched the actual planned songs. Part of McLaughlin's disdain for the result was also probably related to the fact that producer Alan Douglas paid McLaughlin a grand total of $2,000 for both Devotion and his follow-up record My Goal's Beyond. Now that was a bargain for Douglas! But considering how often those albums have been re-released over the years, McLaughlin is entitled to his regrets. That's a lot of cash going into someone else's pockets for your hard labor.

We'll never know if the outrageous guitar solo that begins "Purpose of When" was actually supposed to be at the beginning, but it's a great place to start. It is an angry and sometimes dissonant cry. Billy Rich's marching bassline and Buddy Mile's backbeat accompany McLaughlin's wailing. Organist Larry Young has his B-3 tuned to some alternate pitch to provide even more friction. McLaughlin's lines are distorted and dark. They are brutally loud if you can stand to turn the volume up to where it is supposed to be. "Purpose of When" is not a masterpiece of composition. (Maybe it was part of one before the editing snafu.) Instead, it is a detached statement of blues-influenced rage that comes from the angriest part of the primal instinct. You can't get much grungier than that.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Petite Fleur

This track is tough to rate, both because it is not really jazz and because I'm an American and the tune is quintessentially French. I review it because it represents the last major period (the 1950s) in jazz master Sidney Bechet's life, which he spent in France. Americans might recognize the tune, though, since it has served as background to French scenes in various movies.

Bechet uses his famous intense soprano-sax vibrato here to create striking aesthetic effects and express throbbing emotion. He also uses slides and swoops up and down the scale, conveying a roller coaster of feelings. The tune is really a French romantic melodrama in miniature, blown through Bechet's horn, with support from his band members; a nice piano break in the middle adds a dimension.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Blue Horizon

This is the ultimate mellow Sidney Bechet blues track. He gives us the richest, most sumptuous clarinet tone of his recording career, especially in the earlier going and at the end. In later parts of the song, his range of tone and timbre also adds wonderful nuance and texture. He offers one chorus after another of beautifully rendered and shaped lines, creatively developing one thematic variation after another. All the while, bassist Pops Foster, drummer Manzie Johnson and pianist Art Hodes keep a steady-stridin' rhythm at a slow tempo to provide a fine foundation. Trumpeter Sidney de Paris, trombonist Vic Dickenson, and Hodes, each a virtuoso in his own right, stick to subtle support tones, harmonies and contrapuntal lines.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: The Sheik of Araby

This is Sidney Bechet's historic "one-man band" recording of a popular 1920s Tin Pan Alley tune with the first-ever overdubbing of instruments, all played by Bechet. After hearing from a technical person that it was possible, Sidney decided to give it a whirl. He worked hard for weeks to get the parts down on his various instruments before the session. The result, while interesting as a technical experiment, does not come off particularly well as pure music.

He begins with a cool rhythmic riff on the theme using tenor sax, and follows by successively adding other instruments. The tune is performed in sprightly, fairly engaging fashion. But the primitive overdubbing at times produces a somewhat odd overall sound and problems with balancing: the piano, bass and drums are so faint they seem hardly present at all. And beyond its audio deficiencies, this track proves that, when it comes to jazz, there is no substitute for the stimulating interaction with other musicians.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nathan Eklund: Trip to the Casbah Part 2

There is an expected "Night in Tunisia" feel to Nathan Eklund's "Trip to the Casbah Part 2." "Part 1" serves as serious warm-up, but "Part 2" is the main attraction. The head of the arrangement, with its infectious bassline, is something Dizzy might have played. But after the intro, Eklund's fine quintet throws us a curve. The band does not go directly to its original destination. Eklund leaves plenty of space between the notes of his solo. At times in the higher registers, he just squeezes out an emotive screech. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin takes the tune farther out, which is a habit from this gifted player. McCaslin traverses several circuitous routes to the Casbah and back as drummer Tim Horner busily fills in the accents. John Hart then takes a skittering guitar turn before we revisit the familiar and comfortable grooving theme. Nathan Eklund is a fine composer and trumpeter who proves to be a king of the domain of traditional modern jazz. That he and his band throw in some explorative side trips is an added bonus.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nathan Eklund: Passing Trains

Trip to the Casbah is trumpeter and composer Nathan Eklund's third album for Jazz Excursion Records. The music is modern bop in nature and tightly arranged. Eklund is very clearly a jazz traditionalist. He stays with the tried and true of the form. But there are modern sensibilities in the guise of quick licks and changes of direction that jazz things up a bit as well. "Passing Trains" is a straightforward swinging number. The tandem of bassist Bill Moring and drummer Tim Horner chugs down the tracks from the count of one. Eklund and saxophonist Donny McCaslin play the boppish head in unison. Guitarist John Hart takes a tasteful solo over Moring's walking bass and Horner's churning drums. Eklund follows low in the mix. His solo builds but never overwhelms the contributions of his sidemen. The music has a true ensemble feel. Eklund and Hart trade the rest of the way to the station. This isn't bullet-train rail service. But Eklund and his crew maintain enough speed to keep your toes tapping and still be able to look out the window at the scenery.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Akousma: Live Again

Boston's Berklee School has long been a melting pot for the world's budding jazz musicians and a frequent bellwether for coming trends. One of its most recent products is this eclectic international confederation of talented players from, respectively, Switzerland, Greece, Japan, and Cyprus. While their debut album breaks no theoretical ground, it does show a glimpse of greater things to come.

"Live Again" is a plaintive, wistful bossa eschewing the more familiar sax or flute in favor of the velvet, flowing timbre of Linus Wyrsch's clarinet. Satisfying, laid-back improvisations by bassist Hiro Sakaba and guitarist Stavros Kartakis fit comfortably over an open, minimalist Latin feel. But it's the clarinet that stands out. With a depth of feeling that belies his disciplined classical technique, Wyrsch demonstrates why it's past time for this expressive but long-overlooked instrument to return to the fore.

All things considered, Akousma (presumably named after a Pythagorean precept) aptly illustrates the transcendent language of jazz and the universality of its elements in a rapidly shrinking global community.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz: When The World Was Young

As Stan Getz must have known – since his only live recording of this tune was made in Paris – the original song, titled "Le Chevalier de Paris" (the Paris Knight), is French and was sung by the great Edith Piaf. Few French listeners knew it, however, since the song never became famous, although it was sung with more interesting English lyrics by the greatest American vocalists. In a way, then, Getz brings it back home, and magnificently: his sound is so mellow and lyrical, as it floats above vibist Gary Burton's soft ethereal chords during the verse, that it could be a singer's voice making you cry. With Haynes's brushes and Swallow's bass slowly dancing around him, Getz enters the chorus, and only then starts improvising, yet in such a melodic way that it hardly changes from the original line. A couple of deep low notes, sprung from his sax like calls from a ship's foghorn, are the only distractions from the dreamy atmosphere this great storyteller creates with his empathetic quartet. And when the Parisian audience finally roars its approval, the listener can only concur. On this night and on this song, Stan Getz really was "The Sound."

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz: Subconscious-Lee

This tune, which Lee Konitz would re-record several times during the following decades, is particularly interesting in its primal version from the altoist's first session as a leader. Konitz was then 21, still studying and playing with Lennie Tristano, whom he enlisted as pianist in this recording quintet. While its title may stem from Tristano's interest in psychoanalysis, the song is actually based on the chord sequence of "What Is This Thing Called Love," played at swift tempo and with a new melody. Such reworking of standards was frequent among beboppers and Tristano-ites alike, and Konitz definitely did a fine job in penning the sinuous new melody line. After the theme is exposed by sax and guitar in unison, Tristano has the first solo, indulging his virtuoso linear improvising technique accompanied by an efficient, highly rhythmic left-hand comping. Then guitarist Billy Bauer, another Tristano disciple, choruses in a very lyrical way, his rich sound and brisk phrasing just great. Konitz is the final soloist. His swift imagination and perfect time are breathtaking, including melodic gems during the short fours that he, Tristano and Bauer trade before briefly restating the theme. The impetus and sheer joy of these three soloists, along with the tonic support of Shelly Manne and Arnold Fishkin, suggests that pigeonholing this music as "cool" or even "cold" at the time must have been the result of misunderstanding. Although this alternative to bebop's dominance was advocated by a musical minority and badly received by the rest, 60 years later it's clear that these virtuosos recorded some of the most beautiful music of the 1940s and '50s.

February 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sveti: Don't Be Sad

Drummer Marko Djordjevic has written a very beautiful ballad in "Don't Be Sad." The melody is a simple plea. After an introductory guitar harmonic strum, trombonist Elliot Mason carries most of the water on the piece. (For the trombone curious, Eliot Mason sounds similar to Garnett Brown.) Djordjevic uses plenty of brush and cymbal to help him along. Elliot's brother Brad joins him, on what sounds like flugelhorn, for some of the pensive theme. Apparently these guys come as a team. Bassist Matt Pavolka and guitarist Lionel Loueke add some lush acoustic support. "Don't Be Sad" is an effective soothing agent that is sure to give you some of the understanding and support you need through a difficult time. But you will like this music even if you are happy.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sveti: Dundjer

Serbian drummer Marko Djordjevic has been leading the Sveti fusion group in some form or another since the early 1990s. Djordjevic is a busy guy with the sticks. That describes his drumming, not his gig load. This guy gets after it. He is all over the kit and probably on other things too. The main melodic thrust of "Dundjer" is supplied by the brothers Elliot and Brad Mason. They are advertised as great individual musicians but even better as a team. One listen to their horn interplay will verify such claims. There is a bit of early Miles Davis fusion on display in the guitar riffs, chords and spatial quality. (Think A Tribute to Jack Johnson and Live-Evil for the guitar; think Billy Cobham's Crosswinds and Spectrum for the drumming and a few horn and guitar riffs.) Despite the heritage of most of the musicians, the tune has fewer Eastern European stylistic influences than one might expect. Due to the sound blast, I am not quite sure all of the above listed musicians perform on this cut, but whoever is playing is virtuosic. Sveti produces a compelling sound. Anyone interested in progressive jazz, jazz-fusion or world music will find the band's work worthy of shelf space or a few megabytes of download capacity.

February 20, 2009 · 1 comment

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Nenad Gajin: Cocek

A little research has informed me that "Cocek" is a form of Serbian folk music closely associated with dance. To many it is tied to Gypsy brass music and belly dancing. There are sections of this tune, as played by guitarist Nenad Gajin and a fine group of musicians, where it would be very easy to dance. In fact, it would be almost impossible not to get out of your chair. But there are other parts where it might be better to sit it out and try to drink everything in. I suspect one could get drunk very fast listening to this. I guess that's part of the tradition as well. The Eastern European ethnic sounds are immediately alluring. The fusion elements added to those strains carry the music a great distance beyond its original borders. Saxophonist Slobodan Trkulja, Gajin, and keyboardist Aleksander Banjac each takes an outstanding turn. I am thrilled to have been introduced to this exciting fare, which is a boiling pot of folk music mixed with jazz-rock spices. You will also like the taste, perhaps with a hard drink or two.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nenad Gajin: Kec

Fusion fans should drop what they are doing this very moment and obtain guitarist Nenad Gajin's Kec. I won't mind if you don't read another word of this review. Go get this music now! I will wait. Calling my bluff? OK. The title cut is the album in microcosm. The music is part Serbian folk, city funk, R&B and fiery jazz-rock fusion. I don't know enough about Serbian folk music to tell you what particular style Gajin and his band incorporate into this powerful mix. But I could easily envision a whole culture digging this swinging performance. From what I have read, Serbian folk music fuses its tradition with modern music. This quartet continues that fusion at very high temperatures and throws in everything and the kitchen sink. This music can barely contain its own dramatic electric riffs, outrageous unison playing, drumming up your spine, and contagious themes. There are Mahavishnu-like sections, Billy Cobham Spectrum-era sections, and even a nod to Coltrane. I think the short Cobham and Coltrane quasi-quotes were on purpose. And all of this is added to the infectious folk melodies. At times, Gajin sounds like Tommy Bolin. But he isn't the only player burning. Bassist Hadrien Feraud, the one musician I was familiar with before listening and the one whose name I can spell without triple-checking, is a major force on "Kec." He and Gajin engage in much of the unison playing previously mentioned, creating low-register funk assaults. Keyboardist Bojan Zulfikarpasic plays his ass off too. Drummer Mokhtar Samba is in your face from moment one. When people talk about the potential of world fusion, this is the type of music they have in mind. Only a protectionist would object. Now go out and grab a listen. OK?

February 20, 2009 · 5 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Save It, Pretty Mama

The tune begins with a slow-tempo, beautifully balanced ensemble thematic statement, delivered almost delicately, like an old formal dance stepping along. Then pianist Earl Hines enters with gorgeous, rolling variations, employing superb dynamics and accents, followed by Rex Stewart's muted cornet sliding and punching out some sublime blues lines spiced with perfect slurs. Next the drama and intensity take a leap upward with a characteristic soaring, wailing solo by Sidney Bechet. The last section brings everybody together for a marvelous rhythmic, bouncing ensemble ending, with all the instrumental voices contributing just the right tone, momentum and spirit, in excellent balance, resolving things nicely. This is sweet stuff from a great group of jazz masters.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Ain't Misbehavin'

With the one and only Sidney Bechet joined by the great pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, virtuoso cornetist Rex Stewart (a feature attraction of the landmark Ellington band), and that New Orleans original, co-Founding Father of jazz drumming, "Baby" Dodds, you might expect memorable results—and, baby, do they deliver! Clearly they were inspired by this Fats Waller tune that is one of the best and most loved songs ever written.

Earl Hines opens with a sparkling, bouncy rendition of the famous melody, using a little left-hand bass rumbling to let you know that the title says "ain't misbehavin'", BUT…. Next, like a musical relay, Bechet takes the handoff and plays a clarion, fairly straight version of the theme, then variations with verve, with Dodds pounding out drum rolls for additional texture. In turn, Stewart jumps in with a perfect response and follow-up to Bechet, using his muted cornet for a wailing first note, then further creative variations of the theme, with exquisite bluesy slurs and accents, until Bechet again follows suit. Hines next offers a beautiful rhythmic yet rhapsodic, virtuoso piano interlude, with Bechet's punctuating phrases behind him. That transitions into some Hines-Stewart exchanges, creating an interesting tonal and rhythmic dynamic. Then Bechet cuts loose with dramatic, blazing inventions and embellishments on the theme, with that inimitable tone and vibrato. Stewart again takes the handoff and launches into his own blazing lines, using muted cornet to wonderful effect, as his and the rest of the band's playing steadily grows in intensity and passion, yet never loses their playful element. Finally Bechet heats things up further, joining Stewart in a high- energy dual/duel back-and-forth ba-dah-dum, ba-dah-dum, ba-dah-dum, dah de dum ending that leaves you breathless.

This is glorious stuff, with tremendous momentum, the great jazz masters spurring each other on to a dramatic ending. This is truly movin' music! If the toes of the person listening next to you aren't tapping, check the pulse; they may need immediate medical attention. And if they aren't smiling up a storm after listening to this, they need another type of attention.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Wild Man Blues

This track has the feeling of an updated, matured, yet slightly exotic version of a classic New Orleans band performance. It presents a beautifully developed version of the original Crescent City polyphonic ensemble playing, with each key player contributing his own lines, stirring up a fine gumbo of moving jazz. Both the tune and the nature of its playing create a deep bluesy mood.

It opens with two simple Sidney Bechet phrases giving a taste of things to come, followed by the band's strong, march-like statement of the theme taken at a stately tempo, after which trumpeter Sidney de Paris adds a couple of his own clarion phrases. Next Bechet and de Paris (a favorite of Bechet) trade lead lines in frequent breaks, with de Paris offering excellent, lyrical trumpet work, and Bechet responding with ascending, ringing high-note playing alternating with creative melodic variations and a striking variety of clarinet tones, from the richest woody notes to those wailing highs (sounding like his soprano sax) to swoops down through the scale, and so on. Nobody could get the range of clarinet sounds and make such creative and expressive use of them, with just the right impact, as Sidney Bechet. Overall, this recording has excellent structural and thematic coherence, with passion and playing at a high level. Hearing it, we experience blues as fine art without losing the deep, soulful feel.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Perdido Street Blues

This track is from the notable 1940 recording reunion of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Some critics called the results "disappointing," but to my ears this track, at least, is terrific.

Bechet opens with a brilliant riff on clarinet, soaring at the start and adding a superbly crafted line, only to step downward with bluesy, slurred and bent notes to rich, low-register tones. Armstrong follows with equal brilliance, flowing through inventive lead lines with that inimitable trumpet tone and blues feel, punching out well-placed accents, and creating a beautifully structured solo. After adding subtle counterpoint behind Satch for a couple of bars, Sidney jumps in wailing with a further sparkling lead line on soprano sax. These two masters are already spurring each other to musical heights.

The fine pianist Luis Russell's mellow interlude follows, guitarist Bernard Addison adds atmosphere, and trombonist Claude Jones restates the theme before the storm. To set the final scene, Armstrong gives us three majestically punched-out climbing notes, then a smooth thematic variation at medium volume, as the band backs him with a rumbling, rolling repeated figure carried on from their earlier work. Satchmo cuts loose with a beaut of a line, building intensity, climbing to a series of high notes with blues slurs for a penultimate climax. He ends on a mid-range note, from which Sidney takes off for one last rollicking, soaring phrase to end it in compelling fashion.

This is "disappointing"?! Some critics needed their hearing aids checked.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Sidney's Blues

After Sonny White's fine rolling piano, rather like a simplified pre-boogie, sets the mood, Sidney Bechet takes a rare turn singing, in a pleasing lower to mid-range tenor. He swings along for three choruses in a marvelously jivin', jazzy, cool '40s-style vocal, with great phrasing, soulfully drawing out key words, the rest of the band comping in support. Next Bechet grabs his clarinet for a soulful, sliding run, then quickly switches to soprano sax for a scintillating, soaring solo to wrap things up. This is most enjoyable music, especially the rare treat of Bechet's vocal. Some superb instrumentalists are lousy singers and shouldn't be on record (boogie pianist Roosevelt Sykes comes to mind), but Bechet acquits himself admirably.

February 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Kenton: Gee, Officer Krupke

Kenton's West Side Story is how it was cover-billed, and like most Kenton projects this one divided the jazz audience. Stan's fans and those who liked Latin Jazz (especially as arranged by Johnny Richards) embraced the album, and indeed it won a Grammy that year. But Kenton's critics never let up, and there's enough bulk and bombast to stoke the naysayers too. Dynamic, exciting, sometimes melodramatic, yet lyrical, even danceable, the album bristles with energy, as big and busy as Bernstein's original: shaping showstoppers in "Prologue," "America" and "Cool," and wafting ballads as mellophoniously soaring as those odd brass horns (neither French nor 'bone) could make them.

Even "Gee, Officer Krupke" – a bobbing-and-weaving bit of sarcastic comic relief in the musical – in the Kenton/Richards version moves from cool to intense, with rhumba and ranting en route. The tune saunters in, sounding as mellow as a Peter Gunn floater, but drama soon arrives, Conte Candoli's solo trumpet atop brass and mellophonium comments (the poor street punks all misunderstood). Tension starts to build, then eases back for a section of slow rhumba, which becomes frantic Latin drumming, and suddenly every section screams out in true Kenton fashion, all the guys shouting right up to the final, unexpectedly downplayed, "Krup-you." (But, then, Stan was a notorious straight arrow.)

February 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Margie Notte: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

I seem to be on some sort of hot streak when it comes to hearing really good female jazz vocalists. While I appreciate that, it's not my favorite genre. I don't go out of my way to see lady jazz singers perform or buy their albums. (As I write, I realize the same is true regarding their male counterparts.) I am of the opinion that the jazz vocal repertoire has become somewhat stale. It doesn't interest me. There is nothing really new about the song selections on Marge Notte's Just You, Just Me either. On the surface we would seem to be in store for yet another singer interpreting the classics.

Well, there is "interpreting the classics" and "Interpreting the Classics!" Tired repertoire or not, this artist deserves the highest praise. She is a wonderful singer and song stylist, surrounded here by top-notch jazzmen who would go over with this live audience whether or not Notte was singing. But this CD is about her. On "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," she sounds like a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. It took about 10 seconds of listening for me to realize that. The lower register is all Ella. The similarity is especially clear at the end of her phrases. The higher register and a bit of the sunny attitude is Doris Day. (Don't let anyone tell you that Doris Day couldn't sing!) Anyhow, comparisons are used to describe, not define. Margie Notte's voice is an original instrument. She could take the stalest ballad and turn it into magic. As far as I am concerned, she can sing whatever she wants to.

February 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Margie Notte: Too Close for Comfort

Regardless of who sings "Too Close for Comfort," I think of Ella Fitzgerald. It doesn't even matter whether a man or a woman sings the tune. I still think of Ella. So it's under that light that all versions are measured. If there were to be a movie about Ella's life, I nominate Margie Notte to supply the voice. She doesn't copy Fitzgerald, but comes pretty close to channeling her. It is an enjoyable déjà vu performed in front of a live audience you feel every bit a part of. Saxophonist Don Braden, who acts as producer, musician and even CD cover photographer, is joined by pianist Jason Teborek, bassist Tom DiCarlo and drummer Cecil Brooks III to form an impressive quartet to back Notte. The song even includes a slow reprise ending that would fit perfectly into that Ella biopic they should make. "Too Close for Comfort" is part of a hot set from Notte and her band. Investigate it. Closely.

February 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Bill Connors: Tavia

Although Lee Konitz plays the soprano sax on this track, his sound and his phrasing are nonetheless immediately recognizable. He'd started playing the straight horn on record the previous year with his Nonet, and doesn't use it in the same way as most tenorists who double on the smaller instrument. Like the tenor sax, the soprano is pitched in the key of B-flat, whereas the alto is an E-flat instrument, so few altoists (at least in those days ) doubled on soprano. But in the late '70s, Konitz played the soprano mostly for color and, in the context of a duo with an acoustic guitar as on this track, did so most efficiently. This song, penned by the reedman for this session, is essentially about melody. The soprano's fragile yet firm tone fits perfectly with the chords that Bill Connors strums on his guitar beside him. There is no real improvisation, except when the guitar is alone and launches a solo that brings more dynamism to the tune, while respecting its elegiac atmosphere. When Konitz returns the song to its original slow pace, his sound is so rich and dense that there's no feeling of entropy. His soprano is really a voice and, soft as it may be, it's hard to remain indifferent to what that voice has to say.

February 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Matt Wilson: Winding Up

Although Lee Konitz devoted one track on his 1967 duo album to performing with Elvin Jones, this 2002 session is Konitz's first album-length duet with a drummer. His choice of Matt Wilson, a younger (by 37 years) musician who played in Lee's Nonet as early as 1996, was wise because Wilson is basically a melodic drummer. This unusual situation also induces Konitz to play only new material, totally co-improvised (or roughly co-composed) with Wilson in the studio, instead of reworking standards as he often does. On this track in particular, it is obvious that the usual relationship between blower and drummer is inverted. Konitz starts with a melodic proposal and Wilson answers on drums, then cymbals, in a tentative way. Then he catches his own momentum and plays along with the reedman rather than "pushing" him, as lots of drummers do. As for Konitz, he carries on his melodic tack, developing new ideas while Wilson's drumming comments in a subtle way that's as musical as it is dynamic. A great lesson in free playing by masters of, respectively, "winds" and "gongs," who make their own rules and are unafraid to enter rarely trodden paths.

February 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Love No. 1

Life Between the Exit Signs was Keith Jarrett's debut release as leader, and expectations were high, given the major impact he was already having as pianist for the popular Charles Lloyd Quartet. Also significant is that Charlie Haden and Paul Motian would remain members of Jarrett's trio, both before and after he left Lloyd in 1969, only to later be joined by Dewey Redman in Jarrett's "American" quartet/quintet that lasted until the late '70s.

This early glimpse of Jarrett's trio shows that it was a work in progress. Jarrett's alluring, breath-of-fresh-air style and could not disguise the fact that this was not yet a totally cohesive unit. Nevertheless, their chemistry was already remarkable, as exemplified here. Jarrett's pensively romantic side is front and center, the theme and his touch both suggestive of Bill Evans. Haden's typically thrusting, jabbed-out solo possesses a certain openhearted majesty. Jarrett responds with an improv full of entrancing, rippling runs that in turn project a sincere emotionality, with Haden's running sparse commentary proficiently enhancing the pianist's message. Motian, so used to this type of ballad treatment from his years with Evans, adds his own lightly delivered percussive colorations, insinuating yet unobtrusive. Despite a rather abrupt ending, this is one of Jarrett's most mature early recorded performances.

February 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Doug Johns: Scrumpt

If you're in the mood for some jazz/funk/fusion straight out of the interrelated realms of the Brecker Brothers, Tower of Power, and the Yellowjackets, you won't find anything better than "Scrumpt," the opening track on Cleveland-based Doug Johns's second self-produced CD. Johns is an imaginative electric bassist with a seemingly unlimited arsenal of fresh licks and nuanced grooves, but the large band arrangement of "Scrumpt" also allows the horns to exuberantly expand upon Johns's insistently funky impetus. This CD's title, Pocket Fulla Nasty, couldn't apply more than to what Johns & Co. achieve here.

Swaggering horn vamps initiate the festivities, with Joe Miller's piercing trumpet intensifying the groove. The key soul-saturated theme that follows has punched-out riffs capping its unfettered message. (Kudos to Kenny Anderson, who apparently multitracked his three saxophones.) Johns's meaty basslines during this opening section, as well as his preaching, vocalized wah-wah effects during his solo, are wonderfully realized; and note the delightful sighing horn riffs during his improv. The reappearance of the introductory arrangement is invigorating, and the biting concluding tag is undeniably appropriate and satisfying. "Scrumpt" is a 3:26 miniature masterpiece of the genre. If the title isn't short for "scrumptious," well, it should be.

