Gary Burton & Pat Metheny: Sea Journey

"Sea Journey" has long been one of my favorite Chick Corea composition—built on a stormy minor key vamp set off against sweet descending harmonies in the bridge. Yet it is not often covered, despite its canonic inclusion in The Real Book and its "ease of use" for gigs and jams. For their June 2007 engagement at Yoshi's, this all-star reunion band drew heavily on these old semi-standards; this meeting of mature musical minds was about spontaneity and revisiting familiar ground from the past, rather than trailblazing into the future. But the solos are solid, especially Metheny's contribution. To my mind, he is one of the best pure improvisers in the business. His lines always make perfect musical sense, drawing from what he hears rather than (as with many guitarists) the licks that are under his fingers. This is a solo worth memorizing and singing along with the CD (or playing along if you're a musician). The Peter Max cover art is too hip by half, and may turn off some potential buyers of this disk—fearful that this is a "groovy" trip down memory lane. Don't be fooled. This is "no frills" jazz played at a very high level.

May 31, 2009 · 1 comment

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John Coltrane: Nature Boy

Recorded just a day before Johnny Hartman joined the John Coltrane Quartet for some historic vocal jazz sessions, this combo tackles a standard made famous in 1948 by Nat King Cole. Using such a recognizable tune makes it easier to detect how much Coltrane’s concept had already evolved from when he famously tackled another well-known song “My Favorite Things” three years earlier. You can almost make a game out of listening to this song by trying catch the times Coltrane is playing the notes from its evocative melody that he randomly scatters amongst his familiar, vertical approach of improvising. Nearly as prominent as those “sheets of sound” are Jones’ “clouds of cymbals.” Tyner chooses chord voicings that synchronize more with the drums than with ‘Trane or the composition itself, but the rhythm section matches its leader in intensity.

Coltrane would go on to record “Nature Boy” again in 1965, and it became part of his live repertoire around that time. Given the philosophical and spiritual sentiment of the song, it isn’t hard to see why he was attracted to it. At the same time, he recast it in his own image, and it’s a powerful image at that.

May 31, 2009 · 1 comment

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Hampton Hawes: Yesterdays

Hampton Hawes' style integrated vestiges of stride with his own version of bebop. His sound was uniquely his own. Recorded in the back warehouse of the Contemporary Records office in 1955, the same year that he was acknowledged by Metronome magazine as “arrival of the year”, Hawes' recording of "Yesterdays" showed that he had indeed arrived. Playing with Red Mitchell on bass and Chuck Thompson on drums, the pianist stretched out in this classic recording.

Perhaps the casualness of his surroundings contributed to the easy flow of this recording. Hawes stylistically embellished introduction, with its elongated arpeggios, runs and flowery flourishes, presents a window into his story-telling soul. His romanticized intro is in stark contrast to the bouncy, free-flowing swing he ultimately settles into on the chorus. I am especially fond of the climbing, slightly dissonant, percussive run he uses before Mitchell and Thompson join in and the tempo moves upward. His approach is both joyous and harmonically rich as he is encouraged along by Mitchell. Hamp’s swing subtly floats in an effortless display of sublime West Coast cool. When Mitchell solos, it is with equal harmonic invention. Thompson lays back nicely in the pocket, never intruding on the conversation between Mitchell and Hawes. Hamp’s delivery is effervescent and he conveys a profound sense of joy while exploring the bounds of musical sophistication, a rare quality matched by few of his peers.

May 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dewey Redman: Dewey Square

Joshua's dad flaunts his bebop chops, with just a hint of the harmonic and rhythmic freedom that once served him well as a member of Ornette Coleman's band. Redman is joined by bassist Mark Helias, who even at this relatively early point in his career was a fine player. He has an exemplary sound and sense of swing. Equally resourceful is pianist Charles Eubanks. His playing is steeped in—but not necessarily chained to—the straight-ahead. Redman's cohort from the Coleman band (as well as the cooperative Old and New Dreams) Ed Blackwell fills the drum role with swinging panache. As for Redman, he's incapable of resorting to cliché, even over such a set of ho-hum changes as this. His sound is big and lissome; he swings hard and draws upon his profound imagination to invigorate the idiom. Not the greatest Redman, but a worthy sampling of his more conservative side.

May 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cecil Taylor: Idut

This nearly 15-minute-long track is performed by the Unit featuring longtime Taylor confrere Jimmy Lyons on alto sax, the underrated trumpeter Raphe Malik, violinist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Sirone, and the incendiary drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Chock full of the free-associative, ultra-intense free improvisation characteristic of Taylor, this music is nevertheless more organized than many another of his ventures.

The music is organized into loose but discrete sections, formed largely by small, motivic gestures played in an asynchronous fashion by the musicians. Ramsey Ameen's fleet, slashing violin lends the music a distinct "contemporary classical" feel, even if his phrasing is heavily jazz inflected. The extraordinary Lyons is as fleet and creative as ever, and Malik's rowdy trumpet puts a welcome edge on the overall group sound. Jackson is arguably the most compelling drummer Taylor ever employed. He's a force of nature, engaging the leader in terms of speed and intensity like few other percussionists.

As for the leader, he's in top form, creating torrents of atonal sound that, even though infinitely complex and decidedly not bluesy, still occasionally manage to invoke the spirit of Horace Silver. This is a great band—one of Taylor's very best, which is saying a great deal.

May 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gary Burton: Falling Grace

The recent reconvening of Burton’s groundbreaking Quartet for an extended tour and a resulting live album was a welcome return for jazz. It serves as a vital reminder of the unique textural sophistication and joyful sound crafted by a preeminent vibraphonist, along with sidemen who usually went on to make jazz history themselves.

One of the songs they performed, “Falling Grace,” is also a valuable memento of Swallow’s influential abilities as a composer and performer. Only the second song he’s ever written, “Grace” has both tremendous harmonic depth and finesse, a difficult feat for even seasoned songwriters. No matter who’s playing it, it seems very much like the song specifically written for Bill Evans that it is (and eventually covered by Evans on his 1974 disc, Intuition). Burton covered it several times himself and this was doubtless part of the repertoire of his old foursome. Revisiting this classic with Burton and Swallow are Burton’s former prodigy Metheny and Metheny’s main drummer since 2001, Sanchez.

Swallow’s expansive bass lines flow out so sparkly and seamlessly, he manages to solo and comp at the same time. Burton’s vibes solo is his typical “make every note meaningful” attack and hearing Metheny after him illuminates how much the guitarist has learned from his old teacher as a teenager.

Burton’s and his crack crew’s hard work on Swallow's gem makes it easy for listeners to enjoy.

May 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker: Au Privave/Dance of the Infidels

Charlie Parker plays some interesting stuff on this extended blues jam (could this be the only extant recording of Bird quoting the "Woody Woodpecker" theme?). Much of the best comes during the trading-of-fours he plays with the Paul Gonsalves-influenced tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson, whose energetic and slightly eccentric style seems to pique Parker's competitive nature. Drummer Larance Marable swings the band hard, and the little-known pianist Amos Trice acquits himself well in fairly generic bebop fashion. Bassist Dave Bryant disappears in the considerable tape noise, for the most part. Indeed, the overall recording quality is frankly terrible. It takes patience to sift through, but it's worth it, to an extent. This is Charlie Parker, after all. On the other hand, there's nothing extraordinary about the music by Bird's exalted standards. Casual listeners, beware. Ultimately, this performance is likely to appeal primarily to committed ornithologists.

May 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker: Cool Blues

Without invoking the laws of physics, let's just stipulate that there are a finite number of Charlie Parker recordings. Yet, more than a half-century after Bird's death, new releases still trickle in every so often. Unfortunately, if this murkily recorded blues jam is any evidence, it looks like the bottom of the barrel is nigh to being scraped. The 12-and-a-half-minute performance is taken from a 74-minute CD produced from tapes recorded at a party held by the notoriously eccentric Turkish-American visual artist, the late Jirayr Zorthian. The sound quality is among the worst of the many poorly recorded Parker live takes this writer has heard. Besides the oppressive tape noise and some background hubbub, about all that can be distinguished are the sax soloists and Larance Marable's drums. Of course, every Parker recording is of interest, but this is less interesting than most. Parker is in decent form, but he scarcely plays a phrase that can't be heard to better effect elsewhere in his recorded oeuvre. The presence of a young Frank Morgan on alto seems to rouse Parker a bit, but overall this track is ephemera, likely to appeal only to the most rabid collector of Bird's recordings.

May 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sam Yahel: Oumou

Sam Yahel is best known as the electronic keyboard specialist from Joshua Redman’s Elastic Band. By his own admission, he has always considered himself an organ player, so this track is an interesting example of how he approaches the acoustic piano. “Oumou” is an inspired, rhythmically delicious Yahel composition that is introduced by Penman stating the repeating melody line on the lower register of his instrument. He is soon joined by what sounds like Yahel playing the muted strings of his piano in a delicate pizzicato accompaniment. Undaunted by the lack of electronics, Yahel has found a way to create a texturally interesting effect within the confines of his purely acoustical environment. As the rhythmically swaying tune is allowed to expand over Penman’s throbbing bass, Yahel’s piano improvisations build tension. Ruckert skillfully adds his own brand of subtle cymbal and tom-tom work to the mix. Yahel’s increasingly rapid right hand arpeggios erupt to the surface like a bubbling geyser of creativity until he slowly releases the pressure with some syncopated chording. At the coda, Penman’s bass and Yahel’s renewed pizzicato accompaniment fades to silence. A brief glimpse into the acoustic promise of this artist.

May 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Tull: I Just Want To Get Paid

Why do musicians typically have great senses of humor? Because they have to! Jazz and comedy have a number of parallels including; truth, timing, rhythm, innuendo, improvisation, surprise, coincidence, sarcasm, satire, and irony. Several of these elements are developed in this dynamic big band track. In the spirit of Jack Sheldon, Dave adds another layer to the art of jazz satire with an all too common scenario for musicians. Dave’s polished arrangement makes this peeve a little easier to take. Corey Allen sets up a bluesy gospel opener as Dave lays down the premise. A “2, 3, 4...” brings in the hard-hitting horn section and solid Tull & Axt rhythm section. Dave gets in a few more one-liners before Doug Webb’s killin’ solo. Corey’s perfectly timed Basie-style piano innuendos add even more attitude to the atmosphere. A bit of Joe Williams’ influence is evident in Dave’s full voice range, feel, and phrasing, but Dave is no imitator, the payoff is that he’s a world class drummer, vocalist, composer, and rare find. Fortunately, a musician friend hipped me to Dave, and within 10 seconds of hearing this track on youtube, I gladly paid Dave for his CD and it was worth every cent.

May 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jaleel Shaw (with Mark Turner): Grand Central

This is a studio band that I would like to hear live, or at least on another CD. The pairing of Shaw and Turner in the front line is an inspired combination, and both play at top form. Turner has a first rate musical mind, but sometimes shows a tendency to be a bit analytical in his improvisations. Here he starts out playing a mind game for the first few bars of his solo (possibly parodying the closing phrase of Shaw's chorus), but within a few bars he decides to embrace the entropy, to good effect. The chaos theory postulated in real time by the rhythm section may have something to do with the dynamism shown by both saxophonists here. Shaw, for his part, plays with the sense of urgency—he has a way of kicking out notes that are like mini-howls, a very gripping sound. Turner only appears on one other track on this CD, which is a shame. This is one of the more interesting two horn combos of recent years.

May 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Lovano: Powerhouse

You can hear how much Joe Lovano enjoys playing with his band "Us Five" on this loose, swinging track from his 21st Blue Note release Folk Art. "Powerhouse" is a medium-up tempo workout on Tranish-changes with a clever start-and-stop melody. Don't be fooled by the ensemble's name which implies an egalitarian cooperative. Lovano is clearly in charge here, and establishes the high-octane performance level from his unaccompanied opening phrase. But the Other Four on Us Five make their presence felt as well—this is a standout rhythm section by any measure. Ms. Spalding is a star on her own these days; right before this CD came out, she had a gig at the White House, where it was even harder to get a ticket than at Lovano's ensuing Village Vanguard stand. I am usually wary when bandleaders double up on membranophones. Having two drummers in the band is like inviting two samurai swordsmen to dinner on the same night—make sure your first aid kit is on hand. But this time it works, giving an extra kick to the proceedings. A pianist could easily lose out in this Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest combo, but Weidman combines power and grace in his keyboard stylings. If I were naming this band, I would get rid of Us Five, and take on the name of this track. It would fit nicely on the marquee: Joe Lovano's Powerhouse.

May 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Francesco Cafiso: Louisiana

Too often these days jazz writers hear about child prodigies via press releases from hired publicists. Francesco Cafiso made his name the old fashioned way, via word-of-mouth from other musicians. (Yes, kiddies, that was how reputations were once established in the jazz world.) The turning point for Cafiso came when Wynton Marsalis called the young altoist from Sicily the best 13-year-old saxophonist he had ever heard.

As I am writing this review, I note that it is Cafiso's 20th birthday. Yet even now, this artist is under-marketed rather than over-exposed, especially in the US. His appearance in Washington D.C. earlier this year to perform at events in honor of Barack Obama's innauguration and Martin Luther King Jr. day was a rare moment of prominence stateside for this extroverted performer. Cafiso plays with authority and authenticity, and his recordings testify not only to his own musicality, but also to how far jazz has come in Europe, where the leading players these day are staking out their own ground with less and less concern about following the road map set by U.S. trends.

This track, recorded when Cafiso was sixteen, is dedicated to pianist James Williams, who had died fifteen months before the session. From the opening bars, Cafiso shows that he's in charge. His duet with drummer Bagnoli is a musical sparring match that the saxophonist wins hands down. His long, sizzling lines literally force the drummer to raise his own intensity level. When you start a performance with this level of energy, it is hard to maintain it, let alone build it to something bigger. In truth, when the piano solo starts two minutes into the performance, the music loses much of its bite. Yet Cafiso's contribution here is impressive, and especially so when one considers his "tender years" at the time. Needless to say, there is nothing tender about his work on the horn.

May 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sharel Cassity: Cherokee

I didn't know they offered classes in hot and heavy swing at Juilliard. Shows you how much things have changed since the days when Miles Davis battled with William Vacchiano (who later commented that Miles was merely "a decent student"). Conservatory graduate Sharel Cassity plays with the kind of fire that normally comes from the school of hard knocks where no degrees are given. She certainly burns up this oft-played modern jazz anthem, and shows her mastery of the bop vocabulary. Even more than the licks, her devil-may-care attitude stands out here. And I especially like her tone, which is sweeter than one typically find with alto speed demons. In truth, her conception of the horn is definitely pre-Trane—which you might consider as blasphemy or find refreshing, depending on your allegiances. But if you believe that musical excellence can be achieved without copious borrowings from the Slonimsky Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, Cassity is an artist you will want to hear.

May 24, 2009 · 1 comment

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The Crusaders: It Happens Everyday

Joe Sample’s reputation as a preeminent smooth jazzer often obscures his tremendous abilities on the piano, which he plays in a uniquely graceful and funky way. Sample can also craft some compositions that are pleasingly mellifluous while being anything but lightweight. He really hit his stride in the latter department with “It Happens Everyday,” which was originally the closing number from The Crusaders’ classic platter Free As The Wind .

This winsome ballad begins with Sample alone rendering its main melody, a deeply idyllic one, and consisting of a series of linked phrases often punctuated by short flourishes. Even the bridge is a perfectly constructed and flows out naturally. The rest of the band and some superfluous strings soon join in, but this is Joe’s show all the way.

Sample’s trademark percussive but fluid style is on full display for his solo. His strong right hand pours out the passion in a brisk manner, but never quite overbearing. Above all, it’s done in the service of that knockout melody.

I first heard “It Happens Everyday” some thirty years ago and it still sounds just as fresh today after countless listens. The beauty of this tune transcends any debate over whether it’s smooth jazz, R&B jazz, or even straight jazz.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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E.J. Strickland: Eternal

The elliptical polyrhythms of E.J. Strickland on “Eternal” conjures up the ghost of the great Elvin Jones, and his interwoven use of cymbals, tom-toms and snare alone can transport the listener back to A Love Supreme-era John Coltrane. The main melodic theme is rendered as an alto/tenor unison, something Coltrane wasn’t known for doing, but the deeply spiritual quality of it does follow in his footsteps. Shaw goes first on his solo flight, then E.J.’s twin brother Marcus. Both do a fine job putting forth well-modulated lines that are heavy on mood and light on clichés, but it’s even more fun to listen how E.J. seems to be directing the level on intensity from behind his drum kit; he is providing the punch in this song that provides a spark for everyone else.

We can’t be sure if Coltrane’s spirit was really lurking in the making of this recording, but certainly his flesh and blood were in the vicinity; his son Ravi produced this track.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Don Pullen: In The Beginning

One of the strongest, most intense and inventive tracks on an album chock full of them, "In The Beginning" combines ultra-fast freebop, out-of-time free improvisation, tango rhythms, and extraordinary solos to create a brilliantly conceived and performed work of jazz. Everyone involved is at the top their game. The horns shine in particular: alto saxophonist Donald Harrison is terrific, showing himself an able successor to Dolphy and Shorter; cornetist Dara proves himself a creatively malleable, exciting—even incendiary—soloist. Pullen, of course, is great, as are bassist Hopkins and drummer Bobby Battle. This is one of those times (rare, for this critic) when enthusiasm trumps analysis. "In The Beginning" is jazz the way it ought to be: original, intense, unmindful of limits—some of Pullen's best work, meaning it ranks with some of the finest piano-based jazz of the last half century.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Don Pullen: The Sixth Sense

The quartet that pianist Don Pullen co-led with tenor saxophonist George Adams in the 1980s was one of the finest jazz groups of that era, combining the best aspects of inside and outside playing into a seamless, organic whole. Pullen's efforts in that direction were not limited to his band with Adams, however, as this performance demonstrates.

"The Sixth Sense" is a North African-sounding tune in 6/4 with an attractive, mysterious melody built upon a simple, modal-sounding chordal structure. Fred Hopkins—surely one of the greatest and most underrated jazz bassists of all time—combines with drummer Bobby Battle to create an elastic, swinging groove. Cornetist Olu Dara and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison contribute fiery, articulate solos, but the track's centerpiece is Pullen's spot. The pianist's hyper-agile and bracingly intense solo is stunningly creative. Pullen's visionary style simply did not recognize a distinction between "out" and "in." In Pullen's music, everything is "in," made manifest by open-mindedness, self-confidence, and determination. His playing here is profound.

May 21, 2009 · 1 comment

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Paul Motian: 9 x 9

An unusual take on collectively improvised free jazz, featuring an amped-up Bill Frisell and two aggressive, stylistically similar tenor saxophonists, Joe Lovano and the late Jim Pepper.

Drummer/composer Paul Motian's rubato melodies are loosely rendered by the saxes and guitar, beneath which Motian and bassist Ed Schuller concoct an amorphous, out-of-time rhythmic and harmonic platform. In his solo, Frisell is as rock-ish as he was inclined to get, adopting a metallic guise with generous helpings of distortion and delay. The saxophonists are hard to tell apart—certainly Lovano was not as distinctive in the earlier '80s as he later became—but both contribute creatively to the demoniacally agitated ebb and flow. Of course, Motian is in charge of that; his simultaneously riotous and self-contained manner of playing incites with intelligence.

Free jazz—especially the kind that steers clear of regular pulse—has in the main been the province of acoustic musicians. Frisell's rock-inspired playing goes far in defining this group's unconventional sound. It's as welcome as it is atypical.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Motian: The Story of Maryam

Drummer Paul Motian has always had infallible taste in saxophonists, going back to his early records as a leader. Here his sax savvy is in evidence twice-over, with the inclusion of the late Jim Pepper on soprano and Joe Lovano on tenor.

