Monday, November 30, 2020

Holiday Jazz 2020: A world affair!

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s primary jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for 24 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

As a greater number of releases have become solely digital, it has gotten harder to separate the (rare) wheat from the (all too common) chaff. The primary reason is an absence of data. Most digital releases offer only a cover image, and nothing else, in the way of information. No little essay about or by the primary artist(s), no recording or mastering engineers, and — quite often — no instrument personnel. 


This is a frustrating a throwback to the early days of LPs, when (as but one example) several of Vince Guaraldi’s Fantasy albums failed to credit his sidemen. It was rude and unacceptable then, and it’s just as intolerable now.


I also mourn the loss of cdbaby’s online store, which ceased operation in March, in order to focus exclusively on helping artists to monetize and promote their music. Every album listed in the former store — whether digital or hard media — had its own page, with all the essential information one would expect from a detailed CD booklet. Visitors also could sample tracks from every entry.


Fortunately, iTunes, Spotify and Amazon still allow sampling.


Even so…


Little by little, it’s getting harder to “browse” music — as in the good ol’ days of record bins — looking for wonderful stuff that you won’t know you want, until you stumble across it.


This is progress?


I think not.




New York-based pianist Ben Paterson is both a Steinway artist and winner of 2018’s inaugural Ellis Marsalis International Jazz Piano Competition. No surprise, then: He has serious keyboard chops. He also performs smoothly alongside bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Charles Goold, with whom he shares one of those symbiotic relationships that suggests mutual mind-reading. They’re a tight unit, and I’ll Be Thanking Santa is a terrific album.


Paterson is a generous leader, granting Sellick almost as much solo time as he takes himself. Sellick favors walking bass, and his licks are quite engaging on “O Tannenbaum” and “Winter Wonderland.” He also introduces the melody on “The Christmas Waltz” and subsequently dominates that tune.


Goold tends to be less visible, establishing solid rhythmic backing without calling attention to himself; it’s almost startling when he takes occasional drum solos, on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Winter Wonderland.”


I love Paterson’s solo introduction on a thoughtful reading of “The Christmas Song”; his keyboard work sounds like a series of melodic questions and answers. His contemplative solo handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” precisely captures the wistful tone Judy Garland gave that song, when she introduced it in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis.


“O Tannenbaum” is a groovy, mid-tempo toe-tapper that challenges listeners not to get up and boogie; the arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here” is much peppier than usual, backed by driving rhythm that feels like a moving train. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” emerges as a bossa nova sparkler, while the Tagalog carol “Pasko Na Naman” is transformed into a tango-esque swinger that builds to an aggressive climax by all three musicians. Paterson also is all over the keyboard during most of “Winter Wonderland”; it’s easy to see how he won that Marsalis competition.


Paterson includes two vocal originals. “Christmas, Won’t You  Stick Around for Awhile” is a wistful ode to those who can’t bear to see the holiday season conclude; “I’ll Be Thanking Santa” is a cheerier love song that acknowledges life’s truly most important gifts. Both tunes boast clever lyrics and rhymes; Paterson definitely could moonlight as a songwriter.


This album demands heavy rotation on your playlist.


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Holiday Jazz 2019: Plenty of tasty stocking-stuffers

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s primary jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for 23 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

Let’s start with a blast from the past, finally (finally!) making its debut on CD.

Longtime holiday jazz fans have always prized the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s two classic albums: 1961’s Sound of Christmas and 1964’s More Sounds of Christmas. Both initially were released by Argo and then reissued by Cadet and Chess; the first one went digital in 1989, first on Chess/MCA, and then on Verve. The second album logically should have hit CD simultaneously … but that didn’t happen.

Three decades passed (!). Then, just a few months ago, Verve quietly issued More Sounds of Christmas on CD. Modern listeners now can delight in the trio’s droll handling of “Snowbound,” “We Three Kings” and “Jingle Bells” — the latter a particularly saucy arrangement — and numerous other seasonal chestnuts, along with a couple of originals (“Egg Nog” and “Plum Puddin’ ”). 

The hitch: Five of the 10 tracks are accompanied by syrupy strings, which’ll raise an eyebrow or two. (Oh, well.)

Folks just starting a holiday jazz collection will be delighted by New Continent’s Christmas Hits: Jazz, Lounge and Rhythm & Blues. This three-disc anthology offers 25 iconic tracks in each of the three genres. The Christmas Jazz CD features classics by Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Kenton, Mel Tormé, Chet Baker and many others. Christmas Lounge is laden with vocals by Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Julie London and others. Christmas Rhythm & Blues, finally, is a smorgasbord featuring The Cadillacs, Brenda Lee, Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Drifters and much more.

With 75 tracks for slightly less than $13, you can’t go wrong!

