Steve Shapiro & Pat Bergeson: I'll Take the Soup

The team of vibraphonist Steve Shapiro and Chet Atkins protégé Pat Bergeson has produced this scorcher of a soon-to-be-standard tune titled "I'll Take the Soup." It plays like the background music to a fast-moving cartoon chase sequence. This upbeat swinger takes its pulse from the rapidly synchronous playing of the frenetic Bergeson on guitar countered by the equally speedy but mellow tone of Shapiro's vibes. The tune also includes the surprisingly well-matched sound of Will Barrow's swinging accordion backed by the nimble Tim Ferguson on bass. In their totality they form a seamless flow of musical delight that brings a smile to your face. Fun music played with a sense of real professionalism, panache and joy.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Milt Jackson with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: Bags' Groove

Brothers Jeff and John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton have co-led the premier West Coast big band for the last 20+ years. Whether backing vocalists Diana Krall or Rosemary Clooney or presenting John Clayton's arrangements of tunes by Duke, Sonny Stitt or Horace Silver, the group performs impeccably arranged, historically minded, ultra-swinging charts. As with most modern big band performances, "Bags' Groove" offers an updated twist on a familiar historical mainstay. Milt Jackson's classic bop tune is energetically arranged here to evoke the classic Hampton sound. Yet the interactive rhythm section playing behind Jackson, especially drummer Hamilton and pianist Cunliffe, reinvents the vibist/big-band relationship, giving a familiar sonic combination an entirely new life.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments


Roger Kellaway (featuring Stefon Harris): The Nearness of You

When a jazz pianist adds vibes and guitar to the band, comparisons with George Shearing will inevitably come to mind. But there are several strong individuals in this band, so there is little risk of Shearing redux on this 2006 recording from the Jazz Standard. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Stefon Harris, who plays in a very tasty and traditional style. During the first few bars of the melody statement, I wondered whether this ensemble would find the right groove, but by the time we get to Harris's fine solo, the group's cohesion is admirable. Without a drummer on hand, the music sounds very exposed, but the players seem to take delight in a setting that allows them to bring the dynamic level down to a whisper. Russell Malone plays very little here, but everything he adds is premier cru. Kellaway shows off his pristine touch on his solo, but I especially like the way he comps behind Harris. Clearly chamber jazz is still alive and well in the new millennium.

September 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Tom Beckham: Grillin'

The album's title, Rebound, refers to the reaction of a mallet after it strikes a vibraphone bar. (You know… that whole Newton's Law thing, "every action has an equal and opposite reaction" stuff.) In this case, Tom Beckham says it has a double meaning and also refers to the bouncing back of ideas that takes place during improvisation.

"Grillin'" is an up-tempo post-bop workout not dissimilar to something you may have heard from Dexter Gordon in the '70s. The Gordon reference is the direct result of saxophonist Chris Cheek's impressive performance and Beckham's arrangement, in which Dexter would have excelled. That is not to say Cheek is alone. All the players have their act together, and this includes the leader. But this music is more about group cohesion and equal opportunity than individual turns. Beckham says as much in his liner notes. After the impressive traditional solo turns, the group plays a wonderful unison section that lets you know just how tight that group cohesion is. This is toe-tapping good music. Fire up that grill, baby!

September 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Pierre Moerlen's Gong: Downwind

Vibes player Pierre Moerlen gathered quite an interesting crew for this fusion recording. In addition to Didier Malherbe, one of the founding members of the original Gong lineup, and regular Gong member Hansford Rowe, Moerlen is joined by rock hero Steve Winwood. This time out the part of "rotating guitarist" is played by Mike Oldfield, the same award-winning, platinum record seller and composer responsible for the highly successful Tubular Bells from several years previous. Mike Oldfield's brother Terry Oldfield, who has since gone on to become a prolific composer in his own right, plays the flute.

The vibes gave Gong a sound separate and apart from its jazz-rock contemporaries. The instrument's warm tones lack the hard bite that jazz-rock fans almost always demand from any lead instrument. But Moerlen wisely uses his axe's rhythmic qualities as a framework for his compositions, which take full advantage of both the melodic and rhythmic aspects of the instrument. Plus there is always an electric guitar or saxophone or synthesizer around to help supply some drama.

"Downwind" is a syncopated piece relying on a somewhat understated African beat. Strangely, or perhaps in honor, Moerlen plays a cycle of vibraphone riffs that sound very suspiciously like certain sections of Oldfield's Tubular Bells. When Oldfield enters, the resemblance becomes more than suspicious. Someone should be charged. But the point is that this is Oldfield's bag. He is good at it. Does he improvise? I am not quite sure. I know Malherbe is improvising, so I can call this jazz. Winwood is lost somewhere in the mix. Terry Oldfield's flute sounds Olde English. A very impressive percussion midsection leads us up the castle steps and toward the incessant ringing of those bells – I mean vibes.

