The Vandermark 5: STHLM

The title must be taken from the abbreviation for “Stockholm,” as this song is subtitled “for Mats Gustafsson,” the Swedish avant garde saxophonist. “STHLM” draws as much from European free jazz as it does from American forms of jazz and beyond. Starting out like German folk music played by deranged lunatics, the music breaks for Vandermark's mad tenor skronking; Rempis soon gets his turn to get unhinged with his alto on the next break. On the third abrupt stop, Bishop breaks out a heavy metal guitar, and the band joins in playing, finally in a conventional 4/4 time, until the beat fractures again. All the while, the remaining horns merrily play a Continental-style melody against Bishop's wah-wah'ed wails.

The energy, panache and the cheerful mash-up of genres make Vandermark 5 songs like this just too grin-inducing to dislike. Taking chances should always sound this fun.

April 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Crotty, Corman, and Phipps: I've Never Been In Love Before

I first came to know about Ron Crotty about thirty years ago when I bought a two-LP collection of the complete Dave Brubeck Trio recordings, and those recordings were already thirty years old at the time. He was Brubeck's bass player then, and stayed on for an early incarnation of Brubeck's Quartet with Paul Desmond. He's kept a relatively low profile since those days, but at 80 years old, he can still bring it.

In a drumless trio that recalls the warmth and intimacy of the “Triple Treat” trio of Ray Brown, Monty Alexander and Herb Ellis, the threesome that features Crotty replaces the piano with the bass trumpet from another long-time veteran, Frank Phipps. Corman, a saxophonist who switched to guitar only in 2003, takes on the chordal chores like an old pro. For this Frank Loesser tune that was originally published at the time of that old Brubeck Trio (1950), the arrangement accentuates Crotty's bass walking skills superbly. He shows suppleness, range and flair of guys a mere quarter of his age.

So how is this contemporary of Oscar Pettiford is playing these days? Like a worthy contemporary of Christian McBride.

April 30, 2009 · 0 comments

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Antfarm Quartet: And I Love Her

When a prolific vocalist plants the seed of a down-to-earth pop song in the fertile soil of a copious quartet, it’s guaranteed to thrive. This essential adaptation, set in lush Brazilian-influenced terrain, not only does justice to the original, but transcends it. Shomo cultivates a luxuriant groove that compliments Lekan’s sensitive presence. Jost opens with a diaphanous, unison riff, as Ridl’s rich chords on Rhodes provide the ideal environment for Jost’s misty voice. Ridl’s lithe piano solo leads to vocal improvs, a natural modulation, and multi-petaled piano lines to fade. Those who might believe that classic pop songs have no place in the jazz garden may change their tune when they hear this hybrid cover. This quartet is of a rare genus and I’d bet the farm on them.

April 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gene Perla: I'm Popeye The Sailor Man

What began as an intimate session involving Elvin Jones and multi-instrumentalist Gene Perla back in 1986 culminated in the November, 2008 release of a unique (if somewhat controversial) album uniting archived tracks with Protools-enabled contemporary sessions involving members of North German Broadcasting’s NDR Big Band. The same outrage inspired by dead celebrities appearing in new commercials (John Wayne hawking Coors Beer, Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner, etc.) has surfaced in the wake (bad choice of words?) of Bill’s Waltz. To be deterred by all the brouhaha would be a pity, as there are some authentic moments of spontaneous combustion to be found on these sides, click track be damned!

"I’m Popeye the Sailor Man" may be an unlikely vehicle for a jazz session but, propelled by this legendary drummer's boundless energy, it runs downwind with a bone in its teeth. The track opens with Elvin’s popping snare tattooing a New Awlins- style march interpretation of the traditional sailor’s hornpipe, a theme which resurfaces throughout the arrangement, salted with tritones and arrgh-mented ninths. Leading with a respectable imitation of Popeye’s staccato laugh, trombonist Dan Gottshall delivers a satisfying, Olive Oyl-smooth solo, piloting through bluesy, spinach-free channels which never sound canned or Wimpy. Across the vast, improbable gulf of time and space the entire ensemble is held together and ignited by Jones’s unmistakable back beat, while the signature hornpipe theme takes its final bow with a drum solo tag.

Well, blow me down. Popeye aficionados are aware of the scruffy cartoon sailor’s scatting ability, but who knew he could swing?

April 26, 2009 · 1 comment

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Herbie Nichols: The Gig

Two of Herbie Nichols' most evocative recorded tracks (each cut on the same day), are "House Party Starting" and "The Gig," both piano trio equivalents of the kind of aural picture Duke Ellington painted with his orchestral "Harlem Air Shaft." The title, "The Gig," in itself reminds one of Nichols' comment to trombonist Roswell Rudd not long before the frustrated pianist died of leukemia at just 44 years of age. "I can't get work because I don't act weird, don't clown around enough," he told Rudd. "You have to be some kind of a freak to get a gig nowadays." Unless you were content to play with R & B and Dixieland groups, which Nichols wasn't.

"The Gig" contains a theme that seems to alternately stalk, stomp, or prance, depending on Nichols' nuanced tonal inflections and alterations in rhythm. In his solo, Nichols takes the theme's repeating motif through fascinating permutations, utilizing jubilant runs, jabbing phrases, and hard-edged left hand accents. It's almost impossible to listen to "The Gig" without nodding your head or tapping your feet—or maybe both—especially as Roach maintains an insistent tempo in addition to his dramatically affirmative fills. Nichols must have written this tune after one of his better gigs.

April 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Neil Haverstick: Weaving

"Weaving" is the second of four movements comprising Haverstick's "Spider," his “Concerto for Microtonal Guitar, Strings, and Percussion,” quite possibly the first work ever composed for orchestral strings in a 19-tone microtonal scale. The Denver-based Haverstick, in addition to being an ace blues guitarist (see review of "Birdwalk" on this website), has studied and performed microtonal music for many years.

The arrangement of "Weaving," by the Colorado Chamber Orchestra's music director Thomas A. Blomster, has the strings performing a slowly modulating atonal motif that recalls in varying degrees Stravinsky, Bartok, and Messaien. Haverstick improvises over this hypnotic framework that becomes progressively more compelling as it advances to a crescendo and then recedes over an eight-minute span. The guitarist plays short, complementary phrases that at first he repeats with slight variations, before playing rhythmically pliable patterns that accentuate the strings' more deliberate arrhythmic lines. Near the end, Haverstick turns to dissonant single notes and softly trickling runs that allow the orchestra to move to the forefront and shine. A faintly-sounded gong is a perfectly conceived closing touch. Each of the four movements of "Spider" is uniquely different, but "Weaving" seems to cast the greatest spell.

April 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Don Byron: I've Found A New Baby

"Ivey-divey" was an expression Lester Young created and used to convey resignation, sadness, or frustration, and Don Byron adapted it both as the title of his CD and the name of his trio with Jason Moran and Jack DeJohnette. The CD was intended more as an acknowledgment of, rather than a tribute to, the inspirational performances of Lester Young, Nat Cole, and Buddy Rich in a Los Angeles studio in December 1945. The Ivey-Divey trio recorded four of the same standards Young, Cole, and Rich interpreted back then, and the new version of "I've Found a New Baby" stands out from the other Ivey-Divey tracks as an astonishing tour de force.

DeJohnette introduces the piece with a marching-band-like fanfare that precedes Byron's rather tongue-in-cheek—and nearly cloying—tootling of the theme, backed by Moran's very Ellington-sounding hammered chords. When Byron enters his solo, things suddenly become more serious. The clarinetist's intensity increases as he plays tempestuous riffs and phrases, along with piercing dissonance-laden shrieks and cries. Moran is with Byron all the way, almost telepathically anticipating his every twist and turn. DeJohnette meanwhile sustains an active, rumbling rhythmic layer that resides squarely between the traditional and modern guideposts of jazz. Moran's solo, like Byron's, is developed thematically, and features irresistible two-handed interwoven textures. Byron reappears for another divertingly playful examination of the theme, ending with a clever circular treatment of a melodic fragment. You might say this is Lester Young's sensibility as filtered through Byron's liking of Klezmer, Spike Jones, Raymond Scott, and Steve Lacy.

April 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin and Chick Corea: In A Silent Way / It's About That Time

Here’s a recent, live all-star recreation of the entire backside of Miles Davis’ classic early fusion platter, In A Silent Way. For Joe Zawinul’s sublimely pretty melody, McLaughlin sensitively renders it as he did in the original, with Corea gently coaxing cozy accents from his electronic keyboards.

The temporary addition of Hancock to the Five Peace Band for this number is notable, as it’s the first time he, Corea and McLaughlin have played “In A Silent Way” together since they recorded the song with Miles back in January, 1969. The magic of the moment isn’t just rooted in symbolism: Hancock came as an equal participant. While McLaughlin muses over the theme, his attentive comping reads the guitarist’s mind like a book, and even leads the co-leaders into a brief, impromptu dark passage before McLaughlin signals the band to the “It’s About That Time” segment with that signature three-note vamp. Not long after that, the entire band is padlocked into the song’s solid rock groove while Hancock launches into one of his more spirited acoustic piano solos in recent memory. McLaughlin and Garrett make their own blue-ribbon statements later on, but Herbie had already stolen the show.

Rock-jazz these days has got nothing on this.

April 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billy Hart: Shadow Dance

One of the best tracks on a great album, "Shadow Dance" is an inspired summation of modern jazz's ways and means circa 1977. Dave Holland's composition—with its asymmetrical melody, opaque harmonies, and modal solo section—is reminiscent of such Herbie Hancock-penned tunes as "Eye of the Hurricane" and "The Sorcerer."' The soloists are superb. Each assumes a unique character that contributes to the overall drama. Oliver Lake on alto sax is angular and high-strung; Dewey Redman on tenor sax is at different times calm, evasive, and yearning. The great pianist Don Pullen is the single-minded intellectual, spinning lines of great complexity without regard for convention. Drummer and leader Billy Hart references freedom without succumbing to anarchy; his playing is explosive, impassioned, and endlessly varied. Holland combines the strong swing of a top-notch straight-ahead bassist with the facility of a LaFaro-influenced soloist. He and Hart generate enormous power, which feeds the soloists, lifting them to ever-greater heights.

In a way, this music seemed to point the way to an accommodation between straight-ahead and free jazz. That such conciliation never really took hold doesn't diminish the significance of Hart & Co.'s accomplishment. This music stands on its own with the highest distinction.

April 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billy Hart: Diff Customs

There are so many jazz records (and it seems like the number increases exponentially with each passing year), it's difficult to cut any from the pack and declare them among the very best. It's a subjective exercise, in the best of cases, yet a remarkable number of progressively-inclined musicians who came of age in the '80s agree that Billy Hart's 1977 album Enchance is one the classic jazz recordings.

"Diff Customs," the album's marvelous lead cut, makes a case for its own greatness. Composed by saxophonist Oliver Lake and performed by Lake on alto, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, the dual trumpets of Hannibal Marvin Peterson and Eddie Henderson, pianist Don Pullen, bassist Buster Williams and drummer/bandleader Billy Hart, the track exemplifies the virtues of free jazz: innovative compositional and improvisational techniques, inspired and distinctive soloists, and a highly simpatico group dynamic, among them. Lake's composition combines a spiky, non-tonal odd-time melody with episodes of collective improvisation and an evocative "Pithecanthropus Erectus"-like sustained intro. The musicians play the demanding tune with both brains and brawn, keeping things very together and intense while maintaining an engaging looseness. The horn players live up to their distinguished reputations, and the rhythm section burns supernova bright.

Seldom does a group of great players get together in an ad hoc formation and create timeless art, yet that's the case here. This music is very great.

April 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Archie Shepp & The New York Contemporary Five: Consequences

The short-lived New York Contemporary Five was one of the early Ornette Coleman-influenced groups, and one of trumpeter Don Cherry's more significant projects apart from Coleman. On this live performance of Cherry's tune "Consequences," the group displays a rougher edge than the famous Coleman quartet. It's a garrulous music that foreshadows a more aggressive version of free jazz to come.

The track comprises a brief, herky-jerky freebop melody that leads into a solo section at a very quick tempo. Cherry begins with an energetic, rhythmically active spot highlighting his utterly free approach. Cherry plays specific pitches, but one would be hard-pressed to nail down exactly which specific pitches he plays at any given moment - he plays between the cracks. John Tchicai follows on alto, his manner very much like Ornette's, especially in terms of tone, although Tchicai's lines tend to be more discontinuous. On tenor, Archie Shepp alternates between engaging the tempo and breaking free entirely. His tone is sandpaper-rough, his phrasing loose to the point of being almost unhinged. The rhythm section is fine; drummer J.C. Moses plays very strong without overwhelming his bandmates.

The thick sonority resulting from the three-horn front line makes for an exciting group sound. "Consequences" is a fine example of this great early free jazz group at the top of its game.

April 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Skies of America

Ornette Coleman's approach to playing the "vierd" blues that resulted from "harmolodic movement of forms" was an amazing mix of folk tales and angel voices, ramblin' changes and tears inside. But aside from Free Jazz, could he create extended compositions? A major opportunity came when Columbia agreed to record Skies of America, which was subsequently partitioned into 21 shorter sections by the producer (with Ornette's apparent approval and his sub-titles), and with the theme and title section placed right at the beginning.

The skies were definitely dark and turbulent. In fact the first half of the entire album coughs and shrieks, all hard-driving percussion and harsh straining strings. Only in the second half, when Ornette's own keening alto joins in soloing over the orchestra, is there a sense of relief, as the strange beauty of his unique conception comes to the fore. But back at the beginning, the opening 2-plus minutes, the orchestra cried out unanswered. And the entire botched event (which saw some sections omitted due to time constraints and his quartet barred from participation by England's visiting musician rules) rendered Coleman's angst-ridden, non-ethereal lament for alto and orchestra incomplete. Sadly, these skies are just not blues enough.     

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Liberation Music Orchestra: America the Beautiful (Medley: America the Beautiful/Lift Every Voice and Sing/Skies of America)

"Oh beautiful for spacious skies," but post-9/11 the skies of America seemed less safe; and the honorably intended "Not on my watch" led to a misbegotten war and the international anti-war slogan "Not in Our Name." This became the title of Liberation Music Orchestra's 2005 CD—a truly patriotic and American album, though not in a form Conservatives and hardliners are likely to appreciate.

LMO has retained its staunch political stance even though the usual "free" blowing has become more mellow, and any "edge" now resides in the players' potent solos rather than within the, well, beautiful ensemble passages. All is solidly evident in the 17-minute "America the Beautiful" that serves as the album's centerpiece. Carla Bley's piano plays the familiar melody straight, then moves into discordant Kurt Weill territory that the orchestra gleefully joins. Altoist Miguel Zenón and trumpeter Michael Rodriguez are two splendid voices subsequently raised in song, while tuba guy Joe Daley wheezes like a drunken trombone up in the stratosphere. Some serious free noise fuses with Bley's pointilliste flickering and drummer Matt Wilson's shifting-but-steady accents as the band lurches and marches on. This "America" is fraught with periphrasis from sea to shining C.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Archie Shepp & The New York Contemporary Five: Monk's Mood

Many early free jazz musicians found inspiration in Thelonious Monk, who was avant-garde long before there was even such a thing as free jazz. Among the experimentally inclined groups that tackled Monk, the New York Contemporary Five would not seem to be especially well-equipped for the task. As two of the free-er purveyors of "The New Thing," Saxophonists Archie Shepp and John Tchicai might have been especially ill-suited; Monk's often tortuous harmonic progressions ran contrary to their strengths as improvisers. That said, the musicians seem to recognize their limitations and interpret this tricky ballad accordingly. The obliquely harmonized arrangement concentrates on the statement of Monk's composed melody, with "out" embellishments underneath. Don Cherry sounds a drunken lead over the whinnying saxes, as bassist Moore and drummer J.C. Moses play it relatively straight. They wisely limit the performance to a single chorus, and the entire track clocks-in at a thrifty two-and-a-half minutes. It's not top-drawer Monk or NYC5, but it has a certain charm. More than anything, it illustrates a link (musical and spiritual) between the avant-gardes of successive jazz eras. Indeed, that might well have been NYC5's principal intent.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Otis Taylor: Country Boy, Girl

There may be more technically accomplished guitarists than Otis Taylor, but no one—and I mean no one—plays a meaner vamp. Here he moves to the banjo (which he featured prominently on his previous release Recapturing the Banjo) and gets some serious locomotion out of this countrified instrument. But the real question raised by this new CD is: how does Taylor's take-no-prisoners approach to rhythm match up with a jazz contingent headed by Jason Moran and the "World Music" flavor provided by West African percussionist Fara Tolno? With only four beats in each bar, is there enough pulse for everyone to share? Not to worry! As this track makes clear, this band is as well blended as Johnnie Walker Black, with twice the kick. Even if Otis Taylor is already well represented on your iPod, you need to make room for this performance.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Allen Toussaint: Long, Long Journey

If you glance at the track details, you might puzzle over this concoction. A New Orleans theme album, but named after Mississippi, featuring Don Byron and Marc Ribot and Nicholas Payton, covering a blues written by Leonard Feather in a studio in New York. Sounds contrived, huh? But the end result is as spontaneous and unforced as the flashes those gals exchange for beads on Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras time. Despite the all-star cast, Allen Toussaint is the key factor here, standing out through his persuasive pianism and conversational singing. Louis Armstrong provides the New Orleans link to this song, which he recorded back in the day, but Toussaint takes it slower and with darker overtones. The glory years of New Orleans jazz were just a dim memory by the time Toussaint showed up on the scene in the 1960s, but you would never guess it from this convincing return-to-the-roots performance.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Mist Flower

Andrew Hill has the extraordinary ability—with both his composing and improvising—to make everything sound like a ballad. That is to say, he invests a tune like this mid-tempo swinger with all the best qualities of a ballad: lovely, unpredictable chord changes and unconventional form; an infinitely varied touch on piano, and a flexible manner of dealing with rhythm (he spreads his composed and improvised melodies over the changes like a beautiful patchwork quilt). Hill is joined here by Jimmy Vass, who solos on both flute and alto sax. Vass is unusually aggressive on the former. He's grittier than most flutists, though not in a rough-hewn Jeremy Steig kind of way. Indeed, Vass' tone and technique are both very strong. On alto, he's simultaneously fleet and lyrical, free and disciplined, manifestly comfortable with the material. The rhythm section is solidly creative. This performance has an attractively untethered quality, as if the band is holding onto the tune only as tightly as is absolutely necessary. Like a freely-interpreted ballad, the music exudes emotional abandonment. That it's not strictly a ballad is, in the context of Hill's work, mere coincidence.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Claudia Acuña: El Cigarrito

In a better world, where radio stations hadn't been dumbed down to nincompoop levels, this song would be getting significant airplay. Acuña takes an old Victor Jara song, which that master of the Nueva Canción Chilena had performed as plaintive folk music, and gives it a kick in the pantaloons. The band coalesces around Acuña's spirited vocal, and the sudden drop in volume from the hot guitar solo to the jaunty bass dialogue with staccato piano chords is one more strong hook in a performance that has as many as a fly fisherman on a two week holiday. When the vocalist returns, she will leave you breathless by moving from understated cooing to a big grooving finale in about fifteen seconds. Everything here is smartly conceived and wonderfully executed. If for some reason you think that you can't be a big league jazz vocalist and sing in Spanish, you need to check out this track and, in fact, the whole En Este Momento CD.

April 22, 2009 · 1 comment

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Andrew Hill: Golden Spook

Andrew Hill's mid-1970s recordings are not as renowned as the music he made for Blue Note a few years prior, partly because they were recorded for small independent labels like East Wind which lacked the resources of a major. Perhaps the later albums are generally not as good, either, although I've not heard enough of them to say. The bossa-flavored "Golden Spook" from his 1975 East Wind album Blue Black is of a very high quality. In fact, it might be considered a masterpiece had the leader been anyone but Hill, whose earlier music set the bar so very high. As it is, the performance is merely excellent, not transcendent.

Hill himself is inspired. His loose rhythms, inventive harmonies, and stream-of-consciousness improvisations are as imitable as ever. What separates this from Blue Note-era Hill is his sidemen. Alto saxophonist Jimmy Vass is a sensitive, spontaneous improviser. He's a very, very fine player, but he hasn't the goosebump-raising originality and inner fire one gets from earlier Hill associates. The same can be said of bassist Chris White and drummer Leroy Williams, both of whom are very solid but ultimately rather ordinary here.

If "Refuge" from Hill's Point of Departure album (with a stellar cast that included Eric Dolphy, Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson, Richard Davis and Tony Wiliams) earns a perfect score of 100, then "Golden Spook" can't be any better than a 95—plenty good, if not quite on a level with his best work.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bobby Sanabria: Congo Mulence

There is nothing quite like the excitement and sound that emanates from a finely tuned jazz orchestra. A big band will always follow in the shadows of the masters of the art that preceded them: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and in this case, Machito and The Afro-Cubans. There is no end to the mixed emotions of trepidation and awe that young musicians must feel when trying to be true to such a rich and daunting musical heritage. The Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Bobby Sanbria, has carried on the tradition successfully with a remarkably tight orchestra that the masters would envy.

Playing to an obviously partisan crowd at their school auditorium, the excitement generated on this live album is palpable. The band is tremendously tight and the student musicians flow through the arrangements with an ease and professionalism that belies their age and experience.

The concert celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of the original “Kenya” recording by Machito. Bobby Sanabria and the orchestra serve up a tasty Afro-Cuban dish on A.K. Salim’s blues-based “Congo Mulence”. The original recording featured Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto and Joe Newman on trumpet as soloists behind a bata rhythm. In this modernized version, arranger Joe Fielder uses a mambo superimposed with a bembè rhythm in 6/8 time at the intro. In front of a cha-cha rhythm, Anthony Stanco does an admirable job of playing in the lost style of the “dirty” sounding plunger-trumpet. A searing alto solo by the talented Justin Janer is played against the swaying rhythm of the band behind him. After a conga break, a Latin inspired up-tempo piano solo by Christian Sands is overlaid with precisely alternating brass and reed backgrounds in the big band tradition, building to a crescendo of sound that yields to a powerful tenor solo by Michael Davenport. A dynamic Edwards on drums and a fluid solo by Norris on bass along with a cacophony of clave, congas and bongo players keep the band in a rhythmic frenzy, followed by Sanabria on a conga backed timbale solo. The band pours it on in the last chorus and demonstrates a mastery of the complex twists and turns in the Fielder arrangement, which they execute flawlessly. At the coda, Stanco returns with a growled muted trumpet statement before removing the plunger and soaring in a high register punctuation in the finale.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Antfarm Quartet: Centerpiece

Rarely does a new jazz vocalist inspire me to open a bottle of wine. Grab your corkscrew. Paul Jost is a genuine vocal musician, and the Antfarm Quartet is as cool as the object with which it shares its name. Jost began as a drummer, and added songwriting, and harmonica to his list. With a smoky, tannin-tinged voice, and the soul of an improviser, he brings bouquet and finesse to this hip, blues-fringed arrangement. This piquant quartet is swingin’, complex, noble, and memorable; in with an aromatic vamp, velvety vocal, harmonica for body, then Ridl and Lekan’s luscious solos, replete with the personality I look for. Jost’s ascending line is an elegant finish. The entire CD conveys depth, character, and brilliance; one of the years best in my cellar.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz & Kenny Barron: Soul Eyes

The musical relationship between Stan Getz and Kenny Barron blossomed in 1987 with a concert by Getz's quartet at the Café Montmartre (released on the CDs Anniversary and Serenity). It culminated in the last performance and recording by Getz in 1991 at the same venue, this time in a duo format. Getz was in very poor health by 1991, weakened considerably by his battle with cancer, and was out of breath after his solos. However, as Barron wrote in his liner notes for People Time: "...the music is real, honest, pure and beautiful in spite of the pain or perhaps because of it."

