Friday, December 30, 2011

Chuck Obuchowski's 2011 Favorites

I invited Chuck Obuchowski, Jazz Music Director at WWUH-91.3 FM and writer for the Hartford Courant, to post his Favorite CDs of 2011.  What follows is a somewhat altered version of the article that will appear in the January 2012WWUH Program Guide. (I'll be joining Chuck on the radio Tuesday January 3 2012 from 9 a.m. - 12 noon and we'll play selections from our "Best-of..." and/or "Favorites" lists.) 

Friends often complain to me that they have a tough time finding new music which really wows them. They suggest that the current jazz scene needs more star power: after all, where are the Armstrongs, the Ellingtons, the Monks and the Coltranes of this generation?

While it may be true that no bona fide jazz musician – save perhaps Wynton Marsalis – has attained household-name status lately, there are still many exceptional improvising artists around, and – I would argue – a decent number of noteworthy jazz recordings continue to be issued every year. Looking back on my 2011 Tuesday Morning Jazz play lists, I identified over 50 contenders for inclusion on my “top 10 list.”

I prefer to call them my “10 favorites,” but everybody else insists on using the “10 best” prefix with such lists … call ‘em whatever you wish, but – if you like online samples of any of these albums – please purchase the music; musicians need to eat, too.

At WWUH, we still receive a plethora of new jazz discs every year, even though it seems every few months some “expert” predicts the imminent demise of the compact disc. While I applaud the resourcefulness of independent artists, a lot more mediocre music finds its way onto disc these days without anyone around to offer quality control. So it can be daunting to slog through lots of so-so recordings in search of a few gems.

Hopefully, you’ll discover something gem-like in at least a few of the releases I’ve selected here; great music has the power to transcend time and space if we allow ourselves to fall under its spell.

Please note that I have listed these releases in alphabetical order according to the artists’ surnames; they are not ranked in order of preference.

The New Gary Burton Quartet – Common Ground (Mack Avenue Records)

Vibraphonist Burton, who will be 69 years old on January 23, is still making vital music, as this album attests. His four mallets dance effortlessly across the keys of his instrument, as he and three highly skilled composer-improvisers take the listener on a sensual sonic sojourn.

Julian Lage, who first joined forces with Burton while a student at Berklee, shares the leader’s gift for lyricism. He provides many of the album’s most compelling solos on his distinctive archtop semi-acoustic guitar. Listen to his ebullient exchanges with Burton during “Did You Get It?,” written by drummer Antonio Sanchez. Sanchez has worked extensively with Pat Metheny, who – like Lage – earned accolades as a member of the vibist’s band while still a teenager. 
Here's a track from the CD courtesy of Mack Avenue & IODA Promonet:
Was It So Long Ago? (mp3)

Joseph Daley Earth Tones Ensemble – The Seven Deadly Sins (JARO)

This is certainly one of the most ambitious jazz projects to be released in 2011. Fronting a band of nearly 30 musicians, Daley conducts a suite he composed based on the seven deadly sins. The work was specifically inspired by paintings by Wade Schuman which portray each of the infamous transgressions as animals; prints of these paintings are included in the CD package, which also contains a DVD of the recording sessions.

Astoundingly, this is the 62-year-old tuba player’s first release as a leader, although Daley has worked with everyone from Lionel Hampton to Cecil Taylor during his busy career. The music here is bold and brassy – with multiple trumpets, trombones, tubas and French horns – plus five percussionists. Saxophones, piano and vibraphone also add to the tonal palette.

Daley performed with Connecticut-based trumpeter Stephen Haynes in his Paradigm Shift brass ensemble during the 1990s. The group’s sole recording was culled from a performance at Real Art Ways in Hartford.

Tim Horner – The Places We Feel Free (Miles High Records)

Like Joseph Daley, Horner has made a name for himself as a first-rate sideman, working for many years with outstanding jazz composers like Maria Schneider and Rufus Reid. He credits them with encouraging him to step forward as a leader and composer at last.

The results are delightful; not only has the drummer written 10 fascinating tunes, some inspired by his world travels, but he’s also assembled an excellent team to interpret them. Horner employs seven musicians in all, in various combinations on each track. It’s tough to single out any one soloist, but guitarist John Hart, trumpeter Ron Horton and keyboardist Jim Ridl offer especially engaging improvisations.

Ben Kono – Crossing (19/8 Records)

Kono’s music is panoramic in scope, ranging from the lovely flute-and-reed chorale that introduces this disc’s title track to the Asian-flavored fusion of “Rice” – from the fiery tenor sax and guitar solos on “Tennis” to the carefully crafted 12-tone abstractions which highlight “Celestial Birch.”

The Vermont native and former U.S. Army Jazz Ambassador plays eight horns on this, his debut CD. In addition to typical jazz axes like saxophone and flute, Kono provides more unusual aural textures on oboe, English horn and shakuhachi.

His terrific ensemble includes drummer John Hollenbeck, guitarist Pete McCann and bassist John Hebert. All five accompanists seem perfectly suited to bringing Kono’s distinctive compositions to life.

Peter McEachern Quintet – Shockwave (self released)

What a joy that Connecticut trombonist McEachern took it upon himself last year to finally bring this amazing music – recorded in 1994 – to the public’s attention. It finds him in the company of two longtime colleagues: bassist Mario Pavone and multi-reedman Thomas Chapin, both operating at the height of their powers.

