Gene Bertoncini: You'd Be So Nice to Come To

Guitarist Gene Bertoncini has built a career, over a period of decades, on intelligence, talent and taste. He is a musician's musician, and although he is not a household name with crossover hits to his credit, the guitarists know how good he is. Many have studied with him -- at Eastman, or at clinics -- or learned indirectly from his records or his instructional DVD.

On this stellar all-strings release, Bertoncini taps into his contacts at Eastman to find some brilliant string arrangements that don't sound like your typical commercial studio gig fare. Fred Sturm, who was a professor at Eastman for more than a decade, contributes a creative chart for "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." Even without the guitar part, you would want to come home to this performance.

But Bertoncini is at top form here. He kicks off with a quasi-classical guitar melody statement, but by the time he gets to bar 7, he is working through some glorious thick chords that hint at the jazz riches to come. The string quartet gets an interlude to strut its stuff, then the guitarist returns with another melody statement (but check out the chords again) before taking a crisp, swinging single-note solo.

Certainly there are many fine recordings on the market by this artist, but his fans will want to add this release to their collection; while those who haven't had the chance yet to hear Bertoncini may want to start with this CD.

June 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Gene Bertoncini: Concierto de Aranjuez / Spain

Gene Bertoncini is best described as an elegant player. The fine veteran guitarist brings a gentle style to his playing that often understates his virtuosity. On this cut he plays with a string quartet and the masterful acoustic bass of David Finck, showing the bridge that can exist between classical and jazz when explored by willing and able artists. To this end, he is only partially successful.

The idea to do a medley of Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" and Chick Corea's "Spain" was one that fascinated me. Bertoncini demonstrates an intuitive feel for the inherent sensibilities of these disparate yet similarly inspired works. The string ensemble feels very comfortable in the classical mode and Bertoncini seems equally at home in this sensitive but deliberate setting, where he plays in an accomplished classical Spanish guitar motif. When the song switches abruptly to the "Spain" portion of the medley, Bertoncini and David Finck lead the way for the other strings punctuated by a rousing pizzicato bass solo that is free to be adventurous, especially in its aggressive tone, and pushes the pulse of the tune. Bertoncini comps with soft chords behind Finck's plucky bass until he starts his own solo, which he plays with a lightness and delicacy that is draped in the silky finery of his approach. The strings demonstrate their own unified voice in a tension-building arco chorus that just doesn't cut it for me and yields to an inappropriately sweet violin solo before Bertoncini returns it to the Corea melody line and then back again to the Rodrigo finale, tying the two melodies together for one last time. Clearly an ambitious undertaking that despite its shortcomings makes clear that both Bertoncini and Finck are adept enough to straddle the worlds of classical and jazz comfortably.

June 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Charlie Parker: Just Friends

Parker was delighted with this track, and cited it as one of his favorite performances. Certainly he enjoyed the apparent legitimization of his artistry by the presence of a small string orchestra, But the arrangement is insipid, and effectively destroys the value of matching this bebop legend with a quasi-classical ensemble. The altoist, for his part, plays smoothly and with a sure technical command, but nothing here will make you forget his finer Savoy or Dial sides. True, there is a certain fascination in hearing Bird take wing in such an unusual setting, yet I suspect that this recording will be remembered by later generations of jazz fans as a curio rather than a legitimate jazz masterpiece.

May 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Jack Walrath: Orange Has Me Down

This may sound like a musical joke at first hearing. Henry Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary (also known as the opening tune in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange soundtrack) played by some kind of brass band, with a loud piano emphasizing the chord progression and indulging in Chopin-like arpeggios? Then the bass launches a reggae beat on which Walrath's trumpet improvises, with a counter-chant from the other horns! And it's so playful and funny that you're convinced Purcell himself would have approved of this version that makes life, dance and joy spring out of what was originally meant to be a death moan.

March 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Arild Andersen: Pavane

This is one of the European equilateral triangles (Norway/Greece/UK) increasingly common on the Old Continent, as it finds a common vision of jazz parallel to the many local idiosyncrasies. These musicians, masters in their own countries, find common ground in an Impressionist composition that jazz musicians have liked for decades. Alongside the beautiful work of Andersen and Marshall (on brushes), even more remarkable is what Tsabropoulos – still a classical piano player, parallel to his jazz career – does in a trio context, on a tune he may also have played according to Ravel's original chart. Here, only his beautiful piano touch reminds us how familiar he is with the classical approach.

March 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Dave Douglas: Vanitatus Vanitatum

The original Robert Schumann piano/cello piece is actually titled "Vanitas Vanitatum," but who will sue Dave Douglas for misspelling? His Latin may be questionable, but at least he didn't forget the composer's direction: "with humor"! Indeed, from the trumpet's bended notes to Black's perky miscellaneous percussion and Shepik's broad panel of sounds on the guitar, this version of a classical tune is highly playful. Nineteenth-century romantics tried to revive classical music with local folklore. The Tiny Bell Trio uses Schumann to bring some country dance feeling into their modern jazz routine. Full circle!

February 27, 2008 · 0 comments


David Baker: Calypso (from Sonata for Jazz Violin and String Quartet)

About the time African-Americans originated jazz, Afro-Caribbean musicians invented calypso, likewise testing the limits of free expression in a segregated society. David Baker's "Calypso" (1987) features violinist Diane Monroe, whose jazz bona fides are longstanding. More surprisingly is the jazz facility of four University of Oregon School of Music faculty members, in particular Steven Pologe, strumming his cello with the élan of a Trinidadian street guitarist at Carnival. Whether Baker—himself a cellist and former jazzman—has improved conventional notation, or classical string players have newly developed jazz chops, the result is an uplifting celebration of music as universal language.