"The Story of Maryam" is a gentle, Latin-flavored waltz that features most notably guitarist Bill Frisell's quasi-detuned, dynamically-varied electric guitar atmospherics and the two nimble saxophonists exchanging the sing-song melody—one improvising while the other solos. Pepper and Lovano are garrulous, engaging players, and they work wonderfully together. Motian has always struck this writer as being more intriguing when playing "out" than when playing straight time, but his unusual, snare-laden approach works nicely on this. He's one of the unique instrumental voices among modern jazz drummers, regardless of the context.

A refined version of this group—his trio with Frisell and Lovano—became one of Motian's best and longest-running bands. This performance provides an opportunity to hear an earlier, expanded version of that ensemble. It isn’t quite as compelling as the best of the music made by the trio, but it has its own not insubstantial charms.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Damon Zick: Hector, Desmond and Titus

Saxophonist/composer Damon Zick allows this composition to develop by holding back on the horns early on and allowing pianist Adam Benjamin to tease out the harmonic structure. It's what sets “Hector, Desmond, and Titus” apart from the normal head/solos/head kind of thing. Tension slowly builds as Benjamin and drummer Nate Wood set down a few chords and arpeggios, making them solidify just before the sax and trombone kick in. It's seems like a musical unveiling.

The head splits into two parts, the first segment with a fast-moving “Night In Tunisia” vibe. The second, a descending tumble of lines. It's a perfect setup for the segues into solos. It's tough to pick a favorite solo here, mostly because my ears are really partial to the trombone. But still, the nod has to go to Zick, who takes great liberties with time, stretching ideas across bar lines and generally pushing the energy level quite high - so much so that when the head reappears, it seems almost sad because you know the song is about to end. Great stuff.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joel Harrison: Straight, No Chaser (variations)

Oh man, there's something more than delicious about taking Monk's thing and funking with it. That's just what Joel Harrison has done here. “Straight No Chaser” is run headlong into some serious funk. The result is serious and stuttering fun. I'm a sucker for a good funk riff and there's plenty of that. Harrison kicks things off with some killer rhythm guitar that introduces the main thought: take Monk's riff and pull it into as many related shapes as you can. Some of the solos, especially by violinist Christian Howes and trumpeter Akinmuire, squish Monk's melody so much that it's like a musical funhouse mirror. The 'normal' breakpoints in those well-worn contours just aren't where they used to be. This is a good thing for all parties concerned, Monk himself in particular. Despite his curmudgeonly nature, I'd be willing to bet that he would have loved to hear his music inspiring new artists and being the driving force behind such creative interpretations.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jennifer Lee: Quiet Joy

Somehow, sultry Brazilian rhythms manage to be both relaxing and energizing. That's certainly the way I feel about the title track from Jennifer Lee's new album. The promotional material indicates that Lee was inspired by her new 7-string guitar (Boy, am I jealous!) and by the rustic beauty of the town of Elk, in Mendocino County. Music from Rio by way of California? Yes, and the secret here is not the easy slink of Lee's band (in particular, Raul Ramirez on percussion), but in Lee's absolutely gorgeous wordless vocalizations. When she's singing them alone, Astrud Gilberto is not far from my mind. When she harmonizes with herself, she conjures memories of the duo of Mark Ledford and David Blamires of the Pat Metheny Group. These references make no difference though, because your ears will be swept away on the wave of beautiful vocals.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gato Barbieri: Obsession No. 2/Cinemateque

Gato Barbieri’s renown as a skillful blender of jazz and South American influences is significant enough to make one forget that he was a dedicated free-jazz practitioner earlier in his career. His harsh and booming tone once put him on par with Peter Brötzmann, but even back then, the raw emotion poured out of his horn like a fully opened faucet. Those attributes aptly describe his 1967 debut record as a leader, In Search Of The Mystery. Barbieri uses a somewhat atypical assemblage of both a bass and a cello to go with the drums for the two side-long pieces that comprise of this album. “Obsession No. 2/Cinemateque” is the more explosive of the two.

The tremolo that begins this twenty-one minute piece is just a windup for the leader. The song seems to be rooted in a key, but once Barbieri gets going, it hardly matters. Scotts’ shifty cello solo wouldn’t be considered a respite any place else, but with Barbieri following with screams at the top of tenor’s register, it is, here. Kapp’s drums are up to the task, firing off artillery whenever Barbieri is feeling especially unfettered. For his part, Sirone is sometimes nearly submerged; at other times, he’s the tenuous link between the band and any semblance of melody.

“Obsession No. 2/Cinemateque” is a roller-coaster ride fueled by veering passion, complete with alternating moods of taut anticipation and exhilaration.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Haden: Song for Ché

Charlie Haden’s distinction is his unmatched ability to use the precise intonation and note choice to wring human emotion from his acoustic bass. Haden locates the tonal center of a song regardless of whether it’s a simple traditional country of the Louvin Brothers or the strange non-traditional jazz of Ornette Coleman.

His own “Song For Ché” is his heartfelt lament for the iconic Latin American Marxist revolutionary, Ché Guevara. For nearly the first half of this 9-plus minute song, Haden spins a solemn sorrowful procession of notes that evolve into a tense, chilling rapid repeating of notes. Cherry’s wood flute makes a few random reflections before Guevara’s fellow Argentinean Barbieri releases the revolutionary fury. Mantler provides a more romantic counterpoint that soon gets overwhelmed by Gato’s big tenor, while the percussion rumbles underneath. A final, Latin folk-inspired melody very briefly emerges from the chaos then falls away, leaving Haden alone to quietly bring the song to a gentle conclusion.

Charlie Haden’s tribute to a controversial figure is more than just a song; it’s a jazz opera done to virtual perfection.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Oran Etkin: New Dwelling

Imagine this: a hip hop beat meted out by hand-made percussion, a balafon (a West African wooden xylophone-like instrument), a small string section playing pentatonic scales, and a bass clarinet lurking its way around all this. That only begins to describe Oran Etkin’s one-of-a-kind mosaic of First and Third World cultures. There’s a breakdown section in the middle where Balla Kouyate improvises fluently with Malian sensibilities and not so much a jazz one. Sanders’ bass meanwhile serves superbly as the funky link between the percussion and the string quartet.

“New Dwelling” is where Eric Dolphy, Dr. Dre, the Third Stream, and the music of Mali all collide. Visual collisions are compelling to watch and likewise, this audio collision is compelling to listen to. The notable difference here is that Etkin’s inventive concoction doesn’t leave behind a mess.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kurt Rosenwinkel: The Cloister

Mellow and meditative, this tune is surprisingly engaging even though its tempo rides introspectively upon a new wave groove. That is not to say that the entire affair can be considered "new wave"; Rosenwinkel takes his cues from both fusion-era sounds and the "cool" jazz school of the Fifties that signaled the last gasp of tried-and-true traditionalism within the genre. Rosenwinkel plays electric guitar, and therein lies its only true link to the more modern sound that usually typifies jazz sprinkled by the tones of his instrument of choice. The influence of Pat Metheny is heavy, yet the symphonic sound of the motifs-performed in tandem by the ensemble-sounds more like some of what appeared on early Miles Davis classics like Birth of the Cool (sans the guitar solos, of course).

Consistent with the overall approach is Rosenwinkel's playing, which, here, is fierce, yet square, as his insistence on dwelling within the defined borders (instead of venturing outside of them like players such as Larry Coryell) adds congruity.

The structure and sounds of "The Cloister" are familiar. Yet they are pleasing to the ear and can teach quite a bit to jazz enthusiasts about the importance of keeping things simple sometimes.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Borah Bergman and Roscoe Mitchell: Riding the Crest

"Riding the Crest" is fraught with drama. The ambidextrous free jazz pianist Borah Bergman plays extremely fast and convoluted melodic lines in each hand—often in opposition to one another—while soprano saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell adds his still more streams of linear complexity on top. Mitchell employs circular breathing and Bergman needn't take a breath in any case. Consequently, the resultant music is a tempest of swirling textures without pause. Both men are well capable of understatement, but there's none of that here. This performance represents both at their virtuosic peaks, creating music defined by the extraordinarily swift manner in which they present an abundance of ideas, as well as the ferociousness of their delivery.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Borah Bergman and Roscoe Mitchell: At Any Given Moment

Of the many pianists who've adopted jazz-derived free improvisation as a mode of expression, few if any have as distinctive a style as Borah Bergman. Initially inspired by the legendary pianist Lennie Tristano, Bergman nevertheless developed a voice wholly different from his model, conceiving a manner of non-tonal improvisation that draws little from the bebop that formed the basis of Tristano's music. Bergman is a free-associative improviser, operating outside the realm of swing and jazz harmony in a manner essentially invented by Cecil Taylor. Bergman possesses massive chops, yet he's not afraid to rein them in. Indeed, reticence is a crucial aspect of his music.

Roscoe Mitchell is a good foil for Bergman. Not only is he fond of leaving space between phrases, he generates an illusion of space through the use of long, sustained tones, often separated by intervals greater than an octave. This 17-minute track begins gradually and takes time building momentum, although a palpable tension is present from the outset. The dramatic arc rises and falls naturally; there is no single huge climax, but rather several smaller ones that are thrown into relief by the surrounding quiet. The musicians' choice of notes might imply a contemporary classical influence, but the phrasing, articulation, and inflections are pure jazz (albeit of the very free-est variety). First class stuff by two masters of their craft.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kurt Rosenwinkel: Cake

Kurt Rosenwinkel's "Cake" starts slowly and softly but builds into a nice swing that takes off early and never loses its intensity. The composition follows the rules established by much of what was recorded by jazz virtuosos like Pat Metheny and Wes Montgomery: state the obvious early, get to business quickly, and end confidently.

Rosenwinkel's tone is warm on this track and, all-around, the notes are chosen carefully. While there certainly aren't any frills present, the tune provides many thrills as improvisation rules the day and the lead players each get in their licks in due time. Rosenwinkel's own contributions drive the cut, but particularly hot is saxophonist Joshua Redman. While Redman sounds like he is conjuring up the ghost of Joe Henderson, you will be impressed with the Elvin Jones-esque, tom-tom heavy backbeat and pianist Brad Mehldau's loving tributes to the legend of McCoy Tyner.

This music does not break any new ground, but it does not have to because it is well performed, recorded, and written, and it also proves that, even though newer forms of classic musical styles are hard to come by nowadays, revisitations of the spirit of the past in song are not without merit.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gebhard Ullmann: Kreutzberg Park East

This is the music that plays during the freaky scene in the movie when the spirit of Albert Ayler and his crazy cousins come back to inhabit the instruments lying around on the practice room floor. A priest is summoned to perform an exorcism. Midway through the procedure, there's a lot of blood and other miscellaneous body fluids coating the floors and walls. The horns fly into rage-filled ascending passages. The door flies open and in walks Anthony Braxton. He takes one furious look at the poor man of the cloth, says nothing, and then points back down the hallway. As he passes through the door, the instruments rise up and execute a furious unison passage that's full of staccato bluster. Celebrations take place in the form of a trombone/drums duo, a sax/bass duo and, finally, one last low tone.

Braxton knows a good thing when he hears it. So does Gebhard Ullmann.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nicholas Urie: Bad Girl?

People can find inspiration for art in some surprising places. This happens because creative types tend to see relationships between objects that seem quite unlike. Nicholas Urie's use of human speech as source material isn't exactly new. For example, Steve Reich created "Different Trains" from pieces of conversation overheard on train trips between Los Angeles and New York. Ah, but just look at the title the CD. Yes, the basic ingredients did indeed come from Internet dating sites. The song's title "Bad Girl?" doesn't exactly telegraph this, but the lines "I am familiar with the forms/Of female discipline" do get you closer.

The song opens with Christine Correa's pure voice singing a proud ascending passage: "I am a forty-two year old/Good looking and sexy..." The band kicks in with a sort of naughty march and we're transported directly into a horny and desperate Broadway play of the mind. I mean that in the best possible way. Urie's stellar ensemble is quite malleable, equally comfortable with both that thematic march and the swingin', straight ahead jazz that's played later. Oh and there's some bump & grind burlesque right near the end as Correa gets down to business, singing about "good ol' fashioned discipline" and "spanking fun." Hmmm, a cold shower might be necessary after this track.

May 20, 2009 · 1 comment

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Champion Jack Dupree: Junker's Blues

A New Orleans favorite since never-recorded pianist "Drive 'Em Down" (Willie Hall) played it in the streets in the Twenties, "Junker's Blues" was finally put on disc in 1941 by Hall's protege, Champion Jack Dupree. Jack's rough barrelhouse style fit the down-and-dirty drug-user lyrics to a T, and NOLA musicians such as Fats Domino ("The Fat Man"), Lloyd Price ("Lawdy Miss Clawdy"), and Professor Longhair ("Tipitina") have been casually borrowing lines from it ever since Dupree's original 78 RPM record was released.

Dupree's rendition is still the best one, though. "They call me a junco, 'cause I'm loaded all the time"-that's his cheerful opening line-and the Champ keeps up the bouncy, pounding, percolating blues piano while he name-checks cocaine, needles, reefer, wine, and, finally, jail time. Your mother's melody and words this isn't, but the situation eventually involves Jack's parents (and even his grandma) trying to wean him off the stuff.

There's no happy ending here-just some flinty barrelhouse chords and a blues song that became a hit and a template. The biggest irony, however, is that Dupree (to his credit) supposedly never used anything stronger than liquor-and not even much of that...

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Red Mitchell-Harold Land Quintet: Catacomb

This track is a fine example of the work of this excellent but short-lived group. Though this was geographically a West Coast group, their music was much closer in spirit to the style of small-group jazz that was coming out of New York at that time. Harold Land was always one of the most underrated great players in all of jazz, and wrote many distinctive original tunes that appeared on recordings by Wes Montgomery and Bobby Hutcherson, as well as on his own dates. Red Mitchell was one of the most melodic bassists in jazz both as a soloist and accompanist.

"Catacomb" is an attractive 32-bar Land original that provides a stimulating sense of tension and release, both harmonically and rhythmically. It also features a hip off-kilter rhythmic figure that is used as a send-off into the solos.

Land's solo is notable for the combination of intense rhythmic drive, beautifully constructed lines, and distinctive gritty tone quality that made his playing instantly recognizable. Mitchell turns in a spare, warm-toned arco spot. Carmell Jones's solo is notable for its lyricism and warm, glowing sound. Strazzeri's solo is particularly noteworthy for the unconventional way he employs block chords with great rhythmic and harmonic variety. He builds tension by not using conventional right-hand lines until the bridge of his second chorus. Add Frank Strazzeri's name to the short list of jazz soloists who have strong individual styles yet remain practically unknown to the jazz public.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ron Affif: Bohemia After Dark

Ron Affif's father, Charlie, was once the 8th ranked middleweight boxer in the world, and was also a friend of Miles Davis. "He threw his best shots from round one, and he's in me," said Affif of his late father. Ron's aggressive attack and hard-edged tone on "Bohemia After Dark" are evidence of that. Here's a guitarist who can hit you with the musical equivalents of toying jabs, left crosses, roundhouse rights, devastating uppercuts, and various effective combinations.

Amazingly, this smoking version of "Bohemia After Dark" was not only a first take, but also the first time Affif, Essiet, or Watts had ever played the tricky Oscar Pettiford composition (named for the Café Bohemia, where Pettiford was once musical director). Essiet establishes the insinuating beat, while Affif plays the theme with a stabbing, percussive mindset, which also applies to his subsequent solo. Affif's phrasing exhibits glimmers of other guitarists such as Joe Pass, George Benson, Pat Martino, and Kenny Burrell, all assimilated into his bluesy, concentrated articulation, rhythmic complexity, overall creativity, and admirable lack of repetition. Essiet's solo is an ecstatic extension of the driving, layered African-influenced bass lines he employs backing Affif, especially notable on the tune's unorthodox bridge. Affif's zestful trades with Watts take on an exotic flavor, and to some extent recall the combination of guitarist Gabor Szabo and drummer Chico Hamilton. This is one of the better, and certainly one of the freshest versions of "Bohemia After Dark." Which begs the question: why hasn't Affif been given an opportunity to record since 1999?

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Clare Fischer: This is Always

“This is Always” is a gem of a song, one of those ‘unknown standards’ by Harry Warren that gets played and recorded every once in a great while. Fischer’s version is unforgettable, primarily because Fischer is a master of orchestral color and of alternate harmony. Jimmy Zito plays the melody with the organ taking over, and the band changes key as the organ continues. The last section of the song as written for the full band is one of those four-bar phrases that could only have been written by Fischer; dramatic, full-textured, harmonically fascinating and beautiful to hear. In fact, I admit I have heard this short track hundreds of times and always finding something new to appreciate. Such is the art of Clare Fischer.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jelly Roll Morton: New Orleans Blues (The Spanish Tinge)

New Orleans piano didn't start with Jelly Roll Morton, who paid his own respects to such earlier Storyville habitues as Sammy Davis and Tony Jackson. However, the self-styled "Inventor of Jazz" was first to record, and his Library of Congress recordings make for fascinating listening as he recounts the long and winin'-boy history of NOLA Music.

While Morton's subsequent decades of success helped inspire other Creole pianists like Joe Robicheaux and Armand Hug, the track "New Orleans Blues" (1940) serves double duty. Its syncopation is laced with traces of ragtime and the sporting parlor, and the cut's flowing series of variations eventually lead to a restrained stomp-it-off coda. Morton discovered the tune around 1902 (aided by Joe Jordan and Frank Richards), but, on this recording, he introduces a multi-part dissection of the "Spanish Tinge" in New Orleans jazz that, debatably, forms the music's bed-rocking foundation. As the Jelly rolls on, Morton holds the habanera/tango rhythms steady on the left hand and thereby creates a solid base/bass from which his right hand is free to play in a variety of styles that range from balladsy to bluesy to brisk.

Morton's LoC tapes are proof positive of his brilliance as a composer, pianist, and singer.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charlie Haden: American Dreams

After the sturm und drang of 80 chaotic years of Depressions, demonstrations, recessions, riots, wars, and more, it is of momentary grace to come upon Charlie Haden's "American Dreams."

On the Liberation Music Orchestra albums, his political activism remains a resolute force. Here, though, the statement is simply peaceful, as the piano trio performance by Haden, Brad Mehldau, and Brian Blade is embraced by a 34-piece string orchestra.

Low strings announce the heartbeat thuds of Haden's stately lift-and-settle-back melody. Then, the strings fall away and, in a light 4/4, Mehldau plays lovely variants of the theme-Charlie staying quiet and Blade flicking and switching around Brad's resonating notes until the bass and strings resume their calm, earth-coming-to-rest pulse. Both rise in a slow crescendo, followed by a swift, dying fall and Haden's deep time going silent.

Haden's song-without-words conjures up images of the shifting clouds and colors of a sunset under Western skies, and also of a nation at once more worthy of the dreams of its people.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Clifford Brown: Donna Lee

When Clifford Brown revisited Ellis Tollin's Philadelphia instrument shop, Music City, for another Monday night jam session on June 25, 1956, it seemed that the sky was the limit for the brilliant 25-years-young trumpet star. In just four short years he had taken the jazz world by a storm. But after his final number that evening, "Donna Lee," he left by car to travel to Chicago for the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet's next gig, only to die in an accident en route, along with Richie and Nancy Powell.

But was this "Donna Lee," and two other tracks, really from June 25, 1956, as Bruce Lundvall and Dan Morgenstern's liner notes for the original 1973 LP release proclaimed? Or was Nick Catalano's 2001 biography correct in asserting that this particular jam session actually took place a year earlier, on May 31, 1955? Catalano (and researcher/trumpeter Al Hood) pointed to participating saxophonist Billy Root, who was apparently on the road instead with Stan Kenton in late June of 1956, and who believed the recordings came from the May 1955 session. However, jazz historian Phil Schaap, for one, stands by the 1956 date, as did Ellis Tollin himself.. After all, Brownie is heard complaining at the conclusion of "Donna Lee" about how hot it is—and Philadelphia hit a cool 71? on 5-31-55, as opposed to a more sultry 86? on 6-25-56.

