Junior Mance: Happy Time

Julian C. Mance, Jr., better known as Junior Mance, was the pianist in Cannonball Adderley's first quintet in 1956-57 before Cannon joined Miles Davis. By the time Adderley formed his second quintet in 1959, the saxophonist had established his reputation and would now have much greater success as a leader, but Mance--by then touring with Dizzy Gillespie--was no longer in the picture. One can say that Mance's bluesy style was the progenitor for both Bobby Timmons and Joe Zawinul in Adderley's groups. A long-time jazz educator focusing on the blues, and the author of How to Play Blues Piano, the still active Mance --like his contemporaries Ray Bryant and Gene Harris--has always had a naturally soulful grasp of the idiom. Mance's 1962 Happy Time album is an excellent example of his often underappreciated scope as a pianist, from the suave and caressing treatment of "Jitterbug Waltz" to the boisterous back-to-the-chicken-shack funk of the title tune.

The intoxicating, feel-good theme of "Happy Time" is expounded upon in Mance's jubilant solo. Between his active left hand and the tight accord of Ron Carter and Mickey Roker--particularly the drummer's persistent cymbal beat--an irresistible momentum is maintained for the full six minutes of the track. Mance's blues-inflected tone adds extra vitality to his adroit phrasing and repeated patterns, as he builds ever so quickly from peak to peak. You might notice a run or two here from Mance that will also appear intact in the playing of soul-jazz pianist Les McCann. Mance's closing call-and-response riffs and arpeggios precede the reprise, after which a hard-driving out chorus--driven by his seductive left-hand ostinato--serves as a final hallelujah and amen.

September 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Dr. Billy Taylor: Just The Thought Of You

Although the now 88 year-old Billy Taylor and the late Gerry Mulligan were close friends for decades, they had only recorded together once before prior to Taylor's 1992 Dr. T session, that being on the pianist's 1957My Fair Lady Loves Jazz album. In 1992 Taylor was also the recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, and the track "Just the Thought of You" reminds us once again of his playing and composing skills, sometimes overlooked due to his prominence as a prime advocate for all things jazz. Mulligan's fervent contribution is just the icing on the cake.

Written for his daughter Kim, Taylor's ballad "Just the Thought of You" rivals in its graceful beauty the standard with a similar title, "The Very Thought of You." Taylor executes an enticing, undulating intro that leads to Mulligan's heartfelt rendering of the touching theme. Mulligan plays it with a supple, well-rounded tone, which hardens at times during his solo for added expressiveness. His circular phrases, and the extended lines that encompass them, are artfully and cogently resolved. Taylor's improv takes rhapsodic flight when he guides a fetching motif through a variety of arpeggiated modulations. Mulligan begins an equally absorbing second solo that gradually segues back to the memorable theme. Taylor / Mulligan collaborations should have come more frequently. (A 1993 meeting, Live at MCG, was released in 2007.)

August 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Steve Kuhn: Stella by Starlight

There was a time when Steve Kuhn was criticized as a pianist for having a weak left hand and a less than compelling rhythmic sense, but that time is long past. Today he is the complete package, as he proved once again in his reunion with Ron Carter and Al Foster at Birdland, some 20 years after the same trio's Village Vanguard gig and resulting pair of much-admired albums. One of Kuhn's strengths has always been his ability to transform a well-traveled and even overplayed standard into something uniquely different and captivatingly fresh. On the Live at Birdland CD he accomplishes this most notably with the up-tempo "Confirmation" and the ballad "Stella by Starlight."

Dedicated to his mother Stella, this "Stella by Starlight" contains an ethereal opening that certainly owes a debt to Bill Evans, as does the interpretation as a whole, but is nonetheless personalized and undiluted Kuhn. While the pianist assuredly explores the tune's harmonies with only passing references to actual snippets of the melody, Carter exhibits an always in the moment responsiveness to Kuhn's probings. The bassist's beautifully articulated solo is seasoned with sensibly placed quotes from the likes of "You Better Go Now" and "Rockin' in Rhythm," and is technically stunning and ever evolving. Kuhn's subsequent improv is distinguished by a ringing timbre, an emotionally impassioned and yet logically structured series of extended lines, and a concluding impressionistic swirl of arpeggios and trills. The ecstatic reaction by the Birdland audience says it all.

