Loren Stillman: Man of Mystery

In the hands of Loren Stillman, jazz is an austere art. His music is purged of licks and thrives in a funk-free zone. Melodic lines from various members of the band meet and participate in an uneasy dance, but never embrace. Phrases are angular and prefer to ask questions rather than resolve them. Instead of navigating through chord changes, the band delivers a shifting array of textures. The musicians sometimes hint coyly at a pulse, but like a prim first date, won't let you feel it for a more than a moment. Stillman doesn't look to his bandmates for support, but rather as a maze through which he works his own intricate path. His labyrinthine solo is the highlight here. No, you won't hear this music on the smooth jazz station, and maybe not on any radio station at all. But Stillman has his own voice on the alto, and in an era of tribute albums and imitators, his daring attitudes are a brisk rebuttal to the status quo.

October 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Henry Threadgill: Song Out Of My Trees

While Amina Claudine Myers has been a respected organist for decades (as a member of the AACM and Lester Bowie’s New York Organ Ensemble), she has also been a star on the piano (with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra). Frequently Myers gravitates back to piano, possibly to showcase her outstanding vocals. “Song Out Of My Trees”, although not a recent recording, was chosen to highlight her organ style within the avant-garde context, far removed from bop organists like Jimmy Smith, and closer to the searching style of late-period Larry Young.

Henry Threadgill’s animated alto sax and the searing guitar of Ed Cherry are supported by Myers on a skittering melody line. The Leslie is swirling fast from the introduction, and Myers holds sustained chords in the upper register for a stinging effect, while her relaxed walking bass provides a counter-balance. She plays a solo that leads off with sparse, bluesy statements, and she lets this sentiment settle before taking on heavier, harmonically rich ideas employing rapid-fire keyboard slaps. Her solo mixes in some choice gospel inflections, before Threadgill contributes a bright-toned, vocal-driven alto solo.

September 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Francesco Cafiso: King Arthur

Prodigy is a term tossed around loosely in the jazz world these days. But Francesco Cafiso, who was still a teenager when this project was recorded, is no hype-driven creation of the publicists. His talent is announced by his horn, and what he demonstrates with an alto in hand earns him a spot on any short list of great young saxophonists. Yet despite the praise of Wynton Marsalis and others, Cafiso is still a well-kept secret outside of Europe. His Italian label doesn't have much traction in the US, and this new CD isn't in the top 500,000 sellers at Amazon.

That's a sad commentary on the audience and media, rather than a reflection of what the artist has achieved. This performance shows how much Cafiso's jazz vocabulary has expanded, and the youngster who had digested Bird and Cannonball by his mid-teens is now capable of pressing the chords to their limits. There is more than a dose of Ornette in Cafiso's bag these days, and you will hear long stretches on "King Arthur" when the tonal center disappears entirely. The accompanying ensemble is first rate, and adroitly adapts to the changeable musical attitudes of the altoist. This artist is poised for a bright future, but I wonder if the fans can keep up with him. They crowned him as a prodigy, but will they accept him as a revolutionary?

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Greg Osby: All Neon Like

It’s easy to see why a jazz musician might want to tackle Bjork’s “All Neon Like”. Consisting of little more than a sinister synth bass line, a simple electronic beat, and Bjork’s haunting voice soaring overhead, “All Neon Like” is pretty wide open—there’s a lot you can do with it. And so it became a mid-tempo burner for the alto saxophonist Greg Osby, an expressive player whose sharp sound and sense of drama owe something to the great tenor and soprano man Wayne Shorter. Backed by the sensitive and grooving rhythm section of pianist Jason Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Eric Harland, Osby meditates long and hard on this one, soloing for just about the entirety of the track. Moran shines with a few good runs towards the end though, taking things “out” for a moment, and keeping listeners on their toes.

September 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Bud Shank: Over the Rainbow

The doctors told him no driving, no flying. Even on ground, he required a wheelchair to get around. Yet Bud Shank continued to play and perform at a high level, and had lost none of his passion, his humor, his frankness, whether playing the horn or in his other dealings with the world around him. When I had lunch with him a few months before his death, Shank told me how much he still enjoyed playing the old songs, and talked about the inspiration he could find in the same standards he had worked over for decades. Then he went on to recount his touring schedule, a world-crossing itinerary encompassing Japan, Europe and many parts between. So much for doctor's orders.

Here, in a recording made shortly before his death at age 82 on April 2, 2009, Shank delivers another interpretation of a song almost as old as the altoist himself, and plays it with even more raw intensity than he would have as a young man. As pianist Bill Mays, who also plays at a high level here, has commented: "Bud was always willing to let the music go where it wants and set minimum controls on the players." The process by which Shank moved from the cool to the hot is a fascinating one, and could make a subject for a treatise, but here is the end result: a wondrous in-the-moment approach to the music that sounds more like a clarion call to action than the final musings of a jazz elder statesman. Shank will be missed, but other players will also perforce envy an artist who could go out playing at this level.

