Wayne Shorter: Deluge

When Wayne Shorter combined forces with John Coltrane's rhythm section for his 1964 album JuJu, the results were nothing short of ear opening. It's interesting to note the influence that Coltrane had on Shorter. I'm not so sure I buy into the notion that 'Trane influenced Shorter that much as a composer but I think you can definitely hear it in his playing. I think underneath it all, Coltrane had a deep respect for Shorter's playing and that might be why he recommended him to Miles Davis when he left in 1960 (Davis went with Sonny Stitt instead).

The most striking element about this rhythm section is how McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones sound behind Shorter. It's unfortunate but bassist Reggie Workman's levels are extremely low in the mix. I think it's a safe bet that no matter what saxophonist this rhythm section backed up, it would highly improve the sound and quality of that particular player.

On "Deluge" Tyner and Shorter open the song with an introduction before Tyner is joined by the rest of the rhythm section on the chord hits. Shorter's solo evolves nicely here as well, full of nuance and personality. McCoy Tyner also provides his typical sounds, with fragmented harmonic movements underneath the melody and a lush but full usage of the piano during comping. Overall, a great album from probably one of the best post bop albums of the 1960s.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Melody Gardot: The Rain

It's been a few years since the Norah Jones Sweepstakes mentality hit the jazz scene—Enter now! Sing a torch song, and maybe you could win a quadruple platinum record—but we still see new entrants. Melody Gardot has many of the right ingredients for stardom. First and foremost her voice, which is conversational and intimate. She has a clean, clear delivery that puts the lyric at the center of every song she sings. She can accompany herself on piano and guitar, and her approach here is very understated with a good sense of space. Even so, I would like to hear her do many of the songs on this CD with a rhythm section that put a little more bite into the comping. This free-floating track threatens to float away on a breeze of rubato—a sensibility that pervades much of this CD. Yet Gardot sings with a lot of heart and soul, and her personal history has enough tragedy in it to meet anyone's metaphysical requirement for dues-paying. I'm not sure if she will win the Norah Jones Sweepstakes, but she is definitely a contender.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Claude Thornhill: Snowfall

In the early 1940s, the opposite of "hot jazz" wasn't "cool jazz." The term "cool jazz" didn't exist at the time. A jazz fan at the time would have told you that the sweet bands were the antithesis of the hot swing orchestras. These sweet ensembles specialized in the tepid and sentimental, and didn't put much faith in cookin' tenor solos and smokin' chase choruses.

But how do we fit Claude Thornhill into this binary opposition? Jazz didn't get any more ethereal or mood-oriented than "Snowfall," his signature song. This is closer to Debussy than to Duke Ellington, and yet there is a ineffable quality at the heart of this music that resists assimilation into the sweet Guy Lombardo-ish camp. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this music anticipates the 'cool jazz' revolution of the 1950s, and it comes to no surprise that many of the artists associated with that movement either worked with or were influenced by Thornhill. These linkages would become even more apparent when the Thornhill band reformed after World War II. Gil Evans, who would serve as Thornhill's arranger, summed up the ethos of this music best when he commented: "The sound hung like a cloud."

May 11, 2009 · 1 comment


Elisabeth Kontomanou: Sunny

Elisabeth Kontomanou once lived in New York and played with Leon Parker, Mike Stern and Sam Newsome. Now she's back in Europe, where she legitimately became a star. But her way of singing bridges the Atlantic, for the better. Here, her deep raw voice tackles a pop hit from the '60s and makes it a jazz gem. John Scofield's funky guitar is of great help as it supports her in the intro and coda, and is particularly effective with the rhythm team as Kontomanou scats in a soulful way.

February 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Jane Ira Bloom: Mental Weather

Jane Ira Bloom

The words "saxophone" and "electronics" in close proximity normally set off our internal Gimmick Alert! alarm, causing us to scurry for cover. Remember Eddie Harris's summer of '68 "Listen Here," the Varitone sax's one-hit wonder? Or John Klemmer's mid-'70s "Touch," which touched our credit cards with primeval Echoplex effects that led producer Michael Cuscuna, among others, to ever after refer to him as "Klemmer, Klemmer, Klemmer."