As good as Getz and Barron were together on heated up-tempo numbers, there was something extra special about the way they communicated with each other and an audience on their ballads, which always projected an entrancing lyricism. Mal Waldron's classic "Soul Eyes" is a case in point. Barron's tranquil intro prepares the way for Getz's breathy, subdued opening phrase of the melody. Getz then surprises with a somewhat jolting, anguished exclamation before returning to his silky and sensuous meditation on the theme, only to repeat his outbursts during the second chorus. Barron's supporting arpeggios and chords are intimately realized and on equal par with the saxophonist's magical eloquence. Getz spaces out his phrases at first in his improv (catching his breath?) prior to infusing it with more elongated lines and additional hollered declarations. Perhaps unplanned, Barron's solo takes up the rest of the track, with a crystalline touch and a transfixing narrative momentum. He moves from long runs to rich chordal passages, and finally an ethereal interlude that transforms "Soul Eyes" into something sparklingly new of his own creation. The audience responds ecstatically.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Haden: Sunday at the Hillcrest

Haden has used the Quartet West as an outlet to express his fascination with the music, film, and atmosphere of promise and decadence that pervaded Los Angeles in the '40's and '50's, performing a blend of mostly Film Noir-derived originals and standards, bebop, and the occasional Ornette Coleman composition. The Club Hillcrest in L.A. is where Haden first performed with Coleman, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Paul Bley, and "Sunday at the Hillcrest" is dedicated to that period just before Haden left Angel City for New York in 1959 with Ornette's groundbreaking quartet.

"Sunday at the Hillcrest" is a catchy bebop theme graced by Marable's exquisitely precise drum rhythms and accents. Watts confidently navigates the changes as his solo encompasses a stretch of territory ranging from soulful hard bop to biting post bop, his distinctively thick, semi-sweet sound amplifying his inventiveness. Broadbent, relatively unknown back then, displays his considerable technical flair and knowledge of the bop vernacular. Haden's concise solo is an uncompromising facsimile of the kind he often played with Coleman. Watts' high-energy trades with Marable and the saxophonist's testifying out-chorus cap a lustrous Quartet West track.

The CD's liner notes include a long, cynical excerpt from Raymond Chandler's Little Sister, ending with: "It [Los Angeles] smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights....There's a boy who really made something out of nothing." Haden, with his Quartet West, has made a substantial something artistically out of nostalgia.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Locke, Kenny Barron: But Beautiful

One of Joe Locke's lesser-known CDs is But Beautiful, a duet outing with Kenny Barron that came early in the vibraphonist's career. Steeplechase's producer, Nils Winther, asked Locke, "Are you ready to make your 'sweet' album?," and Joe rose to the occasion. Locke had played with Barron on two Eddie Henderson-led releases, so he and the pianist were already musically acquainted. The year 1991 was a bittersweet one for Barron, since he had done his last superb recording with Stan Getz (the live People Time) in March, just three months before Getz's passing. As he did for several years with Getz, Barron seems to help bring out the best in Locke, which in turn inspires the pianist's own playing to greater heights. The feeling, therefore, is mutual.

The duo affectionately dissects the title tune for a full nine minutes. Locke intones the captivating melody with much respect and tenderness, as Barron feeds him rich, reinforcing chords. While Locke adds only the slightest of ornamentation, when Barron proceeds to take up the theme, the pianist embellishes it liberally above Locke's delicate, resonant comping. Barron's lyricism turns an already perfectly structured composition into something more personal and refreshingly reborn. Locke has to follow Barron's significant creation, and acquits himself quite well. His soulful phrasing and gradually building intensity of expression reach a stirring peak before he delivers yet another softly woven reading of the theme. Their glowing, pre-arranged dual coda brings to mind the equally rewarding and more familiar pairing of Gary Burton and Chick Corea.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Coleman Hawkins: Bean Stalkin'

A period of renewed interest and recognition for the influential saxophonist Coleman Hawkins began in the late '50's. His stimulating encounters with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, both in concert and on recordings, were an important part of Hawk's reemergence during those years. The Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in the Fall of 1957 (from which the equally significant Stan Getz & J.J. Johnson at the Opera House was also derived) followed Hawkins and Eldridge's heralded set at the Newport Jazz Festival that past July.

"Bean Stalkin'" is a delightful Hawkins original that he wisely recorded more than once. In this version, the two horns are ably backed by the MJQ minus Milt Jackson, but the power of Bean and Little Jazz overwhelm the rhythm section's contributions. The riffing central theme and its bridge are played in unison by the frontline, with the tenorist's sound dominating the trumpeter. Eldridge takes the first solo and—now free of Hawkins—simply soars. With a relentless flow, high note excursions, and growling/slurred articulation, he creates a very passionate and unaffected improvisation. Hawkins succeeds him with a gruff, hard-edged staccato attack, building artfully and adding urgent riffs as he gathers steam, his thematic phrasings gradually expanding in length. He and Eldridge then engage in a rather competitive and exciting series of exchanges, with Roy hitting some screeching high notes that only serve to up the ante between the two, as well as nearly stepping on Hawkins' toes before he can finish a thought. This is definitely not some tired, going-through-the-motions, JATP track.

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille: Exotique

The shortest of the three tracks that make up the album Burnt Offerings, "Exotique" still clocks in at almost ten minutes—a lot of time for a drummer and saxophonist to fill without the help of a bassist and/or pianist. Lyons and Cyrille being as resourceful as they are, the space is packed to the brim, with ideas to spare. Cyrille establishes a quasi Latin/North African beat heavy on the cymbals and tom-toms, which he maintains and varies beneath Lyons, who spins Ornette-ish lines leavened by his own distinctive bop-flavored eccentricities. The pair gain intensity, momentum, and speed in the course of the performance, achieving high levels of intensity. The recording quality is rather lo-fi, but live performances of this sort are often better experienced as a sort of audio-verite, anyway. Disappointingly, the track fades at a point when the duo is raising the level of creativity and excitement further. One cannot help but question the wisdom of that decision, for what precedes the fade is sublime.

April 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jmmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille: Burnt Offering

Sax/drums duos are rare and perhaps a bit of an acquired taste. Other than John Coltrane/Rashied Ali and Anthony Braxton/Max Roach, not many have made a totally successful go of it. Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Andrew Cyrille were and are consummate improvisers, however; they make a stab at it here to mostly good ends. Recorded live in concert, "Burnt Offering" is a 24-minute improvisation built upon Lyons' simple riff-based composition. Cyrille plays in a hard-swinging, medium-up tempo for the most part, although he chooses not to demarcate anything like a regular meter. Instead, his groupings are ever-changing, varying according to impulse and the requirements of his partner. He interacts extensively with Lyons, but keeps it swinging, first and foremost. As for Lyons, the extended playing time forces him to plumb the depths of his creativity. He draws upon all aspects of his style, from the nearly conventional bebop lines to the development of small motivs to the hyperdriven aural scribbling that Lyons did faster and more forcefully than any other altoist. Some might sense a hole in the middle of this music—a hole normally occupied by the bass. For those who can overcome such preconceptions, however, this is bound to inspire.

April 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Frank Lowe: Flam

Perhaps the best part of this altogether strong performance is the contribution of bassist Alex Blake, whose solo near the beginning is a tour de force. Blake strums and plucks with the energy and facility of a great Flamenco guitarist before receding into the background and assuming the role of the group's endlessly imaginative rhythmic and harmonic center. Blake and drummer Charles "Bobo" Shaw form a deliciously quick rhythm session; they're reactive and proactive in equal measure, light-handed but exciting. Lowe's tenor solo is smeary one moment, exceedingly articulate the next. He's well served by the rhythm section's receptivity to his seat-of-the-pants changes in direction. Trombonist Joseph Bowie plays an aggressive, texturally varied spot, and Shaw's solo is graceful yet intense. The ensemble sections aren't Bird-and-Diz tight, but well-put-together, nevertheless. The Flam was one of the best free jazz albums of the '70s, and this track is a prime example why.

April 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Okazaki: Waves

“Waves” might well refer to the way the elongated progression of chords repeats over and again, and like ocean waves crashing on the beach, never with quite the same intensity as the prior one. This chord progression goes through three distinct phases, starting with a soft tempo and moving to progressively more rapid ones.

The self-effacing Okazaki is more interested in seeing his composition fully realized than to be the star player on his own recording. He gives the star role to his three alto players, who appear not together but in succession. Zenón’s sax moans passionately through the initial, soft section, while Knoche begins his solo slower but works himself up to even greater intensity. Binney’s lines are the most thoughtful of the three. However, like Knoche, he pushes himself to the outer limits of his horn, until the song comes crashing to a halt, leaving the lonely, wordless voice of Shyu left to softly transition this number into the next one.

April 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tom Knific: Home Bass

With the catchy title by the band’s leader, who begins the songs with a catchy riff in tandem with Hall, “Home Bass” has all the appearances of being a song-long exhibition of bass wankery. Thankfully, though, Knific has composing skills to show off to go along with his chops. The memorable, ascending theme comes crashing in with the rest of the band more than a minute in. Beckstrom is soon afterwards launching into a saucy and reedy solo, and upon closer listen, one find that Knific and Beckstrom are back playing that funky riff at the intro. Only this time, Knific is playing with an ear on Beckstrom and Hall is crashing about with increased vigor. The other Knific, Chris, then gets his turn riding that riff. He takes advantage of it using a strident, two-handed approach that brings the Latin element already present in the song into sharper focus.

“Home Bass” does a pretty good job showing off the synergistic abilities of Knific’s quartet, which starts with a muscular rhythm section.

April 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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East West Quintet: Gangster Rap

So what’s a song called “Gangster Rap” coming from a five-piece jazz combo sound like? Head-nodding soul-jazz, that’s what. No gangsters, no rapping, but there’s that same, chilled-out vibe. Even though the tempo of the beat stays the same, the cadence of it switches between hip-hop, various rock-oriented moods, and finally, softly lands into a near-waltz. As the tenor of the beat changes, so does the rest of the song.

The tune stays on virtually the same key throughout, but that simplicity is a deception. Several distinct thematic expressions are sprung from it: there’s a slowed down modern jazz unison line by Heaney and Kafka; Heaney’s searing solo built up out of nursery rhyme phrasing; Cassedy’s soothing Rhodes lines which puts out that fire.

“Gangster Rap” borrows from many elements, goes through many moods, and yet remains a unified piece. Unified perhaps because it induces that head nodding from beginning to end.

April 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Frank Lowe: Sun Voyage

Tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe is sometimes stereotyped as an Albert Ayler-influenced energy player. Yet in addition to Lowe's penchant for extreme expressionism, he possessed the ability to play with great melodic coherence. He'd often evidence both qualities in the course of a single performance, as he does here, effectively structuring his solo by alternating lithe freebop lines and screaming multiphonics. His front line partners are just as fresh in their approaches. Trumpeter Leo Smith is a more extroverted presence than one might expect. While he engages in the sort of timbral manipulations that are his stock-in-trade, he also plays hard and fast, spitting-out phrases with terse aggression. Trombonist Joseph Bowie exploits his horn's pliable nature, as well, squeezing, bellowing, and buzzing his way through his spots. Bassist Alex Blake swings in a pretty straight-forward manner through much of the tune, holding the groove while drummer Charles "Bobo" Shaw ingeniously accents and caterwauls. This is the type of detailed and original performance that, in the '70s, raised the hopes of jazz fans—and musicians—in the mood for something new. Inspired stuff that wears its age very well.

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Air: Dance of the Beast

"Dance of the Beast" begins with bassist Fred Hopkins laying down a vamp in a loose, swinging triple meter. Hopkins holds down the pulse while drummer Steve McCall essentially solos in and out of time. The pair gains momentum, leading to Henry Threadgill's entrance on alto sax. Threadgill enters improvising approximately three minutes in—no theme, just skittering, squalling free alto over the churning McCall and steadfast Hopkins. Hopkins uses the occasion of Threadgill's entrance as an excuse to gradually surrender time-keeping responsibilities. The three men engage in furious collective improvisation. Threadgill's solo ends, and Hopkins takes center stage with a hyperactive solo full of multi-stops, pedals, and not so illusive contrary motion. Threadgill returns in full-flight, slashing and burning over violent, inconstant percussion and newly focused bass (Hopkins at this point having reclaimed his organizational responsibilities) as they take the track to its conclusion. An aptly titled work, "Dance of the Beast" is an excellent example of the kind of visceral musical blow Air could strike when it so chose.

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Air: Air Song

This title cut from Air's 1975 India Navigation release is a free-time, harmonically ambiguous ballad featuring the group's auteur, Henry Threadgill, on flute. The track is an exercise in restraint for drummer Steve McCall, who—perhaps in deference to Threadgill's use of flute—mostly restricts his palette to slight metallic sounds and cymbal rolls. His contribution is no less effective for it. He's a resourceful colorist, and his interjections always serve the best purposes. As momentum builds, he's able to maintain intensity in an understated way. Bassist Fred Hopkins' arco playing is responsive and dynamically varied (not a description one might associate with much free jazz bass playing, then or now), and his pizzicato blends a percussive touch with a huge imagination. Hopkins' extreme dexterity and his ability to respond instantaneously to Threadgill is the music's most striking element. Threadgill himself plays wonderfully, with a big, reverberant sound that he's not afraid to alter in terms of pitch and timbre. His unison theme statements with Hopkins' arco bass are things of beauty, and his improvisation is a paradigm of spontaneous organization. This is a moving performance—an example of this preternaturally sensitive trio at its best.

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Abdullah Ibrahim: Namhanje (Today)

This traditional tune, presumably of South African origin, is a lovely, peaceful duet, sung and played by South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and bassist Johnny Dyani. It’s basically a two-chord vamp—nobody plays anything particularly fancy, but it’s warm and inviting, a great thing to hear first thing in the morning. It was beautifully recorded direct-to-disc (according to the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings) in 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer in Germany. This is a great example of making something rich out of almost nothing.

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gil Evans: The Barbara Song

Gil Evans’ use of space, interesting combinations of instruments, and keen eye for talent are all in evidence on this track recorded in 1964. Using two French horns, trombone, tuba, flute, bass flute, English Horn, bassoon, and harp, with himself on piano, Gary Peacock on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Evans conjures a spooky stillness on this piece from Kurt Weill’s Three-Penny Opera. The melody moves around the band, with each section of the piece featuring a different lead voice or section of the ensemble, with Evans’s piano commenting and complimenting before he drops out altogether. Shorter enters about halfway through the track, playing minimally and quietly, with suspense. It’s dark, subtly veiled music, showcasing Evans’s arranging abilities to their fullest.

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lennie Tristano: Line Up

Using early (1955) multi-tracking techniques in his home studio, Tristano recorded his piano over prerecorded rhythm tracks by bassist Peter Ind and drummer Jeff Morton. We’ll probably never know for sure whether Tristano sped up the tapes in order to get the rather unusual piano sound, but it doesn’t matter. This track is an amazing improvisation played over the chord changes to “All of Me,” and a perfect example of Tristano’s trademark lines and phrasing. If you want to check this tune out further, a transcription is included in Eunmi Shim’s book Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music.

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Hampton Hawes (with Charlie Haden): As Long As There’s Music

This was Hampton Hawes’ last recording as a leader, and perhaps his most beautiful. The master take of the title tune by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn (there’s also an alternate take on the CD, which is now out of print), is an object lesson in the art of the duo. The way Haden and Hawes breathe together is incredible and subtle, allowing them to stretch the time and bring out the tune’s (and their own) expressive qualities. Their history of playing together and shared musical wisdom is very much evidenced throughout this track and record.

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sonny Rollins & Coleman Hawkins: All The Things You Are

This track comes from the fabled Sonny Meets Hawk! sessions from July, 1963 with Rollins and Coleman Hawkins, and exhibits perhaps the most abstract playing of Rollins’s career. This track also features one of the greatest piano solos ever from Paul Bley. While retaining bits and pieces of Jerome Kern’s melody in their improvisations, Bley and Rollins both play against the time, the changes, and everything else, but still swing ferociously, while Henry Grimes on bass and Roy McCurdy on drums keep things together underneath it all.

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gigi Gryce: La Rose Noire

A twenty-year old Quincy Jones was already showing his influential ability as an astute arranger on this session with altoist Gigi Gryce on this retooled version of the classic “Summertime” dubbed “La Rose Noire”.

Gryce was a classically trained musician who at one time had entertained thoughts of entering a career in medicine. In 1953 Lionel Hampton had taken a celebrated band to Europe that included Clifford Brown and Gryce. Gryce was a sought after arranger in his own right, having done work for both Max Roach and Stan Getz.

While on tour, Gryce recorded with this band including members of Hamp’s band and some local Parisian musicians. The Hampton-pilfered rhythm section finds Jones on piano and a young Alan Dawson (of Berklee teaching fame) on drums. Trombonist Jimmy Cleveland takes a dynamic muted solo at the start that is poignantly passionate before the very swinging band turns the rumba-turned-blues into a real cooker. Gryce follows the inspired Cleveland solo with his own alto statement that comes out and rises on smoothly built phrasing with precise intonation before taking a brief run of double time in a slight tilt of his hat to the growing bebop language of the day. The band returns to Cleveland and fades out until Jones punctuates his arrangement with a short piano statement at the coda.

Gryce’s jazz career was brief but noteworthy. He retreated from the mainstream to teaching on Long Island. He is believed to have changed his name to the Muslim Basheer Quisim while he was in Paris. Besides being a lyrical and talented player, he was also one of the first black musicians to own his own publishing company, Melotone.

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lucky Thompson: A Distant Sound

After playing and recording with Charlie Parker on the famous Dial sessions of 1946, Lucky Thompson was in demand. He played and recorded with such disparate musicians as Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis between 1951 and 1956—a testament to his versatility and eclecticism. In March of 1956 he took his particular sound to Paris and made a series of recordings with predominantly French musicians, the most prominent being the unpredictable innovator Martial Solal.

On this recording, you can hear Thompson’s deep-throated, Lester Young influenced sound, which is both round and smoky throughout. But Lucky is no “Prez” clone. His sound is a crossbreed between Parker’s bebop phrasing and Young’s fluidity and full round tone. This is especially apparent on “A Distant Sound” which is a thinly veiled knock off of “The End of a Love Affair”. The song starts off as a rhumba and gets progressively modern with Martial Solal’s piano solo. Solal demonstrates his quirky but harmonically advanced musical approach, which seems years ahead of its time. When Lucky comes in to solo on tenor, he starts off in a classic swing style. In the second break, he blasts off into a wonderful Parker-esque double-timed solo where he bridges the gap between these two transitional forms. On the final break his sound anneals into an amalgamation of the two forms, a purely Thompson creation.

April 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Esperanza Spalding: Espera

"Espera"'s atmosphere is romantic, and Esperanza Spalding's smooth vocals fit the occasion. Her bass playing is just as smooth, as it glides atop richly textured layers of sound and always rests firmly at the center of the action. In both of her musical roles, Spalding proves that she is, simultaneously, spontaneous and versatile, as her natural inflections cut at the boundaries of what should be expected from such a traditional set of chords. Vocally, she stamps the tune with an immediacy reminiscent of vocal greats like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and these inflections should stand the test of time given their inventive nature. The vocals are clear, the playing is crisp, and the composition itself is aimed at the heart. Sincerity is its focus, and the compositional allusion to unwavering faith amidst tough times is striking. As the track ends, Spalding repeats the mantra "I won't give up," and it is apparent that she is so affected by the sentiment that she is offering listeners an inside glimpse of her true personality.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Esperanza Spalding: She Got to You

Displaying virtuosity en masse, Esperanza Spalding's "She Got to You" flies higher than Sly Stone did at Woodstock. Spalding's impressive vocal sustain rises to the challenge of such a winding composition, and, to my ears, the sax sounds reminiscent of Wayne Shorter's work in Weather Report,. As this track breaks out of the cocktail jazz mode of most of the rest of the album, it certainly is a highlight, even though it sounds more indebted to R&B than anything else; as a singer, she sounds sexy enough to render this tale of one-sided sensuality, and the ego inherent in that notion befits the vocalist to a tee. In ways, this cut can be best described as a fusion between soul and jazz, because, even though the tune is built around chords that a keyboardist like Joe Zawinul would use, the jazz quotient is nearly the same as what was generally performed by groups like Earth, Wind, and Fire and Rufus featuring Chaka Khan.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Zoot Sims and Oscar Peterson: The Man I Love

Here we have another Gershwin tune that has been recorded hundreds of times. But when a tune is that good and you have master musicians moving each other to make a great recording, the result is a fine addition to recorded jazz. That certainly is the case here.

It starts with that magnificent maestro of jazz piano, Oscar Peterson, playing simply sparkling lines that introduce the tune; that opening piano work is so good, you'll want to play this intro again. We are then treated to about six minutes of Zoot playing exceptionally fine variations and embellishments on the theme with great verve, dynamics and tone, adding excellent accents, with superb support by the others. After several choruses, Joe Pass then takes a solo, matching Sims with creativity and verve, though with more modest dynamics. Then Peterson gives us some more of that sparkling piano work, before Zoot takes it out.

This quintet plays so beautifully together, one would think they had toured as a group for years. Led by Zoot Sims, they produce a marvelous extended exploration of this Gershwin music and the artistic possibilities of the tenor sax.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Esperanza Spalding: I Know You Know

The stuttering bass patterns and semi-dance beats of Esperanza Spalding's "I Know You Know" provide the hooks, but the recording is defined by its fusion of acid-jazz and a certain 70s old-school soul R&B vibe. It is an interesting pastiche; at the outset, listeners will hear the solo sound of Spalding's upright bass as it sits alone in the dark, dusty nightclub that the production style attempts to envision. As the rhythms enter, her snappy vocals display great range and her confidence as a performer shines through in her gutsy reach for notes that constantly build upon each other. Perfectly in tune and in sync with the mood of the recording, this track documents the immediacy of her individual vocal style well. The beats are interesting; they are not "jazz," per se, but find their beginnings in hip-hop production. The track will probably not remind you of many others you've heard, and that individualism underscores a recording that manages to sound as innovative and as fresh as groups like the Pharcyde, the Fugees, and the Roots did on their first few respective albums-meaning that the Nu-Soul movement is still alive and well.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Zoot Sims and Oscar Peterson: How Long Has This Been Going On

The melody of “How Long Has This Been Going On” is one of those tunes that’s so fine and memorable it keeps replaying in our heads, with a marvelous associated feeling. This little gem of a track (2:11) begins with Joe Pass subtly setting the mood and harmonic structure with a rich chord presentation on his guitar, and then backing an exquisite, slow, soulful opening statement of the theme by Zoot on his tenor sax, with nicely creative variations, lingering meaningfully on key notes, and using rhythmic pauses to perfection. Sims continues the lovely, slow-jazzy rendering of the song with superb sax tone, slightly breathy, but well-used in the service of added feeling and texture, and with very nice vibrato endings to phrases.