February 18, 2009 · 1 comment

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Cannonball Adderley: Waltz For Debby

The transitional Know What I Mean? is too often overlooked when assessing the résumés of Cannonball Adderley and his pianist on this session, Bill Evans. At the time, Adderley was enjoying the breakthrough success of his quintet with brother Nat, and Evans was leading his most famous and influential trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. Evans's initial, brief rendition of his tune "Waltz for Debby" came in 1956, and he would record it for the third time, definitively, live at the Village Vanguard with his trio in June 1961. What makes this interim version, created just three months earlier, additionally intriguing is the unexpected rhythm team of the Modern Jazz Quartet's Percy Heath and Connie Kay.

Evans lovingly plays his hypnotic theme with a rich and ringing tone, before Adderley contributes his own reading. Adderley sounds unusually prim, refined and proper, at least until he begins his solo, at which point he quickly reveals his more bluesy and soulful side, combined with technical polish, lucid lyricism and irresistible warmth. Evans follows only too briefly, as Adderley regrettably reprises the theme before the pianist can fully develop any ideas. As for Heath and Kay, they more than adequately complement Adderley and Evans, with Kay in particular supplying a very becoming and propulsive rhythmic framework. Adderley and Evans had come a long way since appearing together on Miles Davis's Kind of Blue two years before, and it could be that each was just hitting his stride at the time this track was recorded.

February 18, 2009 · 1 comment

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Ede Wright: Abaddon

"Abaddon," the opener from Ede Wright's Earthbound Gravity, introduces this Atlanta-based guitarist as a composer capable of constructing memorable, incisive melodies delivered in fuss-free and driving, economical arrangements. It's jazz with a contemporary feel, but much too organic and demanding to call it Smooth. On the contrary, Wright, bassist Marc Miller and drummer Chris Burroughs climb over a broken bossa nova rhythm with swinging ease, benefiting from clean production that accentuates sharp playing instead of covering up shortfalls. Owner of a pleasing tone and slippery lines, Wright plays with enthusiastic authority and spins off tasty licks as naturally as Larry Carlton.

It was in fact Carlton's Mr. 335 Live In Japan that I was listening to just prior to playing Wright's CD for the first time, and I couldn't detect any erosion of artistry on the switchover. That's one heck of a first impression Ede Wright makes.

February 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Django Reinhardt: Low Cotton

Some of the finest but least-known small group recordings of the Swing Era were five tracks recorded in Paris in 1939 by the great guitarist Django Reinhardt and three members of Duke Ellington's Orchestra. The original 78s were issued in France billed as Rex Stewart and His Feetwarmers, and later in the U.S. as Rex Stewart's Big Four. To the best of my knowledge, they were unavailable for the entire duration of the LP era. This CD reissues them under Reinhardt's name.

"Low Cotton" is a 32-bar AABA form with changes similar to "I Want a Little Girl." The entire performance consists of two choruses preceded by Stewart's solo introduction, which sounds cool and majestic at the same time. Reinhardt and clarinetist Barney Bigard split the first chorus, with Bigard's rich, woody low- register sound contrasting nicely with Django's bright yet warm tone. The first half of the second chorus features a gorgeous single-string solo by Reinhardt, with Stewart taking the bridge. Rex recaps the theme backed by a sensitive but intense clarinet obbligato. This long-neglected classic is first-rate chamber music that transcends categories.

February 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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David Binney: Third Occasion

The title is from a passage in Graham Greene's novel The Heart of the Matter (1948). "To be a human being one had to drink the cup. If one were lucky on one day, or cowardly on another, it was presented on a third occasion." Reportedly, the author did not much care for his own book. Nevertheless, the themes of individuality, responsibility, pity and pride, and the role of government and the church in those areas, interested many people. A movie, starring among others a young Peter Finch, was filmed in 1953.

Greene's novel presumably made a strong enough impression on saxophonist David Binney to inspire a long, introspective and probing musical creation. The tune's introductory passages suggest doubt. Binney and the brass section play some captivating but brief melodic riffs. Bassist Scott Colley is the first to solo, his style traditional and pleasing, not quite as dark as some of the music that accompanies it. Binney offers plenty of angst in his own solo. Some tortured feelings exist, not in the sense of causing pain, but rather the torture of self-doubt. Binney's squeezed-out wails are the equivalent of primal screams. This is not upbeat music. Binney and his fellow musicians have produced a thought-provoking piece that can't help but move you in one direction or another. Your individual needs will determine which direction that will be.

February 17, 2009 · 2 comments

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Ede Wright: Army of Me

In perhaps a bit of irony, Ede Wright's most harmonically complex song on Earthbound Gravity comes from international pop star Björk's straightforward industrial rock hit of 1995. Wright's interpretation transforms "Army of Me" into an up-tempo modern jazz piece. Wright and bassist Marc Miller combine to render the verses and chorus as brisk and odd-metered basslines, with Wright overdubbing single-line guitar notes where Björk's lyrics would go. The bridge is a boppish departure from the written composition that Wright uses as a platform to launch some wickedly fast and fluttering lines. "Army of Me" is a dark, weary song at heart, but Ede Wright saw its potential as a lively jazz tune by injecting a little soul and a lot of musicianship into it.

February 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jon Hassell: Abu Gil

The first wave of electronics on the jazz world was big and brash, with banks of keyboards, noisy guitars, and speakers stacked to the rafters in a D-Day assault on the listeners' virgin ears. The new generation is more subtle, mixing in "effects" (what a quaint term . . . I can't wait until someone starts applying it to the culinary arts or money management) with traditional acoustic sounds. Sound painter Jon Hassell belongs to the second wave, boasting an odd pedigree that few jazz players can grok—when the rest of the cats were jamming on 'Rhythm' changes, Hassell was translating ragas to the trumpet, changing the shape of composed music with Terry Riley, mixing it up with Brian Eno, and studying the work of (the all-too-under-recorded) Pandit Pran Nath. The result is a highly stylized and peculiar body of work. Here Hassell is cooking up a thick aural soup, one that is just barely jazz, with touches of World Music, New Age and ambient sound. "Abu Gil," a 13-minute track, demonstrates Hassell's core strengths, especially his haunting trumpet sound—imagine a Miles Davis who practices Sufism—and the whizzing, buzzing, nature-walk textures of his accompanying ensemble. I would prefer a slightly crisper sound and more dynamic variety from the band—the waters get a little murky, and the rhythm section is very tame. But Hassell's trumpet work is heard to good effect here. I'm not sure "Abu Gil" would cut the mustard at the Village Vanguard, but it would get a standing ovation (or at least a lotus position ovation) at your local meditation center.

February 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington (featuring Louie Bellson): Skin Deep

A few years after this recording, rock bands would discover the allure of long, intense drum solos. This was more than mere bombast—there is solid clinical evidence that prolonged exposure to powerful rhythms impacts a listener's brain rhythms and creates a trance-like state. Well, long before Ginger Baker and Keith Moon, there was Louie Bellson, who actually was the pioneer who developed the two-bass-drum-setup adopted by these later mega-rockers. And Bellson also was a master of the supersize drum solo, as demonstrated on this seminal performance with the Duke Ellington band. Ellington himself was just beginning to experiment with the potential for longer recorded tracks unleashed by the LP format (this same album also featured his brilliant tone poem Harlem, perhaps my favorite of his extended works), and with one of the great swing percussionists in the band, the time was also ripe for a big drum feature. "Skin Deep" did not disappoint. This Bellson original created quite a stir at the time, and still stands out as one of the defining performances of big band drumming. Bellson not only shows off his formidable technique, but also proves that he could build a solo over the course of several minutes while keeping the audience focused on his every move. If you want to take the measure of Mr. Bellson, one of the finest drummers of the Swing (or any) Era, this is the place to begin.

February 16, 2009 · 2 comments

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New Century Saxophone Quartet: Somewhere

Balanced on the cusp between classical and jazz, the New Century Saxophone Quartet seems able to syncopate or go "pure" at will, the four gents and some extra percussion often sounding like a whole orchestra – as in the group's 1995 album of (other-than-Copland) Americana, which extrapolates and builds on tunes from Porgy and Bess and Morton Gould, as well as much of West Side Story. Nearly all of altoist James Boatman's arrangements scintillate and surprise (from cha-chas to oompahs, and vaudeville to the blues), but for sheer beauty none shines more brightly than "Somewhere."

Any jazz here is in the ear of the behearer only, as the tune is played as a hushed and heart-soothing ballad throughout, the only syncopation coming in some extended, out-of-tempo pauses near the end. The New Century's "Somewhere" begins as a yearning song from the blended saxes and near-silent vibraphone, then gradually becomes a contrapuntal dialogue mostly between alto and baritone (the latter going both above and to the bottom of its normal range), finally rising to the grand climax of the album and maybe Bernstein's score as well, as the hopeful upper voices sing like flutes while the low sax and timpani sound Tony's death knell.

Replete with complexity and invention, not to mention gorgeous playing throughout, there's definitely a time and place for these guys, somewhere.

February 16, 2009 · 3 comments

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David Binney: Squares and Palaces

Saxophonist David Binney's composition has an air of mystery and intrigue. It could make a good movie soundtrack for one of those slow nighttime chase scenes that take place on foot rather than in speeding prop cars. There are lots of corners and shadows to navigate in the dark city. One eye is always looking behind you while the other glances down to make sure you don't trip. This atmosphere is skillfully evoked by Scott Colley's tentative but wily bass. He is soon joined by Binney's short unison bursts. It is all quite surreptitious until drummer Brian Blade tries to lose the pursuer(s) by launching distracting fusillades. Binney and his band think some free jazz may throw the bad guys off the trail. Well, maybe that won't work. A calmer blues may be the best thing to do. You know. Let's confuse them. Maybe they will walk right past us. Yeah, that worked! Music that doesn't tell a story is not good. "Squares and Palaces" goes right to the plot without any opening credits. You may hear a different tale than me. But there are a thousand stories in the Naked City and mine is just one.

February 16, 2009 · 1 comment

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Lee Konitz & Franco D'Andrea: Love for Sale

Playing a moody, meditative paraphrase on the famous Cole Porter tune, Lee Konitz is alone for nearly 1½ minutes before Franco D'Andrea joins in. Once the pianist does enter, it is he who maintains the strongest connection with the theme through a highly rhythmic comping that lets the melody trickle through block chords or bits of single lines. Meanwhile, Konitz drifts apart, though never too far, as he often does in a strange and familiar way, like one who knows the melody and the harmonies so well that he can play anything inside or outside of them. With such a complete pianist as D'Andrea, whose strong touch and rich chords are at times evocative of Thelonious Monk for the former and Art Tatum for the latter, Konitz can wander anywhere without getting lost. All the same, the listener can follow him without ever losing track of the harmonic and melodic progression of the tune. This diving into the improvising process by one of the greatest melodic "drifters" of all time, coaxed by one of Europe's best masters of harmony, is fascinating. Inside Cole Porter? Inside Lee Konitz's art, too.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Michel Petrucciani: I Hear a Rhapsody

The idea to bring Lee Konitz and Michel Petrucciani together for an entire duo album was an excellent one. French producer Jean-Jacques Pussiau had supervised some of Petrucciani's first records, and was fully aware of the young pianist's potential—though, at 20, he'd never played a duet with such a master as the altoist. Indeed, he sounds very respectful of Konitz's approach and, after a short intro, mostly plays the tune's chords as his partner states the melody, then choruses. But the piano's beautiful sound, and the way it follows the alto and develops parallel melodic lines while feeding the soloist strong bass notes as harmonic pillars, entices Konitz to express his most lyrical side. He never wanders far from the melody, and his sound is so close to that of the piano that you're hardly conscious of the transition between his solo and Petrucciani's. When the altoist restates the theme, the empathy between the two players becomes even more obvious, as is their choice to tackle this melody in the simplest way, without overly romantic effects to obstruct its genuine emotional power. With such inspired instrumentalists, music doesn't need to be loud and extroverted. Less is more.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & John Scofield: Some Blues

Some might think that John Scofield is as far from Lee Konitz as can be. Wrong! First, each has played with Miles Davis and with Gerry Mulligan, albeit at very different periods of these latter musicians' careers, and this undeniably creates a bond between them. The other link is their relationship to the blues: obvious and well documented in the guitarist's case, lesser known but still present for the altoist. And that's exactly what the two men explore here, for almost eight minutes: some blues, improvised on the spot by players who are as familiar with the idiom as they are with the art of dialogue. Four solo choruses (two apiece) alternate at the start to set the atmosphere.

Then the real exchange begins, more intense on Konitz's side and very casual on Scofield's. In fact, all through the tune, John stays essentially in the rhythmic field, almost never resorting to his usual distortion effects and "dirty sound" tricks. It seems as if Scofield had less to prove than Konitz, and wanted to let him display his blues chops. Indeed, anyone who may have had doubts about the latter's ability to play with a blues/rock-oriented guitarist and to tackle the blues changes in a convincing way should be satisfied with the altoist's inspired performance over Scofield's efficient, supportive strumming. "Some Blues" really is some blues!

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Clark Terry: Flyin' - Mumbles and Jumbles

At first listen, few would think that these two instrumentalists were venerable, seasoned musicians (Terry, 73 at the time, and Konitz, then 66) who'd been respectively members of the Ellington and Kenton bands. Right from the start, their playing is so free as far as melody, rhythm and tempo are concerned that you might even think of some "angry young men," as they were called in the early '60s. But listen closer: the blues is there, not far behind the apparently shapeless lines, and follow a rather clear question-&-answer pattern. The powerful, assertive sound, along with articulate phrasing, also tells you that these musicians have huge chops and know what they're talking about. Indeed, it takes a lot of self-confidence to indulge in such playfully informal blowing.

Yet who would recognize Lee Konitz on soprano sax (so far from his allegedly "cool" style on the alto) and Clark Terry (even though his lively fluegelhorn has actually often strayed from classic patterns)? And even if one could expect the latter to end this tune with his typical scatting and mumbling, who'd have thought that the usually introverted Konitz would sing along with his wild elder? These two definitely sound like old uninhibited kids who couldn't resist playing a good trick on listeners who think they know all about them. The fun that was theirs is amply shared by us, and the surprise makes it even more pleasurable.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Willie Bobo: Haitian Lady

Mambo fans will get off on Willie Bobo's "Haitian Lady," a Latin-flavored cha-cha featuring some riveting improvisation. While Melvin Lastie's cornet solo is hot and the percussion burns, the star of the show is guitarist Clarence Henry. His descending rhythms help the cut simmer, and his ascending, Olympian solos impress. In fact, the entire ensemble's dynamics are impressive, proving that full drum kits are sometimes unnecessary. Drummers Bobo and Victor Panoja make their instruments sound like a kit, though; while one player occasionally keeps time by playing a single cymbal panned heavily to the right, the other player's hand percussion fills the spaces the kit traditionally would occupy. The percussionists bounce riffs off one another and the ideas are intricately developed. Once you hear this track, you won't forget it; the minimal presentation gets under your skin after a single listen. Of course, its catchiness testifies to the strength of saxophonist Harold Ousley's original composition. Since Willie Bobo generally recorded covers of other artists' material on his albums, hearing his amorous take on "Haitian Lady" is a special delight.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Full Nelson

The funky "Full Nelson" gets added oomph from the slap bass of producer Marcus Miller, which flies in the context of bouncy, synthetic grooves that would sound great on the dance floor or on '80s night in a club. Encapsulated within are simple drum machine beats, processed handclaps, and individual tracks apparently compiled from several performances. The sonic layers are dated, the cut seems like an early hip-hop prototype, and the electronic track sounds as if it is the brainchild of a computer. One of the least spontaneous Miles Davis recordings, it features looping instrumental parts and a noncontiguous form consisting of phrases broken into individual fragments. These techniques cause Miles's playing to fade into the background despite the beautiful, regal tones that he weaves into the mechanical maze towards the end. As most of the truly human musical elements of "Full Nelson" are washed away by the recording's methodical aspects, the track lacks substantial power and the melodies are tough to recall. This cannot be considered one of the best Miles cuts, but it is a pleasant listening experience for anyone interested in revisiting the final few Miles Davis releases.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: One For Daddy-O

Flying down a freeway of clear skies and very little traffic, all systems are set to "go" as the sax revs the engine and sets the destination for this smooth blues. Of course, the drums take control of the brakes, keeping the others in check while setting the pace. At the conclusion, Miles Davis asks, "Is that what you wanted, Alfred?" It's clear that the producer, Mr. Lion, most likely received his musical wish: eight minutes of musical goodness featuring coiled horns, walking bass and bopping drums. The music is elemental in scope (as is much blues), but the players always sound alive and awake. With this type of momentum, it's clear that the date was a success, and as part of the Rudy Van Gelder remaster series, the instruments stand out even more in the mix, providing listeners with a great deal of insight into an amazing time for jazz. Miles was becoming The Man With The Horn in this era, and Cannonball's star was rapidly ascending. Both sound young and vital, and if you haven't heard the track, you're missing out on some great music.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gato Barbieri: Last Tango In Paris

Musical eroticism prevails on "Last Tango in Paris," a steamy pastiche of swirling instrumentation, revolving chord structures, and thick and sexy tenor sax. Gato Barbieri's soulful horn surfs atop tuneful string accompaniment, and during his poignant performance listeners can clearly hear and identify the varied facets of his instrumental technique. His improvised minor-keyed themes work well in this particular setting; during his leads, he uses tremolo to great effect and also proves himself a master of the strategic pause. Remaining silent for several measures, then resuming his breathtaking soloing where he left off, his deliberation adds a smoldering intensity even as the cut lays back quite far.

The ingredients for Barbieri's "Ultimo tango" mix Argentine sensibilities with aspects of improvisation generally associated with fusion. Even so, it is an elegiac, thought-provoking piece that never loses sight of its jazz qualities. The appropriately French-sounding work basks in Barbieri's sensual glow, and while the 1972 Marlon Brando film was rated "X" when released, after hearing this you get the feeling that an additional "X" should have been added. The tune is catchy, confident, cool and simultaneously naughty, and is a great introduction to Barbieri's experimental yet timeless musical flair.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Herb Alpert: Lollipops and Roses

Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass borrowed many elements from classic jazz recordings and fused them with strident, military-style marching music. What set them apart from the pack was candy-coated packaging for quick consumption. "Lollipops and Roses" is no exception to the rule. Alpert's version is nothing like the Jack Jones hit it is based on, but does benefit from a tight, complementary orchestral arrangement, quick pacing, and a short running time, all of which have an effect on listeners long after its two minutes are up.

If you are unfamiliar with Jones's version, it compares to the Hallmark-card romanticism of Dean Martin. Alpert's workmanlike interpretation was used as theme music for The Dating Game, and appropriately sounds like a sign of the times. Resembling much of the TJB's other output from the same era, it features chorused horns reiterating the melody and a rhythm section that grooves in a simple and pleasant pop-oriented way. Unlike most of the jazz recorded back then, there isn't any soloing. However, the concise, condensed presentation is the proper outlet for music that found most of its exposure on television and in films.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Herb Alpert and the T.J.B.: Last Tango in Paris

Featuring an arrangement by Quincy Jones, "Last Tango in Paris" is also enriched by minor electric guitar chords and a more elaborate chord structure than usual for Herb Alpert. Although credited to the Tijuana Brass, it sounds nothing like most of the recordings that group is generally known for.

The majority of Alpert's discography is built on brief, catchy jingles such as "Lollipops and Roses," which boasted an easily hum-able melody and a peppy, joyous atmosphere perfect for TV ads (or, in Alpert's case, shows like The Dating Game, to which he contributed several T.J.B. tracks). However, the only quality this track shares with the earlier hits, besides the contributions of a few mainstay T.J.B. members, is the brief running time. "Tango" is succinct, but even though Alpert's unmistakable trumpet style is present, a sophisticated compositional allure is carried by the orchestration that makes it more provocative (and, ultimately, more interesting) than composer Gato Barbieri's own version. The subdued synths blend in well with the orchestration, a few quick solo lines exist near the end, and Alpert's take is a sexier, sultrier rendering that realizes the song's true potential as its soul is laid bare.

February 16, 2009 · 1 comment

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Herb Alpert: Route 101

On "Route 101," a throng of punchy horns rings out in unchallenged reverie as Herb Alpert and crew want you to believe that half your listening experience is occurring in the U.S. and the other half in Mexico. While it sounds appropriately recorded south of the border, the actual Route 101 does not intersect with Tijuana. However, after digesting this jangly fusion of horns, acoustic guitars, shakers and windy, quasi-Spanish dance patterns, you will swear that it does.

Of course, Alpert had some credibility in his attempt at sonically fusing the big beat with the act of traveling down that particular road, since his career had been based in Southern California for many years and he'd scored a recent disco smash with his hit LP Rise. His playing is crisp and picturesque, and the lilting vocal harmonies ring out as bright as the West Coast sunshine. The enthusiasm is just as infectious as many of his earlier Tijuana Brass cuts, and with the right amount of melodic reiteration and some agile, quick soloing by Alpert that helps prove its worth as a jazz recording, the track has aged well.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Pass: Meditation (Meditacao)

Joe Pass's mellow rendition of "Meditation (Meditacao)" is a light bossa nova performed in what has become a timeless style of music. Relaxed rhythms are colored by rim shots that map out a sublime mood befitting deep introspection. For easygoing, laid-back music celebrating oneness, the presentation here is just right, as the ensemble is washed away in a large amount of audio sweetening that renders guitar, bass and drums indistinguishable after awhile.

Contrary to the ways most "hip" producers and artists were shaping their studio music in 1970, Pass's group was recorded live in a single take, and it fills up the wide-open spaces with note choices that were more carefully considered than what would have been heard on a Grateful Dead recording. Amidst a paucity of cluttered sound, aggressive kick-drums lead the track to its coda as the players step through the veil of aquatic reverb to deliver a wall of gutsy, uncluttered illuminations. The obvious goal was to deepen the instrumental tension while adding emotional resonance to an already unwavering flow, and all three players can be considered "on point," or in top form.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Larry Coryell: Wrong Is Right?

Recorded live in the studio by a riveting organ trio, "Wrong Is Right?" gathers a massive head of steam in its loose jam format, with attention-grabbing creativity much jazzier than Larry Coryell's original version from Spaces. That one contained many rough edges, but here Coryell, Coster and Smith smooth those out, adding sweetness and a more horizontal direction. The melody remains intact, but the group stays firmly entrenched within the boundaries defined by the chord chart and anchored by the dense weight of the written chords. It is a weighty mix, indeed, as Coster's electrifying Hammond splashes adeptly fill the spaces while adding true definition to the tune's spine.

When John McLaughlin ripped into his solo on the original, Coryell's chords were nearly indecipherable. Here, they are easy to identify in the mix, as there are fewer players to obscure their clarity. Also, with less chaos than on Spaces, Coryell and Coster find appropriate moments to take turns burning hot leads that recall high-velocity engines blazing around street corners in the summertime. You really should check this out.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Etta James: At Last

Having portrayed Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, singer/actress Beyoncé was chosen to deliver Etta's signature song for the President and First Lady's first dance at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball in D.C. during the festivities of late January 2009. Miss James was publicly miffed about not being asked to perform "At Last" herself, but was she justified? Both vocalists do a fine job with a song that has been covered by many others. Beyoncé, however, is currently a hot pop-culture commodity, so the reasons for her appearance are obvious. Still, play each version back to back, and more soul drips out of Etta James's original.

James is properly described as Old School, and this track makes that quality immediately apparent. What she offers that few others can match is a brassy, rough-hewn persona that captivates listeners with its guttural yet properly intoned presentation. She cites Johnny "Guitar" Watson as a major influence on her singing style, and it shows. Listen closely and you'll hear her reaching deep inside for notes that visit the lowest (contralto) depths of her range, essentially sounding male in delivery. James's voice then smoothly transitions into its high register, displaying stylistic dexterity that ranks alongside such jazz greats as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Wild Cat Blues

This was Sidney Bechet's first recording. Beyond the start of a tremendously important recording career, this track was historic because Bechet was the featured player, rather than simply serving as part of the ensemble in classic New Orleans style, and this recording was made more than two years before the first of the Louis Armstrong Hot Five tracks that are usually credited with the landmark step of featuring a solo artist.

This track starts out in classic New Orleans polyphonic ensemble style. It is grounded on the standard early 1920s chug/chug/chug rhythm, especially from Christian's banjo—as trumpeter Max Kaminsky said, "those '20s bands with that dreadful '20s beat." But it also has energy and bounce. Then Bechet soars above it all, and quickly we hear that the intense, unique vibrato that became so notable was already well developed. He also adds some of those great, crying, keening high notes that became another trademark, along with very inventive lines. To hear the recorded beginnings of this jazz giant is a treat, even if Clarence Williams was a better music entrepreneur than pianist, and despite the chugging rhythm and merely OK sidemen.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Really the Blues

Teddy Bunn opens this track with a repeated, deep-toned figure on his guitar that sets the mood, then Tommy Ladnier takes the lead on trumpet, blowing some very smooth, soulful, bluesy lines, shadowed by Sidney Bechet and Mezz Mezzrow with nicely harmonic clarinet playing, some dipping down into the low register for extra-rich deep tones. The piece then transitions into a delightful Bechet-Mezzrow clarinet duet, Mezzrow taking the lead line (it was his composition) and Bechet adding creative harmony, the two playing in octaves at one point to provide a special dimension. Ladnier next adds further lovely, bluesy variations on the theme, followed by the clarion call of Bechet on soprano sax, playing some superb, inventive, compelling and soulful lines, backed by Ladnier, Mezzrow, et al. This is outstanding music, with Ladnier and Bechet drawing on that good ol' New Orleans blues with fine assists from Bunn and Mezzrow.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Viper Mad

What more can you ask from a song? A memorable, catchy melody, sung by O'Neill Spencer in perfect late-'20s/early '30s style; a novelty theme touching on the illicit; and buoyant, jaunty instrumental work played at a high level. All of which makes "Viper Mad" irresistible. The illicit part is the title, which meant mad for marijuana—a substantial presence in the background of jazz culture—putting this tune in the same happy family as the popular "hokum" songs by Tampa Red and others from that era. The score of 91 is for pure musical value; if a fun quotient were included, the rating would be 95.

