Marc Copland & Gary Peacock: Blue in Green

In a more discerning universe, Marc Copland would be far better known. I first encountered his music in the mid-1980s, when an acquaintance sent me an amateur tape of a NY club gig by the pianist. I was deeply impressed then, and expected a grand career from this artist. Copland has not disappointed me—his music-making has repeatedly lived up to the highest expectations—however the jazz audience has surprised me by not embracing his bracing pianism. Copland has recorded extensively, invariably drawing on the finest collaborators, and has proven again and again that his own playing is at the same world class level as his better known associates. Yet, despite his considerable musical achievements, Marc's name recognition, outside of a small, knowledgeable inner circle of musicians and admirers, is modest.

One cannot say the same for his music, which is probing and provocative, more a dissection of compositional structures than the usual tributes at the shrine of the American songbook. Here Copland and Peacock take a very familiar jazz tune, already burned into our collective consciousness in definitive performances by the standard-bearers of the art form, and manage to stretch it into limber, new shapes. The duo adopt such an elongated sense of time, that the pulse is more an occasional reminder of the beat rather than a constant timekeeping. Copland doesn't so much reharmonize the song as impose new chordal structures on top of the old ones, which exist concurrently. His solo structure has plenty of drama, but no false bravado, and some of the strongest effects come through the juxtaposition of silence rather than the assertion of sound. Peacock, for his part, plays with a zen sureness that is centering even as it adds to the deconstructive spirit of the date. The result is that charming exception: a cover version that somehow manages to sound like its own original.

November 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Hank Jones & Oliver Jones: What Am I Here For?

I am just pleased that the label didn't go for a cornier joke in the title. Have You Met Mr. Jones? Me and Mr. Jones? Keeping Up with the Joneses? After all, these are serious artists and among the eldest of the elder statesmen, the venerable Hank, a month shy of his 90th birthday when he made this recording, and the relative youngster Oliver, a spry 74-years-old at the time. The newcomer here is the song, a fine Ellington composition from his great early 1940s band which deserves to be heard more often. Matching up two jazz pianists is not always a smart idea. Twenty fingers can stir up plenty of commotion, and create murky new chord voicings that, like the sweet melodies in Keats's poem, are better left unheard. But when two gentlemen of the keys with such taste meet up, no clash and clang disrupts the proceedings. The Montreal native Oliver is up first here, followed by Detroit's finest Hank, and if there is any competition here, it is to see who can swing most effectively with the rhythm section. The Canadian entry is a bit more forceful, while the Motor Town alternative shines with a sweet touch. Call it a dead heat, and put it on a second time. What else are we here for?

October 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bill Cunliffe: Yearnin'

The Blues And The Abstract Truth, take 2 is pianist Bill Cunliffe's tribute to the classic jazz album by Oliver Nelson. Less remake and more re-examination, Cunliffe's arrangements of Nelson's compositions are faithful to the originals while allowing Cunliffe to sound his own voice. "Yearnin'" might be the furthest diversion from Nelson's arrangement, in its updating of the harmonic language and in the lead soprano sax of Bob Sheppard. Sheppard is also heard soloing on tenor sax right after the head, so either he made a lightning-quick change of horns or the solo was dubbed in later. Sheppard's tenor sound has a hollow sound that works well within the blues context. He shows great control of the horn and a wealth of ideas. Terell Stafford is next and his trumpet style bears more than a passing resemblance to Nelson's original trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard. Stafford plays a fiery solo that ranges all over the horn, and like another of his idols, Clifford Brown, Stafford's sound stays big and full no matter how high in the stratosphere he goes. Cunliffe's short piano solo is exceptionally well-crafted, using single lines throughout, with intriguing note choices at the beginning and deft rhythmic displacement at its peak. Mark Ferber uses mallets on tom-toms to bring back the original misterioso mood. While it would be impossible to top the original album, Cunliffe's tribute enhances the original with fresh approaches to these classic tunes.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Tamir Hendelman: Sycamore