Whatever the case, listening to Brown's magnificent playing on "Donna Lee" is an exhilarating experience, but also a painful one, with the knowledge that the trumpeter, depending on which date is correct, had either mere hours or just a year left to live. What's most noticed in Brown's playing of the theme and especially in his solo is his great facility and rich, lustrous sound, and also his typical fondness for the middle register. He thinks on his feet, and comes across unrushed even at the surging up-tempo that the rhythm section handily maintains here. Brown's extended lines are uncliched, tireless, and thematically focused, as he inventively explores the harmonies of Parker's tune. Dockery contributes a fluent piano solo notable for its intriguing left hand accentuations. Tollin's energetic support behind both Brown and Dockery's solos show him to be a more than adequate drummer in the bop genre. Brown's second improv contains even more compelling phrasing, as he smoothly intersperses—amidst his runs—both crisply-hit high notes and lower octave tones played with a broad vibrato.

May 19, 2009 · 5 comments

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Joey Calderazzo: Lunacy

Calderazzo's third and final Blue Note release in 1993, The Traveler, was one of the best piano trio albums by a young jazz pianist to see the light of day in the '90's. It should have catapulted his career as a leader, but instead he replaced the late Kenny Kirkland in the Branford Marsalis Quartet at the end of the decade, where he has remained ever since, most recently also getting to record under his own name for Branford's "Marsalis Music" label.

Calderazzo is a pianist who can break your heart on ballads, or dazzle you on the up-tempo burners. "Lunacy," from The Traveler, falls into the latter category. The track features an urgent modal theme that Calderazzo plays twice before initiating an extended five-minute solo. His darting, dancing runs and modulating motifs build incessantly, with Anderson and especially Hirshfield in tight interactive rapport. A thrilling tension and release prevails throughout Calderazzo's brilliant excursion, and Hirshfield's drum rolls, bass drum bombs, and snapped hi-hat accents match the pianist's intense aggression. Calderazzo's solo reaches a peak of near-manic two-handed dissonant interplay, until he finally reacknowledges the theme, now a mere adjunct to the detailed, enriching content of his improv.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tom Harrell: Tune-A-Tune

It's hard to imagine a better frontline than this—Harrell, Joe Lovano, and the trumpeter's former employer during the '80's, Phil Woods. Add the then up-and-coming Danilo Perez and the adroit rhythm team of Peter Washington and Bill Goodwin, and have this sextet be inspired by their leader's new and striking compositions, and the end result is a keeper CD of the highest order.

"Tune-A-Tune" is the most complex and challenging piece on Upswing, and appears last in the batting order. The staccato theme has a dark undercurrent, and the three horns harmonize it with a resolute cry. Harrell's lyrical, warm-toned solo is in surprising contrast to the theme's delivery, and is supported by Perez's varied textures, which range from montuno to modal note clusters. Lovano's thrusting improv nimbly explores many of the melodic and harmonic pathways offered by Harrell's composition, his runs laced with enhancing shrieks and overtones. Woods follows with a sweeping statement as well, played with a piercing sound and a passionate drive that recall his performances many years earlier with his dynamic European Rhythm Machine. Perez's solo brings the temperature down a notch, with twirling motifs and ethereal passages that coalesce cogently. The horns' beseeching reprise presents a pleasing, if slightly jolting, deviation from the pianist's more understated attack. Final mention must be made of Goodwin's aggressive, yet also highly anticipatory and responsive drumming throughout this compelling track.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Clare Fischer: Thiers' Tears

Clare Fischer has led a chameleonic life as a jazz musician. First known as musical director for the Hi-Lo’s, he wrote an album for trumpeter Donald Byrd with strings that Warner Bros. bought from Albert Marx and never released (it came out several years ago). Taking up residence in the west coast, he soon made his name as a pianist, composer, and by the late 1960s, leader of a big band that played local spots in Los Angeles. The band made two albums, one of which didn’t come out until years later, the other sonically compromised and soon out of print. Also identified with Bossa Nova and later the Salsa movement, he led a small unit with a vocal group in this direction that made some wonderful albums. At this writing, Fischer is still at it, playing and writing superbly crafted, beautiful and unusual music. Often compared to Gil Evans, Fischer has always created his own sonic worlds that sound like no other.

“Their’s Tears” was written in honor of a friend, and recorded for Albert Marx in 1969. Fischer’s big band includes the rarely-heard bass sax, giving this ensemble a really solid bottom register. The piece is straight-forward swing with flute and clarinet colors as part of the texture, except for a transition to solos, where the rhythm has a distinct triplet feel, and the sounds shift to saxes and muted brass. Fischer plays the organ on this track, and the sinister sound of this instrument does not work in my opinion, but Clare’s solo is first rate, as is Conte Candoli’s. Fischer’s ensemble is one more reminder of the many fresh directions in musical language still being explored many years after the ensemble ceased to be the source of American popular music.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Archie Shepp: Cousin Mary

Archie Shepp's first Impulse album comprised four tunes by John Coltrane ("Syeeda's Song Flute," "Mr. Syms," "Cousin Mary," and "Naima") plus one Shepp original ["Rufus (Swung, his face at last to the wind, then his neck snapped)"]. The minor blues "Cousin Mary" is a pretty straight-forward jazz tune, and Shepp gives it a pretty straight-forward treatment—arrangement-wise, at least.

After a quick reading of the head, Shepp gets down to business, improvising a gruff, vocalic tenor solo that spends a great deal more time going against the grain of the fast tempo than it does engaging it. Shepp's lines are smears of paint across the canvas of steady pulse—a country blues solution to an ultra-modern puzzle. Flugelhornist Alan Shorter follows with an economical solo, heavy on chromatics, moving around and about the beat in a manner similar to Shepp's. John Tchicai goes a step further, breaking the pulse into shards with his self-enforced lyricism (and bringing the rhythm section along with him), before reconnecting with the swing and generally complicating matters in his own ingenious way. Bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Charles Moffett create at a high level, connecting well with one another and the horns.

This is an inspired performance—one that pays heartfelt tribute to the album's dedicatee, yet at the same time suggests further idiomatic growth.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Melody Gardot: The Rain

It's been a few years since the Norah Jones Sweepstakes mentality hit the jazz scene—Enter now! Sing a torch song, and maybe you could win a quadruple platinum record—but we still see new entrants. Melody Gardot has many of the right ingredients for stardom. First and foremost her voice, which is conversational and intimate. She has a clean, clear delivery that puts the lyric at the center of every song she sings. She can accompany herself on piano and guitar, and her approach here is very understated with a good sense of space. Even so, I would like to hear her do many of the songs on this CD with a rhythm section that put a little more bite into the comping. This free-floating track threatens to float away on a breeze of rubato—a sensibility that pervades much of this CD. Yet Gardot sings with a lot of heart and soul, and her personal history has enough tragedy in it to meet anyone's metaphysical requirement for dues-paying. I'm not sure if she will win the Norah Jones Sweepstakes, but she is definitely a contender.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Archie Shepp: Rufus (Swung, his face at last to the wind, then his neck snapped)

Archie Shepp got his deal with Impulse largely through the good graces of the label's star attraction, John Coltrane. Fittingly enough, Shepp's first album for the company was a tribute to his sponsor. The album consists of four Coltrane tunes arranged by Shepp, with "Rufus" his sole original. Coincidentally or not, the tune is arguably the album's most interesting composition. The performance isn't too shabby, either.

"Rufus" consists mainly of a start-and-stop freebop melody played in a shaggy unison and harmony by Shepp on tenor sax and John Tchicai on alto. Bassist Reggie Workman provides a harmonically ambiguous backing, and drummer Charles Moffett accents the discontinuous melody, leading into a solo section taken at a very quick tempo. The whole thing is rather loose and unkempt, but it suits the group's purposes very well, allowing the horns maximum harmonic freedom while providing a hard-swinging, nearly boppish platform for improvisation. Soloing first, Tchicai floats over the cooking rhythm section, combining long, finely-shaded lyrical phrases with intricate, convoluted episodes. Shepp's solo spot is more energetic and hard-swinging; he's more inclined toward extremes of volume and inflection. Tchicai's limpid strategy contrasts and complements Shepp's earthier approach wonderfully. Workman is very good, and Moffett displays the same spontaneous, roughhousing style that made him such an effective drummer for Ornette.

Perennially underrated, this is perhaps the best track from one of the great '60s free jazz albums.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Albert Ayler: Four

"Four" isn't the Miles Davis tune, but a 20-minute-long collective improvisation by pianist Cecil Taylor's trio with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray, augmented by the tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler. A week after this performance, this same Taylor group (minus Ayler) would record the influential Café Montmartre sides that have been released in many guises over the years, perhaps the most well-known being the 1976 Arista Freedom issue, Nefertiti, The Beautiful One has Come. As far as this writer knows, this track had it's first legitimate release as part of the 2004 Revenant boxed set, Holy Ghost, a massive undertaking that notably documents some of the more obscure aspects of Ayler's career.

Ayler's presence on "Four" adds a rough, primal edge to Taylor's music. Ayler's country blues- and gospel-tinged manner highlights the essential elegance of Taylor's bop- and classical-influenced style. It's a fascinating and largely successful admixture, though one finds it hard to imagine the two men sustaining a partnership for long. Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyon's serpentine, Stitt-Meets-Ornette style is a much better match for the pianist. As for Ayler, he was the most un-tempered of jazz musicians; he sounded better when playing with musicians who could better accommodate his playing-between-the-cracks approach. Still, this a remarkable document—bracing, if curious in what it reveals about the differences between two of the great free jazz musicians of that or any other time.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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George Handy: The Sleepwalker

At this point in time it is safe to assume that the name George Handy is unlikely to be familiar to most jazz listeners, but from the late 40's and through the 50's he was considered one of the more "progressive" jazz composers. His best known recorded work was for the Boyd Raeburn band and his writing drew upon influences from 20th century classical music combined with Handy's solid background as a jazz pianist. Pieces such as "Dalvatore Sally", written for Raeburn, are rightly considered to be forerunners of so-called "Third Stream" music.

This track appeared on one of two albums Handy recorded for the prophetically obscure Label X in 1955. The main theme is stated ominously by oboe and bass clarinet in double-octave unison, after which the mood brightens every 8 bars through subtle interval manipulation until the theme takes on a conventionally bright boppish feeling. The ability to transform simple material in this manner is what distinguishes a composer from an arranger.

As on most composer-led sessions of the time, the solos are short and succinct with the emphasis on the writing. Aless sounds light and airy, Sherman warm and melodic, and the legendary Schildkraut is gritty and Bird-like. The writing sometimes crosses the line into a sort of contrived cuteness, but always changes gears before boredom can set in. If the cartoon music master Carl W. Stalling had written bebop, it might have sounded something like what Handy has done here.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Albert Ayler: On Green Dolphin Street

A refutation to the common misconception that Albert Ayler had no foundation in the fundamentals of modern jazz performance, "On Green Dolphin Street" has the tenor saxophonist playing a standard tune with a bland, generic bebop rhythm section. That he does so in an idiosyncratic yet not totally off-the-wall manner shows that his eventual rejection of traditional mores was done with ample knowledge about what he was rejecting. Ayler's approach to playing this tune is something like Eric Dolphy's. He runs roughshod over the changes at times. Other times, he treats them with careful—and even gentle—consideration. He plays impossibly fast, with a huge, occasionally guttural tone. Concurrent with this, Ayler was experimenting with the hymnic, free-associative style that he later made famous; this shows us another, perhaps equally compelling direction his mature music might've taken.

May 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Pepper: Cherokee

One of the great challenges for the early bebop players was to maintain the same level of creativity at every conceivable tempo, from the fastest to the slowest. The great players (then as now) did this, while lesser players tended to stockpile phrases and patterns and polish them to a glossy sheen, substituting glibness for intrepidity. Count Art Pepper in the former group. Among the classic bebop saxophonists, Pepper is on a par with Parker, Rollins, and Coltrane in terms of going out on a limb. There's nothing remotely glib about his super-fast presentation of "Cherokee;" it's an exercise in constant risk-taking and inspiration. Joined by a nonpareil rhythm session (George Cables, piano; George Mraz, bass; Elvin Jones, drums), Pepper shreds on two horns—first alto, then following Cables' solo, tenor—interpreting the old bebop touchstone with an unvarnished intensity and spontaneous invention that few could match. A few finely-turned phrases turn up more than once, yet interspersed are episodes of remarkable unpredictability. Cables and Mraz are smooth and professional, as if determined to throw Pepper's vehemence in stark relief. Even the mercurial Jones pulls back, keeping time brilliantly if conventionally, allowing the volatile Pepper all the emotional room he needs.

May 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Pepper: You Go To My Head

Art Pepper's 1977 run at the Village Vanguard in New York was a career high point for the brilliant yet troubled (and oft-incarcerated) altoist. The gig put him in the company of one of his best rhythm sections—pianist George Cables, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Elvin Jones—and resulted in some of the most passionate, inspired playing of his career. Pepper has his way with "You Go To My Head," imbuing the ballad with the raw, almost desperate intensity that defined the work of his final years. The rhythm section's suavity contrasts with Pepper's compulsive style; his quick, double-time eruptions bespeak a welter of emotion that's always on the very edge of breaching Pepper's tenuous self-control. Indeed, there's a primal aspect to his playing that's utterly instinctual, even beyond what's common in the playing of other great improvisers. As good as Pepper was in the '50s, he was even better here, in the final phase of his not so straight life.

May 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ray Charles: Come Rain Or Come Shine

The Genius Of Ray Charles is an essential album and an important cornerstone in Charles’ career. The last album he made for Atlantic, Genius features Charles with a combination of the Count Basie band and his own small group on the first side, and a string-heavy orchestra on the second side. “Come Rain Or Come Shine” is the closing track on the second side and it, along with its session-mates, shows the direction that Charles would take when he recorded his albums of country/western songs for ABC-Paramount. Ralph Burns provides a background that seems deliberately square, with a very white chorus included with the strings. Just as Louis Armstrong had proved with his big bands in the early 30s, black music innovations stand out in bold relief against an extremely white background. I can only assume that Bob Brookmeyer’s presence was to add to the jazz quotient, but despite his fine playing, he’s not really needed: Brother Ray adds all of that himself. What makes “Come Rain Or Come Shine” stand out from the rest of the tracks is Ray’s impassioned delivery of the song. His style, so completely integrated that it’s difficult to isolate individual components, totally envelopes the song and even though he makes several changes to the melody, it sounds as if his version is the way the song was originally written. As has been said many times, when referring to Ray Charles, the word “genius” was not a superlative, but merely accurate.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: Come Rain Or Come Shine

I’m not sure who wrote this groovy little arrangement of “Come Rain Or Come Shine” (and while musical director Benny Golson is the most likely arranger, it could have been anyone in the band), but alongside “It’s You Or No One”, this is one of the best versions of a standard ever recorded by the Messengers. The band was in top form on this day and everyone sounds inspired and in a deep groove. The arrangement skips along happily in a medium tempo, but still maintains a slight touch of the song’s intensity without bringing down the mood. Bobby Timmons’ piano solo is almost entirely composed of block chords, and then Golson devours the changes as if they were a turkey dinner. Morgan’s solo shows his Clifford Brown roots, but played with a fiery tone as only Morgan could do it. Merritt’s bass solo is melodic and well-constructed with a downward motive used as a recurring idea. The horns return for a full chorus of melody and at the coda, the final phrase of the melody is repeated and then taken up a third as an acknowledgement of the song’s dramatic nature.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Woody Herman: Come Rain Or Come Shine

If I had to pick a favorite version of “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, it would be the Woody Herman version. Despite the 1970s trademark of electric piano and electric bass, it is a recording that sends chills up my spine every time I hear it. When I think of the song, it is always this version that comes to mind.

It begins innocently enough, sounding like an adaptation of Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin’”. It seems content enough to just focus on the lovely shifting harmonies and to be a cushion for solos by Woody on alto sax and Dennis Dotson on flugelhorn. Yet near the end of the first chorus, we get our first taste of a restlessness growing below. There’s a big crescendo to the days may be cloudy or sunny line with the trumpets going up an octave on we’re in or we’re out of the money. But then Dotson appears and things calm down again. The tempo moves into a light double-time with minimal support from the horns. The block chords and shifting harmonies return with Dotson taking the lead.

Then suddenly, with the crack of a rimshot, the band comes together for a powerful statement of the final 8 bars, as if it were time to stop holding back and show their true feelings. But there’s still a bigger ending to come: a brief saxophone and flugelhorn figure temporarily brings the intensity down for a few seconds, but everything builds up again, climaxing with an impassioned figure based on the song’s main motive. The figure is taken up an octave by the trumpets, and then everything starts to dissipate, as if the sudden display of emotion was too much. Marin Alsop’s jazz string ensemble String Fever has an excellent version of this arrangement in their book, but Woody Herman’s original is an undisputed classic.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Evans: Come Rain Or Come Shine

In many ways, Bill Evans’ version of “Come Rain Or Come Shine” is about abstraction and dissonance. The dissonances show up in the very first chords Evans plays, a set of tightly-voiced chords with minor seconds (the smallest interval on the keyboard) fighting each other all the way. The abstraction starts there too, as Evans plays a very fragmented and sometimes unrecognizable interpretation of the Arlen melody. Indeed, the first chorus is as much improvised as written, with Evans stretching the harmony further and further out, and only implying the melody as the chorus continues. In the second chorus, Evans starts out with single lines and then a minor second shows up at the end of a line. Whether or not it was a fingering mistake, it seems to have a life of its own, and Evans stabs away at it as if he were trying to exorcise a demon. He returns to the abstract single lines until the middle of the second chorus, when he returns to the melody. This time, the melody is clearer and a minor second that turns up is let to pass without incident. However, on the final chord, Evans fills with a tag comprised of minor seconds, effectively giving them the last word.