Oscar Peterson plays basic piano support, unlike his sparkling piano intro and subsequent work on the superb companion track from this CD, “The Man I Love.” The bass and drum work by Mraz and Tate is very tasteful and wonderfully attuned to Zoot’s lead work and the support from Peterson and Pass. All of this produces one of the most beautiful and moving versions of this classic Gershwin tune on record.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Terence Blanchard: In Time of Need

On this extended cut, Blanchard and company really dig deep. They are able to capture a nice, warm feeling on this song. It blends orchestration with the blues and lives up to the title of the tune. Zach Harmon adds really nice textures to the beat with the tablas and Aaron Parks adds nice textures with his simple but effective piano line. This song makes me wonder why our country hasn't done more to help the city of New Orleans. This song encapsulates that feeling with music, which is something Blanchard does wonderfully. His writing is top-notch and underrated in my opinion. He's one of the strongest voices in jazz music and he only gets better as he matures.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Terence Blanchard: Ghost of Congo Square

On his opus recording A Tale of God's Will, trumpeter Terence Blanchard recalls the the spirits of old on this track, which opens up the album. I commend Mr. Blanchard for recording an album that attempts to deal with the tragedy of Katrina with music. This song opens up with a funky, shuffle beat that almost tricked me into thinking that I was listening to the Meters or Stanton Moore. The song is mostly drums, bass, and percussion with some nice trumpet notes by Blanchard as people sing, "This is a Tale of God's Will." Though a short song, it captures the essence and feeling of New Orleans within the first five seconds. Great opener for a stellar album.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir: Prince La Sha

With his Saxophone Choir, Odean Pope ups the ante on such sax-centric ensembles as the World Saxophone Quartet, ROVA, and the Julius Hemphill Sextet. Pope's band masses not four, not six, but eight saxes (three altos, four tenors, and bari) plus an explosive rhythm section to create adventurous, intricately conceived music delivered with the power of a full-sized big band. "Prince La Sha" is named for the late free jazz flutist and saxophonist Prince Lasha, who first made his name in the 1960s recording with the likes of saxophonist Sonny Simmons, and who recorded with Pope as recently as 2005 (twenty years after this music was recorded). The tune is as "out" as the Saxophone Choir gets. It begins with the saxes playing Pope's fanfare-like melody sans rhythm, then segues abruptly into an agitated improvised duet between Pope and drummer Dave Gibson before the rest of the saxes return to restate the theme. The structure is simple, the Pope/Gibson interlude commanding. Pope is one of the most intense post-Coltrane saxophonists, and this presents him at the top of his game. Exciting, inspired stuff, and a worthy tribute to Lasha.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir: The Saxophone Shop

Tenor saxophonist Odean Pope probably reached his widest audience as a member of drummer Max Roach's excellent '80s quartet with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and bassist Calvin Hill. Pope has recorded a number of fine albums on his own, however, none more distinctive than The Saxophone Shop by his eight-saxes-plus-rhythm Saxophone Choir. The title track is a vamping, McCoy Tyner-esque Latin-tinged tune, with the eight saxes (three altos, four tenors, and bari) deployed like a big band. It's an very cooking performance from beginning to end. Pope's intricate composition and arrangement requires much precision, and the band is up to the task. The horns are tight, the rhythm section is skilled and forceful. Pope is always an incendiary soloist, and the high-energy rhythm section and backing saxes spur him to creative heights fantastic even by his extravagant standards. The arrangement is well-crafted, the performance inspired. An unusual concept, quite well-executed.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Branford Marsalis: UMMG

Boy, does Branford Marsalis's take on Billy Strayhorn's "UMMG" swing! In contrast to the full, lush sounds of Duke Ellington's band, Marsalis presents the tune in a trio format led by saxophone. Reflecting both good taste and impressive artistry, you can tell that these musicians are playing for fun, as, throughout, the performance is simultaneously beautiful, spatial, and spirited. This admirable track is certainly recommended for fans of dense, three-piece harmonic interplay.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ben Monder: Hatchet Face

Showcasing a wide variety of influences and disparaging sounds ranging from fusion-oriented soundscapes to heavy metal riffing, the mind of Ben Monder comes alive on "Hatchet Face." Although the winding twists and turns are tough to follow at times, Monder and crew seem to run their specific brand of voodoo down with ease. Offering an interesting alternative to other jazz-influenced epics comprised mostly of improvisation and/or soloing, the cut is essential for listeners with patience and an open min

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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New Air: Achtud El Buod (Children's Song)

The trio Air, with saxophonist Henry Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins, and drummer Steve McCall, was one of the great avant-garde groups of the '70s and early '80s. When McCall left the band, he was replaced by Pheeroan akLaff, and the trio was rechristened New Air. The latter group, though fine, was not quite as distinguished. For good reason: Hopkins and McCall formed one of the great jazz rhythm sections. Besides being remarkably creative and resourceful on their own, they had played together for a long time and thus shared a close musical bond. AkLaff, on the other hand, while a tremendous drummer, seems not to have had as good a rapport with Hopkins. He was also a heavier, less colorful and more groove-oriented drummer than McCall, who had a more subtle touch and flexible sense of time.

That said, "Achtud El Buod" suits akLaff's strengths well. A rocking, high-spirited shuffle whose title is (almost) a backward-spelling of "Double Dutch", the children's jump rope game, the tune swings like mad. AkLaff gets a very tight sound out of his kit, giving even his loosest passages a funky, in-the-pocket feel. The late Hopkins was the total package. Few jazz bassists have combined soul, imagination, and chops so successfully. His playing here is remarkably vocalic, a characteristic his playing shares with Threadgill (McCall had it, too; akLaff, not so much). On alto, Threadgill plays like the world's hippest soul singer; his harmonically venturesome lines are never less than exhilarating. While a fan of the original Air can be expected to listen to this music with a sense of loss, this is nevertheless very good in its own right.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sonny Rollins: Pent-Up House

Sonny Rollins' "Pent Up House" fuses both the calm simplicity of the blues and the frantic feeling of bebop. Rollins and Clifford Brown are in fine form here, as Brown's customary long lines and idea developments give way to Rollins' more pensive, angular constructs. Considering when this recording was made (Brown and pianist Richie Powell died only months later), it is an incredibly important historical document.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wayne Shorter: The Big Push

"The Big Push" was recorded after Wayne Shorter’s classic album Speak No Evil and then shoved into obscurity until the late 70’s. Such decisions are puzzling given the quality of the content, though, as the track clearly displays Shorter's penchant for combining both beautiful and brooding sounds into a singular form. He executes a brilliantly constructed solo, and as usual, Freddie Hubbard burns through his-even though the Tony Williams-led rhythm section seems unusually tame.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kurt Rosenwinkel: Flute

This track from Kurt Rosenwinkel’s latest CD refers to the Japanese Shakuhachi flute traditionally associated with Zen Buddhist meditation. The serene melody Rosenwinkel penned (along with Eric Harland's cymbal textures) creates a reflective atmosphere and conjures up a certain eastern vibe which demonstrates two important aspects of improvisation. First, the idea of tension and release. As the melody concludes, pianist Aaron Goldberg begins his solo over a vamp which, unlike the melody, brings a stark tension and energy, so that when Mark Turner enters with a riveting sax solo performed over the original melody, a dramatic release occurs. The solo sections and melody create the wonderful yin and yang relationship - but they also represent the second aspect. That is, no matter how crazy it gets during an improvisaion, it is the soloist's duty to retain the spirit of the original melody-which is achieved in a transcendental manner here.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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New Air Featuring Cassandra Wilson: Apricots On Their Wings

At the beginning of her career - before her Blue Note albums made her a major jazz star - Cassandra Wilson was something of an avant-gardist. In the 1980s, she was one of the founding members of the M-Base collective. Besides performing and recording her own fairly "out" music, she also sang on record dates led by M-Base's central figure, saxophonist Steve Coleman. Wilson also formed an association with saxophonist/composer Henry Threadgill, for a time touring and recording with Threadgill's group, New Air. The album Air Show No. 1 yields the fruit of that brief collaboration.

Threadgill's "Apricots On Their Wings" is one of his characteristically oblique constructs. A minor-key tune with a march-like rhythmic feel and quasi-expressionist lyrics, the tune serves as a nice vehicle for Wilson. Her smoky, languorous voice doesn't so much sing the melody as take it by the hand and guide it through the nooks and crannies of an unhurried groove laid down by bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. On alto, Threadgill contributes clever asides and one of his typically bawdy (and consummately intelligent) solos. The Threadgill/Wison musical partnership, short-lived as it was, yielded some interesting music. This is one of the better examples.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tom Hamilton and Bruce Eisenbeil: Dryer Mouth

The master at creating strange and wonderfully unconventional timbres from his guitar teams up with a longtime champion of electronic music improvisations. “Dryer Mouth” is not just completely improvisational, it’s completely instinctive, too, as the two protagonists move randomly from one found tone to another. Hamilton’s mono synthesizer emits highly pitched notes for impossibly long intervals, while Eisenbeil scribbles frantic notes like the hurried writing of a magic marker on a whiteboard. Other weird sounds he coaxes from the upper register at times are nearly indistinguishable from Hamilton’s.

Eisenbeil’s scraping and skittering against the backwash of Hamilton’s ear-piercing (or mind expanding, as I prefer to call it) analog-generated sine wave tweets builds upon Otomo Yoshihide’s brand of electronic experimentation, and takes it further out.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Robby Marshall Electric Band: Loft Scene

The Los Angeles Jazz Collective is a group of musicians working to build a stronger jazz community, promote greater public awareness and generate better appreciation for improvisational music in the Los Angeles area. Their recently released sampler album, featuring many of their creative artists includes some very interesting music and is a testament to the successful efforts of the Jazz Collective.

Collective member Robby Marshall is a young saxophonist/arranger whose song “Loft Scene” particularly caught my ear. Marshall is a versatile musician who can be found at local haunts with “genre bending” electric bands or playing with a smooth Getzian tone behind pop singer Michael Bublé. On “Loft Scene”, an infectious bass line lays out the groove and sets the backdrop for Marshall’s jam-band like, electronically enhanced saxophone. Some tasteful Dick Dale inspired guitar accents by Andrew McKay along with some electronic looping effects add unusual but potent elements of interest to the piece. At the break, drummer Cole changes time signatures and plays in a way reminiscent of the quirky but interesting 1990’s band Soul Coughing. Marshall shows an uncanny ability to color his compositions by using unusual pairings of musical sounds to great effect. His electric band has created a short but memorable crossbreed, a “genre bender” of sorts that successfully brings together elements of alternative rock; jam band jazz and electronica into a neat and effective statement.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Robert Glasper: Riot

Robert Glasper’s reputation as an entertaining character is earned yet again in his performance of Herbie Hancock’s "Riot," featured on Glasper’s 2005 release, Canvas. For most of the album, Glasper presents his originals in a trio format. Here, however, he adds saxophonist Mark Turner, whose lush sounds and springboard rhythms match Glasper’s vibe well. While preserving the spirit of the original, the musicians act as Herbie might have when he was a young musician in Miles’ group, transitioning effortlessly between different tempos and moods. In short, the track earns its title.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Opus One-Point-Five

Joe Henderson sure sounds like he is doing his best Johnny Hodges impersonation on "Opus One-Point-Five." The breathiness certainly sounds as if it were influenced by a track like Hodges' "Ballade," and the similarity may not be so coincidental given this recording's slow pacing and obvious paean to that Charlie Parker cut. The mellow tempo conveys the mood well, and Henderson's sax work is notable. The engineering is strong, Henderson's bassiest notes were captured without flaw, and the mix is decently balanced. Some jazz fans may desire more action and less space-especially when it comes to recordings that sit within the "fusion" genre. The main function of this track within the context of Henderson's Power to the People album is in its addition of introspectiveness to a CD heavily stamped by experiments with the musical avant-garde.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Lazy Afternoon

Joe Henderson's "Lazy Afternoon" sounds like it was recorded on an afternoon of intense, not-so-lazily conceived improvisation, because, while the rhythm section churns out a somewhat laid-back chord progression with a relaxed tempo as its platform, Henderson's sax playing is just as active as it is on most of the cuts on Power to the People-meaning that his lead lines are aimed at playing around the chords instead of with them. Most of what you'll hear on the track is basic, but the soloing is conceived without boundaries in mind. As Henderson slices and dices at the chart borders, the routine jazz performed by the others becomes somewhat mundane as it fails to ever gain momentum. The musical form never changes, and while, in the case of Miles Davis, the approach more often than not leads to musical euphoria, here, it merely provides a platform for Henderson's soloing. Of benefit is the track's brief running time, because, even though Henderson himself is playing well, the collective never does anything interesting that would allow this cut to stand out amidst the rest of its respective album.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Foresight and Afterthought (an Impromptu Suite)

This conceptual, three-part Joe Henderson musical journey finds him seemingly climbing many stairs to reach his destination. As he pushes harder and higher, musical tension is built that, unfortunately, is never truly released. The reason for this lack of gratification at the very end is the fact that, while many of Henderson's solo lines are constructed around eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second notes, at times, the track sounds like the lead player is attempting to improv as many notes as possible in a short span of time with the intent of displaying his high-level talents. Of course, the skill set of Joe Henderson is never in question, as he will always be remembered as a jazz pioneer. He is certainly blowing his heart out on the cut, but the recording seems absent of emotion. However, fans of Joe Henderson will certainly return to the track with open arms, because the power of Henderson's playing on it cannot be easily ignored.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Afro-Centric

Wow. What a recording! However, given the personnel, that shouldn't be much of a surprise. Go get a copy of Joe Henderson's Power to the People immediately, because this is some of the most important jazz ever laid down. Sure, the spirit of Miles Davis' Files de Kilimanjaro looms large here, as, at times, this cut sounds like it could easily have been included on that legendary album. The sonic links are similar; Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams appear on both records, and their musical styles are easily identifiable. As usual for them, the jamming is open-ended and the improvisations are strong. Not so slight variations of chords are utilized within the structure, and, while some of the clashing between the instruments gets crazy, you could never call this music boring. With heavily overstated action recurring frequently, this music remains engaging today. The track is more melodic than most of the Miles Davis experiments from the Miles in the Sky era, and that relative tunefulness is sometimes necessary when the proceedings are so chaotically free of control and discipline.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson: Power to the People

Unfortunately, the title track of Joe Henderson's Power to the People CD sounds dated today. This is obvious in the crunchy way the horns were mixed; the brass chorus sounds like it was filtered through very ancient compression layers, and the actual improvisations seem buried under the old stench of reel to reel tape. That said, though, the performance is killer; with his technique in top form, Henderson takes off here in an explosive manner as the group pounds out a devilish frenzy underneath. The music is completely free of structure for the most part, since most of it is maintained by a single, octaved chord. The recording is great and the playing is lively, but the production sounds somewhat standard for the era and the track as a whole sounds unwilling to escape the ghost of Miles Davis as its murky mix recalls such albums as Bitches Brew.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kait Dunton: Phase/Faze

Look at that lineup. I know what you're thinking. Piano trio. You would be wrong. Yeah, that's OK. Years and years of trios have conditioned you to have that jazz/Pavlovian response. Despite counterexamples such as Bred Mehldau or maybe even The Bad Plus, it's a tough habit to shake.

Well, with “Phase/Faze,” pianist/composer Kait Dunton breathes new life into the form. Given the song's big blocky & circular opening chords and thunderous drumming, I was reminded of Bruce Hornsby circa Harbor Lights. This composition though, goes far beyond a pop song's verse/chorus structure. There are several interconnected segments that take source material from the previous “phase.” The overall effect is of one long story story being told. I especially dug the four-chord repeats that Dunton pulled out of shape slightly to build a little tension before the next release.

Yes, no ordinary trio, so the bassist and drummer moved far outside the traditional timekeeper/swing shepherd roles. Daniel Foose and Ross Pederson. Sure, they push the swing, but they also spin around, underneath and above the piano in ways not often heard in this format. I'm tellin' you, outside of Roy Haynes, Mr. Pederson is the master of the snazzy & subtle use of the rim.

Not long ago, I made the statement that Mikkel Ploug's Equilibrium was my favorite record of the year so far. Add Kait Dunton's Real & Imagined to the list.

April 16, 2009 · 4 comments

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Totam Silberstein: Cheryl

In a tune that shares the intensity and misdirections of Parker's “Scrapple From The Apple,” Yotam Silberstein burns right through the changes. Supported by a muscular band that's still very light on it's feet, this young guitarist has a pile of ideas – and he employs them in a very natural way. So the angular passages, quickly shifting arpeggios, and comping breaks are not showy in the least, much like Mr. Parker himself.

While I do enjoy hearing that guitar negotiate those twisty runs, the episode of tradin' fours that comes midsong is just too much fun to ignore. Coming off the guitar solo, tenor player Chris Cheek and organist Sam Yahel really get it on as Silberstein and drummer Willie Jones III keep up the swing. Tremendous.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Red Holloway: St. Thomas

My two favorite versions of “St. Thomas” are on Saxophone Colossus (the reference standard) and on the fine Jim Hall/Ron Carter record Alone Together. The approaches are completely different, with Rollins' stately blowing on the one hand and Hall's quiet tiptoe on the other.

I may have to expand my list to three, as Red Holloway presents an insistent and playful take on the classic. The leader comes blasting right off the line, setting the tone with the sax and organ workin' it in unison. At each solo turn, the energy from the previous chorus is passed along and taken up a notch. Before we return the head, we've had sax, guitar, organ, and drum workouts that are constructed from barely contained pure joy. Played in a club, it wouldn't be hard to imagine the thunderous shouts and applause. Take a bow, fellas.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Rob Mazurek: As If An Angel Fell From The Sky

Once upon a time (I swear, that's the first time I've ever written those four words in sequence), I worked at a company that gave me my own office. I was allowed to have speakers attached to my computer. Oh yes, music listening via wiggling air molecules instead of having those earbud thingies jammed in tight.

If, by chance, I happened to be playing music on the order of the Rob Mazurek Quintet, the afternoon would be full of little visitations – people sticking their heads in my door asking, “Uh, what the heck is that?!”

The thing is, most people can't handle music like this. It at first seems directionless, with a swooping synth drone in the background, and vibes in the fore – seeming to be completely disconnected. But my ear parts, with their penchant for oddball connections, hear something different. The vibes are the thoughts of a person making it through a long, difficult winter. The synth drone IS the winter. As time passes, the vibes and percussion strain against the bonds of the season (and just who doesn't feel down in January?) but finally resolve to be more accepting. And then spring arrives.

No, that is not a scotch bottle in my desk drawer!

April 16, 2009 · 1 comment

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Gaucho: Darktown Strutter's Ball

I never get tired of listening to so-called gypsy jazz. I mean, how can anybody not enjoy the energetic lilt of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli? (Please, if you don't, I'm not sure I want to hear about it).

In the case of Gaucho we have a modern interpretation of this timeless music that's jump-on-your-table fun. There is some crazy-great guitar work coming out of this band. There's also the fine accordion of Rob Reich. It is during his solo, at exactly the 1:30 mark, that full swingology is achieved. No wait, maybe it's during the nutty horn solo...

Ah heck, I don't know. All I can say is that the gypsy jazz-meets-jug band vibe is worth it on any night.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Caribbean Cutie

The melody of "Caribbean Cutie" is lilting, but after it plays out, the structure of the cut is too conventional to stand out from the crowd. The first few minutes are dedicated to a piano solo mixed much too far in the background, and, once the horn solos kick in, momentum is somewhat clouded under the fact that the limited chord structure and the traditional swing of the rhythm section breaks no new ground. On this track, the horn solos seem perfunctory and uninspired. Nothing about it will remind you of the Caribbean or of female island inhabitants. However, you may enter dreamland soon after it begins, because the six minute running time is much too long to interest anyone. The melody that bookends the nausea-inspiring jams should have been expanded somehow by the performers, because the content here is weak, and, overall, the recording seems originally unintended for release. Spontaneous Combustion is, mostly, a fine display of Cannonball Adderley's genius, but this track is for fanatics only.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Spontaneous Combustion

Regardless of its conventionalism, Cannonball Adderley's "Spontaneous Combustion" is a treble-toned display of his early confidence. As he sounds rather youthful, the fact that the basic blues pattern underneath is kept in check allows him the space to blow notes wherever and whenever he feels he should. The freedom of approach shows that his skills as a bandleader and player were already finely attuned at the outset of his career; his lead playing blazes a trail that is audibly tough for the other soloists on the bandstand to follow. The force with which his sax tears through the mix is the aural equivalent of spontaneous combustion, and later recordings would leave this kind of power behind for a more refined approach that helped him achieve commercial recognition later on. Adderley was part-trailblazer, part-showman, and the explosive duality never ceases to amaze.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Les Brown: Leap Frog

Tenor saxophonist/arranger Joe Garland is best known for "In the Mood," which of course became the anthem of the swing era for better or worse. What many people do not know is that he submitted another one of his catchy riff-based pieces to Les Brown sometime in the mid-1940s. Les once said that it took about a year to get around to finally playing it, but once the band did, it was never out of the book. He recorded it for Columbia Records in 1945 and it was an immediate hit, so much so that Les made it his new theme.

Fast forward to 1951; Les leaves Columbia and signs with the new Decca Records subsidiary, Coral Records. His producer is Sonny Burke, one of his classmates at Duke University back in the '30s, and a fine arranger in his own right. Les re-records his theme with the band he later called his finest, and the performance is nothing short of fantastic. Even though the band had played the piece thousands of times, they still make it sound fresh, and as good as the Columbia studio sound is, the Coral is even better. Dave Pell's has a brief solo, but the band is clearly the star. Who wouldn't want to spend an evening listening and dancing to this powerhouse ensemble?

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lynne Arriale: America

Ever since winning the International Great American Jazz Piano Competition in 1993 Lynne Arriale has mesmerized critics and audiences from Montreux to Tokyo. Yet many are still unfamiliar with this brilliant and prolific keyboard magus. Her arrangements are always uniquely personal, her playing, intense and electrifying, almost as if her life is being channeled into the keys.

While Inspiration has been out for a few years, it remains a delight for listeners on all levels. “America,” the show-stopper from Bernstein’s West Side Story, loses nothing in this edgy, explosive arrangement. Based on the hemiola, a Latin American folk dance with alternating measures of 6/8 and 3/4, this number has always presented a rhythmic challenge for players; but they are easily navigated by this tight-knit trio. With solid, empathetic support from bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Steve Davis, Arriale channels unbridled passion into the melody, tinged with a hint of dissonance and anger. Straightening out the time with a pronounced Caribbean feel, her piano assumes the playful, pentatonic personae of an island steel drum. Davis takes over with a brief, bounding and beefy drum solo before the trio takes it home, restating the head with ironic intensity sure to have us dancing on the rooftops.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jermaine Landsberger: Babik

In his debut album on Resonance, Jermaine Landsberger breaks the sound barrier and a number of musical misconceptions along the way. While gadje (non-gypsy) Hot Club enthusiasts across the world are fervently woodshedding their pompe, along comes this astounding Sinti keyboardist, hard-bopping a Django tune as if it had been penned in a 52nd Street back alley and shot off in a rocket.

While Getting’ Blazed is full of stellar performances, including three tracks featuring the venerable Pat Martino, the level of musicianship on “Babik” is positively jaw-dropping. Backed by the laser precision of Genus and Mason, Landsberger delivers a modern, electrified treatment of the tune Django Reinhardt had written in honor of his second son. This is not as blasphemous as it may seem to the diehard jazz Manouche fans; Babik Reinhardt was a fine jazz guitarist in his own right, but he preferred playing bebop over the more traditional Gypsy swing of his legendary father.