After a brief ensemble opening, Sidney Bechet introduces the theme in rhythmic, rollicking, jaunty manner, then yields to the vocal choruses. Following those, Clarence Brereton takes the lead with some beautifully flowing trumpet work, including nicely placed blue notes, and Bechet responds with a soaring, ringing break on his soprano sax in his inimitable style before the final vocal chorus. This is highly enjoyable stuff, and the melody will keep reverberating in your head.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Alberta Hunter: Early Every Morn

A major singer in the first phase of blues recording, Alberta Hunter (recording under the pseudonym, "Josephine Beatty"), sings this very 1920s tune in the manner of the early '20s women blues singers (except for Bessie Smith): half vaudeville, half stylized blues. It has very catchy, slightly campy, and quite memorable melody and lyrics, which Hunter performs with verve and more than a dash of sauciness.

This track is most notable for the two lead instrumentalists backing her, young virtuosos who would each have tremendous impact on jazz: Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. After a fine ensemble intro, Alberta sings several choruses; then Armstrong and Bechet take the break, with Satch deepening the rhythm with a classic New Orleans riff and Sidney blowing some soaring lines with saucy, bluesy slurs that complement the vocal, weaving around one another in a marvelous tango of New Orleans horns. Though you have to wade through the 1924 acoustic recording, this is very engaging stuff, with an excellent taste of early Armstrong and Bechet.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Maple Leaf Rag

This recording, led by New Orleans standouts Sidney Bechet and Tommy Ladnier, is from a "celebrated" session of the Feetwarmers band, to quote from Ted Gioia's review of a companion track, "I've Found A New Baby." My rating of "only" 89 for this track may be jazz heresy; but to my ears, they take this song at such a frenzied pace that balance, tone and nuance are often lost. (Part of the problem may be the CD's harsh, shrill digital remastering.) "I've Found a New Baby" has better balance and tone, and the various parts work together better for a creative whole, while maintaining the classic New Orleans ensemble playing and drive.

On the other hand, the music here has great energy and illustrates how the famous Joplin ragtime tune was revved up by New Orleans musicians into an intense work of jazz (which transformation was explicitly demonstrated by Jelly Roll Morton in his historic Library of Congress recordings).

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lou Rawls: Lost and Lookin'

A year before Sam Cooke's hit single, Lou Rawls (Cooke's boyhood friend and former backup singer) took "Lost and Lookin'" to an insurmountable peak of poignancy and desperation. The emotional pull of this performance makes it one of the finest offerings of any blues-based ballad to unrequited love. Rawls captures the essence of a forlorn lover, desperate for some explanation and hoping beyond reason for an unlikely return. He is reduced to tears and longing in a search for something never to be found again. Rawls, with the perfectly understated Les McCann Ltd. in subtle accompaniment, creates a masterpiece of expression with his vocal acuity, forever memorializing the sometimes painful human condition of lost love that can only be told properly through the blues.

February 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lou Rawls: Willow Weep for Me

Although he'd made his first recordings in a gospel group during 1954, and was subsequently seasoned as a backup vocalist with, among others, R&B legend Sam Cooke, Stormy Monday marked Lou Rawls's debut album as a leader. On this track, the silky throated singer puts his indelible stamp on a well-worn standard. Nicely accompanied by the soulful blues pianist Les McCann and his trio, Rawls makes an auspicious entrance into the world of jazz and blues with this gutsy rendition.

A deliberately slow tempo set by McCann's blues-tinged piano intro forces Rawls to use his evocative voice to wring out the words in his most soulful way. His delivery creates perfect pathos with his addition of "oooooouu cover me"—emphasis on the elongated "ooooouuu"—sung in a delightfully heart-wrenching way.

After the first chorus, McCann adroitly steps up the tempo, playing a more upbeat blues solo that releases the tension built from the graver tones set earlier by the singer. Rawls swings back into the second verse, quickly adding an element of hope that wisely rescues the performance from melodrama. But this is after all the blues, which he and McCann know better than most. They skillfully return to the slower tempo, allowing Rawls to extract his last bit of angst from the performance. With his beautifully sensuous voice, Rawls heightens the drama, ending on a smoothly sustained note that fades into nothingness.

February 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Don Cherry: Remembrance

Fresh off historic stints with Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, Don Cherry in 1965 forged his own brand of avant-garde jazz that stitched together disparate songs or fragments into sidelong suites. Cherry followed that formula for his debut album, Complete Communion, and soon afterwards assembled an internationally populated band, touring Europe in support of the album.

The discrete ideas in "Remembrance" aren't so revolutionary on their own, but how the players, on Cherry's slightest cue, stretch out within each idea and swiftly transition to the next is amazing. At one point, Cherry out of nowhere states the first few notes of "One Bass Hit," and the band instinctively launches into a straight version of it for three minutes before moving on to the next concept.

Like Miles Davis had done with Coltrane, Cherry sought out a saxophone foil to his trumpet with a style diametrically opposed to his own. He found one in the then-unknown fiery young tenorist from Argentina, Leandro "Gato" Barbieri. As Cherry took a linear approach to melody, Barbieri seemed to recognize the beat but little else, his husky squawk often climbing into the upper register. Cherry provided the soul, but Gato lit a kerosene-soaked bed of charcoal under the band.

The anything-goes spirit of "Remembrance" is a joyful result of contrasting personalities combining for the common purpose of making exciting, unpredictable music.

February 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Grusin: I Feel Pretty

Forty years after West Side Story hit big, pianist Dave Grusin decided to revisit and maybe revitalize Bernstein's musical by recording and overdubbing in several cities and studios, building a jazz-&-strings orchestra à la Stan Kenton, and adding guest soloists such as Michael Brecker and Lee Ritenour on some numbers. If you overlook a couple of misguided vocals, Grusin's concept offers expansive arrangements and excellent solos, and one of the top tracks is his brilliant reworking of "I Feel Pretty."

A lilting quasi-ballet in its original form, this new version goes a few steps farther, refashioning the tune as a mixture of flute-lifted Baroque dance and lightly fingered Cubano tango in the manner of Ernesto Lecuona, the trick realized perfectly by master flautist Dave Valentin and mischievous accompanist Grusin. The dual Daves float and shimmer in a haze of apache and pas-de-deux, which suddenly becomes a hard-driven, high-flutin' Afro-Cuban stomp. But this stalls after a minute, slowing for the piano's tango-on-tiptoes return, and then reverts to the master-class duet of piano and flute, now pausing, now proceeding in staccato counterpoint, admitting some fluttery trills and cries, ending quietly.

All in all, it's an enchanting, subtly tongue-in-cheek performance. It was Valentin's day indeed.

February 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ede Wright: Noche Besso

Guitarist Ede (pronounced "Eddie") Wright's "Noche Besso" is the subject of this review because I dig the bassline theme played by Marc Miller. (There may be some assistance from Wright's programming as well. You never know with the newfangled toys at a musician's disposal these days.) The bassline seems to be sneaking around the room and hiding behind furniture. When it stops, you want to go looking for it. When it returns, you feel all is well with the world and you smile. Wright plays nice chords and a mellifluous solo, his notes dripping with invention. Drummer Chris Burroughs ably works the cymbals, adding texture and keeping time with that bass. As shown as well by the other cuts on the album, Ede Wright is a superior composer. But a good composition is only half the equation. Wright can play the hell out of that guitar. Combine it with his writing acumen, and you have something with real staying power. I know that damn bassline at least is going to stay with me through my supper!

February 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ede Wright: Shangrila

Sometimes I don't have all the information needed to fill out the jazz.com template for a new review. In the case of guitarist Ede Wright's Earthbound Gravity, I could not find the recording date. Since I had Wright's contact information, I called to find out and to ask him another question. He said the album was recorded in March 2008. I told him that I loved the CD, and thought the last cut, "Shangrila," was particularly brilliant. He graciously thanked me and asked if I noticed it was an ode to John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia. You bet I did!

The tune is an acoustic outing. Wright strums some full chords in rhythm to a driving snare and cymbal accompaniment, which may remind some listeners of the acoustic guitar intro on Stealers Wheel's 1972 "Stuck in the Middle With You," but played faster and a bit sideways. Soon the chords and beats meet in an impressive display of timekeeping and cohesion. Chords and drums suddenly disappear, replaced by a low distorted hum and the beauty of Wright's acoustic soloing. Ede Wright can play the hell out of that acoustic guitar.

To my ears, the influences break down this way:
           90% John McLaughlin
             5% Paco De Lucia
             5% Al Di Meola

Wright's lines are clean, crisp and contain tension and beauty. Great speed runs are easily within his finger reach. This is some fantastic guitar playing. Wright's music is alive with rhythms and melodies skillfully expressed with touch and real meaning. This is one of the best acoustic guitar performances I have heard in some time. I implore you to listen.

BTW: The other question I asked Wright was whether the interesting bassline I heard was being performed by a bassist he forgot to credit or was it him? It was him. I was not surprised.

February 14, 2009 · 3 comments

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Bill Frisell: Strange Meeting

In this Bill Frisell composition, Bob Stewart's tuba is the perfect backdrop for an unlikely excursion into the alien and unknown. Frisell's guitar synthesizer is tuned to an otherworldly frequency that is strangely organic yet confoundedly unfamiliar. He bends and extends the decay of his notes in a masterful display of electronic technique and harmonic appeal. He and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler match notes perfectly, letting them wistfully fade to their own demise. This Roswellian adventure (that's New Mexico, not Rudd) is at once playful and mysterious. It draws you in by the creative exploitation of the various sounds that Frisell and Co. skillfully weave into an overall Outer Limits-like quality. Abduction is a possibility during this strange encounter of the Frisell kind. But beware: you may find it so intoxicating that you'll never return.

February 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Frisell: Rambler

Bill Frisell refuses to be pigeonholed into a particular genre or style. For this adventure into ethnically inspired music, he joins forces with the equally eclectic trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, drum colorist Paul Motian and bassist Jerome Harris, plus the unlikely addition of Bob Stewart's tuba. "Rambler" has the swagger of a young Clint Eastwood riding into a sleepy Mexican border town with a 6-gun at his side and an appetite for the local senoritas. Frisell uses his echo-filled guitar synthesizer and Wheeler's wailing Mariachi-inspired trumpet to create the aural equivalent of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, and it works marvelously. Stewart's tuba adds a welcome earthy tone to this vibrant palette. Deceptively simple, cleverly conceived, and masterfully executed, this inspired hybrid effectively transports you to a scene normally available only in the recesses of your subconscious.

February 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny Group (with David Bowie): This Is Not America

Pat Metheny's discography is so full of contradictions that you'd swear he relishes collocating crossover jazz with advanced, impenetrable music. Just a year after the semi-Ornette Coleman tribute Rejoicing and a year before the Ornette Coleman collaboration Song X, Metheny and his Group had a charted single (#32 USA, #14 UK) that boasted David Bowie's vocals.

The only track with lyrics, "This Is Not America" is the centerpiece of PMG's The Falcon And The Snowman soundtrack. Metheny's and Mays's ethereal, streamlined songcraft, which would become more prominent a couple of years later, provides the vehicle for Bowie's earnest singing. Both music and lyrics convey the somber mood of espionage and betrayal depicted in the movie.

That said, this track doesn't present PMG at anywhere near its best; they are improvisers, yet there's no improvising here. The drums, nominally credited to Paul Wertico, sound programmed, and there's a lot of '80s sheen in the production. Bowie himself has had plenty of more memorable moments than this one.

"This Is Not America" isn't a bad song, but as a collaboration between colossal talents, it could have been much better.

February 14, 2009 · 1 comment

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Lettuce: The Flu

Down and dirty, nasty stinky-funky horn bands from the '60s – how we miss them, or should. While most people are familiar with such hit makers as Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, and the synco-pathological Tower of Power, few recall the glory days of Dreams, Ten Wheel Drive, Cold Blood, The Flock, Ball 'N Jack, and the legendary players who emerged from those killer ensembles. Although such bands never had the broad appeal and financial success of the big rockers or the critical accolades that mainstream jazz artists enjoyed, they served one important, often overlooked function. They bridged the gap between jazz, rock 'n' roll and R&B, cross-pollinating the occasionally contentious factions, bringing new players, concepts and audiences to each genre. Changing trends and logistical difficulties inherent in the care and feeding of these larger groups ultimately led to their near-extinction.

Now, however, a new batch of funk-jazz fusion horn groups is emerging, and Lettuce is at the front of the patch. Sounding like a modern hybrid of T.O.P. and Parliament/Funkadelics, these East Coast evangelists preach the gospel of funk and understand its theology: the importance of space, the oxymoronic concept of complex simplicity, and the critical albeit intangible pocket or "slot." Plus, they can really blow!

Lettuce is more about the whole than its parts, but there are moments of solo brilliance. "The Flu" is a straight-up funk jam featuring a guest appearance by the electrifying John Scofield, doing what Scofield does best: shredding the outside corners of the box. Intricate horn lines lock in with the precision rhythm section, driven by the lightning and thunder of Erick Coomes and Adam Deitch. If these guys were any tighter, they'd be waterproof.

February 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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James Carter: Odyssey

James Carter doesn't create unconventional mash-ups of different styles just to be hip; he's adept at making these mélanges coherent. Take, for instance, the sleek blues of "Odyssey."

Henry Butler's brawny organ, bass pedals and all, steers the music closer to Rod Argent than to Jimmy Smith, while the odd lineup of bass clarinet, alto sax and muted trumpet hints at prewar jazz. At first, Carter and altoist Cassius Richmond play the thematic line together, and trumpeter Dwight Adams plays around it. Before long, the slick groove is interrupted by a breakdown moment where the song briefly falls apart into total freedom before quickly reforming again. After Butler solos, the horn players do so all at once, sounding like both Dixieland and avant-garde played over blues chords.

It may all seem strange, but "Odyssey" exudes cool, confident swagger, even when chaos lurks around the corner.

February 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn: Tonk

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn in the Barrelhouse - collage by Alan Kurtz The word "tonk" is a slang contraction of honky-tonk, an 1890s term for a cheap, often tawdry nightclub or dancehall. By the 1920s it also denoted piano music as typically found in such low-class establishments, stylistically postdating ragtime but predating boogie-woogie.

Here "Tonk" gets updated to the mid-'40s. Since Duke was reluctant to record its original orchestration for full band, Billy Strayhorn adapted his adventurous piece for two pianos, played by the close collaborators better known for sophistication than for experimentalism. Not surprisingly, then, this quirky Ellington/Strayhorn foray into avant-garde jazz is more refined than what, say, Thelonious Monk was then doing. Indeed, with echoes of "The Trolley Song" (1944) and "The Band Played On" (a hit for Guy Lombardo just five years before), "Tonk" has more in common with "An American in Paris" (1928) than with "'Round Midnight" (1947). The similarities are most evident when listening to Gershwin's tone poem as arranged for 4-handed piano roll by Frank Milne in 1993.

Yet while Gershwin sought to evoke the sights and sounds of Paris in the '20s, Ellington & Strayhorn draw an impressionistic portrait of an American honky-tonk from that same era. Naturally tonks weren't as tony as La Ville-Lumière, but that's undoubtedly what appealed to Duke & Strays. The energy of honky-tonks was African-American, not European. Accordingly, instead of Gershwin's lavish watercolor splashed across a 16-minute canvas, "Tonk" is a 3-minute sketch in charcoal that would never appear in a major exhibition but still provides a tantalizing glimpse of what Robert Frost called The Road Not Taken. Confronted by diverging paths in the artistic thicket of mid-'40s jazz—one strange but rich in artistic possibility; the other well tramped and commercially proven—Duke Ellington chose the familiar route, leaving the one less traveled to younger, more intrepid explorers. One can only imagine what inroads he and Strayhorn might have made if, instead of Taking the "A" Train, they'd tramped around more in the dissonant, herky-jerky delights of "Tonk."

February 14, 2009 · 1 comment

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Mike Pardew: Stairwell

In reviewing Mike Pardew's "Road Worn," I pointed out that among jazz and fusion influences in Pardew's playing, I also heard a touch of the iconic rock metal band Black Sabbath (specifically, guitarist Tony Iommi). On "Stairwell," I don't so much hear Sabbath's influence. Instead, the rock side of the equation sounds more like Robin Trower. Pardew himself might say that his music is unaffected by either Iommi or Trower. But since I like much of Black Sabbath and Robin Trower, such comparisons are for me a good thing.

"Stairwell" is an aggressive fusion number. A thick, repeating unison riff from Pardew and bassist Damian Erskine, and drummer Micah Kassell's heavy double-timing beat, start the tune off mid-groove. A rolling bassline accompanies a feverish solo from Pardew. He doesn't sound like Iommi or Trower here. He sounds like Mike Pardew, fusion guitarist. (Actually a few repeating riff lines do evoke Trower toward the end.) Erskine's own impressive solo, heard high in the mix, is aided by background textures from Pardew and Kassell. There is a short revisit to the tune's opening riffs. Then the tune stops cold. Maybe it lost its balance or was pushed off the steps. I don't know. What I do know is that this is highly engaging and powerful fusion music. You should seek it out at your first opportunity.

February 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mike Pardew: Road Worn

One of the more interesting but problematic lineups in jazz-rock is the power trio. It usually consists of guitar, drums and bass, although the first jazz-rock power trio was actually The Tony Williams Lifetime, in which organist Larry Young provided basslines. More traditional fusion power units have included John McLaughlin, Jack Bruce & Tony Williams, and the Trio of Doom featuring McLaughlin, Williams & Jaco Pastorius. Power trios under the leadership of Larry Coryell, Allan Holdsworth and others have also made their marks. Theoretically a trio is a better showcase for individual musicianship, since we hear more of a player than if he were part of a larger group. But that also requires more of each player. There is nothing worse than hearing a fusion power trio without the power to justify its categorization.

We are in no such position when listening to guitarist Mike Pardew, bassist Damiane Erskine and drummer Micah Kassell. Azul is full of what its liner notes call "21st Century Jazz-Rock Fusion." I am not sure that description fits all the tunes. There are pieces that are more in the modern jazz tradition. But when this band wants to be a jazz-rock power trio, they kick ass.

"Road Worn" is a deep, dark, distorted blues fusion. At times Pardew's guitar is a cross between Frank Zappa's best fuzzed-up sound, as heard on such performances as Son of Orange County, and the slow, tortured guitar of Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi. In fact, the more I listen to this song, the more it seems like Black Sabbath playing fusion. The liner notes also make reference to Mike Stern. I hear some of his blues influence too. Pardew and Erskine play many of the heavy melody lines in unison. They obtain a bottom-up sound that adds to the gut power of the performance. As long as Mike Pardew, Erskine and Kassell play this type of music in this way, they deserve to be called a 21st century jazz-rock power trio.

February 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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John Stetch: This Is It (Bugs Bunny)

With John Stetch's brief opening statement, you know right off you've heard this song before. If you've spent any part of your childhood sitting in front of a television watching Warner Bros. cartoons, it's more than just déjà vu. Yes, this is the tune played at the beginning of those animated shorts.

Stetch and his crew play this song with crispness and vitality, but it's his arrangement that deserves the most props. He never wanders far from the familiar melody, but disrupts its timing, changing a few chords and adding perhaps an extra line or two. After the intro threatens to take the song in an entirely different direction, the trio abruptly pulls it back to the main theme. The herky-jerky playful approach creates a perfect soundtrack for Elmer Fudd's hopeless pursuit of that wascally wabbit.

Vince Guaraldi might have been the only adult most of us listened to as a kid, but John Stetch provides the perfect excuse for grownups to hear to kiddie music once again.

February 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans (sax): My Favorite Little Sailboat

Bill Evans (sax) is an avid fisherman. So it's no surprise that many of his song titles refer to the outdoors or nautical themes. Knowing this, I wrongly assumed that "My Favorite Little Sailboat" was another Evans composition. Wrong again, Fish Breath! The piece was actually written by his buddy, guitarist Chuck Loeb. Is Loeb into sailing and water sports too? Did he write the tune in honor of Evans? Was he recalling a toy sailboat from his youth? Next time you see Chuck, ask him.

Loeb's title suggests that "My Favorite Little Sailboat" would be a fun toss-off number. Instead, the tune comes across more as a "My Secret Drug-Smuggling Sailboat" blues. Our fictitious characters are up to no good. Dennis Chambers's backbeat and Darryl Jones's revolving funk basslines draw some yells from the live audience. A mysterious guitar enters briefly as Jim Beard lays low with some synthesizer work below the waterline. Evans delivers the tune's melody in a somewhat dark and pensive manner. Deception and evasion are major components of this performance. There is risk involved when you do something you're not supposed to. Jim Beard's piano solo implies second thoughts. But the further on you sail, the more you feel the warm wind in your face, the slight taste of salt on your tongue, and the promises of a big ill-gotten reward. This is an adventure from the dark side, and these actors are determined to play it out to the hilt.

February 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Carole King (featuring Wynton Marsalis): I Wasn't Gonna Fall In Love

Wynton Marsalis's vast legacy isn't about to be diluted by a single appearance on a superstar pop artist's track. Still, I have to chuckle at this studio date, considering how Wynton famously got on his older brother Branford for touring with Sting some 15 years earlier.

The Carole King of 2001 wasn't quite the Carole King of Tapestry, although her distinctive vocals and knack for pop hooks never completely left her, either. The problem with this song lies mostly in overdone 1990s urban contemporary production values and sub-par lyrics. Marsalis's muted trumpet sounds pretty as he valiantly tries to play it around the dense layers of King's vocals, but frankly his talents are wasted. One gets the feeling that he was brought in to add another big name to a roster already overflowing with heavy hitters.

Big Brother was most likely amused by this turn of events. The rest of us can be relieved that it was an isolated one.

February 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Barron: One Hand, One Heart

Crazes, like politics, can make for strange bedfellows. Put the early '60s craving for jazz versions of musicals together with the strange phenomenon of all things bossa nova, and you just might wind up with something neither fresh nor foul, like this series of 3-minute miss-takes. West Side Story Bossa Nova? Pshaw! There's nothing "boss" or new about smothering 10 show tunes in scratchy samba sounds, even if played by Kenny Burrell, Steve Kuhn, Henry Grimes and Charlie Persip, plus a Brazilian percussionist. The reductive results still sound like a skip-the-rehearsal, jam-it-fast release on some sub-Prestige label, but lacking the fiery players needed to make that approach work. Tenorman Barron blows hard in his solos, but everyone else sounds both frantic and bored. (They got an awful lot o' caffeine in Brazil.)

Maybe I exaggerate. The players are pros of course, and Bernstein's tunes are mostly indestructible. But trying to slather quasi-Brazilian rhythms over and under them … well, bring back Bonfa and gimme Getz! Take the Barron version of "One Hand, One Heart" (please!); slightly radical to hear that plaintive ballad turned into a loud dance number – points for Chutzpah? grounds for Capoeira? – which initially respects Bernstein's rising/falling counterpoint (as a trumpet/sax duo), albeit over an unsubtle, scratch-that-itch beat. The Barron arrangement next offers a busy tenor solo, then a more inventive one keyed by pianist Kuhn. More counterpoint attends the finale and then … relief. From this album de uma nota só, one melody has emerged unscathed.

February 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Theo Bleckmann & Kneebody: At the River

An irreverent kind of 1980s pastiche often haunts releases from the Winter & Winter label like some kind of encroaching urban blight. Even when it lays low, the listener senses that it is waiting in the wings. Yet Theo Bleckmann has been blessed with a big, forthright voice that seems ill-suited to this ragtag aesthetic. He almost sounds like he was born to be a bard of yore, belting out the time-honored ballads of some cherished tradition. As a result, much of this CD is permeated with an unresolved tension between the singer and the setting. But on this track, the elements cohere. The mixture of the ambient electronica and Bleckmann's straight-as-an-arrow approach to tone production is quite effective. When the rest of the instruments enter, almost at the conclusion of the track, they seem poised for something kitschy, then surprise you by showing admirable restraint. All in all, this is a poised, deep performance. Even so, I urge Bleckmann—who sometimes shows hints of greatness—to leave the electronics in the attic next time. He is best heard in a more austere, under-produced setting.

February 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Albert Mangelsdorff: Creole Love Call

Notwithstanding their obvious differences, Lee Konitz and Albert Mangelsdorff have much in common. One is American, the other German; one plays a slow low instrument, the other a fast high one. But they were born hardly a year apart and, each on his respective side of the Atlantic, followed nearly parallel paths: fascination for Louis Armstrong, love of Lester Young and his melodic way of improvising, and interest in Lennie Tristano's ideas as an alternative to overwhelming bebop. Of course, Chicago-born Konitz was in the heart of things while Mangelsdorff got the information with some delay in Cologne, where he adapted Tristano-school phrasing to his trombone.

No wonder that when they first met in 1968 on an LP entitled ZO-KO-MA ("ZO" being Hungarian guitarist Attila Zoller) to play mostly Tristano-inspired music, they felt like brothers who'd had the same teacher. Fifteen years later, Konitz and Mangelsdorff dig even deeper into their common bag and tackle an Ellington tune of the "jungle" period. And what can better do the jungle thing than Manglesdorff's trombone, with its deep, ever-melodic growls stuffed with his trademark multiphonics?