May 17, 2009 · 2 comments

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Billie Holiday: Come Rain Or Come Shine

I wonder if Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer were thinking of Billie Holiday when they wrote “Come Rain Or Come Shine”. It is a perfect fit for both her voice and her personality. In this recording, Billie’s voice is in very good shape and she seems very comfortable with the song. The sound of her voice provides all of the intensity the song needs, and there are no theatrics or mannerisms in the way. The tempo is relaxed and utterly perfect, Harry Edison and Benny Carter provide discreet obbligatos along the way, and Billie makes the song her own without making great changes to the melody. In fact, Billie repeats one of her melodic variations and it still works because she makes it sound like a natural outgrowth of the melody. Whatever Arlen and Mercer’s original inspiration, they could have hardly asked for a better interpreter of their song than Billie Holiday.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sonny Clark: Come Rain Or Come Shine

“Come Rain Or Come Shine” is usually played in ballad tempo, but it is not an ordinary ballad. Because of the intensity of the lyric, it demands that intensity, even when performed as an instrumental. Here, an extraordinary group of jazz all-stars plays the song in standard ballad fashion and they fail to extract the emotion that the song contains. Curtis Fuller’s opening trombone chorus is loving and tender, but Clark’s solo is self-consciously funky and fails to hold interest. John Coltrane is up next, and even such a master of intensity can’t bring this performance to life. Donald Byrd also brings intensity, but as with Coltrane, it seems that he cannot get away from the melody, but also can’t make the melody work for him. It’s hard to say how this performance could have been improved, but the ultra-slow tempo doesn’t help, and perhaps a double-time chorus for Coltrane might have provided the necessary sparks. At any rate, it is a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise exemplary album.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Williams with Count Basie and His Orchestra: Come Rain Or Come Shine

The Greatest!! was the second album by Joe Williams with the Count Basie Orchestra. It was designed to show that Williams was more than just Basie’s new blues shouter, and that he was a superb interpreter of ballads and standards. Williams’ mastery at ballads grew more sophisticated in his later years, but on this version of “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, his simple and straightforward approach hews to Harold Arlen’s original tempo marking of “slowly and very tenderly”. What is not tender is Buddy Bregman’s arrangement, which leans too heavily on sudden blasts from the brass. Perhaps Bregman was attempting to create a contrast with Williams’ earnest delivery, but the idea just doesn’t work. Instead, the mood created by Williams is disrupted by the band. Still, Williams makes the best of it all with a very fine vocal performance.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Clifford Brown: Come Rain Or Come Shine

Recorded right before he left Paris with the Lionel Hampton band, this impromptu session was a rare opportunity for Clifford Brown to perform in a quartet setting. This relaxed version of “Come Rain Or Come Shine” was made near the end of the session, and the trumpeter, who was the only soloist throughout the session, was showing signs of lip fatigue. Yet the ideas were flowing as fast as ever, and Clifford created an amazing collection of beautiful lines on this take. (This is the longer second take, designed for 10” LPs rather than for 78 singles.) He starts his solo with a handful of short phrases before launching into a long run that takes him through the middle and upper registers of the horn. Next, he combines the two approaches with a long run based on a repeated short idea. He continues to use this concept throughout the recording and although the actual motives change as the solo progresses, the concept unifies the entire solo. And all this from a 22-year old musician! In the 32 months that remained in his career, Clifford Brown’s tone would become richer, his ideas even more creative and his endurance legendary. Still the promise of Clifford’s future greatness appears in this casual recording session.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum: Come Rain Or Come Shine

“Come Rain Or Come Shine” was not a regular part of Art Tatum’s considerable repertoire. There were only 3 private recordings of it prior to this studio version, and even though this would be his last recording of the song, Tatum seems uncharacteristically unsure of himself through most of the performance. There are wrong notes here and there, and Tatum’s trademark runs seem to appear as filler instead of confident musical commentary. Tatum’s harmonic vocabulary was very deep and dissonant by this point in his career, and what starts as occasional hints of that tonal richness in the first two choruses comes to the fore in Tatum’s final chorus. Here, he seems to feel like himself at last, and he takes control of the song, making dramatic changes to the harmony and forcefully stating the melody. Perhaps producer Norman Granz should have sensed the shift from hesitancy to confidence, and asked for a second take. However, the discographies show that this was the 20th song recorded on a one-day 35-song session(!) and Granz’ apparent desire for quantity rather than quality seemed to override the obvious need for a second take.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wes Montgomery: Come Rain Or Come Shine

Full House was Wes Montgomery’s first live album, and the album title refers both to the overflow crowd at the Berkeley coffee house, Tsubo’s, but also, in a figurative manner, to the all-star lineup of the quintet. The rhythm section had been the core of Miles Davis’ quintet since 1959 and had just started performing on their own, and Johnny Griffin had a stellar reputation as one of the finest soul tenor saxophonists on the scene. While Griffin and Wynton Kelly both play superb solos on this medium-up version of “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, it is Montgomery who provides the highlights. Montgomery plays both melody statements without Griffin, and takes the central solo, so the arrangement is set up as a guitar feature, but it is when Montgomery moves into parallel octaves at the end of his second solo chorus that he grabs the spotlight. He creates powerful lines and effectively repeats them for emphasis. Moreover, he plays closer to the top of the beat, driving the rhythm section by example. The excitement leaps through the speakers, and it’s if you’re right there in the audience. This was the second take attempted on that night and although producer Orrin Keepnews claims that it was a close call between the takes, the first version is slower, less inspired, and no match for this one.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: The Brown Queen

"The Brown Queen" is a representative example of the unusual combination of angular disjointedness and warm lyricism that characterized Andrew Hill's playing and writing.

Long buried in the Blue Note vaults, this music was recorded in 1969 but was not released until 2003. A word to the wise: Just because a group contains nine pieces and includes horn and tuba does not mean that its music can or should be judged in comparison to the 'Birth of the Cool' or any of its West Coast offspring.

The tune itself is in ABAB form, with a 20 bar chorus made up of 5-bar phrases. Hill's piano solo is distinctive for its intriguing combination of spare lyricism and simmering tension. Shaw solos in a warm, melodic vein followed by Farrell on tenor whose energetic, rough-toned spot provides good contrast.

Hill's writing for the group is spare and angular with none of the lush smoothness that most other writers get from this type of instrumentation. This aspect of Hill's writing is brought into bold relief by the occasionally sloppy ensemble playing, but the loose, soloistic approach taken by the players fits the music. Another personal touch is evident in Hill's approach to writing material to accompany solos. These passages don't occur "behind" the soloist in the usual sense but rather they seem designed to get up in the soloist's face and challenge him, thereby making these passages feel somewhat more organic and spontaneous than conventional written backgrounds.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Oscar Peterson: Come Rain Or Come Shine

“Thoughtful” and “sensitive” are not adjectives usually used to describe the playing of the late Oscar Peterson, yet the pianist was very well-spoken, and although he could play in just about any mode he wanted, he obviously preferred an exuberant and flashy style. His playing took on an intimate quality when he performed solo, and this performance of “Come Rain Or Come Shine” is solo for much of its duration. Here, Peterson tamps down the Tatum influence and creates a beautiful re-harmonization of the Arlen standard. He rarely leaves the melody, even when Herb Ellis and Ray Brown enter in the second chorus. Indeed, the biggest surprise is when Ellis and Brown suddenly drop out in the 5th bar of the second 8. Peterson finishes the phrase with a flourish and then brings the supporting players back in. The Peterson trio was praised for its members’ wonderful ability to listen to each other, and there’s a wonderful example on this recording: After the guitar and bass return, Ellis improvises a 2-note response at the end of the first phrase. Peterson immediately picks it up and adapts it to fit the chord structure. At the end of the chorus, Peterson returns to solo piano and closes the performance with an extended coda.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Frank Sinatra: Come Rain Or Come Shine

Frank Sinatra always seemed to have one foot planted in jazz and the other in pop, and there are few better examples of his straddling of genres than this classic rendition of “Come Rain Or Come Shine”. The recording starts with a string introduction which sounds fairly standard on first listening, but on re-examination, reveals considerable dips into the blues. Then Harry Edison comes in and we’re firmly in jazz territory. Sinatra’s first 8 bars are in free tempo with Edison on obbligato. Sinatra stays close to the melody here, and interprets solely with his phrasing of the words I’m gonna love you…like nobody’s loved you…come rain or come shine, but when the tempo starts in the next 8, Edison drops out and Sinatra eases into melodic variations over the orchestral background. By the next 8, Sinatra makes several changes to the melody, and adds a few incidental words: We’ll be happy together; Won’t that be just fine. Instinctively, Sinatra moves into the jazz mode when he doesn’t have a jazz musician playing behind him and veers away from it when there is one there. Don Costa’s arrangement compliments the singer’s balancing act perfectly. As Sinatra closes the first chorus, the orchestration swells and the strings play a riff that comes straight out of the vocabulary of electric blues guitar. Costa places this riff against the big band’s statement of the melody and the emotional effect is only heightened by Sinatra’s return. He is in top form, with an intense delivery of the lyric and a swaggering performance of the melody. He hits the last word as with a whiplash, and although I don’t think he hit what he aimed for, the slight imperfection speaks to the vulnerability that also lies within the lyrics of the song.

May 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Eric Alexander: Estaté

In listening to Alexander's The First Milestone and The Second Milestone CDs as they first appeared in 2000 and 2001, you could sense that the saxophonist was blossoming into a complete player, both technically and emotionally. The driving up-tempo hard bopper was now becoming a compelling ballad interpreter as well, and his primary George Coleman and Dexter Gordon influences had been fully absorbed and transformed into an unmistakably individual style.

The confident and expressive manner in which Alexander performs the beautiful and deceptively spare "Estaté" is a sure sign of his then new-found maturity. Sounding somewhat like Stan Getz in his lilting intro, Alexander introduces the theme with a more distinctive, sensuous tone. He exudes both a calmness and a total commitment to the melody at hand, limning it with grace and perceptiveness. In his solo, Alexander brings more of a bluesy flavor to bare, and while some of his phrases resemble those of Getz, the swaggering modus operandi of Stanley Turrentine is also recalled. But in the end, as he fluidly revisits the theme and concludes with a swirling, breathy coda, you are left admiring Eric Alexander, young mainstream tenor master. No more, no less.

May 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Karrin Allyson: I Cover the Waterfront

Allyson emerged in the '90's as a jazz singer with a soft, unassuming voice, substantial paraphrase and scatting abilities, and a wide-ranging taste in songs. Her voice seemed to develop an even more consistent bottom and better-controlled vibrato as the years went by, but she was hip and swinging from day one. On Allyson's second CD, Sweet Home Cookin'," she also took total advantage of Alan Broadbent's expert piano accompaniment and arrangements.

Why so many vocalists (including Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan) omit the wonderful scene-setting verse to "I Cover the Waterfront" is a mystery. Allyson sings it movingly and evocatively: "Away from the city that hurts and knocks, I'm standing alone by the desolate docks...." She renders the chorus just as stirringly, with a quaver in her voice that conveys all the "hoping and longing." Broadbent's support and solo spot are, as usual, lucid and incisive. Allyson's closing treatment of the bridge and then chorus raises the emotional level, as she unleashes the full—and perhaps surprising—power of her persuasive voice, and the horns' obbligatos add even greater depth to her mesmerizing storytelling.

May 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Hampton Hawes: The Green Leaves of Summer

After a drug bust on his 30th birthday in 1958, Hawes was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but eventually sought and received executive clemency from President Kennedy in 1963, just three months before Kennedy's assassination. On Hawes' fourth Christmas day spent in prison, the film The Alamo" had been shown, and as he wrote in his autobiography, the tune "The Green Leaves of Summer" from the soundtrack "kept humming through my mind and I told myself I would try to record it if I ever saw daylight again." Hawes got his wish to record the Academy Award-nominated song on his first album after his release. The LP's dust jacket featured a color photograph of Hawes that made him look like a matinee idol or male model, or, as he wrote of it years later, "I might have been the Super Fly of 1963, the Flash Gordon of the niggers." Contemporary Records founder Lester Koenig's extensive original liner notes skillfully managed to make absolutely no mention of where Hawes had been for the past six years.

Hawes turns "The Green Leaves of Summer," which had already been sung on recordings by the likes of The Brothers Four, Marty Robbins, and Eddy Arnold, into an invigorating jazz waltz. Hawes' long unaccompanied rubato intro is reflective, tinged with an air of sadness, and of classical derivation. When the pianist focuses on the theme, and bass and drums join in, the mood of the intro is maintained until the tempo is gradually increased. Hawes then uses an insistent left hand pattern to propel his improvisation, effectively mixing staccato note clusters with earnest declamations of select thematic phrases. He eventually retreats to the more languid pace from where he began, and finishes with a sustained trill and a tumbling lower octave run that never quite resolves, dissolving instead into thin air. A gem of a performance, one that emphatically announced Hawes' return to the scene to all concerned.

May 15, 2009 · 1 comment

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Hubert Laws: Amazing Grace

Laws has proven to be adept at playing jazz, soul, R&B, and last, but certainly not least, classical music. As he began a series of recordings for CTI in the late '60's that would propel him to a level of popularity only experienced up to that time by one other jazz flutist, Herbie Mann, Laws was also performing with the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. CTI's Creed Taylor took full advantage of Laws' virtuosic technique and vibrant, penetrating tone on a number of arrangements of classical pieces as well as quite memorably on the famous and entrancing Christian hymn "Amazing Grace."

The cavernously deep sound that Laws projects on alto flute to begin "Amazing Grace" is both soothing and inspirational, as are the softly undulating strings in the background. When Laws switches to a more impassioned attack on standard flute, the orchestra swells movingly in support. Laws' crescendo leads to his brief, unaccompanied, fluttering solo break, and then once again to the pristine beauty of the melody, played at the very end on alto flute as the track fades out. Thanks to the harmonious combination of Laws' flutes and Don Sebesky's arrangement, the potent lyrics—which were written in 1772 by repentant former slave trader John Newton—are not overly missed.

May 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charles Lloyd: Song of Her

Cecil McBee's luminous ballad "Song of Her" first appeared in 1966 on Charles Lloyd's best-known album, Forest Flower," with the composer on bass, Keith Jarrett on piano, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. It wasn't until well into Lloyd's "comeback" on ECM that he began to revisit some of the classic tunes from his "60's repertoire (except for "Forest Flower," which he recorded with Michel Petrucciani in 1982).

The original "Song of Her" was enhanced by the broad, well-rounded tone and buoyant pulse of the masterful McBee, but on this remake Grenadier comes close to duplicating McBee's overall impact. Lloyd's tone is not quite as deep and throaty as on the '66 version, but is just as expressive, with similar trademark inflections along the way. Mehldau offers up Jarrett-like chording and sound quality, and Grenadier is a rock in delivering the predominant three-note ostinato, but the subdued Higgins eshews DeJohnette's shimmering cymbal splashes. Mehldau's lyrical, romantic solo is his own reverent and transfixing blend of Jarrett and Bill Evans, aided by Higgins' impeccably tasteful punctuations. Lloyd diverges from the original by following the piano solo with an improvisation rather than an immediate return to the theme. His solo begins with long, wistful tones before a more intense multi-noted passage that quickly recedes and evolves into McBee's melody. This interpretation more than holds its own with the shorter one created some 33 years earlier.

May 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Hristo Vitchev: Parisian Skies

Ah, the joys to be found in the current wave of multi-cultural jazz artists, contributing new ingredients and seasonings into the pot! To wit: guitarist Hristo Vitchev, who adds welcome flavor with the release of his quartet’s debut album Song for Messambria. The Bulgarian-born jazzman was educated at the Roland Music Academy in Caracas, Venezuela, and has crossed the globe playing jazz venues and teaching at clinics. He now calls the San Francisco Bay area home.

It’s immensely satisfying to come across a fresh, emerging talent who doesn’t attempt to re-discover fire, but demonstrates a knack for turning up the heat. With clear, dewy tones and thoughtfully crafted lines, Vitchev gently caresses the strings while seducing the listener’s ears with intriguing harmonization. “Parisian Skies” is a buoyant, if slightly bittersweet composition, played with an assured Latin feel and just enough rhythmic support to propel things along without getting in the way of Vitchev’s richly melodic solo. Pianist Iago cooks a satisfying chorus with ample backing from Robbins and De Rose. These Parisian skies are warm and clear.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz: I Remember When

From the opening bar of “I’m Late, I’m Late,” you knew you were listening to something very special.  Focus, the 1961 breakthrough Third Stream collaboration between composer Eddie Sauter and Stan Getz, marked a striking departure from the tenor titan’s bossa nova and cool sessions. The vibrancy of the original recording has been lovingly preserved in this must-have CD reissue, which faithfully recaptures the unmistakable velvet timbre of Getz’s Selmer.  The concept was ambitious and fearless: to create a suite of tone poems over which Getz would improvise, without any prior exposure — and without any written sax melody to follow.  The results were breathtaking.

“I Remember When” is a Debussy-like dreamscape where dusky tenor phrases waft through an enchanted orchestral forest, chased by random gusts of strings and harp.  Stan Getz is at the top of his form, blowing effortless, perfectly sculpted lines over the languid, impressionistic framework. This is the art of improvisation at its best, cliché-free, inspired and cerebral — and it offers a unique glimpse into the depths of a brilliant and complicated jazzman’s soul.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Resonance Big Band: Hymn to Freedom/John Brown's Body

On May 12, Resonance Records released its long-awaited tribute to Oscar Peterson. In his ongoing fight to preserve mainstream jazz as a viable, contemporary art form, studio head George Klabin has produced a stunning album, a summit meeting which may prove to be his Angincourt.  Leading the charge is the astounding Romanian-born pianist Marian Petrescu, an avid disciple of Peterson, who sadly passed into history in 2007.

Opening with a reverent, gospel-tinged stride piano, Petrescu's solo interpretation of "Hymn to Freedom" is gradually supported with reeds and flute.  Driven by the solid back beat of LaBarbera, the full band swings a bluesy "John Brown's Body," with soulful, Petersonesque improvisation from Petrescu and an enthusiastic, over-the-top scat guitar solo from Öberg.  Trombones trade fours before the whole ensemble takes its final chorus.  The superb arrangement by Bill Cunliffe is lively, listenable and uplifting — the kind of big band jazz which used to rule the airwaves and may yet again, if George Klabin wins his campaign.  Once more into the breach, my friends!

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Scott Gwinnell Trio: Where Is Love?

Detroit continues to surprise the world by churning out top-notch jazz artists with remarkable depth and sensitivity, as well as killer chops.  One of the most prolific and active of the Motor City’s jazzmen is pianist/arranger/bandleader Scott Gwinnell. Much in demand as a sideman and session player, he is currently garnering accolades as the leader of the Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra, which will be featured at the 2009 Detroit International Jazz Festival in September. With this album of energized, lyrical trio recordings, the pianist proves he can hold his own with the big dogs in a more intimate setting.

Not every musician has something to say when it comes to ballads, which require a level of life experience and depth as well as technical maturity; but that is where Gwinnell really shows his mettle.  In a wistful and poignant rendition of the tear-jerking showstopper from the musical Oliver, he lays down layers of emotionally satisfying reharmonization with plenty of space for the tune to breath.  During the piano solo the notes seem suspended in air, lines flow into a lovely blue-tinted swing, with sensitive, empathetic support from Krahnke and Dobbins.  Where is love?  It’s all there in the playing — and in the listening.   

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Rick Germanson: Any Thoughts?

Germanson got the inspiration to write this crisp little tune from his time as a sideman for Pat Martino; he heard “lower register chordal voicings” regularly from gigs with the guitar legend. Sure enough, the chords hewn closer to the left side of the piano than the right, and the motif is a little dark and enigmatic. Hayes, whose sure and steady swing kept Cannonball on time some forty years ago, lives up to own legend, supplying the power behind Germanson sinewy yet eloquent right hand cogitations.

Rounded out by Cannon’s businesslike bass, “Any Thoughts?” causes me think that Germanson’s trio is a cohesive and articulate group that makes listening to this straight-ahead piano jazz a gratifying experience.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Guilherme Monteiro: Air

Ben Street’s inescapable bass line going from one note to a higher octave of the same note and back again forms the basis for this light, Brazilian-flavored tone poem. The main thematic line is undertaken by Sabagh, with Monteiro handling the harmony part; the two are essentially assuming the role of co-lead singers. After the leader spins some warm, cushy notes, a friendly conversation ensues as Monteiro’s guitar and Sabagh’s sax snake around each other.

The overriding appeal of “Air” is not in the mellifluous lines of Monteiro, how well Sebagh compliments him, or the measured execution of the rhythm section. Rather, it’s in the effortless way all of this is achieved.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cassandra Wilson/Regina Carter/Bela Fleck: This Land Is Your Land

What a joy! The serendipity of this performance (recorded at a post-9/11 "Made in America" concert) and its inclusion on an obscure CD constitute a little-known blessing for fans of Jazz, Americana, Woody Guthrie, the brilliant artists involved, and musical good times in general. The spirited conga drummer goes uncredited, but otherwise it's a who-could-imagine-it trio: vocalist extraordinaire Cassandra Wilson, jazz-plus violinist Regina Carter, and cross-culture banjo-supremo Bela Fleck uniting for a one-off performance of America's other national anthem, "This Land Is Your Land."

Let not your mind be boggled; just sit back and enjoy, or get up and dance, because the arrangement moves from banjo-backed folk ballad to cross-the-country toetapper in no time at all, flowing smoothly via Carter's yearning, churning strings, braced and gently buffetted by Fleck's brusque five-string. The combination is startling, and Wilson's sultry, Delta-dusky voice rides it all with stops and starts, inventive line readings and melisma magic.

For eight minutes, Guthrie's social-justice song metamorphoses from dust-bowl lament to ribbon-of-highway instrumental dance, and then to shout-it-out song of pride for people of all races, culminating in the stirring, often ignored penultimate verse--the sign that reads "No Trespassing/Private Property," except that "On the back side it didn't say nothin'." Wilson finishes with the quieter "This land was made for you and me," rather than the rarely heard, more aggressive alternate: "That side was meant for you and me." But either way, on that night in 2001, progressive politics stepped into jazz's big tent.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gil Scott-Heron: Winter in America

Today, proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron is acknowledged as a major influence on several developments in Black Music and soul jazz, and it is easy to imagine that such artists as Cassandra Wilson considered the poet-vocalist's music before finding her own path. One of Scott-Heron's finest statements is "Winter in America," an image-driven portrait of the icy stasis gripping the nation in the early seventies-after the assassinations, riots, Watergate, and Vietnam.

