Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Potpourri for Spring (CD Reviews)

Noir Blue - Ken Peplowski (Capri Records) - The proper word to describe this program of 7 standards and 3 originals is "delightful." With a crackling rhythm section of Shelley Berg (piano), Jay Leonhart (acoustic bass) and Joe La Barbera (drums),  Peplowski (carinet, tenor saxophone) bops, swings and strolls in a most entertaining way.  Berg is such a creative player, either rumbling through a solo or playing the right accompaniment.  Leonhart can deftly underpin a tune as well as create a fine solo and La Barbera is as creative behind the soloist as he is designing the right setting for each tune. Peplowski's tone on clarinet (an instrument he took up as a member of Benny Goodman's mid-1980s ensemble) is warm and inviting.  He creates a South American atmosphere on "Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies", an Ellington/Strayhorn collaboration from "The New Orleans Suite."  He and Berg caress Strayhorn's bittersweet "Noir Blue", never rushing through the melody, making sure each note counts.  Peplowski brings out the tenor sax for Hoagy Carmichael's "Riverboat Shuffle", giving the 1920s composition a more up-to-date "mainstream jazz" sound. Yet, Peplowski's tenor tone hearkens back to Lester Young (even more so on "Love Locked Out.") Some listeners may be surprised by the leader's tribute to Ornette Coleman -  "Little Dogs" evokes the Coleman Quartet of the late 1950s - early 60s, with Berg's bouncy, Monkish piano sounds replacing Don Cherry's trumpet. The "swing blues" track closes this most impressive program.
If you love jazz, "Noir Blue" covers a wide swath of creative territory, with ballads that rise slowly and burners that make one's feet bounce.  And, nary a false note.  Highly recommended! - for more information, go to www.caprirecords.com

Yaounde - Samuel Torres (Blue Conga) - Percussionist/composer Torres' second CD as a leader shows him as a progressive, blending traditional rhythms with intelligently crafted melodies and smart arrangements.  The core sextet features the excellent drumming of Cuban native Ernesto Simpson, bassist John Benitez, the sparkling keyboards of Manuel Valera, the expressive trumpeter Michael Rodriguez and saxophonist Joel Frahm. Frahm's playing continues to impress, especially his rich soprano sax (just beautiful on "Bambuco") and his muscular tenor.  Clarinetist Anat Cohen gets added to the mix for "Macondo", with its staggered rhythms and the blend of her woody tone with Rodriguez's shiny brass, Frahm's hearty tenor and Valera's exclamatory piano chords is quite handsome. The hustle and bustle of "Lincoln Tunnel", with its flashy electric bass lines, guest Ralph Irizarry's thumping/popping timbales and a "stop-start" melody line, is irresistible (Rodriguez's fiery trumpet solo is also a joy.)  Vocalist Sofia Rei Kuotsovitis joins Torres for "Ronca el Canalete", overdubbing several voices to create a choir that moves sinuously over the congas.
Torres takes several solo turns, including the hypnotic 4-minute "Chia - The Moon Goddess", cuts that not only display his formidable technique but also his ability to create melodies for his drums. There's much to absorb on "Yaounde" and repeated listenings only heighten the experience.  To find out more, go to www.samueltorres.com.

Like A Rusted Key - Peter Van Huffel Quartet (Fresh Sounds New Talent) - Alto saxophonist/composer Van Huffel, a native of Canada now living in Berlin, Germany, creates music that insinuates its way into your mind.  Not outwardly ebullient, the songs move with a purpose. And, this CD, his 3rd with pianist Jesse Stacken and first with the rhythm section of fellow Canadian Miles Perkins (acoustic bass, toys) and Swiss drummer Samuel Rohrer. "Drift", the longest track in the program. opens quietly with percussion, the staccato piano behind the handsome melody. Slowly, steadily, the song builds in intensity, the fullness of the alto saxophone rising over the simple piano rhythm.  A martial drum beat announces the bass solo and then the leader returns, his introspective phrases reflecting the raga-like lines that bassist Perkin played.  The directions that the piece takes reminds this listener of Keith Jarrett's European Quartet from the 1970s (with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielson and Jon Christensen.) But, this group goes its own way with the intensely-rhythmic "Tangent", moving with an urgency that reflects modern rock and the fire of Cecil Taylor. Pianist Stacken drives through his solo, prodded by the pounding drums and bass.  All drop out for the alto sax to move out of time - they return, yet drop away to return again to ratchet up the intensity.
There's plenty of variety, from the Kurt Weill-like melody and circus atmosphere on "Engehavej"(and when the piece opens further, the music lurches then propels forward) to the mysterious, percussion-driven excitement of "Backwards Momentum" - Rohrer moves like a dervish over his kit beneath Stacken's driving solo then really pushes the proceedings when Van Huffel takes over. Silence is a key ingredient of "Melancholic", with the tolling piano chords that slowly lead the piece in until one can notice the light echoing alto and hushed percussion - not much changes save for the intensity of the long notes until the long quiet fade.  If one is patient, the work is meditative and calming.
"Like a Rusted Key" is quite the group effort - even though the songs are all composed by Peter Van Huffel, each member of the Quartet is intimately involved in the creation of the music and that intimacy is what shapes the program and makes it work.  Stick with it and the rewards are plentiful. To find out more, go to www.petervanhuffel.com.

