Mike Longo: Tell Me a Bedtime Story

Pianist Mike Longo must be in a pugilistic frame of mind. He follows up his 2007 CD Float Like a Butterfly with his current effort Sting Like a Bee—both titles coming from a famous self-description by boxer Muhammad Ali. On "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" the emphasis is more on float than sting. Yes, the boxing gloves need to come off at bedtime. After a fortissimo intro, the trio settles into a languid and nuanced rendition of the Hancock piece. Longo has picked some fine sparring partners here, and Cranshaw and Nash play with such relaxed swing that it would be easy to overlook their contributions, but the success of this track is very much centered in the pulse. I played it for a listener who knew little about jazz, who responded to the beat first and foremost. But musicians are more likely to enjoy the crisp chord changes and the subtle way blue notes are integrated into the melody line. Longo is willing to stretch the harmonies with his phrases, which sometimes bristle in an arrangement that seems to invite gentle tinkling. Definitely a heavyweight contender.

November 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Poncho Sanchez: Cantaloupe Island

He is the miracle man of Latin jazz. Just breaking into the Cuban and Puerto Rican dominated Latin jazz scene was no small achievement for a Mexican-American from Laredo, Texas. But Poncho Sanchez has not only risen to a position of preeminence, but has somehow stayed with the same label for more than a quarter of a century. He now releases his 24th album on Concord. It's hardly the same label any more—new owner, new headquarters, new city, new management, even the LPs are gone—but Sanchez remains. And for a good reason: he delivers the goods, again and again, with effective charts, infectious rhythms, solid musicianship and smart song selection. Here he presents a deceptively simple version of "Cantaloupe Island," which reminds me of another standout Latin cover of a Herbie Hancock tune. But the casual listener might not notice the modulations and harmonic changes that give a fresh spin to a familiar song. Sanchez lays down a very crisp groove, and the song is ready for airplay straight out of the case. Are there still jazz stations out there looking for hip new songs to play? I'm not sure, but I won't bet against an artist who has always succeeded against the odds.

October 01, 2009 · 0 comments


Gretchen Parlato: Butterfly

Since taking first place in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocals Competition back in 2004, Gretchen Parlato has been making believers out of a growing group of admirers—in whose ranks you will find Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Kenny Barron, among others. The usual next step for an artist of this stature is a blowout, overproduced CD filled with famous guest artists and fluffy arrangements. Instead Parlato attempts something far riskier here, and the results are simply stunning.

This is one of the most under-produced, intimate jazz vocal recordings you will ever hear—it sounds like it was conceived in a NY apartment building with thin walls where the musicians need to play at a whisper so neighbors won't complain. But Parlato blossoms in the quiescence, delivering a pristine performance that refuses to follow the predictable path at any point. Her intonation is flawless, as it needs to be in this setting, where there is no place for a singer to hide. There's no bass, no keyboards, and only the singer's handclapping for percussion . . . but Lionel Loueke is there at every breath and phrase, matching Parlato's singing perfectly, yet also challenging her with his own unexpected twists and turns. He sometimes seems on the brink of entering some strange polytonal set of alternative changes, but Parlato dances over the turbulence like the lepidoptera commemorated in the song title.

This track, and the entire recording, are built on what the music industry always promises but rarely delivers: a singer with a breathtakingly fresh approach and a daring personal style that stands out from the crowd. This CD is in frequent rotation on my home sound system, and will probably stay there for quite some time. I'm not sure if the general public is ready for Gretchen Parlato—music like this is usually kept off the airwaves of mainstream radio stations—but in a way she reminds me of some other understated singers (Astrud Gilberto, Chet Baker, Kenny Rankin) who became surprise crossover stars. So who knows?

August 24, 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


Tom Lellis: Tell Me a Bedtime Story

Tom Lellis has been singing professionally since he was 15, but very little of his work has been documented on record. A full decade elapsed between his debut album And in This Corner 1981, and his follow-up release Double Entendre in 1991. He has had some visibility on labels such as Concord and Inner City, but never a platform commensurate with his talents. This track, recorded in the Netherlands in 1999 is a case in point. Lellis offers a gripping vocal transformation of Herbie Hancock's "Tell Me a Bedtime Story" that I've gone back and listened to again and again. Lellis's phrasing and dynamics are superb. His rhythmic sensibility is acute. He operates in the moment with full commitment to the song. And the whole orchestra, playing Willem Friede's chart under John Clayton's direction, matches him at every step. When this CD was first released in 2002 it created a bit of a stir. I hope the 2009 reissue on Adventure Music exposes some more listeners to this music.