First, there was an album of that name but no song, as Scott-Heron considered the three words simply an evocative image and not a subject for music. Then, he composed an actual "Winter in America" for his Arista debut, The First Minute of a New Day. Live performances and recordings subsequently crystallized the recording's powerful message.

Featured as a bonus track on the New Day CD reissue, this version of the song is distinctive because Scott-Heron performs alone on it. His keyboard work is more staccato and basic and the melody is slightly flattened out. Despite the changes, the cold, hard facts remain: "...Democracy is rag-time on the corner, hopin' for some rain...all of our healers have been killed or betrayed...ain't nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save."

The scenario is bleak but Scott-Heron's compelling music and verbal tropes continue to resound thirty years farther (or maybe no farther) on.

May 14, 2009 · 1 comment

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Jimi Hendrix: The Star Spangled Banner

When Jimi Hendrix took the stage on the final morning of Woodstock--"by the dawn's early light," as it were--the audience had dwindled from hundreds of thousands down to an exhausted, mud-covered remnant. But the stubborn 25,000 saw Hendrix unexpectedly pause mid-way in his set to rip apart "The Star-Spangled Banner." In that chaotic year of 1969, the Vietnam War and the protests against it were two of the storms raging, and Jimi channeled some of that national anger into his electric and electrifying deconstruction of the national anthem--"rockets red glare," indeed.

Several musicians were on stage, but this is a straight duel between Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell. The latter simply flails steadily for three minutes, while Jimi unleashes his full arsenal: echo, reverb, string-pulling, fingerpicking, atonal shrieks, wailing sirens and fire alarms, martial music and incoming missiles, bombs bursting in air, white noise. Shards of the hallowed, hard-to-sing melody can be heard at the relatively calm launch, and here and there throughout the cataclysmic performance, but the rest is Hendrix shredding his guitar, the national anthem, and the history of music.

Thanks to Coltrane and his acolytes, a New Thing was happening "o'er the Land of the Free," and ravenous Jimi tapped into that too--and in so doing he set the course, and the bar, for scores of jazz guitarists ever since, from John McLaughlin to Vernon Reid and Bill Frisell, from Sonny Sharrock to Blood Ulmer and John Zorn. These days, chord changes may still be observed, but otherwise anything goes, from the initial count-off till "the twilight's last gleaming" and final cymbal crash.

May 14, 2009 · 1 comment

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Ravi Shankar/Philip Glass: Ragas In Minor Scale

"Ragas in Minor Scale," performed by master musicians Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass, is an interesting slice of East-West fusion. While Glass' extensive training is most evident in the properly constructed composition, Shankar adds some very enticing embellishments upon the main theme on an instrument that is generally a stranger to the musical scope of such composers as Glass. Both men sound at ease well outside of what should be perceived as their respective comfort zones, and the music glides along effortlessly.

Everyone involved is obviously having a great time playing music that audibly sounds carefree, yet scholars may notice that the musicians throw a wrench into the plans by adding some major keyed trills at the very end that defy the song title's notion that the ragas are strictly performed in minor keys.

Shankar himself is responsible for mixing up some of the modes; after all, his general improvisational style, though evolved, has always utilized such ironies, and this recording is no exception. The energetic diversity is always fresh here, and the aura of respectability looms large as everyone emerges from the session as golden as the morning sunrise that the ragas seem to symbolize.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jurgen Friedrich: Over

Pianist Jürgen Friedrich starts this interesting, moody piece with a repeating solo piano motif. The melody conjures up memories of a brooding Keith Jarrett, but lacks the visceral energy emblematic of Jarrett’s passionate playing. Friedrich has assembled sympathetic partners in Hebert on bass and Moreno on drums. The music would seem derivative of new age piano performances except for Moreno’s feathery drum accents and Herbert’s buttery bass notes.

The trio breaks the spell established by Friedrich’s repeated melody line when they stop midway to make a low register, percussive break. Herbert and Friedrich effectively build tension in unison while Moreno fills and accents with rolls and stutter-stop cymbal crashes. Friedrich’s playing is melodic and lyrical and his compositional acumen shows promise. There are brief glimpses of great sensitivity in his performance but he needs to play more passionately if he desires greater success in this genre. With the well-matched team of Herbert and Moreno, who play his music with empathy and inspiration, he should be able to make that leap.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ravi Shankar Project: Village Dance

Passable, yet somewhat unengaging, Ravi Shankar Project's "Village Dance" is a track that sounds like the production was warmed-over to provide the most commercial viability possible. The playing is great, of course, but the thick reverb washes away most of the recording and the rest of the musical elements ride atop the effect until the discerning listener wishes for a drier mix.

The composition itself (featuring several blistering resolves) seems fine, but the recording does not represent what it sounds like the ensemble was shooting for from the get-go. Musically, Shankar is the star; even though the players are sharing space effectively, he stands out despite the watery sonic presentation and performs in the reliable manner expected of him on all of his material. You can picture people doing tribal dances to this music while dwelling in second or third world villages, and at least that portion of the goal was achieved. Kudos to the participants regardless of however flabbily they were captured in the studio, because the dynamics are completely absent and any potentially colorful elements are washed out by a monochromic tint.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Robert Fripp: Affirmation-New York

The timing of the passages within Robert Fripp's twelve-minute "Affirmation-New York" is just as timely as the train arrivals in the Big Apple, as the scheduled resolves defy the notion of spontaneity. For its duration, the one note that Fripp chooses to sustain never changes, and the effects only grow louder and less varied.

Volume swells that begin towards the middle and dominate the remainder of the track do not enhance what is being improvised much, and even the natural compression that takes place once the music is preserved onto CD erases some of the pitches regardless of where they rest on the decibel scale.

Amidst perceptive audio flaws, the track's content is not interesting enough. This recording does not represent the unplanned nature of what was probably heard from the audience's perspective, and Fripp fans would be well advised to attend a gig (where sonic representation is only limited by the quality of the PA system in the hall).

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Robert Fripp: Easter Sunday

Robert Fripp's Love Cannot Bear CD will leave you possessed by the spirit of repetition, but the track "Easter Sunday" boasts a wide range of ideas performed within a brief improvisaton by the King Crimson guitarist.

The cut's running time helps subvert the anonymous, introverted nature of the soundscapes module, which is best heard through headphones because of the details that come to light. While the tape-loop frenzy will seem somewhat cryptic to the average listener, those with the patience to dive into it will hear an axe master at work who controls his instrument and its sounds with absolute divinity.

The recording will leave you in awe and without doubt that the concept employed is properly named "Frippertronics." Dynamic live musical deconstructions were rendered with clarity here, and anyone into sounds from outer space will appreciate what occurs.

May 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cal Tjader: When Lights Are Low

Cal Tjader recorded prolifically for Berkeley's Fantasy label, but his last project is my favorite. Released as Breathe Easy on the Galaxy sublabel, this soft-and-sweet session soon went out of print and has never been well known in the jazz world. It finally came back in CD format in 2001, packaged with the music from Tjader's first trio 10 inch album for Fantasy from 1951. I hope this music finally finds a receptive audience in its reincarnation as a compact disk. The rhythm section of Hank Jones, Shelly Manne and Monty Budwig set the tone, which is ultra-relaxed even by the standards of West Coast jazz. Tjader shows off his gift for melodic improvisation, but the real star here is unsung journeyman Allen Smith, who will leave you wondering why you haven't heard more from him.

May 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Teddy Charles Tentet: The Quiet Time

One of the most forward-looking musicians of his generation, Teddy Charles fell off the face of the earth after the early 1960s—literally "off the earth" since he spent a significant amount of time in later years as a sea captain. But the coolest of the landlubbers lamented the loss of this significant talent, whose probing yet sensitive style made him an ideal participant or leader for experimental undertakings and out-of-left-field projects. This 1956 track finds Charles and company in fine form on a cerebral mood piece scored by Jimmy Giuffre. Nothing can be taken for granted here. At times, percussion takes on a melodic role, or horns drive the beat. The line between solo and accompaniment is a wavering one, and there always seems to be something happening in the background that deserves your immediate attention. Few later jazz artists followed down this path, but that might only be because of the demands of any journey in the wake of daring Captain Charles.

May 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Henry Mancini: The Pink Panther Theme

Who is the coolest of the cool cats? Certainly the laconic and iconic panther who parades around to this tune makes the short list. But this theme song also represents a milestone in cinematic music. Cool jazz has always been more than just an interpretive style; it also possesses a mysterious symbolic resonance with the general public, and summons up strong mental images that even the jazz-o-phobic seem to find enticing. No one understood this better during the late 1950s and early 1960s than Henry Mancini, who continually raided the warehouses of jazztown to find inspiration for his immensely popular film and television scores. This is one of his grandest moments, and if they ever crown the king of the cats, Mancini's chart will be used for the coronation march. But also give credit to saxophonist Plas Johnson, who will forever be associated with this catchy melody. In a truly cool universe, everyone would get a personal theme song as stealthy and hip as this one.

May 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bud Shank & Laurindo Almeida: Little Girl Blue

Almost a decade before "Girl from Ipanema" hit the charts, Bud Shank and Laurindo Almeida were exploring ways of combining Brazilian music with the ethos of cool jazz. Contrary to what you might have heard elsewhere, they didn't invent bossa nova—Almeida's guitar is much more on top of the beat than what João Gilberto would deliver in a famous session held a few weeks after this Hollywood date. This Shank-Almeida collaboration captures a more overtly classical sensibility, and establishes its mood with a stately elegance that is rare in jazz of any era. If you want to hear Shank in a loose, blowing vein, this is not the place to start. But the other side of Bud Shank—inquisitive, experimental, and (yes) cool—comes to the fore on this track. The entire Shank-Almeida oeuvre is too often treated as a footnote to the bossa nova story, but deserves to be better known on its own merits.

May 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ahmad Jamal: Pavanne

Listen to the passage right before the two minute mark on this track, and hear where Coltrane got his concept for "Impressions." But Coltrane's former employer Miles Davis had already borrowed heavily from Ahmad Jamal long before then, and any discussion of the precursors of Davis's modal style needs to take this spirited 1955 performance into account. Yet, as always, Jamal stands out for how he plays rather than what he plays. No one had a lighter, sweeter sense of swing than this artist, and I would even wager on him over the MJQ in a contest to see who could bring down the dynamics the most without losing the rhythmic drive. Yes, you can cook while keeping things at a whisper, but it took Mr. Jamal to show us how.

May 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck Octet: Curtain Music (Closing Theme)

This signature theme from the Dave Brubeck Octet—a short snippet from 1946—predates the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet by some two years. A few commentators have tried to portray Brubeck as a follower in the footsteps of Mr. Davis, but in truth the music of this ensemble resists pigeonholing of any sort. Even by Brubeck's eccentric standards, this group was an oddity. And if you push hard for a genealogy, you will end up finding more sources in classical music than in jazz. Brubeck discouraged my attempts to connect this music to Stravinsky's Octet from 1922. But he is not shy about making claims for this piece. "You'll have a hard time finding any other jazz piece in 6/4 from this period," he has remarked. My only gripe with this track (which is my same complaint about all of the Octet's work) is that there simply isn't more of it.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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João Gilberto: Chega de Saudade

It seemed the whole nation of Brazil got involved in celebrating the recent 50th anniversary of bossa nova. And much of the rest of the world joined in on the festivities. It's a shame that no one thought to make the music available on CD. Some bureaucratic-legal black hole keeps the landmark 1958-1961 João Gilberto tracks—which literally represent the birth of the bossa nova—off the market. But I was fortune to secure a copy before the music gestapo showed up to stop the fun.

If you ever find a CD of the early João Gilberto recordings, grab it. I love this music passionately, even given all the unnecessary accompaniment that Jobim brought along to "package" his phenomenal find. No one—I repeat no one—has ever sung with more a relaxed, conversational style. Miles Davis (who rarely paid idle compliments) said it best: João "would sound good reading a phone book." Gilberto's guitar beat has proven to be as influential as his vocal style, and harder to imitate than you might guess from listening to its carefree pulse. The cool aesthetic in music may have been invented in the U.S., but Jobim and Gilberto brought a new twist on it that taught the Yankees a thing or two. Four years would elapse before the U.S. market discovered this sound, but when they found it, they didn't need to know a word of Portuguese to realize that something special had been hatching down in Rio.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Phobos

Jazz big bands don't just need lots of charts, plenty of swing and a reliable bus to take them from gig to gig. They also rely on a guiding metaphor. In the old days, the ruling metaphor was a military one: the different sections of the band engaged in battle, and the arrangements were built on a constant thrust and parry between trumpets, trombones, reeds and rhythm. This approach no doubt derived from the counterpoint of New Orleans jazz, and reflected the larger bands' attempts to capture the excitement of a style of music in which different melodic temperaments constantly countered one another. The next defining metaphor came with the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet, which thought of itself as a choir. This band put aside combating sections in favor of a brisk, holistic approach based on the blending of disparate voices. "Make love, not war," it proclaimed, and the contrast with the previous big band tradition could not have been more stark.

And Darcy James Argue? His role model is neither an army or a choir. Rather, he seems to want to make his Secret Society to inhabit the sound terrain and mental space of a rock band. For long stretches at a time here, this large ensemble sounds like a small, intense unit, driven by a rhythm section that is so far away from the Count Basie-Walter Page-Jo Jones tradition, one struggles to establish any genealogy that gets you from there to here. When the sound gets bigger, it does so in such a natural, organic way that you hardly notice the other 12 musicians sneaking into the recording studio. Like a rock band, the Secret Society delights in big, assertive ideas. Things stretch out and take their own sweet time—again reminding me of some garage-bred musical concoction. "Phobos" lasts more than eleven minutes, and there are three other tracks on the CD that are roughly the same duration. Yet this rugged let-it-rip aesthetic is beefed up by a rich harmonic palette that you won't find at any rock concert.

One can certainly identify influences from other jazz artists, especially Maria Schneider. Many of the textures come out of the Miles-Gil-Maria playbook. But what Argue does with them is something else. This is fresh and non-derivative work, and justifies the intense buzz surrounding this bandleader's debut release.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Russ Spiegel: The Rub

I love the way this track starts off, with a bunch of horns sort of swaying back and forth, mashing and melting a single tone off its center. The sound is almost animalistic, and makes you think something even more ominous is about to come along. Curiously, that's not what happens. Instead, Russ Spiegel's orchestra launches into some huge, swelling chords that set up the rest of the composition. There are some shattering crescendos and inspired horn work, particularly David Smith's blistering trumpet solo.

Ah, but the guitar nerd in me was waiting for leader and guitarist Russ Spiegel to step out. Sure enough, Spiegel does not disappoint. Here he sounds quite a bit like Pat Metheny, not so much in tone but in his tendency to employ very long melodic lines. It's a lot of fun to follow one that bridges both quiet sections and raucous horn swells. Very promising stuff.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jentsch Group Large: Route 666

The best instrumental music tells the listener a story. You might not pull in its entire meaning at first, but the initial presentation is cohesive, with nothing feeling out of place. What amazes me about this is that the piece of music can have many chaotic features, misdirections, and surprises and still have no trouble retaining a sense of purpose.

"Route 666" starts right off with a bit of misdirection – the fusion-drenched electric guitar sounding more like Alan Holdsworth meets Robert Fripp. My ears were thinking, "Where's the big band?" Well, just like that, the electric guitar morphs into a giant horn section and we're off into another space, like a musical version of a William S. Burroughs jump cut. These kind of shifts continue (though maybe not so drastic) continue on for the next 18 minutes or so. It's a truly thrilling and textured ride that reminds me of the work of both Carla Bley and Frank Zappa. Best of all, it really does tell a story.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kenny MacKenzie: Sarabande

This jazzification (Yes, that is a word!) of the ages old sarabande dance rhythm proves that sometimes simple is really all you need. The trio begins with a very straight delivery that has an almost formal quality to it, so much so that the transition into swing is quite surprising, even though that change is very, very smooth. From here on, MacKenzie's trio plays with a relaxed and knowing feel that reminds me of what Vince Guaraldi did with the Peanuts material. Leader MacKenzie plays out several variation on a theme while Shukri and Micca hold down a solid yet shifty swing. Nothing really earth-shattering here, but it will definitely make your ear curious enough to check out the rest of There You Are.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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King Curtis: Memphis Soul Stew

"Memphis Soul Stew" sounds just like the Aretha Franklin recordings "King" Curtis Ousley helped standardize, with Curtis' hot tenor saxophone blaring amidst a full brass ensemble and a funky backdrop laid down by the usual group of hired guns. He serves up the menu in a slight Southern drawl, as "Fatback drums" and "four tablespoons of boiling Memphis guitars" merge with "a pinch of organ" and "half-a-pint of horn." All ingredients cook with fire, and, as for the recording itself, you can hear Curtis pressing his saxophone's pads up and down while he improvises and sets the world ablaze. The recording lays down the foundation for other R&B singles that achieved crossover commercial success such as Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up" and "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)" by Jr. Walker, and it will get your head boppin' and your body movin'. As a hitmaking force, King Curtis had the juice.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66: Pretty World

"Pretty World" is a light, upbeat bossa nova utilizing musical orchestration that still stands as a firm symbol of the era in which it was created. The tune is built around the 60s cocktail jazz sound, with vocalist Lani Hall crooning at the lounge and everyone else riding the lazy hi-hat downbeat amidst lyrics calling for making "breakfast and love." The influence of Herb Alpert is all over this track in the sense that the formula is ultimately the same one that Alpert's Tijuana Brass (and other A&M jazz artists, for that matter) mined towards commercial success. Even though the message could be considered dated, the composition is ace, and the tune was obviously ready for mass consumption from the beginning due to the strength of its hook, its outstanding chorus (featuring some of Hall's most precise vocals), and a clear concept that never steps outside the box that it constructs for itself.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Modern Jazz Quartet: Concorde

"Jazz fugue" . . . the very name sounds oxymoronic. One wonders: are there country-and-western fugues or hip-hop fugues? Then again, jazz is the musical style that digests all the other styles, and as such the jazz fugue proved to be as inevitable as it was peculiar. This was not the first example, and even John Lewis had tackled the form before on his less swinging "Vendome." "Concorde" reveals a smoother blending between classical form and cool jazz content. Chalk it up as a success. But much of the credit here belongs to the four men in tuxedos, rather than to the counterpoint written on the staff lines.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Daniel Kelly: Obfyor

“Obfyor” takes a direct, organic approach to drum ‘n’ bass, bringing the harmonic finesse of jazz to bear upon it to boot. Tarry and Perlson’s driving pulse continues after a couple of go arounds with the surreptitious theme straight into Kelly’s treacherous solo on the second chord progression as he throws it into overdrive. The intensity lets up but the tempo is retained for a segment where the leader’s probing chords adds more intrigue before gradually returning the original two patterns. But this time, Perlson hyperkinetically solos underneath the piano with destructive force.

Daniel Kelly made up the word “Obfyor” for this song. Likewise, he showed some inventiveness within the song itself.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stevie Wonder: Ribbon in the Sky

Taken from the greatest hits release Original Musiquarium I, "Ribbon in the Sky" was one of four new songs featured on the album. It features Wonder on acoustic piano and really gives the listener more than just a glimpse into his jazzy side. The mellow vibe of the track aids Wonder's piano solo, which is the best moment of the entire song. Don't get me wrong, Wonder sings his soul out on this one but at times the tune is a bit on the sappy side. This tune was fairly successful in its day, earning a Grammy nomination and peaking in the Billboard top sixty. This is not the best Wonder song ever written but it still provides the listener with all of the ingredients that exalted Stevie to the top of the musical world.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: How Would You Like to Have a Head Like That?

