Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter Listening (Part 1)

Vocalist Tierney Sutton, Wesleyan University Class of 1986, has often explored the "Great American Songbook" to great effect.  "American Road" (BFM Jazz) moves away from Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood for a mesmerizing blend of traditional music, gospel, and popular music with a fascinating side trip to "Porgy and Bess" and "West Side Story."  The CD is credited to the Tierney Sutton Band, a quartet that has been her "main men" for nearly 2 decades.  In the studio, Kevin Axt and Trey Henry share the bass duties (Axt is the one who goes "on the road" and he designed the CD cover ). Pianist Christian Jacobs has developed into a major voice (he often tours with Henry and TSB drummer Ray Brinker) as important to Ms. Sutton's music as Laurence Hobgood is to Kurt Elling. 

Sutton is famous for her "cooperative" approach to the band's repertoire; the arrangements on "American Road" are credited to the entire band and there's nary a false note on the CD.  Opening with a highly rhythmic version of "Wayfaring Stranger" which leads into a reverential take of "Oh Shenandoah" that is paired with the Scottish folk song "The Water is Wide." Up next is a highly charged reading of the Mann/Weill/Lieber/Stoller classic "On Broadway." Built off of Brinker's
powerful percussion and throbbing electric bass, Ms. Sutton really digs into the lyrics, standing aside for Jacobs' wonderfully angular solo.  The group's intelligent reworking of "Amazing Grace" shows reverence for the original at the onset then a subtle and sweet move into a blend of gospel, jazz and blues.

Purists might object to the heavy backbeat on "It Ain't Necessarily So" but it's a solid lead-in to the trio of songs from "Porgy & Bess" - here, "Summertime" is slow, sultry and impressionistic while "My Man's Gone Now" has a sweet, funky, feel.

Before Ms. Sutton moves to "West Side Story", she and Jacobs take a Debussy meets Teddy Wilson approach to "Tenderly"; then, she and the bassists do a short, bouncy, version of Yip Harburg-Harold Arlen's "The Eagle and Me." Bernstein-Sondheim's "Somewhere" is often approached in a overly emotional fashion.  Here, it is a lovely ballad, filled with feeling yes but neither cloying nor overblown. The band's approach to "Something's Coming/Cool" puts the excitement in the vocal and not in an incessant rhythm - the second tune gets the energy, especially in the "running" bass line.

The program closes with "America The Beautiful", another song that can be too dramatic.  Ms. Sutton avoids melismatic swoops or any other vocal acrobatics.  Instead, she caresses the melody, opting to begin with a verse of wordless vocals before moving into the lyrics.  As opposed to many who sing this song (including a politician currently campaigning for the presidential nomination) as a patriotic screed, Ms. Sutton understands the message of acceptance and brotherhood in the lyrics.  Just her voice and Jacobs' fine piano accompaniment, a fitting close to an adventurous program.

"American Road" is a journey that takes the listener deep into songs that, for the most part, have had had an emotional impact on Americans, doing so without being jingoistic or snide.  Instead, the Tierney Sutton Band celebrates the breadth of this country's music, making the listener pay attention to the words and feelings in each song.  For more information, go to

Late last year, saxophonist Dan Blake (Kenny Werner Group, Anthony Braxton's "Trillium Project", Julian Lage) joined forces with BJU Records to issue "The Aquarian Suite", a fascinating project that combines the influence of Ornette Coleman (in the instrumental choices) with the melodies that open up in various directions.  Alongside Blake is Jason Palmer (trumpet), Jorge Roeder (bass) and the fine young Hartford, CT, native Richie Barshay (drums.)   The music Blake created for this group has fire, swing, and breathes in such a way that the listener relaxes into the distinct moods of each track.  "The Whistler" opens the program - it has a loping rhythm (somewhat like the feel of Sonny Rollins "Freedom Suite") and the front line dances over the active drums and bass.  Roeder's chordal bass leads in "How It's Done", a multi-sectioned piece that blends a hard-bop feel with Middle-Eastern influences - listen to how Blake rises above the driving rhythm section setting the table for Palmer's excellent solo turn.

