Bill Evans & Jeremy Steig: So What

When Denny Zeitlin was brought in by producer John Hammond to play piano on Jeremy Steig's 1963 debut recording, Flute Fever, as Zeitlin recalled in a recent interview (see Marc Myers' JazzWax blog), Steig "was very frank about his raw emotional approach to playing. He said to me, 'Sometimes I just like to have a tantrum out there.' " Bill Evans first met and heard Steig in 1964, and in his original liner notes for the 1969 What's New album wrote, "Jeremy's playing also has a side of intensity that occasionally might defy belief. I played flute and piccolo for fourteen years and therefore feel a justification for my high estimation of Jeremy's exceptional scope as a flutist." Evans, who had once recorded with flutist Herbie Mann (Nirvana), was well aware that Steig was taking the instrument to places untouched emotionally and technically by even Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It wasn't until 1968 that Evans and Steig played together, Steig sitting in with the Evans trio at club dates in New York, which logically led to their recorded collaboration on What's New.

Steig had already performed "So What" on his Flute Fever session with Zeitlin [see review], and of course Evans had played it on the album that introduced the now jazz standard, Miles Davis' revered Kind of Blue. Evans and Steig essay a diverting free-form intro and play the theme together alongside Eddie Gomez's bass vamp. Steig's breathy tone and swirling, tenacious attack is encapsulated in his first brief solo, which gives way to Evans' lengthier improv. Evans' pronounced McCoy Tyner-like left-hand figures, two-handed unison exclamations, and unyielding momentum are all a far cry from the pianist's contemplative, subdued side. Steig's second solo seems to be propelled to greater and greater heights by Gomez's driving, variegated bass lines. The flutist's tonal inventiveness is boundless, including the use of overblowing, humming, and vocalized overtones. Even at his most possessed, however, Steig's phrasing retains logic and relevance. Gomez's feature prior to the theme restatement is an excellent early example of his deliberate yet elaborate modus operandi.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Allen Toussaint: Java

In 1964, Allen Toussaint was in the Army and walking through the barracks one day when he heard Al Hirt's version of "Java" on the radio. Toussaint told one of the soldiers to turn up the volume, because he had written this song. "Aww, of course you wrote it," was the skeptical response.

Hirt's record reached number four on the Billboard chart, while Toussaint had trouble even collecting royalties. At one point he found that money was going to a mysterious "Joe Friday" who was credited as co-composer. Of course, Toussaint was a mystery man of his own back then, having recorded this song for RCA under the name of "Al Tousan." But his piano style is immediately recognizable and blows his cover within the first few bars. His spirited rendition is full of the bouncing and rolling keyboard licks that are the calling card of Crescent City keyboard, and Toussaint adds to their exoticism by mixing in some open some open fifths that sound like a parody of Chinese music. I'm not sure how this all adds up to java, but the caffeine level is certainly high enough to give you a jolt.

August 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Laurence Hobgood: New Orleans

With a cascading introduction reminiscent of tubular bells, Laurence Hobgood sets the stage for a poignant rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans”. He transitions from his gorgeous prelude to the familiar stride-like melody in an easy and reverential way. Backed by the deep resonant sounds of Charlie Haden’s bass, Hobgood plays in a sauntering, laconic style that pays homage to Carmichael but with his own quiet sensitivity. The music is played at an achingly slow tempo allowing for thoughtful interplay between Haden’s loping bass and Hobgood’s dancing piano. This music is born from the heartland and these two artists respect the tradition and champion its spare beauty with this soulful homage.

August 07, 2009 · 0 comments


Norberto Tamburrino: Out of a Blue Reflection

The Italian pianist Tamburrino considers Thelonious Monk to be one of his primary influences. On each of Tamburrino's three CDs to date he has recorded one Monk tune, and his newest release, Reflection(s) on Monk, is even dedicated to him, although only Tamburrino's solo piano interpretation of "Crepuscule with Nellie" and the quartet performance of his original, "Out of a Blue Reflection," bear any directly obvious relationship to Monk's music.

Just like a tune by Monk, the saxophonist J. D. Allen has appeared on at least one track on all of Tamburrino's CDs, and joins the pianist for his "Out of a Blue Reflection." The theme as played by Allen alludes briefly to "Straight No Chaser" before going its own sweet way, but it is straight out of Monk's bag nonetheless.. Lepore produces a playfully lucid bass solo, followed by the compelling Allen, who creates an improvisation that seems to borrow equally from John Coltrane and Charlie Rouse, while retaining a sure-footed individuality. Tamburrino then resolutely approaches Monk's angularity from his own independent direction, employing glistening arpeggios and distinctive chordal formations in a technically impressive display that builds a skyscraper on top of Monk's implied foundation. By the time Allen has finished replaying the theme, this could easily have made your list of best Monk-inspired compositions. The appeal of this track also beckons Tamburrino and Allen to unite once again in the future for an all-Monk CD. Now that would definitely be something to hear.