Konitz's alto flies like a bird over the trombone's thick carpet of sound. He phrases the melody in a totally relaxed way, clustering notes or playing long ones without ever giving the impression that he quickens or slows down. When Mangelsdorff gets hold of the melody, he presents it in a slightly more extroverted way, putting forward its blues aspects, while Konitz plays a quiet descant. In other words, this interpretation is based on an intelligent use of their instrumental differences, building on the contrast between their sound, phrasing, timbre and approach. Just like some haute cuisine dish mixing hot and cold, rough and soft, sweet and sour … to the utter delight of our aural taste buds.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Red Mitchell: Just One of Those Things

Is it because Red Mitchell tuned his bass like a cello that it has this huge, elastic bouncing feel while he plays a 7-second opening romp before Lee Konitz enters? Then the bassist carries on playing the same efficient rhythmic pattern, as the altoist exposes the melody. Actually, all along the tune, Mitchell provides an original harmonic and rhythmic support, allowing his partner to explore the tune's chord changes with great freedom. Everything the alto plays is phrased in a rhythmically inventive manner, as Konitz winds his way through the harmonic pattern, creating new melodic segments every couple of seconds. This is exactly the opposite of "vertical" improvisation based on knowing all the scales and licks that can be used on each chord, but that often neglects to combine notes to tell a story.

Lee Konitz is a master of harmony, but never forgets the lessons of his idols Louis Armstrong and Lester Young, or of his master Lennie Tristano: the song comes first. Backed by such a strong musician as Mitchell, who plays few notes yet with maximum effect, making his bass sound like a low-register guitar, the altoist is ideally situated to display his art. At the time of this recording, Konitz had let various fashions like hard bop, free jazz or jazz-rock pass by without giving them a glance. Yet his own style had evolved during those decades, following nothing but its own momentum, to the point where he could now carve this little timeless gem and rejuvenate 10 other pieces from the Cole Porter songbook with stunning candor and freshness.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans (sax): Arthur Ave.

It is virtually impossible to hear any 1980s Bill Evans (sax) jazz or fusion cut and not find something worth your while. Evans can play a blues groove, a funk-out, a loud and obnoxious fusion anthem or a quiet and touching jazz lullaby. He can write all those things, too. And sometimes for the same tune!

"Arthur Ave." presents the kinder and gentler Evans. The tune is a dulcet ballad. After a short fluid sax intro, Evans and Chuck Loeb, on acoustic guitar, present the melody in unison. Pianist Gil Goldstein eventually gets into the act. Drummer Danny Gottlieb adds a backbeat to Goldstein's and Loeb's chords as Evans squeezes out high-register notes that sometimes flutter and sometimes seem to last forever. You cannot play with more feeling than this. Loeb offers an impressive blues-tinged solo that leads into a reprise of the opening melody. "Arthur Ave." is a wistful but hopeful number. You can throw this into a bucket with all of Evans's jazz or fusion performances, then blindly reach in and grab it, or another tune, and never be disappointed.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Seamus Blake: Darn That Dream

This melodically complex tune was originally written for the ill-fated Broadway show Swingin' the Dream, a failed adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with a predominantly African-American cast set in 1890s New Orleans. Here it becomes a vehicle for saxophonist Seamus Blake's harmonic adventures.

Blake starts with a deliberatively slow-cadenced, almost smoky-sounding tenor lead-in of the melody line, embellishing with a dexterously rapid run of notes, before thoughtfully teasing out his own interpretation of this challenging piece. Blake sets the bar high with a deeply pensive solo that reaches inwardly to create a musical statement both emotive and exploratory. He moves through the song's structure with admirable command, approaching the musical brink without ever crossing its imaginary boundary. Pianist David Kikoski follows in a most lyrical and restrained way, contributing an evocative solo that slowly blossoms into a delicate bouquet of sounds. Blake and Kikoski demonstrate that their inner fire can be tempered to hot embers when a song requires the proper thoughtful treatment. Here they find a vehicle that demands measured restraint to extract its essence, and follow this approach with satisfying results.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Seamus Blake: Fear of Roaming

Seamus Blake is another of those marvelous musicians who seem to be mined from the seemingly inexhaustible mother lode known as the Berklee School of Music. Forming his style along the way by working stints with drummer Victor Lewis, the Mingus Big Band, and collaborations with such artists as John Scofield and Kurt Rosenwinkel, Blake has a pristine, mellifluous sound that he sometimes embellishes with electronic effects.

For his 2007 Italian tour, Blake was joined by fellow Mingus Big Band alumnus David Kikoski on piano, with the reliable backing of Rodney Green and Danton Boller to round out the quartet's rhythm section. "Fear of Roaming" is a bouncy Blake composition featuring his low-timbre tenor work, and is emblematic of his flawless execution and expressive invention. Blake's boundless stream of ideas ebbs and flows seamlessly throughout his solo. Pianist Kikoski is particularly percussive and complementary during Blake's forays into the saxophone ether, and is equally enthusiastic and adroit on his own crescendo-building solo performance. These two have a symbiotic quality that enhances their performance. Green finishes with a flurry of toms, snares and cymbals at the coda.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Thomas Moeckel's Centrio: Send In The Clowns … And Let Them Play

Thomas Moeckel's arrangements and compositions frequently border on the theatrical, so it's probably no accident that the versatile Swiss jazzman chose to record a popular tune from the Sondheim songbook. In a lightly chorused and lovingly crafted rubato solo guitar arrangement, he faithfully renders the essential elements of the original before adding his blue-sense-worth in a relaxed swinging bridge of his own ("… and Let Them Play"), featuring downhome guitar phrasing and a nice upright solo by Dominik Schurmann. He then returns to the Sondheim melody, once again taking A Little Night Music home to the warmth of his solo guitar.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Thomas Moeckel's Centrio: Secret Love

Hollywood has been a generous source of jazz standards, often from some fairly improbable vehicles. Sammy Fain penned "Secret Love" for the 1953 film Calamity Jane, a comic horse opera featuring the lovely Doris Day. It won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and has been a fixture in jam-session repertoires ever since.

Thomas Moeckel's version is full-throttle swing played at a breakneck tempo. After stating the head above the ubiquitous pedal-on-the-fifth launch pad, his vibrant and kinetic guitar lines expand into fat chord melodies before yielding to Stephan Felber's lyrical 2-chorus drum solo.

Many guitarists try to think and play like horn players, sometimes with mixed results. Thomas Moeckel has an advantage over most in that he has mastered both the trumpet and guitar, and the fusion of ideas from each instrument is obvious. At the same time it begs the question, which is his principal instrument? The answer may lie in this cut, in which he offers evidence that his love for the guitar is no secret.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mike Pardew: Welcome Home

This track from Portland, Oregon's up-and-coming fusion guitarist offers a poignant, somewhat whimsical improvisational piece in 6/8. After an emotionally charged bass solo following a simple introductory figure reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair," the guitar takes over in a spacey, contemplative bit of harmonic extrapolation. There's nothing flashy in the ensemble's playing, no one is trying to make every bar a virtuosic event; what you get is playing from the heart, not the theory books: a soulful tone poem all the more listenable for the honesty of the players. "Welcome Home" could be the soundtrack to the many bittersweet reunions we all have experienced.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stefano Leonardi: Afro Blue

With a slowly building drum solo by an energized Carlo Alberto Canevali to introduce this classic Mongo Santamaria piece, Stefano Leonardi and mates set the pace of their "Afro Blue" in a steamy medium tempo. With their darting lines, Leonardi and Matteo Turella are at once comparable to such classic flute/guitar tandems as Mann & Almeida or Lloyd & Szabo. They have listened well and absorbed some of this genre's finest examples of brilliant interplay. After a probing bass solo by Paolo Ghetti, Leonardi and Turella play off each other in a simpatico display of dancing notes in joyous synchronicity. Leonardi's tone is pure and his technique facile, and he and Turella push one another to explore the edges of the melody, weaving in and out of each other's ideas. All the while Ghetti and Canevali keep the beat prancing nicely along. A worthy rendition of this classic song.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stefano Leonardi: E-Ray

With a distinctively Arabic sound, Italian flautist Stefano Leonardi and troupe have created a mysterious and exotic offering. "E-Ray" builds its mood with a variety of string and percussive techniques to create an aural landscape reminiscent of a hot desert wind like a Simoom. Here Leonardi invites you into his world of nomadic repose, where he uses the deeper-toned alto flute in a hypnotic, snake-charming approach, with guitarist Matteo Turella playing in an almost oud-like fashion to complete the magic. Paolo Ghetti's bass and Carlo Alberto Canevali's drums and percussive arsenal pick up their respective parts to perfection and in keeping with this skillfully rendered piece. A tightly conceived gem of other-worldly inspired music. Check your shoes for sand after listening.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: Fantasy In D Minor

As far as I know, this is the only recording of Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen playing an unaccompanied bass solo. The tune is a beautiful composition with a reflective mood, inspired by a piece by Bartok. Here, NHØP both carries the melody and improvises while accompanying himself at the same time. There are no flashy runs or dazzling figures. The track is played with a maturity that shows a man in complete command and at peace with himself.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mulgrew Miller: Caravan

A full 10 years after its recording, The Duets, produced as a promotional CD for Bang & Olufsen, had still not been released commercially. The music salutes Duke Ellington, with 10 of 12 tunes composed by him. "Caravan" is a dazzling performance as Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen supports pianist Mulgrew Miller with an unbelievable virtuosic ostinato bass figure during the A-parts of the theme. The tempo is fast, making it all the more incredible that every note stands distinct in the sound picture. Throughout, NHØP plays with infectious drive and swing, both as accompanist and as soloist, which inspires Miller to great heights as well. A classic performance.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: I Skovens Dybe Stille Ro

This track is a Danish traditional song that pianist Kenny Drew and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen made a hit with their performance on 1974's Duo. In fact, Drew's reharmonization was published in print, so every schoolchild could learn it. But, as expected, Oscar Peterson makes his own statement here, playing fleet, unhampered and with a lyrical touch as if it were his own composition, yet retaining the song's beautiful mood. NHØP supports with masterly contrapuntal basslines, and the two exchange solos while Wakenius plays a sparse and crisp accompaniment. A lovely interpretation, more mature and in tune with the song's intended mood than the earlier duo version.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: To A Brother

This track is dedicated to Johannes, the eldest brother of Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, who died earlier that year. NHØP's composition is a theme in 6/8 consisting of quietly moving figures with an interesting bassline, the song beautiful in its simplicity. NHØP carries the melody with a sparse accompaniment by Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius and drummer Adam Nussbaum, after which Wakenius takes over with a great solo that builds in dynamics and intensity. He is succeeded by NHØP, whose own solo is just as fine, an emotional statement blending singable phrases and virtuosic runs. Throughout, Nussbaum is highly attentive, making this track - and the entire album - a complete pleasure.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: Natten Er S� Stille

Pianist Ole Kock Hansen and bassist Niels-Henning �rsted Pedersen knew each other from childhood, Kock Hansen one year older than NHØP. They were neighbors then, growing up in Osted, a village 30 miles southeast of Copenhagen, and after becoming professional musicians, they became neighbors again when they each moved to Ish�j, a suburb south of Copenhagen, not far from Copenhagen Airport. It was a strange stroke of fate that NHØP should die in his sleep on his couch the very same afternoon of Kock Hansen's 60th birthday, a couple of hours before he was invited to the birthday party next door.

During the years the two performed together hundreds of times, on recordings and at concerts, very often just as a duo. Like NHØP, Kock Hansen was partial to songs from Danish folklore and songbooks. C.E.F. Weyse's beautiful "Natten Er S� Stille" from 1840 is performed as a bass solo throughout, as Hansen accompanies with suitable but not too much reharmonization. NHØP's interpretation continues into a solo that never moves far from the melody. He closes with an ascending 4-note figure � rising from the dominant to the major third � that is repeated three times. The peaceful mood is maintained from start to finish.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Palle Mikkelborg: Imagine

The mood of this album is mostly reflective and meditative, filled with beautiful sounds. John Lennon's song is no exception, performed here with a calmness and tranquility that is pure vitamin for the soul. Trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, playing muted, is true to the song's mood throughout, demonstrating his great lyric sense. The tune is played twice with almost no variations, with Kenneth Knudsen and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen in supporting roles, but the overall group feeling combined with Mikkelborg's beautiful and sensible interpretation makes this a classic performance. You never get tired of it.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: My Little Anna

Jaywalkin' was Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen's first album as a leader, and this came rather belatedly, considering his enormous talent and the fact that at this point he'd been a professional musician for 14 years. "My Little Anna" is dedicated to NHØP's youngest daughter, and is a lovely samba with a charming melody and catchy harmonies. NHØP carries the theme and continues into a long, virtuosic, lyrical solo that at the same time both breathes and tells a good story. The song form is the familiar A-A-B-A, and as Lester Young so often did, NHØP uses the B-parts as a platform for relaxation, here soloing with less intensity and broader lines that give the listener a chance to breathe too. After his 3-minute solo, there is room for a keyboard solo and a guitar solo - one chorus apiece - after which NHØP takes the tune out. In this song, NHØP's talent fully blossoms, demonstrating his forceful swing, great melodic and harmonic sense and a sure-fingeredness that makes each note ring with his characteristic sonorous and flexible sound.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kenny Drew & Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: Once a Saturday Night

From its release in 1974, Duo became a hit, especially in Japan where it sold thousands. Maybe it was the unique blend of jazz originals, bossa nova, Danish traditional songs and other tunes that appealed to the public. "Once a Saturday Night" (Det var en L�rdag Aften) is one of the most popular Danish folksongs. Originally written in 2/4, it is performed here in 6/8, making it more danceable.

By the way, this tune was the inspiration for Sonny Rollins's "St. Thomas." Rollins's grandmother was from Saint Thomas, the Virgin Islands, which was under the Danish crown until 1917; she learned the song there and sang it often for little Sonny during his childhood. Both the form and harmonies of "St. Thomas" perfectly match "Once a Saturday Night." It is easy to sing either tune against the background of the other.

Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen presents the theme and continues into a very lyric solo. After Kenny Drew's piano solo, the two improvise collectively for a chorus before NHØP takes the song out. A charming track in all its relatively simplicity, with NHØP in command most of the time.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Oscar Peterson: Soft Winds

This is the first recording where Oscar Peterson is paired with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and the backstory involves bassist Ray Brown. At this time, Czech bassist George Mraz was part of the Oscar Peterson Trio, but when an upcoming tour to Europe included Yugoslavia, Mraz told Peterson that he didn't dare go behind the Iron Curtain. Peterson almost panicked at the short notice, and turned to Ray Brown, who recommended the young Dane saying, "He's the only one I know that might keep up with you."

Luckily, NHØP was available, and the tour was such a success that Peterson a couple of years later asked him to be a permanent member of his trio. Great Connection is usually not considered among the best of Peterson's trio recordings, but on "Soft Winds" you feel an instant rapport between him and NHØP. NHØP plays a fine second voice to the theme and admirably answers Peterson's lines in the second chorus. While "Soft Winds" is relaxed, there is nevertheless a perceptible tension throughout, as the trio varies dynamics and achieves an overall great group feeling, making this track the album's finest.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: Blues Walk

Tenor titan Dexter Gordon was a mainstay at the Montmartre during the 1960s, except for '66 when a drug sentence in Paris prevented him from obtaining a work permit in Denmark. But luckily he was back in 1967. That year his playing at the club during the summer was even more majestic and inspired than before, possibly because of the excellent rhythm section. I happened to be at the club this particular evening, and the concert stands out in my memory as one of the best I ever heard with Gordon. The recording doesn't contradict my memory, and this performance is a classic. Gordon plays marvelously through his 30 solo choruses, followed by Kenny Drew, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Albert Heath, respectively. The tempo is fast, and each man is up on his toes, making the music glow. It was certainly a hot night. NHØP plays a 6-chorus solo where his articulation is unusually clean and precise, especially considering the tempo.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kenny Drew: Swingin' Till The Girls Come Home

Oscar Pettiford's classic blues original is a true swinger. By this time, Kenny Drew and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen had been part of the house rhythm section at the Montmartre Jazzhouse in Copenhagen for almost three years, and knew each other in and out. NHØP plays the complicated theme in complete unison with the piano – not a single note is missing – and demonstrates great drive both during the accompaniment and in his eight solo choruses.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bud Powell: Bouncing With Bud

At age 15, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was asked to accompany Bud Powell during the bebop legend's first engagement at the Montmartre Jazzhouse in Copenhagen during February and March 1962. For the young Dane, it was a strange experience, as Powell never spoke to him, not even answered when Ørsted Pedersen asked about the form of a certain song or how the harmonies went. He only got a nod from Powell, so NHØP took it from there and listened his way through. All the way through this song, NHØP plays with the maturity of a grownup, and his solo is a nice little story in itself. As an accompanist, his lines complement Powell's, and even though Powell never said a word, he must have been satisfied with the upcoming young Dane.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Marian McPartland: Cool

Long after she'd recorded them, Marian McPartland was confronted with several of her 10" Savoy albums to be autographed. "Where did you get these?" she cried in mock or maybe real embarrassment. "Burn them! Please! I was just learning to play then."

Ms. McPartland, the doyenne of NPR and jazz piano too, is nowadays known for her elegant shadings and voicings, the rearrangements and spontaneous inventions in her performances; and she's proved she can swing, too. But she hasn't always had a swinging touch; and her interpretations of several West Side Story tunes date from that still-learning time. (More curio than necessity, McPartland's Bernstein album has, at this writing, never been reissued on CD.) The original LP liner notes point out that she was unfamiliar with the musical, so her versions were truly "improvised." But that turns out to mean brief, staid and somewhat bland.

Her take on "Cool" may be the best of the lot, thanks to the solid rhythm team of Ben Tucker and Jake Hanna. Taken at a pace slower than the musical's chosen tempo, this "Cool" staggers more than swaggers: Tucker bops and walks; Hanna keeps busy with traps and snares, drum rolls and dropped bombs; and the lady sticks to the percussive melody, her short solo sounding rather Brubeck-like, using block chords instead of her own softer linear style – in, out, and over.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Thomas Moeckel's Centrio: C.C. Glider

This intriguing release from Thomas Moeckel yields more hues from the broad musical palette of the prolific Swiss guitarist, horn man and composer. Moeckel is hard to pigeonhole; he is certainly a jazz artist, but he frequently steps out of those shoes to dabble in blues and rock idioms. His unique compositions are free-range eclectic, frequently tinged with a bit of theatrical coloration. "C.C. Glider" is a lively samba, an ascending progression lifting a simple melody, stated in lush, full-bodied triads. Moeckel's mastery of the fusion guitar subgenre is evident in his minimalist approach, spaciousness, and tasteful employment of chorus, using the effect to enhance rather than cloud the instrument's tone. Solo lines soar free and effortlessly above the sprightly bass and drum support, enhanced by rich chord voicing with a slight suggestion of sitar timbre. This is one glider with plenty of air under its wings.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Blossom Dearie: My New Celebrity Is You

If ever the outmoded appellation "girl singer" applied to anyone, it was Blossom Dearie, given the gentle, little-girl quality of her voice. An acquired taste, much like her friends and sometime co-performers and collaborators Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg, she also shared their acutely hip approaches to song and their surprisingly forceful bop-based abilities as pianists. In 1974, Dearie formed her own record company, a path also taken by Betty Carter, Anita O'Day and others when prospects to record elsewhere looked bleak. The third release by Dearie's Daffodil Records included Johnny Mercer's final composition, written especially for her.

"My New Celebrity Is You" features perhaps the ultimate in endless name-dropping lyrics (even so, Frishberg managed to add to them when he sang with Dearie a few years later). Dearie sings the 20 non-recurring stanzas with relish, obviously enjoying Mercer's wordplay and unlikely juxtapositions of celebrity references (many by now passé).

        I've sung with Ethel Merman
        Swung with Woody Herman
        Played a gig in Germany with Ogerman too
        I nodded at a sermon Billy Graham barely got through
        But anyone can see My New Celebrity Is You.


And that's just one example out of 20. Laws, Carter, Tate, and Devins are all outstanding in their unflinchingly enthusiastic supporting roles, and if you listen closely, Dearie's keyboard phrasings occasionally penetrate the percolating instrumental blend, sounding for all the world like a harpsichord. (Is it?)

Marguerite Blossom Dearie, a unique talent, died February 7, 2009, at the age of 82.

February 11, 2009 · 2 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Elvin (Sir) Jones

What a great combination: Tyner, Carter & Jones. McCoy Tyner wrote a fabulous song for his former Coltrane bandmate. The piano is Tyner's mistress, as he effortlessly burns through chorus after chorus with magnificent use of textures, bringing out his instrument's utmost beauty and darkness. Elvin Jones lives up to his namesake, with his ride patterns and head-splitting snare accents. Ron Carter shows why he is one of the most recorded bassists in history, with a diverse bassline moving back and forth with Jones as if they were two boxers sparring in practice. The magic of the Davis-Coltrane rhythm sections was captured nicely on recordings in the '60s and '70s, and this track stands as a strong testament to their power.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Fly with the Wind

Beginning with a haunting string introduction, everything works perfectly here, as the music takes one's mind into a world of enchantment. Though some might not entirely like the jazz-with-strings sound, it works wonders on this bright, happy composition. Tyner really pushed the creative boundaries with his music in the 1970s, mixing orchestras and larger bands with his traditional acoustic background of the '60s. The results on "Fly with the Wind" are more than worthy of a few nice words, though I could understand how some might think that the strings do this song more of disservice than a service. But Tyner more than compensates with his total command of the piano.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Update

One of the real beauties of jazz is how combinations of instruments can open up the power and capability of an ensemble. I always love hearing how songs can be transformed by a big band. I particularly enjoy hearing McCoy Tyner's music played by a big band, as epitomized by The Turning Point. McCoy sounds absolutely stunning with a full band behind him, and the orchestrations further enhance the overall sound. Bassist Avery Sharpe really does it for me on this song, driving the band all the way home with a steady walking line. Tyner takes his usual tour de force solo, but this one is well thought out and heavier in harmonic applications than melodic ones.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Searchin'

During a period when McCoy Tyner was playing and recording full time with John Coltrane, the pianist also found time to appear on many other memorable sessions, including an album of Duke Ellington covers. On this laid-back number, Tyner is in top form. The bluesy structure gives Tyner the perfect excuse to swing. He combines wonderfully timed blues lines with his well-known cascading melodic lines. Latin percussion is a welcome addition to this already amazing Coltrane-less trio of Tyner, Garrison and Jones. From this point on, Tyner would continue to release highly received solo albums, besides making significant contributions to albums by Wayne Shorter, adding further to the seeds planted on this recording.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Sahara

Sahara marked one of McCoy Tyner's most successful periods as a commercial artist. Yet as encouraging as it is to see a jazz musician get the recognition he deserves, it's even better to discover that musical quality hasn't been sacrificed for commercial gain. Such is the case on this track. At 20+ minutes in length, "Sahara" allows the musicians to experiment with different instruments. Tyner plays koto, flute and hand percussion, while drummer Alphonse Mouzon plays trumpet during the intro. Sonny Fortune steals the show, however, with a rapidly paced soprano sax solo. A nice song from a good album that garnered Tyner the shine he was due as an artist.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Little Madimba

McCoy Tyner here shows his genius at utilizing the suspended chord in composition. As his career progressed, his songs also began to move towards a very African/Latin-influenced style, as shown by this track. Tyner and Bobby Hutcherson complement each other nicely, bleeding into the same instrumental range with pleasant, satisfying results. The mood is striking because the musicians attack the beat with their collective rhythms during the head and the solo sections; yet the song maintains a consistent, mellow vibe. Hutcherson and Tyner both play magnificently, each displaying advanced technique on his respective instrument.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Manalyuca

Since the turn of the new millennium, many jazz greats, including McCoy Tyner, have rediscovered the classic sound that made them so renowned in the beginning of their careers. Tyner enlists vibraphone master Bobby Hutcherson on this dark, Latin-influenced piece. It starts with an infectious bass riff, which is greatly enhanced by Eric Harland's drumbeat. At first you might think you were listening to an album from the '60s because of its sound. Tyner is in typical form with fluent melodic ideas and complex harmonic counterpoints. The ultimate beauty of this piece is that the musicians let the music breathe, in which space Charnett Moffett plays a great bowed upright bass solo. This is a fantastic song, plain and simple.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Survival Blues

McCoy Tyner finds himself among elite company on Extensions. Recorded as jazz was entering the fusion period, this is a great example of just how good straight-ahead swing can sound. The song starts with Tyner's piano introduction as Ron Carter doubles the bassline and Elvin Jones rides the ride cymbal unlike anyone else, adding wonderful accents on the snare drum as well. Also featured, though at times hard to hear, is Alice Coltrane, who adds some nice textures with the harp. As the melody comes in, the one and only Wayne Shorter brings everything full circle with his exotic and tasteful blend of melodic explorations. This performance matches the superb quality of previous Shorter and Tyner albums where members of the Davis and Coltrane groups recorded together.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Nebula

Recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which has historically produced memorable music, "Nebula" is one of many diamonds found on this live disc. The song opens with drummer Alphonse Mouzon playing a powerful samba beat, and additional percussion provided by McCoy Tyner over bass drones by Juney Booth. Tyner's solo is very avant-garde, but it works. The only complaint I have is the overall sonic quality. At times the piano drowns out even the drums, which are going full force in regards to dynamics. Regardless, this piece has a demented quality that makes for good, challenging listening.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Atlantis

This song opens with a simple introduction as Guilherme Franco plays several bells and percussion. McCoy Tyner next plays a solo leading to the main part. Clocking in at over 18 minutes, this is one of the longest Tyner tracks on record, whether in the studio or during a live performance. But its length only adds to the beauty, as the band weaves in and out of this Latin-influenced groove. Wilby Fletcher really gets the job the done on drums, and is further aided by Franco's wonderful percussion work. Tyner's solo is preceded by Azar Lawrence's tenor sax solo, which sets up Tyner perfectly. Though none of these sidemen is a household name, they give Tyner an ideal backdrop for his explorations.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Song of the New World

This Latin-fueled number starts with McCoy Tyner's signature use of cluster chords and bass notes. It follows the motif of many songs heard on this album, but shows Tyner's diversity as an arranger with his inventive use of flutes. Sonny Fortune and Hubert Laws give this song the brightness that drives the melody, yet at times Tyner's piano drowns out the flutes. Parts of Tyner's solo remind me of the way an electric guitarist would phrase, with his rapid use of notes, giving the listener little time to think about what he has played. Still, this song is very much a gem on this oft-overlooked but experimental album from the piano master.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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McCoy Tyner: Afro Blue

Although his former employer John Coltrane made this Mongo Santamaria-penned song a permanent staple of his repertoire, McCoy Tyner takes the tune to new heights with an all-star ensemble. The piece opens with lushly orchestrated flute trills and light hand percussion, setting the mood for the journey at hand. The band has no problem handling the 6/8 groove. When the main part of the head kicks in, it invokes feelings of grandeur and adventure, with Alphonse Mouzon setting the stage for Hubert Laws and Sonny Fortune to trade flute lines. Tyner then shows why he is such a heralded pianist, with a ferocious but melodic solo that forces the listener to concentrate on Tyner's left hand as much as his right. This is a stellar arrangement of an already classic composition.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Garaj Mahal: Semos

Some music scholars believe that jazz died commercially when folks could no longer dance to its increasingly changing time signatures and lengthy investigative solos. The argument goes that as soon as you lost women, who were half of most dance partnerships and loved to dance, you lost half the potential jazz market. It is easy to extrapolate from there. Taking a date to a jazz club became a rarer event, so lots of guys were lost from the jazz market too.