July 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Gary Burton Quartet: Blue Comedy

Because of all the diverse music Gary Burton has recorded for almost 50 years, and since the vibraphone is not exactly an instrument that jumps up and down asking for attention, we often forget that even before he achieved his role as jazz vibe icon, Burton was an important member in the early days of the jazz fusion movement. Burton's quartet isn't exactly playing fusion on "Blue Comedy." But he is performing in the early days with three gifted players who would in one form or another join him in the soon-to-be burgeoning jazz-rock movement. Coryell and Moses were already playing in Coryell's post-fusion group Free Spirits at this time. Swallow was a permanent member of Burton's quartet and would go on to perform with Carla Bley, among many others. For that reason, "Blue Comedy" is significant because it displays Burton and his bandmates just before the jazz-rock movement really took hold.

"Blue Comedy" is a modern jazz blues number. Burton opens the proceedings with a forthright straight- ahead melodic mallet run. Swallow's walking bassline steadily propels the piece. Coryell plays some choppy comping chords before he takes a restrained tasteful solo off the basic blues scales. There is little of the speed demon Coryell can be. But it is tasteful playing in the context of the number. Burton swings during his foray, occasionally leaving enough space for Moses's effective accents. The obligatory bass solo follows. Swallow is able to maintain the forward motion of the piece without much difficulty before he is joined for the wrap-up. "Blue Comedy" is real good jazz worthy of the venue in which it was presented: Carnegie Hall. From a historical perspective it is further evidence that all good fusion players had a foundation in traditional modern jazz before they started playing fast and loud. The best of them feel right at home in either style, and all of these players have proved that over time.

July 26, 2008 · 0 comments


Gary Burton & Stéphane Grappelli: Blue in Green

One of the greatest joys of jazz is unexpected collaboration. In no other genre do artists of varied ages, cultures and musical backgrounds meet to play as often. To be honest, not all of these get- togethers end with successful music. But in almost every case, these attempts are to be admired for the effort. Luckily, when legendary Gypsy jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli met with one of jazz's greatest vibists, Gary Burton, things worked out just fine. Grappelli is ostensibly a guest star on this recording, which features a variation of the classic Gary Burton Quartet.

Conventional wisdom would say that an interpretation of "Blue in Green" would be more suited to the modern jazz that Burton was known for. And indeed Burton plays the introduction and the first solo over Swallow's slow, throbbing bass with a comforting ease. His confidence is even more impressive when you realize that this Gary Burton was only 29 years old. Meanwhile, his iconic melodic foil Stéphane Grappelli was 64. How would Grappelli approach the tune? Would he give it a bit of European swing? No. A bit of the Gypsy? Well, maybe a little. But what he mostly delivers is a thought-provoking and touching display of what jazz interpretation is all about. The collaborative process requires players to fully understand the music and the varying dynamics in play. Musicians of this quality can perform any type of music because they respect it. And they can perform it effectively together because they listen to and respect each other.

July 17, 2008 · 0 comments


Mark Sherman: Trust

On his 2008 European tour, vibraphonist Mark Sherman captured some rare moments with his quartet playing in a groove that often only comes during live performances. In this case the setting was The Bird's Eye jazz club in Basel, Switzerland, before a receptive and enthusiastic crowd. Having played together for the past four years, Sherman's group has annealed into a formidably potent vehicle for straight-ahead jazz, with vibes and piano being the focal points. Sherman is a facile player who can play both expressively in the Gary Burton mode as well as cook with the best of them. He and pianist Farnham take turns making points on this moody, bluesy piece, ably backed by the intuitive rhythm section. Sherman's tubular timbre is smoky and warm as he plays with the tune's time. Farnham adds some brilliant keyboard touches, his style romantic with just the right hint of melancholy. It's good to hear talented musicians performing enjoyable music to an appreciative audience.

July 07, 2008 · 0 comments


Cal Tjader: Maramoor Mambo

Cal Tjader fell in love with Latin music early in his career, and from 1954 to his death in 1982 primarily led Latin jazz groups, with many of his fans assuming understandably but incorrectly that he must be Latino. The authenticity of Tjader's style, and his use of such top Latin percussionists as Ray Barretto, Willie Bobo, Armando Peraza, Poncho Sanchez and Mongo Santamaria, placed him at the forefront of the Latin jazz scene, and his music even influenced the later Latin-rock creations of Carlos Santana.

The short title track of his Soul Sauce album was as close as Tjader ever came to a hit record, but the longer "Maramoor Mambo" from the same session better highlights his distinctive metallic sound on the vibes and his relaxed, flowing and rhythmically engaging improvisational approach. Peraza's catchy mambo opens with hearty conga accents and firm piano chords as Tjader navigates the buoyant melody before surging into his driving solo, where Hewitt's montuno backing is a perfect complement. The pianist, a veteran Tjader sideman, follows the vibraphonist with his own dancing solo, displaying an appealing delicate touch and a spirited percussive attack.