November 30, 2007 · 2 comments


Yusef Lateef: Transmutation

In the context of Yusef Lateef's African-American Epic Suite, "Transmutation" refers to the metamorphosis of blacks abducted to the New World. No longer Africans, never to be fully accepted as Americans, they become an uneasy hybrid: African Americans. Third Stream seems readymade for such drama, being neither European classical nor American jazz, but their amalgamation. Lateef emphasizes this cultural disparity by pitting "primitive" instruments, including drums, whistles and conch shells, against a more "sophisticated" German symphony orchestra, with stunning effect. Like the bowels of a slave ship, this music is not for the fainthearted. It is provocative, disquieting and powerfully moving.

November 30, 2007 · 0 comments


Turtle Island String Quartet: Blue Rondo ŕ la Turk

Merely referencing Mozart's "Rondo Alla Turca" didn't make Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo ŕ la Turk" (1959) Third Stream. Instead of combining jazz and classical elements, "Blue Rondo" simply wedged 4/4 blues solos between a bravura 9/8 enclosure. Recognizing that a sandwich is not a salad, the TISQ here mixes ingredients much more tastily. The piece's overall form is unchanged, but when played by string quartet instead of jazz quartet, time-signature shifts are less abrupt, more organic. Third Stream boosters have long dreamt that string players would someday learn to swing. Turtle Island ŕ la Turk is our dream come true.

November 30, 2007 · 0 comments


Stan Kenton: Trajectories

As usual, Stan Kenton was ahead of the curve. His Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra was an icebreaker, intrepidly forging an uncharted Third Stream long before Gunther Schuller named it. Here, composer Franklyn Marks shrewdly overcomes the inherent viscosity of strings by tracing pizzicato swirls across the clear night sky. Shelly Manne once famously griped that getting the Kenton band to swing was as strenuous as chopping wood, but the built-in momentum of "Trajectories" eases his woodchopper's chore. While the brass, alas, are vintage mid-century crime jazz, this pioneering expedition is among the friskiest voyages of discovery since Darwin's Beagle.

November 23, 2007 · 0 comments


John Lewis: Sketch

MJQ + string quartet = one felicitous match. Whereas many jazz groups would simply overwhelm such a setting—can you imagine, for instance, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with string quartet?—the MJQ's genteel nuances are, if anything, rudely interrupted by the strings' first entrance. But the parties quickly reach such amicable rapprochement that we wish this 5˝-minute "Sketch" had been developed into a full-fledged painting. Come to think of it, the following year the MJQ & Orchestra recorded Third Stream's one-hit wonder, "England's Carol." So maybe "Sketch," blending modern jazz and rococo elegance, grew into a mural after all.

November 23, 2007 · 1 comment


Jim Hall: Concierto de Aranjuez

Jim Hall’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” unites three of the purest melodists in jazz in Baker, Desmond, and the guitarist himself. While sharing the lead, all choose to forgo extra frills and ornamentation to focus on what matters the most—conveying the magnificence of the pristine melody. Carter and Gadd introduce a delicate funk groove on which Hall and Hanna paint a sensuous and ethereal harmonic canvas. Given ample improvisational space, the soloists complement each other well, utilizing a “less-is-more” approach within their improvisations and creating many moments of subdued, passionate musical poetry. Moody and rich, this is one of the finest recordings in the CTI catalog.

November 16, 2007 · 3 comments


Deodato: Also Sprach Zarathustra

Space Age Jazz's final triumph was to prove, 72 years after Nietzsche's death, his Eternal Return theory of a constantly recurring universe. Time being cyclical, the philosopher foretold, everything he wrote would reappear in one form or another. Sure enough, Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883) returned as Richard Strauss's tone poem (1896), which returned as the movie theme from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which returned as Deodato's campy electrified hit (1972). Alone among these immortal works, Deodato's is actually fun. Thus concludes the Eternally Returning Odyssey of Space Age Jazz. Please rotate the iPod, Hal.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Art Tatum: Humoresque

Classical recitalists consider Dvo?ák's 3-minute "Humoresque" an ideal encore—a short, familiar piece appended to a concert when, by mutual agreement, the artist is coaxed back onstage with tumultuous applause from an audience pretending it can't get enough. Jazzmen, though, don't require such egotistic pretense. Commanding his usual arsenal of taunting trills, rococo runs and aerodynamic arpeggios, Art Tatum sails through "Humoresque" as glibly as an orator debating an orangutan. Fortunately, midway through the piece, he leaves off impressing us and plays some much-needed jazz, humorously para- phrasing "Humoresque" in stride style. It makes us wish he'd started in the middle.

November 06, 2007 · 1 comment


The Swingle Singers: Prelude #9

Bach was big in the '60s. No, not the 1760s—the 1960s! Before Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (1967) rocked Bach and Walter Carlos's Switched-On Bach (1968) plugged the old gent into synthesizers, The Swingle Singers set wordless vocal transcriptions of the Baroque master's keyboard pieces to jazz. Forgoing improv, four female and four male vocalists stick faithfully to his notes, but apply a thoroughly assimilated jazz rhythmic sensibility. The basic character of Prelude No. 9 (1744) is deemed "rather lively" by Bach scholar Siglind Bruhn. True to their name, the Swingles swing it very lively. Kapellmeister Bach would have approved.

November 06, 2007 · 0 comments


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