Bill Frisell: Strange Meeting

Bill Frisell’s pair of recordings from 1992, a wide-ranging collection of covers entitled Have a Little Faith and this set of original compositions, This Land, present a conscious departure away from the ECM sound that dominated Frisell’s early years and a step towards a more organic, traditionally assembled acoustic group. There’s a unavoidable emphasis on unearthing the riches of Americana on these two recordings, whether spanning the American songbook on Have a Little Faith (he covers Aaron Copland, Stephen Foster, Madonna, Sonny Rollins, Bob Dylan and John Hiatt, among others), or the compositional focus, American West artwork, and album title itself on This Land. Frisell was never bound by the strictness of a single genre, but with these two outings, he seems to dive headfirst into accepting the role of an Americana experimenter, inextricably linking jazz with country, rock, folk, and blues styles and already accomplishing what most struggle with when combining genres – forming a cohesive, identifiable personal style.

“Strange Meeting” is a dark, loping groove in C-minor that can be studied theoretically for its compositional value yet be immediately accessible to non-musicians for its immediate ease and clarity as a mood statement – an important dichotomy that hints at the growing crossover popularity of Frisell’s music. Note the tension-inducing space left by the drums, the syncopated bass-line that lands on beat one on the “B” section, and the patience required by all players to establish texture through horn layering before Frisell begins to improvise.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Gerry Gibbs & Ravi Coltrane: Impressions

If you are wondering how Gerry Gibbs and Ravi Coltrane came together on Gibbs' 1996 debut album, The Thrasher, it just happens that Gerry's father, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, introduced John Coltrane to his wife-to-be Alice McLeod. Their son, Ravi, and Gerry became close friends and Ravi was a member of the drummer's working quartet at the time of this recording, after having spent three years with the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine earlier in the '90's. As can be heard here on Gibbs' fresh arrangement of John Coltrane's "Impressions," even early on in his career Ravi sounded very little like his father, who died when he was only two.

Uri Caine's sprightly piano intro sets the stage for Coltrane's playing of Gibbs' totally reworked--both harmonically and rhythmically--version of the "Impressions" theme, with violinist Mark Feldman joining the saxophonist on the replay. This is followed by a swaying montuno from Caine and vibist Joe Locke and a prickly vamp by Feldman (pizzicato) and Locke, just prior to Coltrane's tenor solo. Suspended time sections serve as launching pads for Ravi's convoluted, logically conceived, and unyieldingly inventive phrasings and runs. Caine's improv is buoyantly zestful and rhythmically diverse. Gibbs' well-executed, aggressively delivered drum solo is bolstered by the same vamp and montuno heard previously. The concluding well-written parts for the sextet as a whole seal the deal on one the most provocative and unique treatments of "Impressions" ever recorded.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Heath Brothers: Nostalgia

Percy Heath is a musical titan whose work has graced countless albums. Percy replaced Ray Brown in the Modern Jazz Quartet and performed with the MJQ for the better part of twenty years before teaming up with his equally noteworthy brothers Jimmy and Albert. On the 1997 release As We Were Saying…, Percy demonstrates his cello virtuosity on the Fats Navarro bop classic “Nostalgia.”

The song begins with Mark Elf and Albert Heath performing with a light, breezy feel while Percy performs the melody with slight decorations and inflections. Percy’s solo is noteworthy for the way he phrases his ideas, carefully picking notes in order to suffice the chord change at hand as well as to complete his melodic concept. For the last chorus, Jimmy performs the melody with Percy responding to his performance by playing four-note phrases to contrast the melody. For the last A section, both Jimmy and Percy play the melody together in unison ending the song a strong note. A fine song from an under-appreciated ensemble.

September 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Michael Wolff-Kenny Rankin: Round Midnight

Kenny Rankin, who died this past June at the age of 69, was generally thought of as a pop or soft-rock singer, but he always had a way with standards as well. His 1994 album, Professional Dreamer, proved without a doubt his ability to interpret standards in the manner of a jazz singer. Rankin made a guest appearance on pianist Michael Wolff's 1997 release Portraiture, The Blue Period, singing "Round Midnight." The common denominator for the collaboration seems to be Roy McCurdy, who was the drummer when Wolff played with Cannonball Adderley in the mid-70's and who also performed on Rankin's Professional Dreamer. The bassist on this track, John B. Williams, was in the band that Wolff led in the '80's for "The Arsenio Hall Show," and has been his regular bassist ever since.

Wolff plays the familiar theme unaccompanied prior to Rankin's entrance. The pianist's original voicings show off his keen harmonic sense, and his chord choices, grace notes, and clarion touch make his exploration sound fresh and personal. Rankin's high, supple voice sings the lyrics with a freedom of phrasing and rhythm that is unpredictable but appropriate, and successfully realized. Only when Wolff and Rankin have firmly established their delicately insightful interaction do Williams and McCurdy join in to complement and enhance the duo's artistry. Rankin's pure tonality, varied inflections, interval leaps, and overall questing mindset make this indisputably a jazz vocal rendition. The singer never scats, but he's constantly improvising in ways either subtle or blatant. The surprise ending leaves you hanging, but wanting to hear more.