Rainbow - Kronos Quartet, with Alim  Fargana Asimov and Homayun Sakhi (Smithsonian Folkways) - Over the course of 30+ years, Kronos Quartet has effectively redefined the role of the string quartet in the 20th and, now, 21st century. Not only have they championed new works by many American composers, they have turned their eyes and ears to the world and brought listeners into the folk musics of Asia, South America and elsewhere.
Their latest venture is Volume 8 of the Smithsonian Folkways "Music of Central Asia" series and finds the KQ (violinist and founder David Harrington, long-time members violinist John Sherba and violist  Hank Dutt along with cellist Jeffrey Zeigler) working with Afghan composer and rubab player Homayun Sakhi (and trio) as well as with Azerbaijani composer/vocalist/percussionist Rafael Asgarov (balaban or wooden flute),  Rauf Islamov (kamancha, a stringed instrument), Zaki Valiyev (tar, or long-necked lute) and Javidan Nabiyev (naghara, or drum.) Alim Qasimov has a voice with an incredible range, sounding not unlike the cadences one hears at the Muslim call for prayer. His other instrument is the daf, or frame drum.  The 5 cuts range from "Kohlen Atim" ("My Splendid Horse"), a piece that starts slowly and then builds to an intense finish to the highly dramatic "Getme, Getme" ("Don't Leave, Don't Leave") to the rampaging "Leyla" (short but incredibly forceful.)  "Mehriban Olaq" opens like a Aaron Copland work (the furious bowing of the strings) before dropping into long tones, then the full ensemble enters and the piece becomes a duet for the voices over thunderous percussion and flying strings. The final track, "Qashlarin Kamandir" ("Your Eyebrows are Bow-like"), is episodic, with sudden and dramatic tempo changes, more great vocal exchanges and an amazing propulsion.
Kronos Quartet is nothing if not adventurous and "Rainbow" is yet another example of the ensemble's tremendous appetite.  The music has moments of splendor and force, joy and introspection.  Musical and educational, this CD is worth seeking out.
The "hard" copy, as opposed to the Mp3 download, includes an video that shows Kronos hard at work with their collaborators creating this program as well as a guide to the instruments on the recording.  To find out more, go to www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=3255.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"The Men I Love" + The Men Who Play

The Men I Love: The New American Songbook - Barb Jungr (NAIM) - Every several years, some one decides to mine the catalogues of contemporary songwriters and cast their songs in a new light.  British-born vocalist Barb Jungr has recorded CDs worth of material by Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Elvis Presley and other modern composers, so her new disk, created for an appearance at The Cafe Carlyle in New York City, comes as no surprise.  I was immediately won over by the sweet and touching reading of Todd Rundgren's "I Saw The Light", with the fine work by cellist Frank Schaefer.  Her honest take on Bruce Springsteen's "The River" features co-arranger Simon Wallace's contemplative piano and more fine cello.  There was a time when David Gates& Bread were all over AM radio with their (somewhat) treacly love songs but Ms. Jungr's take on "Everything I Own" cuts through any glossiness with an honesty born of experience.
Jungr and Wallace arranged these pieces without clutter or extravagant orchestrations. Her voice is right "up front" as our the emotions of the songs, underscored perfectly by the truly excellent cello arrangements.  There are dozens of versions of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" but few with such emotional strength.  She avoids the anger of Paul Simon's "My Little Town", imbuing the words with a sense of resignation and an understanding how the world changes people and places. They take Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere", spruce it up with gospel piano chords and the humor of the lyrics stand right out.  The best makeover goes to "I'm A Believer" (Neil Diamond's tune made famous by The Monkees), slowed down to give the words weight and depth, making one feel that it's sung by someone who really does "believe" (plenty of soul in the final moments of the tune.)
There's pieces by David Byrne, Leonard Cohen, Dexy & The Midnight Runners, and others, all done with great care and thought.  Not each piece is totally successful but most are quite good, some downright brilliant.  There are moments that remind me of the music of Annie Lennox but, truly, "The Men I Love" is very enjoyable.  For more information, go to www.barbjungr.co.uk/.