This song represents the only original composition from Ponty's 1970 album King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. An extended cut, the writing of the song fits in perfectly with the rest of the Zappa covers and the fact that several of the musicians on the recording went on to play with Zappa, adds more nice flavors to this musical cocktail. Ponty plays his usual blend of blues licks and melodic ideas that step inside and outside of the box but they're very effective. Ponty's playing is topped only by keyboard master George Duke who gets the job done 100% of the time with excellent musical ideas, both harmonically and melodically. I wouldn't say that this is the strongest cut on the album but I give it two thumbs up. The Jean-Luc Ponty band from the early 1970s plays this song much more ferociously from the live bootlegs but this version triumphs because it captured Ponty at a pivotal point in his career. Just before he was thrust into the musical madness of jazz-fusion.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jean-Luc Ponty: Idiot Bastard Son

Originally from the Frank Zappa album We're Only In It For the Money, "Idiot Bastard Son" was one of many songs from the album that challenged everything popular during the 1960s from the Conservative political movement to the hippie movement. On his 1969 album, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, who would go on to tour with Zappa in the 1970s, assembled a cast of musicians for this album of Zappa covers (except for "How Would You Like to Have A Head Like That"). Ponty's version is a little more swinging than the original version, as it has much more of a waltz feel.

George Duke steals the show on the entire album including this song. His comping is bright but still subdued but shows that he was a jazz pianist, more than anything. Ponty's violin lines are nice as well, complementing the rhythm section. He shows us on this track why he went on to lead the path for jazz-fusion violin playing in the 1970s.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Steely Dan: Black Cow

1977 was a year in which disco reigned supreme but underneath the glamor and the glitz was Steely Dan's epic masterpiece Aja which came out in the fall. This album featured a wealth of different jazz musicians while also offering up some of the band's most extended and jazzy compositions. On "Black Cow," jazz legend Victor Feldman plays a tasteful Fender Rhodes solo and Chuck Rainey funks it up over a Paul Humphreys drum beat. Steely Dan is one of the few groups in the history of music that walked the perfect line between jazz and rock, carefully orchestrating the perfect arrangements with an acute understanding of extended harmony.

"Black Cow" was recorded during a time when the band was winding itself down. They had almost completed their recording requirements for ABC Records and Aja was their most successful album to date. Though they scrapped the tour for the album after the first rehearsal (band members were complaining about pay scales), "Black Cow" easily made its way into the Dan tour repertoire of the 1990s and beyond and still sounds timeless when performed thirty years later.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sex Mob: Sign 'O The Times

It used to bother me that Prince went out to Vegas. Of course, this makes no sense. The hot & nasty purple one in Sin City? It doesn't take dream logic to make that idea work! It also used to bother me that Prince had become a practicing Jehovah Witness, but only because I figured that would mean he'd have to drop material like "Darling Nikki" from his live set.

As a listener, it can pay to make the attempt to separate the artist from the art. No matter what you think of Prince the man, there can be no denying that he has written some hot & nasty funk over the years. Yes, put that picture of the little guy in those assless pants out of your mind, because his music throws a long shadow.

Just ask the guys in Sex Mob. Better yet, give this steaming version of "Sign 'O The Times" a listen. With Kenny Wollesen doing a little second line shuffle under Tony Scherr's wicked bass lick, and with guest organ player John Medeski adding to that initial conversation, it seemed that Sex Mob intended to put the tune in slow burn mode. Wrong! The horns come in and play the head before transitioning into the full-on freak & shriek. Medeski keeps up the tension later on as the band takes that signature funk line and elongates it while Bernstein and Kraus shout it out over the top. Great stuff. It's proof that funk and free(ish) jazz are not that far apart, and that you don't have to go to Vegas to get freaky.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Benny Carter: Nightfall

Jazz history books will tell you how Lester Young single-handedly forged a more lithe and fluid approach to the tenor sax, offering an alternative to the dominant Coleman Hawkins paradigm. But check out Benny Carter's tenor solo on his 1936 recording of "Nightfall"—recorded a half-year before Young's first studio session. You will find discover that another advanced musical thinker was already working on a lighter, more overtly melodic conception of jazz.

Carter's versatility made it easy to miss such achievements. He is usually remembered as an alto saxophonist. Or as a composer and arranger. Or as a trumpeter. But I assure you that if Benny Carter had just focused on the tenor sax, his name would be mentioned routinely when the major stylists on that horn are discussed. Then again, the composition here is just as intriguing as the sax solo, and is one of a series of pieces from this era in which Carter experimented with a relaxed style of quasi-chamber jazz. "Nightfall" (and other Carter gems from the mid-1930s) are seldom heard these days. But don't let that fool you into thinking that these aren't important works in the evolution of jazz. Few artists from the pre-WWII years anticipated the development of a cool jazz sensibility in the 1950s with more prescience than the wide-ranging Mr. Carter.

May 11, 2009 · 1 comment

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Claude Thornhill: Snowfall

In the early 1940s, the opposite of "hot jazz" wasn't "cool jazz." The term "cool jazz" didn't exist at the time. A jazz fan at the time would have told you that the sweet bands were the antithesis of the hot swing orchestras. These sweet ensembles specialized in the tepid and sentimental, and didn't put much faith in cookin' tenor solos and smokin' chase choruses.

But how do we fit Claude Thornhill into this binary opposition? Jazz didn't get any more ethereal or mood-oriented than "Snowfall," his signature song. This is closer to Debussy than to Duke Ellington, and yet there is a ineffable quality at the heart of this music that resists assimilation into the sweet Guy Lombardo-ish camp. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this music anticipates the 'cool jazz' revolution of the 1950s, and it comes to no surprise that many of the artists associated with that movement either worked with or were influenced by Thornhill. These linkages would become even more apparent when the Thornhill band reformed after World War II. Gil Evans, who would serve as Thornhill's arranger, summed up the ethos of this music best when he commented: "The sound hung like a cloud."

May 11, 2009 · 1 comment

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Stevie Wonder: Golden Lady

Very few people have constructed a legacy like that of Stevie Wonder. It's safe to say that other than Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix, Wonder ranks in the top five of any musician from the 20th century. He combined raw vocals with immaculate instrument fluency with a strong jazz flavor. Take for example "Golden Lady" the Real Book favorite from his classic 1973 album Innervisions. No one could sing about love like Stevie Wonder could. He paints a detailed picture about the fictitious figure described in this song.

My favorite part about this song is Wonder's drum beat. He accents the hi-hat like a professional drummer and I bet he could have performed just as much on drums if he would have dedicated himself full-time to it. In addition to his great drumming, Wonder evokes advanced jazz voicings on the piano and puts the icing on top with his tasteful synthesizer solo that follows the verses. All in all "Golden Lady" represents one of America's greatest voices during his most productive and prolific period.

May 10, 2009 · 1 comment

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Donald Fagen: The Goodbye Look

Very few people were able to mix jazz, rock, and pop sensibilities like Donald Fagen, one of the co-founders of 1970s super group Steely Dan. His 1982 debut captures a light pop-rock sound with some of L.A.'s finest session and jazz musicians on the recording. On "The Goodbye Look," Fagen sings about arriving on a beach with steel bands in the distance and displays his master ability at painting vivid, but abstract imagery over funky backdrops.

This song. like many of the others on the album re-create the familiar sounds of Steely Dan but this record has a lighter feel to it and is aided in large part by the funky, pocket bass playing of Marcus Miller. I find it interesting that Fagen didn't play keyboards on this track at all but his voice is still very strong and he hits all of the vocal nuances that you would expect him to hit. In my opinion, this is the best song from The Nightfly album and is highly recommended to anyone that's not too familiar with the music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Donald Fagen: The Nightfly

In 1982, as pop-electro music was taking over the radio with the sounds of the Police and Duran Duran, Steely Dan founder Donald Fagen quietly assembled his first post Steely Dan album. Chalked full of seasoned jazz musicians, which included bassist Marcus Miller and guitarist Larry Carlton, The Nightfly represents a milestone in digital recording. It was one of the first digitally produced albums of the modern era and the sonic quality of it builds on the strong legacy of the previous Steely Dan albums, which consistenly ranked as some of the strongest mixed and mastered albums of the 1970s.

On the title track, Fagen and company orchestrate a nice groove that's further enhanced by wonderful backing vocals. The title track is full of elements that made Steely Dan a hit and Fagen did a great job of carrying on the Dan legacy into the 1980s with this album that went both platinum in the U.K. and the United States. This is a must have for any serious Steely Dan head.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bix Beiderbecke: In a Mist

Bix Beiderbecke was not a professional pianist, and this track is our only record of his keyboard work. Yet this is much more than dabbling by a gifted amateur. Beiderbecke completely dispenses with the oom-pah stride bass that dominated the solo jazz piano work of the era, and substitutes a holistic approach integrating left and right hands in a manner of his own invention. One might think this was a piece of classical music, if it weren't for a few telltale jazz devices. This early example of cool jazz gets positively chilly at certain points, with an emotional content as rarefied as the atmosphere 8,000 meters up Mt. Everest. There is no sentimentality here, rather a glittery crystalline quality, shiny and alluring even in its remoteness. This music is maddeningly difficult to "place" since there is hardly any "place" to place it in the annals of jazz history. In short, "In a Mist" is a one-of-a-kind work by a one-of-a-kind artist. Even so, I can't help thinking that, under slightly different circumstances, Bix Beiderbecke and his disciples might have built a whole different style of jazz playing on this foundation.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ferde Grofé: Mississippi Suite

What Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington, Ferde Grofé (1892-1972) was to George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman—a brilliantly talented musical facilitator who contributed to the more famous achievements of others. Such careers are often accompanied by frustration, and one can get a bitter taste of that from a 1928 letter from Gershwin to ASCAP complaining that Grofé had claimed composer credit for Rhapsody in Blue.

Yet the Whiteman connection is even more problematic. Whiteman? An unfortunate surname for this gentlemen, who even with a more nondescript patronymic would have served as a lightning rod for criticisms that white artists tried to usurp the fame and fortune that should have gone to the African-American pioneers of jazz. The thorny issue here is less Whiteman himself, who did a lot of good for the music and served as catalyst for many excellent works (even securing commissions for Duke Ellington and other black artists), but rather the attempts to label him "the King of Jazz," which created an invevitable backlash. The first major jazz critics treated him the way current arbiters of jazz opinions deal with Kenny G. Mr. White-man, please step to the back of the jazz bus.

In such instances, I prefer to check out the music. This isn't easy for fans to do these days, since no one has thought it worthwhile to put out a comprehensive box set of Whiteman's music. In jazz circles, Whiteman is someone you talk about, but don't actually listen to or study. Fortunately the Beau Hunks, a Dutch ensemble, have meticulously recreated Ferde Grofé's concert jazz works written for Whiteman's band during the period from 1924 through 1931, and presented a complete version of Mississippi Suite (1925), which Whiteman himself never recorded in its entirety.

It is hard not to be charmed by this period work, which juxtaposes moments of gravitas with lighthearted syncopation. The melodic material may not rise to the level of Gershwin's works from this period, but it comes close. The missing element for me is simply the absence of jazz solos. If Grofé had revised this work a few years later and recorded it with improvisations by Beiderbecke, Trumbauer and other jazz-oriented talents in the Whiteman band, Mississippi Suite would be an acknowledged classic. Instead, lacking these elements, it is jazz light—an especially polished example, to be sure, but a notch below the masterpieces of the era.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Steely Dan: Cousin Dupree

Steely Dan returned from a twenty year hiatus with the release of their 2000 album Two Against Nature, which captured a number of awards that year including Album of the Year at the Grammys. The Dan clan has always pushed the envelope compared to the rest of the rock and pop world and the song "Cousin Dupree" is no exception. With a smooth dominant seventh groove, Donald Fagen sings about a fictional, romantic fascination with his cousin. Some might consider the lyrics to be a bit on the provocative side but anyone familiar with the band's work knows that the lyrics are all in good humor.

The musicians featured on this track went on to form the core touring band for Steely Dan over the last eight years. They provide a solid pocket as the studio version of this song doesn't really differ too much from the live versions that exist. 2000 was a good year. No Y2K and the return of Steely Dan, I'll cheers to that!

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66: For What It's Worth

Obviously, this is not the Buffalo Springfield. That group's original version of "For What It's Worth" is an essential anti-war track recorded at the height of Vietnam. However, the version recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 sounds just like what it is-a cover tune. Without a doubt, Stephen Stills' original vocal was more on-point and the Neil Young guitar solo sounded like less of a cliche than anything that occurs here. The party responsible for recommending this to Mendes was mistaken in their assumption that the track's power could be elevated to a higher level, because it wasn't.

The tune is not altogether ruined, but vocalist Lani Hall definitely sounds out of her element with lyrics much more naturally intoned by Stills' masculinity. The pseudo-funk beat and the leaden presentation of the two chords that drive it erase most of the composition's musical force. By a wide margin, Brasil '66 misses the mark-substituting a great rock song's charm with an unspeakable schizophrenia.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Terence Blanchard: Left Alone

Terence Blanchard has a recognized flair for arranging. He can skillfully extract pathos from the music when film directors like Spike Lee call upon him to score a motion picture or punctuate a particular scene. We can sometimes forget he is also a trumpet player who can be incredibly expressive on his horn when he is inspired by the music.

In this 1993 album, lovingly dedicated to the music of Billie Holiday, Blanchard exposes us to his romantic side, laid bare by his unabashed love for the music of Lady Day. Accompanied by full orchestra, Blanchard’s trumpet on the bittersweet Mal Waldron composition “Left Alone” is pure inspiration. His warm tone and emotionally laden delivery perfectly communicates the forlorn quality that Holiday did with her voice when she made the song her own. Bruce Barth plays a bluesy piano solo at the break that is equally emotive. The swelling strings maybe off-putting to some purists, but I found them quite complimentary to the whole production. At the finale, a scorching, slurring Blanchard trails off mike in a blistering demonstration of rare unrestrained high register bravado. A welcome look into what this artist can do when the spirit moves him.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Laswell: Fractal

Bill Laswell's "Fractal" is one of the more interesting cuts on his Invisible Design II CD. Even though the minor-keyed minimalism is pure Laswell, the recording stands as proof of how expansive a single chord can be in such a context. The sound effects dominate the mix 1/3 of the way through, and, while the bass keeps the beat steady, the simplistic guitars enter and the proceedings deconstruct even further.

Any bassist could play these riffs-even beginners. However, it would be tough for a beginner to produce this, because the raw material contained within is so detailed and the approach so symbolic of higher thought processes at work that the tune makes a major statement by virtue of its impressionistic conviction.

Listeners will immediately acknowledge Laswell as someone who can shape a rather rudimentary idea into something more colorful, dense, and abstract. A great deal of skill at assembling the parts is what you will hear, as this is a track that stands apart from the rest of its respective CD and makes an impact as a mood setter for any occasion.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Laswell: Solar Clip

"Solar Clip" is a fairly unmemorable sound collage. That isn't to say that Bill Laswell doesn't play well on it. During the odd metre, his goal of creating music befitting of outer space is credible. However, the music, after it ends, does not adhere to the mind. Much of it is heavily reverbed, and the repetition of the main melody is not engaging enough to stand on its own.

It is tough to recommend such a recording to the average listener because the track is not even abstract enough for curiosity's sake. I hear a guitar that plays a single distorted power chord, a bunch of percussion-like sounds that seem to emphasize the same pattern ad infinitum, and some effects meant to sound like flares running through the recording.

Certainly, uses for such music exist, as it could find a home as part of a TV or film soundtrack. However, this cut is disappointing. Such criticism is not aimed at Laswell, personally; many of his recordings can be classified as "genius" in scope, but this one fails to compete with his more finely attuned soundscapes.

May 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quincy Jones: Rack 'Em Up

The speedy "Rack 'em Up" energizes its way through a maze of electric jazz guitar, predominant piano overdubs (panned heavily to emphasize the stereo recording technique), and abstract percussion that accents this rather brief and very repetitive track. Interestingly, percussion elements include scatted vocals, and they do not detract from the palette. However, the question is one of how many times you will return to this track, and the answer is that, since a single chord form is repeated constantly and the content is limited to it and some very understated guitar soloing that ends too quickly, probably not very many. However, it is easy to understand how this music would work in the film The Pawnbroker, and its vocal approach does contain some of the 60s kitsch factor found in many of the era's novelty tunes. There isn't much here, in terms of content, but what has been captured is at least enjoyable enough to be experienced once and then shelved, as its function is limited in today's music buying marketplace. Approach-wise, it can be considered "jazz," but it sounds like a curio from an era to which the film it represents is forever linked.

May 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Loudhorns: Give It One

A band fronted by seven of the top Nashville horn session players, The Loudhorns salute a time in the late sixties and early seventies when buckets of brass were heaped onto pop and rock. That was the era of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago Transit Authority and the Hawaii Five-O theme song. And no other single artist pioneered, promoted and epitomized the marriage of brass with contemporary music more than Maynard Ferguson.

The first cut from The Loudhorns’ Ferguson tribute CD One For Maynard is not a pop cover like the ones the late trumpeter loved to do, but one written by Maynard himself. “Give It One” is true to the spirit, with horns careening nearly off course around the Waters’ fast-paced tempo. The charts are rhythmically charged, and to no surprise for anyone who knows the name of this band, loud. Murphy and then Patrick serve up solos, but they’re brief; the ensemble performance by all horn players is the feature attraction. As the “high lead trumpet,” it’s clear that Patrick is playing the Maynard role, though. His over-the-top, hot blowing does the old master proud, standing out clearly above everyone else.

“Give It One” even ends with a layered ascending chord figure strikingly similar to the ending of “Hawaii Five-O.” The vision of those forty-foot waves that used to accompany the theme song is an apt metaphor for the thundering cascade of The Loudhorns’ brass.

May 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cal Tjader: America

Immigrants have been coming to America's shores for a millennium, and some witty reflections on that fact can be found in the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical West Side Story. Those nice Jewish boys fashioned jazzy, semi-Latin music featuring lyrics detailing the experiences of street punks and...Nuyoricans. (Huh?) But their composer chutzpah resulted in a work of sarcastic genius-especially in the sassy number "America."

Vibesman Cal Tjader laid down his lilting cover version in 1960. Minus the lyrics, claves and sticks start the dance, Tjader shimmers briefly, a French horn trio issues the call-out, and from then on, the solo moments pretty much belong to Tjader's fleetfoot vibes and to the airy, Afro-Cuban flute of Paul Horn. The saucy back-and-forth, snap-and-strut of the original staging echoes through pianist Clare Fischer's arrangement, which contains various horn "voices." The verbal jabs and teasing comments are tamed and prettified, though, leaving light Latin music as fresh as the island's tropical breezes-any NYC immigrant dis-ease subdued if not entirely passed over.

May 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nicolas Thys: Virgo

Starting in a deliberately languishing way, Chris Cheek and Ryan Scott play the opening of "Virgo" with harmonious interplay. Bassist and composer Thys is content to take on an almost veiled role during the proceedings, occasionally punctuating a sustained bass note at precise moments of calm. He relies on the voicings of Cheek and Scott to dominate the musical statement over the steady low-keyed rhythms created with his section partners Rieser and Cowherd. Creek is especially effective when the music stops abruptly and his breathy sustained tone is heard trailing off to silence. After playing predominantly floating chords for the first half of the piece, Scott adds some searing funk/rock oriented guitar licks that seem to add a welcome bite and a surprising sense of drama to the tone of the piece before it trails off into its faded reprise.

May 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gabriel Espinosa: Nuevos Horizontes

The music of Gabriel Espinosa is infused with the light and uplifting sounds of Brazil. On “Nuevos Horizontes”, Espinosa makes especially fine use of the melodic sounds of the two reeds and Roditi’s warm flugelhorn. In concert, they create his musical statement of expectancy and hope. Cohen does a particularly nice turn with her mellow and darting clarinet sound on this 6/8 piece that Espinosa identifies as typical of the South American style called “jarana”. The piece swells with joy as Robert takes his turn on alto and the mix of the variously timbered voices of clarinet, flugelhorn and alto combine in unified harmony. Sanchez keeps everything on track with his ever delicate but spirited playing, especially during Alves’ piano solo. Espinosa identifies this song as the harbinger for things to come in his music; his new horizons. Keep your eyes open for more from this joyful composer/arranger.