September 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Benny Carter: Angel Eyes

Back in 1954, Benny Carter was on the same label as another altoist you might have heard of: Charlie Parker. If Carter himself had ever heard Mr. Parker, he does a good job of disguising the fact on his recordings from the period. On this evocative rendition of "Angel Eyes," Carter's warm, big alto tone presents a stark contrast with Bird's biting sound, and his solo conception is not linked to any progressive ideology. In fact, the strong point of this track is Carter's interpretation of Matt Dennis's original melody. He extracts every last bit of loneliness and melancholy from this oft-played song, and after he has finished stating it no extended improvisation is really necessary. And, yes, Oscar Peterson is hidden away in the dark recesses of this track, but he plays so few notes you might think Norman Granz had imposed a quota.

September 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Cannonball Adderley: Limehouse Blues

A friend of mine summed up The Cannonball Adderley Quintet In Chicago as "the Miles Davis band without Miles". True enough, but it's more than Miles' physical absence that makes this album special: it is a Cannonball Adderley album from the get-go, and most of the music included here would not have fit into the sound of Miles' band as it approached the intense modal moods of Kind Of Blue, which was recorded in the two months following this date. That is certainly the case with "Limehouse Blues", which opened the Adderley record. All thoughts of Miles disappear with the opening rush of Wynton Kelly's introduction. Played at a whirlwind tempo, the band races through the tune before Cannonball bursts in with a note-gobbling solo. His joy is infectious and he rips through sixteenth-note runs with great abandon. Coltrane was also brilliant as fast tempi ("Giant Steps" was only 3 months away) and he kept the searching element of his sound by breaking up his runs with searing held notes. Kelly provides a fleet single-line solo, but the tempo gives him a little trouble near the end of his chorus. The horns play a quick set of exchanges with Jimmy Cobb followed by a chorus of exchanges by the horns alone. After the reprise of the theme, there is an effectively arranged coda that maintains the excitement while offering a satisfying conclusion.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Lee Konitz & Marshall Brown: Struttin' With Some Barbecue

On a single day in September 1967, Lee Konitz recorded an entire LP of duets with some of his favorite musicians. Some of his partners had recorded with him before (Jim Hall, Dick Katz, Elvin Jones), but most were new, including Marshall Brown, a pioneering jazz educator best known for leading the Newport Jazz Festival’s Youth Band. Brown’s meager discography was almost entirely devoted to traditional jazz, so it is no surprise that the Konitz/Brown duet is on a Louis Armstrong classic, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”. While there is no rhythm section present, Brown makes up for its absence by playing a jaunty bass line under Konitz’ acidic alto solo. Brown gets the spotlight in the second chorus although Konitz just leaves more space in his playing instead of attempting to play a bass part. Then, through the use of overdubbing, Konitz on baritone sax and Brown on euphonium play a stop-time background to an alto sax/valve trombone reading of Louis Armstrong’s classic solo from the original recording of 40 years earlier. The arrangement is simply delightful, but Konitz’ over-riding seriousness makes this much less fun than it ought to have been.

September 01, 2009 · 0 comments


Hailey Niswanger: Oliloqui Valley

Like the other compositions on Hancock’s brilliant Empyrean Isles, “Oliloqui Valley” was conceived as a open sketch without a fully formed melody so that the participants could improvise more freely. The idea was to make up for the lack of a lower-toned, richer instrument such as tenor saxophone.

Niswanger’s higher register alto sax replaces Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet from the original and states the two-tempo theme just has Hubbard did, but with a little more cadence. Following Palma’s bouncy solo, Niswanger uses a variety of articulations to keep her own solo fresh: trills, arpeggios and other expressions, keeping loose with that shifty rhythm. More than those things, her ability to handle the song’s chord changes with such ease is the mark of mastery.

When a song stretches over seven minutes as this one does, the ideas are usually exhausted by then; instead, Hailey Niswanger seems to be just getting warmed up.

August 17, 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


Charlie Parker: K.C. Blues

"K.C. Blues" benefits from hot blowing and mind bending modality. Each player shines in their surroundings while devising the blueprint that would later be taken to its limit by the personnel featured on Kind of Blue (Miles Davis also appears on this recording).

The force by which Charlie Parker's notes explode from his horn shows why the track is considered among his best. Bird's alto cries out while cutting through the surprisingly clear mix for the era. As Parker blasts off into the jazz ionosphere, a mega-confidence is exuded that symbolizes the influence he still holds on the jazz world today.