July 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Robert Glasper: Riot

Robert Glasper’s reputation as an entertaining character is earned yet again in his performance of Herbie Hancock’s "Riot," featured on Glasper’s 2005 release, Canvas. For most of the album, Glasper presents his originals in a trio format. Here, however, he adds saxophonist Mark Turner, whose lush sounds and springboard rhythms match Glasper’s vibe well. While preserving the spirit of the original, the musicians act as Herbie might have when he was a young musician in Miles’ group, transitioning effortlessly between different tempos and moods. In short, the track earns its title.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Matt Criscuolo: Tell Me a Bedtime Story

Here is a self-produced CD that stands out from the pack. There is a lot to admire here, but I am especially impressed by the most primal element of all: Criscuolo's sax sound. His is one of the most human and haunting alto sounds on the scene today. Even his simple phrases are infused with lots of emotion. I don't think you can teach this—unless there is some secret course at the Manhattan School of Music that the rest of the students know about—but I sure enjoy it when I hear it. Elsewhere on this CD, Criscuolo delivers a short version of Wayne Shorter's "Miyako" where he stands out just stating the melody. But here he stretches out a bit (not enough for my taste—I would like to hear what he could do a few more choruses), and shows he knows how to construct a solo. The rest of the cast helps too. The rhythm section is happening, and Willis's charts make effective use of the string quartet.

January 15, 2009 · 0 comments


John Beasley: Chan's Song

With the exception of a reworking of sorts of "Maiden Voyage," John Beasley stayed away from the most iconic of Herbie Hancock's pieces on this tribute recording. This is both a wise and brave thing to do. Beasley gets points for this approach.

"Chan's Song" was written by Hancock for the soundtrack of Round Midnight, and though Stevie Wonder ended up writing lyrics for it and some jazz players have covered it, it still remains outside of iconic status. In the liner notes Beasley says he approached the tune as if Hancock's "Head Hunters were playing it." This can best be heard in McBride's ever-so-slightly funk electric bassline. Though to this listener, the piece comes off sounding more like what you might hear from Lonnie Liston Smith's "Quiet Moments" period without the strings. I like that Lonnie Liston Smith period, so that is a good thing to these ears.

One thing that is not quite fair, and Beasley alludes to this in his notes, is to be compared to the original performance. Unluckily for Beasley, I have the Round Midnight soundtrack. My rating is thus delineated: Beasley and crew receive 88 points for a fine arrangement and professional performance. Three points are removed because of Bobby McFerrin's wonderful trumpet-like vocalese on the original Herbie Hancock performance. It would have been nice to hear Roy Hargrove, who is also on Letter to Herbie, give that a whirl. I know that is unfair. Life is unfair.

Upon some further reflection, I have decided that life should be fair after all. Right here and now I give the three points back.

July 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Christian McBride / Nicholas Payton / Mark Whitfield: Oliloqui Valley

With Herbie Hancock's celebration of Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters, receiving much recent acclaim, now is perhaps a good time to revisit a relatively unknown tribute to Hancock himself. Fingerpainting explored 14 Hancock tunes with the unusual instrumentation of bass, trumpet and guitar, and succeeded in capturing their spirit and essence. These three musicians were among Verve's top young recording artists at that time, but Fingerpainting was anything but a record company's self-serving, overproduced project.

"Oliloqui Valley" is a prime example, a composition originally on Hancock's 1964 Empyrean Isles. Beginning with McBride's repeated six-note bassline, you are irresistibly drawn in as Payton enters soothingly above Whitfield's tender chords, playing the simple yet compelling theme. Whitfield solos first, propelled by McBride's gorgeously intoned bass commentary. The guitarist blends chime-like chordal passages with glistening single-note lines, while also examining various tonal textures and note clusters. Payton's next, his expansive sound and formidable chops enabling him to evoke Freddie Hubbard (who played on Hancock's 1964 original), but filtered through his own musical personality. The trumpeter's extended phrasings are authoritatively constructed, with a glowing purity of tone. An enhanced replay of the melody leads to a gentle, understated conclusion. This trio should forever fondly remember Fingerpainting. It does them, and Herbie, proud.

April 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Gerald Wilson: Watermelon Man

Gerald Wilson always included new compositions of artists he respected. His was the first big band besides Duke Ellington's to play "Come Sunday."  "Groovin' High," "Miles" (the correct name of the tune most know as "Milestones"), "So What" and "Freddie Freeloader" were also part of Gerald's book. "Watermelon Man" was Herbie Hancock's crossover Latin/rock hit that quite a few ensembles played, and which Wilson was smart enough to include for younger listeners. Soloists Hill, Amy, Moore, Ortega (on both piccolo and flute) and Edwards really get down and funky.

April 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Mongo Santamaria: Watermelon Man

“Watermelon Man” was an enormously successful hit for both Mongo Santamaria and its composer, Herbie Hancock. The trumpet player, Marty Sheller, plays the only solo in a song that features a groove-oriented melody in an arrangement favoring more Latin percussion than the Hancock original. This song anticipated the bugalu movement in Latin jazz that would take hold later in the 1960s. Bugalu (or boogaloo) incorporated elements of Cuban and Puerto Rican music, as well as American soul and R&B.

October 25, 2007 · 0 comments


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