July 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Austin Peralta: The Shadow of Your Smile

Consider the strange case of pianist Austin Peralta, now 18 years old as I write this review. Signed to a record contract by Sony Japan, Peralta had two CD leader dates for a major label, each featuring an all-star cast, under his belt by age 16. But none of his music has been issued in the United States, and Peralta has no interest in using these impressive disks to boost his career back home. He claims that they don't represent what he can do nowadays at the piano, and refused to send this writer (whose curiosity had been piqued by the music on Peralta's MySpace page) review copies. What a change from the aggressive hyping and over-marketing of unripened jazz prodigies, either grace-ful or savage, that is so characteristic of new millennium jazz.

Undaunted by the self-effacing artist, I dug deep into the piggy bank to get this music imported from Japan to my home stereo system. (Check it out: you can get this disk from across the Pacific for a mere $52.99 currently at Amazon . . . ouch!) And if you have some spare yen rolled up in your tatami mat, you may want to secure your own copy of this CD. In other words, don't believe young master Peralta's modest claims for a single moment. This youngster can play. Even in his mid-teens, when he recorded this track, he displayed a crystal clear touch, smart musical ideas and a confident presence at the keyboard. The repertoire is mostly familiar standards on this CD, and here he tackles a piece that could easily collapse into cocktail piano heroics. But Peralta carries the day, with the benefit of some exceptional support from the estimable Ron Carter and Billy Kilson. This pianist is definitely a talent to watch. Let's hope his next CD gets wider distribution.

June 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Ellis Marsalis: The Surrey With the Fringe On Top

It usually happens the other way around. Think Dave Brubeck and his sons Dan and Chris, or John Coltrane and Ravi. In the case of Ellis Marsalis, recording dates and overall recognition outside of New Orleans were hard to come by until the success of his sons Wynton and Branford. Heart of Gold was Ellis's first of several releases for Columbia in the '90's, after a similar trio date for Blue Note a year earlier. It presented a straight ahead pianist with apparent influences ranging from Oscar Peterson and Nat Cole to Wynton Kelly and Tommy Flanagan, with little if any indication of his New Orleans roots. A swinging, thoughtful, and lucid lyricism pervades his playing.

"Surrey with the Fringe on Top," from Heart of Gold, finds Marsalis elucidating the familiar melody with a gentle, lilting touch, and at a leisurely pace that continues for his ensuing solo. His improvisation contains some sliding runs, occasional bluesy inflections, and mainly a series of neatly delineated, distinctly separated single note lines. Some of his voicings are clearly derived from Peterson, while his lightly floating sound comes more from Kelly or Flanagan. Brown's bass solo is, as usual, the resonant aural equivalent of a concise and enthralling short story. Marsalis returns for an adamant two-handed chordal interlude that eventually gives way to Higgins' tersely communicative drum break. The reprise swings blithely, and the prearranged piano-bass ending is cleverly conceived and adroitly executed.

June 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Tethered Moon: Trouble Man

Masabumi Kikuchi enlisted Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, the bass-drums tandem formerly of Paul Bley’s expansive piano trio from the 1960s, for Tethered Moon, an under-the-radar trio that has released a handful of consistently beautiful records for the Winter and Winter label. While their first two records from 1990-91 feature a collection of varied standards and original compositions, Tethered Moon have also released three concept/tribute recordings – one to French pop singer Edith Piaf (Chansons de Edith Piaf), a series of challenging improvised adaptations of Puccini’s Tosca (Experiencing Tosca), and this 1994 session dedicated to interpreting the songs of Kurt Weill. While a few of the better-known Weill tunes are finely played here (“Moritat,” “Speak Low,” “My Ship”), “Trouble Man’s” carefully paced, dramatically unfolding delivery reveals the session’s highlight. This is contemplative jazz of the highest order – no notes are taken for granted or played without purpose, and the changes and/or tempo can temporarily melt away without ever sacrificing the commitment to an underlying pulse and the ever-present melody.