Thankfully, Jane Ira Bloom, whom jazz critic Nat Hentoff has called "beyond category," is also way beyond gimmickry in her use of electronics, which is as dazzlingly organic as a painter's swirls, adding colorful touches without ever becoming the central focus. The ingenious title track from her 2008 CD illustrates this approach, building on a bass vamp figure whose time signature, the composer informs us, alternates measures of 4/4 and 3/8. This creates an underlying jitteriness that ideally complements amazing solos by Jane Ira and her remarkable new pianist, Seattle's Dawn Clement, who both swing brilliantly over bassist Mark Helias and drummer Matt Wilson's in-the-pocket groove in a mighty unusual meter.

But "Mental Weather" is not about solos, metrics or electronics. This is a full-fledged four-way exchange between master musicians preternaturally attuned to one another, and it's a delight even for those of us who wouldn't know 4/4 from 6-7/8ths.

When we asked whether it would be off the mark to connect the dots between Jane Ira's present work and the early '60s Jimmy Giuffre 3 with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow—for us, a touchstone in the kind of small- group interactivity that Bloom is so notably exploring—she acknowledged: "Those three artists are all great jazz adventurers." But, she added tellingly, "I think somewhere in the back of my mind Ornette is always lurking."

With Ornette Coleman lurking in the back of her mind, it's no wonder Jane Ira Bloom's "Mental Weather" is so invigorating.

February 01, 2008 · 0 comments


Charles Mingus: A Foggy Day

Don't be fooled by the album cover. Max Roach is not on this track. The introduction is promising -- an avant-garde grumbling and rumbling seems to announce the arrival of Free Jazz. Cecil Taylor would not issue his first recording until the following year, and Mal Waldron seems anxious to get the jump on him. But it only lasts twenty seconds. Perhaps the musicians were trying to imitate a foghorn to announce the arrival of their foggy day in London town. The rest of the track is fairly conventional, and one of Mingus's lesser efforts. Those looking for a more invigorating dose of the great bassist should fast forward a few years -- to "Haitian Fight Song" (from 1957) or "Better Git It In Your Soul" (from 1959) for better examples of his artistry.

December 07, 2007 · 0 comments


Lena Horne: Stormy Weather

Eight days after Pearl Harbor, the breathtaking Lena Horne correctly forecasts long-term war clouds. The following year, in Hollywood's Stormy Weather (1943), an all-black musical biopic of dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Horne co-starred and reprised the title song. Lip-synching at her apartment window opposite an El Train station, Lena misses her man so much she's oblivious to a virtual hurricane battering Harlem. The role made her a star, and "Stormy Weather" became her signature. Here, Ned Freeman's Harlem- Meets-Hollywood arrangement is a washout, discordantly mixing Ellington-style jungle growls with Vine Street violins. Still, Lena's star shines undimmed through the clouds.

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Jamie Cullum: Singin' in the Rain

Cullum shows his generation how to reinterpret an old song. "Singin' in the Rain" has been performed and parodied so many times, only a great vocalist can make it sound as fresh as a spring shower. Cullum does just that on this 2004 recording, from his invigorating Twentysomething release. Above the sparkling re-harmonization and strutting groove, Cullum offers his full range of vocal tricks—humming, cooing, jumping up for an overripe falsetto, or falling back to blend in with the strings. A great recording by one of the finest singers of the new generation.

