West of Middle - Steve Cardenas (Sunnyside) - Guitarist Cardenas has worked with a number of fine groups including Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band and Joey Baron's Killer Joey as well as working with vocalists Kate McGarry, Maria Muldaur and Norah Jones. He's recorded with saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Chris Potter, guitarist Jim Campilongo and the big band of Mike Holober. He's been touring the past several years as a member of bassist Ben Allison's Man Size Safe.
Allison returns the favor by adding his full-toned lines to this effort, Cardenas' 3rd as a leader and first since 2004's "Panoramic" (Fresh Sound New Talent.) His guitar sound often has a touch of twang in it and many of his songs have the feel of a folk melody with electric guitar. Rounding out the trio is drummer Rudy Royston, best known for his work with cornetist Ron Miles and now also a member of Allison's group. All but one track is a Cardenas original and each is memorable. There's the melodic gentleness of "Burt" that opens the program, a tune that Royston turns upside down with his funk-inspired attack. The trio really "cooks" during the guitar solo with the propulsive drums and booming bass. The title track also opens quietly and moves out into the solo section with a hint of Pat Metheny in the chords and sound. "Country & Western"sounds invade "The Horse You Rode In On", a "ragged" waltz with a swirling guitar solo and strong interplay from the rhythm section. Cardenas overdubs guitars on the so-slow "Drifter", a work that builds to the intensity of a Wilco ballad but never boils over.
The one non-original, Keith Jarrett's "Blue Streak" (from his "Treasure Island" release on Impulse in 1974), has a funky yet driving rhythm and some pleasingly loud guitar. Royston and Allison get into good groove underneath Cardenas' twisty guitar solo and never let it go.
Co-Producer Matt Balitsaris (owner of Palmetto Records) recorded the session in his Maggie's Farm studio and the results are impressive. Al the instruments can be clearly heard and the bottom shaking the speakers now and then. The material is not just fodder for endless solos (the program clocks in at under 41 minutes) but there is good melodic development ("RR" is the one exception, with short melodic phrases leading to solos by the drummer and bassist and what sounds like improvised interplay at the close.)
In the ever-evolving landscape of 21st Century music, one hears more and more music that takes far-flung influences (here it's country music, folk music and rock) and creates a pleasing hybrid. Steve Cardenas has not reinvented his music (one can hear similar influences on 2000's "Shebang" (Fresh Sounds New Talent) but here, the vision of the music is stronger and execution more impressive. To find out more about the guitarist and his music, go to www.stevecardenasmusic.com.
Spiral - Dr. Lonnie Smith (Palmetto Records) - The good doctor of the Hammond Organ is back and all is well. With a fine rhythm and lead guitarist in Jonathan Kreisberg and stand-out drummer in Jamire Williams, this disk satisfies the soul. The program opens with a hard-edged take on fellow organist Jimmy Smith's "Mellow Mood" featuring great drum work (Williams never lets down), a fine linear solo from Kriesberg, and an understated yet playful romp from the leader. Smith does a fine job offering standards such as Frank Loesser's "I've Never Been in Love Before", "Sweet and Lovely" (a "hit" for the likes of Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo and Ella Fitzgerald) and the high-energy romp of Rodgers & Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." "Frame For the Blues" is a sweet Slide Hampton tune originally written for the Maynard Ferguson Band. Here, it's a slow ballad with pleasing interplay between guitar and organ, both playing with quiet fire. Perhaps the biggest surprise on the CD is the closer, a reverential ballad rendition of the 1963 "pop" hit "Sukiyaki" first recorded by Kyu Sakamoto. Kriesberg's hollow-bodied electric and the organ work through the theme and William's cymbals only show for climactic moments. It's a pretty finish to an enjoyable program. To find out more and get a taste of the music, go to www.palmetto-records.com.
You can learn more about Dr. Lonnie Smith at www.drlonniesmith.com.
Keeper - The Stryker/Slagle Band (Panorama Records) - Perfect title for this CD because the blend of strong musicianship, quality material and fine sound quality will "keep" you coming back.
Guitarist Dave Stryker and alto saxophonist Steve Slagle have been working together for the better part of 2 decades but the band has only recorded 5 times since the turn of the 2000s. Bassist Jay Anderson is back for his 3rd session (he also served as chief engineer and mastered the session) while drummer Victor Lewis is on his 2nd CD. The latter's cymbal work is a treat throughout while the bassist (who's played with many of the greats) is solid and musical.
