Thursday, June 29, 2017

University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra: Sweet Ruby Suite

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Sweet Ruby Suite

Once in awhile, if lucky, you stumble across a musical diamond in the rough: a wholly unfamiliar gem. This album is just such a find.

Canada’s University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra (UTJO) is one of that school’s many musical ensembles, built from faculty and students. Gordon Foote directs this group. Prior to this job, he worked for more than 25 years as a professor of jazz studies at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. 

The UTJO consists of five trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass and drums. David Liebman guests here on soprano sax, and Norma Winstone on voice. All the music was written by trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler, who was born in Toronto in 1930, but spent most of his life and career in Great Britain. He died in a London nursing home at age 84. As this release amply demonstrates, he was an outstanding artist, way ahead of his time in many respects.

More than half of the album — almost 30 minutes — is devoted to Wheeler’s “Sweet Ruby Suite,” a beautiful balladic composition. The orchestral work is gorgeous, and some of the finest I’ve heard in years: particularly impressive, given that students comprise the aggregation. Winstone’s contribution consists largely of vocalese passages, as opposed to actual lyrics, and the lady has a stunning voice. Liebman’s sax work is equally impressive. 

Three shorter works — “WW,” “Canter No. 1” and “Winter Sweet” — complete the album. The music won’t make you dance or snap your fingers, but its elegance is mesmerizing; you’ll want to hear it again and again.

The University of Toronto clearly is a music school to be reckoned with. One can only hope that we’ll hear a lot more from these students.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Michael Zilber: Originals for Originals

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Originals for Originals

Instrumentalist/composer Michael Zilber is better known by fellow musicians than by jazz fans. Born in Vancouver, B.C., he moved to Boston in his late teens, then to New York City about five years later. It didn’t take long for his talents to be recognized by artists who frequented that area. Zilber performed or recorded with giants such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, the Brecker brothers and Dave Liebman. 

Zilber’s second album as a leader, Stranger in Brooklyn, was included in a 1992 Jazz Fusion list of “The Best 30 Recordings of All Time.” He now works out of the San Francisco area.

He wrote all the tracks on this new album, his 11th, and these compositions are done to acknowledge the reed artists he considered to be masters of their instruments, and whose music strongly influenced his own development. They include Michael Brecker, Sonny Rollins, Dave Liebman, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, John Coltrane and Paul Desmond. 

The track titles are plays on the names: “Breckerfast Club” and “Leaves” are dedicated to Brecker; “Party Sonny” acknowledges Rollins; “Autumn Lieb” and “Lieb Dich” honor Liebman; Shorter gets the nod with “Weather Wayne” and “Pastel Blues”; “Hen House” is a nod toward Henderson; “Late Night Trane” and “Coltraning Days” credit Coltrane; and “St. Paul” is a shout-out toward Desmond.

Zilber alternates between tenor and soprano sax. His supporting rhythm section features  pianists David Kikoski and Matt Clark; bassists James Genus and Peter Barshay; and  drummers Clarence Penn and Akira Tana. Zilber has played with all of them at some point in his career; as a result, each combo configuration “thinks as one.”

This album superbly exemplifies the style used by today’s artists. It’s beyond bop, often using altered chord structures; the mid- and up-tempo charts swing nicely, and the ballads are thoughtful and poignant. This is a smooth, richly enjoyable group.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Brad Myers and Michael Sharfe: Sanguinaria

Colloquy Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Colloquy

Although most jazz musicians are concentrated on the West and East coasts, some excellent artists and groups that operate in the Midwest. Guitarist Brad Myers and bassist Michael Sharfe are two of the best working in the Tri-State area.

Myers began studies on the piano when he was 6, switched to the guitar at 10, and fell in love with jazz at age 13. Originally from Washington, D.C., he moved to Cincinnati in 1994, where he studied at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music (CCM) on an honors scholarship; he ultimately received a master’s degree in jazz studies. He composes and arranges, and is also teaches. His first album, with the CCM Jazz Ensemble, was released in ’98, and he has been featured on 15 more since then.

Sharfe, another Tri-State alum, is a founding — and current — member of the legendary Blue Whisp Big Band; he also plays with a 16-piece Latin jazz ensemble. Both he and Myers are first-call artists for name groups and artists when visiting the Midwest.

This album features a wide assortment of genres and composers. Four tunes — “Sanguinaria,” “In from Somewhere,” “Norm’s Ridge” and “Bentley’s Blues” are Myers compositions. Gerry Mulligan’s “Line for Lyons” has always been one of my favorite charts; it’s played here as a quiet, mid-tempo swinger. Guitarist Jim Hall contributed “Waltz New,” while Keith Jarrett composed “Country.” Two other tunes — “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” — are by Dave Brubeck and Vince Guaraldi, respectively.

This is a lovely, softly swinging album: one that you’ll listen to again and again.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Luke Sellick: Alchemist

Cellar Live Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Alchemist

I’ve noticed a recent increase in the number of jazz albums by artists who reside in and/or have come from Canada. Proximity plays a role, as does the modern ease of producing CDs; that said, it’s nice to see a greater number of albums crossing the border, and giving us a greater opportunity to appreciate the talents of our neighbors. Bassist, composer and teacher Luke Sellick is an excellent example of the high quality coming from Due North.