Enter the jam band. The best jam bands are comprised of really good jazz musicians who appreciate rock, funk, jazz, fusion and world music and know how to combine all those genres into a groove so dense it has its own gravitational pull. This force can be so great that it will sometimes make seated audience members pedal imaginary bikes or get up, with or without a partner, and dance.

Despite the relative commercial success of jam-band music, the genre is not quite yet in the position to save jazz. That is because there are only about five really good jam bands. (I'd love to hear more.) One of those is Martin Medeski & Wood. Another is Garaj Mahal. Both groups are effective purveyors of jazz-fusion. Though MMW remains the best known and most popular jam band, musically Garaj Mahal takes no second fiddle. GM has been around since 2000, and has developed a very loyal following. Guitarist Fareed Haque, bassist Kai Eckhardt, drummer Alan Hertz and keyboard player Eric Levy keep the spirit of fusion alive with hypnotically rhythmic forays that include plenty of frenzied guitar licks, synthesizer runs, heavy bass and backbeats.

"Semos" is a Kai Eckhardt composition. The tune's groove foundation is augmented by keyboardist Levy's jazz-tinged chords. Haque offers a straight-ahead solo played over the jazz changes. The tune's progressive nature continues with an electric piano solo. A more direct fusion element is introduced as Levy plays call & response with himself matching electric piano with synthesizer every step of the way. Have I neglected to mention that Eckhardt and Hertz are laying down a 6-lane rhythm highway for these guys to follow? In jam band music it is all about the groove. It's not easy to add explorative elements outside that framework. But Garaj Mahal manages to add textures and colors that lesser bands would never even contemplate. You can do that when great musicians share a pulse. Garaj Mahal can play music that stimulates you intellectually and moves you to shake yo' thang. (Think I am not telling the truth about people dancing to fusion? Check out this YouTube video of Garaj Mahal for as long as it remains available.)

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Garaj Mahal: Pundit-Ji

If Garaj Mahal's "Pundit-Ji" doesn't sound like it came straight out of the Mahavishnu Orchestra II Style Book, I am a monkey's uncle. This is no surprise really, as band members are on record as being fans of Mahavishnu and the whole fusion movement. The roots of this band are firmly planted in the genre. The whole jam-band movement is groove-based jazz-rock nourished further by the seeds of funk and world music.

But wait, this can't be! Somehow I hear Jean Luc Ponty's soaring violin arpeggios in the song's intro. Ponty is not listed in the credits. Hmm. It must be synthesizer player Eric Levy. Anyhow, the band plays the catchy head arrangement in tight unison. Guitarist Fareed Haque next takes a hot solo. At first he sounds a bit like Tommy Bolin, then morphs into the John McLaughlin heard on Love Devotion Surrender. It is an impressive display. Haque can burn with the best of them. Levy shows up to add a lighter, but no less effective turn on synthesizer. Next bassist Kai Eckhardt and drummer Alan Hertz present a nasty groove that leads to the song's coda. "Pundit [maestro]-Ji [respect]" is an invigorating workout for the heart and mind that honors fusion's forefathers. Garaj Mahal is living proof that really good fusion music is still with us now, and in very able hands for further cultivating.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Greene: Blue Bossa / Boudreaux

Jimmy Greene chills out in this unorthodox version of "Blue Bossa" in 7. His solo flows with total rhythmic freedom and control, which he displays by both floating freely through the changes and digging in with tight rhythmic accuracy. Greene presents "Blue Bossa" along with a composition of his own, "Boudreaux," which serves as a funky jam of an outro. After the pause between the two, Greene is joined by Marcus Strickland on tenor sax for a short, improvised conversation to launch Strickland into a passionate, energetic solo. The astounding rhythm section takes it out in style. A great recording by this relatively young, talented group.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mark Turner: Moment's Notice

The lone standard on Mark Turner's debut as a leader could not pass through the hands of these young talents and come out unscathed. Unlike Coltrane's original 1957 recording, which features a burnin' swing feel, Turner's 1994 performance is in odd meter, giving it a much more angular bounce than a flowing swing. It is good to see that these musicians, who have since grown even more mature in their playing, are stretching their limits by playing the standard in odd meter, and although it seems at times as if the soloist might lose his place, the wonderful Ballard/Grenadier rhythm duo keeps the train on track. This rendition of "Moment's Notice," while at times hard to follow, is an essential track for any listener seeking recordings of standards performed by modern players.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven

In Miles's first recording of 1964, he raised the bar yet again at his concert in New York's Philharmonic Hall. "Seven Steps to Heaven" is a cut from 'Four' & More, one of two releases of material from this concert, which included all the up-tempo numbers from that night's show. An early version of Miles's second great quintet is featured here (with George Coleman on saxophone, in the seat that would later be filled by the great Wayne Shorter) blazing through the changes and moving seamlessly between half- and standard time. Although each soloist performs brilliantly, it is the group's ability to move through different moods and function as a singular unit that really brings this must-have track to life.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Alphonse Mouzon: Poobli

Drummer Alphonse Mouzon is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and sometimes movie actor who had a role in the Tom Hanks-produced movie That Thing You Do. It must be tiring to be so talented. Of course, I can only imagine! At any rate, the liner notes say that while Mouzon plays many keyboards, Stu Goldberg plays all the solos. But there are times on "Poobli" when two keyboards are playing an ascending melody line in unison. Either Stu overdubbed himself or Mouzon is playing pretty damn good beside him. Either way, this sonic jazz-rock anthem is a pleasing fusion outing in every way. A little pre-event electric piano and nonchalant Mouzon backbeat lead you to believe you will be in for a gentle jazz ride. This does not last. Slowly but surely the tension builds. The synthesizers gain steam. Saxophonist Gary Bartz joins them. Bassist Welton Gite keeps the gear work in motion. The steady groove, building off the main riff, gains traction as you climb higher and higher. The song fades out before you reach the apex of the ride. You will have to imagine the fall on the other side. "Poobli" is a fusion ride you will want to go on a second time.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Alphonse Mouzon: Virtue

I hope MPS plans on continuing its CD reissue binge. As I write this, MPS has recently reissued for the first time on CD several outstanding albums from the likes of Jan Hammer, Stu Goldberg, and Alphonse Mouzon. It seems that MPS is sitting on a goldmine of early fusion music recorded in Europe. Keep it up guys! Send everything our way.

Drummer Alphonse Mouzon put together some fine band for this 1976 outing. Saxophonist Gary Bartz was better known as a jazz player than fusionist. (Several years later, he released a toned-down version of "Giant Steps" that met some commercial success because of its accessibility.) But as evidenced by his performance on this album, Bartz could play jazz-rock well enough, thank you. Keyboardist Stu Goldberg was a known jazz-rock commodity, being right in the middle of the movement, appearing in various John McLaughlin bands. His pedigree was solid. Bassist Welton Gite was relatively new to the business, starting his career in earnest just a year before this recording. He would go on to much success as a touring bassist playing across all genres.

In fact, the least experienced among these players provides the high point on a very good title cut. "Virtue" has a bit of Return to Forever going for it. Goldberg and Gite begin the piece sounding like Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. The tone shifts drastically toward progressive jazz shortly thereafter. Over Mouzon's well-placed bashing and Gite's throbbing bass, Bartz plays the infectious head and further explores. Goldberg next takes a turn on electric piano. Sideways arpeggios and chord shadings come at you fast and furious. Here, as on other tunes on this album, Goldberg played two roles, following up a solo on one keyboard instrument with another on synthesizer. For this type of music, the synth created more energy. Gite's spotlight turn comes next. He alternates between funk, speed and groove lines. At times he does sound a bit like Stanley Clarke, but tends to play in higher registers. His solo provides the perfect reentry point for the tune's main theme. This is a very impressive and enjoyable progressive jazz performance that dangles from the fusion precipice when Goldberg plays synthesizer. Sometimes categories are that close. That is, if you believe in categories.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Alphonse Mouzon: Nyctophobia

There may be no Larry Coryell playing guitar on "Nyctophobia," but the tune would have fit just fine in Coryell's Eleventh House band's repertoire. (That is no surprise considering Mouzon's involvement with that seminal band. The group didn't get its sound just from Coryell.) Saxophonist Gary Bartz plays the part of Coryell as he leads the melody off. The chugging tune also takes full advantage of Stu Goldberg's expertise in playing chunky electric piano chords and rapid runs. As soon as Goldberg has finished one solo he switches to synthesizer to add another fiery one. The combustible energy he, Mouzon and bassist Welton Gite generate during this stretch is on the same level as that attained by Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer and Tommy Bolin on Cobham's famous "Stratus." I suggest that to get the best bang for your "Nyctophobia" buck, you wait until nighttime before listening. Don't forget to turn off all the lights before you hit the play button.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Alphonse Mouzon: Baker's Daughter

It cannot be argued that Alphonse Mouzon was not among a handful of pioneering jazz-rock drummers. Trailblazing wise, Mouzon belongs in the same class as Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and Lenny White. He played a large role in the early days of fusion, holding down the drum stool for one of the finest jazz-fusion bands of the day: Larry Coryell's Eleventh House. Mouzon is a powerfully propulsive drummer who can really kick things into gear.

Many people don't like too much sugar in their coffee. I can't relate to that because I don't drink coffee. But I can say I don't like too much funk in my fusion. Sometimes I believe Alphonse Mouzon overfunks it. For that reason, after one listening, I already skip the album's first cut "Master Funk." This is my subjective listening opinion. But some people like their coffee with extra sugar. I am in no position to stop them. All I can say is that there are four outstanding tunes on the new MPS CD reissue of 1976's Virtue that you should definitely drink. Among them is "Baker's Daughter."

For this excursion, Mouzon is joined by gifted saxophonist Gary Bartz, fellow fusion pioneer keyboardist Stu Goldberg, and noted bassist Welton Gite. A rather spatial introduction is presented, with Bartz playing a slow melody above it all. Mouzon, Goldberg and Gite add colors and textures. Then it is time to up the ante. A few heavy strikes from Mouzon jumpstart Gite's rolling bassline, and we are off. The driving piece first features a Bartz solo. Goldberg enters on acoustic piano to carry on the momentum. Mouzon and Gite furiously back the proceedings. "Baker's Daughter" is an aggressive performance that boasts both a top-notch Mouzon composition and some quality players who know how to squeeze every last ounce of feeling and power out it. Put that in your coffee and drink it.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stu Goldberg: Montreal

I often comment to any naysayer paying the least bit of attention that the greatest fusion musicians were great jazz players first. Every once in a while I enjoy tricking a jazz-rock skeptic. I will play a straight-ahead jazz piece from an unknown artist. I am then told how much the music was liked. Then I spring on my unsuspecting dupe the dope that it was John McLaughlin, Stanley Clarke or Wayne Shorter et al. they were listening to. It is then easy to describe to them the progression from jazz to fusion. It works every time! I know I go to extremes to lure unsuspecting fans. But extremism in the pursuit of new jazz fans is no vice!

Those familiar with Stu Goldberg as only a fusion keyboard pioneer are in for a surprise if they ever hear the man play straight ahead jazz. He is among the best. He has plenty of CDs out that display this talent. His recent album Dark Clouds is an example of jazz and classical music integrated with Indian classical music. But even more jazz oriented were some of the albums he recorded for MPS back in the late '70s and early '80s. MPS has reissued the third of these on CD. Eye of the Beholder is mostly jazz with classical trappings. The music is the sonic opposite of what a Goldberg fan of his fusion period might expect.

"Montreal" is a reflective piece. For comparison's sake, those of you familiar with Lonnie Liston Smith's work during the same period will find an affinity with this music. Goldberg is generous with the melody, often giving his brother Ken the lead on flute. But they also play in unison, I suppose the way only brothers could. This tune is not one of Goldberg's strongest compositions, but the playing is at a very high level, providing clear evidence that Stu Goldberg possesses jazz chops up the yazoo.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stu Goldberg: Song Burst

Any discussion of outstanding and important fusion or jazz keyboard players must include Stu Goldberg. He first came to prominence as a member of the second version of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. He then went on to star with McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu quartet and The One Truth Band. Along the way he has also played with Alphonse Mouzon, Wayne Shorter, Larry Coryell and many other legendary musicians. In recent years he has become an award-winning soundtrack composer for movies and television. Goldberg has also recorded many albums as leader. Eye of the Beholder was first released by MPS in 1981, and finally reissued on CD in 2009.

Above even his remarkable playing, Goldberg is a composer of original music. Led by violinist and concertmaster Doug Cameron, a string section plays the introduction to "Song Burst." It is a sensitive section that includes a short flute phrase from Goldberg's brother Ken. Abruptly the introduction ends and a straight-ahead jazz tune breaks out. The strings do give the piece classical overtones, but the vibe is all jazz. Goldberg shows plenty of chops in the form of heavy chords and light-fingered single-note lines that run roughshod though the scales leaving their elements dispersed. The piece takes on a lighter folk feel – think Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is" amped up. "Song Burst" is another in a long line of Stu Goldberg compositions and performances that justify his inclusion in the discussion.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Tonight

The final word "and" of this album's original title indicates what's going on: the Brubeck Quartet performs only the four lovely ballads from Bernstein's musical, with non-West Side Story show tunes filling out the program. But these four allow Paul Desmond to arc his lazily lilting alto solos while Dave keeps staggering the rhythm the other guys work to make right.

In the play, "Tonight" is positioned as the second half (following "Maria") of the so-called "balcony scene" – albeit using a fire escape and the alley below – during which Tony and his newfound love sing of stopped time, morning stars, and other wonders. Desmond has a different message in mind; he quotes the tune at the very beginning and very end but otherwise wanders far, sounding acerbic rather than tender, and his glancing quotations are equally wry ("I Wish I Were in Love Again," maybe also "I'll Never Fall in Love Again"). Then Dave does his thing, skittering sideways against the section pull, lending his percussive mystery to this particular night of nights, the whole track clearly romance with an edge.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Charlap: America

The vocal performance of "America" on the original 1957 Broadway cast recording of West Side Story is pretty much unbeatable, its quasi-Puerto Rican rhythms and immigrant sass and sarcasm still commanding attention today. But the cheery, jeering tune holds its own, and there have been valiant jazz versions over the years too, most notably by the Stan Kenton Orchestra (arranged by Johnny Richards) and an Andre Previn Trio propelled by Shelly Manne.

More recently, pianist Bill Charlap – a mainstay of the revitalized Blue Note Records, and a standards aficionado who often reworks Bernstein melodies – cut a brilliant trio version with piano, bass and drums functioning as equal voices, all three chiming in their rhythmic crosstalk and asides. Peter Washington's plucked-bass solo precipitates the piece ("Puerto Rico, you lovely island..."), with the chatter battle-royal joined a few seconds later, fed by a rapid-fire percussion barrage from the other Washington. Bill's answer seems sedate at first, but he quickly accepts the intricate Latin lead the Washingtons insist on, and then he's gone. He races the melody and drummer, runs the keyboard like Peterson, pounds chords like Monk, and even drops out here and there to let the other guys have their fractious-but-swaying say – a real three-way discussion, this! Then the rhythm suddenly drops away, and Charlap gentles a final coda into silence, sounding like no one but himself. Like the singer of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics in the original production, these three New York jazzmen "like the island Manhattan … Smoke on your pipe and put that in!"

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Sal Mosca: Kary's Trance

What do two alumni of the Lennie Tristano school do when they reunite after some years? They play a tune that conjures up memories of their master, of course. Lee Konitz and Sal Mosca initially played together in 1949 on Subconscious-Lee, Konitz's first session as a leader, and recorded "Kary's Trance" together in 1956, though not in duo, on the altoist's Very Cool. More than two decades after their first encounter, and 15 years after their first version of this song, what is left of Tristano's lessons? Obviously his two former disciples have evolved, bringing his ideas into modern times.

Mosca is more faithful than Konitz, certainly because he's a pianist and studied longer with his mentor: his percussive touch and articulation are very close to Tristano's. But his angular approach is his own, and owes a lot to Monk's vision of the keyboard. Mosca is a brilliant accompanist with a unique conception of the pulse and of the relationship between the two hands. He's also a creative improviser with a great mastery of the piano's low register, and his melodic inventiveness leads him to insert a rare quotation from Rimsky Korsakov's "Scheherazade" in his solo. His style fully deserves to be reevaluated and studied in times when people have all but forgotten him.

As for Konitz, on this tune he penned while still sometimes playing with his former master, he shows how far he's drifted from Tristano's conceptions. His linear phrasing has evolved into a flurry of twirling, broken or daring melodic lines. His sound has grown harsher, and he sometimes searches for notes so high that he's on the brink of squawking or squealing. In other words, he takes chances, and sounds freer than many a "free jazz" player of the early '70s.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Konitz & Richie Kamuca: Tickle Toe

Lee Konitz and Richie Kamuca both sat in the sax section of the Stan Kenton Orchestra from 1953 to '54, but in the ensuring decade recorded together only once, on Kenny Burrell's 1965 Guitar Forms. Still, it's no surprise to find them playing "Tickle Toe" on a record where Konitz engages various duet partners in a broad repertoire ranging from a Louis Armstrong song to an abstract improvisation with Jim Hall. The reason it's no surprise is Kamuca's and Konitz's shared love for Lester Young. This even brings Konitz to leave his usual alto sax in order to play the tenor (for the first time on record!), as did his idol.

Two tenors blowing on a Count Basie warhorse from the good ole times when Prez and Hershel Evans or Buddy Tate were neighbors and rivals on the tenor bench? Surely this smells of chase or tenor battle. But not at all: these two heirs are like brothers, first exposing the theme in unison before indulging in a swift counterpoint. Konitz, in the right channel, has a perfectly recognizable phrasing that doesn't change much from his usual one on alto, and tends to favor high notes. Kamuca's tone is typically harsher and virile, descending more often into the low register. They intertwine their lines in a delightful, easygoing way. To make this homage complete, their parallel melodic lines meet again in a unison when they tackle, note for note, the very chorus that Prez played on "Tickle Toe" in its historic 1940 version with the Basie Band, and that Lambert, Hendricks & Ross sang in 1958, with Basie and his band again, using words penned by Jon Hendricks. Konitz and Kamuca give us a truly Prezidential tribute on their toe-tickling instrument of choice.

February 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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David Binney: Explaining What's Hidden

I am struck by the plethora of talented young saxophonists today, many of whom have developed their own cult-like following. Having studied with the great Phil Woods would certainly be credentials enough for any listener to pay attention to David Binney's work. Yet no matter how commanding the grasp, technique does not in itself mark a maturing player coming into his own. With this release, Binney shows an interesting and developing compositional acumen as well.

On "Explaining What's Hidden," he combines a free-flowing and complex melody line with the textural use of a talented horn section to frame his musical palette. Deftly backed by the rhythm section of bassist Scott Coley and the ever-creative drummer Brian Blade, Binney explores the reaches of ensemble music in this short and tightly crafted piece. Binney's horn can have a yearning sound that offers great expression. Here he is succinct and wistfully delicate in his solo, allowing for a brief but potent statement. Pianist Craig Taborn takes center stage with a solo that is marvelously fluid, while Blade perfectly complements every move with perfectly timed punctuation. Overall, Binney's talent at ensemble composition is hidden no more.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: Black and Tan Fantasy

In the movie Amadeus, Salieri speaks about the perfection of Mozart's music, saying: "And music finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment; displace one phrase and the structure would fall."

That reminds me of this version of "Black and Tan Fantasy." The track is simply perfect; not one note can be displaced. Beyond its sheer architectural perfection, this recording and the song in this form achieve genuine greatness in musical art. Indeed, if forced – on penalty of having to listen constantly for a month to Barry Manilow – to pick the single greatest piece of American music and recorded performance of that work in the 20th century, this track would get my vote.

Surprisingly, these two greatest figures in jazz history had not recorded together before as featured performers, although both appeared on a single song for an Esquire All Star recording in 1946. This album, however, joined these two giants at the height of their mature mastery, and added two of their best-ever respective sidemen: clarinet virtuoso Barney Bigard (who played with the Ellington band from 1928 into the '40s) and trombone master Trummy Young (who played with Armstrong's All Stars for years). They all knew this Ellington music and Armstrong's playing in their bones, and reveled in making supreme renditions of Duke's pieces.

It is instructive to compare Duke's October 26, 1927 recording with this 1961 track. The newer version goes beyond polishing a diamond in the rough; the original, with various sound effects tried, instruments jumping in here and there, etc., is utterly transformed into an ultimate masterpiece of musical art. In fact, given their important improvised contributions, Armstrong especially, as well as Bigard and Young, in this instance ought to be considered co-composers along with Ellington and Bubber Miley.

Duke starts things off with an intense, fortissimo, march-like piano line, then quiets down to set the scene for Armstrong's dramatic entry (displaying the first of the exceptional dynamics in this track). Armstrong plays the opening theme in majestic manner at a stately tempo with his inimitable tone; Satch's lines are harmonically complemented to perfection by Young's muted and subtle trombone work. Ellington then elegantly restates the theme with flair, followed by Bigard's clarinet with one of his trademark parts, opening with keening high notes only to sublimely swoop down to the lower register, bringing out the richest, woodiest clarinet tone.

A continuation of Ellington's earlier section leads into Armstrong's keynote part. Here we have Satch displaying his finest tone, attack, creative interval leaps, and phrasing. His playing is stunning, with magnificent climbing and descending lines couched in an impressive overall structural coherence, exquisite accents falling in just the right places. In all of music, it is hard to find lines as breathtakingly stirring as Armstrong's here, especially the opening phrase. Thereafter, this impressive work continues, including Trummy Young's elegant version of the old growl trombone at one point, and Bigard playing even finer clarinet, his pure notes creatively mixed with fluttering tones that add texture, and incorporating more striking, swooping lines that amount to exquisite modern art. They famously end with a quote from Chopin's Funeral March.

February 10, 2009 · 1 comment

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Jan Johansson: St. Louis Blues

Countless innovative recordings of this W.C. Handy staple exist, but this solo "test version" from a soundcheck is particularly thrilling for its freedom and motion. The exuberant spirit of blues meant something far different in the 1960s than when this song was originally composed by Handy in jazz's early days and first published in 1914. With his rendition, Jan Johansson, the Swedish giant of jazz, goes out on a limb and finds himself perfectly at home in a frontier of tone clusters, rhythmic displacements and jagged phrasing.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Johansson: Stepp, min Stepp

Originally recorded on the session for Jazz på Ryska (Jazz in Russian), this song churns with smoldering playing from all participants. Drummer Egil Johansen brings some of the Elvin Jones school of zeal to the recording, and Bosse Broberg's muted trumpet enters towards the fadeout melody chorus, making the track shine. Jan Johansson's longtime bass partner, Georg Riedel, knows exactly how to anchor the pianist's fluid, mesmerizing phrases. Each of these musicians rules the landscape of Swedish jazz.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Johansson: Emigrantvisa

Also titled "De Sålde Sina Hemman" (They Sold Their Homesteads), this traditional Swedish folk song pays tribute to the immigrants who left Sweden for North America during the 19th century. Just as Jan Johansson received an initial boost with sideman work in Stan Getz's late '50s quartet, he received a second one after the LP Jazz på Svenska (Jazz in Swedish) earned him attention as a forward-thinking musician with exceptional focus. Sweden's jazz scene is at times characterized by inspiration from romantic, nationalistic folk music, and Jan Johansson helped usher in that trend through his collaborations with bassist Georg Riedel that crafted jazz duo arrangements out of melancholic old melodies such as this.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Johansson: Prisma

In this rocker based largely on the "Charleston" dance rhythm, Jan Johansson gets around the piano with agility and spark. With Swedish jazz listeners already familiar with Johansson's talents from his debut album of 1959 (Mäster Johansgatan 12), the strong playing heard on "Prisma" helped earn him further praise, and a third Golden Disc award from Orkester Journalen.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jan Johansson: Willow Weep for Me

Jan Johansson's love of Art Tatum led him to try out numerous imitative ideas on this popular song, which Tatum himself used as a vehicle for runs, tricks, and lightning-quick stride. No one does it better than Tatum, but here Johansson's flourishes are calm, yet delicate and spry. With 8 Bitar Johansson (8 Pieces of Johansson), the young pianist solidified his place at the top of the Swedish jazz elite, and won his third Golden Disc Award from jazz magazine Orkester Journalen in 1961.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Junko Onishi: Blue Skies

Japan's Junko Onishi was one of the most promising jazz pianists to emerge in the '90s, her series of five Blue Note releases, plus one led by Jackie McLean, showcasing her already formidable pianistics, as well as hinting at her potential as a composer and arranger. Then she virtually disappeared, and apparently hasn't recorded in the new millennium.