There's not a weak track among the 10 but standouts include the title track with its insistent funk groove and the sweet ballad, "Bryce's Peace", a tribute to the saxophonist's late father and the person who created the art work for the CD. Slagle, who has graced many an ensemble including the Mingus Big Band, has a sweet tone on alto and his solos are often wondrous explorations. He moves to soprano on the bossa nova "Gold Dust" and the funkier "Convergence." Again, he displays a lovely tone yet can really as he displays on the latter tune (which also features a great attack from Lewis.)
Stryker is really a masterful rhythm guitarist - his "On the Trail" quotes during Monk's "Ruby My Dear" and his insistent chordal work on every piece is impressive. His solos are often heated yet he rarely turns up the volume, his full-toned notes and funky stinging phrases stand out. And, he can get "down" as he so beautifully displays on "Blue State" with "blues" riffs that make the listener shake his head and tap his feet.
If you like music that feels good, masterfully blends blues and jazz, and is well-played, "Keeper" is for you. To find out more, go to www.myspace.com/strykerslagleband.
Wishing Well - Ellen Rowe Quartet, with Ingrid Jensen (PKO Records) - Lyricism in music is often viewed as maudlin or sentimental. Not so here. Connecticut native Ellen Rowe's 3rd CD as a leader is her 2nd with Andrew Bishop (tenor & soprano saxophones), Kurt Krahnke ( bass) and Pete Siers (drums.) She gives material they can sink their minds into, whether it's the playful bluesiness of "Lewisburg Bluesy-oo", the bottom-heavy funky-ness of "Sanity Clause" or the melancholy strains of "Longing", one of the 2 lovely cuts that feature Ingrid Jensen on flugelhorn. This is mature music in that it's not about the "chops" - no, pianist Rowe et al want you to enjoy yourself and get lost in the sounds. Pieces such as "Seven Steps to My Yard" and "Tick Tock" swing lustily (Ms. Rowe offers up a mighty but brief solo on the latter track.) Tenor saxophonist Andrew Haefner joins the Quartet on "For Donald", a lovely piece dedicated to the late Donald Walden, Professor of Jazz Saxophone at the University of Michigan; Haefner is a recent graduate and both Rowe and Bishop are on the faculty. The work is pleasing on so many levels, from the rich melody lines to the short but expressive solos to the fine support of Siers and Krahnke. "Night Sounds", dedicated to the memory of Rowe's brother Tim who passed in 2005, is no dirge - instead it moves forward on the Latin rhythms of Sier's snare and the bouncing bass lines. The piano solo is filled with articulated lines, crisply played, no blues or sadness in Rowe's delivery. The deep notes Bishop gets from his tenor alternate with the higher phrases, all atop ringing piano chords.
Bishop's work throughout the program is excellent, he rarely wastes a phrases and his softer yet still muscular attack is enjoyable.
"Wishing Well" might get lost in the flurry of releases in 2010 but search out this CD - mature music such as this has many levels to explore and revel in just how finely Ellen Rowe and her musical friends create this magic. For more information, go to www.ellenrowe.com.
The Monster Returns - Quartet of Happiness (Creative Nation Music) - Humor in music can be an acquired taste and one definitely has to be in the mood. The "theatrical jazz" of this Boston-based foursome is, at turns, heavy-handed, sophomoric, silly, and downright funny. The 2 sax "attack" of Kelly Roberge (tenor) and Rick Stone (alto) plus the rambunctious rhythm section of Austin McMahon (drums) and Kendall Eddy (bass) makes quite a racket and I could not help thinking this material must work quite well in a "live" setting - the band has no compunction in wearing silly costumes and carrying on. But, those shenanigans don't always carry over well to recordings. Several pieces do - the bebop challenge titled "The ii-V7-1 Game" does work and it's a nifty conceit, the saxophonists playing short phrases to see who can play "the best" over the changes. "So You Think You can Jazz" is a hilarious musical "take-off" of game show competitions as well as "hi-falutin'" musicians. The Quartet can certainly play, as they show on "Luck of the Irish", a jig-filled blast with the saxophones carrying on as well as the high-energy opening and climax to the title track that closes the disk. There are moments on several track when the music sounds like the Vandermark 5 meets the Willem Breuker Kollektief.
If you're in the mood for silliness, "The Monster Returns" will make you chuckle - I still bet it's more fun in concert. For more information, go to www.quartetofhappiness.com.
Judge for yourself - here's a taste of the Quartet of Happiness, courtesy of IODA Promonet and Creative Nation Music:
So You Think you Can Jazz (mp3)