Modern Life - Ehud Asherie, featuring Harry Allen (Posi-Tone Records) - Young Israeli-born pianist Asherie, who's worked with saxophonists Grant Stewart and his guest here Harry Allen issues his 3rd CD for Posi-Tone and he continues to show why he's such a fine player.  He thinks "melody first" when choosing material, likes to swing, and his solos are usually smartly constructed.  Most of the tunes are standards (even fellow pianist Hank Jones' "Vignette" has been around since 1980) and the 2 originals show a "bop" pedigree. 
The rhythm section of bassist Joel Forbes (a New Haven, CT native) and drummer Chuck Riggs give great support (and well-recorded) - listen to their relaxed swing on the pianist's "One for V" and how they supply the "motor" that drives "The Trolley Song." They remain calm and quiet underneath the "lead" voices on the Gershwin Brothers' "He Loves and She Loves" (from "Funny Face"). 
Allen continues to mine the styles of Ben Webster, Lester Young and Coelman Hawkins to great effect.  He never forces the musical "issue", playing with a relaxed sense of swing (so playful on "No Moon at All" yet deeply bluesy on Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing") and, like the pianist, always "on" the melody. 
Ehud Asherie is an impressive pianist, not because he plays "tons of notes" - no, there's an ease, a grace, a melodic presence that informs his playing.  "Modern Life" is a gentle, genial, and pleasing program that will have listeners coming back time and again for its fine music.  For more information, go to www.posi-tone.com.

Plenty Swing, Plenty Soul - Eric Reed & Cyrus Chestnut (Savant) - Recorded live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center in New York City, Messrs. Reed and Chestnut play a program that exemplifies the CD's title.  Starting with a rousing version of "I'll Remember April", the pianists have a swell time playing these (mostly) standards (2 of the 7 tracks come from Reed, including the rousing and deeply bluesy title track.) With the support of young Hartford, CT, native Dezron Douglas (bass) and Willie Jones III (drums), the duo show their formidable "chops" but never to the point of self-indulgence.  Both strongly religious, they each have a "solo" track, Chestnut with a subdued yet sparkling reading of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" while Reed leads the rhythm section through a spirited reading his composition, "Prayer."
There's a lot of "history" in their playing, which one can hear in the lively reading of Dizzy Gillespie & John Lewis's "Two Bass Hit", a rendition that includes song "quotes", different keyboard techniques (stride, swing, a touch of barrelhouse) and a rhythm section that gives its all. 
"Plenty Swing, Plenty Soul" is a most enjoyable aural experience, 70 minutes of good music.  The audience had a great time and it's easy to hear all 176 keys were well served.  For more information, go to www.jazzdepot.com

The Groover - Mike LeDonne (Savant) - As above, the title of this CD tells one most of what he or she needs to know. Couldn't ask for better sidemen, with the rich tenor sound of Eric Alexander, the straight-ahead drumming of Joe Farnsworth, and the clean, blues-inspired licks of Peter Bernstein.  LeDonne, better known as a pianist (Milt Jackson, Benny Golson and below), has played a Hammond B-3 since his teenage years and this recording shows his fine playing.  The sound of the music has an early 60's feel, Jimmys Smith and McGriff come to mind.  Most of the tunes are fairly new, with the exception of Lerner and Loewe's "On the Street Where You Live" - there's a new Benny Golson tune, "Little Mary", dedicated to LeDonne's 5-year old, and it's a bubbly sweet track with a loping rhythm. Alexander sounds relaxed throughout (he started his professional career as a member of organist Charles Earland's group) and, as usual, he avoids cliches in his solos. He lets loose on occasion, bouncing over Farnsworth's solid drumming.
The tune "The Groover" is dedicated to the late drummer Tony Reedus and swings with that joyous feel that player gave to music.  This CD does not knock you on your head but it's a fun ride from start to finish. To find out more, go to www.mikeledonne.com

Stick With Me - Peppe Merolla (PJ Productions) - The spirit of hard-bop permeates this CD, the second by drummer/vocalist Merolla (he does not sing on this program.)  Utilizing the talents of Steve Turre (trombone, shells), Jim Rotondi (trumpet, flugelhorn), John Farnsworth (tenor sax), Mike LeDonne (piano) and Lee Smith (bass), Merolla romps, stomps, pounds, splashes, thumps, swings and dances through this music. 5 of the 9 tracks are from Farnsworth's pen and they allow the musicians to stretch out.  Yet, what's best about the disk is that there are very solid melodies on most tracks, not just riffs for all to blow through and over.  Turre's mystical shells opens "Naples", the first track on the CD and the only composition contributed by the leader. There's great propulsion in the rhythm section.  Highlights include "A Cry for Understanding", a Farnsworth piece that combines the influences of John Coltrane with Art Blakey.  Rotondi brings his sweet arrangement of Willie Nelson's "Crazy" to the session - it features bluesy solos from the saxophonist, Turre and LeDonne.  "Ferris Wheel" is a real burner, the solos riding atop Merolla's driving percussion. 
If you dig "hard bop", you'll certainly enjoy "Stick With Me."  For more information, go to www.peppemerolla.com.