Onishi's two Village Vanguard CDs were both recorded on the same three nights in May 1994, with Wynton Marsalis's rhythm team of Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley offering impeccable support. These are absorbing live sessions, whether the trio is interpreting Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Monk, or standards like "Blue Skies." On the Irving Berlin tune, Onishi clearly reveals her refined precision, relentless drive, firmly swinging pulse, and ability to expand on a well-known melody through the use of fresh vamps and other creative elaborations. Onishi begins with a pianissimo tolling intro that gradually evolves into the theme. One is struck by her thoughtful clarity of vision and classically trained and nuanced touch, both remindful of John Lewis, and when she goes into overdrive you are swept along as she goes from one inventive peak to another. She alters her rhythmic attack frequently, and wisps of Horace Silver and Oscar Peterson pass by, the latter especially in her very effective alterations of the dynamic level. Not a note wasted here, nor a note not enjoyed. We await her return.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Lovano: Six and Four

Although this CD's title comes from Joe Lovano's composition "Joyous Encounter," those words apply even more to the sheer fun the quartet has in performing Oliver Nelson's "Six and Four." Hank Jones probably brought this tune to Lovano's attention, seeing as how the pianist recorded it with his brothers Elvin and Thad back in 1961 (Elvin!), and again during his solo Maybeck Recital Hall program in 1991. By the time they recorded this version in 2004, Lovano, Jones, George Mraz and Paul Motian had a summer tour under their belts promoting the saxophonist's I'm All For You release, and the relaxed yet robust rapport they now shared more than ever as an interactive, dynamic unit is quite evident on this track.

That six-four beat is infectious right from the start, as Lovano intones the riff-obsessed theme. Motian and Mraz provide a persistently animated underpinning for Jones's prancing and bluesy opening solo. Lovano's gruff tone, slurred lines, and dissonant overtones and shrieks are key components of the leader's playful improv. He seamlessly segues back to Nelson's theme, concluding with an earthy exclamation that is answered by Motian's unbridled, free-form closing drum pattern.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Donald Harrison: Christopher Jr.

On a CD that mixes jazz with hip-hop, reggae, New Orleans funk and second line, calypso, blues, the Motown sound and Brazilian samba, this track nonetheless stands out for its streamlined focus. "Christopher Jr." is Donald Harrison's pure bebop tribute to Charlie Parker. Harrison's versatility is well known, whether exploring Eric Dolphy's music many years ago with Terence Blanchard or Latin jazz currently with Eddie Palmieri, so it's no surprise that he could compose such a catchy bop tune as "Christopher Jr." and improvise on it with extreme confidence and flair.

The theme borrows from several bop anthems of yore, yet is somehow fresh-sounding and memorable in its own right, as Harrison's vibrant alto plays it soulfully with a piquant tone. McBride's transfixing basslines are upfront in the recorded mix as the altoist's solo takes flight. Harrison alternates slyly loping phrases with intense multi-noted runs, creating a pretty much perfect improvisation in the language of classic bebop. McBride's articulate solo quotes cleverly from "Get Happy," injects some engaging elements of funk, and is masterfully executed – as a whole, probably one of his best recorded solos of the '90s. Pianist Anthony Wonsey responds by appearing to channel Wynton Kelly and Sonny Clark – not a bad combination. Add this irresistible track to your bebop lineup.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pepper Adams: I've Just Seen Her

The album title Encounter! refers mainly to the rare joining of Pepper Adams with Zoot Sims in the front line. But Adams's striking ballad feature, "I've Just Seen Her," is as good as, if not better than, any of the tracks that capture both horns blazing. The attractive tune came from the failed 1962 musical All American, from which only one other song, "Once Upon a Time," has had any staying power. Adams was inspired by the Duke Ellington version of "I've Just Seen Her" that featured Paul Gonsalves. (Columbia Records had backed the musical, and, in addition to releasing an Original Broadway Cast album, somehow convinced Ellington to record 10 selections from it.)

Tommy Flanagan's lovely impressionistic intro leads to Adams's unpretentious rendition of the theme, direct and without any false sentimentality, his elongated sighing notes particularly effective emotionally. Adams's long solo is a logically constructed exploration of the tune's rich harmonic structure, and his gushing fluidity contradicts the common misconception of the baritone sax as being cumbersome. Flanagan's accompaniment is delicate, detailed and sensitive, words that also describe his lyrical solo, which is in sharp contrast to Adams's brawny, hard-edged yet warmly expressive attack. Adams's reprise artfully reinforces the inherent beauty of this show tune. The overall power of Adams's performance is such that it appears that the producers chose to ignore various pops and squeaks emitted by his horn during his solo, as it's unlikely he reached this high level again, if any additional takes were attempted.

February 10, 2009 · 1 comment

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Stu Goldberg: New Love

After his 1970s high-profile stints with Mahavishnu, Alphonse Mouzon, The One Truth Band and others, keyboardist and synthesizer wizard Stu Goldberg began a several-year period of making his own acoustic jazz piano records released for the European market on the MPS label. Eye of the Beholder was the third of these recordings. Recently, as part of its CD reissue program, MPS has made the album available worldwide. This is a very good thing.

"New Love" is a million miles from the fiery electric fusion that fans of Goldberg's previous collaborations might expect. Nonetheless, it is fusion. "New Love" is a lovely modern jazz ballad made even more so by the inclusion of a string section, which provides a strong classical component. At one time this may have been called Third Stream. But that term was in use before jazz-rock came to be. Anyway, no category could do justice to the artistry of Goldberg's piano or arrangement. This piece is a composition in every sense. It could be played in a classical environment without improvisation. But improvisation is the key to all great jazz. Goldberg and bassist Dave Crigger make certain we know that axiom by doing plenty of it.

A strange phenomenon occurs during this performance. You could isolate some of the keyboard work and almost hear Smooth Jazz. (Quick, stomach pump!) But by adding the classical string quartet and progressive rhythm section, you get a fusion number that attends the same school district as some of Jan Hammer's pieces. Of course, the two keyboard players are quite different. But they lived in the same jazz-rock community. Stu Goldberg's "New Love" is representative of the oft-overlooked beautiful side of fusion. No wisecracks, please.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mike Pardew: Azul

In these troubled times it can be pretty chilly out there for young jazz/fusion players, tougher still on those trying to get their statements out on independently produced albums. Most get lost in the shuffle, buried under the avalanche of white noise masquerading as new jazz, fusion, avant-garde, jazz-rock or whatever. However, on occasion there comes a new artist who qualifies to take up the gauntlet laid down by the likes of Metheny, McLaughlin, Coryell, Kahn, Stern, and Scofield. Mike Pardew is one guitarist who may prove to be in this league.

An active participant in the still-vibrant Portland music scene, Pardew has generated local buzz with previous recordings. Now, with the help of two accomplished sidemen, he has produced a mature, balanced and thoughtful album, spearheaded by the title cut, a Latin-tinged jazz-rock piece presumably named after a shade of blue. In "Azul," Pardew employs an effective use of space and harmonic simplicity. Solos are not overly showy and are relevant to the composition, two necessary elements of my litmus test for a noteworthy track. Mike's satisfying guitar work is augmented by bassist Damian Erskine's solid electrified solo, and Micha Kasell's crisp, in-the-pocket drumming. As for the third element in my litmus test – listenability – "Azul" passes with flying colors.

February 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Claudio Roditi: Dinner By Five

Brazilian trumpet master Claudio Roditi takes flight both as composer and soloist in this lively samba, demonstrating why he was in such demand as a New York session player. After a relaxed, thoughtful drum intro, the spirited samba tempo gains traction as Claudio launches into the head and solo. His phrasing is free and cliché-free, as his horn sings with a clear voice, never strident or jarring. Helio Alves follows with an electrifying chorus on piano, without dropping the airborne feel of the rhythm. "Dinner by Five" is a welcome feast for the heart and mind.

February 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Claudio Roditi: Tune Up

"Tune Up" is one of the hardest-working, most dog-eared staples in most jam session satchels, favored for its II-V-I cycles and shifting tone centers. But there's nothing stilted or overworked in this outing by Brazilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi, a seasoned veteran of sessions with Paquito D'Rivera and a former member of Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra. Roditi's playing here makes it seem as if the ink was still wet on Miles's composition.

There are times when you don't want to be pelted in the face with hard-boppin' chops; sometimes you want to sit back and enjoy steady, flowing lines springing from the depths of an old soul's well, chock-full of minerals and something the French refer to as terroir – the taste of the earth. This is the feeling evoked by Claudio Roditi's lyrical horn work. Sit back, relax and tune up to the terroir of one of Brazil's freshest, coolest drinks.

February 09, 2009 · 1 comment

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Pee Wee Russell & Coleman Hawkins: 28th and 8th

The album title Jazz Reunion refers to the fact that Pee Wee Russell and Coleman Hawkins had not recorded together since the legendary Mound City Blue Blowers session of 1929. Those sides were most notable for Hawkins's feature on "If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight)," which almost single-handedly established the performance parameters for the jazz ballad. (The same tune is revisited on this album.)

The 1960s marked a resurgence for Pee Wee Russell, finally given opportunities to perform outside the friendly confines of Eddie Condon Field and the various traditionalist revival settings in which he began to seem increasingly out of place. Later in the decade, he led a pianoless quartet whose repertoire included works by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman!

The first thing that strikes the listener about "28th and 8th" is how Russell's tune sounds as though it could have been written by Monk himself. It features an angular, leaping melody set against descending harmony in a manner reminiscent of Monk's "Skippy," though "28th and 8th" is a 12-bar blues. Bob Brookmeyer, in cup mute, solos first, his style pure valve trombone. To my ears the only analogy that comes to mind is maybe Rex Stewart down an octave. Russell, always a unique blues player, follows with a guttural, growl-inflected spot, after which Nat Pierce combines a Basie-esque lightness with some romping stride inflections. One unexpected pleasure of this album is the consistently fine solo work of Emmett Berry, a player best known for his big band work, who gets a rare chance to stretch out.

It has become somewhat fashionable to belittle Coleman Hawkins's blues playing, mostly due to his infrequent use of blues material in his repertoire and the absence of overtly bluesy mannerisms in his playing. That sounds to me like Lincoln Center Politburo propaganda, so please feel free to ignore it, and just listen to the music. If his solo here doesn't convince you of the speciousness of the anti-Hawk argument, check out his work on Abbey Lincoln's classic album Straight Ahead, also on Candid.

February 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cal Tjader: Prologue / The Jet Song

Prologues of musicals serve two main purposes: to introduce the major tunes and themes of the score, and to allow for the seating of late arrivals ahead of the play proper. But Cal Tjader's version of the West Side Story "Prologue" (segueing straight into "The Jet Song") keeps you on your feet instead. Too much of the accompanying album (arranged by pianist Clare Fischer) is weighted down by swooning strings, with Tjader's tjaunty vibes reduced to playing Bernstein's melodies, or comping while Fischer or Paul Horn supply the solos; but the opening 7 minutes is adventurous, propelled by both Latin Jazz and the elsewhere-intrusive yet here jet-assisted strings.

Cal gets his licks in on this one (as he does on a later keep-it "Cool"). A brief mysterious opening leads quickly to lilting strings, plucked and strummed and dancing, the different instruments as voices with Tjader up on top; then suddenly the strings are sawing and driving, timbales going Shark-fast, heading straight into the mixed conversation of "Jet," Fischer at the piano, Horn's flute, and Cal in the lead. Each takes a 4/4 solo (over walking bass), but with some tandem moments too, sometimes talking to each other, but with street-gang taunting, too. Now Cal takes control again, with brass and French horns adding sly commentary, till all shape a gorgeous return to the melody and final sendoff. (The strings and percussion add a quiet Basie-style tag as afterthought, allowing you at last to sit down.)

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Oscar Peterson: Jet Song

By 1962, the second Oscar Peterson Trio – guitar jettisoned, but retaining Ray Brown and adding Ed Thigpen – was well established and running smoothly, a 4-on-the-floor mean machine, racing quickly through studio sessions and live dates yet still somehow usually generating solid jazz. For their minimally planned West Side Story LP, the guys gathered in the studio, checked the lead sheets, noodled around on a couple of other tunes, went away, then came back to jam through a handful of sharp, casually arranged, Jet Assisted Take Off versions. So naturally one of the Trio's best is "Jet Song."

A slightly florid opening by OP and Ray becomes solid 4/4 walking as Ed joins in. Oscar keeps stepping lightly, the insouciant gang lead, but his solo soon gets soulful – yes, he goes to church! – slapping and chording, roaming up and down the keyboard (all Jets left dumbfounded on the street corner). Ray rejoins and Ed keeps it swinging, while Oscar gets busier, does some finger-busting for a moment, then yields to Ray, who supplies a swaggering solo, a richly varied lesson on the big instrument with plucks and strums and some bass-ic walk-around too. Which inspires OP to take charge once more; and now he stomps it on out, right back to the gang's genial theme, our three wiseguys finally slowing and drifting to silence. Check it: a splendid 7+ minutes of street-cred jazz.

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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André Previn: Something's Coming

From the choice of a Ben Shahn painting for the cover art, to the speedy, lighthearted treatments within, André Previn's West Side Story exudes cheekiness combined with class. Maybe his own credentials as a composer and classically trained musician-turned-jazz pianist allowed him to get closer to the similar Bernstein gestalt. Or maybe the guys were just inspired. Whatever the fortunate circumstance, this particular jazz version of the musical has been a solid favorite for 50 years.

The lead track, "Something's Coming," quickly demonstrates the Previn approach: 2½ minutes of that percussive tune taken at bop speed, his piano and Manne's drums racing each other through the streets, making twice the music in half the time; whatever's coming is coming fast! Some of Previn's chords step into dissonance, like a Bronx cheer maybe, but mostly he just dances around Bernstein's great melody. Manne's skill at making his drums sound musical can be heard here and throughout the album (his rim-taps a plus), and Red Mitchell was the West Coast match for, say, Paul Chambers; but their roles on this running romp are simple: no muss, no fuss, just get us there safe and sounding joyous.

In The Joy of Music (published in 1960, as was this album), Lennie wrote that "A popular song doesn't become jazz until it is improvised on..." He hadn't heard Previn's album yet, but I'll bet he smiled when he did.

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jacques Schwarz-Bart: Simone

As Jacques Schwarz-Bart's mother, writer Simone Schwarz-Bart, recites one of her poems written in Creole, her son's tenor soars, backed by the piano, then the percussionists. When the poem is over, the song really begins with the addition of Hervé Samb's guitar and Reggie Washington's electric bass. It has a relaxed Caribbean bounce, and the tenor sax acts as a voice telling a story through a beautifully constructed solo. The percussionists echo the swelling tension that builds while the harmonic instruments maintain a quiet atmosphere, and it's only towards the end that everybody adopts a breakneck tempo, culminating in a trancelike coda. In his recent work, Schwarz-Bart's aim has been to merge his roots in Guadeloupean music with jazz and soul music. With this tune, dedicated to his mother and played by European, African and American musicians, he shows he can avoid the clichés of two of these genres and, as a composer and instrumentalist, propose something fresh that he intends to develop in coming years.

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Enrico Pieranunzi: K531 / Impro K531

Composers from the Baroque period have often inspired jazz musicians. Some have just used harmonic patterns from those works, others melodic themes, but all have recognized composers whose music swung before the term even existed. Bach has of course been the main provider of this Baroque material. Enrico Pieranunzi, besides being a renowned jazz pianist, has been a classical piano teacher for most of his life, yet was never keen on mixing genres. Here, for the first time in his career, he tackles some of the sonatas composed by Domenico Scarlatti, an Italian composer who lived at the same time as Bach but has seldom inspired jazz adaptations. (Searchers might be interested in a fragment of the K9 sonata played by Teddy Wilson in the studio during a pause on 01/21/42, which is the only previous occurrence I know of Scarlatti in jazz). Among Scarlatti's 500+ sonatas, Pieranunzi chose 14, and either just plays them according to the score or adds an improv on the written material.

"K531/Impro K531" is the only track in common with an earlier record by Vladimir Horowitz, who in the 1940s and '50s restored Scarlatti to fame after being mostly relegated to piano exercises. On this same K531 sonata, it's interesting to compare Pieranunzi's choices to those of a pianist who put his imprint on these works and who, though he was strictly a classical interpreter, was often spotted as a listener in jazz clubs, particularly when Art Tatum was performing. Horowitz's version is crystal clear, rather slow, and lets the two hands ride independently, making the piece's polyphonic construction obvious. He also uses lots of piano and forte nuances, with a feel for time that sounds a bit like slow swinging.

Pieranunzi is comparatively fast, emphasizing the contrast between treble and lows rather than between right and left hands. He also tends to play rubato, dragging this Baroque composition towards the spirit of the Romantic period. Of course, these are artistic choices and each can be respected as such. During his improv, Pieranunzi confirms his "romantic" options, displaying a beautiful piano touch and virtuoso streaks that make a frequent use of the pedal, among some more formal developments. While one cannot but be impressed, one may wonder why Scarlatti should have served as a pretext for something so far removed from his universe. Lovers of beautiful piano will be satisfied by this effort. Those who believe the ground between Baroque music and jazz hasn't yet been fully explored may be disappointed by an attempt that globally misses the point.

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Laïka: Strange Fruit

To sing and play "Strange Fruit" 70 years after a Jewish high-school teacher in the Bronx wrote it and an African-American singer in Greenwich Village sang it is no simple thing. Though "Strange Fruit" is one of Lady Day's most famous songs, it's far from being among the most sung or played because its words, about lynching in the USA in the 1930s, can hardly leave either singer or listeners indifferent. Although a song, it is more than a piece of entertainment; this is a work of art, whose interpretation cannot be reduced to its social implications.

Laika Fatien, a French singer with Jewish and African origins, understands all that and, while concerned with the thematic material, gives this song a deeply artistic rendering. Robert Glasper begins with an impressive rubato piano solo, whose staccato notes in the treble and low tones of the instrument become more and more ominous over the first minute, before the voice enters. Laïka's phrasing and diction, over Glasper's sparse, romantic chords and arpeggios, are deeply dramatic, yet her emotions never become theatrical or overdone. This will carry on another four minutes, and it's hard, when their duet is over, to continue listening to the rest of the album. Remaining silent and meditative, or playing "Strange Fruit" again, seem to be the most obvious options.

Today only the children and grandchildren of the former lynchers, or former spectators, survive. The President of the United States is an African American. But this song is a vital and necessary reminder. Its emotional impact may help prevent the return of barbarism, wherever it may appear, whatever form it may take.

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Julia Hülsmann: Kiss From A Rose

There are many ways to turn a pop song into a lush jazz tune. Here, without being academic or pompous, German pianist Julia Hülsmann teaches us one such way, carving a highly enjoyable piece that reveals its delicately swinging beauty second after second. Hülsmann knows this terrain: her first three records (on the German ACT label) saw her accompanying Norwegian Rebekka Bakken, Italian Anna Lauvergnac and German Roger Cicero, who all sing on the border between jazz and pop. Invited by ECM to record with her trio alone, Hülsmann tackles this hit by British pop star Seal.

Right from the start, the song's three basic chords are stated twice by the piano, with slight dissonance and much space between them. Even before the bass introduces the chorus, followed by the whole trio dealing with the melody, we're far from the overproduced original pop song, and deep into jazz playing. Each instrument, by the quality of its timbre and phrasing, is a true voice, and space is the keyword. The space between each player allows them to fully interact, and space between notes lets those resonate, suggesting the harmonic atmosphere rather than stuffing it with sounds. And the paradox is that, at a slower pace and with fewer instruments than the original, this cover more firmly grips the listener's attention, unfolding its harmonic, melodic and rhythmic surprises at a slow, majestically swinging pace. A beautiful lesson in transforming pop songs into jazz tunes, indeed!

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Yoko Ono (with Ornette Coleman): Aos

This is a summit meeting of sorts between two of the best-known figures of the avant-garde. For most of the song, Yoko Ono's gloomy wordless vocal improvising serves as a viable companion for Ornette Coleman's minimalist trumpet (yes, trumpet). About 4 minutes into this 7-minute song, her peacefully dissonant sighs quickly escalate into full-throated screaming, equivalent to having one's eardrums punctured by an ice pick. Coleman's band quickly gets behind her sudden release, ratcheting up their own ferocity for about 45 seconds, until the song settles back into its prior dirge.

"Aos" shows that Ono's voice can work as an instrument if placed in the right setting. If only she would refrain from all that dead-gummed yelling.

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stevie Wonder (featuring Dizzy Gillespie): Do I Do

Not long after the disco craze fizzled out, Stevie Wonder decided to make a disco song. In the new-wave era of 1982, "Do I Do" managed to reach #13 on the American charts. With his Motown melody-making mastery intact, Wonder could've set this song to Bulgarian folk dance music and still had another Top 40 hit on his hands.

Not on the single version is the part where he proudly announces: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I have the pleasure to present on my album, Mr. Dizzy Gillespie! Blow!" and bop's co-creator and greatest ambassador proceeds to do just that. Dizzy's lines aren't bad, but he sounds somewhat tentative and uncomfortable in this environment. Wonder's trademark harmonica that follows right afterwards only accentuates the contrast in enthusiasm between the two legends' approach to this song.

"Do I Do" is a dance song that still sounds good today simply because of Wonder's knack for writing good pop songs and arranging them such that they transcend time. It's nice to boast about having Gillespie on your record, but here he was hardly needed.

February 08, 2009 · 3 comments

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Ada Rovatti: The Untold Story

I remember back in 1988 popping in Michael Brecker's newest CD Don't Try This At Home and being blown away by the opening track, "Itsbynne Reel." It was the first time I'd heard traditional Celtic music blended with modern jazz, and it was a spellbinding combination. It's also a direction not much pursued. Until now.

Ada Rovatti's Green Factor is mostly devoted to this delectable hybrid of two seemingly incompatible styles, and this young Italian saxophonist does it in poised, sophisticated fashion. "The Untold Story" is one of the album's better examples of this uncommon flavor of world fusion. Like "Itsbynne Reel," it fools listeners into thinking they've inadvertently selected the Riverdance soundtrack instead of a jazz record. But the snaking violin/sax unison at the beginning soon shares space with fluff-free American jazz-rock fusion.

Guitarist Adam Rogers goes first in the solo buffet line, his playing loose and resourceful. Rovatti next lets loose with an aggressive, muscular tenor solo that evokes some of the past masters (Coltrane, Brecker) but never falls into clichéd replication of their licks. Her style is advanced and crisp without going over the top.

It's much harder these days to make fusion sound fresh and interesting. Rovatti is one of a select few of today's players who has figured out how to do it.

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Mariano: Neverglades Pixie

"Neverglades Pixie" begins with a typical, lyrical Chick Corea Return to Forever electric keyboard intro. This is strange because Jan Hammer sounds nothing like Chick Corea. But perhaps just this one time. Anyhow, the tune quickly gets sidetracked. It is now a slow romp. Charlie Mariano plays over the panning changes. He gains steam. His soprano starts filling in the missing parts. Then he creates some of his own parts. The romp is deeper now. Jack Bruce's throbbing bass and drummer John Marshall's backbeat ensure it. When violinist Zbigniew Seifert takes his turn, you listen with unbridled joy as he lets loose a stringed demonstration of fusion bliss. It is brilliant playing. (Why did we have to lose Seifert at such a young age?) Then comes Hammer on Moog. The romp is now full bore. This is fun music for fusion boys and girls of all ages. (OK, I know there aren't many of those fusion girls. But this song is about a pixie.)

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Mariano: Helen 12 Trees

"Helen 12 Trees" is what you would get if you took a pinch of Return to Forever, a dash of Larry Coryell's Eleventh House, and a smidgen of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, put it all together into a simmering pot, and added saxophonist Charlie Mariano to taste. The tune was penned by Mariano but sounds like it was written by Jan Hammer. This is because it has at times the same vibe as Hammer's "Sister Andrea," which he performed with Mahavishnu and with Tommy Bolin. At other times, "Helen 12 Trees" resembles the serious side of Hammer's Oh, Yeah? All of which is a roundabout way of saying that he dominates this performance.

Zbigniew Seifert's violin chords and Hammer's electric piano open the piece. Their chords intersect, producing a slightly mysterious air to the riffs. Early on, drummer John Marshall is given space for a matter-of-fact drum solo. Hammer then comes with Moog notes blazing. You need to take cover. Next, Mariano expertly solos over Seifert's and Hammer's thematic patterns and Jack Bruce's busy basslines. Mariano should have received more attention during the jazz-rock explosion. He is quite literally playing fusion jazz saxophone years before other sax players caught on. (Joe Farrell is excluded from that statement.) We are very lucky MPS has found a way to finally release the criminally under-heard Helen Twelve Trees on CD. The title cut is but one of the reasons. It turns out that Mariano led one of the greatest fusion sessions most of us were never aware of.

February 07, 2009 · 1 comment

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Jack Bruce (featuring Carla Bley): Spirit

One of the more intriguing forays into rock by a jazz musician was Carla Bley's brief membership in Jack Bruce's band in 1975, a band that also included the vastly underrated guitarist Mick Taylor. Imagine that: one of the foremost composers, arrangers and big band leaders of modern jazz relegating herself to a sidewoman role in a band featuring Cream's bassist/vocalist and The Rolling Stones' lead guitarist!