"I'm not an innovator," Tjader once said. "I'm not a pathfinder. I'm a participant." Entertainer would be a better word, as Tjader left behind a body of work consistently joyful, unassuming and ingratiating.

July 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Red Norvo: Night and Day

Red Norvo was a fascinating jazz musician. On the one hand, he primarily played the out-of-fashion and limited xylophone up until 1944, and even after completely abandoning it for the vibraphone, basically clung to the style he'd developed on his old wooden-barred instrument. On the other hand, his playing was always hip and advanced, and he naturally embraced and fit in with the bebop movement, recording with Bird and Diz in 1945, and in 1950 forming one of the greatest of all small jazz groups – the boppish Red Norvo Trio with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus.

Norvo's trio was a perfect blend of creative improvisation, group interaction through their telepathic responses to each other, and intricate and flexible head arrangements. The medium-tempo "Night and Day" begins with Farlow's simulated bongo pattern, utilizing the body of his guitar. Norvo plays the well-known theme in his vibrato-less style, with Tal cleverly feeding him chords on the bridge. The guitarist then solos imaginatively with Norvo comping sensitively behind him and also contributing some effective melodic counterpoint. Red's own solo typifies his approach. Since he preferred to play the vibes with the motor shut off to preserve the more natural sound he felt he got from the xylophone, he uses tremolos, rapidly repeated single notes and artful arpeggios to compensate for the lack of vibrato, while using the pedal to sustain notes. It's the harmonic sophistication and melodic ingenuity one hears on this track that made his unique improvisational concept so successful. Norvo and Farlow then inventively split the thematic exposition to take the piece out. This is a rare selection where the usually dominant Mingus remains largely in the background. This edition of Norvo's trio lasted about two years, after which the leader tried to duplicate the magic with Jimmy Raney and Red Mitchell, but it was never quite the same.

July 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Steve Nelson: New Beginning

Steve Nelson has been quite visible as the vibraphonist in Dave Holland's Quintet and Big Band since the mid-'90s, yet has had surprisingly few opportunities to record as a leader. Having paid his dues as a sideman going back to the 1970s, perhaps now with his most recent well-received release Sound-Effect Nelson will, in his 50s, finally get to move center-stage for good.

When Nelson performed with his group at the 6th Acireale Jazz Festival in Italy in 1989, it appeared that the sky was the limit for him and his saxophonist Bobby Watson, both hot up-and-comers at the time. Their high-energy sets (there is a Live Session, Vol. 2) did not disappoint. The nearly 12-minute "New Beginning" starts with Nelson's and Watson's unison delivery of the alluring, upbeat theme. Nelson's extended solo is expertly paced and structured, one of his most outstanding recorded improvisations, jubilant and absorbing throughout. His swift, gliding lines and supercharged liftoffs on the turnarounds are particular highlights. Watson follows in his usual extroverted manner, his boppish phrases executed with flair through his piercing tone. His exuberant playing here comes out of the Phil Woods and Richie Cole school of intense bop/hard bop. Brown's rousing solo keeps up the pace, spurred on by Lundy's rock-solid basslines and Lewis's propulsive accents. Brown's superb comping, it must be added, along with the uplifting support of Lundy and Lewis help inspire Nelson and Watson to the heights during their respective solos. This was a tight band for the short time it lasted, probably assembled just for the European festival circuit that summer.

July 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Mike Mainieri: Straphangin'

As vital and inquisitive a musician as Mike Mainieri has been over the years, best known as leader of Steps Ahead, it's hard to believe he is turning 70 in 2008. Yet at age 15, he played on Paul Whiteman's radio show with his own trio, and was a Buddy Rich sideman from 1956 to 1963. He also won the New Star Award in the 1961 Down Beat Critics Poll. Rich, in fact, urged him to Americanize his Italian name to Mann, and therein lies a tale. His first An American Diary release in 1995 (with Joe Lovano), Mainieri wrote, "was a project that put me in touch with the dichotomy of musical tastes in my family." The second project, The Dreamings with George Garzone, he "dedicated to my family who introduced me to the art of storytelling, which they drew upon through their nomadic Italian and Sephardic wanderings and enriched my American heritage."