Through the furious changes, Landsberger fires off crisp, throaty B-3 riffs, sounding like Joey DeFrancesco on steroids, his lines rousing and insightful. James Genus’s lively and lyrical bass solo cooks admirably. But it is guitarist Andreas Öberg who puts the sizzle on the steak, burning up his Benedetto archtop with molten-hot bop lines delivered with insane speed and clarity. Babik Reinhardt would surely dig this.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sir Charles Thompson, Charlie Parker, Buck Clayton, Dexter Gordon, etc.: Takin' Off

From a Delmark album comprising three recording sessions for the Apollo label from 1945 and 1947, this title track is from the interesting 1945 session with Charlie Parker (“Bird”), 22 year old Dexter Gordon, and Buck Clayton mixing it up with Sir Charles Thompson on piano and a good rhythm section. That section included guitarist Danny Barker, who was born in New Orleans in 1909 and comes from the original jazz tradition there. With Clayton from the center of the swing era and modernist Parker, this track effectively spans the history of jazz—with the music they’re playing movin’ it into the Bop era.

Using a catchy, recognizable musical theme line, Sir Charles, Bird, Buck & co. achieve a sound reminiscent of what Dizzy, Bird and their preeminent Bop band produced in the second half of the ‘40s, well and clearly articulated here. The theme is strikingly stated by the ensemble, with Bird and Buck in the forefront. Then Thompson plays a nice piano break, followed by a scintillating trumpet solo by Clayton, which starts a section alternating the trading of licks and duet phrases between him and Parker that sparkles. Here swing trumpet master Buck Clayton shows he can hold his own with Parker in Bop mode. (One complaint: The bass seems a little over-mic’ed on this track.)

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kansas City Five (featuring Count Basie & Lester Young): Don't Be That Way

John Hammond, that extraordinary jazz entrepreneur, record producer, and scion of the Vanderbilt family organized and hosted the historic “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in late ’38. It celebrated the music of African-Americans and presented it in America’s premier concert hall. And if you’re presenting swing to the world, who better to have than Basie and the boys?!

After a couple of full band tunes, some songs were played by small groups from the Basie band; this was one of them. The track has distinctive opening bars in which on this special occasion, Count Basie plays more 'up front' than usual, with perhaps more power and dynamics. Lester Young (“Prez”) offers interjections and accents with his inimitable tenor sax tone. The Count and Prez continue at the forefront, doing a kind of piano-sax dance that excellently articulates the body of the tune’s music. A little past mid-way, Buck Clayton takes the lead on muted trumpet, at first in mid-range, using the mute for subtle effects, with a fine syncopated rhythmic feel. Then he soars higher and more dramatically to complete a very nicely constructed solo. Prez then takes the hand-off, blowing his sax in a more robust, deep-toned manner than usual (more like Coleman Hawkins), after a few bars transitioning back into a dual lead with Basie to end the song.

A live recording in 1938 was an iffy project, so the recording quality isn’t perfect; but for that time, it is more than well done. And it is a treat to hear Basie, Young, Clayton & co. playing live in that historic concert. Also, it’s an interesting tune that is a bit different than usual fare for Basie and the boys.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton: Nice Work If You Can Get It

This is another of those tunes with clever lyrics telling a little story that speaks to facets and feelings in peoples’ lives. As usual, Billie Holiday sang these words with intonation, style, rhythm, and emotion. In this track we have Buck Clayton performing his usual terrific trumpet solo that adds so well to Holiday’s singing, including a characteristic slide up to a key note (Louis Armstrong’s influence is evident), along with his excellent ensemble work. Lester Young is not in on this session; rather, Prince Robinson and Vido Musso, two other first-rate professionals offer very good solos on tenor sax and clarinet, as well as making fine contributions to the ensemble playing. Instead of the Basie band rhythm section that was Billie’s frequent foundation in her ‘30s recordings, we have Basie bassist Walter Page along with top drummer Cozy Cole and the excellent Allen Reuss on guitar driving the musical action.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lenny Breau: There Is No Greater Love

The tragic death of Lenny Breau in 1984 deprived the jazz world of one of its most iconoclastic guitar titans. Fortunately, his legend lives on in a body of recordings and videos. Unfortunately and inexplicably, this particular recording is currently unavailable, except in a few rare and expensive copies bought and sold by private collectors — and that’s a pity.

Lenny was a hard stylist to categorize. An American-born Canadian who came from a country music background, he was equally at home playing C&W, blues, or jazz. His unique fingerpicking ability allowed him to cover more ground than the plectrum guitarist and, as many have noted, he often sounded like two guitarists playing simultaneously. His right-hand technique of picking fluid solo lines with his thumb while comping triads with his fingers has never been equaled. Plus, he was a master at using false harmonics to expand the complexity of his chords.

These techniques are aptly demonstrated on "No Greater Love," which is prefaced by an ingenious tuning piece. Rich, harp-like arpeggios cascade from his Baldwin guitar as he adjusts the pitch of his strings, resolving seamlessly into the head. Suddenly, the trio launches into a satisfying swing, with Lenny in top form, blowing hot and free, chorus after chorus. At first, it really is hard to believe that this is just one guitar, with no overdubs. Of course, the flawless listening skills and responsiveness of sidemen Halldorson and Kelin add to the illusion. But, as the audience response reminds us, this is indeed a live recording.

So why review a track from an out-of-print CD? The reason is simple — this remains one of the greatest jazz guitar albums ever recorded. Why such a gem was allowed to fall through the cracks is beyond comprehension. Perhaps, if enough people express interest, it will be reissued. Would anyone care to head a grassroots campaign?

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Harry Connick, Jr.: Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans

When New Orleans' native son Harry Connick, Jr. recorded his second album 20 two decades ago, the world and Southern Louisiana's portion of it were in a different place and time. No 9/11 and no Homeland Security, no Hurricane Katrina, and no feeble FEMA response. This classic song was just a lonely, lovely lament for a languid city recalled from afar. But post-Katrina, the song has become not an indictment but a reminder of how America was blown off-course for nearly a decade, with government neglecting the social infrastructure and then failing to save a great city from drowning.

Connick, who, at the time of this album, fancied himself as the next Sinatra, was quite a charmer on this particular track, and it didn't hurt a bit that guest vocalist Dr. John appeared on it. However, their alternating leads make for funky contrasts that don't really strike enough sparks. If they were to recut their duet today, they would likely find ways to sound more threatening, and their casual, final surprise ("I miss the one I care for more than I miss New Orleans") would then become a statement confirming the Bush administration's laissez-faire and, ultimately, racist political attitude.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: A Gal In Calico

"A Gal in Calico" is one of a number of Williams' recorded tracks over the years that can rightfully be called a tour de force. Both Dave Brubeck (Jessica's earliest influence) and Williams herself wrote separate liner notes for her In the Pocket CD on which this selection appears. Brubeck writes, "She treats the melody like Stravinsky approached the theme of 'Star Spangled Banner,' skipping all over the octaves of the original theme, instead of the sequential melodic notes of the normal range." Williams observed, "There's a place in 'Gal in Calico' where the left hand plays a bass line in the middle of the piano and Jeff's bass line is in the lower register and Dick's just wailing along. Now that works because it doesn't get so cluttered that it gets confusing."

Musical analysis aside, "A Gal in Calico" works because of its freshness, constant element of surprise, and clarity of vision. Williams' deconstruction of the melody is daring and yet remarkably easy to follow and appreciate. Her long solo features quick, nervous flurries, impish arpeggios and runs, breathtaking block chords, and a supremely flexible rhythmic pulse. Johnson's resoundingly assured bass solo and Berk's thematic drum exploration are each augmented by Williams' very imaginative commentary. The pianist's subsequent trades with Berk are dazzling, with Williams playing some dexterous two-handed counterpoint and even reaching up to pluck part of the theme on the piano's strings. Few jazz pianists could match, much less top, this virtuoso performance.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Toshiko

There's no doubt that Jessica Williams, like other women in jazz, has been inspired by those who came before her, such as Mary Lou Williams and Toshiko Akiyoshi. In fact, Jessica maintains a growing list of "Women in Jazz" on her website. Williams was the house pianist at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco when she met Mary Lou, who told her: "Don't ever let anyone stop you." Akiyoshi has studied Japanese history, culture, and traditional music, all of which permeate many of her compositions, including "Kogun," “Tales of a Courtesan," "Long Yellow Road," and "Kourakan Suite." Williams distinctive original, "Toshiko," serves as a tribute to Akiyoshi by acknowledging its namesake's interest in Japanese folk music.

"Toshiko" has the pensive air and delicacy of a Japanese folk song played on a koto. Williams renders the melody with sparkling clarity, enriched by tenderly struck left hand chords. The pianist does little else but play the theme in a deeply affecting manner, and in her final chorus becomes powerfully emotional before tempering her attack back to its original musing and yearning nature. This is one of Williams' sparsest, and most concise and unassuming recorded performances.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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David Murray and Randy Weston: The Healers

David Murray is arguably jazz's greatest bass clarinetist after Eric Dolphy. Though he can certainly swing like a demon, Murray's bass clarinet playing is perhaps most affecting when he tackles free-er material. His duo partner Randy Weston's composition "The Healers" fits the bill. The 14-minute track features Murray and Weston conversing in an open setting faintly defined by modal harmony and rubato rhythm. The improvised intro leads into a simple theme supported by an ebbing-and-flowing bass ostinato in the pianist's left hand. A lyrical bridge appears briefly then fades into a restatement of the first theme, after which the men play over the tune's loose structure. As an accompanist, Weston excels at developing in small increments; he's an understated, very tasteful player well-suited to support his more gregarious partner. Murray's tone strikes a balance between sweet and acrid; matched with his wide vibrato (which seems smoother on bass clarinet than on his other instrument, tenor sax), it's uniquely expressive. The men are a well-matched pair; this is very attractive music.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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David Murray and Randy Weston: Clever Beggar

David Murray puts his huge, vibrato-infused tenor sound to work on this pedal-point ballad in tandem with the pianist Randy Weston. Murray has long excelled at bringing an "outside" sensibility to "inside" jazz—never more so in the late '80s, when he was transitioning from being a free player to one who dealt more intimately with the standard jazz repertoire. He plays it fairly straight here with composer Butch Morris's minor-key melody. His burnished tone sustains and enhances the tune's bittersweet mood. In his solo, Murray segues into a more active but no less expressive mode, his big ears and broad imagination leading him to explore some obscure but invariably rewarding avenues. Weston's repetitive, gently percussive accompaniment has a balafon-like feel; his style is an attractive melding of African and jazz sensibilities. The men complement one another quite nicely. In particular, Weston's ability to focus on matters of pulse and harmony counterbalances Murray's tendency to go rather far afield. They make an excellent team, and this is an excellent track.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roscoe Mitchell Quartet: The Flow of Things - No. 1

One of three versions of "The Flow of Things" on the album of the same name, the composition is obviously more of a guiding concept than a notated work. The piece has Mitchell on soprano playing long, mostly scalar lines so fast as to be an aural scrawl. Mitchell uses a circular breathing technique, so his phrases seldom begin or end. Instead, they buzz in the ether as an undifferentiated blur—a highly focused, 10-minute burst of intellectual and physical energy by an artist with great reserves of both. Bassist Malachi Favors plucks with remarkable facility. In a sense, his quick pizzicato lines give Mitchell's unrelenting barrage a kind of temporal definition, providing fleeting but perceptible points of reference. On piano, Jodie Christian performs a somewhat similar task, although his nearly constant two-handed chordings do not stake-out their own place in the overall sound quite as clearly. Drummer Steve McCall matches Mitchell's intensity and perhaps even raises it a notch. The ten-minute track reaches a high level of excitement quickly and remains there throughout. Listening is an enervating but inspiriting experience.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roscoe Mitchell Quartet: Cards For Quartet

When he has a mind to, Roscoe Mitchell can play prettier than just about any free jazz saxophonist one can name. Some of his loveliest playing has been done on alto. MItchell's playing on "Cards For Quartet" is a succession of spare, pointillist lines, played with a tone that's sometimes pure, sometimes slightly burred or otherwise subtly inflected. His phrases can seem discontinuous, but more often the continuity is there. It just seems discontinuous, camouflaged by his use of wide and dissonant intervals and his assiduous avoidance of tonality.

According to the liner notes, this performance is a "scored improvisation," a term that (like the piece itself) leaves a great deal of room for interpretation. The music is spacious and mostly very quiet. The musicians alternate their contributions; seldom are they all playing at once. As a consequence the music has a spacious, open feel. Bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Steve McCall make for a great rhythm section. Here they're called upon not to swing but to color, a task they perform with much discernment. The underrated pianist Jodie Christian interfaces very well with Mitchell, his ingenious lines weaving gently through and around the saxophonist's.

The music is as abstract as the painting on the album cover or a composition by Webern. Like much of Mitchell's work, it bears the fragile beauty that characterizes some of the best jazz/contemporary classical hybrids. This was a wonderful band, and this is a fine example of what made it so.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Alone Together

Sometime after Williams recorded this absorbing extended live version of "Alone Together," she surprisingly wrote the following on her website: "I've probably played 'Alone Together' for the last time, but the last time I played it, I forgot entirely about those extra bars tacked onto the A sections—the major-minor thing. It's one of those tunes that has fascinated me for a long time and then suddenly I lost interest. Maybe I just thought I liked it. Looking back, I don't think I ever did." Hopefully she'll reconsider, but until then we can enjoy this classic Williams' track (not to mention her previously recorded renditions), with a state-of-the-art rhythm team of Ray Drummond and Victor Lewis.

Williams typically breaks up the rhythm before flowing unaccompanied into the melody and embellishing it with interesting harmonic alterations. This leads to interlacing contrapuntal lines that reach a satisfying resolution signaling the entry of Drummond and Lewis at the three-minute mark. She now adds long, serpentine runs to the mix, and for a time utilizes a continuous and varying left-hand bass line that nearly makes Drummond superfluous. When Williams initiates a sustained swinging medium-tempo groove, this allows bass and drums to finally lock gears with the pianist as she continues to explore the many nuances of the elegant Dietz-Schwartz standard. Her lavish block chords set the stage for Drummond's resolutely lyrical solo. Williams' swift, swirling interlude that follows is thrilling, and her deftly elaborate coda gives way to well-deserved, generous applause from the audience at Yoshi's.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Warm Valley

The sensuous, reverent "Warm Valley" was originally introduced by Duke Ellington as a feature for Johnny Hodges' alto, and has rarely been covered by pianists over the years. Playing solo, Williams interprets it memorably here. (See review on jazz.com of Earl Hines' performance, one of the other notable exceptions.) This is Jessica Williams the reflective balladeer, the other side of the often more uninhibited, effusive player. Those two sides complete an unbeatable master of jazz piano.

Williams' short intro is both glowing and majestic, and the same can be said for her treatment of the theme, highlighted by her clarion touch, gradational ornamentations, and a hypnotically serene and soothing pace. Some of her twittering arpeggios bear the stamp of both Ellington and Monk's pianistics, and a bluesy ambiance quite effectively and subtly pervades one of her choruses. However, it is the striking immediacy of her open-hearted articulation that is perhaps the most compelling aspect of this glorious interpretation, so fully captured by recording engineers David Baker and Ed Reed.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Jimmy Giuffre 4: Dragonfly

Jimmy Giuffre isn't the first name that comes to mind when one thinks about '80s fusion. Yet he was such an adventurous creative soul, it shouldn't surprise anyone that he would eventually try plugging-in. Indeed, the most surprising thing about this music is not the identity of its creator, but rather its label. Surely this must be the most "commercial" album ever issued on the avant-centric Soul Note.

"Dragonfly" is an aggressive, Return to Forever/Weather Report-like tune that features sudden melodic and harmonic twists of a kind that would've make Josef Zawinul proud. The band isn't quite as tight as the major label fusion groups of that era, but they execute Giuffre's tortuous composition with just enough precision and plenty of fire. The rhythm section is plenty exciting. Drummer Randy Kaye and electric bassist Bob Nieske form a dynamic foundation, and Pete Levin on electric piano is an intrepid soloist and accompanist. Giuffre's rather dark sound and swing-meets-free manner of improvising doesn't incorporate the sort of post-Coltrane/Shorter elements one is accustomed to hearing from tenor saxophonists playing in this bag, but that's not a problem. It runs counter to formula, and that's seldom if ever a bad thing.

As high as the quality of musicianship is, the instrumentation and style robs it of the timeless quality we get from Giuffre's acoustic work. Still, it's an intriguing performance—a lesser-known aspect of this great multifaceted artist's recorded legacy.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Straight, No Chaser

"I seem to be in my Johnny Griffin bag here," Williams wrote of this stunning 13-minute track, "chorus after chorus after chorus, exploring one idea after another." The pianist starts off her solo with frolicking staccato runs after only briefly hinting at the well-known Monk theme, using a resounding left-hand bass figure to provide the momentum until the full trio robustly launches into the melody proper. Williams' marathon solo is a lesson in how not to repeat oneself and still remain fluidly and cogently in control. Captein and Brown provide encouraging and compelling support, and the leader's ongoing interplay with Brown in particular is remarkably intuitive. Williams' inventiveness nearly overwhelms, as she succeeds in reaching successive, diverse peaks of creativity. Brown's ecstatic drum solo, and his following delightful trades with Williams, are prime examples of his polished percussive talent and consummate Max Roach-influenced approach. Williams tosses in an appropriate nod to "Blue Monk" as she draws to a close this wonderful performance by arguably the best trio she's ever led.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Bemsha Swing

Those following Williams' career from the '80's to the late '90's were delighted when In the Key of Monk, her long-awaited live-in-concert tribute to Thelonious, was released in 1999. She had always been one of the most original interpreters of Monk's tunes, and, when so inspired, often interspersed elements of his style into performances of unrelated standards and her own compositions. In her liner notes, Williams wrote, "The truth is that a musician playing a Monk tune sounds like Monk because Monk tunes sound like Monk tunes. They're authentic, genuine distillations of Monk's musical point of view, and they inevitably affect the course of improvisation that any musician might take playing them...If you hear Monk in me at times, that's because he's a natural part of my musical make-up now."

"Bemsha Swing" was actually a collaboration between Monk and the usually uncredited Denzil Best. Williams initially plucks out the basic blues-oriented theme on the piano strings, before mixing in some choice key strokes. When she focuses exclusively on the keyboard, she uses a herky-jerky left-handed stride rhythm in conjunction with rapid-fire spiraling arpeggios for an enticing reinvention of Monk's tune. The pianist then refers back to the theme only to jump off into harmonically and rhythmically challenging and provocative contrapuntal dialogues. Williams' ability to create intricately woven opposing yet complementary lines simultaneously in each hand is an endless joy and wonder to hear. She departs as she entered—plucked strings heralding her return to Monk's melody as written.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Solitude

"Solitude," which Ellington wrote in just 20 minutes under deadline pressure, was a key component of Duke's playlist from 1934 up to his death in 1974, when Ella Fitzgerald sang it movingly at his funeral. The tune has, of course, lived on to this day, but in the wrong hands can sound overly sentimental or wooden. Williams' version, on the other hand, seems at times to open up the standard to new possibilities, while also remaining refreshingly in the tradition. "Higher Standards" indeed, as Williams' first all-standards CD is entitled.

Williams begins unaccompanied and rubato, with headlong runs and filigreed arpeggios. Upon introducing the melody, she heartily embellishes it, going into stride mode for good measure. When Captein and Brown make their first entry, Williams reenters the theme with a quickly passing allusion to "Four" by Miles Davis, before briefly adopting Ellington's keyboard style, only to surge off into an up-tempo solo that we can imagine Duke would have "loved madly." The pianist's two-handed swing-fest contains blues-tinged angularity, technically impressive parallel lines drawn from her early classical training, her always welcome block chords, and intriguing left-hand adornments. Williams' exchanges with Brown delve into stride and Monkish inflections, and even include a quote from "Exactly Like You." The out-chorus is a take-no-prisoners romp that unexpectedly evokes Count Basie in its very last notes.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Jimmy Giuffre 4: Cool

On an album packed with elaborately composed and arranged fusion tunes, "Cool" is a relative throwback to what Jimmy Giuffre did best. The laid-back, medium-tempo blues provides Giuffre a platform for some superb inside/outside blowing on what is arguably his best horn, the Bb clarinet. Of course, the presence of Bob Nieske's electric bass, Pete Levin's electric piano and synthesizer, and the reverb-laden recording technique dates the music. It's very much of a particular era: the early 1980s, a time when many veteran jazz musicians of Giuffre's generation were still experimenting with electronics, with varying degrees of success. Giuffre's solo is magnificent, but the artifice imposed by the instrumentation stands between his artistry and this listener's full enjoyment. Still, it's to his credit that Giuffre continued to stretch at such a relatively late stage in his career. That impulse served him well, ensuring his continued relevance to the end of his life.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Mr. Syms

Williams has often remarked that her piano style is more influenced by saxophonists than by other pianists, usually singling out Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, and John Coltrane. She has recorded a number of Coltrane compositions, including "Transition," "Dear Lord," “Equinox," and "Mr. Syms." The latter is a 48-bar minor blues with a bridge that appeared on Coltrane Plays the Blues. Coltrane mainly delivers the theme to open and close the track, with McCoy Tyner as the main soloist, so in this case Williams is as much taking her cue from Tyner as from Trane.

Tyner's solo has a dark, lower register rumble that contrasts starkly with Coltrane's soprano, and Williams' solo maintains a similarly dark hue for most of the way. Williams' sound reverberates due to her reliance on the piano's middle pedal (as she indicates in her liner notes). Her fluttering runs and bluesy riffs compete at times against the resulting heavily pronounced left-hand chords. The pianist's playing is initially very indebted to Tyner, but the meatiest part of her improv is distinctively Williams—rapid, staccato extended lines accentuated by a persistent stride-like left hand. There's also an exploratory looseness about the performance as a whole, as she leaves Tyner territory near the end of her solo for some adroitly executed two-handed blues piano that segues back to a fervent review of the theme. This concluding section is warmly reminiscent of Mary Lou Williams at her spirited best.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: If I Were A Bell

"He definitely brought out a lot of my influences, " Williams said about playing with bassist Leroy Vinnegar during this live club session, adding, "At one point I felt like Wynton Kelly." She was likely referring to the track "If I Were a Bell," which recalls the many Miles Davis performances of the tune with not only Wynton Kelly at the piano, but also Red Garland. Williams' 13-minute interpretation swings like mad, and showcases the trio at its best, both as individual soloists and in rapt group interaction.

Williams glides jubilantly over the rhythm team's relaxed yet driving cadence. Her bluesy, singing lines bubble over with engaging creativity, supplemented by her indomitable, often spiky left-hand voicings. Monkish dissonance and Garland-like block chords filter through the unrelenting Kelly-inspired propulsion. When Williams suddenly turns pianissimo, wittily quoting from "I Get a Kick Out of You," this allows Vinnegar to move up-front and go on one of his inimitable "walking tours," graced by the pianist's simpatico comping. Williams then hooks up with Brown for exchanges that emphatically confirm the drummer's substantial skills, capped by a solo exhibiting a melodicism that compares favorably with the similar approach of Max Roach. Williams returns with a spacy free-fall concluding fantasia that never loses its inventive way.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: The Sheikh

"The Sheikh" was written for veteran bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who joined WIlliams and drummer Mel Brown for the pianist's first live club recording. Williams prefers not to rehearse bands in order to ensure freshness and spontaneity, and those two words greatly apply to what is heard here. "The Sheikh" has gone on to become a staple in Williams' repertoire, and is among the original compositions she has most frequently recorded.