This supergroup, like most supergroups, didn't hold together long, as Bley and Taylor left Bruce on the eve of recording what would have been the first album with this lineup. Before that, the group toured Europe extensively in late spring of 1975. The only official document of Bruce's dream band was an appearance on the BBC-TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test.

The set consisted of tunes culled mostly from Bruce's post-Cream output. The music blends the dynamism of '60s rock with complexity and unpredictability of '70s prog rock. As for Bley, she doesn't make much of an impression until the instrumental fusion piece "Spirit."

"Spirit" is rooted in a funky, ascending chord bass riff, which of course Bruce exploits to the hilt. Taylor gets plenty of room to lay down some tasty licks, something he felt constrained from doing in his former band. Bley on a Moog joins Taylor on some unison lines, and after Taylor solos, Bley shows off her own improvising skills. Overlooking the fact that it's being done with a painfully dated spacey analog synth, Bley acquits herself nicely, displaying a soulful intensity that wouldn't have been out of place on a Jeff Beck record of that period.

If Escalator Over The Hill didn't prove that there's nothing Carla Bley can't do, jamming convincingly with British rock superstars should.

February 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mike Garson: The Child Within

Conversations With My Family is a concept album, an introspective tribute to the journey taken by all those who dare the challenges of committing to a relationship and raising children. "The Child Within" suggests the realm of possibilities each of us has before the inevitable burdens of maturity and reason take their toll. Running the tonal table with this opening piece, Garson hits on impressionism, post- modernism, bebop, cool, avant-garde; I hear echoes of Debussy, John Adams, Leonard Bernstein, Chick, Monk, Mingus, Ornette – they're all in there. Yet it comes off as an original, intensely personal statement, despite his obvious acquisition of the form from Victor Young's "Stella by Starlight."

Kuno Schmid's orchestration gives these freewheeling solos a foundation of continuity and color. And what solos! Garson's effortless reharmonizations bubble up from a seemingly bottomless well, while the unmistakable Andreas Oberg provides almost telepathic counterpoint, ending in a pentatonic flourish literally cascading off his archtop's fretboard. Child's play, it's not.

February 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Freddie Hubbard: Cold Turkey

Beatles songs have always been favorites of jazz musicians to cover, but not many tunes from the Fab Four's individual solo albums have received the jazz treatment. Freddie Hubbard puts a nice twist on this John Lennon opus from the Plastic Ono Band. The introduction proves cryptic when compared to the funkiness of the song. Of particular interest on this track is Joe Henderson's solo, which grabs the beat and rides it for the duration of his solo. Herbie Hancock puts his wizardry into full execution as well with tasteful, subtle chords and different chromatic patterns. I would like to think that John Lennon dug this!

February 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Freddie Hubbard: The Intrepid Fox

Though this album is known for its funky, groove-laden title track, the other songs deserve just as much attention and praise. The late great Freddie Hubbard (R.I.P.) blazed his trail through the 1960s, leaving the jazz world with some of the best trumpeting ever recorded. On this song, he extends that sound over Lenny White's infectious, driving groove. I could definitely picture this accompanying a chase sequence in a movie; but don't get me wrong, the playing is topnotch. It's a shame that some of Hubbard's later material didn't capture the same kind of energy as his '60s and early '70s material. But nonetheless, this recording stands as an amazing testament to one of jazz's greatest trumpeters.

February 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Mariano: Thorn of a White Rose

The record company MPS has come to our rescue by continuing to release a series of fusion and jazz classics out of Europe that were previously unavailable on CD. Charlie Mariano's Helen 12 Trees is one. Where has this album been all of my life? (I answer that question in my review of "Avoid the Year of the Monkey.")

"Thorn of a White Rose" was written by keyboardist Jan Hammer. Its introduction is not that different in style from his 1976 album Oh, Yeah? His melodies can be sneakily complicated but always catchy. The tune's midsection, however, becomes a blowing session. First up is Charlie Mariano. He takes every inch of advantage a Jan Hammer composition will allow him. The band gets down and funky in a Jan Hammer sort of way. Mariano yields to the incomparable violinist Zbigniew Seifert. He kicks some "White Thorn" ass. Later he and Mariano trade off on some long measures, sounding great together. Hammer finally takes his turn. He decides to quiet things down a bit with a reflective electric piano. But the riff-driven theme, which harbors a bit of dissension, soon returns in all its fusion glory. "Thorn of a White Rose" is yet another jazz-rock gem to be discovered on Helen 12 Trees. Let's hope MPS continues to unearth these long- forgotten but important fusion classics.

February 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Mariano: Avoid the Year of the Monkey

Had it not been for a mailing snafu, Charlie Mariano's Helen 12 Trees may have been one of the most renowned fusion albums of its day. Unbeknownst to record label MPS, the 200 pressed LPs forwarded to the promoter to send off for reviews were misdirected instead by the pressing plant to the small village of Bauhaus near the East German border. It wasn't until 20 or so years later that this was discovered. In hindsight, it explained why the album received virtually no press when released. According to the liner notes of this MPS reissue, the only review ever found appeared in a small jazz magazine that happened to be located in that accidental town! No wonder virtually no one heard the album at the time. No one knew it existed. What a crime!

American saxophonist Mariano, who first appeared on traditional jazz recordings way back in 1947, put together quite a fusion band for Helen 12 Trees. Joining him were Jan Hammer, fresh off the success of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and his own solo recordings, the great rock/jazz bassist Jack Bruce, best known for Cream, drummer John Marshall and percussionist Nippy Noya. But from a historical viewpoint, the most interesting participant in this recording was Polish violinist Zbigniew Seifert. Although little known because he died tragically early, he is legendary among fusion and violin cognoscenti.

"Avoid the Year of the Monkey" may have a funny title, but it is serious music. Hammer's electric piano introduces Mariano's skittering lines. The main theme, played by Mariano and Seifert in unison, enters a minute or two into the piece. A slight Arabian tilt is heard. Then we listen to Seifert express himself. He was every bit the player Jerry Goodman and Jean Luc Ponty were. Stylistically he leaned to Ponty because of his European roots. But like Goodman before him, he plays call and response with Jan Hammer's Moog as if he were in the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. The Arabian-sounding melody returns over Bruce's insistent bassline. Mariano and Seifert finish this outstanding fusion music in beautiful unison. I can only imagine the accolades and word of mouth this recording would have received if any of us had heard it when new. I must thank MPS for releasing it now on CD. Let's hope this time we can make sure as many fusion fans as possible can dig it. Spread the word. But double-check those mailing addresses.

February 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Mariano: Parvati's Dance

Saxophonist Charlie Mariano is an admirer of the South Indian musical tradition and is a gifted player of the Indian double-reed wind instrument the nagaswaram. He put together the perfect band to play his composition "Parvati's Dance." It comes as no surprise that keyboardist Jan Hammer has an affinity for Indian music. He was a great fan of virtuoso vina player S. Balachander. Even today Hammer talks of the influence Balachander, who played a stringed instrument, has on his synthesizer playing. Hammer sought to phrase and bend notes in the same way that Balachander used his strings. Hammer says some of this influence can be heard in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, especially on Birds of Fire, and on later tunes he wrote and performed such as "The Animals." Add to the mix one of the greatest jazz-rock violinists, Zbigniew Seifert, who could play anything, and bassist Jack Bruce, who had a jazz background and was no stranger to Eastern sounds, and you had a veritable West-meets-East fusion even if there were no Easterners! John Marshall's percussion was Western-based, as was Nippy Noy's percussion. But Noya throws in some Brazilian accents to make things even more "world."

The main theme, as presented by Mariano on nagaswaram and Seifert in tandem, sounds like a heated conversation between two snake charmers. We are drawn into the exotic strains. There are comparisons between this performance and John McLaughlin's Indo-jazz Shakti band of that time. However, because of Mariano's sax contribution, the better comparison would be to today's highly popular Indian/world/jazz fusions that feature horns. (Saxophonist George Brooks's work with Surinder Sandhu comes to mind.) Perhaps with MPS's reissue of Helen 12 Trees, more credit will be given to Charlie Mariano and his fellow musicians for foreshadowing one of today's most exciting jazz musical movements.

February 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Marc Copland: So What

Pianist/composer Marc Copland and his trio's interpretation of Miles Davis's "So What" doesn't jibe with the expected. Sure, Drew Gress's opening bass pattern is familiar. (You can compare it with Miles's arrangement, circa five years after his original recording, for as long as YouTube maintains this clip of his 1964 appearance on the Steve Allen Show.) But that pretty much ends the similarities. Copland takes the staccato opening chords, makes some minor, adds legato and a spacey feel. Miles's approach was direct. Copland comes in through a crack in a side door. His notes waft head-high to be breathed in. The tune's midsection features a long and exploratory Gress solo, as drummer Bill Stewart brushes his way through. Copland, a truly gifted musician and interpreter, then offers a lengthy melancholic mood to song's end. The famous head of the arrangement is never revisited. It just floats in the air of your memory.

I don't know about you, but I love the unexpected. The more surprising a jazz standard's treatment, the better. Taking a musical masterpiece to places previously unknown is the sign of someone, or a group, unsatisfied with playing by rote. Copland and his New York Trio take this music out for a long and rewarding walk. I suggest you tag along.

February 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever: Children's Song

"Children's Song" is a simple idea, with Chick Corea embellishing the same chords as Stanley Clarke plays a continual riff, which he eventually doubles with fifths and octaves. I could be wrong, but with the way the song is composed and especially how it's performed, I get the impression that, as with other titles on Light as a Feather, it is somehow related to Corea's newfound faith in the Church of Scientology. In any case, the album's most overlooked track and also its shortest, "Children's Song" does showcase the band's wonderful and almost perfect interaction.

February 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever: Spain

"Spain" is the best-known and most-covered song Chick Corea has written in his 40+ year career. Regarded as one of the best American composers in the Latin idiom, Corea cements that reputation with this piece. It starts with a beautiful Fender Rhodes and upright bass introduction by Corea and Clarke, which immediately creates an inviting mood. Next the band flies over a captivating flamenco-esque beat by Moreira, with the melody doubled by Farrell's flute and Purim's vocal. And then – you know the part – it's where everyone claps their hands to the quarter note and everybody in the room stands up with you're as you doing it. This song is a masterpiece well deserving its perfect rating.

February 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Return to Forever: Captain Marvel

Return to Forever's first album marks one of the greatest accomplishments in fusing Latin music with jazz. Although the band took huge steps in other musical directions following the release of Light as a Feather, this album is chockfull of amazing music and compositions. "Captain Marvel" is a gem in Corea's catalog. His genius is all over the place, from chord progression to rhythm. Joe Farrell provides a riveting flute solo to start the song after the head, followed by Corea's tantalizing melodic lines on the Fender Rhodes. All performed over Airto Moreira's driving drumbeat and Stanley Clarke's stellar bassline, this song is A++++.

February 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Rick Derringer (featuring Chick Corea): Rock

In 1975, Chick Corea's success with his jazz-rock combo Return To Forever was at its peak, while Rick Derringer was preparing the follow-up to his own biggest success, All-American Boy, the album that spawned the hit "Rock & Roll, Hoochie Koo." Since Corea was already halfway there to rock, appearing on Derringer's next record, Spring Fever, was perhaps another logical step away from jazz.

Featuring an electric sitar, lively rock beat, lyrics like "shake it shake it, turn me on," and an arena-ready Derringer guitar solo, "Rock" has all the ingredients for mid-'70s bombastic rock. Corea had to find space for his blurting synth within the intervals between the lyrics. Like the song as a whole, his Moog might have knocked a few people's socks off at the time, but it's not particularly memorable today. To be fair to Corea, it wasn't the ideal setting for a foray into straight-ahead rock. Give him more challenging material and room to stretch, and then we could have seen some real competition for Rick Wakeman.

February 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Strange Fruit

The Billie Holiday recording of this song is justly famous. By contrast, this version is not well known outside the limited ranks of jazz writers and the most intense jazz lovers. That is a cultural tragedy because this is one of the ultimate masterpieces of musical art performed and captured on record in the 20th century. (Astonishingly, in his major biography of Bechet, John Chilton basically dismisses this recording with a one-sentence wave of his hand.)

Besides pure musical art, this is drama of the highest order. It is the tragedy Shakespeare would have created if he had lived as a black musician in the American South during the Jim Crow era (1876-1965). The title "Strange Fruit" refers to two African-American men in Marion, Indiana, hanging from a tree upon which they'd been lynched by a white mob in 1930. Haunted by a photograph of this grisly event, a Jewish high-school teacher in the Bronx named Abel Meeropol wrote the song under a pseudonym in 1936.

With its striking lyrics, Billie Holiday's recording is transfixing. But to me, Bechet's instrumental version is even more powerful. And his soprano sax, with its famous intense, throbbing vibrato, offers the perfect instrument for expressing the meaning and emotion of this ultimate cry of the heart and protestation against the stark inhumanity of lynching. The recording can be enjoyed purely for the stunning music; but the societal meaning adds an extraordinary dimension to this American cultural expression.

Bechet provides a climbing and descending opening with rich tone and great poignancy, making a kind of mini-overture to the story. He plays with less volume than usual, the first use of dynamics in this song that has rarely been equaled for enhancing meaning and art. Everett Barksdale's guitar next offers a reflective transition, in descending steps, to the main musical lines, followed by pianist Willie "the Lion" Smith introducing the main theme with simple virtuosity of touch and tone. Now Bechet plays the theme with embellishments, starting in still restrained manner, like a lament. Then he steadily increases the intensity and passion, climbing higher and higher, taking the lament to a profound cry of the heart and then to a keening protest with that throbbing Bechet vibrato in full cry, only to climb even higher and end on a dramatic high note that is simultaneously an ultimate anguished wail and an appeal to the heavens to end this insanity. It is sublime musical art, yet also carries profound social meaning.

And then, all too quickly—in 2½ minutes—it is done. Rarely has such great musical art and human expression been accomplished in so short a time.

February 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Rolling Stones (with Sonny Rollins): Waiting On A Friend

"Waiting On A Friend" was a meeting of an all-time top-three rock 'n' roll band and an all-time top-three tenor saxophonist. This laid-back, breezy tune, which became a Top 15 hit for the Stones in 1981, was uncharacteristic for them in that it contained none of the nastiness and frazzled blues edges that defined the band. Jagger later wrote lyrics to the original demos that matched the friendly melody with a rare openness and sincerity about the virtues of true friendship.

There's still not that much jazzy about this song, but bringing in Sonny Rollins to supply some sax to it made sense. After all, the originator of "St. Thomas" wasn't going to be such a bad fit for a song that possesses a mild calypso flavor. Rollins's effortless expression and reedy tone blended with Jagger's "ooo's" and "yeahs" as naturally as did Hopkins's light piano or the rich rhythm guitars.

The Rolling Stones and Sonny Rollins met in a musically neutral location for a song that doesn't represent a high point for either side, but is nonetheless a pleasant diversion by both.

February 05, 2009 · 5 comments

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Wynton Marsalis: Concerto in E-flat Major for Trumpet and Orchestra by Joseph Haydn (first movement)

No, it's not jazz—duh!—but anyone who wants to come to grips with the phenomenon of Wynton Marsalis needs to hear his classical side, and there is no better place to start than his debut classical album, made when the trumpeter was 20. It would earn him a Grammy in 1983, and gain him a following among a wide audience who had never come within 500 feet of a jazz club. In particular, listen to the cadenza toward the conclusion of the first movement of the Haydn concerto. It's not just the technical control, which admittedly can blind you to everything else, but even more the freedom of his phrasing. The cadenza goes beyond the bounds of the idiom, yet also seems perfectly appropriate. I don't think anyone else on the planet could have pulled this off back then, or today for that matter. I once took some students through this movement, then had them listen to the same cadenza as played by the esteemed Maurice André. I think this comparison may have opened up their ears to Marsalis's importance even more than any "mere" jazz recording would have done.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Abdullah Ibrahim: In a Sentimental Mood

Ibrahim enjoyed the rare distinction, back in the early 1960s, of having his career take flight under the sponsorship of Duke Ellington. Here he returns the favor by interpreting one of Ellington's best known songs. But this track is a disappointment. The piano sound is murky, and though the recording engineer bears some responsibility, Ibrahim's pedaling and piano touch also contribute to the problem. Throughout this CD, and especially on this track, Ibrahim relies on a fractured rubato. Again and again, he hits a chord at the start of the bar, adds a very concise right hand phrase—the phrases here rarely cross the barline, as though it were some insurmountable obstacle—then the sounds die out while Ibrahim pauses to consider his follow-up move. Eventually the next bar starts, with another chord and another phrase stumbles out of the starting gate, only to fall to the ground before reaching the finish line. To add to the austere sensibility, Ibrahim has excised most of the recognizable elements from Ellington's original composition. There is neither much sentiment nor mood in this version of "Sentimental Mood." Some of the harmonic textures are interesting, but there is not enough substance here for them to cohere into anything substantial.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Toninho Horta: Portrait in Black and White

Winter blues got you down? Take a sonic sojourn with a recently unearthed gem that summons visions of Rio beaches, swaying palms and steaming rainforests. To mark bossa nova's 50th birthday, George Klabin, founder of Resonance Records, has reissued Toninho Horta's loving tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim. Originally released only in Japan and Brazil, To Jobim With Love had long been a Klabin favorite. In 2007 he was presented with the opportunity to secure the rights to this nearly forgotten recording, and happily did so.

The bossa has been around for decades, but with few exceptions (Charlie Byrd comes to mind) most non- Brazilian artists tend to misinterpret the form's subtle rhythm. This track is the real McCarlos; guitarists aspiring to capture that Brazil vibe could find no greater example than the flawless, pearl-shaped lines Toninho lays down on "Portrait in Black and White," going down smooth as a freshly shaken Caipirinha. The layers of string and flute enhancement are deep but somehow never interfere with the melody's quiet introspection. Horta's breathy vocals and assured, warm guitar work get ample backing from a crack rhythm section and his soaring, dreamy orchestral arrangement. This is a masterful interpretation of Jobim's classic.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tobin Mueller: River Runs Through Me

As a writer for jazz.com, I choose selected cuts to review based upon what I feel are "noteworthy" jazz performances. There are many such performances on keyboardist and composer Tobin Mueller's Rain Bather. So how do I decide which to review? I have different criteria I like to use, but one is to choose a piece most different from the rest of the material. To me this is a good way to determine an artist's scope. Most of Rain Bather is take-no-prisoners jazz/fusion/sometimes electronica/swing. In contrast, "River Runs Through Me" is a lovely ballad performed by a most unusual trio. Leader Tobin Mueller plays B-3 organ. His nephew Chris Mueller stars on acoustic piano. This unusual duo is joined by the saxophonist Woody Mankowski.

In my review of another cut from the album, "Must Go Back," I talk about my intrigue with the sonic combination of B-3 organ and acoustic piano. This performance only deepens that interest. Mankowski plays the beautiful melody with a caring knowledge. Pianist Mueller then appears alone and continues the trend. Further on, pianist and saxophonist express more of their feelings as the B-3 adds unique shading and flourishes. Tobin Mueller's scope and generosity both come across on this CD. He is quite capable of soloing and showing off. Instead he stays back a bit, adding just the right ingredients to make everything work in a most interesting way. He is a rhythm keeper without playing rhythm and an accompanist without accompanying in the traditional sense. It is quite fascinating. I am unaware of anyone else playing B-3 in quite this way.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tobin Mueller: Must Go Back

Many of the cuts on keyboardist Tobin Mueller's Rain Bather are new jazz versions of tunes he wrote for his Broadway show Creature. Pianist Chris Mueller performed for that show, and so was extremely familiar with "Must Go Back." I point this out because it is the relationship between Mueller's B-3 and his nephew's acoustic piano that I find most intriguing. You don't hear those instruments engaged very often, especially in a band this small. On such a driving track, the Muellers' sound, in conjunction and disjunction, is quite unusual and captivating. The keyboards may have the same layout, but the approach to playing them is dissimilar. Nephew Mueller flies up and down his keys in a tour-de-force display of chops. Uncle Mueller holds back at times, supplying long B-3 sustain to bolster his nephew's romps. But he catches fire as well. Bassist Jeff Cox and drummer Dane Richeson are every bit as hot. This powerfully swinging tune may be performed by a quartet, but the band's force is greater than the sum of its parts. "Must Go Back" is a demand you cannot resist.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Rita Edmond: Our Love Is Here To Stay

Rita Edmond's rendition of this Gershwin classic is up-tempo and energetic. In contrast to other tunes on Sketches of a Dream, vocalist Edmonds spends this song in the middle and high registers. That could be a result of the song's quick pace. There is also a touch of nasal quality not employed on the other cuts. The band is kicking from the start. There is a wonderful vibe created that takes you back to the days of the song's earliest jazz interpretations. (Contrary to popular belief, that was not when Harry Connick Jr. sang the song for When Harry Met Sally.) You can visualize Edmond & band really cooking in a nightclub. You can see the smiles on the patrons' faces as they tap their fingers on the tablecloths. Edmond's voice is a real gift. She has obviously been surrounded by the right gift-wrapping.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mark Winkler: lowercase

On Joshua Redman's "lowercase," Mark Winkler demonstrates his smooth and undulating vocal style. He sings the self-penned lyrics in perfect cadence with the song's musical meter. With a tip of his hat to vocalist and apparent inspiration Mark Murphy, who wrote the liner notes in true hipster style, Winkler is at once derivative yet original. Much like Murphy, he chooses challenging and unique material, with lyrics that bring a sly smile to your face for somehow being in the know. As an educator, he has taught songwriting classes at UCLA; so it's no surprise that he has a way with fitting just the right words to compelling music. His nonchalant delivery is deceptive because of the ease with which he modulates his voice. The musicians are first-rate, and complement his lead with understated elegance and impeccable time. Bob Sheppard is particularly effective with his fine tenor work that feeds off Winkler's vocal direction. After solos by pianist Jamieson Trotter and Sheppard, we return to the melody before the tune closes with a repeating refrain from Trotter that fades into a rolling drum solo by Steve Hass. This is vocal jazz at its best.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mark Winkler: Cool

With the smooth swagger of Gene Kelly dancing through the wet streets in Singin' in the Rain, Mark Winkler exercises his lyrical and vocal chops on "Cool." He is joined in duet by an icy-hot Cheryl Bentyne trading lines to this decidedly chilled piece of "hip" music. With the snap of his fingers to the time of the laid-back beat, and Dan Lutz's smoky basslines coming up the rear, Winkler slyly makes reference to (Henry) Mancini and (Chet) Baker in his lyrics as examples of cool. With the wink of someone in the know, saxophonist Bob Sheppard takes the clue and interjects a line from the Mancini Pink Panther songbook to punctuate the matter. A nice bass solo by Lutz leads into a Getzian-cool tenor solo by Sheppard that accentuates the mood of unabashed indifference yet somehow still cooks. Bentyne does some fine vocalizing at the end, showing her range. Winkler plays creatively with the whole concept of what is cool and what is not, and creates a very enjoyable piece of music. Mark Winkler, to take a line from your lyrics, "You're swimming-pool cool."

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cameo (with Miles Davis): In The Night

Miles Davis's sideman appearances post-Kind Of Blue are about as rare as Arizona Cardinals Super Bowl appearances, but incredibly, both actually happened. In the case of the jazz icon, he showed up one day in the late '80s at a recording session by Cameo, one of the hottest funk bands of that time. Miles came with his sax foil at the time, Kenny Garrett, in tow.

The best part of this mostly instrumental funk-jazz workout comes in the opening seconds, when Miles alone spits out a few notes that are unmistakably his just about a measure ahead of the beginning of the backing track. His open horn playing has that clear but ruminating quality he is famous for, but on the second sequence of vamps, the muted horn appears along with Garrett, and it gets somewhat funkier. Soon afterwards, the horn players battle for space against each other and overdubbed versions of themselves, which makes a pretty good jam session just a little messy.

That can be forgiven; while this performance isn't "Right Off" caliber, you'll know from both the trumpet and sax playing that this ain't no Rick Braun/Gerald Albright summit meeting, either.

February 04, 2009 · 1 comment

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Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti: Raggin' the Scale

Call me crazy, but to my ears (and to get a bit grandiose), this seems like a short-piece jazz answer to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (especially No. 3), taking a holistic impression of the piece. Particularly in the early going, in the basic structure of the ensemble's instruments and their respective roles, in the leading violin lines in relation to the rest, in the flowing, rolling music that seems like an aural stream cascading over smooth rocks down a hill (though in musically ascending and descending manner), it could serve as a jazz version of a Brandenburg Concerto.

In any case, this is marvelous, fun, rousing, rolling, upbeat and up-tempo music. It features typical expressive lead lines from Venuti's violin. But it is very much ensemble jazz, with breaks for violin, banjo, piano and clarinet all adding nice creative lines and further dimensions of texture and tone, with Adrian Rollini's bass sax providing well-timed, deep sonic underpinning and punch. Also, especially when the piano comes to the fore, it has a ragtime feel (with hints of Jelly Roll Morton).

February 04, 2009 · 4 comments

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Eddie Lang & Lonnie Johnson: Hot Fingers

"Hot Fingers" is an appropriate title for this track, as these two ultimate masters of jazz and blues guitar in the 1920s take this member of their remarkable series of duets at a fast pace, with a lively, energetic feel and dancing fingers. This is one of those wonderful recordings where the listener with a good ear appreciates the instrumental mastery and superb musical creation, and comes away with spirits lifted and feet dancing along.

