Dave Douglas: Spring Ahead

Douglas recorded three "tribute" CDs in the '90's, to Booker Little (In Our Lifetime), Wayne Shorter (Stargazer), and Mary Lou Williams (Soul On Soul). If you listen to them one after another, a certain interchangeability might be discerned, given that the very same sextet plays on each and Douglas's composing and arranging styles give many tracks an unmistakable character reflecting the trumpeter's many overall influences out of both the jazz and classical worlds. From conventional harmonies to atonality, from expansive melodic sections to fluctuating, episodic passages either spacey or animated, from incisive individual solos to compelling contrapuntal engagements, Douglas leaves his personal stamp on all that he conceives and executes.

"Spring Ahead," the first track on Stargazer, would have fit nicely on any of Shorter's '60's Blue Notes. James Genus's loping but determined bass line leads to Uri Caine's ostinato pattern and then the lighthearted, oscillating theme, with its subtle shifts in tempo and dynamics. Joey Baron's sprightly stickwork accentuates the prevailing tension and release, as well as the unpredictability of direction and movement. Just as Douglas resolutely surges into his solo, Chris Speed's clarinet and Josh Roseman's trombone briefly visit for an inquisitive three-way dialogue. Douglas now enters the meat of his improv, his ripe tone undergoing a variety of tonal transformations that enrich a series of hurtling, interconnected extended runs. Caine follows in a straight-ahead bluesy vein before introducing more provocative, progressive voicings. Douglas, Speed, and Roseman resume their earlier swirling counterpoint until the theme's appealing contours are once again explored.

August 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton: Jeepers Creepers

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton is a musician who deeply understands and has assimilated Louis Armstrong's legacy. Doc Cheatham, for his part, occasionally subbed for Louis back in the mid-1920s - more than four decades before Payton was born. Yet the duo bridge the Jazz Age and the Internet Age on this Grammy-winning recording, which was Cheatham's last studio project before his death at age 91. Payton's solo work here is outstanding, and if he outshines Cheatham, the latter still delivers a heck of a performance for a nonagenarian. Payton's unaccompanied intro is all too brief, but packs a lot of swing into a few bars. Cheatham's vocal won't make anyone forget Satchmo, but the trading trumpets interlude is a shining example of cross-generational camaraderie.

August 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nicholas Payton: When the Saints Go Marching In

Contrary to what you might think, Dixieland bands hate playing this tune. Back in the 1960s, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band demanded a five dollar tip before they would even consider performing it, but would only require one buck for "Clarinet Marmalade." One solution for jaded trad players is to banish it from the repertoire—send those saints marching out—but the other approach is to follow Payton's formula. Change the chords and rhythms so that it becomes an entirely new song. Nothing remains of the original progression on this recording. You won't hear any trad band try this kind of reharmonization, and along with the eight-to-the-bar long count feel of the pulse, the result is a version of "Saints" that sounds more at home in Rio than the French Quarter. Payton's trumpet work is big, brassy and beautiful, and stands in marked contrast to the work of those horn players who think that you need to run roughshod over a tune if you want to play it in real N'awlins style. But this artist is a big enough talent to reinvent the tradition and refract it through his own personal aesthetic, as he demonstrates once again on this track.

August 17, 2009 · 0 comments

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Papa Mutt Carey: Ostrich Walk

With two Papas (Papa Mutt Carey and Pops Foster) and a Baby (Dodds) on hand—each of them a New Orleans pioneer of the music—you will either get plenty of family feeling or a nasty paternity suit. Fortunately no DNA testing is required here. Carey runs the band with a light touch, and gives ample solo space and plenty of breaks to his colleagues. Clarinetist Albert Nicholas is especially impressive, both for his lovely tone and his coherent improvisation. Carey thrives on the New Orleans counterpoint, although you can also hear the influence of the Swing Era aesthetic on this track. But make no mistake: unlike other trad jazz wannabes of the era, these fellows were there at the start. Carey was working with Kid Ory long before the first jazz recordings were made, and was a participant at the first session to feature African-Americans playing jazz music. But you don't need a history book in hand to enjoy this track. And, youngsters, you could learn a thing or two about phrasing if you supplemented your daily dose of Coltrane with at least a taste of this sweet ol' music.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Terence Blanchard: A New World (Created Inside The Walls Of Imagination)

As Dr. Cornel West’s social commentary from the prior, spoken voice track fades out, Scott’s second line beat and Almazan’s persistent note comes into focus. There are no chord changes in this song, but like a good vegetable soup, the meat isn’t needed if the spices are doing its job well enough. There’s a slippery, horn-led theme that’s inserted into the song twice, but that chord stays.