September 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Tito Puente: New Arrival

Recorded live in the West Village in Manhattan, when the spot was known as the famed Village Gate (now called Le Poisson Rouge), Tito Puente assembled an all-star cast of musicians that included some of the finest Latin players on the face of planet earth. Even though I was hardly twelve years old when this concert was recorded, I wish I could go back in time and attend it. It's chalked full of Latin and jazz elements. In actuality this album personifies Latin jazz; percussive elements, swing and bop inspired solos. Claudio starts things off with a captivating solo. I know you're thinking, what else would you expect from Mr. Roditi? Following next is Paquito, who always comes dressed to impress. He blazes through these changes just about as good as Cannonball would have but D'Rivera tends to squeak less and has wonderful command of the upper register of the alto.

Being a pianist, I might be biased but Hilton Ruiz runs laps around this song with his solo. It's magical! Every note he plays is the note you're supposed to play and then he tops it off with montuno phrases before the swing section and it gives the song a rich blend of all of the aforementioned stylistic elements. Hats off to Tito, you really did it on one!

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Doc Cheatham: New Orleans

In the span of his long career, Doc Cheatham played with Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Eddie Heywood (backing Billie Holiday), Machito, Tito Puente, and Wilbur de Paris, among others. But it was a stint with Benny Goodman's quintet in the mid-'60's (at age 60), that began Cheatham's true transition from accomplished lead trumpeter to a player both more capable and more confident as a soloist. During this self-imposed woodshedding period, Cheatham also took up singing for the first time, which enabled him to better rest his chops and pace himself as he further advanced in years. By the time of his first major label recording in 1992 (its title a take-off on The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake from 1969), Cheatham had been playing and singing at his regular Sunday afternoon gigs at Sweet Basil in New York for 12 years straight, and by then was considered the undisputed elder statesman among jazz trumpeters.

The group heard here on "New Orleans" is Cheatham's New York Quartet that appeared at Sweet Basil. Cheatham's initial treatment of the theme on trumpet possesses a majestic richness of tone and expression. He then sings Hoagy's lyrics in his ingratiating conversational, gentlemanly style, even rolling an "R" at one point. His sincere sentimentality is such that one might think he had been born and raised in The Big Easy, rather than Nashville. Folds' piano solo is wistfully restrained and bordering on impressionistic, which makes the trumpet blast announcing Cheatham's own solo all the more jolting. Doc's phrasing comes out of Louis Armstrong (who he subbed for in the '20's), but he imbues it with his own personality and originality. After another brief but welcome vocal, Cheatham ends with a brash fanfare that both evokes, and does justice to, Armstrong in his youth. And all this remarkably from an 87 year-old!

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Dave Douglas: Spring Ahead

Douglas recorded three "tribute" CDs in the '90's, to Booker Little (In Our Lifetime), Wayne Shorter (Stargazer), and Mary Lou Williams (Soul On Soul). If you listen to them one after another, a certain interchangeability might be discerned, given that the very same sextet plays on each and Douglas's composing and arranging styles give many tracks an unmistakable character reflecting the trumpeter's many overall influences out of both the jazz and classical worlds. From conventional harmonies to atonality, from expansive melodic sections to fluctuating, episodic passages either spacey or animated, from incisive individual solos to compelling contrapuntal engagements, Douglas leaves his personal stamp on all that he conceives and executes.

"Spring Ahead," the first track on Stargazer, would have fit nicely on any of Shorter's '60's Blue Notes. James Genus's loping but determined bass line leads to Uri Caine's ostinato pattern and then the lighthearted, oscillating theme, with its subtle shifts in tempo and dynamics. Joey Baron's sprightly stickwork accentuates the prevailing tension and release, as well as the unpredictability of direction and movement. Just as Douglas resolutely surges into his solo, Chris Speed's clarinet and Josh Roseman's trombone briefly visit for an inquisitive three-way dialogue. Douglas now enters the meat of his improv, his ripe tone undergoing a variety of tonal transformations that enrich a series of hurtling, interconnected extended runs. Caine follows in a straight-ahead bluesy vein before introducing more provocative, progressive voicings. Douglas, Speed, and Roseman resume their earlier swirling counterpoint until the theme's appealing contours are once again explored.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments


John Scofield (featuring Medeski, Martin and Wood): Green Tea

Riding the wave of grooves that come on just about every song off of this album, MMW and Scofield dig deep for their Bossa roots on "Green Tea." The result? A fine blend of mocha that would satisfy the cravings of anyone from the Lower East Side to Rio. John Medeski opens the song with a Wurlitzer riff as Chris Wood lays down the basic root to fifth motion that all Bossa tunes need. Scofield really lays down the madness on this song with little sprinkles of melodic magic and chordal commotion that illustrate his divine abilities as a jazz musician. Ultimately, what I draw the most from this song is Scofield's ability to switch his solo dialect so efficiently from funk to jazz without comprimising the nature of the composition.