Vinnegar's bass figure and Williams' complementary chords lead to the concise, fetching vamp that essentially comprises the theme. Williams both dampens and strums the piano strings, developing percussive patterns, as Vinnegar maintains the insinuating bass line. The pianist now alternates between strummed strings, chirping phrases, and forceful chords, before bluesy passages and insistent block chords dominate the remainder of her solo. Brown in his improv makes inventive use of sundry parts of his kit, from bass drum to rims, and he also seems to employ a hand or elbow to create effective muffled textures. After Williams revisits the theme, Vinnegar, fittingly, is left alone to to carry the piece to its satisfying conclusion.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: The Nearness Of You

Williams was living in Portland, OR at the time she recorded what became Volume 21 of the prestigious Maybeck Recital Hall solo piano series. While the respect and admiration for her playing was still largely confined to the West Coast, it was perhaps that regional recognition that resulted in her invitation to join the ranks of other better-known pianists who had already performed at Maybeck, such as Barry Harris, Marian McPartland, Kenny Barron, and Hank Jones. In turn, the release of Williams' At Maybeck broadened her exposure more than had any of her previous albums.

"The Nearness of You" is one of the most impressive tracks, and surely turned more than a few heads her way for the first time, creating future loyal fans in the process. Williams begins with parallel modulating figures, dissonant note clusters, and whirling dervish runs, before a semblance of the theme finally emerges. She continues with more subtle embellishments, but still often provocative and unpredictable in the direction and resolution of her phrases. The pianist uses the entire keyboard, as is her wont, dwelling for a time in the upper octaves while maintaining an appealingly swaying rhythm with her left hand. Williams gets progressively deeper inside the tune's harmonic structure with intricate, logical, and always listener-friendly variations. The reprise of the melody features a sprinkling of Monkish "trinkle-tinkles," before a playful yet heartfelt ending.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Williams: Kristen

The Williams trio with Witala and Spangler had been playing together for about six years when the Nothin' but the Truth album was recorded. For the session, Williams introduced one of her loveliest compositions, "Kristen," which she had written for artist Kristen Wetterhahn while she was the house pianist at the Keysone Korner in San Francisco in the late '70's. The trio give the tune a treatment that brings out all of its inherent grace and beauty.

The melody of "Kristen" is an ethereal wonder that is heightened by Williams' ringing tone, trilling ornamentations, and warmth of expression, as well as by the intuitive support of Wiitala and Spangler. The pianist's solo is sweepingly lyrical, ranging from resonant chords—both gentle and powerful—to feverish extended lines. Think Hampton Hawes meets Bill Evans. Her return to the poignant theme after this variegated and inspired statement offers a pleasing contrast, but her out-chorus contains still more surging, technically masterful passages. Still relatively unknown except on the West Coast at the time of this performance, Williams' inimitable style was already pretty much fully-formed.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tony Bennett and Bill Evans: Make Someone Happy

An often-overlooked part of Bill Evans’ genius was his ability to listen closely to what his fellow musicians are doing and adjust his own playing accordingly without compromising his own imprint. He demonstrated this ability with Miles Davis, Scott LaFaro and Stan Getz. Late in his career, he proved to also be a perfect companion to a master crooner in Tony Bennett.

Take “Make Someone Happy,” for instance. Bennett’s vocal delivery on this Broadway tune is breathtaking in its warmth, power and control. The polished phrasing is sometimes on the beat and sometimes a little behind it, a Sinatra hallmark. Evans, however, comps to perfectly match Bennett lyric by lyric. As soon as the singer takes a breather, Evans relishes the brief freedom to do a uptempo happy dance with his right hand on the lighter side of the ivories, segueing smoothly back into an accompanist role right on cue when Bennett sings his concluding chorus.

“Make Someone Happy” is just one of several highlights of the 1975-76 sessions between these two legends, but the tour de force displayed on this track alone is enough to make those memorable meetings live up to the billing.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Justin Vasquez: Triptych

Contemporary jazz commands such a wide playing field. On one end there’s the kind you hear in grocery stores and elevators — non-challenging, unobtrusive, comfortable, background music. On the opposite end you’ll find teeth-grinding, edge-of-the-envelope avant-garde shock and awe. Slightly south of this postmodernist maelstrom, you will find jazz that’s edgy and challenging to the mind, but not hard on the heart or ears. This is where the music of composer/sax man Justin Vasquez lives. On his debut solo album, Triptych, he stakes his claim solidly in the new frontier.

The title cut "Triptych" can best be described as a mind-blowing journey through an altered modal universe. Beginning prosaically enough with a simple samba figure on Aaron Parks' piano, a ghostly voice joins in (the marvelous Gretchen Parlato), lifting the light, modal theme away from the confines of common time into 7/8, alternated with odd measures. An upbeat unison head ushers in a challenging platform for guitarist Adam Rogers’ free-range improvisations under which the ground seems to be constantly shifting.  Unfazed, Rogers delivers lucid, provocative finger runs bubbling off the fretboard without losing altitude or focus — a joy to hear. Then the piano growls, setting up the mystic transition into the sax solo. With deadly punctuation from Penn’s drums, Vasquez’ throaty tenor-like alto becomes a cauldron of wailing intensity threatening to peel the paint off the sonic wall.

Though this piece is not likely to be heard in elevators, serious listeners will definitely be elevated.

April 14, 2009 · 1 comment

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Mengelberg, Lacy, Lewis, Gorter, Bennink: Spinning Song

Herbie Nichols is one of the very few pre-Ornette, bop-derived composers whose tunes have attracted interpreters from the free jazz side of the tracks. This cooperative ensemble consists of avant-inclined musicians who are at-ease with more traditional styles; it's not surprising that they'd be attracted to Nichols' tunes, which are a great deal more harmonically sophisticated than the average '50s-era blowing vehicle. This tune's harmony hints at Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," but that's about the only familiar thing about it. The medium-tempo tune is pure Nichols in the way it moves from harmonic complexity to simplicity. The casual performance evokes a nightclub feel. A loose camaraderie prevails. Lacy brings the same epigrammatic approach he uses on Monk to the Nichols canon. Mengelberg is terse, witty, and acrid. Lewis is a bit blowsier, but no less incisive. Bassist Arjen Gorter and drummer Han Bennink contrive a conventional, very relaxed and swinging modern jazz foundation. Some tributes seem paralyzed by the example set by the honoree. Not this. These guys treat Nichols' composition not with reverence, but with joyful appreciation and boundless creativity.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mengelberg, Lacy, Lewis, Gorter, Bennink: Change of Season

For someone who scuffled in virtual anonymity during his lifetime, the highly individualistic post-bop pianist/composer Herbie Nichols has attained fairly remarkable acclaim in the 45 years since his death. He's not become wildly famous, but his sophisticated compositions have been interpreted by many prominent, forward-thinking musicians. This 1984 performance is the title track from one of the first Nichols tribute albums. The quintet treats Nichols' harmonically-ambiguous tune as a lumbering ballad framed by pianist Misha Mengelberg, whose spare, dissonant self-accompaniments are reminiscent of another idiosyncratic pianist/composer, Thelonious Monk. Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy is astringent and concise, while trombonist George Lewis lends a boppish touch. The musicians don't seem entirely comfortable navigating Nichols' serpentine changes, but somehow their diffidence fits; Nichols was, after all, a rather self-effacing musician. Indeed, as this music demonstrates, that's not a bad way to be. There's beauty in the bashful.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Les Brown: Just a Gigolo

One of the great things about the study of an art form is that, in many cases, the cream finally rises to the top. For many years, it was easy to take the Les Brown band for granted; it played wherever Bob Hope turned up, whether on television or Viet Nam. It played local west coast gigs if it appeared live, and made a couple of albums a year through the sixties. But when Hope left the business and Brown's many recordings became available on CD, many of us took a long look and listen to what his band accomplished. He was known for introducing Doris Day, but he had many other vocalists who were excellent. His was a dance band first, but he always had top notch soloists, and he recorded high-powered jazz written by excellent arrangers. Added to that was the fact that he was a fine arranger himself, and never stopped writing for the band.

It would be interesting to know how he came to have a new version of "Just a Gigolo" in his book. This song first attained popularity in the United States back in 1931 and would become legendary as part of Louis Prima's Las Vegas act paired with "I Ain't Got Nobody." But in the hands of the Band of Renown, it starts with a piano intro, a statement of the melody in two and then four-beat, a bebop-laced vocal by novelty singer Stumpy Brown, a solo by Abe Most, an eight bar transition drenched in bop (Gozzo was a ringer in the trumpet section for this recording, and he is amazing as usual), and then a solo statement by bopper Pell. The band then takes over for a chorus, and we are reminded of the brilliance of arranger Skip Martin in this exciting and roaring transfiguration of a simple tune swinging mightily as if the band's life depended on its performance (one should also listen to Clarkson's solo; he is a highly underrated musician). The music ends with a highly dissonant chord that still seems perfect given what happened during the previous three minutes.

In the scheme of things, this is a relatively minor record, but if the minor performances are this good, many of the major recordings are stunning, and it makes perfect sense when modern big band historians now call Les Brown's ensemble one of the finest big bands of all time.

April 14, 2009 · 1 comment

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Dexter Gordon: Boston Bernie

In the spring of 1969, seven years before he would make his dramatic permanent return to the United States, Gordon took a trip to America, where he would play three dates that led to the release of five albums of prime Gordon material. Three of the five records consist of material from studio sessions on April 2nd and 4th (Power!, The Tower of Power!, and More Power!), and the two other albums, L.T.D. and XXL, contain music from a single live outing in Baltimore on May 4th.

From what I can find, L.T.D. and XXL are the only two recordings that find Dexter Gordon and Bobby Timmons playing together, and their instant bond makes these albums true gems in the discographies of both musicians. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Gordon have more fun playing than on these two recordings, evidenced here by the commonly-called Gordon original, “Boston Bernie.” Once Gordon and Timmons get started on this track—along with most others on these two discs—it’s tough to stop them. The solos are very long but are absolutely jam-packed with an endless supply of effortless ideas. Throughout Gordon’s improvisation, the usual combination of quotes, spiraling bop lines and single-note motives abound, but on this specific track, the addition of a heightened awareness of his gospel/blues surroundings make this peppery Gordon solo an exclusive gem.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: The Shadow of Your Smile

If you ask someone to connect Dexter Gordon to a single record label, I’d guess that nine times out of ten, Blue Note is deservedly going to be the label uttered. But perhaps just as rich and rewarding a historical legacy is Gordon’s relationship with Steeplechase, the Danish label with which he recorded countless albums throughout his European sojourn from 1962-1974. Just a quick rundown reveals how much there is to offer—the seven-volume Dexter in Radioland series documenting his extended run at the famed Montmartre club in 1964, his individual mid-sixties sessions including Loose Walk and Wee Dot, and the late 1969 dates that led to the Swiss Nights releases.

The Shadow of Your Smile is among the first of Gordon’s Steeplechase releases from the 1970s. Supported with a light touch by a Swedish backing band, Gordon is in the mood to play slowly here, and does so exquisitely. “Shadow of Your Smile,” along with his longtime favorite, “You’ve Changed,” are two of the ballads that Gordon played most frequently, and any version you may find speaks to Gordon’s dedication to staying true to the original lyric. On this one, he chooses to embellish that lyric, and later develop his improvisation, with a heightened sense of open rhythmic space. We’re so used to hearing Gordon seem to know exactly where he’s going next that listening to a more speculative, slow-searching statement is an attractive and unique late-career experience.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: It’s You or No One

After thirty-plus years in the business with a respected yet somehow undervalued reputation, Dexter Gordon received an astounding hero’s welcome upon his return engagement to the United States with a week-long run at the Village Vanguard in December 1976. Seemingly all at once, the jazz world realized that there weren’t many musicians whose resumes were as entirely representative of jazz history as Gordon’s—from swing to bop to hard-bop, from America to Europe and now back to America again. From December ’76 on, the jazz community, filled with many new faces who were just kids when Gordon last resided in America, made up for lost time by celebrating Gordon’s life and music.

The playing on “It’s You or No One” is emotional and raw. One could almost sense that the Vanguard might not have felt this kind of energy for a quite a few years. Backed by Woody Shaw and his working band at the time, which featured the propulsive drummer Louis Hayes, Gordon’s playing is fun and witty—and his bop lines are infused with an excited grittiness not heard so strongly since his early bop recordings. Shaw is in top form here as well, displaying such effortless talent that another review of this track could rightly focus on Shaw’s sustaining impact on the post-bop trumpet world. But it’s Gordon’s party, and his solo here encapsulates the classic up-tempo Gordon bop style with his never-ending focus on improvisations with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. As legend (or the original liner notes) has it, Charles Mingus showed up to one of the rehearsals for this engagement and declared to Dexter: “you’re gonna be teachin’ New York some stuff, man. Some lessons.” He did indeed.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Teddy Wilson Orchestra (with Billie Holiday): I Must Have That Man

From the first line of her vocal, Billie Holiday uses her unique intonation, exceptional phrasing and rhythm, and expressive capacity with words to exquisitely create the mood of this genuine classic, as well as to offer the first explanation of why she “must have that man.” Teddy Wilson gives us a brief, fitting intro, and then provides the piano backing for Billie in a restrained but perfectly attuned, effective manner. When she sings that great line, “He’s hot as hades, a lady’s [perfect little pause] not safe in his arms when she’s kissed” with perfect rhythm, phrasing and emotion, we feel the simmering heat. And she finishes the verse singing the thematic phrase in a way that manages to be subtle and awesome at the same time, singing a syncopated descending line, dripping with feeling, “I… must… have… that…man;” it’s like the final lines in a profoundly moving novel by a master fiction writer set to great music. This is a strong candidate for Billie Holiday’s greatest vocal performance.

But there’s more. As in "He Ain't Got Rhythm," the other classic recorded in the same session, Lester Young (“Prez”) follows Holiday’s verses on his tenor sax with one of the most sublimely beautiful solos in all of jazz, one which perfectly captures the mood and spirit of the music that Billie, with the band’s backing, had just created. This solo is the ultimate example of how that unique light, floating, slightly breathy, but oh-so-soulful saxophone tone and creative lines made Prez a revered and influential musician. Benny Goodman adds a very nicely constructed solo, excellently suited to the music. Then Buck Clayton blows a brilliant smooth (“legato”) but powerful clarion call on his trumpet that reiterates the musical theme with superb subtle variations. And behind all this glorious “front line” playing, that all star Basie rhythm section of Green, Page and Jones provides a great foundation.

This is not just masterful jazz, it is pure magic; it doesn’t get any better than this.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool

After some captivating if uncharacteristic experimentation in 1963-64, Gordon returned to his classic sound with Gettin’ Around, a bebop/hard-bop masterwork which found the saxophonist in absolute top form. Throughout the entire disc, Gordon is still holding onto some of his new darker, moodier concepts while (re)focusing on his logical, straight-ahead solo construction. “Le Coiffer,” “Flick of a Trick,” “Manha de Carnival” and “Shiny Stockings” are all highlights that feature the charming frontline of Gordon’s tenor and Hutcherson’s vibes, supported by an all-star hard-bop rhythm section of Harris, Cranshaw and Higgins. The highlight of highlights from Gettin’ Around once again reveals itself in ballad form on “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.” While much of the solo space here is reserved for an excellent statement from pianist Harris, Gordon's poignantly improvised statement of the melody is faultless, and comes as close as any track can to fully revealing the dichotomous elements of Gordon’s sound—powerful yet sensitive, insistent yet speculative, improvised yet utterly defined.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: Kong Neptune

Recorded in Paris in 1964 and featuring two of Gordon’s most familiar European sidemen (pianist Kenny Drew and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen), One Flight Up reveals one of the more intriguing relationships in the history of jazz influence—Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane. Dexter Gordon’s line construction and big, open sound was a major early influence on Coltrane. And while Trane initially took a little while to develop his craft, we all know that once he did, he altered the course of how just about everyone—Gordon included—approached their instrument. At the height of Coltrane’s creative powers in 1964, Gordon, in turn, released One Flight Up, and while it’s certainly not free or avant-garde, it features a kicked-in-the-rear Gordon eager to stretch out more than ever before.

Whether listening to the 18+ minute “Tanya,” the 11+ minute “Coppin’ the Haven,” or the 11+ minute “Kong Neptune,” one gets a glimpse of a Gordon who is relying a bit more on energy, texture, and mood than on careful construction of bop lines. While “Tanya” may be the most adventurous and Trane-like (although it proves that not even Art Taylor could pull off a legit Elvin Jones imitation), “Kong Neptune” comes closest to achieving a fully cohesive atmosphere. Note how Gordon utilizes the full range of his horn for certain lines and then alternately focuses on repetitive, single-note lines to provide a more-tension-than-release feel. A rigorous, self-aware performance featuring Gordon at his most creative.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Teddy Wilson Orchestra (with Billie Holiday): He Ain't Got Rhythm

Besides great jazz musicians playing superbly, this track is a sheer delight because of the lyrics, and Billie Holiday’s marvelously nuanced, whimsical and playful singing of those lyrics (the melody and words are by that classic American tunesmith, Irving Berlin). The verses are like Sinclair Lewis with a tragi-comic twist transmuted into jazz, as they tell the mock horror tale of this poor quintessentially drab, uncool middle class man who bends over his account books, and “he attracted some attention at the fall convention, but he ain’t got rhythm, so no one’s with him, the loneliest man in town.” With her intonation and phrasing, verbal emphases and her own perfect rhythm, Billie makes this musical short story come to life and makes it hugely enjoyable.

Meanwhile, Lester Young plays his virtuoso tenor sax in perfect complement to Holiday’s singing. This track is one of the ultimate demonstrations of how Young and Holiday had developed some kind of mystical, musical soul connection so that they were two parts making a completed whole. Benny Goodman adds another dimension here with outstanding clarinet work, starting in the intro with his just right, delicate, elegant yet sardonic statement and variations on the wonderfully catchy musical theme, the melody perfectly suiting the lyrics. Teddy Wilson lays down a lush but appropriately sprightly piano groundwork for Benny in the intro, and then comps excellently for the rest of the track.

But there was also Buck Clayton, who was a third exquisitely attuned voice with Holiday and Young on the series of recordings they made together, including the equally masterful track done in the same session as this one, “I Must Have That Man.” After Lester’s superb solo (one of his very best), Buck soars on his trumpet, characteristically playing powerful but smoothly lyrical lines that brilliantly complement and add to Billie’s singing and Lester’s sax work, with punched out accents adding to the expression and the excitement. And of course, with Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones from Basie’s “All American rhythm section” providing the foundation, you have the epitome of what that poor accountant lacks. This is must-have jazz, with delightful fun as a bonus.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: A Night In Tunisia

Discouraged by the palpable lack of appreciation throughout the first twenty years of his career, Dexter Gordon relocated to Europe from 1962-1976. Even though he was still under contract with Blue Note and returned to the States for sessions and occasional gigs, Gordon appeared both fulfilled and re-energized by the European scene in the 1960s and recorded some of his finest live music at the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen—handfuls of which have been released on disc.

Dexter was certainly not the only American in Europe during these years, and it’s the reunion of Dexter Gordon with fellow expat Bud Powell (from their classic bop session seventeen years earlier) and famed American swing-to-bop drummer Kenny Clarke that combine to form one of Gordon’s finest studio efforts during his decade-and-a-half in Europe. A super relaxed solo-break begins Gordon’s improvisation over this bebop staple, but this serene atmosphere doesn’t last long. In the blink of an eye, Dexter has committed to one of his more heated improvisations—complete with repetitive Coltrane-esque yelps that make us wonder if what we’re hearing is stemming from a place of joy or ferocity, or perhaps a bit of both. Challenging and entirely musically rewarding, Our Man in Paris comprises an album’s worth of fascinating listening.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: Cheese Cake

Once asked which of his own Blue Note albums his personal favorite was, Gordon rather surprisingly offered a response, declaring: “I would have to say it is Go!—the perfect rhythm section…made it possible for me to play whatever I wanted to play.”

One listen to “Cheese Cake” reveals that Dexter’s comment really isn’t much of an overstatement. Right off the bat, one can’t help but notice the magnetism of Billy Higgins’s and Dexter Gordon’s shared proclivity towards vigorous playing with a tender touch. They are perfect foils for one another, and it’s no surprise that Higgins became the saxophonist’s drummer of choice for much of the remainder of his Blue Note period and during years beyond.

Clark is also in fine form here, comping at a somewhat softer, entirely perfect volume (an art unto itself) that allows him to busily predict Gordon’s moves without stepping on his toes. What’s then left to discuss is whatever Dexter wanted to play. In typical Gordon form, his improvisation begins with some standard, unhurried bebop fare and is slowly but surely enhanced by quotes, hints of the blues, and sudden vertical leaps that Gordon unpacks and prolongs along the way. Finally, note how Gordon adds a bit more length to the end of many of his eighth notes to achieve a deep, straightened-out-swing feel. A textbook bebop/hard-bop performance.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: You've Changed

With the exception of a couple of bop/hard-bop sessions (Daddy Plays the Horn and Dexter Blows Hot and Cool), the 1950s was largely a period of narcotics-induced inactivity for Dexter Gordon. As the sixties began, Gordon’s performance career reemerged with his acceptance of Alfred Lion’s offer to record for the Blue Note label. Whether he recorded in the U.S. or in Europe (the latter was Gordon’s home from 1962-1976), Gordon produced some of his finest playing, compositions, and backing bands during his seven-year relationship with the famed label.

While much of Gordon's playing on his Blue Note debut, Doin’ Alright, reinforces his forcefully refined bop styling of the late 1940s and ‘50s, this track presented a new trend in Dexter’s recording career—his penchant for beautiful ballad playing. While he had certainly recorded ballads before this rendition of “You’ve Changed,” one would hardly call Gordon a ballad expert based on his playing in the 1940s and 1950s. He only needed one Blue Note record to institute his mastery of the form, however, as evidenced throughout this faultlessly executed track. Note the eerily beautiful opening line, his ability to present romantic playing at a louder overall volume (for a ballad at least), and his pitch-perfect knack for knowing when to stretch out over the changes and when to reel himself back in and quote from the “You’ve Changed” melody.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon & Wardell Gray: The Hunt

Two of Wardell Gray’s and Dexter Gordon’s tenor duels, “The Chase” and “The Hunt,” rank among the all-time highlights of west coast jazz. While “The Chase,” recorded a month earlier on June 12, was the seven-minute top-seller, “The Hunt” is an all-out 18-minute jam session where several Cali pioneers skip the melody altogether in order to roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty with their improvisations. This track represents so many things at once: bop that doesn’t really sound like Bird and Diz; a rare jazz performance where audience interaction plays an important role in the tune’s development; and two leading west-coast tenors proving that they can jam as hard as any of those dominant east coasters. The track’s importance is encapsulated by a singular moment of jazz history intersecting with another landmark of American cultural history, when Dean Moriarity himself, of Kerouac’s On the Road, remembers “listening to a wild bop record…’The Hunt,’ with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.” A historically significant track featuring Gordon at his most vibrant.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: Dexter Rides Again

Directly following performances with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in 1945, Dexter Gordon capitalized on his bop momentum by recording this classic date as a leader with the top-notch bop rhythm section of Bud Powell, Curly Russell, and Max Roach. Digging into the changes here more than ever before, Gordon’s solo on “Dexter Rides Again” strings together several genuine, stand-alone bebop lines without sacrificing a traditional overarching storyline. Check out 00:51-00:59 for one of the strongest developmental lines from the middle of his solo.