August 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Steve Kuhn: Like Sonny

In one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime convergences, pianist Steve Kuhn got a call to play with John Coltrane for a gig at the Jazz Gallery in New York City in 1960. Kuhn had been playing with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and was well on his way to establishing himself as a player with a unique voice. The ever-searching Trane was still formulating the next stage of his musical development. The collaboration only lasted for three months but it made an indelible mark on the twenty-one year old Kuhn. Coltrane’s dedication to his music influenced the young pianist, not so much by altering his developing style, but by strengthening his resolve toward following his own path. With this tribute album, Kuhn has carefully chosen songs that demonstrate where he and Coltrane have some common ground.

On “Like Sonny”, a Coltrane composition dedicated to Sonny Rollins, Kuhn has followed his natural instincts to use a memorable melody as a vehicle for improvisation. Kuhn’s technique is burnished with classical undertones that bring an elegance and grace to his playing. Kuhn creates a sound that utilizes the full range of the keyboard, bespeaks of a mastery of touch and evokes a haunting beauty that is never self-indulgent.

Bassist and long-time collaborator David Finck has developed a truly intuitive language with Kuhn. Baron’s deft polytonal touch is reminiscent of Elvin Jones but more delicate and spidery than his predecessor. Lovano’s controlled cool delivery is appropriately more deferential to Rollins than to Coltrane and has a beautiful rich tonal quality that is very compatible with Kuhn’s own natural lyricism on this song. Together this quartet has created a worthy homage to the Kuhn-Coltrane experience.

July 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Horace Silver: Serenade to a Soul Sister

I have to be honest, there's not a single Horace Silver song that I don't like. So now that my biases are out front, Silver returned in 1968 with this hard bop masterpiece, Serenade to a Soul Sister. Joined by tenor giant Stanley Turrentine, the band might not be the most recognizable names in the history of jazz but that's the way I like it. This group of musicians flies under the radar, digging deep for those blues. Judging from the way Turrentine and Tolliver solo, I would've liked to known this soul sister. Silver's comping on this song is typical, very relaxed and to the point with a heavy use of chords in the middle register. What I enjoy most about Silver is his consistency as a soloist. He's not going to play note after note like a Tyner or Hancock would, he has a nasty pocket and plays accordingly. His solo is marked by some nice upper register, singular melodic ideas that are simple but groove perfectly with the song. Hats off to one of the best!

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Robert Glasper: Silly Rabbit

From the first listen, I wondered how much of this song was actually composed because the performance feels very free in nature. Towards the middle portion of the song I can tell what parts were composed though. For his second album, Glasper is joined again by Archer and Reid, who performed on his Blue Note debut album Canvas. Glasper plays much more freer on this song than others from the album, employing a series of octave inspired lines that sound like something you would associate with a silly rabbit.

Glasper sounds very comfortable with Archer and Reid as his bandmates. I really enjoy the way the three of them interact and it's always a surprise when you listen to anything Glasper does because he's usually willing to take chances.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Robert Glasper: Jelly's Da Beaner

On his major label debut for Blue Note Records, the then 27 year old Robert Glasper was an up and coming star in the jazz world. Having played with Christian McBride and Cassandra Wilson, Glasper's chops and playing were already fully developed by the time he recorded this album in early 2005. Joined by bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reed, the trio run laps around this light, swinging Latin song. Glasper is one of my favorite piano players out right now and there are several reasons why. First, his melodic explorations always leave me on the edge of my seat and secondly he is very good at mixing the styles of Herbie Hancock and others while combining them with his own personal style.

Damion Reid plays a nice drum solo later in the song over a solid ostinato figure played by Glasper and Archer. It remains to be seen where Glasper will be in ten years but I have a feeling he'll be exactly where he wants to be. Composing and playing jazz music with just as much passion and flavor as he brings to hip-hop and R&B. Go buy this CD if you don't already own it.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Eddie Harris & Ellis Marsalis: Deacceleration

This refreshing recording session featuring the Chicago-born Eddie Harris and the New Orleans native Ellis Marsalis took place in 1985. Having worked successfully as a duo in a New Orleans club in the mid-eighties, the two successfully duplicate the alchemy of their live performances in this studio session. The lack of a rhythm section in no way diminishes the effectiveness of this session, relying instead on Marsalis’s creative use of variations of tempo and attack in his accompaniment. On the Harris composition "Deacceleration", the two show an affinity that is palpable, playing off each other’s spontaneous ideas. Building in and out of dramatic tension in this clever composition, Marsalis sets the stage for the incendiary saxophonist, who enters in his squealing high-register attack mode. In the reprise, they build to an impressive peak, then segue into a softened refrain which moves from a lulling, reflective stillness into a poignant, fading cry. Thankfully, this gem gets a second chance for renewed appreciation.