As this survey was going to bed, Santa dropped a copy of up-and-coming vocalist Rebecca Angel’s CD single cover of “Santa Baby.”Considerable bravery is required to tackle this classic, in the wake of Eartha Kitt’s iconic 1953 version, along with respectable later covers by Kylie Minogue and Madonna. To her credit, Angel has the appropriate little-girl coo, and her flirty reading is backed by a tasty quintet: Dennis Angel (Flugelhorn), Jason Miles (keyboards), Jonah Prendergast (guitar), Reggie Washington (bass) and Brian Dunne (drums).

But will it stand the test of time? Hard to say. 

Now, let’s see what else Santa brought jazz fans this year (or recently, anyway) …


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Swingle Bells: Holiday jazz 2018

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s primary jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for 22 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

So much terrific new Christmas music, and most of the season’s publicity is going to Captain Kirk.

The rest of the media attention focuses on releases by John Legend, Pentatonix, Lindsey Stirling and Eric Clapton (!). Jazz isn’t even an afterthought this year.

There is no justice.

Okay, fine; 87-year-old William Shatner deserves credit for longevity and a willingness to step wayoutside his comfort zone, and he was smart enough — with Shatner Claus — to align himself with top-flight engineers and an impressive roster of guest stars, that ranges from Judy Collins and Todd Rundgren, to Rick Wakeman and Iggy Pop.

But trust me: You can do better.

You won’t find any heavyweights or readily familiar names among this year’s roster of holiday jazz releases, although Joey Alexander should prompt a smile of recognition. But that’s not the point: The goal here is cool seasonal sounds, and it’s always gratifying when terrific material comes from hitherto unknowns, who subsequently make it to your preferred playlist.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s dive in!


Proving once again that jazz is an international phenomenon, this year’s round-up starts with Italian trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso’s Merry Christmas Baby. Bosso has played his horn since age 5, and his career took off with the release of his first album in 2000; subsequent projects included collaborations with Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Dianne Reeves and a veritable Who’s Who of Italian jazz stars.

His quartet on this tasty holiday release features Julian Oliver Mazzariello (piano), Jacopo Ferrazza (acoustic double bass) and Nicola Angelucci (drums), and their interplay is tight. Most arrangements hover in the mid-tempo range, and Bosso grants ample time for generous solos by his compatriots.

The album-opening handling of “Winter Wonderland” is typical of the delights to come: a straight-ahead arrangement with Bosso’s sweet trumpet introducing the melody, then yielding the floor to Mazzariello and Ferrazza. The former’s quiet keyboard solos introduce “Grown-Up Christmas List” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with Bosso’s horn taking over for the respective melodies, against gentle piano and bass comping.

The quartet’s delivery of “Silent Night” is a lot of fun: Angelucci lays down a terrific New Orleans-style beat that gives this tune an atypically peppy reading, with some wild solos on trumpet and piano. Mazzariello opens “Let It Snow” with some stride piano, then shares the stage with Bosso for what becomes a bouncy little duet. The entire combo goes wild on “Jingle Bells,” which kicks off with some lively drumming, sassy trumpet and “shimmering” piano riffs, eventually yielding to trumpet and piano solos that shoot off into the stratosphere.

Guest vocalist Karima’s wistful handling of “The Christmas Song” is backed by gentle trumpet and piano comping, both instruments supplying lyrical solos when she pauses during the bridge. Walter Ricci offers an equally delicate vocal on “What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve,” against soft trumpet and piano; he has more fun scatting throughout a lively “Jingle Bell Rock,” with Angelucci shifting into swing time during a bridge that features nifty keyboard and trumpet solos.

Bosso’s switch to muted trumpet is a cute touch on “Merry Christmas, Baby,” as you can almost hear the lyrics emanate from his expressive horn; the song also features some sultry byplay between piano and bass during the bridge. All and all, this is a nifty album that deserves plenty of rotation in your holiday library.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Steve Slagle: Dedication

Panorama Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Dedication

This new release by alto/flute/soprano reed man and composer Steve Slagle grew on me. It begins nicely and gets increasingly better, as we progress through its nine tracks.

Slagle isn’t a jazz newcomer, but he’s not as well known as many top-flight musicians. He has had plenty of experience, but is better recognized by the artists with whom he has played, than by their fan base. Slagle has advanced degrees from Berklee and the Manhattan Schools of Music; he has written arrangements and performed with Charles Mingus’ Big Band; he has played with Lionel Hampton, Jack McDuff,
Carla Bley and Woody Herman; and is now fronting his own groups.

The unit backing him here includes pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Scott Colley, drummer  Bill Stewart, percussionist Roman Diaz, and guitarist Dave Stryker. Slagle composed all but two of the charts; the exceptions are Stryker’s “Corazon” and Wayne Shorter’s “Charcoal Blues.”

Slagle’s sax “sound” is different than most. Art Pepper (as one example) produced  “cleaner,” more rapid phrasing — like a popcorn popper — while Slagle’s approach is “earthier.” That said, he sure swings. He’s also adept on the soprano sax and flute.