While he can wow the crowds with outrageous piano flights a la Gene Harris, I am much more enamored of Tamir Hendelman's sensitive ballads. He has a delicate touch that he saves for ballads, and he instinctively knows how to temper his technique in order to maintain the mood. His beautiful composition "Sycamore" is a highlight of his debut CD, Playground. Written in memory of the boyhood walks he took with his father, the melody is simple, childlike and touching. The bridge features John Clayton bowing a bass formerly owned by his mentor, Ray Brown. Hendelman's solo starts seamlessly from the melody, and in its dreamy world, there is a perfect balance between the multi-note runs and leisurely rubato ideas. Like Hendelman, Clayton's solo draws from elements of the melody and draws its strength from its restraint. Throughout the performance, Jeff Hamilton provides welcome splashes of color with his exquisite brush work. This was undoubtedly a special song for all three of the musicians, especially Hendelman, who as a young father, must now be looking forward to spending the same quality time with his children as his father did with him.

October 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum & Roy Eldridge: Night and Day

Art Tatum had performed with Roy Eldridge back in 1944 at a famous concert by the Esquire All-Stars, but their paths rarely crossed afterwards until Norman Granz brought them into the studio a decade later as part of the producer's "Group Masters" project. The idea of matching Tatum with top-notch horn players sounded fine in theory, but with some exceptions, found the pianist playing over rather than with his colleagues. Yet his outing on "Night and Day" with trumpeter Roy Eldridge coheres better than one might expect. Eldridge was no stranger to battles on the bandstand, but here he focuses on sheer swing rather than try to match Tatum note-for-note. Simmons and Stoller are energized by his presence, and create a more supple pulse than one usually finds on the Granz-Tatum projects. The pianist is hardly chastened by this change of affairs, and continues to throw out his baroque runs and elaborate reconfigurations, but even he is infused with the groove. This may not quite match the impromptu give-and-take that Tatum achieved after hours in casual jams, but it comes closer than most of his studio sessions to capturing that ambiance.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Art Tatum: Sweet Georgia Brown

Jerry Newman was a student at Columbia University with a passion for jazz and—even more important!—a portable disk-cutting recording machine that he brought to some of the most exciting jazz events of the early 1940s. His archive of amateur recordings is a treasure trove of historically important material, but his documentation of pianist Art Tatum's work in casual after hours sessions is a revelation. André Hodeir and other critics have accused this pianist of playing elaborate set pieces rather than improvising, and true many of Tatum's recordings reveal the rote delivery of set arrangements. Yet the artist captured here is a different one entirely. After hearing this music for the first time, New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett concluded that there must have been "two Tatums": "one was the virtuoso who moved with consummate ease through a world owned and run by whites, and the other was the secret genius who went uptown after his regular hours and played unbelievable music for his own pleasure in black clubs for black audiences."

Balliett thought that Tatum might have been parodying the beboppers in the opening passages of "Sweet Georgia Brown," yet it is just as likely that Tatum was simply showing that he knew more tricks than the new cats on the scene. Based on the amused laughter from the audience, I assume that some bop player had been playing the piano shortly before Tatum took over the keys. But even more ear-shattering is a passage at the 2:10 mark that can be only described as a taste of Free Jazz, circa 1941. Trumpeter Frankie Newton tries vainly to follow Tatum's solo, but Art doesn't make it easy. He throws out substitute harmonies from another dimension, sometimes four to a bar, and even reprises his avant-garde bag in the background. There is plenty more here worth hearing—indeed, a whole alternative piano vocabulary that you won't encounter on the better known Norman Granz recordings of this artist. At more than seven minutes, "Sweet Georgia Brown" ranks as one of Tatum's longest recorded performances, but it still seems all too brief.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Georgia On My Mind