May 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Mark Turner: Late Lament

When Mark Turner did his obligatory Ballad Session for Warner Brothers in 1999, another of his influences—in addition to the already acknowledged Warne Marsh—may have become apparent for the first time, namely Paul Desmond. Certainly a hint was given by Turner's recording of Desmond's exquisite "Late Lament." Desmond had played this ballad on one of his early '60's RCA Victor albums (Desmond Blue), most of which featured a pianoless quartet with guitarist Jim Hall. Turner's instrumentation here is the same, with his former Berklee classmate and future frequent collaborator, Kurt Rosenwinkel, on guitar.

Turner's pure, wistful tone and delicately spun, wafting arpeggios enhance his recital of the poignant theme. Rosenwinkel's soft chords and adorning textures at key dramatic points are totally in sync with Turner's tenor. The leader's solo has an understated intensity, his uncluttered lines flowing gracefully, artfully varied by speed of execution and through subtly dissonant overtones. Rosenwinkel's improv engagingly follows the contours of the melody by utilizing reverberating chord structures, strummed passages, and ringing grace notes. Turner's reprise affirms the beauty of both the composition and his own conception, right up to the concluding well-conceived vamp.

May 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum & Ben Webster: My Ideal

Ben Webster, who idolized Art Tatum, thought that the album he made with the virtuoso pianist in 1956 was his best ever. Of course, Webster also felt that on this date Tatum "really accompanied me.” He continued: “I believe that was a sign that he appreciated my playing, because I know certain records with other musicians where he just played on, from the beginning of the piece all the way to the end." Said producer Norman Granz: "During the session with Art Tatum, Art just could not get Ben to speed up. Ben just did his own thing. So up to a point, Art adapted to Ben there."

"My Ideal" seems to confirm the observations of both Webster and Granz. Tatum's initial rendition of the melody is, for him, sparse and restrained, containing embellishments that are far from ornate. Webster's subsequent playing of the theme is lifted by his broad, somewhat gruff, and cavernous tone, not unlike that of Coleman Hawkins, while Tatum's comping is focused and judicious. The tempo accelerates for Webster's solo, where the tenor's legato phrasing is unaffected, enticing, and to the point. Tatum's improvisation continues his relatively understated approach, with his technically marvelous runs still not nearly as convoluted as they often tended to become. Webster returns for the theme, again with Tatum offering complementary support rather than competing commentary. Here's a Tatum group track where the supporting efforts of a bassist and drummer—Red Callender and Bill Douglass—not only are noticed, but can be appreciated as well.

May 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Warne Marsh: Moose the Mooche

The prevailing notion that Marsh was merely a cool-toned, cerebral saxophonist began to change to some extent in the '70s when he joined Supersax, a group that played unison transcriptions of Charlie Parker tunes and solos. Although Marsh didn't play any individual solos on the Supersax albums, he reportedly played heated up-tempo ones during the group's live gigs—perhaps similar to what you hear on this version of "Moose the Mooche" from 1982.

Marsh's all-star rhythm section would probably not have met the approval of his teacher and everlasting influence, Lennie Tristano, who disdained interactive bassists and drummers, but, boy, does it ever cook! The infinitely versatile Hank Jones—playing with Marsh for the first time—is as sympathetic and uplifting as he would be many years later with Joe Lovano. Mraz and Lewis also sound inspired, as does Marsh himself. Marsh and Jones perform the bop theme of "Moose the Mooche" in rapid harmony before the leader rushes into a densely packed, vertically constructed solo delivered with an expressive tone somehow possessing characteristics akin to both Charlie Parker and Lester Young. What his solo might lack in melodic and rhythmic development is more than made up for by the brash originality of his ideas. Jones succeeds Marsh with a fresh and unflagging improvisation of his own. Mraz and Lewis then get to make equally effective and dynamic statements as well. Prior to moving back into Bird's theme, Marsh and Jones engage in a dazzling polyphonic dialogue that makes it quite apparent that they are greatly enjoying this opportunity to play with one another, and are taking full advantage of it.

May 07, 2009 · 1 comment

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Bill Frisell: Billy the Kid

William Bonney, known as "Billy the Kid," was a young punk who wreaked havoc in Lincoln County, NM. His bad reputation, though, was jarringly altered when quintessential Americana composer Aaron Copland wrote his high-stepping music for the ballet Billy the Kid. Then another Billy wreaked his own happy havoc on Copland's multi-part composition--William Frisell, always cheerfully eager to string-shape or guitar-warp standards, folk songs, pop tunes, and originals alike.

The work opens and closes peacefully, with guitar, clarinet, accordion, and rhythm all sticking close to the chart. In between, sixshooters (well, five) blaze from hell to breakfast as Don Byron burbles and slips, Guy Klucevsek squirts and wheezes, and the rhythm section manages to hold it all together while simultaneously knocking everything sideways. And Bill? The grinnin' guitar kid sounds like he never had more fun, whether sliding or chiding, yearning, or burning a hole through the score.

Billy the Kid launches the CD; the trad tune Billy Boy ends it. The album is Frisell's impish self-portrait.

May 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Afro Blue

The stories vary about how and why John Coltrane decided to begin playing the soprano. Most accounts give Steve Lacy at least some credit, which makes sense, in that when it came to the soprano in modern jazz, Lacy was the only game in town in the late '50s and early '60s. However, Coltrane didn’t mimic Lacy any more than Lacy mimicked his first inspiration, Sidney Bechet. Indeed, Coltrane didn't even mimic himself, but instead developed a soprano style distinct from his tenor style. Coltrane had first recorded on the soprano in June 1960, and his breakthrough performance on the instrument—"My Favorite Things"—came later that year, but he'd clearly reached a new level on the horn by the time this was made. The Afro Blue Impressions version of "Afro Blue" follows the more famous Live at Birdland version by about a month, and it's arguably as good if not better. At their best (which was pretty much every time they took the bandstand), Trane and his rhythm section were like a hurricane wrestling an earthquake. They generate that kind of power here. On soprano, Coltrane's chops were astounding, of course, but it’s the song-like nature of his playing—especially in the horn's upper register—that is particularly affecting. This is Coltrane at the height of his powers as a soprano saxophonist, and it reveals an amalgam of originality and spirit that's seldom been matched, let alone surpassed.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Steve Lacy: Work

A mere three or four years before the recording of Soprano Sax, the teen-aged Steve Lacy had been a Bechet-enthralled Dixieland soprano saxophonist and clarinetist. A subsequent association with Cecil Taylor opened his eyes and ears, and by 1957 he'd ditched the clarinet and was playing soprano full-time in the most modern contexts. This take of "Work" was a precursor of Lacy's eventual preoccupation with Thelonious Monk, an interest that would soon lead to the formation of a group (with trombonist Roswell Rudd) that played only Monk tunes. Lacy is accompanied here by two cohorts from the Taylor band—bassist Buell Niedlinger and drummer Dennis Charles—and a ringer on piano: sideman-to-the-stars Wynton Kelly. The music swings hard, with the rhythm section laying down solid if conventional backing. Lacy is, of course, the wild card, his laconic take on bop harmony and phrasing unlike anything that had been played on the soprano. Only 23 when this was recorded, Lacy's most productive years as a great composer and improviser were ahead of him. As an example of the soprano sax emerging as a legitimate modern jazz vehicle, however, this is an important document.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wayne Shorter: Super Nova

It's hard to remember a time when Wayne Shorter didn't play at least as much soprano sax as he did tenor, but he came to the smaller horn relatively late, at age 35: after playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; after recording most of his early Blue Note masterpieces; and after making his mark with the classic Miles Davis Quintet of the mid '60s. It wasn't until late 1968 that he began recording on soprano, first with Miles (on the In a Silent Way sessions), and later on this title track from his own 1969 Blue Note album.

Shorter might have found the soprano late, but he hit the ground running. Based on a slight, endlessly transmutable motiv, Shorter's lissome soprano solo seems to throw into relief the quickness he always exhibited on tenor. Everything seems sped up here—the tempo, the horn's sound, Shorter's remarkably precise manner of articulation (something that would become ever more pronounced over the years). Backed by a smoking rhythm section, "Super Nova" is a highly-chromatic music that eschews conventional bop or even modal harmonies, yet retains the explicit swing element. The soprano's small size allows it to be played at higher velocity, making it the ideal horn for Shorter and younger hyper-agile freebop players (Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman being two of the best) who would fall under his spell over the next thirty-plus years. Few of those younger players would ever capture the same air of spontaneity, however, nor would they evince as much originality as Shorter, who would remain one of the dominant voices on the horn for decades to come.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roscoe Mitchell: Music for Trombone & B Flat Soprano

The initial free jazz successes of the late '50s and early '60s were centered mostly in New York, where musicians like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp and others lived and developed their new music. New York's monopoly on the avant-garde didn't last long, however. The experimental impulse spread to other jazz communities across the world. In Chicago in the mid '60s, a second major U.S. scene sprung up, as musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis (in the company of Muhal Richard Abrams, Phil Cohran, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, and others) founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. More so than the New Yorkers, members of the AACM combined elements of 20th-century European-derived art music with jazz, resulting in a unique and altogether innovative stripe of improvised music.

Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis both turned out to be among the most adventurous of the Chicago crowd, their music blurring anything resembling a barrier separating jazz and experimental classical music. This track—a trombone/soprano sax duo—is representative of their intrepidness. A jazz sensibility suffuses the phrasing of both Lewis and Mitchell, yet the spare instrumentation, spiky melodic contours, and creative use of silence bespeak an admiration for contemporary classical compositional techniques. Mitchell is probably best known for his work with The Art Ensemble of Chicago, yet it's often quieter projects like this that show his subtle instrumental concept to its best advantage. While he obviously owes a debt to Coltrane, Mitchell's soprano work is nevertheless unique, and in some ways can be considered an advance on both Coltrane and Steve Lacy. His use of dissonant, widely-spaced intervals is almost Webern-esque. His concentration on the more acute aspects of tone production has parallels in the work of Lacy, yet Mitchell's approach is his and his alone. Lewis is as distinctive and attentive to detail.

This music is finely-wrought, yet deceptively strong—like a spiderweb spun from piano wire.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Kansas City Man Blues

Taken from Bechet's first session with pianist Clarence Williams' Blue Five, "Kansas City Man Blues" is (with "Wild Cat Blues") one of his first two extant recordings. As if to prove that the irascible Bechet followed no man, his vibrato-laden soprano is front and center. Although the group is a New Orleans-style collective, in truth this is a soprano feature; the rest of the band takes the only sensible course and stays in the background. Everything that made Bechet special is on display: the sinuous phrasing, resolute rhythms, and that sound—like a blowtorch. It's little wonder that few of his contemporary jazz saxophonists took up the cudgel and adopted the soprano (Johnny Hodges was one of the few; he played soprano in his youth, even studying with Bechet, and played it occasionally even after switching to alto). Bechet's personality on the instrument is so strong, it must've seemed almost impossible to find an alternative way to play it. The man was a force of nature.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Zoot Sims: Moonlight in Vermont

Not many swing or bop saxophonists have put the soprano to good use—few if any during the '30s and '40s, when those styles were gestating. However, in the '60s and '70s a few veterans picked up the horn and made good music with it, among them Phil Woods, Jimmy Heath, Dexter Gordon, and Zoot Sims. The latter recorded an especially attractive album of soprano performances in 1973. Sims transported his suave, deftly swinging style from tenor to soprano, lock, stock, and barrel, with great success. On the ballad "Moonlight in Vermont," Sims highlights the horns sweeter qualities. His soprano sound is an extension of his tenor sound—slightly breathy, smooth and effortless, without a hint of the nasal quality that seems to naturally infect the playing of many more modern players. And oh how he swings! It's enough to make one regret that the horn didn't find wider acceptance back in the day. Who knows how the horn would've sounded in the hands of the great swing era saxophonists? Until someone uncovers some long-lost recordings of Lester Young playing the soprano, this is as close as we're likely to get.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett (featuring Jan Garbarek): The Windup

Beginning in the '70s, some of the most consistently interesting soprano saxophonists could be found in Europe. One of the first and best was Jan Garbarek. Initially inspired by the expressionist tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, Garbarek recorded with composer/theorist George Russell in the mid-to-late '60s. By the mid '70s, Garbarek had evolved into a disciplined, post-bop melodist, recording a series of fine leftward-leaning albums under his own name for ECM. However, some of his best—-and jazziest—work came as a member of pianist Keith Jarrett's "European Quartet," with whom he recorded this track. "The Windup" is driven by Jarrett's gospel-ish piano vamp and drummer Jon Christensen's chattering snare, which lead into a cheerful odd-time melody played by Garbarek on curved soprano. Garbarek's sound is less like that of a straight soprano than it is the musette sometimes favored by saxophonist Dewey Redman. Nasal in character but full-bodied, it's one of the most distinctive soprano sax sounds in all of jazz. After Jarrett's solo, Garbarek enters unaccompanied. His solo is almost Ornette-ish in character. Singing and melodic, strongly rhythmic but harmonically unfettered, it's a joyful sound, not least because of its sheer individuality. Not many soprano saxophonists took the route suggested by Garbarek here, which not coincidentally adds to the music's appeal.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lol Coxhill: Darkly #20

Unlike Evan Parker, a fellow British subject and soprano saxist, Lol Coxhill integrates straight-ahead jazz and rhythm & blues elements into his style, even while maintaining an essential free jazz/improv outlook. In this duo with the drummer Andrea Centazzo, Coxhill is a blowzy extrovert; his style is loosely swinging and blues-inflected. Even though he seldom lands where you'd expect, there's an ever-present reference to a tonal center. Coxhill is the rare soprano experimentalist who seems comfortable with the syntax of both jazz and pop, and it can give his playing a warm, engaging quality. He and Centazzo embark on an energetic, freely-improvised course. Centazzo both colors and ignites with strong free-time rhythms; Coxhill spins long, blowzy lines that for all their earthy appeal are nevertheless profoundly sophisticated.

Calling Coxhill a populist might be stretching things, but this track demonstrates how, compared to other prominent free jazz soprano saxophonists (including Parker and Steve Lacy—with whom, incidentally, Coxhill recorded the soprano trio album Three Blokes in the late '90s), he has been occasionally inclined to adopt a more accessible approach.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Evan Parker: Breath and Heartbeat 3

Evan Parker is probably the most influential out of a group of superb British soprano saxophonists (which also includes Lol Coxhill and John Butcher) working far to the left of what is normally thought of as jazz, in an area probably better defined as non-idiomatic free improvisation. Parker has arguably been the most influential of the lot. He has mastered the conventional aspects of playing the soprano sax; he can go from any point on the horn to any other point with the greatest of ease and velocity. More than that, however, he's developed a manner of playing that comes very close to simulating a sort of non-tonal counterpoint. That should be impossible on a single-line instrument, and of course he doesn't do exactly that, but his ability to articulate and finger at super-human speed coupled with a manner of squeezing tones from all registers seemingly at once results in a music of mind-boggling complexity.

Of course, a music so intellectually rigorous and uncompromising won't appeal to everybody. Parker's long-standing trio with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton takes what is a fairly conventional jazz format (horn, bass, drums) and creates a steadfastly abstract music that dares anyone to place a label on it. "Breath and Heartbeat 3" is one of a series of free improvisations wherein the three men operate on the very edge of imagination and comprehension. They put it over by dint of their audacity—they don't care what you think, they're going to do what they do—and by generating a palpable collective electricity. Like it or not, its very manifestation is a creative wonder.

This music sounds nothing like jazz, but what else can it be? As the saying goes, once you eliminate all other possibilities, whatever remains—however improbable—must be the answer.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jane Ira Bloom: I Got Rhythm But No Melody

The talented and self-reliant Jane Ira Bloom emerged in the late '70s, producing and releasing albums on her own Outline label. Mighty Lights is her third album, and first for an outside label. She's joined on this track by an estimable rhythm section: former Ornette Coleman confreres Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums.

Given the presence of Haden and Blackwell, one might expect more of an Ornette-ish influence, but the up-tempo "I Got Rhythm But No Melody" has none of the down home qualities characteristic of a Coleman composition. It is, rather, a knotty, harmonically vague and altogether "out" tune, more like something Sam Rivers at his most hyperactive might've concocted. As an improviser, Bloom is busy and not especially lyrical. She sounds a bit callow in contrast with her veteran band mates (her time is not always sure, nor do her ideas always come to a reasonable conclusion), yet she's already exhibiting a pronounced streak of originality. She has a bit of Steve Lacy's dryness of tone and disinclination to play long strings of eighth notes. Rather, like Lacy, she breaks up her line, going in and out of time in a pleasantly unpredictable fashion.

At the time this was recorded in the early '80s, Bloom was establishing herself as a soprano specialist, then as now (and seemingly forever) a rara avis. Since then, she's grown both as an artist and in renown, becoming a perennial poll-winner and one of the most well-respected soprano saxophonists in jazz. This is a fine example of an exemplary artist just coming into her own.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Giardullo: Channeling

Living in upstate New York is not conducive to accruing fame as a jazz musician (forget fortune), unless of course one makes his name in New York City or some other metropolis first. While the veteran soprano saxophonist Joe Giardullo occasionally sojourns into the city and plays gigs in Europe, he has developed out of the spotlight, for the most part.

Such relative obscurity hasn't prevented Giardullo from becoming one of the premiere artists on the small horn, however. "Channeling" is the first track from Weather, a solo album recorded live in concert. The track reveals an uncompromising musician who's taken a course parallel to such players as Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill. Like Parker, he's adept at eking-out a chirpy upper register and weaving long, scrawling lines that assiduously avoid tonality or even precise pitch. He emphasizes the latter aspect by slowing things down and manipulating his tone in tiny increments, rather like the Boston woodwind virtuoso Joe Maneri. Giardullo also varies the character of his sound; a close ear for contrasting timbres is one of his finest qualities.

If the march of the soprano sax in jazz has been toward ever greater abstraction, Giardullo—as an heir to and synthesizer of the innovations of artists like Coxhill, Parker, and Steve Lacy—is presently among the most forward elements.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Satoko Fujii & Myra Melford: The Migration Of Fish

Writers have used up whole warehouses of metaphors in the (admittedly difficult) attempt to put together meaningful descriptions of instrumental music. Improvised instrumental music can bring with it an extra level of challenge because it is often constructed not out of harmonic framing, but purely of musicians' reactions in real time.

A useful idea from the world of art is the concept of the sculptor who is trying to unlock the piece that already exists, encased in the raw block of stone. I've heard many sessions of improvised music where this description makes perfect sense. The improvisers try out idea after idea, tossing away those that don't quite work until "the one" shows up. It had been there all along, waiting to be recognized.

On "The Migration Of Fish," Myra Melford and Satoko Fujii don't so much strip away the outer layers of the raw material as walk around it, tapping here and there to find a way in. There are many sounds emanating from inside the piano as strings are plucked, raked, and scraped. Along with much percussion on the cabinetry plus further manual string manipulation and abuse, it seems that the pair may never find a way inside. But they do — and when it happens it's a gorgeous thing. After an ominous descent into the piano's lowest register, ringing arpeggios begin to form and circle each other. The calm is beautiful and inspiring but gives way to the centrifugal force of madly increasing speed and chaos, making me wonder what was left standing onstage when the final musical thought was thrown clear of the resultant shape.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joris Roelofs: I Fall in Love Too Easily

Introducing Joris Roelofs is the name of this altoist's indie release, and I strongly advise you to get introduced. This player is one of the finest young saxophonists I have heard in recent memory, and manages to achieve that rarity—delivering performances that are both deeply emotional and richly cerebral at the same time. He pulls it off repeatedly on his CD, but especially on this opening track. Even before he finishes his a cappella opening melody statement, you know that you are hearing a real artist, and when the rhythm section falls into place, as softly supportive as those floating cushions at posh hotel pool, it just gets better. It's hard for an indie release by a relatively unknown player to get much buzz these days, but I'm determined to buzz all the more on my own to compensate. Bzzzzzzzzzzzz!!!