Live Music In CT & NY

Lots going on all around me and here are some of the highlights:

Firehouse 12 in New Haven springs back into action with its 13-week series of Friday evening shows this week (March 26.)  The opening concerts features baritone saxophonist/composer/conceptualist Fred Ho with poet Magdalena Gomez with a program titled "Caliente! Circle Around the Sun."  Ho has been active on the creative music scene since the early 1980s when he founded his Afro Asian Orchestra.  He does not shy away from political issues and has always been in the forefront of cross-cultural experimentations.  He's composed operas, musical theater/multi-media pieces, suites and concept albums. "Caliente" is one of his newer projects and it's described as drawing "upon the fire and heat of anti-imperialist struggle from around the planet, combining incendiary music and poetry infused with searing revolutionary politics." Ms. Gomez, performance poet and activist, has been presenting poetry and shows since 1971 and is the co-founder and artistic director of Teatro V!da, located in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The duo performs 2 sets, 8:30 and 10 p.m. - for more information (including tickets and links to the artists' website), go to www.firehouse.com.

I wrote several weeks ago about the fine compilation CD published by the New England Conservatory of Music in conjunction with the 40th Anniversary of its Jazz Studies program (review here.) The 8 days of concerts started this past weekend (3/20/10) and continues through this weekend - here's a listing of the rest of the fine series.

Tuesday, March 23
HOT & COOL: NEC JAZZ 40th Presents Darcy James Argue's ('02 M.M.) Secret Society
7:30 and 9:30 p.m.
Tickets $25
Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, NYC
212-576-2232, www.jazzstandard.net

Wednesday, March 24       

7:30 pm  NEC Faculty Jazz All Stars featuring George Garzone, John McNeil, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart and Frank Carlberg '92 M.M.

9:30 pm Marty Ehrlich's Quartet with Ray Anderson, Matt Wilson and John Hébert.

Thursday, March 25      
HOT & COOL: NEC JAZZ 40th                       
Presents Curtis Hasselbring's "The New Mellow Edwards" & Post-show Jam Session with Frank Carlberg
7:00 pm The New Mellow Edwards featuring trombonist Curtis Hasselbring '88 B.M., tenor saxophonist Chris Speed '90 B.M., bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer John Hollenbeck.
Post-Show Jam Session featuring pianist Frank Carlberg, drummer George Schuller '82 B.M., saxophonist Jeremy Udden '02 B.M. '03 M.M. and Joe Fitzgerald, '87 B.M.

Tickets $10

Douglass Street Music Collective, 295 Douglass St. near 3rd Ave., Gowanus, Brooklyn

Friday, March 26     

Featuring vocalists Dominique Eade '82 B.M. '89 A.D (pictured)., Sara Serpa '08 M.M, David Devoe '02 B.M. '04 M.M., Amy Cervini '00 B.M., Jo Lawry '10 D.M., Patrice Williamson '94 M.M., '97 A.D. and Sofia Koutsovitis '03 B.M., with percussionist Richie Barshay '05 B.M., pianist Carmen Staaf '05 B.M., M.M., and bassist Jorge Roeder '05 U.D.

7:00 pm

Tickets $15 + 2 drink or $12 food minimum.

Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC
212-967-7555, www.joespub.com

HOT & COOL: NEC JAZZ 40th Presents the John McNeil-Bill McHenry ('91) Quartet featuring Billy Hart, Ethan Iverson & Matt Penman 

9 p.m. & 10:30 p.m.             

$10 cover; 1 drink minimum

Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia Street, NYC
212-989-9319  www.corneliastreetcafe.com/

Saturday, March 27
Featuring JOHN MEDESKI ('88) & BILLY MARTIN of Medeski, Martin & Wood with turntable maestro DJ LOGIC; RAN BLAKE, ANTON FIG '75 B.M. , BERNIE WORRELL '67, SARAH JAROSZ '13 B.M., DOMINIQUE EADE '82 B.M. '89 A.D., faculty member JOE MORRIS
, LAKE STREET DIVE (Rachael Price '07 B.M., Michael Calabrese '07 B.M., Bridget Kearney '08 B.M., Mike Olson '05 B.M) JASON MORAN, MATTHEW SHIPP '84 B.M. and more; MC for the evening will be WBGO's JOSH JACKSON.

7:30 p.m.

Tickets $25 + $10 minimum

B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill, 237 W. 42nd Street, NYC.
212-997-4144   www.bbkingblues.com

Proceeds from the B.B. King's event will support jazz scholarships at NEC.

