Saturday, December 25, 2010

Beauty in Ballads

Before the Rain - Noah Preminger (Palmetto Records) - The 24-year old tenor saxophonist first came to critical attention in 2008 with the release of his debut CD, "Dry Bridge Road" (Nowt Records).  Since that time, he has traveled the world, played in clubs and concert halls in groups or settings with pianist Frank Kimbrough, drummer Rob Garcia, bassist Cecil McBee, guitarist Ben Monder and trumpeter John McNeil.

For his new CD, Preminger retains Kimbrough and bassist John Hebert from his debut and adds drummer Matt Wilson. The lineup alone should serve as a hint that the music will be special.  Kimbrough, who works with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and leads his own trio, is a listener, an involved accompanist and accomplished soloist. In early 2010, he and Preminger played a number of duo dates. Hebert plays with numerous ensembles and has issued several critically acclaimed recordings including 2009's "Byzantine Monkey" (Firehouse 12 Recordings.) As for Wilson, if you do not know about him by now, you've been out of touch with music for the past 15 or so years. 

So, with all these fine players, Preminger ups the ante by deciding to record (mostly) ballads.  Most young musicians want listeners to hear how technically adept they are, how fast they can move through the changes and how they command the spotlight.  For Preminger, this program is about melody, harmony, interplay and emotion.  The CD opens with the Rodgers & Hart classic "Where or When", a quiet reading of the tune with bare bones percussion, sweet background from Kimbrough, good counterpoint from the bass and Preminger giving his lyrical all.  "The Quickening", one of the pianist's fine compositions, is a fascinating from the opening seconds.  Influenced by Ornette Coleman's music of the late 1950s and early 60s, it rumbles forward on the careering bass lines, Wilson's dramatic drumming (it's amazing how he can be so "free" yet always on the beat) and the fascinating juxtaposition of the saxophone and piano.  Preminger takes the opening solo sans piano accompaniment - once he finishes, Kimbrough jumps in, pushing and pulling at the melody lines.

Other highlights include the achingly beautiful title track, a slowly unwinding melody with solos from Preminger and Kimbrough that, like the song itself, are contemplative and without guile.  After you absorb the melodicism, go back and listen to what Wilson does underneath the song. While Hebert holds the rhythm, the drummer accents the proceedings by using brushes on snares, light flourishes on the cymbals, nothing forced but powerful in its simplicity.  At the end of the piano solo, Wilson drops out as Preminger holds a long note before returning to the theme; those 10 -15 seconds are among the most purely musical moments I've heard in years. The quartet gets to romp a bit on Ornette Coleman's "Toy Dance" (from his 1968 Blue Note "New York Is Now" release.  Dig the opening reading of the melody with just sax and drums, then how the piece moves forward when Hebert digs into the beat, the fine tenor solo and Kimbrough's abstract yet blues-drenched spot.  There's just a touch of Stan Getz in the sound of the tenor on the pianist's atmospheric "November" as well as more fine drum work - listen to how Wilson changes his approach under each section i.e. more forceful with a martial beat under the tenor solo and somewhat "straight-ahead" beneath the piano. The most lyrical playing on the CD can be heard on "Until The Real Thing Comes Along", a 1936 ballad credited to Sammy Cahn and a slew of co-writers. The tenor solo draws on Lester Young and John Coltrane, not as obvious influences but in the way those musicians would approach a ballad with the knowledge of the song's lyrics.  The program closes with Preminger's "Jamie", an extremely slow and lovely piece, a tone poem that draws one in on the whispering tenor lines, the quiet piano chords, the intimate bass lines and the melodic - yes, melodic - percussion. 