There are two other important points to note here. First, the true enormity of Gordon’s trademark wide-open tone is more evident here than ever before. Perhaps because the Pres aesthetic, the Hawkins/Jacquet-inspired strong tone, and the bebop vocabulary have finally coalesced into a unified “Dexter Gordon sound” for the first time here, there’s a jovial, declaratory quality to these proceedings. Fortunately, this atmosphere is not a one-time offer, as these magnetic Gordon characteristics govern all of his future sessions.

Finally, the famous “Jingle Bells” quote should be pointed out—not because it’s necessarily his most creative, but because it’s yet another example of a major Gordon mainstay. Not only does he find a witty quote that works, but, as all capable quoters do, he artistically alters the final few notes to begin a new improvised line over the next chord without missing a step. All things considered, “Dexter Rides Again” is an ideal three-minute encapsulation of the newly arrived and fully defined Gordon style.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Hendrik Meurkens: Mountain Drive

Not too many years ago (I really don't want to say), the sum total of my experience with the harmonica in a jazz context was the Harmonicats show I went to as a little boy down in Lantana, Floridan. OK, it wasn't really jazz, but it was the harmonica. You won't be surprised to learn that my jazz brain was populated with the likes of Toots Thielemans not long after my jazz snobbery phase came into being. I sort of felt bad that I'd wasted all of those years ignoring this wonderful instrument.

On “Mountain Drive,” Hendrik Meurkens takes advantage of the harmonica's ability to project upbeat and happy emotion in both solo and duo (with Rodrigo Ursaia on saxophone) settings. Adding to the mood is a very cool Fender Rhodes solo taken mid-song by Misha Tsiganov.

If this track fails to bring a smile to your face, you're in a worse mood than you thought!

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dexter Gordon: I've Found A New Baby

“I’ve Found a New Baby” is the first track listed on the first Dexter Gordon-led recording session in late 1943. Situated in time after Gordon’s period with Lionel Hampton and before his big band work with Louis Armstrong and early bop work with Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, these recordings present a young Pres disciple bursting at the seams with bouncy accents and sweet, bluesy lines. His entire solo here, but especially his first few phrases, are as cool as it gets—chock full of those dominating sixths and ninths that ruled the Pres-to-Bird era of harmonic development. This performance also proves that, aside from the overwhelming Pres influence, Gordon was also flirting with an earthy, aggressive tone that seemed part reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins and Illinois Jacquet, the latter being Gordon’s tenor partner in Lionel Hampton’s group. While there are a few hints of some rhythmically investigational playing here, Gordon is never one to push too far too fast, making “I’ve Found a New Baby” the prime example of swing-era trained musician developing the proper tools to make bop headway in the near future.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dizzy Gillespie: Blue ‘N’ Boogie

This vital track from early 1945 captures the various levels of bebop sophistication during its prime years of formulation. Pianist Frank Paparelli, who co-wrote this tune with Diz, is stuck between stations throughout his improvisation—trying his very best to create a bop-ish statement and…let’s leave it at that. Dexter Gordon comes next, and offers a mostly horizontal improvisation where he is fast approaching the creation of an inimitable bop statement without necessarily copping the double-timed rhythmic styling of Bird or Diz. The master-class is in session upon Gillespie’s blistering first line, and his comfort level with the bebop vocabulary is, of course, flawlessly executed and exciting as heck. No less crucial than Dizzy’s rightness, though, is Dexter’s overall approach and thought-process. His contrasting style offers the more discreet, minimalist, thinking-through-the-changes approach to bop that would come to define Gordon’s career and provide an enormous influence on the bop and hard-bop worlds.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Frank Macchia: Air Mail Special

Need to cut down on your caffeine intake? Are you making one too many visits to the coffee machine in the middle of the afternoon? Well, maybe you need a dose of Saxolollapalooza instead. If you take the tangled energy of “Salt Peanuts,” push the tempo just a little, and then send it to Mardi Gras, you almost have your own musical nuclear power plant. You also have Frank Macchia's “Air Mail Special.” This track is a total meltdown of fun, with Peter Eskine holding down a sort of second line thing, while the horns have a good time. The crackling energy is amped up by the tight arrangements, the stellar low-end horns taking care of the rollicking bass lines, and Bob Sheppard's wicked sax solo.

“Air Mail Special” is way better for you than that extra cup of stale coffee. More fun too.

April 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ondagroove: Oh Yeah!

If I happen to tune to the wrong radio station, the one that plays the smooth stuff, I sometimes play a little game and see how long I can take it. Usually, Kenny G will show up and I'll scream “Uncle!” Hey, maybe I'm just courting my inner masochist.

I don't know what draws people to that kind of music. Maybe it's the relative calm and regularity. There are no surprises. The rhythms are so predictable. But...but...

Why do I like this track so much? Because it's got some of what the usual aural Velveeta lacks: steaming funk. Sure, the rhythm track is solid and unyielding. But the the keyboard vibe placed against the electronica-influenced rhythm is pretty damned hot. Plus, there's no other word for that tiny guitar figure than wicked. It seems to come by way of Prince's "Sign 'O The Times," and that ain't a bad thing at all.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mikkel Ploug: Cathedral

In a large chamber, a single voice sings a series of three and four-note arpeggios. Their crystalline beauty is soon joined by an electric guitar. It follows the voice around, extending the ideas already presented. Then a bass clarinet comes in, at first to follow the guitar's logic, but then to restate the original series of lines. As the guitar and voice bring chimey accents to the three-way unison figure, you can get a feeling of elevation, maybe even levitation. It's that stunning. It's also my favorite record of the year so far.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Matt Criscuolo: When In Rome

Anything subtitled “with strings” is going to take me back to that iconic Charlie Parker record. And though that is a fantastic album, my favorite horn/strings combination comes from the work that Ornette Coleman did with Howard Shore on the soundtrack to Naked Lunch. The surreal quality of the film was definitely enhanced by Ornette's spikey lines set against the more controlled strings.

“When In Rome” seems to take the middle road, with the spikes smoothed out quite a bit, but with far more romance than Ornette brought to bear (romance emanating from the main melodic instrument in that movie would have been over the top weird). The composition begins with the strings playing a circular, almost Philip Glass-like figure. Over this Criscuolo lays out the theme. What at first seems like a simple case of the horn playing over changes gradually shifts into a subtle call and response pattern, with Criscuolo taking a solo and the strings respond in kind.

“With strings” seems like such an old-fashioned idea. Somehow, this particular tracks comes off as quite modern. Great stuff.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eric Rasmussen: Lennie Bird

As the reader perhaps knows, I have defended the music of Lennie Tristano with the fervor of a true believer (and when it comes to Tristano, the true believers have no shortage of fervor). Yet even I am a bit conflicted by Lennie's loaded legacy. This body of work presents me with an odd dilemma, and I would almost prefer to give two different scores when ranking a track such as Eric Rasmussen's "Lennie Bird." I deeply dig this way of improvising over the chord changes, and would have no hesitation recommending it to musicians. But I fear that non-musicians may be left back at the starting gate, scratching their heads. This is inside jazz, a mindset even more arcane than inside baseball. Everybody can dig Oscar or Ella or Miles, but to approach Lennie Tristano in the right mindset you almost need to go through a hazing and initiation process. (I still have painful memories of sitting on that block of ice while humming "Lennie's Pennies" in all twelve keys.)

Yet you can't fault Rasmussen and company for their smart mastery of the idiom. They clearly survived the hazing experience too, and now know this music inside-out. Somewhere above, Lennie smiles. I smile too, and assure you that I will be listening repeatedly to this CD. I welcome all of you to join me in the experience. That said, if you think that saxophony began and ended with Mr. Kenneth Gorelick, be prepared for a new and perhaps unsettling experience. Of course, if you have already earned your merit badge in Tristanology, this is a recording you really need to own.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mel Martin: Rhythm Man (Do Not Disturb)

While it's true you can make great jazz anywhere, great jazz reputations are still made in New York. So how does the critic deal with local heroes such as Mel Martin, who has done just about as much as anyone could possibly do on various reed instruments, yet has decided to live his life (as the name of his new CD indicates) Where the Warm Winds Blow?

Martin has made his mark in bands such as Listen and Bebop and Beyond and collaborated with everyone from Benny Carter to Boz Scaggs. Even so, he may still be an unknown name to many jazz fans outside of the West Coast. If you count yourself among the uninitiated, check out this new release to get a taste of one of the finest saxophonists West of the Rockies. He is joined by some other local heroes, notably John Santos who keeps the fire burning while Martin flies over an insistent groove, navigating through a form that is half modal vamp and half chord-based. Don't be fooled by a CD cover that shows Martin ready for a beach vacation. This is gritty, driving music from a high-octane performer who has been delivering the goods for many years.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber: Love to Tical

Listening to “Love To Tical” is like listening to hip-hop funk with serious big band orchestration bleed-through; one couldn’t be certain if they were listening to two radio stations closely positioned on the dial. As the R&B female vocalese fades in and out of focus, Veal improvises with his soprano sax, but the room soon gets very crowded with the introduction of waves of horns. Reid (of Living Colour fame) temporarily sweeps them aside with his familiar heavy metal ministrations. Throughout it all, a danceable bass/drums vamp remains the only constant.

This mess of swirling motifs improvised under the direction of the bandleader---or more appropriately, ringleader---Gregory S. Tate brings together the cosmic large band cauldron of that other Arkestra with the rowdy, street sensibilities of P-Funk. While that can be a hit-or-miss proposition when it’s done on the fly, “Love To Tical” mostly hits its target.

April 13, 2009 · 1 comment

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Ronnie Boykins: The Will Come, Is Now

Built upon a haunting, circular bass figure, “The Will Come, Is Now” is a loosely played piece that thanks to the percussion, offers an intriguing African vibe. The former Arkestra bassist doesn’t make the piece as chaotic, unpredictable or atonal as Sun Ra was apt to do, but the same spirituality and feeling of freedom is there.

Following an interesting horn arrangement where the trombone plays counterpoint to the reeds, each of the front line players take turns providing spirited solos: Vass’ alto, Waters’ soprano, Fuguson’s tenor and then, Haroom’s trombone. Boykins’ arco solo shows off his unique abilities to make his bowed bass approximate the sound of the trombone that came immediately before him.

“The Will Come, Is Now” is a rare recording with Boykins in the lead role. As evidenced by this track, it’s a role this innovative bass player has played far too infrequently.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Helen Sung: Willow Weep for Me

I was once teaching some student musicians how to play a medium-groove song, when one of them, a twenty-something saxophonist, walked away in despair. This young musician, a devotee of the School of Coltrane, declared: "To play this song, I need to do something tasty. And I don't know how to play tasty."

Let me tell you about pianist Helen Sung, she definitely knows how to play tasty. Every little lick and aside, all the dynamic shifts and interjected chords, are loose and swinging and oh-so-right. She reminds me of Ray Bryant or Wynton Kelly, those masters of the subtle groove, who never waste a phrase and can deliver a C7 chord that almost forces you to gyrate your hips at least a little bit in response. "Willow Weep for Me" has been played by so many pianists over the years, and the classic versions encompass everything from Bud Powell's grit to Art Tatum's grandeur. Ms. Sung choruses won't dislodge these icons from the pantheon, but (as Garrison Keillor says apropos of Powder Milk Biscuits™) heavens, they're tasty.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jake Hertzog: Bonding

“Bonding” employs a conventional guitar-acoustic bass-drums trio and even begins with a Thelonious Monk inspired passage, but it’s anything but a conventional bop song. As Hertzog’s intricate composition unfolds, it moves quickly from the Monk impressions to mysterious, ascending chords to out-and-out rock, and back again. Somehow, it all fits together well.

Amply supported by a muscular and flexible rhythm section, Hertzog’s licks show the harmonic sophistication of a jazzman while staying rooted in the blues, the same deadly combination that makes guitar god Eric Johnson stand out. Too often you see rock-jazz fusion attempted by musicians who only understand one half of the equation. Jake Hertzog knows it from both ends, and puts his well-rounded know-how to good use in “Bonding.”

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Dixon: A Song For Claudia's Children

Bill Dixon exchanges his trumpet for piano on this track, a mysterious tempest of low sounds beneath Marco Eneidi's keening alto saxophone. As is common with Dixon, the ratio of composed-to-improvised material is difficult to pin down. A diffident, non-tonal melody played and repeated by Eneidi forms the tune's backbone, as the bassists and Dixon improvise a roiling commentary. The recording quality is distant and murky—purposely so, one imagines, as a means to exaggerate the effect had on the music by the use of multiple basses. It's a strikingly inventive and gutsy aesthetic choice. Dixon's not nearly as interesting a pianist as he is a trumpeter, but his contribution works well in this context. Eneidi is very fine—an underrated and wonderful saxophonist, then as now.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Indigo

It's kind of ironic that the most jazz influenced piece from the Aura doesn't even feature Miles Davis on the song. Though contractual obligations kept this album from seeing the light until 1989, some of Europe's best jazz musicians shine on this track. Niels-Henning Orsted Pederse plays wonderfully on this entire song, which features very sporadic piano lines that are very much played in the Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock vein.

I am not sure why Davis doesn't appear on this track or on "Orange," but I think it's kind of a shame that he didn't play on it. I think he would have shined, especially towards the end where orchestra and electric guitar come screaming in before the song ends. Still this song is probably one of the strongest cuts on the album, showing Palle's great writing for orchestra. But the electric guitar sounds have to go!

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Electric Red

I continue to wonder about the Miles Davis catalogue from the 1980s. I understand the trumpet master was experimenting with the new technology of the day but the Aura album represents such a strange moment in his illustrious career. On one hand, it's respectable that Palle Mikkelborg composed this suite in honor of Davis but the song "Electric Red," draws just a little too much on the cheese technology of bad keyboard pads and electric drums.

But aside from the cheesy sounds on this tune, Miles sounds good over a guitar riff that sounds like it should have been the backdrop for a throwaway episode of Miami Vice. The orchestral writing form Mikkelborg is the strongest point of this song, showing his ability at writing interesting contemporary classical backgrounds. I wouldn't absolutely recommend this song to someone just getting into Miles Davis' music but I would say check it out once you get past On the Corner.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Michel Camilo: A Place in Time

Michel Camilo's Spirit of the Moment is a magnificent recording that captures the kindred spirit of his piano playing. On "A Place in Time," Camilo is more at ease than I have ever heard him on recording. He starts the song off with a slow but moving piano line, which is then followed by Flores' ostinato bass line. This song is very sensual and soft, reminding me of waterfalls over rocks or green ocean water. Camilo states the melody several times but keeps it under control with great harmonic movements as Dafnis Prieto plays very sparing drums with light splash cymbal, here and there.

This album has something for just about everyone from Latin inspired numbers to contemporary takes on old jazz standards. Camilo continues to prove that he's one of the best pianists in the world and shows he is just as comfortable, with his trio as he is with guitarist Tomatito or fusion group French Toast.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Michel Camilo: My Secret Place

This song opens up with a dark, minor fueled piano introduction by Camilo while bassist Charles Flores plays a nice bowed upright line. Camilo is often known for his flashy style of piano but this album captures the introspective, inviting side of Camilo. The Dominican born pianist plays well connected lines, drawing upon his Bill Evans influence but he also invokes his own passion and spirit through the middle part of the song with lush cascades of sixteenth notes.

Camilo, now in his 50s, shows us that he has much to offer as a pianist and is still growing. The song ends with the same movement that started off the song. "My Secret Place" gets my strong stamp of approval for its tastefulness and overwhelming subtlety.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Elis Regina: Madalena

Few vocalists have captured the essence of the Brazilian sound like Elis Regina. Arguably one of the most popular vocalists in the history of Brazilian music, "Madalena" was recorded from the singer's 1979 appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Regina sings very soulfully as her voice rings with assurance. She is supported by a wonderful cast of Brazilian musicians including her husband, pianist Cesar Camargo Mariano. As the track opens, you can hear the audience reaction and it's a sure bet that everyone in attendance was extremely captivated by Regina's performance.

It's tragic to note that the singer wouldn't live to see the release of this great album. She sadly died of a drug overdose in January of 1982, at the young age of 36. But Montreux Jazz Festival represents the lasting testament that Regina brought to Brazilian and world music, forever cementing her legacy as one of the most celebrated Brazilian vocalists.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Dixon: Thoughts

Dixon's choice of instrumentation and the fact that he recorded this in a very reverberant space with microphones set a considerable distance from the band, results in a very dark, almost aloof-sounding music. In the beginning, the three basses and tuba establish a low, mildly percussive platform over which Dixon sounds his melancholic trumpet (or flugelhorn; the recording quality makes it difficult to tell). Dixon relies on long, sustained tones, interspersed with the occasional trill and scalar flurry. He creates a limpid atmosphere that's broken with the entrance of the more overtly dynamic Eneidi, who at this early point in his career already evidenced unusual fire and creativity. The open-structure piece evolves organically; moods shift naturally. Dixon's return toward track's end is more energetic, his fast freebop lines engaging drummer Lawrence Cook before returning to the lyricism of the beginning. The open-structured performance is almost ambient in nature, despite the free-jazz intensities. All told, Dixon's artistry, the remote, bass-heavy concept, and the horns' contrasting styles make for an intriguing work.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dr. Lonnie Smith: People Make The World Go Round

The Stylistics originally introduced the song “People Make the World Go Round” in 1972 and with lyrics like “Buses on strike want a raise in fare, so they can help pollute the air,” it was popular music with a message. Sung falsetto with a soulfully slow, voice-dominant Motown approach, it was a hit and it had a memorable melody. With a commanding grasp of the power and expression that the Hammond B3 can release when properly employed, Dr. Smith puts a unique and engaging spin on otherwise familiar song.

With Herlin Riley’s funky, syncopated beat, Dr. Smith takes the basic song structure and weaves it into a modern multi-dimensional piece. With a driving beat that is both disquieting and infectiously captivating, he retains the song’s familiarity but makes it a much more interesting vehicle of expression.

The soulful alto of Donald Harrison evokes memories of Maceo Parker. Harrison is allowed to bellow away in front of the full sound created by Smith, Riley and Shipp and wails with a funky, passionate cry. Berstein’s solo is more restrained. Time signatures vary and when it’s time for Smith to solo he remains undaunted in his grunt-accompanied B3 riff explorations fronting Riley’s droning drums and James Shipp’s steady cowbell. Midway the song takes on a modern almost modal feel. Smith is a master of building tension with his sustained notes, holding them just long enough before skillfully breaking them abruptly as he does in the finale. A nice remake of an old Motown favorite.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jessica Lurie: Grinch

At first, “Grinch” seems like it might want to be a samba. The bass line is certainly slinky enough. But then a decidedly middle eastern vibe and theme moves in...and then some weirdo taped sounds...and finally, a flute. Lurie switches to the flute as the rest of the band thickens and expands the groove. The combination of Todd Sickafoose on bass and Allison Miller on drums can't be beat as they are monsters of the sway.

As usual, the attempt to connect a label to the music is a waste of precious energy. Just sit back (or, if you prefer, jump up on the coffee table) and enjoy the relentless groove.

Wait, did the Grinch know how to groove?

April 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Evgeny Lebedev: I Hear A Rhapsody Variation

The combination of piano and guitar is a tricky one, mostly because the instruments live in the same sonic register. If care isn't taken, both are lost in a murky mix. If you want to look back at the possibilities of such a duo done right, check out the Bill Evans/Jim Hall records Undercurrent and Intermodulation.

In a more modern context (read: now!) there is pianist/composer Evgeny Lebedev. On this track, Lebedev pairs with guitarist Jeff Miles to provide a nice example of subtle improvisation in the duo format. The composition begins with a descending, single-note guitar line, piano chords filling out the space. The main theme is then played in a kind of hybrid chord solo with the guitar playing the melody and the piano staying in the left hand. As time progresses, Lebedev and Miles try out as many permutations as possible — traditional guitar comping with piano on lead, piano comping with guitar lead, piano lead with guitar chord volume pedal tricks, traded fours, interleaved passages. That list makes it sound chaotic yet the results are anything but. I have to say it always knocks me out when one musician begins an idea that the next player extends, and you'll find a lot of that on this song.

"I Hear A Rhapsody" has been recorded by many jazz greats (including Evans and Hall on Undercurrent), but Evgeny Lebedev manages to put his own twist on it. It feels fresh again.

April 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dan Adler: All Things Familiar

Among the legion of relatively unknown, emerging jazz guitarists, Dan Adler may be one of the best and brightest. His playing is strong, free of showy enthusiasm and deeply infused with technical savvy. Born and raised in Israel, where he studied physics under Mario Livio (author of Is God a Mathematician?), Adler has earned degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, has authored various technical works, and holds a U.S. patent. His eclectic jazz studies have been no less productive and he credits the streets of his adopted city of New York and mentors such as Jack Wilkins and Vic Juris for much of that. While such a marriage between art and science frequently produces little more than android eructation, Adler’s playing effectively walks the tightrope between the analytical and the emotional, producing finely crafted lines within which real blood flows.

Jerome Kern’s indomitable "All the Things You Are" has been elevated to (or some may say, victimized by) the status of quintessential form, a structural basis for new compositions ala "Rhythm" or "Indiana." The changes are both irresistible and daunting, tempting many players to flex their muscles at increasingly impossible tempos. Adler has resisted that temptation, opting for eloquence rather than exuberance. Supported only by a solid sense of time, this piece opens with a swinging, relaxed interplay between the naked sax and guitar, merging into an intricate unison head as the rest of the ensemble jumps in. Adler’s solo is thoughtful, spontaneous, and rich in texture. Choruses from Samuel’s lyrical piano and Stewart’s ballsy tenor are equally satisfying.

All things considered, the jazz guitar world should become more familiar with Dan Adler.

April 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Meri Slaven: Sweet Dreams

In their efforts to expand or at least stop the bleeding in the increasingly elusive, shrinking jazz listening audience, many artists resort to raiding the pop, rock & roll or rhythm & blues warehouses looking for recognizable, commercially viable material to transform and clever up.  The results are often contrived and frequently unlistenable; and the cringe factor only increases when jazz artists purloin wares from the country & western stacks. That’s why it is so refreshing to hear an honestly crafted crossover of this timeless hillbilly torch song.

Meri Slaven is no ordinary singer — with an abundance of chops and great pipes, she could easily scat, bop or funk it up like the big dogs but has the class and good sense not to. Instead, Slaven offers pure, sustained phrases wrapped in tear-stained cocktail napkins. Patsy Cline, who broke the charts and more than a few hearts with this tune, would have no problem believing the depth of feeling here.

Pianist Scott Gwinnell’s subtle arrangement offers a bare minimum of reharmonization and enhancement with strings, underscoring the raw emotion of Slaven's gut-wrenching interpretation. There is no inappropriate dissonance, altered time or tongue-in-cheek jazzy condescension.  The result is an urbanized, cliché—free ballad which would feel equally at home at the Blue Note, Caveau de la Huchette, or Ryman Auditorium.