June 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Mal Waldron: Rat Now

Free at Last marks the very first release from the ECM label, and “Rat Now,” the album’s opening track, will therefore forever be documented as the first ten minutes of ECM music. Waldron was in the post-breakdown/recovery/European relocation portion of his career, and his minimalist playing here, unsurprisingly, is dark and dense. While it may lack the feverish spark of his early Prestige dates or his audacious interpretation of Monk’s catalog with Steve Lacy, this track is especially enhanced by Waldron’s intense, freewheeling commitment to challenging his listeners with his meandering keyboard investigations. Waldron performed with his friend John Coltrane on numerous occasions in the latter1950s, and this trio date has a definite Tyner/Garrison/Jones feeling throughout – complete with a slow swell of barline-blurring fills with a constant six-over-four feeling. While the usual Tyner-esque rousing conclusion we’re used to never really happens here, Waldron’s horde of compelling ideas along the way should leave the listener plenty satisfied.

June 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Paul Bley: My Old Flame

Here's a charmingly romantic ballad from very early in Bley's career. His sense of timing here is incredible. If you listen carefully, you can discover one of the secrets behind his lyrical phrasing: he's singing along. I think that at heart he might really be a singer, and the piano is just the instrument through which he finds himself best able to sing.

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Paul Bley: Like Someone In Love

The intro here is gorgeous. I'm particularly enchanted by the descending chords 18 seconds in; it's one of those moments that I go back to again and again. It's insightful to hear him in this more straightahead context (with Charles Mingus and Art Blakey) earlier in his artistic trajectory. He was definitely using more of the bebop vocabulary at this point, but already in his own idiosyncratic way: check out the way he's using rhythmic displacement, especially during the first statement of the melody.

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Paul Bley: Floater

First of all, I'm completely addicted to this melody, even though it only lasts 20 seconds. I love the way the the same basic musical idea is used in three different registers of the piano, with slight variations. And the solo is just incredible. So much rhythmic and melodic freedom, so much possibility. So far ahead of its time.

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Gerald Clayton: Two Heads One Pillow

“Two Heads One Pillow” is one of the highlights of Gerald Clayton’s Two Shade, a must-hear debut release from the talented composer and seasoned improviser. The tune is centered around the development of a simple, yet beautiful, melody freshened by the addition of several major variances in inflection. Beginning with a series of muted notes, Clayton and his cohorts ease into a series of short phrases that tread the fine line between consonance and dissonance. As a booming bassline by Clayton himself is quickly followed by the rhythm section, drummer Justin Brown's unpredictable pulse cranks up the intensity level tenfold-resulting in an energetic recording on which Clayton's apparent skills as a composer foreshadow the impact that he will have on jazz in the years to come.

June 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Al Haig: All God's Chillun Got Rhythm

Haig was one of the earliest significant bop pianists, playing with Bird and Dizzy in 1945 and even participated in the first Birth of the Cool nonet recording in 1949. A 1974 LP reissue that included "All God's Chillun" and other tracks from the 1954 trio session was titled Jazz Will-O'-The-Wisp, which might describe Haig's career--on the periphery, and lacking in the overall recognition he so truly deserved. Perhaps this was due to his having a playing style so different from that of the preeminent bop pianist, Bud Powell. Powell was fiery and flashy, whereas Haig was feathery and coolly flowing. If you didn't fully concentrate on the beauty, content, and impeccable execution of Haig's playing, he could easily pass you by.