In between the themes, Blanchard rides the Big Easy rhythm like the old pro that he is---more like the old Orleanian that he is--blowing notes in the freewheeling style of a jazz parade, his languid pace placing him back in the very Crescent City from whence he came. Loueke’s unique wah-wah guitar intonations compete against the trumpeter, providing the friction that keeps the easygoing vibe from getting rote. And then there’s the urgency that comes from Almazan’s persistent note; symbolic, perhaps, of the challenges that must be faced in the new world as described by Dr. West.

August 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roy Eldridge & Dizzy Gillespie: Pretty-Eyed Baby

In an interview, Jon Hendricks asked Dizzy Gillespie to demonstrate the evolution of styles by singing a riff as Louis Armstrong would sing it, then as how Roy Eldridge would sing it, and finally how Dizzy would sing it. Dizzy replied with a simple rhythmic idea from Louis, an intense, agitated version for Roy and then an arhythmic flurry of fast notes for himself. Although Dizzy was joking around, he admitted that his example wasn’t too far from reality. The similarities and differences between Roy and Dizzy are better illustrated in “Pretty-Eyed Baby”, a light-hearted duet from Roy And Diz, which features both principals on trumpet and vocals. Although the recording is in mono, it’s very easy to tell the difference between the two players, as Eldridge plays a Harmon mute throughout and Dizzy plays in a cup mute. Further, each man’s scat singing style echoes their trumpet work: Roy with a pronounced rasp and powerful rhythm, Dizzy smoother with very complex rhythmic combinations. The trumpet solos that follow the scat are 8-bar exchanges (probably kept short as both trumpeters had played in their high registers for most of the date). The improvised 2-part vocal harmony on the coda doesn’t really work—I doubt they rehearsed the number before recording it—but the recording is an important historical document of two of the best trumpeters (and scat singers) in jazz history.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Hotter Than That

The fiery “Hotter Than That” is one of Louis Armstrong’s masterpieces. Played at a flying tempo, Armstrong soars while most of his band-mates can barely get off the ground. The opening trumpet solo is a brilliant example of developing a melodic idea, all with a dynamic sound and sophisticated swing. Lonnie Johnson, guesting with the Hot Five, was clearly a student of Armstrong’s innovations, and he accompanies Armstrong’s magnificent scat solo. Armstrong’s advanced rhythmic sense is in full display as he sings behind the beat and then intensifies the rhythm with a brilliant series of dotted quarter notes which get further and further off the beat. (Later, Armstrong ties his solo work together by alluding to those dotted quarters in his final trumpet solo!) Also of note are Armstrong’s scat syllables: he uses “rip” several times, each time with an ascending glissando (the term is now commonly used for that melodic device), and he even improvises the term “bebop” which became the name of the jazz movement in the 1940s. Louis Armstrong may not have invented scat singing, but he remains one of its greatest exponents.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wynton Marsalis: The Ways of Love

Marsalis's evocative writing for the score of the 1990 film Tune in Tomorrow was a further indication of his progress as a composer and arranger, which would soon be emphatically affirmed on the CDs Blue Interlude, Citi Movement, and In This House, On This Morning. This soundtrack also marked the recorded debut of the trumpeter's core septet (plus additional musicians). Based on the novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa, which was set in the early '50's in Lima, Peru, the screenplay transferred the location to Marsalis's hometown of New Orleans, a place and time that Marsalis deftly brings to life in his music.

Whereas much of the score rejoices in the multifaceted traditions of New Orleans style polyphonic jazz, from its midst emerges a winsome Marsalis ballad with lyrics by Joel Siegel, a sort of less subtle "Teach Me Tonight" involving the relatively inexperienced film character Martin (Keanu Reeves) and Julia (Barbara Hershey), the older woman that he woos. The band plays a poignant vamp preceding Marsalis' limning of the graceful, floating theme, as the horns waft gently in and out. Then Shirley Horn enters to tenderly express, with her usual masterful understatement, the essence of the lyrics. "Cradle me in your embrace / and soothe me until you hear me sigh / pleasure me in all the secret places / teach me all the ways of love." Marsalis lush writing for his augmented septet, in support of Horn's vocal, is warmly articulate and radiantly colored.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roy Eldridge: Melange