April 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jay McShann: After Hours

For much of the 1930s, Kansas City was one of the swingin'est places in creation. As Albert Murray wrote in Stomping the Blues, "what Kansas City musicians are most widely celebrated for is the drive with which they swing the blues," and it "becomes good-time music because they always maintain the velocity of celebration." The peak of that celebration occurred in the late hours at the great K.C. night spots like the Reno Club, the Cherry Blossom, or Piney Brown's Sunset Club (especially in the early-to-mid 1930s). The famous Count Basie band was far from the only musical force heating up those night spots. Pianist Jay McShann was another maestro of the keyboards who made musical magic there (his later 1930s band also gave apprenticeship to a young Charlie Parker).

In spirit, this track celebrates the after-hours jam sessions that were the heart and soul of K.C. blues/jazz. McShann was 68 years old when he wonderfully evoked those great Kansas City music nights of old in this nearly five-minute, excellently recorded track. His piano solo work here presents the distilled essence of those soulful blues, played with drive and verve; "the velocity of celebration" indeed. This is harmonically rich, passionately-played blues, with great dynamics; the first minute alone is worth the price of admission. It is also widely-accessible music that many who are not core jazz fanciers will enjoy.

April 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Frank: Rosseau's World

Dave Frank’s facility with his left hand would be the envy of many a pianist. He can also play the gamut of styles from burning fast to whisperingly sensitive with his right as it suits his fancy. Having been a student of Tristano, he carries some of that musical heritage with him. On this album he does a series of smoking burners and sensitive ballads. It is the burners that make you drop your jaw and think “wow!” Like any demonstration of pure technical facility, no matter how eye popping, it can leave you surprised but with little else beyond awe. But Frank is no one trick pony. He is incredibly facile and sometimes blindly fast, but it is his ballads that I find the most rewarding.

Frank rarely plays with other musicians and he feeds off his own inner workings. His playing seems less introspective than Evans and less expanded than Jarrett. He seems to say what he wants to say in a more compact form. I wonder if he would become even more expansive with the wonderful musical interaction that a working trio of fine musicians can provide? Nonetheless his ballads are tightly woven and intricately formulated and if they sometimes feel slightly unfinished—he doesn’t probe too deeply or linger too long on any one theme—that is the artist’s prerogative. He does compose and play some beautifully sensitive music on this album where he has done a series of ballads dedicated to the work of some of his favorite painters.

On “Rousseau’s’ World” he uses the painting The Sleeping Gypsy as his inspiration. He employs a cyclic chord progression beneath the melody to create an aural representation of the serenity he sees in the painting. The melody is hauntingly evocative of a peaceful place where the Gypsy lays under the moonlit sky sleeping under the watchful eye of the lion. Frank makes clever use of space between the notes to create greater drama as he plays the pretty melody. The piece is only two minutes and thirty-five seconds long and at the midway point he makes a musical run that certainly evokes Evans if only briefly, and represents a break in the otherwise serene piece—perhaps the lion has sinister motives? He then pauses leaving you to ponder what you just heard before the coda, where he returns to the sleeping gypsy.

April 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jay McShann: Kansas City Blues

In the 1930s, Kansas City was not just the geographical center of America; it was also a prime center of jazz, jazz that was saturated with the blues. Especially in the earlier '30s, it was the destination for so many musicians from the Midwest, Southwest and beyond. As the lyrics to this classic tune begin, "Goin' to Kansas City, Kansas City, here I come."

Pianist and band leader Jay McShann was one of the greats who made K.C. a little slice of musical heaven in those days (with a whole lot of devilish playing going on, musical and otherwise). On "Kansas City Blues," as on a terrific companion track on the CD, After Hours, McShann plays with drive and momentum, verve and great dynamics; the rolling bass his left hand plays provides a wonderful, rumbling foundation. Also, I can't think of any of the many recordings of this tune that offer a piano intro that manages to be so lushly ravishing and bluesy with punch. And Jay plays and sings this song like he's having a heck of a good time. You will too as you listen.

(As a singer, Jay McShann - a vigorous 68 when this was recorded - was no B.B. King or Louis Armstrong. But the pretty good 'regular guy-type' singing actually adds to people's enjoyment of this popular tune, because it's like he's channeling our own voices. And the sheer fun he's having is contagious.)

April 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Frank Zappa: Little Umbrellas

Frank Zappa was the all-seeing master of the musical universe. Zappa was so many things; a genius and prolific composer, a satirical humorist, and a talented guitarist, with shades of doo-wop mixed with Johnny "Wah-Wah" Watson. Recorded during the summer of 1969, Hot Rats was a musical masterpiece, conceived not long after he disbanded the Mothers of Invention. The album is chalked full of extended, jazz influenced songs. Though the album is best known for "Peaches En Regalia," it features the three-minute piece "Little Umbrellas."

The song starts off with a two-chord vamp by Ian Underwood, who plays just about every instrument on the album, including countless overdubs with keyboards and woodwinds. The song rolls through the A section over a swinging upright bass line by Max Bennett. The real joy of this song is found in the orchestration, which foreshadowed the ground Zappa would cover with his work in the early 70s. This period marked the beginning of Zappa's departure into his own hybrid mix of jazz-funk-rock fusion. "Little Umbrellas" falls to the side when people talk about Hot Rats but this song is more than worthy of praise.

April 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Corey Wilkes: Rain

Corey Wilkes currently occupies the sacred Lester Bowie chair for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and given this young trumpeter’s already-solid whack jazz credentials, no one is going to blithely lump him with the legions of Miles wannabes out there. That’s probably why when makes a rare direct nod towards the Prince of Darkness, it sounds so compelling.

Wilkes does just that for his placid blue ballad “Rain.” A beautifully doleful song that recollects Davis’ mid-sixties tone poems “Circle” and “Fall,” Wilkes displays a rare mastery of the mute, using it to make his notes weep and ring clear. The composition itself is delicately constructed in such a way that the notes flow in a stream-of-conscientiousness kind of way, but remain sumptuously lyrical. And so, while Wilkes might prefer rougher edges in his music, “Rain” reveals his softer side in a way that tops many jazz musicians who’ve built their careers on that side.

April 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Meri Slaven: Dream Dancing

This is Cole Porter done right — swinging hard and fast. Charging out of the gate with a confident, flowing sax intro by tenor man Carl Cafagna, Slaven quickly takes command of this fearless, up-tempo arrangement by pianist Scott Gwinnell. Comparisons with the more laid-back Ella Fitzgerald version are inevitable, but Slaven acquits herself admirably with crisp phrasing and a rich vocal timbre that goes down like a belt of 20 year old single-malt scotch.

It’s always a pleasure to hear a crack ensemble cook. There are no surprises, no flash innovations or grandstanding maneuvers — just a bunch of cats backing a lady who obviously knows her craft, all caught in the act of making love to a timeless classic.

April 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cassandra Wilson: The Weight

It's hard to top The Band's performance of this anthem on Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz from 1978. Then again, Cassandra Wilson never gets caught up in that game called "Can You Top This?" She doesn't try to out-sing or out-dazzle anyone. This song might have shown up anonymously as a lead sheet in her mailbox for all the deference she gives to the original version. She puts the load right on herself, and carries the burden of reinventing a familiar melody, which now takes on rich autumnal colors and a reflective air one would hardly find in arena-sized rock music. Her vocals float in and out through sound clouds of percussion and guitar, as Wilson adds whispers, growls, and moments of lingering breathiness after the phrases have ended. The tempo is just a little faster than a ballad, and the occasional reharmonization reminds the listener that this is a jazz singer. Yet by the time Cassandra finishes with a song like this one, well known from radio airplay, the genre names fall away, and we are left with that high term of praise (associated with Duke Ellington) that simply says this is music beyond category.

April 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Tiptons Sax Quartet: The Shop Of Wild Dreams

You’d think that a discussion about the music of this all-female answer to the World Saxophone Quartet would center on their individual and collective skills on various saxophones, and it’s true that they’ve got the goods in that department. But they can sing the parts just as well, and do so without messing with the vibe.

The thematic statement of this song, built on four repeating chords, is moderately exotic in a Slavic kind of way and made even more so by Lurie’s wordless vocals stating that theme. She’s joined in harmony by Denio and filled out by Orfield and Richerson’s horns. When the vocal duet become sax players, the completed front line brings out the full richness of the melody. After that and a fine alto sax solo, Lurie’s resumes her vocalese and gets increasingly intense, going from a Louis Armstrong growl in one moment to hitting a Minnie Ripperton shrill note the next. The piece ends with the quartet putting down their horns to impart a beautifully layered four-part harmony.

“The Shop Of Wild Dreams” blurs the lines between blowing and singing. Either way, the Tiptons Sax Quartet gets the job done with flair.

April 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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John Scofield: Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child

Scofield took a tried and true gospel tune and gave it a tight, soul blues treatment with just a dash of The Big Easy. Fataar and ex-Meters bassist Porter bond together to form an impenetrable rhythm section, and with Cleary’s organ putting the Stax into the song, the stage is set perfectly for the guitarist. Scofield’s trademark licks don’t suffer from too many notes and as manage to be both fluid and acerbic at the same time. It’s in this setting where one can truly detect B.B. King in his playing style.

There’s another star on this tune, however, and it’s Cleary with his sweet, grounded lead vocal. He doesn’t possess the power of Wilson Pickett or even Al Green, but his natural, soulful rendering works just right for this tune. The unexpected reggae coda wasn’t planned, but adds a fun, joyful element. And isn’t gospel supposed to be about joy, anyway?

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Shades of Jazz

Keith Jarrett’s “American Quartet” with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian has always been one of my favorite bands, and this track, recorded in 1975, has stood out to me for a long time. Keith ambles through the changes in a way that sometimes reminds me of Bud Powell, and every time Dewey begins his solo, it sends a chill up my spine—even 30 years after hearing it for the first time. Charlie Haden and Paul Motian make it swing like crazy! Motian mentioned in an interview somewhere that he didn’t like this track because at some point everyone was lost, but that’s where the magic is for me. It’s exciting and celebratory.

(Editor’s Note: The Paul Motian interview that Mr. Kimbrough mentions above first appeared in Percussive Notes Magazine in 1995, but you can read it at the interviewer’s website here. Motian discusses many of his musical encounters in great detail, and listens and reacts to some of his old recordings—including “Shades of Jazz.”) – Eric Novod

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Greg Skaff: Contrary To Popular Motion

Oooh man, what is it about a jazz guitar flying lines over the sound of the Hammond organ? Liftoff is achieved early on with a unison run through the quite angular head. But when Skaff and organist George Colligan take turns blazing their way though a set of bluesy changes, things really heat up. Skaff's solo manages to be both muscular and quick-footed. When it comes around to Colligan again, he's more than up to the task. With Skaff switching back to the comping role, Colligan plays a blistering solo while maintaining the bottom end groove with his left hand.

It's not going to make you forget Jimmy Smith, but it will certainly make you remember why the organ trio format got your attention in the first place.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Herbie Hancock: Jackrabbit

This track is taken from Inventions and Dimensions, one of Herbie’s earliest recordings as a leader for Blue Note in August, 1963. There’s an introductory four-bar pedal tone, established by Paul Chambers, then sixteen bars of time, with Chambers walking. At the end of the sixteen bars, Chambers picks another pedal tone, then there’s another sixteen bars of time. It’s a very interesting strategy for a tune, because there's neither a written melody nor chord changes. Paul Chambers can choose whatever note he wants to play for the pedal tone, which then dictates the harmony over the next sixteen bars. Herbie plays beautiful, swinging, darting lines throughout this completely improvised yet thoroughly coherent piece, with Willie Bobo on drums and Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez on congas and bongos.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Dave Fox Group: Encounter With A Street Troll

I wrote an article once about my musical synesthesia – basically, I “see” music in three dimensions. Usually this takes the form of a virtual landscape with the melodic instruments becoming lines that float above those forms, making projections down onto the surface (I swear, no mind-altering substances are involved here).

In the context of the Dave Fox Group, guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil takes on the role of the projector. His lines blast down onto the surfaces and textures created by Dave Fox's keybords, sometimes slicing them into parts rather than leaving a mere mark. What does this mean for your ear parts? You're going to be frustrated here because I'm not going to tell you. It's too dangerous and I'd rather not see anybody get hurt. I know, send me the disclaimer form and return it signed along with a photocopy of the liner notes to any record by one of the following: Albert Ayler, Peter Brotzmann, Arto Lindsay. Oh, and don't forget to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Annoyed? OK, here: the tune ends with Fox blasting out some warbly B-3 tones which Eisenbeil tries to pulverize into tiny bits. That's all you can have for now.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Chick Corea: My One and Only Love

This track comes from my favorite Chick Corea session, which incredibly was awarded NO stars in a Downbeat review soon after it was released in the late 60’s. History, however, has proved this to be one of the greatest piano trio recordings of the past fifty years.

This track wasn’t included on the initial LP release, but appears on subsequent CD releases. It’s the most beautiful version of this tune I’ve ever heard. Taken more up-tempo than usual, it contains elegant, joyous, interactive playing by Chick, Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gypsy Schaeffer: Grape Soda and Pretzels

This must be Braxton week at my house. It seems like every other disc I pick up has some sort of Braxton influence. It's either that or a listen to the Willisau quartets recording is long overdue.

Gypsy Shaeffer launches “Grape Soda and Pretzels” with a stiff but humorous march that's supported by a kind of one-note samba, if you forget about the samba part. The sax rides on top of this, playing a head that can be best described as 'cheerful.' This is no novelty act though, as the curtain is pulled back to reveal a rhythm section that swings relentlessly. Once the groove has solidified, there's no turning back. Everybody gets in on the solo act. The horns take their turns as does bassist Jef Charland. And don't give me any of that “Oh no, the bass solo” junk – this guy means business. Heck he swings hard enough to maintain that groove through Chris Punis' drum solo.

After all of this serious jazzification, the horns return for one last go-round with the main theme, during which a smile will creep across your face.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Old and New Dreams: Dewey's Tune

Comprised of Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell, this group of Ornette Coleman alumni convened in the mid-70’s for tours and several recordings. I was lucky to hear them live a number of times in the early 80’s, and each time was a revelation. “Dewey’s Tune” is from their first (and lesser known) eponymous album on the Black Saint label (1976)—recorded without the gloss of the later ECM studio recording (1979). This one tune showcases everything that the group had to offer: parade rhythms from Blackwell, hand-in-glove melodies from Cherry and Redman, springy, inventive bass lines from Haden, the group’s patented call and response, and concise, always swinging solos from everyone. The beginning of Cherry’s solo is a high point, but the whole tune is beautiful and perfectly exemplifies the ethos of Old and New Dreams.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Herbie Nichols: Beyond Recall

“Beyond Recall” is from Herbie Nichols’ last recording date as a leader, Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, recorded in 1957 with bassist George Duvivier and drummer Dannie Richmond. With dark chords in the left hand and a blues-based melody, it’s almost like a combination of the blues form and “Rhythm” changes. Like many of Nichols’ other compositions, this tune uses an extended AABA form, with a few harmonic twists and turns along the way. When I first heard Herbie’s music, this track grabbed my ear right away, and it was among the first tunes of his that I transcribed. This eventually led to the formation of the Jazz Composers Collective’s Herbie Nichols Project.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Bley: Dreams

This tune was composed by Annette Peacock, whose compositions have had a big influence on me. Her tunes are landscapes for improvisation, somehow very meticulous, yet very free—a very difficult balance to find as a composer, and perhaps even more difficult for someone interpreting and improvising on the written material. Paul is one of the most inventive pianists on the planet, and was a mentor to me when I was coming up. Ever the contrarian, he always looks at the other side of the coin. At the time of Alone, Again (1974), he was trying to be “the slowest pianist on the planet,” and on this ballad, he gives us a taste of this concept: slow, lyrical, patient playing that allows the overtones to ring out, creating a piece of exquisite beauty filled with tension and release.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Erato

“Erato” is a masterpiece, one of many by Andrew Hill that I could have chosen for this list. It’s named for the Greek goddess of love poetry, and more than lives up to its name. When Ben Allison, Ron Horton and I were playing the sessions that were the genesis of what became the Jazz Composers Collective, we discovered that we had each transcribed this tune. Comparing our transcriptions, we realized that even though the notes were the same, each of them was different in terms of how time signatures and chord changes were notated. This speaks to the inherent mystery of Andrew’s music. It’s hard to put your finger on it sometimes, but his tunes have an inner logic and architecture that is very strong. On this track from a 1965 quintet date (with Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson), Andrew plays in a trio format with Richard Davis and Joe Chambers.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Beautiful American

What does it mean to be an American? When Louis Armstrong was coming up in New Orleans, it meant being an orphan and second- or third-class citizen, but with a first-class spirit and a talent for trumpet way beyond the barriers of race. Duke Ellington might have called that "beyond category." While his own Washington, D.C., upbringing was somewhat easier (as a middleclass kid cushioned by family support), even the Duke met the usual racial slings and arrows in the early decades; but his elegant style and creative juices and canny business sense made him a composer and bandleader without peer. And Satchmo? That mouth and set of chops and irrepressible joie de vivre soon produced an ambassador to the world.

Two Black Americans better than most of their nation could have imagined, or likely wanted, back then. When the two nonpareil jazz titans finally met in a recording studio in 1961 (other encounters had been too fleeting or too controlled by circumstances) for the sessions of Ellington standards combined on one CD as The Great Summit, Duke also roughed out a new instrumental for the occasion. Untitled at first, then called (courtesy of Stanley Dance) "The Unquiet American," the arrangement came together quickly – Duke singing the tune, working out horn parts, finding a makeshift mute for Trummy Young's trombone, and then signaling the control booth to proceed.

The resulting performance is a quiet world-beater – almost literally, as Satch's solos manage to quote from classical music, New Orleans warhorses, and pop melodies, not to mention demonstrate his own unequaled ability to get around on a trumpet; Duke and Louis had worked together briefly in France for the film Paris Blues a year or two earlier, and some of that Old World savoir faire must have carried over. At any rate, after Ellington and the rhythm guys set the pace (shout-outs for that inimitable bouncing-in-place piano and Mort Herbert's perfect bass solo near the end), and then Barney Bigard's and Trummy's mellow exuberance set the stage, Armstrong proceeds to smile, sinuate and sing out with his trumpet so convincingly, so effortlessly, so quintessentially Louis in fact, that Duke's tune immediately acquired its final title: "The Beautiful American."

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Commander Cody: Seven Eleven

Seventy years before this track was released, Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian energized the jazz world with a swinging recording called "Seven Come Eleven"—the title coming form a gambling term well known to casino regulars. Nowadays we get "Seven Eleven" courtesy of Commander Cody, the name of the song coming from a familiar convenience store. But everything is murky these days, and probably more gambling takes place at convenience stores than casinos.

The musical waters are just as mixed up, and Commander Cody (born as George Frayne in Boise back in 1944) pulls in a lot of ingredients when he cooks up this country rock blues. Cody turns 65 this year, but you wouldn't guess it from this song, which wouldn't get much of a reception at an AARP gathering. "Listen everybody, whatta we doin' here? We could down at a Seven-Eleven stealing that beer." But you can't fault this band, which plays with the fervor of punks in search of their first illicit six-pack. Music like this might just keep you young, or maybe it will put you in an early grave. Either way, our intrepid commander will do it in a blaze of glory.

April 06, 2009 · 1 comment

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Ramblin' Jack Elliott: Falling Down Blues

Somewhere in the Bill of Rights, American citizens must have been granted the right to complete self-reinvention. How else could Elliott Charles Adnopoz, raised as the son of a respectable Brooklyn doctor, abandon all conventional ties, run away with the rodeo, and end up as Ramblin' Jack Elliott?

That was an eternity ago, and Jack is still ramblin'. Fortunately his travels include (all too rare) stopovers in the recording studio, where he leaves the rest of us a digital taste of what Americana is all about. Elliott is perhaps best known as an influence on Bob Dylan or as an heir to the legacy of Woody Guthrie. But it isn't fair to this artist to see him primarily in terms of those he influenced and those who influenced him. His sound is his own, raw and beautiful, and exists outside of the orbits of Dylan and Guthrie.

On the 2009 album, A Stranger Here, recorded a few days before his 77th birthday, Elliott covers a wide range of traditional songs, but my favorite track is this reinterpretation of a sweet old Furry Lewis tune "Falling Down Blues." Elliott captures the traditional Memphis blues sound perfectly here, with its contradictory combination of lamentation and celebration. This was a style that both recognized the blues as a lover's complaint, but also knew that it was meant to entertain an audience. And Ramblin' Jack Elliott certainly knows how to do just that. May he keep ramblin' forever.

April 06, 2009 · 1 comment

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Rudder: Jackass Surcharge

A very busy second-line beat, a George Porter, Jr. bassline and saxophones mimicking the sound of a train horn blaring away from five blocks out make up the mutated Mardi Gras character of this dancing jazz ditty. There’s a barely audible voice shouting out hosannas, as Hey adds organ and synth bleats that stay underneath Carlock and Lefebvre for the most part. Cheek refuses to be rushed along by a rhythm section bursting out at the seams and takes his own sweet time on his tenor with the soulful aplomb of Gene Ammons, knowing that it’s best not to risk overplaying a groove.

In “Jackass Surcharge,” the guys from Rudder craft an irresistibly funky vamp that they wisely keep clean and raw.

April 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra: El Viaje II

Dynamic and a little unpredictable, “El Viaje II” is the short but sprightly second movement of Pedro Giraudo’s four-part jazz pocket symphony. The composer segregates the charts for the brass from the reeds for the start of this piece, before trombone and trumpet solos emerge. What is fascinating is not so much these two solos, which are plenty competent on their own. Rather, it’s the interesting chord changes both of the soloists navigate through. The rest of the horns accentuates the improvising in just the right measure, a credit to Giraudo’s arranging acumen.

Clocking in at less than four minutes, “El Viaje II” goes to show how much sophistication can be fitted into a highly arranged orchestral number with a relatively short running time.

April 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Naked Future: We Boil The Raven’s Skull Into Gold

This isn’t death metal as the title might suggest, but the dirge-like drone caused by Dionyso’s bass clarinet and Skloff’s alternately scraped and plucked low bass notes suggest a similarly dark mood. The two often sound uncannily alike; murmuring together with solemn contemplative overtones, while McDonas and Niekrasz cautiously follow their cues. Whenever an idea presented by Dionyso has run its course, the ensemble simply stops playing for a few moments and regroups to chew on a new abstraction.

About six and a half minutes in, anguished wails from Dionyso signals a piano barrage of Cecil Taylorian proportions that breaks down gradually. Another outburst occurs just thirty seconds from the end to take the song out on a frenetic note.

The group improvisation on “We Boil The Raven’s Skull Into Gold” doesn’t make this so much a song, at least not in the conventional sense. But it’d make a killer soundtrack for a thriller movie.

April 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: The Journey Home

When Keith Jarrett left behind his highly esteemed American quartet for a new band of Norwegians, the jazz world was puzzled and a little bit skeptical. Yet this group—the so-called European quartet—produced some of the most successful music of Jarrett's career, and had a very big seller with the My Song album. Even today, critics are quicker to praise the looser, more unpredictable American quartet; and, certainly, if jazz were sports, you would get fired from the GM job for trading Paul Motian for Jon Christensen, etc. But jazz is not sports, and this band achieved a holistic transcendence that made them an ideal ensemble for realizing Jarrett's compositions of the period.