Other events in the NYC area include a series featuring the musicians of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground:
Curated by Michel Gentile

667 5th Avenue (b/19th & 20th St.)
Brooklyn, NY 11215, www.eurotripbrooklyn.com

Cover charge: $7 per set or $10 for the whole night

Thursday, MARCH 25 - (March series curated by Dan Pratt)
Sax trio night!
9:30 - John O'Gallagher Group with Johannes Weidenmuller (bass) and BJUR recording artist Owen Howard (drums)
11:00 - John Ellis Trio with Alan Hampton (bass) and Bill Campbell (drums)

Thursday, APRIL 1
9:30 - Rob Garcia 4 (Noah Preminger, Dan Tepfer, Gary Wang)
11:00 - Jean Rohe & Ilusha Tsinadze

Thursday, APRIL 8
9:30 - Five Winds (Michel Gentile, Batya Sobel, Mike McGinnis, Sara Schoenbeck, Mark Taylor)
11:00 - Nate Radley Group

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Music Continues Moving Forward

Roman Nights - Tom Harrell (HighNote) - Harrell's 3rd CD for HighNote is also the third consecutive release with his working quintet of Wayne Escoffery (tenor saxophone), Danny Grissett (piano, Fender Rhodes), Ugonna Okegwo (bass) and Johnathan Blake (drums). That the younger musicians understand the ins-and-outs of the leader's music is a foregone conclusion and this collection of 9 originals shines brightly from the opening moments to the final notes.
Over the 4 decades, one has been made aware of the consistent high quality of Harrell's projects, his intense love for melody as well as rhythm and his fine solo work (one of my favorites is his breathy closing statement on David Berkman's "Sense of Loss" - hear it here.)
The title track of this recording is a pretty ballad played as a duet with pianist Grissett.  The tune is evocative of summer nights and is more joyful than maudlin - nothing is rushed and the lovely, long, melody line drifts on fine piano chords.  Much of the work here is up-tempo, starting with "Storm Approaching", the first cut.  The trumpet swoops above Blake's high-powered drums and Okegwo's forceful "walking" bass lines. Escoffery lets loose with a short yet powerful tenor solo that seemingly raises the music to its boiling point. 
Grissett's switch to Fender Rhodes on the rhythmical "Obsession" brings to mind Miles Davis and his "Filles de Kilimanjaro" music.  Both Harrell and Escoffery ride Blake's insistent drumming, each pushing the percussionist to up the intensity.  The intensity drops a bit for Grissett's solo yet listen to Blake continuing to accent the beat on his "ride" cymbal and snare while the bassist holds the bottom with his thick-toned phrases. "Bird in Flight" is one more piece where the Fender Rhodes shapes the overall sound and Harrell's melodic yet percussive melody and frequent chord changes gives the work a feeling that is always "rising", like the birds in the title.  "Year of the Ox" closes the CD with another insistent rhythm track - the piece has a a marvelous blend of Chinese and Latin influences and more great work from Blake.
Jazz is definitely not "dead" when an album as inventive and exciting as "Roman Nights" crosses one's desk.  Honestly, there are moments when I hit "replay" because the tune was so solid or the solos highly exciting.  The CD goes on sale March 23 and the Quintet plays the Village Vanguard from March 30 through April 4.  This program sounds great coming through the speakers but would certainly be fun in a live setting.  For more information, go to http://tomharrell.com

Due Reverence - Ralph Bowen (Posi-Tone Records) - Tenor saxophonist Bowen first came to critical attention in the 1980's as co-leader of Out of the Blue, a Blue Note-sponsored group that also featured alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Robert Hurst, trumpeter Michael Phillip Mossman and drummer Ralph Peterson (all leaders since those days.)
For this, his 2nd for the hot young label out of Los Angeles, California, Bowen has re-assembled the impressive group of veterans who appeared on his previous "Dedications" CD,  including Adam Rogers (guitar), John Patitucci (bass) and Antonio Sanchez (drums), with young trumpeter Sean Jones appearing on 1 track. First thing one notices is how spacious this music is.  While there is plenty of "fire" in the playing, the sound has no clutter.  Opening with a ballad, "Less is More" (dedicated to guitarist/teacher Ted Dunbar), Bowen displays a full-throated sound that meshes well with Roger's sparkling guitar chords, the wonderful counterpoint from the bass and the quiet yet insistent drum and cymbal work. "One for Bob" (for fellow saxophonist Bob Mintzer) finds Bowen and Sanchez setting a frantic pace while the bass and guitar play intense yet quieter counterpoint.  Patitucci is so inventive, melodic yet rhythmically forceful.
Other highlights include the fascinating "Points Encountered" (dedicated to flutist/composer Robert Dick) -  the piece has a strong melody line and Bowen's solo rises easily from the chordal patterns. Rogers offers a spirited solo above Sanchez's skitterish drums while Patitucci, on electric bass for this track, displays a fine melodic touch. Bowen's dedication to fellow Canadian Phil Nimmons, "Phil-osophy", is a boppish romp with walking bass and several blazing solos (most notably, Rogers really lets loose again.)  Jones joins the band for "Mr. Scott" (like Robert Dick, one of Bowen's teacher at Rutgers, where the saxophonist is now on the faculty.)  His fiery trumpet solo adds a pleasing dimension to the disk yet again it's the rhythm section that really drives this piece.  Sanchez's support underneath the solos is quite impressive, especially his work behind Rogers.
While this is definitely Ralph Bowen's show, his choice of musical comrades makes this music positively shine.  Like Tom Harrell, Bowen started with "real" melodies, not riffs, and the music has great flow.  To find out more, go to www.posi-tone.com or www.ralphbowen.com. The CD Release Party for "Due Reverence" will take place Friday April 30 at the Jazz Gallery in New York City - go to www.jazzgallery.org for more information.