If you enjoy music that is intelligent, melodic, poetic, thoughtful and unpretentious, this CD will more than satisfy your desires.  In fact, "Before the Rain" should please you for years to come.  For more information, go to  (The CD will be released in January 2011.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Ones That (Nearly) Got Away (Saxophone edition)

Cerulean Landscape - Jason Robinson & Anthony Davis (Clean Feed) - Saxophonist, composer and educator Robinson has issued 3 CDs at the same time; this duo, the larger ensemble below and a solo recording that I'll review at another time. Here, he is paired with pianist Davis with whom he studied in California.  There is much to like in their program. Both men play with fire and plenty of ideas yet never lose their way in the different challenges they create for each other.  The program from Davis's handsome ballad "Shimmer" that opens the CD to the harder-edged "Vicissitudes" from the pen of Robinson (whose soprano work brings Roscoe Mitchell to mind.) They explore the pianist's "Of Blues and Dreams" which Davis has recorded on a number of occasions. Here, it is slow, ruminative, melodic, with sections that recall blues ballads.  Robinson's tenor displays a rich tone while Davis rumbles, rambles, and moves gracefully in and around the reed playing.  The title track closes the disk, opening with a solo saxophone exploration that is far-ranging in its scope. Once the piano enters, the piece becomes a ballad that moves slowly yet steadily forward.  Davis's solo is a highlight, filled with powerful chords and majestic melodic runs.
This is not background music.  Robinson and Davis listen and react, step out when called for, and always serve the music.  One can tell when musicians are not just showing off, when the music prepared for the session is substantive and the interactions intuitive not forced.  For more information, go to

 The Two Faces of Janus - Jason Robinson (Cuneiform) -Here, Robinson records (mostly) with the quartet of Liberty Ellman (guitar), Drew Gress (bass) and George Schuller (drums.)  Marty Ehrlich (alto saxophone, bass clarinet) appears on 5 of the 9 tracks (including 2 duets) and Rudresh Mahanthappa adds his alto sax to the front line for 3 of the songs. There is plenty of energy on the opening "Return to Pacasmayo" with Robinson's tenor and Ehrlich's alto sparring, Ellman's guitar lines rippling over Schuller's high-energy drumming and Gress's booming bottom lines. Ehrlich's squalling and soaring lines match well with the leader's harder, percussive, riffs.  Mahanthappa joins the other saxophonists on the title track, pushing the already high-energy up several more notches.  Pay close attention and enjoy how Ellman plays counterpoint at different times. The three reeds also perform on the slower yet equally engaging "Tides of Consciousness Fading", Ehrlich moving to bass clarinet where he creates a blues-drenched solo over Ellman's Monk-like chords. 
At under 4:02, the duets are among the shorter tracks on the 76-minute disk.  "Huaca de la Luna" (named for "The Temple of the Moon" in Northern Peru) is a fascinating conservation for alto and tenor, with some call-and-response, independent lines and a constant movement forward.  "Huaca del Sol" (the "Temple of the Sun" in the same area) is in a similar vein, opening with the two reeds buzzing around each other, then moving through sections where each plays a lead while the other flutters below then closing on a long fade.
"Paper Tiger" is the only Trio track (sax, bass and drums), a piece that is reminiscent of a Mario Pavone composition, especially in the way Gress pushes the piece forward while, occasionally, shadowing the tenor lines.
Ellman's guitar softens the proceedings on "The Twelfth Labor" - whereas a piano might have "harder" chords, here he allows Robinson's tenor lines to stand out. With numerous tempo changes, the track keeps one's attention with its sharp interplay (great rhythm section work) and the fine solos. The piece feels like a Coltrane Quartet song with a "hard bop" edge.
Jason Robinson has much to offer and this CD has plenty of variety in the strong voices he surrounds himself, the fine compositions and his own tonal attack.  Modern music that invites and excites the senses - for more information, go to or go to Robinson's site listed above.

