Chuck Mangione: You're The Best There Is

Chuck Mangione's "You're The Best There Is" is sublime. The playing is hot all around and, on a simple chord chart, the instruments are spaced out well in the mix. As guitarist Grant Geissman's fingers lead the way toward major seventh heaven, a round of inspired solos shows that the entire group works together well.

An organic sound is conveyed by what occurs, and the players do not have to force their playing to get the strong melody across. Actually, the tune is probably more recognizable than "Feels So Good," Mangione's most enduring hit, and, regarding the production, the cut's disco drumming does not detract from the actual jazz playing elsewhere. The percussion is mixed low enough to ensure that the track would not sit side-by-side on the radio with cuts by the likes of Chic and Donna Summer and, thus, suffer misinterpretation.

Earthenness prevails, and, even though a surefire energy stamps this tune, the fact remains that the musicians keep it relatively laid-back while still exuding a feel that is commiserate with the album title Fun and Games. The track ebbs and flows in intensity and the music lifts spirits as it plays.

July 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Miles Davis-Gil Evans: Bess, Oh, Where Is My Bess?

How does one pick a favorite piece from Gil's and Miles' Porgy and Bess album? Tough to do. I've chosen this piece because it so perfectly illustrates another unique aspect of Gil's writing. Sometimes when I listen to Gil, I get a spontaneous visualization of the inside of a watch: the perfection, the detail, all the little parts at work; nothing is there that doesn't contribute to the flow of movement and the perfect passing of time. Every gear attaches and locks another into motion. If you listen to this piece, you can envision a serpentine line being passed from instrument to instrument, color to color, whether it's behind Miles or in front when he's not playing. It's like a thread that never gets dropped. Let's start at the top with the French horns and alto flutes that are playing a flowing passage together. Then the horns hold while the flutes go on their own, giving way to the trombones, who take over, then the flutes pick up a line above them, and then soft brass (the trumpets are in hat mutes with French horns voiced with them). You can continue on through the piece and follow the slow-moving gears as lines pass around the orchestra. This piece also goes into a little swing section where the trombones take on Gil's signature comping role that the piano might have taken if there was piano on the record. That's a unique aspect to these Gil/Miles recordings. There's an absence of piano. It leaves all the harmonic background to the creative hand of Gil.

One further detail. Because these pieces are a suite, their connectivity is really important. Take note how the end of this arrangement suddenly introduces a very stark, open, spare sound. It contrasts all the lushness we've been hearing. That spare sound is achieved by utilizing open-fifth intervals in the ensemble. It also happens to be the same opening interval of the next movement, “Prayer.” So this ending is really more of a "transition" to “Prayer.” Much of the elegance of these collaborative recordings is how each subsequent piece begins with a feeling of inevitable arrival. Gil leaves no stone unturned.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Grant Geissman (with Chick Corea & Chuck Mangione): Chuck and Chick

Bad timing for this release . . . During the last 15 months, more than half of the smooth jazz radio stations in the US have disappeared. And I wonder how many fans of straight-ahead jazz will even give this disk a listen, despite the allstar cast. Geissman put together a number of interesting combos for his Cool Man Cool CD, but this may be the best. Mixing acoustic guitar with a high power rhythm section is not always a smart idea, but Geissman bobs and floats above the fray—although a lot of credit goes to the engineer who adeptly captured the sound balance. Mangione will never get respect from jazz insiders, who will always steam over the fact that he out-sold Freddie, Woody and a bunch of other hard-boppish and avant-garde-ish players several decades ago. But his tone on flugelhorn is lovely, and even when his improvisations might look commonplace if sketched out on staff paper, they have some emotional bite when he delivers them on the horn. Chick Corea also gets high marks for his sweet and succinct solo. But the most interesting thing here is the tune, which Geissman wrote, yet sounds like what a jazzy computer would produce if programmed to combine the distinctive trademarks of Corea and Mangione in a single chart. It's downright uncanny how closely the guitarist captures the spirit of his two "name" guest artists" on this composition.

June 15, 2009 · 1 comment


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


Richard Harris: Club Havana

Harris was motivated to self-produce his first album as leader after being diagnosed in 2007 with amyloidosis, a rare and incurable disease. He calls the result “intimate jazz” that “creates a mood of warmth and romance.” While Harris hardly improvises (unlike his sidemen), except for an occasional fleeting embellishment, his rich sound and heartfelt expressiveness help generate appealing interpretations of mostly ballad standards, as well as three of his own finely crafted originals. A number of selections are dedicated to “trumpet greats” such as Clifford Brown, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Freddie Hubbard.