Recorded about a year before Ray Charles changed everyone's approach to the song, Dave Brubeck's recording of "Georgia On My Mind" is a quiet, reflective take on the Hoagy Carmichael standard, featuring some of Brubeck's most sensitive playing from this period. Brubeck has the opening and closing choruses of the arrangement to himself, with only light accompaniment from Gene Wright's bass and Joe Morello's drums. Brubeck makes occasional minor changes to the harmony, but for the most part, he simply enjoys interpreting the song as is. While Brubeck favored a strong attack in many of his performances, he could always play with a light touch, caressing the melody instead of hammering it. Paul Desmond glides in with his wispy tone and spins one beautiful phrase after another. Later, he makes a dramatic pause before improvising on the bridge. Brubeck's ensuing solo stays in single lines for the first half, then builds slightly into chords before Brubeck eases back into the tune. There is a slight crescendo as Brubeck goes into an unaccompanied solo which brings the performance to an end with a simple collection of repeated ideas.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fats Waller: Two Sleepy People

"Two Sleepy People" may the most charming song Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser ever wrote. Even today, its simple story of young lovers can delight listeners. It even softened the heart of Fats Waller, who would mercilessly parody any song, even his own. Waller's was the first jazz recording of the song, preceding the composer's recording by exactly one day. Waller grasps the song's message instantly and he and his Rhythm perform a simple two-chorus arrangement. In the first chorus, Herman Autrey plays the melody on muted trumpet while Waller offers light commentary on the highest register of the piano. Waller's vocal takes up the second chorus, and somehow it seems that we can hear a twinkle in his eye as he sings. There is great tenderness lying below the exterior gruffness of his voice, and his only spoken retort is when he disagrees with the narrator's father about the merits of his girl. Perhaps he could relate to being part of a couple who were short of money and who usually stayed up too late talking. There was a lot of that going on during the Depression...

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fred Simon: Same Difference

To those in the know, one of Chicago's secret pleasures is native pianist/composer Fred Simon. On “Same Difference” the exquisite multi-instrumentalist Paul Mc Candless joins him to create this memorable piece of pastoral cross-genre music. McCandless, of Oregon fame, worked together with Simon previously on Premonition, Mc Candless’s 1992 album, where the two undoubtedly found they had kindred spirits.

Simon’s approach on this ballad is delicate and low-keyed. He avoids playing too much, preferring his composition to speak for itself. The interplay between the soprano saxophone and the piano is almost telepathic creating a glowingly warm conversation. Mc Candless' uplifting solo joyfully elevates the music, releasing it from its predictable path while spiriting it to a higher level. Together these two create a memorable piece of “chamber style” jazz that raises the spirit with warmth and beauty without becoming sentimental.

September 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Peter Leitch-John Hicks: Duality

Soon after guitarist Peter Leitch left his native Canada and relocated to New York, he began a regular association with the late pianist John Hicks that was preserved on several of Leitch's CDs during the '80's and '90's, including their sole duo outing, Duality. Hicks' powerful attack served him well in his recordings with artists such as Oliver Lake, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, and Pharoah Sanders, but the pianist's more tender and lyrical side is what made him such a complete player and helped ensure the success of this session with Leitch. The guitarist's relatively light tone and deceptively laid-back, sophisticated approach could have easily been steamrolled by a less sensitive partner.

As Leitch explained in the Duality CDs notes, the title track "has two sections, one of which is rather static, harmonically; it's modal. The other section contrasts with harmony that moves around a lot." Right away you notice the beautifully captured sounds of the two instruments, thanks to engineer Rudy Van Gelder. The two-sectioned theme is appealing melodically and in its rhythmic thrust. Leitch solos confidently and with relaxed yet finely detailed lines, as Hicks plays galvanizing chord patterns in support. Van Gelder's positioning of mikes directly on both Leitch's guitar and amp give his electric instrument a radiant acoustic quality. Hicks becomes less restrained in his solo, backed by Leitch's softly strummed adornments. The pianist's forceful phrasing and strong left hand accents are an irresistible combination. The theme's supple replay serves as a final especially satisfying release.