Click on the link to hear "Less is More", the opening track on "Due Reverence." Thanks to Posi-Tone Records and IODA Promonet for the track.

Less Is More (mp3)

Friday, March 12, 2010

20 Years of Schooling and They Put You on the Day Shift

Artifacts: Great Performances from 40 Years of Jazz at NEC - Various Artists (New England Conservatory) -  The New England Conservatory of Music, located in Boston, MA, came into existence in 1867 and has been (pun intended) instrumental in the academic, performance and compositional development of thousands of students and teachers.  100 years after its founding, NEC President Gunther Schuller announced plans for the Department of Afro-American Music and Jazz Studies and, 2 years later, the school welcomed its first students.  Over the past 4 decades, teachers such as George Russell, Jaki Byard, Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Lacy, George Garzone, Joe Maneri, Rakalam Bob Moses, Mick Goodrick, Ran Blake, Ken Schaphorst, and others have worked with students such as Marty Ehrlich, Fred Hersch, Roger Kellaway, John Medeski, Hankus Netsky, Don Byron, Frank London, Richie Barshay, Darcy James Argue and Noah Preminger (and that's just a smattering.)
To celebrate the anniversary, there have a slew of events in Boston and 8 days of concerts (March 20-27/2010) in New York City (click here to read more.)  And, the school has issued this fascinating compilation of l4 performances culled from hundreds of concerts.  The oldest is a 1973 performance of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" by the NEC Ragtime Ensemble, Gunther Schuller, conductor, and the newest is a student trio from 2008 honoring Jimmy Giuffre with a fine reading of his "The Train and the River" (the trio consists of tenor saxophonist Sam Decker, guitarist Will Graefe, and bassist Nate Therrien.) Along the way, there are 2 solo piano versions of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight", the first from Jaki Byard (1975) and the second by Ran Blake (2004). Lacy plays a solo soprano saxophone version of Monk's "Thelonious" and the NEC Jazz Orchestra tackles Byard's "Aluminum Baby", a track that features noted alumnus Harvey Mason (drums). The Orchestra romps through Ken Schaphorst's "Making Lunch" with the composer conducting (and Malcolm Campbell on piano) while Brookmeyer leads the ensemble with his valve trombone on a lovely reading of his "Cameo." Russell leads the Jazz Big Band through a rousing version of his "All About Rosie."
The trio of George Garzone (tenor saxophone), John Lockwood (bass) and Rakalam Bob Moses  (drums) blazes its way through John Coltrane's "India" while vocalist Dominique Eade presents her "Go Gently to the Water" with guitarist Mick Goodrick and pianist Jed Wilson.
One of the most interesting pieces on the disk is "Zeibekiko", a 1976 recording of Joe Maneri (clarinet), Rebekah Zak (piano), Albin Zak (guitar) and Sophia Bilides (dumbek).  It's a traditional Greek dance and it's neat how Maneri weaves his keening, wailing, clarinet through the music. As a side note, Ms. Bilides is now a noted singer of traditional Greek music. 
This is a lovely, loving and lively smorgasbord of performances that are more than just slabs of history but illustrate the timeliness of jazz.  Go to http://necmusic.edu/jazz40 to find out more about the recording, the school, and the concerts.
The title of the review is a reaction to an online discussion of the expense of jazz education engendered by several blog postings from saxophonist/critic/author Chris Kelsey (whose writing is always worth reading and whose music is very much his own - go to http://chriskelsey.com to find out more.)  The original posting is here and should give you pause. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Power and Beauty of the Trio