Hear You Say: Live in Willisau - The Ray Anderson/Marty Ehrlich Quartet (Intuition) - Trombonist Anderson and Ehrlich are no strangers to each other or to adventurous music.  Their paths first crossed in the late 1970s when they appeared on an Anthony Braxton recording and they have worked together numerous times since.  This live date, from August 2009, features the blessedly intuitive and inventive rhythm section of Brad Jones (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums.)  Opening with the multi-sectioned "Portrait of Leroy Jenkins", this music dances, wails, flutters, swings and rocks (yes, as in heavy backbeat and all the trappings.) There is something about Anderson's playing that continually brings a smile to my face.  He's always been facile yet there's an edge of joy to everything he plays. Even on the ballad "My Wish", his lines are swooping and soaring, getting "lowdown" and "testifying".  When the 4 musicians stir the "Hot Crab Pot", the music feels like Charlie Parker on the Bayou Teche.With Anderson roaring atop Wilson's dancing drums and Jones' buoyant bass lines, this is music that just feels so good.  Ehrlich's solo, on alto saxophone, is a swirling journey with dancing bass work and propulsive drums. Wilson seems to be channeling Ed Blackwell on the trombonist's "Alligatory Rhumba", his drums creating a dance beat that is highly infectious. The title track closes the program with bluesy interplay, exclamatory trombone, a very melodic yet rhythmic bass solo and hip-shaking alto sax lines, all propelled by Wilson's "fatback" drums. 
Each track is praise-worthy, the interplay delightful, Ehrlich shines on his various reeds (clarinet, alto and soprano saxophones), and Anderson is...vintage Anderson.  Jones and Wilson are the perfect rhythm section.  Judging by the final ovation, the crowd is thrilled - you will be too.  If this music doesn't make you feel good to be alive, best check your pulse. For more information, go to

Fierce - Patrick Cornelius (Whirlwind Records) - Don't let the title put you off.  This is not music that claws at your ears; instead, alto saxophonist Cornelius has crafted 9 tracks on his second release as a leader that draw from the history of jazz, complete with flourishes of the blues.With a complimentary rhythm section of Michael Janisch (bass) and Johnathan Blake (drums), this is music that may remind some of the classic Sonny Rollins Trio and others of Henry Threadgill's work with Air.  You can hear hints of both on "Hopscotch" in both Cornelius's tart yet bluesy alto and Janisch's active and melodic bass lines. Blake works with both, giving them room and also pushing the piece forward.  "Two Seventy-Eight" has an intensity created by the active rhythm section and reinforced by the addition of valve trombonist Nick Vayenas - Cornelius carves a solo out of rapid-fire notes and long tones while Vayenas starts his section with fire then unwinds slowly. The trombonist flies over the bass and drums on "New Blues", sputtering and spraying notes like a gunner. Cornelius comes in next, building his solo from short phrases, stretching more and more as he races forward.  It's both breathtaking and musical at the same time.  Tenor saxophonist Mark Small adds his voice to the front line on "First Dance." His style is somewhat more laconic than Cornelius, making for an interesting contrast.  
While it is pleasing to have the other voices, the trio tracks remain my favorite.  The interplay of the rhythm section with the leader is impressive and Cornelius responds with solos that range far afield but never lose focus.   He's got fire and grace, showing no need to compromise on his vision.  For more information, go to

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Ones That (Nearly) Got Away (guitars)

Okay, the semester is over, grades are posted with the registrar, and it's time to get back to the reviews.

Hard to believe but "Triple Play" (MaxJazz) is guitarist Russell Malone's first trio CD.  He released his debut disk in 1992 and has had a busy, busy, career, working with the Harry Connick Jr. Big Band, organist Jimmy Smith, Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves and Ron Carter (among others.)  His first CDs for MaxJazz were quartet dates  but, for this date, he subtracted the piano.  Ably assisted by bassist David Wong and drummer Montez Coleman, the threesome swings its way through 11 tracks including 3 standards and 4 originals.  Malone displays a clean, clear, tone throughout, thinking melody and harmony first.  Wong is a first-class accompanist as well as a fine, melodic, soloist while Coleman has a funky side that shows on swingers such as "Sweet Georgia Peach" and the opening track "Honeybone."  One cannot help but dig the groove in Ron Carter's Tail Feathers" (must also mention the Wes Montgomery-like octave jumps on guitar.
If you know someone who loves the pure sound of guitar jazz (no effects, no fusion), this is the CD.  Nothing fancy, no pedal works, just a melodic approach to everything Russell Malone and the Trio does. To find out more, go to
Here's the opening track, "Honeybone", courtesy of MazJazz and IODA Promonet.
Honeybone (mp3)