July 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Andy Milne & Benoit Delbecq: Divide Comedy

This is not your 'normal' piano duo. Sure, it's two Steinways, but there is also the ultra modern element of the “Dlooper.” I won't bore you with the details of things like Max-MSP, but let's just say that technology has a role to play here, however subtle.

The piece begins in full-on percussion mode, with both pianos sounding like huge kalimbas. Melodic fragments are then wound around the ostinato pattern. The angularity of the piano lines against the static rhythm is a beautiful thing. Thelonius Monk muses on Cecil Tayler is the vibe my ears get. The last minute or so is where technology comes into play. In a very organic way, the electronics take the notes and draw them out into infinity, like an aural version of contrails. Gorgeous.

June 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Denny Zeitlin: Solo Voyage (Suite)

For a decade (1968-1978), pianist Denny Zeitlin extensively explored the world of synthesizers and electric keyboards. This resulted in two ambitious "fusion" albums (Expansion and Syzygy for the 1750 Arch label) and culminated in his electric/acoustic/orchestral score for the remake of the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. After 1978, he refocused his concentration on the piano.

In this suite, originally put together to comfort a dying friend, Zeitlin combined original material, free improvisations, and three standards ("In Your Own Sweet Way," "I Should Care," and "Lament"). "Solo Voyage"--played on both piano and synthesizer--is an effective and affecting work that makes a strong case for creative eclecticism. At least, when it's executed with the taste and sensitivity exhibited here.

June 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Denny Zeitlin: The Night Has 1000/10,000 Eyes

This recording by Denny Zeitlin’s current trio has “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” at its core. However, Zeitlin has extensively augmented the structure with open vamps (including one in 7/4 time) and an entended section of free improvisation. As Zeitlin explains: [It] typifies the way this trio can function as a single organism, patiently and collaboratively developing and working with brand new material in a compositional way. The result is as musical and inventive as one would expect of musicians of this caliber. ’Nuff said.

June 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Denny Zeitlin: They Can't Take That Away From Me

This album marks Denny Zeitlin's first time playing with Buster Williams (b. 1942) and Al Foster (b. 1944). The results were so fruitful that Williams in particular has continued to work with Zeitlin for more than a decade.

Zeitlin's approach to standards typically involves reharmonization, and such is the case here. His interpretation of this Gershwin evergreen, though, goes beyond that. After playing the theme with Zeitlin, Williams and Foster lay out while the pianist plays a chorus that makes fleeting references to both stride and Art Tatum. The tempo then doubles, and the three leap into a double-time improvisation worthy of Bud Powell at his best.

All of this is done without a trace of pastiche. Zeitlin has always been an eclectic, and that quality has been borne out most of all in his approach to repertoire. Here he gives us a welcome insight into his pianistic roots.

June 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Denny Zeitlin: Broadway Blues

Denny Zeitlin has long had an affinity for the music of Ornette Coleman, and he is one of several pianists (others including Paul Bley, Walter Norris, Keith Jarrett, Joachim Kuhn, and Geri Allen) who have best assimilated Coleman’s musical language. He has recorded several Coleman works, including “Lonely Woman,” “Bird Food,” and “Turnaround”.

Zeitlin and bassist David Friesen (b. 1942) collaborated productively for over a decade, and this blistering version of Coleman’s “Broadway Blues” shows the duo at their best. The piece is a blues in intent rather than conventional twelve-bar form (in Coleman’s typically idiosyncratic fashion). Zeitlin and Friesen take the theme apart and explore it from a variety of angles— in effect, deconstructing Coleman’s deconstruction.

June 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Denny Zeitlin and Charlie Haden: Ellen David

If Denny Zeitlin and Charlie Haden had played at Bradley’s, the well-remembered Greenwich Village haven for piano/bass duos, this is how they would have sounded. As is, this album memorably documents a reunion of Zeitlin and Haden for a week at San Francisco’s likewise well-remembered Keystone Korner.

“Ellen David” is Haden’s simple sixteen-bar ballad (with a coda at the end), a sort of latter-day “My Ideal”. The duo’s performance is appropriately spare, but it’s so well grounded that every beat has meaning. As the late bassist Red Mitchell aptly put it, “Simple isn’t easy.”

June 14, 2009 · 0 comments


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