The Litchfield Suite - Peter Madsen Trio (Playscape Recordings) - Connecticut does not have a plethora of jazz festivals so the annual Litchfield Fest is an eagerly awaited event.  What few people read about and/or see is the Summer Jazz camp that precedes the weekend of major performances.  Pianist/composer Madsen has been a member of the Summer faculty since the turn of the 21st Century and his latest project is a celebration of his association with Litchfield, the musicians and staff.
If you're familiar with Madsen's work, you know he's a powerful player, often displaying the sonic force of Cecil Taylor or Don Pullen and the melodic tendencies of McCoy Tyner and Myra Melford.  For this live performance (recorded at the Festival in August of 2008), he is ably abetted by bassist Andy McKee and drummer Gerald Cleaver.  The "Suite" has 6 parts plus an "intro", 2 piano interludes and one interlude each for the bass and drums.  Each of the "main" compositions is a dedication - "The Source and Force", a work that blends fiery piano work with a long and impressive arco bass solo goes out to Festival founder Vita Muir while "Chillin' at the Cottage" is an impressionistic ballad composed for the pianist's "down time" spent in bassist Mario Pavone's domicile.  "Cool Camp for Cool Kids" opens with Cleaver's "parade" drums and the rest of the Trio gets right down into the "groove." It's a subtle yet funky piece that builds in
intensity with Madsen's powerful 2-handed solo.  The dedication to the camp cafeteria, "Run for Your Lives", with its rubato rumblings, is a tasty and abstract tidbit.  "Fanny Pack Factor" goes out to to camp director Don Braden and comes in quietly like "Maiden Voyage"and is a lovely homage to the saxophonist (fine bass and quiet yet crisp cymbal work  behind the melodic piano.  The final section of the "Suite" is dedicated to Pavone - "Forward Motion" best describes the bassist/composer's style of writing and physical playing that Madsen has often seen and heard as a member of Pavone's different ensembles.  The piece is a high-powered and stunning end to the program, with a well-deserved and  rousing reception from the audience.
Taken as a whole, "The Litchfield Suite" is a truly satisfying experience with fine written material, forceful playing and impressive interactions. This is easily one of the best recordings of 2010. The disk will be released on March 16 and the Trio plays a CD release concert on June 4 at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT.  For more information, go to www.playscape-recordings.com, www.petermadsen.us/, and www.firehouse12.com.

Out Front  - Rufus Reid (Motema) - Bassist Rufus Reid has appeared on countless recordings over his 4+ decades on the jazz scene.  It's easy to understand why;  he's got great facility, stunning tone, a sense of "swing" that does not quit, and an innate ability to support and interact with soloists.  This new recording (with added video content) features the fine Brazilian drummer/percussionist Duduka Da Fonseca and pianist Steve Allee.  6 of the 9 pieces are originals (3 from the leader, 2 from Allee and 2 from Da Fonseca), and 1 each from Marcos Silva, Tadd Dameron and Eddie Harris.
First thing one realize is that this is not just a "show up and blow" session, that the Trio is a working unit and that this music is an expression of joy.  Highlights include Da Fonseca's Brazilian hard-bop "Dona Maria" and Allee's medium-tempo swinger "Ebony."  The former displays the drummer's brilliant ability to move a group while the latter is a blues-based work that features a highly expressive bass solo and highlights the composer's strength as an accompanist.
Reid's "Caress the Thought"is a multi-sectioned work that has a number of dynamic shifts, showcases the bassist's stunning arco (bowed) work, Allee's richly melodic yet rhythmic solo playing and Da Fonseca's drive interspersed with moments of soft cymbal splashes. The Trio approaches Dameron's classic "If You Could See Me Now" as a ballad with Reid as the only solo voice - one could not ask for a more melodic solo from an acoustic bassist.  Reid's high notes are strong, the occasional harmonics add a sweet touch, and he takes his time to develop his melodic ideas (the cut does not seem long at 9 minutes.)
Rufus Reid is definitely "Out Front" but not at the expense of his fellow musicians or the program. These  players are equals and the success of this recording is that no one person nor style dominates. Impressive music, great playing and good friends add up to one fine CD. For more information, go to www.rufusreid.com.
Take a listen to the Trio's version of Silva's "Dry Land" (courtesy of Motema Records and IODA Promonet.)

Dry Land (mp3)