"The Journey Home" is a case in point. The star here is Jarrett's composition, which moves through several distinct moods, from a melancholy rubato which leads into a spirited folksy melody with a very danceable beat (one of this composer's most inspired moments) before the piece settles into a slow 9/8 section that could stand on its own as a significant composition. The four musicians enter into the inner workings of this music with perfect sympathy and—that great rarity in the jazz world—almost no signs of ego. The whole My Song album is essential listening for Jarrett fans, and perhaps came the closest of any Jarrett quartet album to matching the type of musical personality he showed when playing his famous solo piano concerts. But if you want to start out with a single track as introduction to the European quartet, this is a very good place to begin.

April 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Bridge of Light for Viola & Orchestra

Keith Jarrett's work as an orchestral composer is documented in a series of releases, including In the Light (1973), Luminessence (1974), Arbour Zena (1975), and The Celestial Hawk (1980). And these exist alongside potent recordings of Jarrett performing Bach, Mozart, Harrison, Hovhaness and Shostakovich in an almost unprecedented move from jazz to classical music at mid-career. One can chart Jarrett's increasing comfort and skill in channeling his musical vision into written scores, and by the time we arrive at Bridge of Light (1990) we have a work that stands comparison with Jarrett's finest jazz music, and does not require his own presence on piano to achieve its sublime effects. The pastoral temperament that infuses much of his piano work rises to the fore here, but is transmuted in shimmering sound colors that sometimes take on an austere neo-medieval cast and elsewhere embrace a rhapsodic immediacy. With an artist so prolific as Jarrett, it is hard to make the claim that he hasn't given us enough music, but I would trade several dozen CDs from my collection for a few more orchestral works of this caliber.

April 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett: Encore (Tokyo)

For much of the 1970s, Keith Jarrett was releasing so much music that few fans or critics could keep up with him. He was recording with his American quartet and his European quartet, doing solo piano projects, composing quasi-classical works, and pursuing other miscellaneous projects. If you saw him in concert at that time, you might hear Jarrett playing soprano sax or percussion, as well as piano. Just a few weeks before this concert in Tokyo, he recorded an album of organ music, followed a few days later by the quartet session featured on the Impulse release Byablue.

Keith Jarrett

In the midst of this flurry of activity, Jarrett tossed off the Sun Bear Concerts as though they were just a passing whim, and the high price tag attached when this music was released (originally in a box set of 10 LPs) limited sales to a select few. But this project (now available on six CDs)—comprising the music performed at five solo piano concerts in Japan—must be considered one of the high points of Jarrett's career. This encore from his Tokyo concert finds the pianist at top form, constructing a taut, lyrical improvisation in E minor over a filigree of mostly sixteenth notes in the left hand. At first, one expects Jarrett to move into a repeating pattern or vamp, as he often does on these solo outings, yet instead he pushes the harmonies in surprising ways. The effect is much like hearing a classical composer, working within a late Romantic or early Impressionist tonal palette, in the midst of creating a new piece. Only a few years earlier, music of this sort would hardly have been considered jazz, yet Jarrett, through his visionary conception of improvisation, was pushing the art form on to new terrain.

April 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Sticks

Amazingly, this was the only song Julian "Cannonball" Adderley composed on this groundbreaking album. This song doesn't stray away much from the blues oriented material found on the rest of the album but that doesn't matter because Adderley and company are in top form playing the blues. Zawinul shows he can play the blues just as well as any other pianist, leading the rhythm section until the horns come in with the melody. He also plays the last solo on the song, playing simple octave-fueled lines that support this number the way it was supposed to be supported.

Cannonball's brother Nat starts the song off with a screeching solo in the upper register of the cornet, setting the tone for the rest of the song. It's a shame that Nat isn't discussed in the same breath as the other great trumpeters because he could hold his own. I'm sorry Miles, you knew how to write a good tune and pick a better band, but Nat Adderley is on a Clifford Brown level in my opinion.

April 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Hippodelphia

What can be said about Cannonball Adderley? Many things, his larger than life tone, his ability to play rapid solos, and his wonderful phrasing. Deeply rooted in the blues, Adderley sounds like alto colossus on this Joe Zawinul penned number. The band swings with intensity and each member plays in and around a great pattern by drummer Roy McCurdy. Though the legend behind this session is that it was recorded on a warm night in Chicago in July, in actuality it was recorded in October on a nice night in Hollywood.

All of this was the brainchild of producer David Axelrod who assembled a bar in a sound stage and invited the audience, producing a night of musical magic from one of the most swinging bands in the history of jazz music. Enough isn't said about Joe Zawinul the composer who brought the Cannonball Adderley Quintet more accolades and money than any other group member with his knack of combining gospel and blues, creating an accessible and satisfying blend of jazz.

April 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Grant Green: The Final Comedown

As a soundtrack song from a 1972 blaxploitation movie of the same name, “The Final Comedown” isn’t really a song; it’s a one-chord vamp. But like the best vintage funk-jazz pieces of the late-sixties and early seventies, this one’s deep in the pocket. Green doesn’t clutter up the groove with too many notes, and without a pick, he can still pluck whole chords cleanly. Even where he smoothly inserts slightly bent single notes, his guitar become one with that well-oiled rhythm.

Given only a single chord and three and a half minutes to work with, the later-period Grant Green was still capable of making so much out of so little.

April 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Thank You

Outlasting Satch and Duke and Diz, even Oscar Peterson - America's grand ambassadors of jazz - peripatetic pianist Dave Brubeck still takes to the road occasionally as he nears age 90 (and may he reach his centenary like composer Elliott Carter). In the meantime Dave's recent solo-piano release Indian Summer includes an autumnal version of his seminal and often-revisited tune "Dziekuje," first recorded for the Quartet's Jazz Impressions of Eurasia album a half century ago but known ever since then by the translation of that Polish word . . . "Thank You."

The composition reflected Brubeck's good manners; as many albums showed, he regularly sought to acknowledge each nation and to thank the people everywhere he traveled--in this instance by paying homage to Chopin, the pianist-composer who had figured in Dave's own earliest years at the keyboard. This melody yearns, both mournful and impassioned, Slavic and stately and sad, full of delicate filigree and phenomenal finger-strength as Brubeck remembers ghostly waltzes and nocturnes and ballades, and Chopin's brief dying fall in the south of France. But there's some wishful bravado here too, hints of an octogenarian--maybe--wrestling Death to a draw. ("Oh Death," sang Dock Boggs 80 years ago and Ralph Stanley more recently, "won't you spare me over till another year?")

But I wax too fanciful, reading too much into what is simply, or complexly, a fine tune and performance that should be seen instead as an opportunity for us fans to recognize Jazz's debt to a great pianist-composer of the present. . . .Thank you, Mr. Brubeck.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Maori Blues

Dave Brubeck has said that Darius Milhaud (his mentor at Mills College in the late '40s) "told me to travel the world and keep my ears open." Well, Brubeck's "big ears" have stood him in good stead during 60 years of traveling, listening, absorbing, and composing--and one piece of that global crazy quilt is his "Maori Blues," resulting from a welcoming ceremony his Quartet experienced in New Zealand in 1959. (There's even a fuzzy-but-fun photo of this event tucked down under the disc in the CD tray of Time Further Out, the familiar album with the goofy Joan Miró cover.)

Nominally a blues, Dave's tune is another "Time" experiment in 6/4, and it displays so much building energy that one might call it a "stomp" instead. The piano starts a repeated series of notes, and the bass and drums instantly lock into the then-uncommon, staggered groove (Paul Desmond sits this one out), releasing Dave's pent-up spirits and allowing him to work out some "native" aggression: the listener hears rough dancing, pounding feet, high emotions, slapped strings, pummeled keys, cymbal crashes, beat-down drums … and then the illusion of slowing motion as the three happy tourists pull together to dance off the set and out the door, with Joe's last bam answered by Dave's vaudeville ba da da dum. (Yes, Mrs. Calabash, it's a fine example of the Maori, the merrier.)

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Anita Wardell: My Shining Hour

Anita Wardell may be the best-kept secret in vocal jazz today. While she has a substantial following in the UK, she is virtually unknown in the United States. Her imported albums are pricey and sometimes difficult to find. But rest assured, she is well worth seeking out! Blessed with a pure straight vocal tone, remarkable agility and boundless imagination, she is not only one of the best scat singers in jazz today, but also a master of vocalese. One of her finest accomplishments is her lyricized version of Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo on “Moanin’” (see the video here), and while her CD version is wonderful, I’ve chosen her up-tempo version of “My Shining Hour” for her marvelous scat solo. Wardell approaches scatting in a purely instrumental manner, and her deep knowledge of chromatic harmony allows her to explore the nooks and crannies within the chord changes. In her three-chorus scat solo, she darts through the chords with ease, creating bop lines that would make an instrumentalist proud. She outlines chords particularly well, her note choices are surprising, and her phrase lengths are quite varied—all elements that are usually missing in scat solos. Her improvisations could—and should—change the way the jazz audience hears and appreciates vocal jazz. All that is necessary is for Anita Wardell to be heard.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roseanna Vitro: Do Something

Roseanna Vitro is one of the most versatile singers working today. She has recorded album-length tributes to both Ray Charles and Bill Evans, and one of her performing groups melds jazz with Eastern Indian music. Her ballads have a great sense of immediacy, and her blues singing can rattle the foundations. “Please Do Something” shows off her delightful sense of humor. The song was written in 1929 by Bud Green and Sam Stept and resurrected by Betty Carter. The song deals with an after-hours tryst. In Carter’s rendition (which is much more explicit than the original), she is increasingly frustrated by her young companion’s inexperience. Vitro’s version--funneled through Carter's revision--is light-hearted and seductive, as she tries to convince a man to share her “king-sized, motorized” bed. Vitro’s scat solo is a miniature history of vocal jazz. Starting with ideas borrowed from swing style (including a quote from Lester Young’s “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid”), Vitro gradually adds bop phrases, and in a surprising--and apparently spontaneous-- twist, she ends the chorus with the free-jazz yodeling of Leon Thomas! Throughout the performance, Vitro sings with great spirit and captivating swing, and the overriding good humor of the piece even gets to her at the end.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Karrin Allyson (with Nancy King): Life Is A Groove (Jordu)

Karrin Allyson and Nancy King are separated by a generation, but they have a symbiotic relationship. While each has a distinctive style and sound, they blend especially well when performing in a duet setting. On the chorus of “Life Is A Groove” (Chris Caswell’s lyricized version of “Jordu”), we hear Allyson and King separately before they join together at the bridge. While their blend at the bridge and final eight of the opening and closing choruses is quite good, they save the best for the end. Over a repeated tag, they scat and riff together with infectious joy. The listener’s focus shifts back and forth between the two singers, even though both vocalists are singing most of the time. The trade-offs are as an easy flow rather than in a preset plan of “you take 2 bars, then I’ll take the next 2”. Further, both Allyson and King move freely between scat and lyrics without destroying the balance. Unfortunately, we just don’t hear enough of it: the solo section between the theme choruses is all instrumental, and while those solos are superb, the coda gives us what we wanted to hear—two marvelous vocalists improvising over a great set of bop chord changes.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Luciana Souza: Never Let Me Go

Luciana Souza is a Brazilian vocalist with extraordinary range. As comfortable with the contemporary classical music of Osvaldo Golijov as she is with the sambas of Tom Jobim, she has composed music to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda, and sings astounding versions of American pop standards. Her recording of “Never Let Me Go” digs deep into the lyric’s theme of fear and loneliness in a very profound way. Souza stretches out the song’s phrases, moving them further and further away from where they usually fit in the harmony. The band never includes extra beats or bars to make up for this discrepancy, and there’s a great feeling of tension as we wonder how Souza will finish the song in time with the rhythm section. This technique focuses our attention on Souza and the words that she sings, and her intense, dramatic delivery sears into the heart. Exactly how does Souza catch up with the rhythm section? Well, I’ve listened to this recording several times, counting measures and listening for dropped lyrics and shortened phrases, and I’m still not sure how she did it. I can say that it’s an amazing extension of a similar technique used by Chris Connor on a famous live version of “Misty” from the Village Gate. But while Connor’s version seemed far off the melody, she always got caught up by the end of each 8-bar phrase; Souza’s “Never Let Me Go” stretches the idea further, going over and beyond the structure of the phrases to create her own unique—and unforgettable—interpretation.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Patricia Barber: I Could Eat Your Words

A Chicago native, Patricia Barber still lives and works in the Windy City, despite her worldwide critical acclaim. With a dark voice and a wit to match, Barber takes a minimalist approach to her style, letting words and meaning sink in the listener’s brain. “I Could Eat Your Words” is a Barber original which tells of a student seducing her English professor over dinner. The lyrics are an absolute delight with a few words that will send the listener running for a dictionary. Of course, they are perfect for the setting as the student uses the professor’s own vocabulary as a weapon of seduction. Further, Barber mixes the worlds of food and language as in the delicious phrase, “season reason with a transitive verb”. Barber’s cool (but not detached) vocal conveys a sense of total control. Dave Douglas provides a subtle contrast with his wry trumpet solo filled with intriguing ideas and astounding note choices. Then, Barber takes a short piano solo which takes a single idea and moves it into different places in the rhythmic structure. Barber then returns for a final half-chorus and a very interesting tag line: “Baby, teach me tonight”. It is as if the student has succeeded in the seduction and is now willing to cede the power back to the professor.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tierney Sutton: Sometime Ago

Tierney Sutton’s style pairs a cool vocal sound with an adventurous musical spirit, and she collaborates with her band to develop new approaches to classic songs. This recording of “Sometime Ago” comes from her CD tribute to Bill Evans, and features the unusual instrumentation of 2 basses and percussion. A pervasive bass figure in 6/8 time dominates the performance, while Brinker taps a Latin dance rhythm with his brushes on some sort of hard surface. While many vocalists would attempt to break out of such a tightly-woven background, Sutton works within it, becoming part of the band instead of the vocalist up front. The background figure continues through the solos by one of the basses and Sutton. Her scat solo sounds like a continuation of what has come before, and indeed, it would sound perfectly idiomatic on a bass. Only in the final chorus does Sutton start to break away from the pervasive rhythm, and then there is a subtle give-and-take between her rhythmic play and the bass ostinato.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nnenna Freelon (with Take 6): Straighten Up And Fly Right

Nnenna Freelon came to jazz singing after raising three children and working as a health care administrator. She was branded a Sarah Vaughan imitator when her first album came out in 1992, but her style evolved rapidly and her recordings over the last 10 years show her as a singer with a style all her own. “Straighten Up & Fly Right” is an apt song for a collaboration between Freelon and the gospel/jazz vocal ensemble Take 6. Nat King Cole based the lyrics on a sermon his father used to deliver. Both Freelon and the members of Take 6 are deeply religious, and so for them, the song implies more than just a story about a monkey and a buzzard. There are no instruments on this recording, but Take 6 sounds like a swinging big band with its wide range of voices and powerful riffs. Freelon sings the melody with a crystal clear sound to which she adds a little growl when hits the word “lie.” Freelon contributes a brief scat solo as Take 6 imitates trombones over the sung bass line. The ending is delightful, as Freelon slowly slides up to the top of the final chord, and then sings a final fall with the other voices.

April 02, 2009 · 1 comment

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Dena DeRose: All My Love

Dena DeRose is a gifted pianist and vocalist, and she has exceptional taste in songs. I'm forever beholden to her for re-discovering and recording “All My Love”, a gloriously beautiful song written by Al Jolson. Its simple melody sounds like an old Russian-Jewish folk song and its lyric, while straight-forward, contains marvelous word construction on the bridge. DeRose’s recording of the song is intense and passionate. Starting with a classically-styled piano introduction, the dramatic mood sets in with Wilson’s mallets on toms and cymbals over a stark vamp by DeRose and Wind. DeRose keeps her first vocal chorus simple, letting the song speak for itself. There is great conviction in her reading of the lyric, and it’s very clear that this song holds great personal meaning for her. Next, Wind plays a wondrous arco bass solo. At first listen, it sounds like he is having technical issues with his instrument as he jumps between the lower and higher octave, but it is more likely that he is doing this deliberately to evoke the sound of a Eastern European violinist. When DeRose returns, the big ending we may have anticipated starts to build. Yet, here DeRose uses the marvelous lyric of the bridge to protract the ending. The lyric reads “And our dreams untold that were so ideal/Will all fade as we make them real”. The turnaround of mood of fatalism to optimism is quite remarkable, and DeRose accentuates this on the word “fade”: as she holds the note, the buildup behind her suddenly dissipates. Then she starts the buildup again in the last eight bars. The final section of the recording is emotionally overwhelming with Wind’s arco bass returning in an improvised obbligato with DeRose before the performance winds down.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Claire Martin: But Beautiful

Claire Martin is by far the most popular jazz singer in England. While her biography lists Betty Carter and Shirley Horn as primary influences, her voice carries the unmistakable smokiness of June Christy. Martin’s artistry extends further than Christy’s, with her soulful delivery and exquisitely-detailed melodic inventions.

“But Beautiful” is a challenging song: its primary motive is a simple rising and falling idea which repeats at several pitch levels. The motives culminate with sweeping melodies in the second and fourth eight-bar phrases. To maintain interest, the singer needs to either think of the song as two 16-bar segments, building through each one, or concentrate on the basic motive, making changes as the song progresses. Martin actually takes both approaches in this recording. In her opening chorus, she makes several variations to the motive, all quite different from one another in subtle ways. Jim Mullen’s guitar solo is in long meter and the double-time feel buoys Martin into her final half-chorus, where each statement of the motive builds on the last. However, she avoids the predictable big ending, relaxing with the rhythm as the feel goes back to straight time, offering a set of tasty variations on the penultimate phrase on a repeated tag ending.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stacey Kent: Comes Love

Born in New York, but based in London, Stacey Kent has spent much of her career singing with traditional and swing bands. She is beloved in those circles for her light voice, supple swing and attention to the melody. With her Blue Note CD, Breakfast On The Morning Tram, Kent has veered away from that base and into more challenging material. While it’s doubtful that she will ever completely leave the trad/swing audience behind, “Comes Love” was an early example of Kent’s willingness to take chances on a standard song. From her first entrance, Kent takes a joyous, sassy approach to the song. She starts changing the melody from the outset, as if to say she’ll get to the melody somewhere along the line, but not right now—she’s having too much fun. Kent’s husband, Jim Tomlinson takes the tenor solo in his best Getz-influenced style and even he leans toward Getz’s open-blowing jam session style rather than his cool school style. When Kent comes back for the last half-chorus, she turns on the heat with a pronounced rhythmic feel that works effectively against the straight-ahead swing style of the rhythm section.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jill Seifers: The Night We Called It A Day

Jill Seifers appeared on the New York scene a little more than a decade ago, made two wonderful albums on her own and appeared on recordings with Ingrid Jenson and Vincent Herring. She also worked in pop music, singing backups for Shawn Colvin and Jessica Simpson, and sang in a rock group called Yes Virginia. She’s now known as Jill Walsh, lives in Nashville, and has recorded several jazz duo albums with pianist Mika Pohjola.

Her remarkable reading of the Matt Dennis-Tom Adair standard “The Night We Called It A Day” should be required listening for any jazz vocalist. Seifers creates a personalized interpretation without changing a note of the original song! Instead, she uses a few well-placed downward slides (most notably on “the hoot of an owl”) and an exceptional control of dynamics to bring out the meaning of the words. Seifer’s pure soprano voice conveys a sense of innocence and that makes the song’s dramatic story even more effective. What makes the performance extra-special is that Seifers and Kanan include the verse to this song (Did you know this song had a verse—and in major?). Kanan plays the verse as an extended intro, then Seifers sings the whole thing through before moving to the chorus. Like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, the extended prelude is there because the performance of the chorus is so powerful that nothing else could follow.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ann Hampton Callaway: What Is This Thing Called Love

Ann Hampton Callaway is a graceful performer equally at home in the worlds of jazz and cabaret. In addition to many classic pop songs, her repertoire includes several of her own compositions which reflect and expand on the legacy of American Popular Song. Originally, I had planned to discuss one of her original songs, but this version of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is a superb example of Callaway in a pure jazz vein.

Over a sinuous vamp figure, Callaway wraps her velvety alto voice around Cole Porter’s lyrics, making subtle variations to the melody. After the first chorus, Callaway yields to a piano solo, and one might think that the vocalist would be absent until the last chorus of the track. But Callaway keeps herself involved in the arrangement and after a chorus of piano, she’s back for a George Shearing-styled shout chorus which introduces short solos by bass and drums. Then, backed by only bass and drums, Callaway sings a bop-flavored scat solo that shows that she has learned equally from vocalists and instrumentalists alike. Indeed, Callaway is a pianist herself and like many of her contemporaries, her scatting is informed by her knowledge of chords and scales, and guided by her fine ear.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jeff Albert: I Was Just Looking For My Pants

First of all, I have to admit that the title sucked me in. C'mon, humor does belong in music and you know it! Of course, selecting a song based on its title is only slightly less dangerous than purchasing an album based on a sexy cover shot (coming in a distant third are movie rentals induced by the existence of the word 'erotic' in the review blurb).

The good news here is that there's a payoff. Jeff Albert has a great sense of humor that this thought-provoking, Braxton-esque track is laced with. Albert and saxophonist Ray Moore kick things off with a series of staccato notes that almost seem like they're ignoring each other, except for that looking over the shoulder thing. Without warning, the full band jumps in and swings like crazy. But hey, don't get too comfortable, as the swing vaporizes and is replaced by several interconnected rubato passages. The tension is delicious because you just never know when the crazy staccato/swing thing is going to pop back up. Both Tommy Sciple and Dave Cappello do a great job of adding to the horn cacophony with their extended techniques.

Though I can't imagine Anthony Braxton using the word “pants” in a composition's title (maybe a pictogram?), I can certainly hear the musical parallel here.

April 02, 2009 · 1 comment

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Charles Evans: It's The Right Toe, Bro

This is a truly impressive track. Charles Evans puts the baritone sax through its paces, drawing out an incredible range of sounds. Evans does play some traditional, bassline-oriented parts, but you'll also be amazed at his extended technique. While you will hear a few squeaks and grunts, the payoff comes with the bombast of shrieking upper register runs, split chords, droning pedal tones, and some truly frightening, almost animalistic sounds. Not for the faint of heart (or the impatient).

April 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Watusi Drums

As the story goes, recounted by Dave Brubeck in his liner notes for the Quartet's In Europe album, he had written a number to feature tricky-time master Joe Morello, based on some half-remembered African rhythm. At first the tune had a changeable title, "Drums Along the …", with the final word filled in on stage, naming whatever river flowed near the city the four were playing in, from the Thames to the Vistula. Then in Iraq (yes, there were such tours), Dave heard again the original African recording and realized he had channeled some Watusi tribal music. So the "rivers" disappeared and the right name was affixed.

But the music flows on and on, in bubbling 6/4 time, no matter what the title. While the live performance on In Europe clocks in at 8 minutes – too much of a good thing – the shorter version appended to the CD reissue of Time In offers solid evidence that less can be more. This simplified studio take (with Paul Desmond silent) moves out right from the start, Morello's rippling, perpetual-motion power and Eugene Wright's stalwart walk freeing Dave to comment and punctuate, to dance all over the piano and even play some work-song blues, till the tuned-up trio engine chugs to a halt. Just 2+ minutes but well-nigh perfect.

April 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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