Shades of Jazz at the Philharmonic, Roy Eldridge's old stomping grounds. At 64 years-of-age at the time of this recording, Eldridge may have lost a little off his fastball, but his competitive juices always flowed in this kind of context, namely the 13-minute jump blues, "Melange," that gives the frontliners a chance to really stretch out and express themselves. This track comes from one of the spirited trumpeter's last sessions before he suffered a stroke in 1980 that forced him to retire. Here he's surrounded by the versatile multi-instrumentalists Budd Johnson and Norris Turney, the impeccable "guest star" Milt Jackson, and an optimal rhythm section.

The horns hit the theme's dual riffs forcefully as Eddie Locke provides an emphatic backbeat. Norman Simmons' bluesy, light-touched piano takes the first solo, succeeded by bassist Ted Sturgis's brief yet illuminating spot. Turney's alto assumes a Johnny Hodges persona, and while his tone is harder than the Rabbit's, his message is just as insinuating and succulent as would be expected from his old Ellington Orchestra confrere. Eldridge is next, muted and restrained at first but gradually building, as usual, to now open trumpet climactic wails. Johnson enters breathy and fluttering, and commences to unveil a truly magnificent blue saxophone solo, replete with upper register shrieks, deep honks, raspy flurries, and sighing riffs. Jackson's dampened sound and more laid-back attack present a pleasing contrast to Johnson's exuberance. The exciting horn vamp that follows leads us back to the robust theme.

July 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Donald Byrd: Slow Drag

Here we have yet another Bossa nova song disguised by a heavy piano bass and some bluesy changes. The opening to this song definitely sounds like it was meant for the opening sequence of a bad P.I. movie. Donald Byrd sounds good on this song as well as the rest of the album and I enjoy the changes to this tune better than the others. Byrd's playing is aided by the loose nature of the song and it grooves a little harder, especially on the turnaround, which sounds like they ripped it straight from a Hancock Blue Note recording. Byrd's trumpet style is very interesting to my ears, I can't figure out sometimes what he's going for and then all of a sudden he brings me back to table with some nice note choices. I recommend this song and the entire album for anyone that wants to get their teeth wet to some of the R&B/Bossa music of Blue Note from the late 1960s. You also don't want to miss the cool Billy Higgins vocal adlib towards the end of the song. Classic!

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Morgan: Absolutions

In early 1970 Morgan was on the wrong end of an altercation with a pipe-wielding assailant, taking a blow directly to the face. Painful, loosened teeth were wired together with braces, forcing Morgan to reconstruct his embouchure and rebuild his strength and endurance. Ironically, this arduous process coincided with a dramatic change in the sound of Morgan’s working group. Spearheaded by the addition of reedman/composer Bennie Maupin, Morgan’s quintet opened up, exuding a new adventurousness and exoticism in its long-form modal structures. The seasoned trumpeter explored these new compositions in marathon, often introverted improvisations, less flamboyant than in his gregarious youth. On “Absolutions,” following a cathartic, searching statement by Maupin, Morgan enters meditatively, sustaining long notes and carefully developing his ideas at a deliberate pace before erupting with more familiar explosiveness near the 7:52 mark. The rhythm section—Mabern’s grounding, full-bodied fourth chords, Roker’s polyrhythmic triplets, and supple, active bass from the composer Jymie Merritt—creates a dense and sinister soundscape that reaches a sustained, violent peak behind the leader. Morgan is potent and focused, determinedly battling his career-threatening injury. He would go on to make only a few more recordings before his life came to its tragic end, making the epic three-disc Live at the Lighthouse all the more precious.

July 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Morgan: Mr. Johnson

Though not a prolific composer, pianist Harold Mabern has written his share of outstanding tunes, and his brooding minor-key waltz “Mr. Johnson” is a tour de force that could’ve—no, should’ve—become a jazz standard. A mostly forgotten track from an ill-fated session of obscurities and uneven performances, “Mr. Johnson” finds everyone in exceptional form. After the ensemble charges through the loping melody, George Coleman wrestles his way above Mabern’s forceful, Tyner-like chords, soaring and squealing his way into Coltrane-like ecstasy. The dominating influence of Trane’s quartet is deeply infused at the core of this track.