Plans to have the album released back then on Knitting Factory Works fell through when the label began having financial problems, and McEachern shelved the project after Manchester native Chapin was diagnosed with acute leukemia.

The quintet featured here only worked together a few times, but all had performed with the trombonist before, including trumpeter Jamie Finegan and drummer Steve Johns. McEachern’s compositions are highlighted, yet everyone but Johns contributed at least one tune. The improvising is uniformly inspired throughout; fans of Pavone’s and Chapin’s edgy-but-swinging work will rejoice in hearing this lost treasure for the first time. It’s also worth noting that these sessions marked Chapin’s debut on baritone saxophone, but he plays with the authority and daring he brought to every one of his chosen instruments.

Brad Mehldau – Live in Marciac (Nonesuch)

The onetime West Hartford resident continues to hone his impressive ability to blur distinctions between musical genres: seamlessly shifting from classical precision to the jangly discord of Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” heard in medley with 1970s singer/songwriter Nick Drake’s hypnotic “Things Behind the Sun.”

It’s all here – along with much more – on this two-disc document of a 2006 solo recital in France (A 10-song DVD from the concert is also included in the package.) Despite his staggering virtuosity, Mehldau never forgets the importance of conveying a range of emotions to his audience. There are solemn ballads (“Goodbye Storyteller”) and carefree romps (the Lennon/McCartney trifle “Martha My Dear”), even the occasional jazz standard (“Dat Dere”).

Mehldau’s solo performance at the Garde Arts Center in New London last February preceded the release of this album by just two days. That event was one of the concert highlights of my year. There, he strayed even further from the usual jazz repertoire, including a 20-minute rendition of Massive Attack’s “Tear” and a poignant cover of an old Neil Young song.

Marcus Shelby Orchestra – Soul of the Movement (Porto Franco)

The San Francisco bassist has subtitled his big band’s latest recording “Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” The music combines striking arrangements of spirituals, “We Shall Overcome” and Shelby originals to create a vivid musical portrait of the life and times of the famed civil rights leader.

Faye Carol and Kenny Washington bolster the instrumentalists’ contributions with their dramatically delivered lyrics and swinging scat vocals. Shelby also includes potent interpretations of appropriate material by Charles Mingus and Curtis Mayfield to flesh out Dr. King’s story.
Here's one of the great original tracks from the CD, courtesy of Porto Franco Records & IODA Promonet:
Black Cab (mp3)

Jack Wilkins – The Blue & Green Project (Summit Records)

It’s a safe bet that this disc features the first jazz piece to incorporate a “field recording” of two master blacksmiths at work. “Song of the Anvil” uses their clanging interplay as the basis for its mesmerizing rhythms.

But “The Blue & Green Project” is no mere novelty record. Rather it’s a collection of eclectic musical stories “inspired by Appalachian Mountain culture and environment.” Each weds elements of jazz with American roots music ranging from gospel to bluegrass. Saxophonist Jack Wilkins (not to be confused with the guitarist of the same name) also translates his impressions of the region’s geography into pieces like “Mountain Watercolors” and “River Run.”

Wilkins, Director of Jazz Studies at The University of South Florida, coaxes an astonishing array of moods and improvisations from his large ensemble. Guitarist Corey Christiansen rocks out one moment, and violinist Sara Caswell glides sweetly along the mountaintops the next. Drummer Danny Gottlieb keeps everyone in line with his surefire drumming, but the bandleader deserves the most credit for shaping these diverse elements into a coherent whole.

Dr. Michael White – Adventures in New Orleans Jazz Part 1 (Basin Street)

This one gets my vote for “fun album of the year.” If you don’t find yourself tapping along to some of the euphoric rhythms on this disc, it may be time to have your hearing examined.

Clarinetist White has assembled a dynamic cast of Crescent City players to present a musical adventure that takes the listener on a journey through the African Diaspora, including stops in Jamaica and Haiti – as well as visits to back porches and black churches in the Deep South.

He gives the Bob Marley classic “One Love” a trad jazz twist, and similarly imbues the music of South African songstress Miriam Makeba with a N’orleans vibe. Elsewhere there are charming vocals and a blues-drenched duet with banjo on “House of the Rising Sun.” White’s newest endeavor reminds us that, even in the 21st century, New Orleans remains an indispensible musical melting pot.

Various Artists (produced & arranged by Bob Belden) – Miles Español (E One)

Talk about ambitious projects! Bob Belden invited some of today’s most broad-minded improvisers to explore the history and influence of Spanish and Gypsy musics as they relate to jazz. A longtime Miles Davis aficionado, Belden used elements of the renowned Davis/Gil Evans collaboration “Sketches of Spain” as a springboard for these explorations.

This album begins – as did the 1960 Davis/Evans classic – with an enticing version of Joaquim Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” More exotic instrumentation is employed, however – with gorgeous contributions from harp, oud, bassoon and percussion.

Many of the musicians who perform on this two-CD set have opted to contribute their own compositions based on the aforementioned concepts. This results in a blend of folk forms and inspired jazz improvisations by an impressive roster of talent. Some of the names you just might recognize: Chick Corea, Ron Carter, John Scofield, Sonny Fortune and Jack DeJohnette.

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