Although a lot of his work — and compositions — are based on a Latin sound, most of this release features grooving, bluesy modern lines that make use of multiple key changes and up-tempo phrasing. This is particularly true of the menu’s latter half.

This is a nice, swinging, album: Slagle is a genuine pleasure to experience.

John Vanore: Stolen Moments

Oliver Nelson, who died too young at 43, is one of our icons. He played saxophone and clarinet, but is best known as a composer, arranger and bandleader. He started as an instrumentalist at age 15, playing in territory bands in the St. Louis area; he joined the Louis Jordan group at 20, then served as a Marine. During this military stint he was exposed to “concert” music, and it changed his life; once returned to civilian life, he studied music composition and theory, graduating with a master’s degree.

Nelson quickly became an in-demand artist, playing with Erskine Hawkins, Louie Bellson, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones. Nelson’s skill as an arranger, then composer, moved him into the big time; he did background music for TV shows and movies, and worked with key entertainers such as Nancy Wilson, James Brown and Diana Ross. All this, while continuing to work with many of the greats in groups that produced some of the historic jazz of the 1960s and ’70s. 

Composer/arranger and trumpeter John Vanore is one of many influenced by Nelson, and this album was created to acknowledge the latter’s contribution to jazz. Vanore chose not to use Nelson’s arrangements, but to “re-imagine” and rearrange some of his most famous music. 

Vanore also uses a unique format in his ensemble: two reeds, five trumpets or flugelhorns, two trombones or French horns, and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass, guitar and drums. This instrumentation, in conjunction with Vanore’s arrangements, results in a smooth, refined sound. It still swings, but the music is more “polite” than that generally associated with a big band.

The nine tracks here are all based on Nelson compositions or arrangements. The most famous is the album title tune, “Stolen Moments,” a staple in every jazz group library. (As just two examples, Bill Evans and Bill Cunliffe have delivered terrific covers.) “Blues & the Abstract Truth” is another from Nelson’s “jazz bible,” and this album also includes famed standards such as “A Taste of Honey,” “St. Louis Blues” and “Greensleeves.” Additional Nelson originals include “Self Help Is Needed,” “Reuben’s Rondo,” “El Gato” and “I Hope in Time a Change Will Come” ... all done with finesse by Vanore’s ensemble.

All in all, a very enjoyable album.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Hal Galper & The Youngbloods: Live at the COTA Jazz Festival

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Live at the COTA Jazz Festival

Beat always has been one of jazz’s key elements. Tempo and “style” can change — it can be balladic, grooving, flag-waving, funk, rock, bop or whatever — but beat usually is consistent. That’s what makes it “danceable.” 

Ah, but that has changed, as some jazz has moved into the modern age. Some artists have moved to what is referred to as a “rubato” style of playing: A consistent beat isn’t used. This is left up to the predominant soloing instrument; the other artists in the group follow this lead’s beat variations.

Pianist Hal Galper is a proponent of this style; the Youngbloods who support him here are his disciples. Alto saxophonist Nathan Bellott, bassist Dean Torrey and drummer David Frazier are honor graduates of Galper’s Purchase Conservatory; this album was recorded at last year’s COTA (Council On the Aging) Jazz Festival, held to honor great alto sax artist Phil Woods.

The rubato style also can be open-ended, which is to say, it doesn’t have a set number of bars or choruses. As a result, each tune generally is longer than the usual jazz composition, and that’s the case here. The four charts (respectively) run more than 17, 11, 14 and 14 minutes. Galper composed of them; Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye” is the exception.

This release doesn't “swing” in the usual sense, but it’s definitely musical, and can be classified as modern jazz. Each artist’s skill is evident during solo sections, and unison passages and supporting contributions are outstanding. It’s beautiful “listening” music, clearly meant for concert hall presentation.

Fans of this sub-genre will be thrilled by this album. If it’s new to you, give it a try. I suspect you’ll be quite impressed.

Delfeayo Marsalis: Kalamazoo

Troubadour Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Kalamazoo

The Marsalis family remains one of the most famous gatherings of jazz artists in existence. Father Ellis is a pianist and teacher; Wynton, the best known, plays the trumpet; eldest brother Branford chose saxophone. Their brother Delfeayo, the trombonist, is featured here. 

Delfeayo is much more than an instrumentalist and composer; he’s also an educator and producer, and his work in recording techniques has earned him both Grammy and 3M Visionary Awards. Although he has played with many well-known jazz artists and groups, this is his first live album, recorded during a concert at Western Michigan University. The players’ reactions and comments can be heard during the performance.

Delfeayo heads a quartet that consists of his father, Ellis, on piano; Reginald Veal on bass; and Ralph Peterson on drums.

The album menu is traditional in that the tunes are familiar: “Autumn Leaves,” “My Funny Valentine,” “If I Were a Bell” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing,’ among others. Almost all the swingers use a blues format, including the theme from Sesame Street. It obviously was a very relaxed and entertaining concert; one of the charts even includes participation by two audience members. Everyone had a ball!

You will, as well.