Medeski lays down his own mellow, cool jazz influenced organ without losing a beat. We also finally get a little glimpse into the solo abilities of Billy Martin, who plays a short but satisfying solo break before the band comes back in with the head. This song is Bossa-funk at its best, go and get yourself some.

August 18, 2009 · 0 comments


John Scofield (featuring Medeski, Martin and Wood): Boozer

During the late 1990s, there was a pseudo revival in the jam band scene with the arrival of bands like Medeski, Martin and Wood. Jazz champ John Scofield, who had long played other styles of music other than jazz, seemed like a perfect fit for the free jazz, funk driven trio from the downtown NYC scene. Combining a strong knowledge for all things funky and swinging, the MMW-Scofield collaborations came into full swing with 1998's A Go Go. "Boozer" is one of those hybrid songs that walks the line between hip-hop, funk and rock. With a strong emphasis on the "Jimi chord (the #9)," this tune brings out the best of everyone involved. Scofield gives the listener some nice notes with his solo but John Medeski gives the song its character with his organ fills. Funky all the way to the last note, MMW should have been hired by more artists because they can do what very few people know how to do these days, keep it simple but keep it funky!

This album is highly recommended and is a must have for anyone who wants some jazz gumbo. Serve me up some more, please. Pretty please!

August 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Herbie Hancock: Norwegian Wood

On this absolutely, stunning and beautiful rendition of the Beatles classic "Norwegian Wood," Herbie Hancock enlisted the help of some of jazz music's best musicians. With Scofield, Holland, DeJohnette and the late Michael Brecker on board, there was no question that this album was going to be near perfect. Arranged by Bob Belden, this song opens up with Dave Holland playing the main verse melody before Brecker and Scofield come in with a doubled melody. The melody builds as it's accompanied by a miniature string and wind orchestra that helps take this song to places that the Beatles only wish they could have gone. Holland also plays the first solo, while Hancock plays some "Maiden Voyage" inspired chords underneath that accentuate the depth and validity of Holland's solo further.

There's a such a deep understanding of music going on in this re-arrangement. The back ground orchestrations behind the solos are absolutely genius and help the song become the masterpiece that it is. Scofield finishes off the solo section with an angular passage that sounds like only Scofield can sound. That tone is recognizable from any stereo on the face of planet earth! A perfect song deserves a perfect rating and this one gets it folks.

August 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Julius Hemphill: Sixteen

After leaving the World Saxophone Quartet the year before, Julius Hemphill had a fulfilling 1991, one of his last productive years before the onset of the illness that would soon take his life. By 1993, Hemphill could no longer play following heart surgery, and he died in 1995. However, in 1991 Hemphill won two Bessie Awards for his dance compositions for both The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin: The Promised Land and Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera. During that year, Hemphill also recorded the first album by his all-saxophone sextet, and also resumed his rewarding musical relationship with the masterful cellist Abdul Wadud, with whom he had not recorded since two dates n the '70's.

The track "Sixteen" vividly exhibits the close interplay between Hemphill, Wadud, and drummer Joe Bonadio (the latter had performed in the orchestra of Long Tongues). The piece starts out with Hemphill playing the stair-stepping theme with ample space left for Bonadio's lusty fills. The altoist quickly enters his solo, backed by Wadud's accompaniment that shifts continuously from walking bass-like lines to plucked accents and bowed patterns. Hemphill never veers far from the blues-based foundation that prevailed in so much of his playing. He changes tempo and intensity of attack frequently, as he freely but explicitly examines the initial thematic material. Bonadio's drum improvisation is tonally nuanced and thoughtfully constructed. Wadud's catchy pizzicato vamp launches his own extended statement, which alternates between walking lines and oblique motifs, with the essence of country blues lurking not far from the surface. Hemphill returns with more blues-drenched phrases supported by Bonadio's backbeat, before evolving into less grounded microtonal exploration leading up to the reprise.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Betty Carter: Droppin' Things

Unlike many jazz musicians who found their niche and stuck with it, Betty Carter continued to experiment with her music throughout her career. While she never abandoned standards, she included several of her own compositions in her repertoire. As the years went on, her elastic concept of rhythm became more pronounced, and her scatting became an even more important component of her style. Starting in the 1970s, she hired young apprentice musicians who were eager for their big break. While Carter was a tough boss, many of the musicians who worked with her found the experience very valuable.