Sellick, was born and raised in Winnipeg, attended New York’s Juilliard School of Music and was mentored by legendary bassist Ron Carter. Sellick then apprenticed with pianist Johnny O’Neal, and performed regularly in Big Apple jazz clubs. He currently lives in Harlem, and has a very busy schedule at local venues. He also has toured the world, both as a sideman and leader of “small jazz” combos. 

This release includes some New York’s finer “first-call” artists. Jimmy Greene and Jordan Pettay are featured (respectively) on tenor and alto sax; and Benny Benack and Mat Jodrell play trumpet. The rhythm section features Andrew Renfroe (guitar), Adam Birnbaum (piano) and Kush Abadey and Jimmy Macbride (drums). Bass clarinetist Andrew Gutauskas guests on one of the nine tracks. 

In addition to playing bass, Sellick composed and arranged all the tunes. The musicians share the various tracks, the configuration generally resulting in quintet performance.

The menu includes mid- to up-tempo swingers and ballads. All are smoothly performed: The melodic lines are unique, and the solos are first-class. Sellick clearly has a bright future.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

David Friesen's Circle 3 Trio: Triple Exposure

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Triple Exposure

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like, to be present at a concert given by one of the true masters. Well, I’ve never been lucky enough to catch bassist David Friesen in person, but — thanks to the magic of albums — I can listen to him any time I so desire. Anyone similarly lucky is blessed.

Friesen, now 74 years old, got his start with the ukulele at age 10; he graduated to the guitar six years later. At that point he was 19, during military service in Paris, sitting in with Johnny Griffin and Art Taylor; and then in Copenhagen, playing with Dick Berk and Ted Curson. 

After returning to the States in 1964, he committed himself to the bass, playing opposite artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Friesen also toured with Charlie Parker and Lionel Hampton. In 1973 he made his home in Portland, Oregon, and opened a coffee house. 

Flash-forward to the present day. Friesen has worked with most of the jazz giants, and has been featured as a leader or co-leader on more than 60 albums, and as a sideman on more that 100 others.

The Circle 3 Trio, Friesen’s newest group, features pianist Greg Goebel and drummer Charlie Doggett. Friesen composed and arranged all the tracks on this disc.

The term “concert jazz” frequently is used to describe the kind of music often presented in concert halls; this release is a perfect example. All the charts are performed at balladic tempos, and the result is some of the most gorgeous work ever recorded. And, yes; it’s absolutely true jazz. 

Friesen’s Hemage bass is one of only three made by Herman Elacher, from Hol, in Tyrol, Austria, not far from Innsbruck. It’s an electric, upright, headless instrument with an eccentric body shape. Friesen uses the Hemage for concerts, and an acoustic bass for most pure jazz performances.

Get this album, and listen for yourself. The tone, technique and concepts of Friesen’s music are unbelievably gorgeous.

The Mark Masters Ensemble: Blue Skylight

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Blue Skylight

Trumpeter Mark Masters is an accomplished musician in his own right, but is better known as a producer/arranger of concerts and recordings that honor artists who are — or have been — jazz icons. The subjects of this release are Charles Mingus and Gerry Mulligan. Both were outstanding musicians — Mingus on bass, Mulligan on baritone sax — but this release features their accomplishments as composers and arrangers.

The album’s 11 tunes aren’t familiar jazz classics, but instead those that Masters considers best illustrate their skills as composers. Five are from Mingus, six from Mulligan. 

Masters’ ensemble colleagues are Gene Cipriano, Gary Foster, Jerry Pinter and Adam Schroeder (reeds); Les Benedict and Ron Stout (brass); and a rhythm section of Ed Czach (piano), Putter Smith (bass) and Kendall Kay (drums). All have played with a veritable Who’s Who in jazz, and it’s interesting to note that Masters and many of these guys can be considered senior citizens. And oh my, they do play and swing!

Although Mingus and Mulligan are best remembered for their up-tempo tunes, half of this album’s charts are done as ballads: “So Long, Eric,” “Wallflower,” “Strayhorn 2” and Ellington’s “Sound of Love” are beautiful examples. The artistry of these musicians shines on such tracks; their experience and “feelings” produce truly beautiful solo passages throughout.

Everybody clearly is enjoying the gig, and having a lot of fun; listeners will feel the same.

Phil Parisot: Lingo

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Lingo

Drummer/composer Phil Parisot heads this swinging quartet from the Pacific Northwest jazz scene. He’s supported by Steve Treseler (tenor sax), Dan Kramlich (piano) and Michael Glynn (bass). They’ve known each other for almost 20 years, and the result is a tight, cohesive combo.

Parisot is unusual in a way; not many percussionists are accomplished composers, and very few play with such taste. His relatively light touch allows listeners to fully appreciate his ability to use unique rhythmic lines, which are particularly important as “fills” in a small group. He can’t resist the opportunity to offer solo passages, but his shading is an addition, not a distraction.

Treseler is a gem. His tone is to die for, and his solo passages are outstanding. It’s a challenge to be the primary horn in a small group — it can become monotonous — but that isn’t a problem for Treseler. 

The same can be said for Kramlich. His background work is spot-on, and his solos are interesting and driving.

The musical menu is a satisfying mix of genres and tempos. Parisot wrote seven of the 10 charts; two are short drum “choruses.” The others are from Duke Ellington (“Low Key Lightly”), Jerry Bergonzi (“Different Places Together”) and Keith Judelman (“One for Hugh”). The presentation includes up-tempo burners, ballads and even a jazz waltz. All of them satisfy.

This is a neat quartet. Based on the liner notes, another release is in the works for the future. Can’t wait!