 Swedish-born guitarist Tomas Janzon has lived in the US for nearly 2 decades and "Experiences" (Changes Music) is his 4th release as a leader.  Not only is he a skilled guitarist but he also knows how to put together a band.  The great Albert "Tootie" Heath is in the drumseat and he is a man who knows when to push, when to support and when to step out.  His snare-drum work is impressive throughout. no more so than on "Float", where he demonstrates how his well-known mastery of brush work.  Bassist Jeff Littleton is the glue of the band as well as a fine soloist.  His fine counter-point on ""En DeJlig Rosa", a Swedish folk tune, is a highlight.  Art Hillery provides piano or organ on 6 of the 11 tracks, nothing fancy but just right.  He gers "lowdown" on Jimmy Smith's cooker "Messin' Around" and displays similar funkiness on piano for "Moanin'", the Bobby Timmons classic.  For his part, Janzon swings lustily when called for and caresses the melody lines on ballads.  If you're a jazz fan, you have probably heard dozens of versions of "Polka Dots and Moon Beams" but few as pretty as Janzon's take.  His tone is similar to Russell Malone's but he seems more influenced by be-bop.  "Experiences" is a delightful excursion, one worth your time and a great gift idea for someone who likes guitar-jazz.  For more information, go to

Guitarist Sean Clapis (pictured right) is a 24-year old native of Hartford, CT, who studied at the Artist Collective, the Academy of the Performing Arts High School and a graduate of the Hartt School of Music at the University of the Hartford.  But, plenty of schooling doth not a musician make (gives good perspective though.)  In the past few years, he's been teaching and playing a lot of gigs throughout New England.  He also has found time to release his debut CD.  "Convergence" is self-released and features music from 3 sessions, the earliest in July 2008.  His style and tone is influenced, most notably, by Pat Metheny and John Scofield, crisp single-note lines that ripple out above the rhythm section.  He's not a shredder or a techno-geek, thinking melody first even in his solos.  "Mother" is a lovely ballad, a piece where no aspect is rushed, the solos thoughtful (also note the fine bass work of David Baron) and, even near the end when the intensity picks up, the song never loses its focus.  The addition of saxophonist Jovan Alexandre on several tracks makes a welcome addition.  The Joe Henderson-inspired "Isle of Fogo" is a pleasing high-energy romp, replete with roaring tenor sax, McCoy Tyner "power" chords from pianist Lemuel Gurtowsky, and a short yet powerful guitar solo. Alexandre and Clapis share the melody on "You Will Do Great Things", a handsome piece more about exposition of melody than technical prowess.

"Convergence" is a good calling card for Sean Clapis, a recording that lays out his future as a musician, bandleader and composer.  The sound quality is a bit muted (good for the guitar, not so for the rhythm section) yet that is a minor glitch.  To find out more, go to

If you get the opportunity, see the young man in person.  Caught the guitarist in a duo setting with pianist Noah Baerman at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown.  It was their initial collaboration and, admittedly, took a few tunes to get the mix right.  When they did mesh, the music was rewarding, rich with melody and strong solos.  Clapis became more assertive as the night progressed and allowed himself to dig into his solos for creative possibilities.  Baerman gave great support (nothing fancy just right there) and soloed well, often with bluesy abandon, always with creativity.   

Sunday, December 19, 2010

ATreat Before the Holiday

PathwayDavid Cook
"The Thing" (mp3)
from "Pathway"
(Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records)

More On This Album

In the midst of grading final papers, I've had iTunes on "Party Shuffle", meaning there's been a lot of music swirling around the office.  Several tracks from the new CD from pianist/composer David Cook have wafted through the room and really caught my ear.  Titled "Pathway", the disk is yet another fine release on the BJU Records label, a subsidiary of Brooklyn Jazz Underground. A review is forthcoming but click on the link above for a taste of the CD - it's a piece of danceable jazz to get you through the craziness of the next week.