Morgan’s solo is a special one. Beginning with a small two-note idea, he methodically elongates his motive, slowly building momentum as he inches forward and upward. At the bridge, in typical Morgan fashion, he contrasts his punchiness on the ‘A’ sections with a linear approach, melodically leading back into a continued motivic development that consumes his second chorus as well. Morgan battled occasional chop issues at this point in his career, but at this session his high-range was crystal clear and he showcased it; his high notes ring magnificently as the group nearly bursts at its seams with tension.

Eschewing his myriad licks and tricks, Morgan breaks out of his comfort zone on “Mr. Johnson”; this is true, organic, unfiltered improvisation, replete with a sense of discovery and surprise in every note.

July 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Larry Young (with Lee Morgan): Trip Merchant

Though Lee Morgan didn’t incorporate elements of the avant-garde in his own groups until late in his career, his resourceful and multi-faceted playing earned him sideman slots on such adventurous records as Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution (1963), Andrew Hill’s Grass Roots (1968), and Mother Ship, by the iconoclastic organist Larry Young. With loose rhythm and minimal blues inflections, Morgan’s solo on Young’s “Trip Merchant” strays far from the “in-the-pocket” playing that defined his improvisations throughout his career. This just might be as “out” as he would ever get.

After a spacey, explorative solo by the leader, Morgan begins contemplatively, ruminating on the pentatonic scale over Young’s pedal bass footwork. He is swept higher and higher on the organist’s tornado-like chords, intensifying and extending his half-step motive into a cathartic, shrieking trill. A chromatic descent preludes Morgan’s examination of the open nature of Young’s sustained chords, utilizing an uncharacteristic amount of dissonance before returning to pentatonics to close out his exhausting solo. Young’s playing is stimulating and drummer Eddie Gladden’s cymbal texturing and communicable energy is notable throughout. An exciting and important solo in his vast discography, “Trip Merchant” shows Morgan developing a new dimension in his playing that would unfortunately never become fully realized.

July 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Joe Henderson (with Lee Morgan): Caribbean Fire Dance

Joe Henderson added his hard-nosed tenor stylings to The Sidewinder (1963) and The Rumproller (1965) so Morgan graciously returned the favor in 1966 by joining the tenorman on his fantastic Mode for Joe. Surrounded by a who’s who of Blue Note superstars, Morgan stands out with a performance that characterizes his mid-1960s playing: daring and bold but imperfect, yet unrelenting in energy and determination.

Composer Cedar Walton’s Latin-tinged ostinato pattern and Hutcherson’s sporadic chime-like octaves give “Caribbean Fire Dance” an anxious, unresolved feeling which the soloists exploit in unique ways, creating a haunting and increasingly tense listening experience. Though Morgan sounds fatigued from the tune’s downbeat, he summons up his chops and courageously puts it all on the line in his solo. He immediately shoots into his upper register, his crackling, spreading tone sounds on the brink of bursting into flames. Exposed, audacious, and brutally raw, the first 16-bars of his improvisation are some of the most thrilling and suspenseful Morgan ever waxed. He returns from the stratosphere on the bridge, moving self-consciously up and down a whole-tone scale. Morgan toys with rhythmic ideas that recall the staccato seesawing nature of the melody during his second chorus, before a more convincing use of the whole-tone scale on his second bridge. Morgan combines all of the distinct elements of his style in this solo—his daredevil power and range, complex rhythmic and harmonic eccentricities, built on top of a bedrock of blues.

July 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lee Morgan: Ceora

While “The Sidewinder” may have been his biggest hit, “Ceora” is Lee Morgan’s most enduring contribution to the jazz canon. By 1965 Morgan had built a reputation as a fiery trumpeter with a style that was half flash and half funk, so the lovely, balladic “Ceora” was an unlikely centerpiece on Cornbread—a hard grooving album of heavy hitters like the title track. Whatever “Ceora” lacks in explicit passion is made up for with its transcendent beauty, which begins immediately on beat one of Hancock’s pristine intro, setting the mood with exactly sixty seconds of pure, understated bliss. With its syncopation and intervallic jumps, Morgan and Mobley’s melody is deceptively restless but Hancock’s splendid comping and Higgins’ gentle brushwork and soothing bossa groove smooth down its spiked edges. Morgan retains the edginess in his improvisation—heavily accented and articulated with grace notes and a defiant tug-of-war with the time—but his charming lyricism makes this one of his most singable solos. Essential 1960s jazz.

July 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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