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Yaron Herman: Army Of Me

Simply put, “Army of Me” is Bjork at her best. The lead track off of 1995’s Post, “Army” is brash, catchy, and full of fire and attitude. Plus, it features a distorted and snarling bass ostinato that you’ll never quite get out of your head. So it was only a matter of time before someone tackled this one. And, fortunately, that someone’s version is a fine re-imagining. The young pianist Yaron Herman, from Paris (but born and raised in Israel), featured this tune on his 2007 trio album A Time for Everything, and took it to that fuzzy middle ground between jazz and rock most often occupied by bands like The Bad Plus and Sex Mob. Herman, a tasteful and sprightly player, nearly swings the tune at times, but the intensity and feel of the arrangement is more in line with rock music. He is supported here by the double bassist Matt Brewer and driving drummer Gerald Cleaver. Other cover tunes on A Time for Everything include Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Isobel

From Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey are nothing if not eclectic. For 2005’s Joel Dorn-produced The Sameness of Difference, for instance, the piano trio (today a quartet, with strikingly different personnel) recorded compositions by a wide array of stylists: Mingus, Brubeck, Hendrix, Lennon/McCartney and… Bjork! “Isobel,” a haunting, string-enhanced thriller off of Bjork’s 1995 album Post, tells the tale of a hermit, but JFJO have a much more extroverted story to spin. On this excursion, electric bassist Reed Mathis states the melody (with more than a little help from some otherworldly effects) while the spastic acoustic pianist and stride enthusiast Brian Haas comps underneath, and the sensitive drummer Jason Smart propels the group into stellar regions. The sounds of Jacob Fred are wild, but always thoughtful, and the music of Bjork suits them well: like their Icelandic hero, these musicians are big risk-takers, and always evolving.

September 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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The Bad Plus: Human Behavior

The Bad Plus’s arrangement of “Human Behavior,” recorded during the same 2005 sessions that yielded the group’s Suspicious Activity?, never found its way onto that album, or any other (it’s available only as a download). Which is a shame, really, because the track is outstanding, especially when you concentrate on bassist Reid Anderson’s playing (check out his all-too-brief solo at 2:16), David King’s comic drum fill at 2:18, Iverson’s striking independence at 3:59, or on the ensemble groove at nearly any point in the song. Truly, if you listen close enough, you can hear three dudes from the American Midwest transform into one small Icelandic woman.

September 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Larry Goldings: Cocoon

It makes perfect sense that the accomplished pianist and keyboardist Larry Goldings would be into Bjork. As a sideman, Goldings has dipped his toes into musical waters far from the jazz shore - he has recorded with rock legend James Taylor, funk heavyweight Maceo Parker and hip hop icons De La Soul - so why would he shy away from the music of Iceland’s greatest avant-garde pop star? “Cocoon,” first heard on Bjork’s Vespertine album in 2001, is a simple and meditative piece, awash in soothing Wurlitzer electric piano at the hands of Goldings. The emotive trumpeter John Sneider handles the melody masterfully, cradling each note before sending it off into the ether. Wilson chimes in from time to time, but this tune is not about the rhythm section: mostly, it’s a tender conversation scored for keyboards and trumpet. About what, you ask? Only Bjork knows.

September 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Geoff Keezer: Venus As A Boy

Sure, the nimble pianist and keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer has put in time with jazz legends (Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Ray Brown), the bright lights of today (Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove) and, most notably, the final edition of the Jazz Messengers. But there’s always room for Bjork, and in 2004, the San Diego-based ivory tickler recorded his arrangement of her reggae-tinged “Venus as a Boy” with Matt Clohesy on bass and fellow Christian McBride sideman Terreon Gully on drums. The results are sublime: Gully’s dub groove is airtight, Clohesy is solid and funky, and Keezer rides atop it all with taste, feeling and restraint. One would be hard-pressed to find a wasted note in this recording.

September 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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