If you compare Haig's 1954 "All God's Chillun" with the Sonny Stitt/Bud Powell version from December 1949, it's quite apparent that Haig possesses a much controlled and restrained passion, while Powell is living purely on the edge. Haig's rhythmically appealing intro leads to a rather choppy rendition of the melody, but his improvisation floats smoothly on air, with fairly intricate runs that seem to be very easily created. He's as relaxed as Powell is high-strung. Bud's lower octave left-hand jabs are replaced by Haig's far less noticeable left-hand chords in the middle of the keyboard. Crow's forceful bass lines and Abrams' high-spirited drumming seal the deal on this definitive example of Haig at his polished best.

June 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Joey Calderazzo: Lunacy

Calderazzo's third and final Blue Note release in 1993, The Traveler, was one of the best piano trio albums by a young jazz pianist to see the light of day in the '90's. It should have catapulted his career as a leader, but instead he replaced the late Kenny Kirkland in the Branford Marsalis Quartet at the end of the decade, where he has remained ever since, most recently also getting to record under his own name for Branford's "Marsalis Music" label.

Calderazzo is a pianist who can break your heart on ballads, or dazzle you on the up-tempo burners. "Lunacy," from The Traveler, falls into the latter category. The track features an urgent modal theme that Calderazzo plays twice before initiating an extended five-minute solo. His darting, dancing runs and modulating motifs build incessantly, with Anderson and especially Hirshfield in tight interactive rapport. A thrilling tension and release prevails throughout Calderazzo's brilliant excursion, and Hirshfield's drum rolls, bass drum bombs, and snapped hi-hat accents match the pianist's intense aggression. Calderazzo's solo reaches a peak of near-manic two-handed dissonant interplay, until he finally reacknowledges the theme, now a mere adjunct to the detailed, enriching content of his improv.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Hampton Hawes: The Green Leaves of Summer

After a drug bust on his 30th birthday in 1958, Hawes was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but eventually sought and received executive clemency from President Kennedy in 1963, just three months before Kennedy's assassination. On Hawes' fourth Christmas day spent in prison, the film The Alamo" had been shown, and as he wrote in his autobiography, the tune "The Green Leaves of Summer" from the soundtrack "kept humming through my mind and I told myself I would try to record it if I ever saw daylight again." Hawes got his wish to record the Academy Award-nominated song on his first album after his release. The LP's dust jacket featured a color photograph of Hawes that made him look like a matinee idol or male model, or, as he wrote of it years later, "I might have been the Super Fly of 1963, the Flash Gordon of the niggers." Contemporary Records founder Lester Koenig's extensive original liner notes skillfully managed to make absolutely no mention of where Hawes had been for the past six years.

Hawes turns "The Green Leaves of Summer," which had already been sung on recordings by the likes of The Brothers Four, Marty Robbins, and Eddy Arnold, into an invigorating jazz waltz. Hawes' long unaccompanied rubato intro is reflective, tinged with an air of sadness, and of classical derivation. When the pianist focuses on the theme, and bass and drums join in, the mood of the intro is maintained until the tempo is gradually increased. Hawes then uses an insistent left hand pattern to propel his improvisation, effectively mixing staccato note clusters with earnest declamations of select thematic phrases. He eventually retreats to the more languid pace from where he began, and finishes with a sustained trill and a tumbling lower octave run that never quite resolves, dissolving instead into thin air. A gem of a performance, one that emphatically announced Hawes' return to the scene to all concerned.

May 15, 2009 · 1 comment


Ahmad Jamal: Pavanne

Listen to the passage right before the two minute mark on this track, and hear where Coltrane got his concept for "Impressions." But Coltrane's former employer Miles Davis had already borrowed heavily from Ahmad Jamal long before then, and any discussion of the precursors of Davis's modal style needs to take this spirited 1955 performance into account. Yet, as always, Jamal stands out for how he plays rather than what he plays. No one had a lighter, sweeter sense of swing than this artist, and I would even wager on him over the MJQ in a contest to see who could bring down the dynamics the most without losing the rhythmic drive. Yes, you can cook while keeping things at a whisper, but it took Mr. Jamal to show us how.

May 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Previous Page | Next Page