With bright, spangly-sounding strums on his uniquely tuned 12-string guitar (as in another gem from the duet series, "Midnight Call Blues"), Lonnie Johnson starts this track, leading into the catchy, rollicking main theme, played with Johnson's extraordinarily nimble fingers. Eddie Lang provides his usual fine harmonic and rhythmic foundation for Johnson's instrumental acrobatics, in this case a rolling, deep-toned foundation. At several points, the two guitarists jibe so perfectly at the rapid tempo in their respective roles—while improvising through the basic prearranged structure—that they seem to have a mystical connection. This is sparkling stuff.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eddie Lang: Eddie's Twister

This is the best known of the relatively few recordings Eddie Lang made featuring him on guitar with a piano accompanist. Lang opens with a catchy, memorable theme, then moves into well-constructed variations, with charming descending lines that give the piece character. His usual excellent harmonic sense is well displayed, and he makes fine use of the lower strings to add richness to the song's tone and texture. While it doesn't have quite the dazzling virtuosity of Lonnie Johnson's solo guitar recordings of the following February, such as "Away Down in the Alley Blues," it is a fine demonstration of the superb musicianship of Lang, who had a significant impact in jazz—and beyond. Arthur Schutt provides fairly simple but effective and complementary piano backing, and takes a one-chorus lead with some nice flourishes in the middle.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti: Wild Cat

"Wild Cat" is an apt title for this recording, as the piece is taken at a fast, if not frenzied, tempo and played with intensity and exuberance in a very 1920s style. The track starts with a dramatic, intense, 2-stage ascending violin flourish that amounts to a call to action, with a perfect, sharply strummed 2-stage response by Lang's guitar. After that, Lang provides more than his usual solid, chugging rhythmic and harmonic foundation; he gives us a high-octane, rollicking, ascending and descending guitar counterpoint to Venuti's expressive violin lines that sail and skitter over the top with verve and style. With all the energy and strong, driving rhythm, this is serious toe-tapping music. And after they are fully in motion with the fiddle and guitar exchanges, it sounds like a brilliant precursor to the best bluegrass breakdown records of later years (direct or indirect inspiration?).

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti: Stringing the Blues

"Stringing the Blues," drawing on the early jazz classic "Tiger Rag," is the first violin-guitar duet of Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang. As such, it is a pioneering work. As in his duets with Lonnie Johnson, Lang lays down a solid rhythmic base and harmonic structure for Venuti's sliding, skittering, often staccato lead work on violin. On this track, Lang mostly uses a standard 1920s, on-the-beat, thrum/thrum/thrum rhythm; it provides a strong momentum, but after a while feels choppy and, well, standardized. But at a couple of points Lang and Venuti have fine, excellently coordinated intricate exchanges. This music has a quintessential 1920s feel. Venuti's bowing draws effectively on the expressive capacities of the violin, and the flow of his lead lines makes for good jazz with a different texture and style than in the best-known earlier jazz recordings.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bix Beiderbecke (with Frankie Trumbauer & Eddie Lang): For No Reason at All in C

This track is unusual among the recordings made by Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Eddie Lang and other members of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra in 1927; only the trio plays.

A short piano intro by Beiderbecke starts things off, then Trumbauer plays lyrical, flowing lines on his C-melody sax, with sensual flourishes. Lang takes a nice, 2-chorus finger-picked guitar lead, playing variations on the main melodic theme, with Beiderbecke prominently backing him on piano. Trumbauer then takes the lead again with rolling, flowing lines, adding some staccato emphases, with Bix backing him on piano. They end with a brief Lang guitar line, Beiderbecke switches to cornet for a flourish, and Trumbauer has the last word.

This is a fine piece, with each man in turn contributing leads and backing to make an excellent, coherent musical whole. There are no dazzling lines, but the ensemble music produced is most satisfying, with a rich feeling of classic jazz, each with his usual sumptuous tone.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wynton Marsalis: Hesitation (Live 1982)

I was in attendance when this track was recorded, sitting in the second-to-last row—the best I could afford on my tight student budget. But even up in the rafters, I could still feel the creative tension engendered by this dramatic collaboration between the 20-year-old trumpeter and the legends of the older generation. Some day you too might enjoy this music—but right now the geniuses at Sony are "protecting their catalog" by making this track unavailable on CD or download.

"Hesitation" had been the most intriguing composition on Marsalis's debut album as a leader (released shortly before this concert), and generated excitement among those who anticipated that this young artist would "go beyond Miles and Ornette." Here he is helped along by former collaborators of Davis and Coleman, and the slippery melody line comes straight out of the harmolodic playbook. The chords are just "I Got Rhythm" changes, but the aesthetic sensibility here pushes the soloists to the far edges of tonality. Marsalis is brash and bold and full of ideas. Putting Haden into the mix works beautifully, and by the time Mr. Shorter steps up for his solo, he is ready to make a big statement of his own. Herbie Hancock is omitted from the personnel listing on the sleeve for this track, but he does offer a few comping chords before laying out—he must have realized that no piano is necessary here, and would even spoil much of the fun.

This performance still stands out as a good indicator of what Wynton might have done if he had seen himself as a an acolyte in the temple of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. The path not taken . . . but a heck of an interesting detour.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eddie Palmieri: In Walked Bud

It has been rare to hear Eddie Palmieri on record interpreting jazz standards, as he does with Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud" (and three others) on Listen Here! One of his trombonists on this track, Conrad Herwig, has released his own fascinating CDs presenting the "Latin Side" of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Wayne Shorter, respectively. Perhaps Palmieri and/or Herwig can devote an entire project to Monk sometime soon, given the successful Latin transformation of "In Walked Bud," a tune based on "Blue Skies" changes, that Monk wrote for his close friend Bud Powell.

An original Latin-rhythm vamp paves the way for Monk's theme, Hernández and Hidalgo helping to give the composition a completely different flavor than usual. Trumpeter Brian Lynch solos first, delivering flowing runs with a crisp yet glowing sound. Donald Harrison's silky alto offers phrasings that take delightfully unexpected twists and turns, followed by Herwig's sure-footed, dancing trombone. All these concise and stimulating solos set the stage for Palmieri's more extended escapade. His infectious percussive attack and montuno ending are all Palmieri, with surprisingly little hint of Monk or Powell. The next bracing call-and-response interlude features exclamatory riffs exchanged by two groupings of horns. Hernández and Hidalgo then eagerly engage one another over Palmieri's persistent montuno. A final exultant refrain from the horns wraps up this totally reimagined Monk opus by Palmieri's brass-heavy working band.

February 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Benny Golson: Whisper Not

Benny Golson has said that he wrote "Whisper Not" in only 20 minutes, and that the title meant "nothing" – he just liked the way the two words sounded together. (Leonard Feather would later write lyrics.) From such ordinary beginnings in 1956 emerged a jazz standard. Its earliest recordings came on Golson's debut as leader (New York Scene) and on albums by the Dizzy Gillespie big band and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers while Golson was a member of each of those congregations. Most recently, it appeared on Golson's new Jazztet CD New Time, New 'Tet.

This 1996 version of "Whisper Not" features the then up-and-coming James Carter, who'd just won the Downbeat Critics Poll as "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition" in the tenor sax category. Carter's extroverted, provocative playing on this track challenges Golson, and the leader more than holds his own. Golson and Carter harmonize the classic theme in a leisurely and subdued manner, a mood that is immediately broken by Carter's ebullient improvisation. His creative and assured navigation of the chord changes, propulsive turnarounds, and varied tonal effects – sometimes sounding like Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing two horns at once – all bring fresh energy to a familiar tune. Golson follows with his unique tone, almost a cross between two of his influences, Don Byas and Lucky Thompson. He plays tumbling, convoluted, mostly staccato, ascending and descending lines with an unwavering momentum. Keezer is rhapsodic, obviously inspired by both of the tenors preceding him. Burno's solo impresses with its sound quality and content. Golson and Carter then enter the stirring march-like section of the piece that is always so remindful of the composer's "Blues March," before moving again to the central theme.

February 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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David Dyson: Lovely One

"Lovely One" is arguably the prime track to hear on David Dyson's third self-produced CD for his Lohandfunk label. Fans of John Klemmer and Grover Washington, Jr., will especially enjoy "Lovely One." The melody and harmonies at times evoke Klemmer's "Free Fall Lover," while the sheen and fluidity of Keys's soprano sax are suggestive of Washington, Jr. Dyson's bass work and programmed drum, keyboard, and voice tracks make it all come together, and the selection holds up well on repeat listens.

Keys, the veteran Washington, D.C.-based saxophonist, initially plays the lilting theme before Dyson takes over while Keys supplies captivating obbligatos. Keys's expressive solo work is in turn supported by a Dyson bass vamp in harmony with an ethereal wordless voice track. Dyson's melodic solo is highlighted by his richly inviting tone and nimbly cohesive phrasing. Keys's second seductive improv, enhanced by Dyson's lively percussive backdrop, carries the piece to a gentle fadeout ending.

Dyson has performed with such artists as Tim Hagans, Bob Belden, Me'Shell N'degeocello, and Jonathan Butler. When not gigging with his own group in the D.C. area, he also juggles continuing commitments to Marcus Johnson, Lalah Hathaway, and Pieces of a Dream.

February 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wynton Marsalis: A Foggy Day

The opening bars seem to herald a relaxed rendition of an old standard. But thirty seconds into the track, bassist Hurst briefly superimposes a five-beat pulse on the underlying 4/4, and the games begin. Wynton & Co. had been experimenting with odd metrics on the albums leading up to Standard Time, and the band displays here that they could apply these progressive techniques to the traditional repertoire. But the most impressive thing here is the subtlety with which the cross-rhythms are employed. A casual listener might not hear anything out of the ordinary, and put this track on for light background music. Send that tin-eared transgressor to jazz re-education camp forthwith! The combo playing here is happening at a very high level and has earned a place at the forefront of your attention. Marsalis's sidemen challenge him at every step, but the trumpeter stays in total control of the proceedings. Check out the placement of his phrasing against the rhythm section starting at the ninety-second mark and continuing for ten scintillating seconds . . . and then go back and enjoy it again. Just a tiny snippet, but it sounds like a mariachi band joining Monk during the last set at the Five Spot, and each ensemble asserting the primacy of its own conception of time. Then the music settles down again at the top of the form . . . but nothing is ever settled for very long on this performance. This is how you keep the old sentimental songs sounding fresh and unbridled fifty years after they were composed. By the time we get the coda, the band is changing meters so often, even Lovely Rita couldn't keep up with them. Meanwhile, the fog has dissipated and the sun is shining everywhere.

February 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Muhal Richard Abrams: Blu Blu Blu

The title track of Muhal Richard Abrams's Blu Blu Blu big band CD would make a great blindfold test. Just like other Chicago progressives such as Lester Bowie, Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Abrams has always been open to all forms of music, from ragtime to free jazz, European classical, and in this case the blues.

The Abrams composition "Blu Blu Blu" is dedicated to his fellow Chicagoan McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, who died seven years prior to this recording. Listening to Dave Fiuczynski's Waters-inflected guitar work here, steeped in the blues tradition as well as influenced by more contemporary jazz and rock, one wonders how Muddy himself might have fared playing this polished yet earthy arrangement. This sounds like a well-oiled Chicago blues band, with the stomping drummer Thurman Barker deftly in the driver's seat. The wailing Fiuczynski, preaching Ghee, pungently muted Walrath, gliding Smith, and Otis Spann-like Abrams, all have their individual says. Swelling orchestral vamps, and Fiuczynski's frequent fills and Delta-derived screeches, add satisfying texture to this fairly standard blues romp. The out chorus is a dual improv between Fiuczynski and Walrath, with Daley's tuba ostinato goosing them along, until the final adroitly resolving modulation by the brass and reeds. Muddy would have liked this one.

February 03, 2009 · 1 comment

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Rita Edmond: Dindi

I have had the pleasure lately of listening to several very good contemporary female jazz vocalists for the first time. These women have spent serious time on their craft and honed their talents to give themselves completely over. La Tanya Hall and Monique Danielle are two of the best I have heard in a long time. I now happily add Rita Edmond to that list.

The classic Jobim bossa nova "Dindi" (pronounced jin-jee) has been successfully covered by everyone from Jobim himself, Astrud Gilberto, and Frank Sinatra to Claudine Longet(!). Edmond's treatment is very pleasing. After an affecting jazz-tinged vocal introduction, the tune becomes a bossa in earnest. Edmund possesses a deep, expressive voice that is especially impressive in the lower registers. Her tone and phrasing are perfect for the personal story that is told here. Every nuanced syllable brings pleasure. The tune has also been recorded quite well, producing an intimate and crisp experience. Edmond is ably supported by outstanding musicians, including noted saxophonist Ricky Woodward, who offers a strong solo. You can't go wrong listening to Rita Edmond.

February 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans (sax): Kwitchur Beliakin

"Kwitchur Beliakin" is a swinging number leaning more straight ahead than one was used to hearing Bill Evans (sax) play in 1989. The theme is introduced in unison by Evans and pianist Gil Goldstein. Evans knows how to compose compelling melodies, and this head is no exception. Over Danny Gottlieb's backbeat and Marc Johnson's walking bassline, Evans is immediately on the attack. His hard-bopping solo is rife with invention and momentum. Chuck Loeb's chorused guitar follows. His lines swing hard and morph into some nice blues licks. Things come together just right for the coda. It would be difficult for me not to recommend every single piece of music Bill Evans (sax) performed in the '80s.

February 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Marc Copland: Night Whispers

Night Whispers is the third album in pianist Marc Copland's impressive "New York Trio Recordings" series. Each album has featured a different trio lineup. The title cut is based upon a simple 4-chord theme that Copland, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Bill Stewart orbit around. Copland introduces the melody and proceeds to take it through its paces. His improvisation builds on the original motif. He is a very expressive player who possesses a quiet power. I am not suggesting that he is relaxed or laying back. It is quite the contrary, really. His chops sneak up on you. You don't realize he is building strength because his touch is not heavy. Think of riding a bike really fast in 10th gear. By the time you are in that gear and going that fast you don't have to pedal so hard anymore. As Copland explores, he is supported by Stewart's steady brushwork and the ever-present bass of Drew Gress, who also offers a notable solo. "Night Whispers" proves that three really talented musicians can take 4 notes and play off them in 10,000 different ways.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Thomas Moeckel: Asora

Swiss triple-threat jazzman Thomas Moeckel puts aside the guitar to take a turn on trumpet for this airy valse by bassist Michael Chylewski. Recorded in the Zurich studio of Radio DRS as a special project, the album offers a variety of original compositions representing the moods of the seasons. "Asora" features Moeckel in a cool jazz mode, and his playing is authoritative and relaxed. Chylewski's dynamic upright is the key to the energy propelling the rest of the ensemble, supported by J.P. Brodbeck's judicious piano coloration and drummer Christoph Mohler's crisp, airborne punctuation.

I hear springtime and flowers in this piece but, to the best of my knowledge, Asora is a hotel in the charming Alpine mountain village of Arosa, Switzerland, known for its wintry vistas. Regardless, the playing on this track is buoyant and upbeat, a warm ray of sunshine to thaw the most snowbound weary traveler.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Christian Howes: Walkin' Up

He reaches for the heavens with his bow, perhaps overreaching on occasion, but never without conviction; and in the process, generates an edgy energy that compels the listener to reach with him. In an age when so many jazz violinists strive to emulate the suave, measured phrasing of Stéphane Grappelli or the near- mystical lines of Jean-Luc Ponty, Christian Howes paddles his own canoe. On this track he shoots the modal rapids over Bill Evans's lively romp without fearing the ever-present risk of capsizing or hitting any tonal rocks. As in all Resonance releases, there is plenty of virtuosity to be found here in biting solos from Howe and pianist Roger Kellaway, with volatile, intuitive support from Bob Magnusson and Nathan Wood. "Walkin' Up" should be the jazz violinist's wakeup call to wider recognition.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans (sax): Chatterton Falls

The 1980s was an exciting, creative and busy period for jazz fusion star Bill Evans (sax). He had high- profile gigs with Miles Davis, John McLaughlin. By about mid-decade he started putting out his own very well-received albums, including two 1989 releases.

Evans is a lover of water in nature. References to it, and fishing, fill his discography. I assume "Chatterton Falls" is named after the site in Canada. It is an unusual waterfall in that it is not the traditional high falls one associates with a tourist attraction. Instead it appears in steps over a long area. You must walk its length to get the entire picture. Its power builds over a distance. This song is like that too. The strums of Chuck Loeb's acoustic guitar symbolize the calm waters just before Evans's sax takes us down the first drops. He is a wonderful player who squeezes every last drip of meaning from his compositions. There are no dramatic falloffs or treacherous twists or turns. Like the falls, the beautiful power builds steadily over time. Bassist Marc Johnson takes advantage of the scenery to present a flowing solo. Drummer Gottlieb is responsible for the current. Pianist Gil Goldstein adds rippling flourishes. Evans's bands in those days were comprised of some of the best jazz-rock players available. They were quite capable of going from Niagara Falls hydroelectric fusion power to "Chatterton Falls" paddlewheel acoustic power without crashing their boat.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans (sax): Hobo

"Hobo" is a carefree blues-folk-jazz ditty. The rhythm, structure and attitude in this performance are similar to some of the stuff Béla Fleck was doing with his Flecktones group. (Years later, Fleck and Bill Evans [sax] would collaborate. In hindsight you could have seen it coming.) Evans does some high-quality blowing and shows impressive control, squeezing out high-pitched blues notes of varying lengths. The piece may sound carefree, but it takes a lot of skill to make it so. "Hobo" requires the band to be tighter than a locked rail car. Having über-drummer Dennis Chambers keeping the time was probably a big key to that. "Hobo" is not one of those power fusion pieces. But even the most jaded jazz fusion cannot help but be left smiling after hearing it.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: On the Alamo

The classic Dave Brubeck Quartet didn't actually come together until 1957. Before that, Dave and Paul Desmond enjoyed a revolving-door cast of drummers and bass men. At first, the fledgling quartet's reputation was built on, and nourished by, live performances, recorded at one college after another. But the Storyville club in Boston became another rich source – a place where the lead two could experiment more – and a terrific album came out on Columbia in 1954, announced by a clever fake newspaper printed on front and back covers. One main headline read, "'Alamo's My Best,' says Brubeck," and I wouldn't think of arguing with the indomitable pianist; it's certainly a definitive performance.

Previously waxed by bandleaders Isham Jones and both Dorseys, "On the Alamo," positioned as leadoff track, offers a near-perfect example of Wild West Dave pummeling a tune and a club piano, pounding both down but not out or flat. Remember that original Alamo? Stone walls demolished by cannon fire, Crockett & Bowie and the rest shown no mercy? Dave, Paul, Ron and Joe mount the attack this time, and they are definitely on this "Alamo." Crotty and Dodge hold a rocking treadmill pace (strict time was all that Dave required of his early rhythm guys), while Desmond soars above the walls, reconnoitering like a strange meadowlark for a couple of minutes before retreating in the face of what slowly becomes Brubeck's relentless barrage. Dave alternates between lyrical and heavy-weighted, riding on the rhythm at times and radically across it at others – hanging back, speeding up, striking single notes or block chords, staying harmonic, then striding into atonal territory, mixing the melody in with Monkish stomps and Classical Modernist chords, shaping a 6-minute take-no-prisoners solo completely reflective of his unique, love-it-or-hate-him, keyboard-as-drum-kit approach. This locked-hands mélange of Manne and Milhaud, Jeru and Jamal, Bach and Bartok (and bar backtalk too) was the pre-Time signature of Brubeck the no-BeBop, no-Powell nonpareil. (The track then ends peacefully with some fine Brubeck/Desmond counterpoint.)

Dave mellowed much over the many years; he focused more on composing, rounded off the rough corners and edges of his style, wound up playing more all-of-a-piece solos. Me, I miss the early iconoclast of the keyboard and am thankful he left us this "Alamo" worth remembering.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Huey Lewis & the News (featuring Stan Getz): Small World, Pt. 2

"Small World, Part One" was a minor hit for Huey Lewis, peaking at 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988 and coming at the end of a nice run of hits for one of the more well-liked pop acts of the Reagan era. It's typically big, bodacious '80s pop, with a catchy keyboard riff, pulsing rock beat and big-haired rock guitar to match.

Separated from the single by three tracks on the album with the same name as the bisected song, "Part Two" is a straight continuation of "Part One," fading in where "Part One" faded out, right in the middle of guitarist Chris Hayes's solo. When he's done, everyone stops on a dime, signaling the great tenorman's entrance. As Getz gains traction so does the supporting cast, which includes the Tower of Power horns supplying some Chicago-styled charts. He gets to blow away for nearly the entire four minutes of this extended coda turned into a jam. At age 61, Getz showed a surprising amount of vitality and, even more surprisingly, easily adapted his cool West Coast style to Lewis's mainstream pop tune.

Here's where Stan Getz could have easily mailed it in. Instead, he decided to have some fun.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Neal Schon & Jan Hammer: On the Beach

There are four very good fusion numbers on Untold Passion. Three were written by Jan Hammer. You expect those to be superior. But rock superstar Neal Schon, always a fan of the jazz-rock genre, proves he is no slouch as a fusion composer either. "On the Beach" doesn't have the twists and turns or depth of Hammer's pieces. But in its own way it is quite a satisfactory turn. A distorted guitar introduces an aggressive repeating funk-trending riff reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth's forays with The New Tony Williams Lifetime. Hammer interrupts the riffs with some mellow arpeggios. Schon wrote the tune in sections. So you are not surprised when several subtle measures are followed by aggression. This was and will always be a successful fusion formula. Schon generously gives the hard parts, and thus the accolades, to Hammer. Hammer's solos dominate, as Schon is satisfied to play that infectious funk riff and backing chords while Hammer takes "On the Beach" where few could. Schon and Hammer are joined on this cut by the fine bassist Colin Hodgkinson. But it must be remembered that Schon, and especially Hammer, are playing all the other instruments heard through overdubbing. This doesn't sound like any trio because in the end it is not. It can't be easy to pull that stuff off without losing some spontaneity. But these guys do so handily.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Pike: Mathar

Indian instrumentation and James Brown backbeats were all the rage back in the late sixties, but Eastern-tinged psychedelia and funk rarely crossed paths. It was during that time when Dave Pike Set's German guitarist Volker Kriegel got the idea to bash the two trends together under the banner of then-nascent jazz fusion. The experiment worked; Kreigel's exotic sitar combined with drummer Peter Baumeister's funky syncopations to create the rarest of rare grooves. At least one drum 'n' bass outfit has since remixed "Mathar," proclaiming it "the Original Indian vibes," but this is one vintage acid-jazz side that required no modern-day tinkering.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mark Murphy: Angel Eyes (2007)

Mark Murphy has to compete with his earlier recording of this song—never an easy thing for the veteran performer—but he shows that some things do get better with age. Indeed, I am deeply impressed by how well Murphy sings as a septuagenarian. Not many vocalists in the long history of jazz have done so well so late in their career, but don't take my word for it . . . check out the music. Murphy's 2005 CD Once to Every Heart was one of the finest of his career, and we find the same ensemble in place here, with comparable results. If the younger Mark Murphy excelled at jaunty hipster tunes, these late vintages find him crafting exquisite versions of classic ballads. He definitely does not play it safe on "Angel Eyes," taking almost every liberty you can imagine with his phrases. He elongates, he abbreviates, he growls, he eeeeeeks up in the stratosphere, he puts in casual asides, he emphasizes stray words, he rearranges the melody in novel new patterns . . . . In short, Murphy puts a lifetime of experience singing these songs into this music. For fans of this vocalist, this is another must-have recording, and this admirer hopes more of this sort are in the works.

February 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Thomas Moeckel: Lost Inside Your Memory

On a brief visit to Zurich in the fall of 2004, I was browsing through a CD bin in a music shop tucked into the Old Town district between the rocky, wooded hill that cradles the University of Zurich and the bank of the River Limmat, when I stumbled upon the album Seasons by a relatively unknown Swiss guitarist, composer and trumpet player named Thomas Moeckel. I say "relatively unknown" only because few in the U.S. have heard of him. However, he is fairly well respected in European jazz circles, having played with legendary jazzmen Jim Hall and Toots Thielemans, among others, and had won the Chrysler Jazz Poll two years in a row. If I were to compare his playing to any other guitarists, John Scofield or Steve Khan come to mind.

Recorded as a special project in the studios of Radio DRS, Seasons showcases Moeckel's triumvirate of talent: his brooding, thoughtful writing; edgy trumpet; and cutting-edge fusion guitar work. The album sounds as fresh today as it did ten years ago. One of my favorite tracks, "Lost Inside Your Memory," features Moeckel's guitar and offers a glimpse into the depth of his ability to play and write both aggressively and introspectively, in a dreamy composition a bit evocative of Kurt Weill. The guitar solo bursts with bluesy, modal expression, riding the crest of a lush Leslie-swirled wave generated by Gunter Kuhlwein's Hammond B-3, while the underlying pulse plods like the tortured heartbeat of one who is trying to forget a lost love. Hard bop it's not, but I've gotten lost inside this jewel of a composition on many blustery winter nights.

February 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Benny Golson: Airegin

Benny Golson writes the songs, he writes the songs: "Whisper Not," "Killer Joe," "Along Came Betty," and "I Remember Clifford," to name a few. As demonstrated on "Airegin," he interprets other people's songs, too. Quite well, in fact.

Sonny Rollins's classic has been covered exhaustively, sometimes creatively, and this is one of those times. As originally conceived, "Airegin" races along at a fast tempo broken up by some challenging changes. Golson slows down the tempo a tad, converts the opening statement to a bassline, and smoothes out the changes. And he makes the song resolutely swing.

Trumpeter Eddie Henderson leads off the solos with one that crackles, and then the leader comes close behind with a contrasting, old-school style that beautifully blends elements of Coleman Hawkins and Lucky Thompson. The other players get their turn, too, and everyone in Golson's New Jazztet plays crisp and enthused.

At 80 years young, Benny Golson is still going strong. Whether it is with one of his jazz standards or someone else's, Golson can play the songs.

February 01, 2009 · 1 comment

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