Rumors - Frank Kimbrough (Palmetto) - This new recording from the fine pianist/composer came about as a "happy accident."  Famed photographer Jimmy Katz has been getting involved with recording lately and had 4 hours booked at New York City's Avatar Studios.  He offered the time to Kimbrough if he had a project he wished to document.  The pianist had just spent the previous weekend on a gig with bassist Masa Kamaguchi and drummer Jeff Hirschfield - he called them, they said "yes!" and the next day the Trio spent 3 hours creating this program. 
In a small room without baffles or headphones, seated close to each other, and recorded without minimal gear, "Rumors" is intimate jazz of the first degree. All but one of the pieces are Kimbrough originals.  The disk leads off with an adaptation of Spanish composer Federico Mompou's "Six." The Catalan composer (1893-1987)  was noted for his expressive solo piano pieces.  This piece offers finely wrought piano lines, impressive counterpoint from Kamaguchi and quiet support from Hirschfield.  "TMI" displays the influences of both Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman on the pianist, with its off-handed bluesy phrases and "free swing" from the rhythm section.  Kimbrough's lyricism shines forth on "Hope", the phrases tumbling easily and gracefully from the piano.  Another influence on Kimbrough has been Andrew Hill and "For Andrew" is a classy, quiet, elegy that combines lyrical bass work, active yet soft drumming (wonderful cymbal work) and an elongated, circular, melody line that slowly moves forward and back to opening lines.  Kamaguchi's contrbution should not be overlooked as his counterpoint is filled with delicious short melodic (and seemingly pointillistic) phrases.
Other highlights include the Latin-tinged "Sure As We're Here", replete with two-handed piano lines that move from rhythmic to melodic and back with ease as well as splendid brush work. There's a "free-ish" feel to "Over" with solo spots for both drummer and bassist in the first half of the 6+ minute piece before Kimbrough's expansive rumbling and rollicking spotlight (great last line, too.)
Many people like to be bowled over by jazz, wowed by the technical facility of the musicians.  There are others who like to seduced by the sounds, enjoy the intimacy of the interplay.  Those who fall into the latter category should embrace and celebrate the music of "Rumors" - one can easily get lost in its myriad joys.  For more information, go to http://home.earthlink.net/~fkimbrough/ or www.palmetto-records.com.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ladies' Day (Part 2)

The Nature of Love  - Whitney James (Damselfly Productions) - The past half-decade has brought a surfeit of female vocalists on the jazz scene, many of them performing standards. For her debut CD, Whitney James delves into that very "standards" pool and comes up with a winning program.  Why? Well, she has a splendid voice and she fully inhabits her material. Rarely stretching a tune for the sake of multiple solos, Ms. James still allows her band a lot of freedom.  The rhythm section of Matt Clohesy (bass) and Jon Wikan (drums, percussion) are in sync with James' vocal movements while pianist Joshua Wolff is solid throughout.  Ingrid Jensen (trumpet, flugelhorn) appears on 5 of the 9 tracks, displaying her impressive range and melodic invention. James, a student of Jay Clayton, allows the pieces to breathe, is an articulate vocalist (her alto voice is pleasingly in its lower range) and she does not flaunt her technique.  There are probably a thousand or more versions of "The Very Thought of You" yet there is so much to enjoy about this rendering, from the shifting rhythms to Wolff's sparkling solo to Jensen's mellow flugelhorn to the sweet yet mature vocal.  Listen to the inventive intro on "How Deep Is the Ocean", how Wikan's drums dance over the bouncing riffs and then the movement in and out of the "swing" section, complete with Ms. Jensen riffing around behind the vocal.  The lovely ballad, "Be Anything (But Be Mine)", written in 1952 by Irving Gordon (best known for "Unforgettable"), features just voice and piano - Ms. James uses space smartly, never rushing the pace and always caressing the lyrics.
Nothing sounds forced or phony, every track is worth repeated listens, and the musicianship impeccable.  Whitney James has made a fine debut CD and makes one yearn to see and hear her in a live setting.  To find out more, go to www.whitneyjames.com.

One of Us - Ramona Borthwick (Leitmotif)"Who's Your Mama" opens this recording, with the trumpet of Ingrid Jensen intoning the notes to NPR's "All Things Considered" before the band takes the piece on a romp.  It's a fitting and joyful beginning to the program, pianist/composer/vocalist  Borthwick's second release as a leader. She's a fine player, displaying a style that has its roots in mainstream jazz. Her solos are often lyrical (listen to the beauty and strength of the title track) and she can really dig into her phrases. Her wordless vocals add yet another color to several of the tracks, mixing well with the guitar and trumpet or flugelhorn. One hears the influences of Pat Metheny and McCoy Tyner in many of these pieces (and Herbie Hancock in several of the solos.) Her compositions are smartly constructed, with the rhythm section of Johannes Weidenmueller (bass) and Adam Cruz (drums) really pushing the pieces along.   Producer/guitarist/husband Noel Borthwick allows the music to breathe (the mix is clear, not cluttered), adding his crisply played guitar lines to many of the 10 tracks (I especially like his acoustic rhythm work at the outset of "Rio Alegre", the CD's final track.)  Ms. Jensen's work is pleasing throughout, whether she's swinging like mad (as she does on the afore-mentioned opening cut) or creating low guttural tones at the onset of "Gaia" - her solo later in the performance glides effortlessly over the sparkling rhythm section. "Eight Winds" opens with harp-like phrases and soon drops into a medium tempo swinger with a long, lilting, piano solo followed by a wonderful muted trumpet spot.  
At over 70 minutes, "One of Us" is a bit too long (but, what to leave out?) yet still has much to recommend it .  Ms. Borthwick's solo work, the active, responsive and sharp rhythm section and Ms. Jensen's contributions all add up to a good listening experience.  To find out more, go to www.ramonaborthwick.com.