Thanks to IODA Promonet and BJU Records for the preview.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Noah B "Know Thyself" Is On the Way

No review just a preview.
Thanks to a "New Works" grant from the Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation, pianist-composer Noah Baerman created a 65-minute work he titled "Know Thyself."  Scored for 7 instruments (piano, bass, drums, vibraphone, electric guitar and 2 saxophonists), the piece debuted in November of 2009 at Wesleyan University's Crowell Concert Hall.  Shortly afterwards, Noah took the group into the studio and is now ready to bring the CD into the light. 
As a short preview, I offer the following enticement and a reminder to go to to find out more.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Best of 2010 (Part 2)

Rudresh Mahanthappa was nothing if not noticeable this past year.  Besides one excellent and one very good "twin altos" CDs, he appeared with Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers Ensemble and guitarist Nguyen Le's Saiyuki Trio, recorded with Danilo Perez, and more.  It's the "twin altos" projects that really hit the spot.  "Apex" (Pi Recordings) is his collaboration with septuagenarian Bunky Green - the music soars, roars, and pours from the 2 saxophonists. There is a smashing rhythm section of drummer Damion Reid and bassist Francois Moutin along with pianist Jason Moran - Jack DeJohnette appears on 4 tracks. The energy level is impressive as is the interplay and ideas. 
Mahanthappa's other duo was with Steve Lehman on "Dual Identity" (Clean Feed), a fiery program also fueled by Reid and featuring guitarist Liberty Ellman and bassist Matt Brewer. Both recordings are worth your attention.

Ted Hearne's "Katrina Ballads" (New Amsterdam), initially released as a download-only in 2008, received its "physical" release around the time of the 5th anniversary of the disastrous hurricane.  If anything, the music and the words (all taken from news reports) are just as striking and damning as they were on initial listening.

One "modern classical" CD I received but did not review was "10 Mysteries" (Tzadik) from guitarist/violist John King. His music is quite involving, making one pay attention as the string quartet Crucible (featuring King, violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Mark Feldman with cellist Alex Waterman) move effortlessly through the challenging material.  The title track is a 32+ minute, 9-part suite while the other 2 pieces feature "live" electronics - "Winds of Blood" gets 2 performances because of the chance nature of the electronic environment and that experimentation is thought-provoking and an intelligent manner in which to show how the music changes and grows off the page.

The newest release from Kronos Quartet, "Rainbow" (Smithsonian Folkways), features music and musicians from Central Asia including Afghan composer and rubab player Homayun Sakhi and Azerbaijani composer/vocalist/percussionist

Nguyên Lê's Sai, recorded with Danilo Perez, 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Double Tenor Fun

Bassist-composer Mario Pavone brings his Orange Double Tenor sextet to Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street in New Haven this Friday night (12/10) for 2 sets.  Hot on the heels of his new Playscape CD, "Arc Suite T/Pi T/Po", the shows and the music serve as a 70th Birthday celebration for Pavone. The music on the CD (reviewed here) gives notice that the Waterbury native is not about to meander off into the sunset (heck, we should all look and sound so good.)  Like much of his music, the new material is built from the bass outward - many of the songs have great forward propulsion (supplied by drummer Gerald Cleaver and pianist Peter Madsen) and feature concise but wide-ranging solos.

Cleaver and Madsen (who is a splendid accompanist and soloist) will be on the bandstand on Friday along with Dave Ballou (trumpet) plus the Double Tenor saxophones of Andrew Bishop and Marty Ehrlich.  My understanding is that the 8:30 show is already sold out but there is still room for the 10 p.m. set.  My suggestion is to call 203-785-0468 and get your tickets now - the nice folks at the Firehouse will also put you on the waiting list for the first show.  For more information, go to  To check out Mario Pavone, go to his site at

Monday, December 6, 2010

Best of 2010 (Part 1)

Personally, 2010 has been a roller-coaster of a year (seemingly moreso than the past few.)  On a musical level, there's been great CDs and concerts, more than I can document.  In previous years, I have gone a bit overboard in "end-of-the-year" columns but, seeing as "austerity" is the watchword of the day, this will be a tad more compact than usual. Also, as usual, there is no order of preference.