November 18, 2007 · 0 comments


Brad Mehldau: When It Rains

On Largo, Brad Mehldau moves away from his preferred piano trio format. The aptly titled “When It Rains” begins with a pensive piano introduction, quietly augmented by an octet of woodwinds. Mehldau’s droning left-hand triplets behind the melody recall those days where the incessant patter of gentle rain becomes a sobering rhythmic accompaniment to the day’s activities. Mehldau’s playing is bittersweet—his mood is lonesome and melancholic, but his phrases end with a sense of optimism, leaving listeners touched and surprisingly uplifted. Mehldau’s solo reprise of the introduction is a fitting conclusion to a convincing piece of stark emotion.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Jamie Cullum: London Skies

And you thought Gershwin said it all with "A Foggy Day"? Well, Jamie Cullum finds new inspiration in the London fog 70 years after the famous standard from A Damsel in Distress. Cullum apparently tried to convince his Brazilian girlfriend of the romance and beauty of the overcast skies of London. For my part, I'll never forget the sun-drenched azure over Ipanema, but this performance at least brings me back, again and again, to Cullum's marvelous Catching Tales CD. This artist continues to develop with each new release. On this 2005 performance, he handles vocals and four different instruments, and shows his talent as a songwriter for good measure. But this is more than just flashy versatility - Cullum is an impressive artist with his own style and something to say.

November 11, 2007 · 1 comment


Django Reinhardt: Nuages

One of Debussy's Nocturnes (1899) is subtitled "Nuages" (French for clouds), but this composition is unrelated. The track does, however, reunite Grappelli & Reinhardt, who had separately survived World War II—Stéphane in Britain, Django in Paris (a rare European gypsy to avoid Nazi extermination, thanks to his jazz-loving Luftwaffe patron). Joined in London by two English guitarists and a Jamaican bassist, Grappelli & Reinhardt rekindle their prewar friendship with more sweetness than swing, which is especially poignant considering the recent horrors. Indeed, their melancholy strikes just the right tone. Nuages de guerre had passed, but the world's skies were anything but clear.

November 09, 2007 · 0 comments


Sarah Vaughan: Come Rain or Come Shine

By 1950, the finest singer of the bebop era had done her best to put bop behind her. Since bop was primarily instrumental music dominated by male eccentrics, there wasn't much room for female vocalists, no matter how skillful. After her mid-1940s record sessions with Diz, Bird, Bud, et al., Sarah Vaughan shunned such company and avoided their material. During the 1950s, Sarah's singles were often on the pop charts, but her relationship with jazz was skittish. So it's good that we catch her early in the decade for "Come Rain or Come Shine." Sarah, mannerisms at a minimum, shines.

November 06, 2007 · 0 comments


Bud Shank: Here's That Rainy Day

In 1957, West Coast alto star Art Pepper recorded Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, one of his most successful albums, using Miles Davis’s New York rhythm section. Nearly four decades later, altoist Bud Shank, a 1950s Los Angeles contemporary of Pepper, issued his own By Request: Bud Shank Meets The Rhythm Section, also with a New York-based trio. As its namesake did, Shank’s CD demonstrates that home base is irrelevant when superior musicians get together. The quartet’s bracing up-tempo rendition of “Here’s That Rainy Day” is just one case in point.

November 06, 2007 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong: Shine

Historians still debate what turned a 1920s Jazz Giant into a 1930s vaudevillian. Did profiteering white gangsters convert him at gunpoint into Uncle Tom? Was Louis's lip ruined by too many high C's topped by an F above the melting point of tungsten? Or did Armstrong, heady with success and coveting super- stardom, willingly conspire? Whatever the explanation, Satchmo's "Shine" so cheerfully catalogs sundry "chocolate drop" stereotypes—curly hair, pearly teeth, shady color—that Hollywood rewarded him with leopard-skin livery in A Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932). Evidently Uncle Tom's tuxedo had been repossessed. But Louis at least set the fashion standard for Fred Flintstone.

November 05, 2007 · 1 comment


Dave Holland: Four Winds

Dave Holland said the inspiration for his album Conference of the Birds came from the birds that gathered outside his London apartment early in the morning, and you can hear it in the music. The opener, “Four Winds,” is a high-flying number that has the saxophones of Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton fluttering above the frenetic interplay of Holland’s bass and Barry Altschul’s stick work. Things move so fast it’s hard to imagine how anyone kept track of the tempo here. Conference of the Birds is Holland’s masterpiece, and it was his debut as a leader! This may be the most auspicious freshman effort in the history of jazz.

October 24, 2007 · 0 comments


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