The reason Parker's music is still resonant is apparent, and the recording imparts the fact that a complimentary assemblage of participants gives a track its best chance for success on a creative level, because, even though the music never veers away from the blues form and the chord progression and solos are more traditional in nature, it features a sound that is Bird's signature-one that is tough not to recommend The tune is brief, featuring slow, dramatic pacing and a lot of inspiration, and its quirks all fit together in a non-contradictory manner. T

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Benny Carter: I'm In The Mood For Swing

With the exception of the 1976 Pablo release The King, it wasn't until Carter began recording for Music Masters in 1987 at the age of 80 that he was given the opportunity to produce any albums made up entirely of his own diverse and worthy compositions. These CDs included Central City Sketches, Songbook, and In the Mood for Swing. For the latter session, Carter unearthed an original he had not played since 1938, the swing era showpiece "I'm in the Mood for Swing."

Just a week after being named a recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Carter is in top form on this track, and so are his clearly inspired bandmates. The catchy syncopation of the theme and its bridge come into play only after the alto-guitar harmonizing of the opening rally cry riff. Carter's silky alto maintains a consistently gushing pulse for the full two choruses of his solo, during which he creates both concise phrases and more elaborate lines that are personalized by his innate logic, clarity, and lightheartedness. Alden solos lucidly in his usual multifaceted swing-to-bop style. Hanna's two-handed, technically adept improv contributes to the high quality level at play here, as does the unrestrained series of Mraz-Bellson exchanges that follow. Urbane, relaxed, and buoyant--such are the words that best describe, as always, this Carter performance.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Charlie Parker: Blues for Alice

"Blues for Alice" is a classic old-school jazz jam that showcases Charlie Parker's innovative sax style within a context that he singlehandedly pioneered. He blows his heart out for you, reveling in some imaginative musical statements along the way, and is followed ably by his collaborators. The track is upbeat and swingin', as the immediately identifiable tenor Parker sound cuts through the mix and squawks out of the box with force.

The sound of the cut is stereotypical of the limitations engineers encountered while recording bands long ago, but the rough edges and slightly imbalanced presentation (Parker is obviously standing closer to his microphone than the others are standing in relation to theirs) do not stop the music from gliding atop the sounds of tonal elation. The chord changes are atypical of what is commonly known as "blues," in that the form is extended beyond the genre's regularly expected form. Also, the tone of the recording is much more positive than is normal for such a genre as "blues." However, transforming the aural character of pre-established musical forms into something uncharacteristically offbeat was one of the things that Parker did best, and, here, no exceptions to the rule are made.

June 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Charlie Parker: Laird Baird

Charlie Parker's "Laird Baird" contains quite a few awesome solo passages by the jazz legend even though the music is less visual than is normal for a player whose reputation rests upon his pushing of musical boundaries. The tune is played at mid-tempo, and, while slower tunes usually require some form of intensity to validate them, this one lacks it.

Almost sounding like a rehearsal take, the tune follows a predictable pattern: solo piano improvisation starts it, followed by open, swing-time hi-hats and a round of ensemble solos. Since Charlie Parker is obviously not the sole focus of this recording (given the equality of space that each player is allowed), no one is left out as each band member takes a turn at showcasing. An indistinct Parker riff bookends the solos, and listeners are left without a sense of why the saxman was regarded as a creative genius.

Of course, Bird's catalog contains a wide variety of sounds, recording approaches, and performance techniques, but, as far as this track is concerned, it sounds like the group knocked this off in under ten minutes. Unfortunately, you will not consider this track amongst the top hundred in the Charlie Parker canon.

June 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Wessell Anderson: African Cowboy

Anderson was a key member of the Wynton Marsalis Septet in the late '80s and early '90s, and he then played an integral role in Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for about 10 years. His noteworthy Live at the Village Vanguard CD, his last in the '90's, should have led to many more this decade, but was only followed by new ones as a leader in 2006 (Space) and 2009 (Warm it up, Warmdaddy!). Although he studied with Alvin Batiste in Louisiana, and his fat, vocalized sound and Marsalis association might lead you to believe he's from the trumpeter's home state, Anderson was actually born and raised in New York City.

The track "African Cowboy" shows the uninitiated exactly what Anderson is all about, and why he's called "Warmdaddy." A cowpoke/square dance introductory refrain is played by pianist Xavier Davis, with Jaz Sawyer's sympathetic galloping rhythm. The train-whistle-derived theme is handled almost tongue-in-cheek by Anderson's alto and New Orleanian Irwin Mayfield's wah-wah trumpet. Anderson's solo is typically linear, inventively and tirelessly rearranging and altering the melodic content with an irresistible urgency. His clever riffs and variety of wailing tonal inflections make for a heady mix, and his tumbling, headlong runs only add to the excitement. Think Cannonball Adderley at his most inspired and playful, with an extra dose of near-maniacal glee. The concluding tag by the two horns, after they revisit the theme, is joyfully appropriate and crowd-pleasing.

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments


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