Stanley Clarke (with Hiromi): Sakura Sakura

Fusion-bass-meister Stanley Clarke settles into an acoustic trio format for his 2009 Jazz in the Garden CD, but here's the surprise—he brings along pianist Hiromi Uehara for the outing. Hiromi (she usually goes by the single name) is also typically associated with synthesized sounds and keyboard flash, but here she adopts a very understated approach to a non-electrified Yamaha grand piano. She has a sweet, soft tone on this jazz version of a traditional Japanese folk song, and is not out-of-place matching wits with a bassist and drummer who made their mark with Chick Corea during the glory days of plugged-in jazz. I wish she was a little more integrated rhythmically with bass and drums on this track, but her phrases are smart ones, and while she floats, Clarke pushes the song forward with great vigor. Even when he indulges in gentle koto-like lines on the bass, the strength of his conception is evident. If you didn't know this was Mr. Clarke's leader date, you still might guess it just from how much the music seems to radiate from his basslines. The lamely Adobe-ized cover makes one long for days of Bill Claxton and Francis Wolff, but the music here dispenses with the gimmicks and holds up well on repeat listenings.

June 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Junko Onishi: Blue Skies

Japan's Junko Onishi was one of the most promising jazz pianists to emerge in the '90s, her series of five Blue Note releases, plus one led by Jackie McLean, showcasing her already formidable pianistics, as well as hinting at her potential as a composer and arranger. Then she virtually disappeared, and apparently hasn't recorded in the new millennium.

Onishi's two Village Vanguard CDs were both recorded on the same three nights in May 1994, with Wynton Marsalis's rhythm team of Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley offering impeccable support. These are absorbing live sessions, whether the trio is interpreting Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Monk, or standards like "Blue Skies." On the Irving Berlin tune, Onishi clearly reveals her refined precision, relentless drive, firmly swinging pulse, and ability to expand on a well-known melody through the use of fresh vamps and other creative elaborations. Onishi begins with a pianissimo tolling intro that gradually evolves into the theme. One is struck by her thoughtful clarity of vision and classically trained and nuanced touch, both remindful of John Lewis, and when she goes into overdrive you are swept along as she goes from one inventive peak to another. She alters her rhythmic attack frequently, and wisps of Horace Silver and Oscar Peterson pass by, the latter especially in her very effective alterations of the dynamic level. Not a note wasted here, nor a note not enjoyed. We await her return.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Natsuki Tamura & Satoko Fujii: Infrared

Cecil Taylor and Lester Bowie on acid? Sort of. Though that description does a disservice to all parties involved, I must point out that this track does contains a large bag of what made those two musicians so special: blistering unison runs, aggressive and percussive piano clusters, and energy-soaked sheets of sound. What sets this apart from a lot of modern "energy music" is the obvious fact that Tamura and Fujii are also engaged in an exercise in very deep listening. Musical thoughts come together as they construct a pulsing wall of sound, then attempt to smash it to bits.

November 25, 2008 · 0 comments


Satoko Fujii Orchestra Nagoya: Gokaku

After years of cracking open recordings and poring over liner notes while new music spills from the speakers, it's always kind of fun (and funny!) to be completely surprised by something. In this case, I was certain that the CD had a manufacturing defect. I mean, the data sheet listed a huge ensemble full of saxes, trumpets and trombones. After bracing myself for a brass onslaught, I'm slapped upside the head by a distorted rhythm guitar part that would not be out of place on a Kiss record. What the hell?! I actually popped out the disc to make sure it matched the CD liner. Yup, all there! Perplexing. Well, after a fashion the horns do make themselves known, and in a big way. What follows is over 10 minutes of exuberant and barely controlled brass madness that stretches the ideas inherent in the basic riff almost completely out of shape. You'll be tempted to think they've lost it when the Captain Beefheart-esque vocals threaten full-on disorder, but you'll be as wrong as I was at the beginning of the track. Really great stuff.

November 25, 2008 · 0 comments


Tony Scott: The Murmuring of the Mountain Stream

This recording from 1964 comes with a lot of baggage. It is the father of New Age music, some suggest, or maybe a cheesy type of bland background music. But we urge the listener to adopt the zen mind and LET GO OF THE BAGGAGE!

Put aside the dogma. Forget the liner notes by Alan Watts. Just listen to this track as a duet between clarinet and koto. Appreciate the give-and-take, the graceful interaction, the sensitivity to sound and space. This is breathtaking music, and very deep. Ten months after Scott recorded this LP, John Coltrane entered the studio to make A Love Supreme, and one would not be remiss in finding a connection between these two projects, despite their much different sonic textures. Scott, like 'Trane, was probing a spiritually-charged approach to improvisation, one that went beyond traditional definitions of the jazz vocabulary.

'Tis pity that the jazz critical establishment has forgotten this recording, or at times actually disowned it. Don't you make the same mistake. This is fresh, experimental music that still retains its pristine power more than four decades after its initial release.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments


John McLaughlin: Mattinale

In the late '60s, McLaughlin was an integral part of a very non-traditional jazz organ trio as a member of the trailblazing Tony Williams Lifetime. In 1993, he decided to take another bite of the apple. He brought in organ phenom Joey DeFrancesco and powerhouse drummer Dennis Chambers to join him in creating The Free Spirits. These three guys had chops to spare. The trio may have been traditional in the sense of instrumentation, but it was anything but that in action. Playing John McLaughlin compositions will do that to any band.

An introspective guitar solo opens "Mattinale." Understated yet profound, McLaughlin sweeps back and forth exposing a gentle nerve until Chambers and DeFrancesco kick in to pick up the pace and the piece becomes a lilting Spanish blues. Just as quickly, Chambers double-times it and McLaughlin and DeFrancesco are off and running to the thrilled cheers of the assembled crowd. Their speed-burning solo turns lead to a shuffle section. The accompaniment from both players is of the highest level. Over a Spanish chord progression, DeFrancesco does his best Miles Davis impression on trumpet before Dennis Chambers brings things to a close with his drum artistry. "Mattinale" is a vehicle that takes many side trips. Eventually, though, it gets you where you need to be.

Three points are taken off the rating because McLaughlin's guitar tone too closely mimicked DeFrancesco's organ.

February 26, 2008 · 1 comment


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