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Grace Kelly: I'll Remember April

I can't think of a teenage jazz musician who has more visibility than young Grace Kelly, who is being touted as a prodigy of the alto. But her playing is so careful at times that it is hard to get a sense of how well she really plays her horn. Here she is left exposed on a moderately fast version of "I'll Remember April," without other front line players or clever arrangements to pick up the slack, and the results are lackluster. Her tone is sweet and lovely in the opening melody statement, but gets more and more shrill as the song progresses. These are pretty easy chord changes for soloing, with long stretches of static harmonies—and there are a hundred young saxophonists in Manhattan who could slice 'em and dice 'em until they beg for mercy. Yet Kelly lets her opening break, that moment for glory, float by with hardly a peep from her horn. Later in the chorus she fools around with a simple motif, and sometimes tosses out a fluid phrase but nothing you wouldn't hear in your typical Berklee practice room. I keep waiting for her to let loose with something special to convince me that the buzz surrounding her is more than empty hype. I'm still waiting.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Duck Baker: Everything That Rises Must Converge

For “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Duck Baker adapts his highly developed fingerpicking style for free-form jazz. Originally appearing on his 1980 tour de force Art of Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar, this later version (recorded sometime in the late 1990s) is by the artist’s own acknowledgment not as tame as the earlier rendition.

An exception to the wholly rootless nature of other tracks recorded for the album of the same name as this composition, “Everything” retains the basic original beautiful melody. The really interesting aspect is how Baker wanders off of it to arbitrarily explore tonal paths, opening up more facets of his amazing technique along the way.

Hearing a master acoustic guitarist like Duck Baker open up and cut loose is a guaranteed delight, but to do so while completely retaining his character is better still.

May 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bobby Sanabria: Wild Jungle

Blistering! Good gawd! If you want to listen to this music I would suggest the following precautions: apply a good layer of sunscreen (at least SPF 35), wear at least two pairs of underwear (I'll explain later), make sure you're properly hydrated (Sure, nobody has ever been hospitalized because of being exposed to a single jazz composition, but do you really want to take the chance? At your age?), and make sure you've had plenty of rest beforehand.

I'm no physics expert but I'd say that there's a fair chance burning rays will be developed when "Wild Jungle" is released into the local environment. Between the percussion antics of Cuban-born conga legend Candido, the trumpet solo ripped by Michael Taylor, and the white hot, insane lines exploding from the horn section, there's a decent chance that your clothing may spontaneously combust. If that happens, you don't really need to thank me for the duplicate underwear idea. I'm just looking out for the safety of jazz fans everywhere. Please pass the Coppertone.

May 05, 2009 · 1 comment

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Daniela Schächter: Purple Butterfly

"Purple Butterfly" surprises the ear right from the outset. As an introduction to the composition's vocal sections, Massimo Biolcati lays down a jaunty and quite angular bass vamp that get the listener in a 'modern' mood. But then Schächter comes in with her beautiful voice and romatic themes. It's quite an unexpected shift. As the song progresses, subsequent instrumental turns remain inside that framework, though Alex Spiagin's trumpet solo almost takes us 'out' for a bit.

It's great to hear some jazz vocals that attempt to breath new life into the genre. Patricia Barber is undoubted the leader in this respect, but it looks like she may have some company.

May 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Scotty Barnhart: Giant Steps

If I hear one more deadgummed cover of “Giant Steps” I’m going to (insert violent act here). But wait, what’s this? A marching whistle? A frisky second line beat? Competing melodic lines between the trumpet and sax? Brilliant. Why hasn’t anybody thought of playing Coltrane’s tune like this before?

Even Roberts gets into the Big Easy spirit when the band halts on him mid-solo and he begins to tickle ivories stride-style. Williams’ soprano is more modern sounding than, say, Sidney Bechet’s, but still fits the festive mood. Barnhart follows with a very brassy trumpet that is determinedly in the pocket.

Scotty Barnhart makes an old song sound fresh again, ironically by bringing it to Old New Orleans.

May 05, 2009 · 1 comment

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Brian Blade: Mercy Angel

Brian Blade is quite possibly the most in-demand drummer in the world for jazz heavies and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall-of-Famers alike. He also leads a highly acclaimed jazz ensemble himself, The Fellowship. So it was probably quite surprising to many that Blade’s fourth album Mama Rosa presents him as a singer-songwriter of Americana and folk tunes. “Mercy Angel” is one of the stronger cuts from this album.

Lyrically, “Mercy Angel” is about finding security and everlasting compassion from a loved one. Like the rest of Mama Rosa, it’s a deeply personal, religious and spiritual song, and the melody is fetching; if you listen closely enough, you can find the same earthbound harmonics found in his Fellowship. Blade’s voice is very much what you’d expect from a singer-songwriter, not a drummer: clear, soulful, not particularly powerful, but very poignant. Jones’ harmony vocal tracks with his to perfection. Lanois’ tremolo guitar evokes the backwaters of Blade’s childhood home of Northwest Louisiana and his Gibson Firebird delivers a solo with an unfussy, pleading quality first perfected by fellow Canadian superstar Neil Young.

Songs like “Mercy Angel” put Blade in a rare class of musicians who succeeds in maintaining a high level of quality using different instruments and a completely different genre.

May 05, 2009 · 0 comments

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Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra: Brush Fire

Against impossible odds, the Detroit jazz scene remains hot and continues to forge world-class players and ensembles. In the thick of it all you will find 34-year-old composer/pianist/author/educator Scott Gwinnell, who has played with heavy hitters from Joe Lovano to Dave Liebman as well as most of Motor City’s jazz elite. His orchestra performs regularly at one of Detroit’s swankiest watering holes, the ultra-classy Cliff Bells. Their second release, Brush Fire, offers moments of genuine spontaneous combustion, especially in the title track.

"Brush Fire" is a powerful, heady composition. After an opening Romanesque fanfare the head begs comparison to Freddie Hubbard’s "Intrepid Fox," though not quite as dark. Once the form straightens out into an uplifting samba for the solos, Keith Kaminski spreads his wings in a sprightly soprano flight, followed by neo-cool ruminations by trumpeter Justin Walter. A brief, almost melodic drum solo takes it back to the head, then out with Kaminski and Walter trading fours traded on the turnaround. Overall the band is tight, the spirited arrangement lean, listenable and balanced. Even those who are lukewarm on big band music should be sufficiently ignited by this brush fire.

May 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan: The Way You Look Tonight

Their light tones and upbeat lyricism an ideal match, Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond’s Two of a Mind was destined to be a classic even before one note was recorded. Not only does the individual brilliance of the two soloists make this album a resounding success, but their shared contrapuntal conception and empathetic duetting are the elements that truly create the beauty within. On "The Way You Look Tonight," Mulligan weaves a delightful counterpoint around Desmond’s melody, both tirelessly manipulating the altoist’s five note motive that opens the track. Desmond takes the first solo, floating airily and unfurling long, relaxed phrases filled with surprising twists and turns. Kay’s brushes churn behind the altoist before he unassumingly opens up with sticks to nudge Mulligan along through his two typically bright and fleet choruses. Desmond overdubs a third contrapuntal line for the transcendent final out-choruses, a breathtaking conclusion to a simply marvelous, must-have recording.

May 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dizzy Reece: The Shadow Of Kahn

Jamaican-born trumpeter Dizzy Reece may not have led many sessions during his heyday, but he certainly made the most out of the few he did. Asia Minor may have been his finest, featuring solid contributions from his tight-knit all star sextet and strong compositions from the leader. Reece’s "The Shadow of Kahn" swings briskly, the syncopated minor melody tip-toeing around Persip’s insistent brush work. Reece jumps in confidently, balancing his fluid, minor-tinged lines with what are at first unexpected resolutions in the relative major tonality. All of the soloists follow suit (the major/minor concurrence at the beginning of Payne’s solo is especially notable), and as the group progresses through the blowing section these major resolutions become more clearly defined and anticipated; by the end the reemergence of the minor melody comes at a surprise. Payne’s airy but muscular baritone solo is the highlight, Farrell takes two exciting choruses on what was his small-group recording debut, and Carter and Jones are as consistent as ever.

May 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Andrew Hill: Noon Tide

Featuring a nonet of odd yet brilliantly selected instrumentation, Passing Ships was one of many challenging Andrew Hill sessions that Blue Note shelved in the late 1960s but thankfully reissued in the early 2000s. On "Noon Tide" Joe Farrell’s haunting, wraith-like alto flute melody contrasts the urgent ensemble figures and propulsive, polyrhythmic Latin groove, creating a wonderful compositional juxtaposition of ethereality and earthiness. Hill’s constant riffing and crunchy dissonance builds the tension from one soloist to the next, though self-effacing trombonist Julien Priester encounters some distracting and sloppy backgrounds during his otherwise well-played chorus. Farrell barrels aggressively through his tenor solo and trumpeter Dizzy Reece benefits from the least obtrusive backgrounds and peaked energy, boldly riding above the group, stimulated by the Hill’s provocative exoticism. Hill sounds strangely Horace Silver-like in his percussive solo, yet with hints of his signature detachment. Though not a flawless recording, it is nonetheless essential for fans of Hill’s ambitious and exciting music.

May 04, 2009 · 2 comments

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The Jazz Crusaders: Never Had It So Good

Lighthouse ’68 is one of the strongest efforts by the Jazz Crusaders, who often struggled to solidify their identity while straddling jazz’s sub-genres in the eclectic 1960s. Their third go-around at the famed Hermosa Beach club, Lighthouse ’68 presents the Crusaders in a relaxed mood, playing with a Californian ease that is loose and easy-on-the-ears yet thoroughly sophisticated at the same time. This album’s entertaining set is a mixed bag of boogaloo, modal, and soul-jazz all tinged with an ever-present touch of the blues. The group struts through "Never Had It So Good" without a care in the world; Hooper and Williams’ in-the-pocket groove and Sample’s gospel piano fills get the horns and the crowd grooving (listen for the "yelps" and "yeahs"). A most complementary frontline pairing, Felder and Henderson are muscular yet cool with the blues oozing from their horns, washing over the west coast audience with a wave of their Texas soul.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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J.J. Johnson: Misterioso

The Trombone Master is a fitting title for a record by J.J. Johnson, who has yet to be succeeded as the indubitable king of post-swing era trombone. It’s also a great starting place for those unfamiliar with his career as it features music from four sessions spanning 1957-1960. Monk’s "Misterioso" is the highlight. After duetting on the melody with Johnson, cornetist Nat Adderley catapults into a brilliant solo packed tightly with blistering double-timed runs and chunky blues licks all laid out with his familial swagger. He’s an Adderley, after all — you know he can most certainly blow the blues.

As implied by the album title, Johnson had his instrument mastered. Possessing a rich, buttery tone and complete technical command in all registers, he never flubbed a note and was astoundingly comfortable on the awkward trombone at all tempos. His immaculate phrasing was arguably his greatest asset, as evidenced in these four meticulously constructed choruses. Johnson’s solo is precise and logical, developing like a short story with each successive phrase building on the previous statement, answering its question, finishing its thought. This is jazz trombone at its finest.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Christian Scott: Anthem (Antediluvian Adaptation)

Young, bold, and loquacious, New Orleans born trumpeter Christian Scott is a breath of fresh air to modern jazz. At a time when too many cookie-cutter groups fight for club dates, Scott is forging his own path, his hybrid compositions informed and influenced as much by hip-hop and indie rock as they are the jazz tradition. Anthem, his vociferous response to the social and political devastation left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake, is as emotive as it is edgy and is one of most thrilling records of recent years.

Do not be misled by the title "Anthem (Antediluvian Adaptation)" — this is not the quiet before the storm. Pianist Aaron Parks’ ferocious left-hand bombs and pulsating chords are intense and ominous, and Stevens’ distorted guitar moans enigmatically, relating more closely to Radiohead than Wes Montgomery. Scott sings out in long, airy tones on his cornet; over the explosive rhythm his plaintive, detached cries speak more than any flurry of notes ever could. Highly recommended.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: D's Dilemma

Though they lacked the strong compositional and stylistic influence of departed co-founder Horace Silver and stars like Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons, the often overlooked second edition of the Jazz Messengers nevertheless contributed a plethora of hard swinging albums to the group’s catalog and helped define its lasting sound.

Blakey’s signature fills complete the fragmented but lyrical melody of "D’s Dilemma," including his patented pitch-altered triplets (the tension of the drum head manipulated by pressure from his elbow). Jackie McLean and Bill Hardman’s similarly acidic tones and pressing styles made them as complementary as any frontline in Jazz Messenger history. Even at this mid-tempo lope they both remain quite edgy — McLean with his bitter tone and slashing double-timed runs and Hardman cutting through with a metallic bite in his Harmon-muted choruses. Fans of hard bop will enjoy hearing McLean during his formative years and might be surprised by what this solid version of the Jazz Messengers has to offer.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Clark Terry: In Orbit

Terry's unfairly neglected In Orbit album is notable not only for his warmly expressive fluegelhorn and clever originals, but for the fact that Thelonious Monk accepted the leader's invitation to play piano on the session. Monk enjoyed Terry's playing—Terry had appeared on the "Bemsha Swing" track from the pianist's Brilliant Corners recording date in 1956. Orrin Keepnews called the In Orbit session "the most relaxed, happiest and funkiest Monk performances I ever witnessed." In addition, this may have been the first time that the fluegelhorn was featured as the lead instrument throughout a jazz album, plus it was the only time Monk and Philly Joe Jones recorded together.

The title selection is a brisk circular theme that is enlivened by Terry's rich sound, Monk's zealous chords, and Philly Joe's tightly-wound percussive stimulus. Terry's boppish solo is captivating, as is Monk's spaced out improv, with its spiky single-note phrases and riffs. The exchanges between Terry and Philly Joe present the drummer at the peak of his consummate powers. Sam Jones follows with a skillfully executed walking bass solo, with Monk feeding him an assortment of angular note clusters at the start to help propel him on his way. As Terry repeats the head, you may realize—if you haven't already—that he sounds an awful lot like trumpeter Clifford Brown, and that Brownie's distinctively glowing sound itself could be said to have resided somewhere between that of a trumpet and a fluegelhorn.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum: Deep Night

The final two Tatum Group Masterpieces sessions occurred in 1956, the year of Tatum's death, and were polar opposites. Ben Webster chose to play sparsely and with unadorned lyricism, his effectiveness centered around his unbeatably warm and beautiful tenor sound. On the other hand, Buddy DeFranco (despite nursing a bad cold) challenged Tatum at his own game--intricate thematic and harmonic embellishments and variations--a gutsy decision by one of the most virtuosic of all jazz clarinetists. Although no one could ever quite match Tatum, and the pianist rarely gave an inch, DeFranco in his bop-influenced style succeeds more than anyone might have imagined.

The sinuous melody and rich harmonies of "Deep Night" made it an apt choice for exploration by Tatum and DeFranco. Tatum's glittering intro is followed by DeFranco's ardent treatment of the theme, crisply supported by Red Callender and Bill Douglas. Tatum's comping is typically dominated by a steady flow of arpeggios rather than more selective chords, but manages to remain unobtrusive. The pianist's solo features blistering, mercurial runs and dexterous bass figures. DeFranco seems to pattern his own solo after Tatum's, and his daring, technically polished lines are absorbing enough so as not to be overwhelmed by the simultaneous improvisation that Tatum appears to be spinning. The most thrilling moments come when DeFranco boldly chases Tatum's phrases and the two weave a magic spell of arpeggiated flurries. What may sound simply ornate to some listeners should instead be rightfully acknowledged and admired as intrinsic to the approaches of these two masters.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Darren Rahn: Talk of the Town

Multi-tracking and programming, while they may reduce the opportunities available for actual living sidemen on sessions, can certainly cut costs and sometimes better ensure the desired finished product that an artist and/or producer is seeking. On the funky title tune of his new CD, Talk of the Town, for example, saxophonist-producer Darren Rahn impressively displays his versatility, playing tenor, various keyboards, doing the drum programming, and arranging the horn section that he and his brass-playing twin brother Jason layer so delightfully and skillfully onto this cut.

After some provocative opening electronic reverberations, Rahn's tenor soulfully plays the insinuating groove of the line over hard-nosed bass and drum rhythms. The spunky horn section riffs accentuate the danceable ambiance. Rahn's tone and delivery have appealing qualities similar to those of David Sanborn. The out-chorus, with Rahn wailing away and the horns vamping no end, recalls not only Sanborn, but also—from back in the day—the Brecker Brothers.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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John Novello: Salt and Pepper

Novello is best known as the organist for the invigorating fusion/progressive rock power trio Niacin, which also features bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Dennis Chambers. His new CD, B3 Soul, is much more restrained than what he has generally produced with Niacin, and focuses largely on soul and funk. Novello has always been an upbeat, emotional communicator with an appealingly full-bodied sound and chops to spare, but he seems under wraps on this CD.

Novello gets into what he calls a "pocket groove" on the track "Salt and Pepper." He plays the funky theme on organ, but shifts briefly to synthesizer before his unhurried, soulful B3 improv. He then surprises by turning to acoustic piano, which he plays with just as much flair and finesse as he does the organ. Following his radiant piano interlude, he moves back and forth seamlessly and divertingly between piano and organ, before a fade-out ending that comes much too soon. Novello's programmed rhythm section backing comes across as a bit too stiff and mechanical for the genre, diminishing the overall effect of "Salt and Pepper." A press release states, "Novello looks forward to touring 'B3 Soul' with an all-star band." It would have been nice to have heard at least a couple of those living musicians supporting Novello on this selection.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Torcuato Mariano: Back to the Road

Mariano moved to Brazil from his native Argentina at age 14, and soon became part of the contemporary Brazilian music scene, touring with such artists as Leo Gandelman, Gal Costa, Sergio Mendes, and Ivan Lins in the '80's and '90's. After a detour as A & R director for EMI Brazil, Mariano returned to recording himself, and Back to the Road is his sixth CD as leader. He's an extremely versatile and polished guitarist, proficient playing Latin, rock, blues, or Brazilian jazz, as proven by this diverse session.

The yearning title track is probably the most unfettered performance on the CD, allowing Mariano to let loose aggressively. Colaiuta's propulsive, resonating drum beat makes this piece come alive from the very start. Mariano is channeling a very early influence in his playing here, namely Carlos Santana, as is apparent in his twangy tone and sleekly flowing lines. Calasans' supple B3 chords and Stubenhaus's sturdy bass add to the unwavering foundation over which Mariano sails with genuine feeling. Well-placed brass punctuations enter just before and during the guitarist's blazing solo. A false wind-down ending gives way to Martins' nimble, bluesy tenor solo instead, but this appealing track fades out for real just as Martins is hitting his full stride.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kevin Hays Trio: Sweet And Lovely

There is something very appealing about Kevin Hays’ approach to piano improvisation. His work is unique, interesting and varied. He has assembled a trio of like-minded musicians that— when the stars align— can produce some very special moments in music.

On the ever-enchanting “Sweet and Lovely,” Hays, Weiss and Stewart are in their own musical sweet spot. The intro is poignantly played at a slow brooding tempo by a pensive Hays, with Weiss alternating between bellowing arco lines and sparse pizzicato. All the while, the ever-kinetic Stewart pulls precise sounds from his sticks and cymbals that are beautifully subdued—perfectly complimentary to what his two band mates are playing.

A little over two minutes into the song, Hays and company take it up a notch in tempo. Hays varies his attack with creative flourishes that gush in unexpected and delightful ways. Weiss and Stewart lay down the concrete foundation of rhythm for Hays to build on, as his ideas seem to be erected in an erupting fashion before he returns to a reflective mood at the coda. Stewart’s use of cymbals is astounding and effective. He has developed an unbelievable variety to the sounds he can elicit from the metal and wood in his kit. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable rendition. Add the Kevin Hays Trio to your short list of bona fide masters of the piano trio format.

May 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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