Other highlights include the bluesy ballad "The Road That Reminds", where the tenor saxophone and muted trumpet move together in wonderful dialogue before Blake moves out for a heartfelt (and pleasingly long) solo.  Late in the piece, the bass and drums drop out, leaving Blake and Palmer locked in a musical conversation that comes to a satisfying conclusion.  "You Cry So Pretty" is a lovely ballad, not cloying or sentimental but gentle with a sweetness that brings the listener back to dwell in its warmth. 

Honestly, there is not a weak track on "The Aquarian Suite" plus the interaction of the musicians is a joy to behold.  Yes, there are moments when the music "swings" with a vengeance and it makes one wish to see and hear this music in a performance space.  Go to and find out more about this excellent recording and the man behind its creation. 

Here's the effervescent "How It's Done", courtesy of BJU Records and IODA Promonet - click on the link and enjoy!
How It's Done (mp3)

2012 NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Owens (trumpet, flugelhorn) does not go into the studio very often so, when he does, he makes certain the music shines.  "The Monk Project" (IPO Records), Owens has taken a selection of Thelonious Monk songs (plus a Monkian take on "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing"), assembled a crackerjack septet of musicians younger and older, and created a sweet bouquet of a tribute.  The front line includes Owens, Marcus Strickland (tenor saxophone), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Howard Johnson (tuba, baritone saxophone) - the rhythm section is also quite fine, including Kenny Barron (piano), Kenny Davis (bass) and the electrifying drumming of Winard Harper. They do not treat this music as religious artifacts, to be approached with reverence. Instead, they engage in making the music comes alive.  "Well You Needn't" gets a modal feel (with the occasional 8 bars of swing) with a sound not unlike the "Acknowledgement" section of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme".) "Blue Monk" leans more towards the blues, with a ripping solo from the leader, a raucous turn from Gordon, and a "gutbucket" turn from Strickland (who sounds as if he is having the time of his life.) Barron shows his "Southside Chicago" moves to lead the piece back to its rousing finish.  Johnson's tuba dances around the unison trumpet-tenor lines on "It Don't Mean A Thing..." exhibiting how he swings with the best of them. This version is based on a transcription from a Monk Trio recording on Riverside Records. Owens switches to flugelhorn for a a lovely reading of "Reflection" - here, he trades lines with Gordon while Barron plays the role of rhythm section (the rest of the group sits this piece out.)

There are scores of recordings dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk, some with very fancy rearrangements and odd choices for instrumentation.  Here, Jimmy Owens and company do it right.  They play this music with joy, love and great spirit (Gordon, in particular, sounds like he's having the time of his life while Harper plays his butt off.)  This music is timeless and worth your time. To find out more, go to

The Wee Trio - Dan Loomis (bass), James Westfall (vibraphone), and Jared Schonig (drums) - creates modern music that makes one think while tapping your feet.  For its 3rd CD, TWT take a short (under 32 minutes) but lively tour on "Ashes to Ashes: A David Bowie Intraspective" (Bionic Records).  No matter how one feels about Mr. Bowie's music, he knows how to write melodies and the Wee threesome have fun with these songs.  The ensemble mixes more familiar tunes ("The Man Who Sold The World", "Queen Bitch", the title track) with obscure ones ("The Battle For Britain", "Sunday"), putting their unique spin on each track. The program opens with the punk-ish sounds of "The Battle.." yet the Trio finds the handsome melody lurking within.  Schonig's hard-edged drumming revs up the middle of the piece.   For "The Man...", they give the song a Caribbean feel, with hand drums and a marimba-like tone from the vibes.  The Trio stays true to the disco-feel of "1984" yet give it a vibrant swing that one does not miss the fantastical lyrics.  The martial beat of "Sunday" opens up to reveal the melody played first on the vibes then moves to bassist Loomis whose introspective lines give way to a rollicking finish. Throughout the program, Westfall's vibes have a rich sound and his playing is thoughtful and, at times, animated. The rhythm section fully inhabits each track; this music must really "fly" in person. 

Even if you are not a fan of David Bowie's music, The Wee Trio's exuberance and intelligent arrangements should please fans of creative music.  Plus, the group really knows how to "rock out!"  To find out more, go to

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