Trombonist-composer Alan Ferber is a very busy player, appearing on many recordings over the past yeas including the wild and crazy "Asphalt Orchestra" on Canteloupe as well as John Ellis's "Puppet Mischief" and Owen Howard's "Drum Lore" (see below.) His own release, "Music for Nonet and Strings: Chamber Music" (Sunnyside) is stunning in its breadth and musicality.  Not only is his writing excellent but also his choice of music by his bandmates and surprising arrangements of solo works by both Keith Jarrett and Ben Monder makes this a program to savor for many months to come.

There are several CDs on this list created by drummers.  Each one is different but similar in that the music is quite impressive.  The afore-mentioned "Drum Lore" (BJU Records) is Owen Howard's wonderful tribute to his fellow percussionists with tunes from the pens of Shelley Manne, Jack DeJohnette, Ed Blackwell, Peter Erskine, Denzil Best, Chick Webb and others.  Composer-percussionist Roland Vazquez produced a splendid large ensemble recording in "The Visitor" (self-released) - the arrangements are complex and arresting, the playing rich and exciting, with a slew of fine musicians (although Vazquez does not perform, he conducts the ensemble.)  John Hollenbeck created "Royal Toast" (Cunieform) for his Claudia Quintet (plus guest pianist Gary Versace) - he continues to surprise listeners with richly designed pieces that cull from so many traditions.

Early in 2010, drummer Allison Miller released her second CD (Foxhaven Records) as a leader, an absolute treat.  With pianist Myra Melford and bassist Todd Sickafoose, she invigorates the "piano trio" with her smart compositions while the playing is flat-out exquisite.  And the, it is so rich that, even on inexpensive speakers, the cymbals crackle, the bass drum booms and Sickafoose's playing is articulate and melodic.

Firehouse 12 (the label) released Ms. Melford's latest recording "The Whole Tree Gone" in January.  The music, played a fine sextet, is melodically rich while maintaining the composer's challenging vision.

 Trumpeter Avishai Cohen created "Introducing Triveni" (Anzic Records) with fellow Israeli Omer Avital (bass) and the ubiquitous drummer Nasheet Waits (he's as busy as trombonist Ferber.)  The intimacy of the sound,  intelligent choice of the material and the fine interaction makes this Cohen's best release (to date.)  His sound has grown up, taking in the history of the trumpet's role in jazz and blues.

Cohen has taken over the trumpet chair in the SF Jazz Collective - their 3 CD set, dedicated to the material of Horace Silver (and works by Collective members) is the 7th strong release from the organization.  Miguel Zenon (alto saxophone) is the only original member left, the rhythm section of Eric Harland (drums) and Matt Penman (bass) have anchored the band since year 2 (2005), vibraphonist Stefon Harris returns after a year absence, pianist Edward Simon takes the seat of original member Renee Rosnes, trombonist Robin Eubanks is a major presence as is new member Mark Turner (tenor saxophone.)   The aggregation gives the Silver material the attention it deserves (with many fine arrangements) and the new material is quite impressive.

Educator-arranger-composer Jamie Begian (who's on the faculty of Western Connecticut State University) released his 2nd Big Band CD, "Big Fat Grin" (Innova), and it does much to bring a smile to fans of large ensemble music. Good tunes, smart arrangements and great playing all makes for a fun experience.

Last but not least (for Part 1) is the sprawling and often enthralling "A Wallflower in the Amazon" (Accurate Records), the new work from composer/arranger Darrell Katz & the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra.  Filled with poetry, blues, humor, the fine voice of Rebecca Shrimpton, knock-out arrangements of Ellington's "I Like The Sunrise" and Willie Dixon's "Hoochie-Coochie Man" (with Mike Finnegan) and much more, this is a recording that one must pay attention to - it's not for the background.

In Part 2, there is classical music, more fine small-group work and a modern broadside.