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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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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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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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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Ornette Coleman: Skies of America

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

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

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gigi Gryce: La Rose Noire

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

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

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

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

April 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Caribbean Cutie

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

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Spontaneous Combustion

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

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Bohemia After Dark

Cannonball Adderley's "Bohemia After Dark" is one snazzy tune. Free-flowing in its conception, the track kicks off and ends with very strong unison horn work by the brothers Adderley and some excellent backing by the rhythm section. Nat solos first, and, while it takes him a few bars to fully get it together, his cornet significantly sounds as strong as it would on many of the later Cannonball classics that he penned.

There is an old-time feel to the recording, as many of the rough edges that characterized analog recordings of the era exist, but, for the most part, the recording has been cleaned up enough for those same edges to add a certain tonal character. Cannonball's own solo is as explosive as spontaneous combustions can be, and, as the rest of the ensemble contributes snappy solos, the main melody returns to provide the cut with a definite rousing finality that befits the improvisations it buffered. The track is killer, the concept of loose jazz swinging freely in the dark atmosphere of a cocktail lounge is effective, and the music's boundaries are open enough for the track to be considered both a descendant of bop and a forefather of fusion.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Still Talkin' To Ya

Cannonball Adderley's "Still Talkin' To Ya" can be considered an authentic blues tune. Its slow burn utilizes the standard 1-4-5 blues pattern, yet the atmosphere is more relaxed i.e. "jazz." Other links are similar between blues recordings from this era and this track, such as the use of acoustic bass, the predominance of acoustic piano, and upfront soloing that uses a great deal of space to its benefit. This particular cut may not be either the most intense nor the most innovative due to its reliance on a heavily treaded musical path, but it has a certain undeniable place in music history.

Around the time of this recording, popular blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and B.B. King were experimenting with their sound by adding horns to the mix. While the resulting fusion between the minimal orchestration of blues and the brassier, horn driven sounds of jazz was meant to place the two genres on the same level of respectability, here, these players are not concerned with advancing any sort of broad-minded agenda, and the approach is more true to the original, unencumbered spirit of blues than to the more commercialized R&B of such contemporaries as King and Ray Charles.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: With Apologies To Oscar

"With Apologies to Oscar" is not the most precisely performed track on Cannonball Adderley's Spontaneous Combustion, but, without a doubt, it still entertains. While Cannonball's soloing provides the cut with its highlight, by comparison, his brother's skinflint leads aren't far behind in terms of the talent levels showcased here. On fire, both men cut up the air with spiffy runs and fluid lines that more than apologize for the comparatively weak trumpet solo by a very young and green Donald Byrd, who hadn't reached a significant level of accomplishment at this time.

During the trade-off section that accompanies the drum breaks, the bassiest tones ring out of both saxes regardless of their actual tonality, and the group's overall tightness is amazing. The tempo never fluctuates, and the music continues swinging into infinity amidst the aura of youthful musical mastery. Listeners familiar with later (and more popular) Cannonball recordings will hear both brothers playing signature licks, as the smoothness of the two musicians is incredible even on one of their earliest captured takes. The tune was obviously an important calling card for the performers, as it led to greater recognition and success in the jazz world for most of the contributors.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: A Little Taste

A mid-tempo cooker, "A Little Taste" commences with a mellow tone and underneath grey skies. Sounding like it was recorded on a rainy day, minor keys provide a dark and foreboding atmosphere that forces the horns to emote through dense clouds. While Cannonball's solo floats high above the rest of the personnel, Nat Adderley mutes his cornet and the tones sound recorded under water. Things smooth out a bit as pianist Hank Jones takes his solo turn; since the cut is driven by Jones' piano and the rhythm section for the most part, they are (unsurprisingly) rendered in more typical fashion. The obvious production techniques employed on the cut are more prevalent on the horns, and this dichotomy provides a bit of tonal confusion. The lack of sonic consistency is somewhat dominant, keeping the track from reaching its true ebb even though it does flow. Unfortunately, the mix sounds a bit watered down for dynamism, but the track is still enjoyable for fans of either the Adderley Brothers or classic jazz cuts recorded alongside such masterpieces of the era as "Round About Midnight," which featured Adderley contemporaries Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cannonball Adderley: Chasm

Chasms are defined as wide open spaces, but Cannonball Adderley's "Chasm" is filled with vibrancy and sound. The tune is basically a sax duel between Adderley and Jerome Richardson, and while Richardson's turn on tenor showcases his sweeping, stop-on-a-dime style, phenomenal is the transition between the two saxmen. Richardson's playing is no slouch, and those unfamiliar with the differences in tone between alto and tenor saxophones might not immediately notice that, at 2:14, the two horn players switch off. However, the higher pitch of Adderley's alto sax is the tip-off, and he pushes towards the end with forward momentum that leads the track into a speedier, more swinging direction.

The irony is that the track is dedicated to the spirit of an abyss; the players are not left with much breathing room because of the manic energy, and, as a result, the cut does not sound like the most serious in the Cannonball catalog. This is not a detriment, though; the tune exudes a light sense of humor and sarcasm due to the overall looseness of approach. Such dedication to spontaneity is sometimes the key to understanding what the merit of jazz music is in the first place.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gary Bartz: But Not For Me

Gary Bartz began his career in the '60s with the groups of Max Roach/Abby Lincoln, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, and finally Miles Davis in 1970-71 (check him out on Live-Evil), before forming his popular NTU Troop and subsequently losing his way with more commercial, unfocused projects. By the '90s, Bartz was back in the land of hard and post bop for good, now considered an altoist with an individual and fully formed stylistic approach, if no longer thought of as a potential great on his instrument as had once been the case in his youth.

This ballad feature presents a clear picture of Bartz's influences, most prominently Coltrane, Rollins, McLean and Stitt, although it's also evident that Bartz has transcended these role models. (Coltrane's version from his My Favorite Things album comes most immediately to mind.) Bartz's perfectly rounded, succulent tone enhances his presentations of both the verse and main theme, as well as his many original ideas expressed during an effervescent, technically polished solo. Bartz is also not reluctant to coarsen or add dissonance to his sound in order to make a more emotionally intense point. Pianist Mulgrew Miller follows with a stirring solo of his own, only to be topped by bassist Dave Holland's remarkable in-the-pocket virtuosity immediately thereafter. Bartz returns for the theme and the beginnings of a heated out-chorus before a fadeout at the 9:25 mark. This is a saxophonist one wouldn't want to foolishly try to challenge or top at an otherwise friendly jam session.

March 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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