“Droppin’ Things” is based on Carter’s scat tune, “Jumps”. It sounds like Carter hadn't decided whether the song should be started in duple or triple time. In fact, the recording includes a false start in 2/4 time before restarting in 3/4. The time moves back and forth between the two meters, even during the solos. To further cloud the meter, Carter sings her melody in straight quarter notes without any downbeat implied. In the second A section, bassist Tarus Mateen plays so fast, there is no clear sense of time signature. To keep all of this together, Carter has guest instrumentalists Freddie Hubbard and Craig Handy solo on the harmonies of the bridge, and she inserts segments of the melody as signposts. Carter’s own scat solo uses a single scale instead of the chord changes so that the signposts are not necessary as she improvises. Her solo, based on short ideas, morphs into a musical conversation, starting with Carey, who is eventually joined by Hubbard and Handy. The tension builds steadily for nearly two minutes, and then there is a slight repose before Carter closes the performance with the main motive of her melody.

August 07, 2009 · 0 comments


Dr. Billy Taylor: Just The Thought Of You

Although the now 88 year-old Billy Taylor and the late Gerry Mulligan were close friends for decades, they had only recorded together once before prior to Taylor's 1992 Dr. T session, that being on the pianist's 1957My Fair Lady Loves Jazz album. In 1992 Taylor was also the recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, and the track "Just the Thought of You" reminds us once again of his playing and composing skills, sometimes overlooked due to his prominence as a prime advocate for all things jazz. Mulligan's fervent contribution is just the icing on the cake.

Written for his daughter Kim, Taylor's ballad "Just the Thought of You" rivals in its graceful beauty the standard with a similar title, "The Very Thought of You." Taylor executes an enticing, undulating intro that leads to Mulligan's heartfelt rendering of the touching theme. Mulligan plays it with a supple, well-rounded tone, which hardens at times during his solo for added expressiveness. His circular phrases, and the extended lines that encompass them, are artfully and cogently resolved. Taylor's improv takes rhapsodic flight when he guides a fetching motif through a variety of arpeggiated modulations. Mulligan begins an equally absorbing second solo that gradually segues back to the memorable theme. Taylor / Mulligan collaborations should have come more frequently. (A 1993 meeting, Live at MCG, was released in 2007.)

August 05, 2009 · 0 comments


George Garzone: Have You Met Miss Jones

Garzone is of course best known as a member of the legendary Boston trio The Fringe, which he co-founded in 1972. For his 1996 CD away from that group, Four's and Two's, he was joined by Joe Lovano, whose then recently released CDs Quartets and Rush Hour were helping to further establish him as one of jazz's rising stars. As can be heard throughout Four's and Two's, and perhaps most vividly on the seemingly always inspiring standard "Have You Met Miss Jones," the lesser-known Garzone more than holds his own with Lovano, the two backed by an airtight rhythm section.

Garzone's captivating LennieTristano-like reharmonization, or countermelody, with Lovano weaving in wisps of the original melody, stunningly launches this essential track. Garzone's solo is typically complex, as he appears to be conducting a responsive dialogue with himself between intriguing constructs played alternately in the upper or lower registers of his horn. (A transcription of this terrific solo is included in the CD's notes.) Calderazzo follows with a swinging, driving pulse that animates his impressively formed and delivered runs. Like Garzone, Lovano's improvisational approach is oblique, his meaty phrasing and tonal variations plunging deep into the heart of the tune's attractive harmonies. After John Lockwood's brief Paul Chambers-sounding bass interlude, the two horns again engage in the swirling in-an-out revision of the theme.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Michel Petrucciani: Hidden Joy

Story has it that Petrucciani at the age of four saw Duke Ellington perform on TV and demanded a piano. His parents mistakenly bought him a toy one for Xmas that he promptly destroyed, at which point they wisely got him the real thing. By 13, he was sitting in with Clark Terry at a French jazz festival. Fortunately, in a life tragically shortened to just 36 years by a genetic bone disorder, Petrucciani was given the opportunity to record a CD in tribute to Ellington (and Strayhorn). While he engrossingly covers expected tunes such as "Caravan," "Take the A Train," and "Satin Doll," it is his unveiling of two undeservedly obscure Ellington compositions, "Hidden Joy" and "One Night in the Hotel," that gives this program an added distinction.

Of the two rarities, "Hidden Joy" probably most begs for further revival to this day, although it's a close decision. Petrucciani plays the wistful melody with great sensitivity and emotional connectedness. Lustrous ostinatos, trills, and arpeggios, generous left-hand supporting figures, and sweeping runs are among the devices the pianist uses during his hearty improvisation to exhaustively explore the tune's appealing harmonies. Overall, Petrucciani's approach in the end might be characterized as being aggressively romantic with a more tender subtext, qualities that so often endeared him to listeners during his lifetime, and continue to do so today.

July 24, 2009 · 0 comments


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