His “Club Havana” is perhaps the most unfettered track on the CD. Harris's lustrous flugelhorn plays the dancing theme over an infectious Latin pulse. Jansson's tenor solo flows with an acutely lyrical, Getz-like sensibility. Kieswetter delivers skillfully executed accompaniment on electric piano, in addition to a lilting and assured solo. Harris caresses the melody once again before the surprise appearance of a boppish vamp right out of Bird on 52nd Street, a perfect finishing touch to this well-arranged performance.

March 27, 2009 · 0 comments


Lee Konitz & Clark Terry: Flyin' - Mumbles and Jumbles

At first listen, few would think that these two instrumentalists were venerable, seasoned musicians (Terry, 73 at the time, and Konitz, then 66) who'd been respectively members of the Ellington and Kenton bands. Right from the start, their playing is so free as far as melody, rhythm and tempo are concerned that you might even think of some "angry young men," as they were called in the early '60s. But listen closer: the blues is there, not far behind the apparently shapeless lines, and follow a rather clear question-&-answer pattern. The powerful, assertive sound, along with articulate phrasing, also tells you that these musicians have huge chops and know what they're talking about. Indeed, it takes a lot of self-confidence to indulge in such playfully informal blowing.

Yet who would recognize Lee Konitz on soprano sax (so far from his allegedly "cool" style on the alto) and Clark Terry (even though his lively fluegelhorn has actually often strayed from classic patterns)? And even if one could expect the latter to end this tune with his typical scatting and mumbling, who'd have thought that the usually introverted Konitz would sing along with his wild elder? These two definitely sound like old uninhibited kids who couldn't resist playing a good trick on listeners who think they know all about them. The fun that was theirs is amply shared by us, and the surprise makes it even more pleasurable.

February 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Terell Stafford: Le Maurier

"Le Maurier" is the second movement of Terell Stafford's New Beginnings Suite and is dedicated to Jon Faddis, a renowned trumpeter and mentor to Stafford. The composition is well written, with a slow, pensive melody, and Stafford's flugelhorn tone is a near-perfect match for the piece. It blends almost seamlessly with Dick Oatts's alto and, when Stafford plays alone, is reminiscent of the human voice. Stafford's solo is brief but awe-inspiring. Rather than playing to impress, Stafford carefully constructs a heartfelt melody as he floats over the chord changes. The rhythm section provides a slightly busier accompaniment when Oatts enters and offers his interpretation. At the close of Oatts's beautiful solo, the trumpeter introduces a background figure and Oatts joins him. They end the tune in unison, and Stafford plays a tasteful cadenza over the closing chords.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Chuck Mangione: Fun and Games

The vibe of Chuck Mangione's signature tune, the pop hit "Feels So Good," is recreated here with a bouncy yet relaxed atmosphere and disco-drenched rhythms that provide a solid, era-oriented anchor. Elsewhere, the horn soloing recalls other progressive jazzers such as Miles, but this track sounds composed spontaneously in the studio around Grant Geissman's guitar licks, which are somewhat limited to funky single-note patterns and octaves. Geissman's bluesy slide guitar solo sounds out of place, and the melody, while tenable, is not as memorable as its predecessor. A decent track, but Mangione is better represented by other recordings.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Tom Harrell: The Mountain

Although he has continually battled against paranoid schizophrenia since his twenties, the troubled and inward-looking Harrell makes no sacrifices in his musicianship. On this tune, a sleek, muscular melody is at one with an edgy groove. Harrell’s flugelhorn solo is both tender and lyrical while maintaining a power typical of his playing during the 1980s. His breath and execution are immediately felt by the listener, as is the heartfelt pathos in this afflicted artist’s clean and darkly-hued blowing.

November 11, 2007 · 0 comments


Mark Murphy: Skylark / You Don't Know What Love Is

How many singers have performed at this high level in their seventies? Aspiring jazz vocalists should not just listen to this recording - they need to study it. There is not a single facile or uninspired phrase in this six-and-a-half minute performance. Murphy floats behind the beat or hurries ahead; he bends the notes both ways, and measures the tolerances in microns. He coos and whispers and even howls, crazy like a loon; sometimes sighing sweetly, like a nightingale serenading the moon. And though you will marvel at the vocal, don't ignore producer Till Brönner, a trumpeter and flugelhornist of real distinction. Even if (like me) you already own a stack of Murphy CDs, find a place in your collection for this release.

October 31, 2007 · 0 comments


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