The track "Straphangin'" is described by Mainieri as "inspired by subway folklore. As a child, I would observe the body motions and facial expressions as my fellow straphangers would dance and bounce their way through the city." This led to a "fascination with puppets," which he would make and dress and "then attach their feet to vibe mallets and stage shows over the front of my instrument." He calls drummer Peter Erskine "the motorman of this particular ride." Erskine initiates a swaying subway car rhythm before Mainieri and Garzone play the choppy, staccato theme. Garzone's long breakneck tenor solo is intensely creative, with hurtling lines, slurred notes, dissonant wails and even a simulated train horn at one point, rhythmically exciting overall and relentlessly paced. Mainieri is less hurried but sizzling nonetheless, expertly on xylophone at first before switching to vibes, where only his vibrato differentiates his precise extended runs and expressive percussive attack. Erskine solos with great command and feeling before vibes and tenor ride the train to its final destination. Although nothing like "Take the 'A' Train," "Straphangin'" is just as invigorating in its own unique way.

July 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Joe Locke: Saturn's Child

Joe Locke has become one of today's most prominent jazz vibraphonists due to his technical mastery, versatility and composing ability. There is also a spirituality to his playing that sets him apart. The notes to Slander (and Other Love songs), for example, include the text of the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi's "In the Arc of Your Mallet," as well as a quote from Mark Twain: "Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work." Seen in live performance, Locke physically appears to be a coiled wellspring of energy as he navigates challenging harmonic pathways at urgent tempos or reflectively amplifies the essence of slow ballads. "Saturn's Child" falls in the latter category; it's one of Locke's most beautiful compositions, which he frequently performs and has twice recorded.

Billy Childs's electronic keyboards (although he is listed only as a "pianist" on this session) set the soothing mood. Locke plays the contemplative, ethereal theme in unison with guitarist Juris, as Childs evokes a string section's highly sympathetic support. The underappreciated Juris solos movingly with crystal-clear lines and a warm, rich tone. Locke's improvisation is played with a ringing tone reminiscent of Cal Tjader. His phrases, like those of Juris before him, are vibrant and lucidly delineated, delivered soulfully and with understated passion. The reprise lets us indulge once again in the exquisite grace of this superior melodic creation.

July 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Milt Jackson & John Coltrane: Be-Bop

There was more to Milt Jackson than putting on a tuxedo with the Modern Jazz Quartet and performing what some perceived as soulless, overly refined and restrained jazz, usually in distinguished concert halls rather than smoky night clubs. Yet even with the MJQ, Jackson never lost his bluesy edge and found plenty of challenges in the music. Away from the MJQ, he'd enter the recording studio to enthusiastically engage outstanding musicians such as Lucky Thompson, Cannonball Adderley, Coleman Hawkins, Wes Montgomery and, last but not least, John Coltrane. Jackson had first played with Coltrane in Dizzy Gillespie's Sextet in the early '50's, but of course this was a much different Trane in 1959 – the tenorman was just three months away from his breakthrough Giant Steps session.

Probably their past Gillespie connection led them to play Dizzy's "Be-Bop" amidst a repertoire of standards and blues. Coltrane takes the theme, then gives way to Jackson's bracing improvisation ably supported by Jones's assertive comping, Chambers's pulsing bassline and Kay's insistent cymbal beat. Jackson's brisk single-note lines speed by almost in a blur, and his rhythmically emphatic attack is accentuated by his characteristically pronounced vibrato. Coltrane solos with beseeching runs, slurs, wails and intervallic leaps, his momentum maintained confidently for the duration, although a bit of repetition in his then- characteristic "sheets of sound" approach becomes apparent near the end. Jones's concise solo is bop at its most thoughtful and engrossing. Bags and Trane then trade fours, Jackson's sparse phrases seemingly intended to provoke Coltrane's fertile imagination, which they succeed grandly in doing.

July 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Bobby Hutcherson: I Am In Love

The 1968 Monterey Jazz Festival presented a concert entitled "A Generation of Vibers" (a nod to Philip Wylie), featuring Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, and the two emerging vibraphone stars of the 1960s, Gary Burton and Bobby Hutcherson. The latter's Blue Note recordings during those years revealed an individual stylist and prolific and accomplished composer. His distinctive chime-like sound, and his adventurous and technically proficient improvisations, which displayed effective use of space, attention to dynamics, and a creative way of sustaining and damping notes, all combined to give jazz one of its next major players. Hutcherson continued to refine his style to the point where every note seemed essential and every phrase and flight of fancy seemed to fall in place perfectly, and his interpretation of beautiful melodies both old and new became unbeatable. (He has also proven to be a masterful marimba player.)

On Mirage, his first-ever encounter with the distinguished Tommy Flanagan, Hutcherson chose a rare Cole Porter tune, "I Am in Love," for the diverse program, and his performance is an example of, and testament to, his brilliance. He offers an ardent reading of the theme and a soaring, exciting and spellbinding solo before Flanagan and bassist Peter Washington add their own impressive statements. Hutcherson has the last word, a priceless, highly embellished exploration of Porter's melody that differs vastly, due to its greater amplification, from the vibraphonist's more deliberate opening run-through.

July 02, 2008 · 0 comments


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