Monday, July 6, 2015

Michael Waldrop Big Band: Time Within Itself

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Time Within Itself

Percussionist Michael Waldrop plays both drums and mallet instruments (vibes and marimba). He has a PhD and currently is a professor of percussion at Eastern Washington University, where he teaches both jazz and classical courses. 

He also directs a big band, and this is that ensemble’s inaugural album.

Once upon a time — back in unenlightened times — drummers often were looked down upon. (Question: “How big is your band?” Answer: “Sixteen musicians and a drummer.”) Happily, that’s no longer the case. During the past several months, I’ve reviewed numerous units led by drummers who have college degrees, who compose and arrange their own music, and who are affiliated with — and teach — at upper-level schools. Waldrop is in good company.

He was a member of the Grammy-nominated One O’Clock Lab Band; he has toured the U.S. and Europe with various groups; and he has played with numerous jazz icons and personnel. The big band here is impressive: five reeds, eight brass and a rhythm section of four, along with guest performers on some tracks. 

All of these tracks are original compositions, half by Waldrop. Woodwind impresario Jack Cooper (who also fronts his own big band) wrote the others and masterfully arranged everything on the album. Everybody deserves mention, but I must acknowledge master guitarist and vocalist Jimi Tunnell, and vocalist Sandra Dudley; both contribute “no-word” shading on three tracks, using their voices as instruments, to back up the band’s swinging instrumental passages. The result is impressive, and really adds to the impact.

This is a wonderful orchestra, filled with extremely talented artists. Want more proof? The entire album was completed in just one day!

Jiggs Whigham: not so standards

Azica Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: not so standards

I’m willing to bet that few readers will recognize any of this trio’s artists ... although I might be mistaken when it comes to trombonist Jiggs Whigham. He leads this group, and he played with two of the more famous “ghost” bands: the Glenn Miller orchestra that was led by Ray McKinley in 1961, and the 1963 Stan Kenton “mellophonium” band. 

Whigham was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1943; he was only 17 when he joined the Miller group. But touring wasn’t what he wanted as a profession, so — after his stint with Kenton — he settled in New York City to play commercially. That didn’t satisfied him either, so he migrated to Germany, where he still lives and works.

Whigham teaches and is a regular with big bands led by Kurt Edelhagen, Bert Kaempfert and Peter Herbolzheimer (likely unknown in the States, but big in Germany). Whigham also has been musical director for the Radio in the American Sector Big Band, and currently conducts Great Britain’s BBC Big Band. He periodically returns to the U.S., where he plays and records with American jazz artists.

The trio featured on this release is unusual, in that it consists of trombone, piano and electric bass. German-born Florian Weber is on piano, while Romanian-born Decebal Badila handles the bass. The session, recorded live at Cleveland’s Nighttown Jazz Club, contains three Great American Songbook standards (“The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come”), two jazz standards (“Bags’ Groove” and “Saint Thomas”) and one original by Whigham. 

The trio sound is unique: definitely not what most folks are accustomed to hearing. Part of that is the instrumentation: The electric bass isn’t as “full” as an upright, and there’s no drummer to help fill in the “bottom.” Additionally, the musicians’ overall style shows a noticeably modern European influence: smooth and “clean,” and not as loose or swinging as many American talents.

All that said, “different” is no less enjoyable. Whigham’s trio delivers an impressive album, and one that deserves placement in your library.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Good Grief! It's Still Jim Martinez

Invisible Touch Music
By guest critic Derrick Bang
Buy CD: Good Grief! It's Still Jim Martinez

Vince Guaraldi has been gone for almost 40 years, but his signature themes are more popular than ever; all manner of jazz musicians have covered the “big three” — “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time Is Here” — with more renditions popping up every year.

Northern California jazz pianist Jim Martinez includes the first two on his new album, which honors Guaraldi’s decisive musical influence on the neighborhood inhabited by Charlie Brown and the rest of Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts gang. But this isn’t a garden-variety collection of Guaraldi covers; eight of these 14 tracks are sparkling Martinez originals, all written and performed in Guaraldi’s larkish, Latinesque “Peanuts style.”

Martinez has Guaraldi’s facility for cute, clever melodic hooks that immediately sound familiar, even when heard for the first time. Better still, they’re catchy and instantly hummable, with the cheerful ebullience that always characterized Guaraldi’s performance style. You can’t help nodding in time to Martinez’s effervescent keyboard work; you also can’t help smiling.

He’s a generous leader, granting plenty of exposure to core band mates Josh Workman (guitar), Marcus Shelby (bass), and Tim Metz and Tony Savage, trading off on drums. Indeed, numerous tracks — such as Martinez’s “Chillin’ at the Warm Puppy CafĂ©” — feature engaging “duels” between Martinez and Workman, alternating vigorous solos and comping behind each other. (The title references the aptly named coffee shop adjacent to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California.)

Workman’s deft guitar work also highlights the gentle, Brazilian-hued “Samba for Snoopy,” and the flamenco elements of the impish “Spike and the Cactus Club,” with its shifting time signatures; one imagines Snoopy’s rail-thin brother dancing with a rose between his teeth.

Shelby’s accomplished bass work powers the percussive “Bang!,” which Martinez fills with Guaraldi-esque flourishes; Shelby’s walking bass also drives the sassy “Blues for Beagles,” which gets additional snap from Lucas Bere’s smoldering tenor sax.

The lyrical “Waltz for Vince” feels very much like the style and delivery of Guaraldi’s early Fantasy albums, while “Schroeder Can Play” is a spirited finger-snapper granted plenty of swing by both Martinez and Shelby.

The band’s cover of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is slightly faster than Guaraldi’s version, with Martinez roaring through the lengthy improv bridge. “Linus and Lucy” also is up-tempo, with Metz’s propulsive drum work setting the stage for an initially faithful (but not slavish) adaptation that breaks away when Martinez takes the second bridge into entirely new directions. Guaraldi’s lively “Surfin’ Snoopy” is treated like a classic combo swinger, with Savage and Shelby setting the stage for vigorous solos by Bere, Workman and finally Martinez.

Martinez is equally adept at softer tempos, as with his worshipful handling of Guaraldi’s “Theme to Grace,” an interior theme from the Jazz Mass Guaraldi wrote for San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in the mid-1960s. Workman and Martinez trade quiet, reverential solos in a manner evoking the latter’s numerous “Jazz Praise” albums. Similarly, Martinez’s “Thank You Sparky” is a hushed, heartfelt lament, with his keyboard backed solely by violin.

The album includes one vocal: a tender cover of Rod McKuen’s poignant title song to the 1969 film A Boy Named Charlie Brown, with Margie Rebekah Ruiz’s expressively soulful voice accompanied by Bere’s equally sweet sax solo and a string quartet.

The album is highlighted both by everybody’s tight solo and ensemble work, and by Martinez’s overall impish tone. Most of his original compositions are droll to begin with, and he enhances that exuberance with occasional quotes from sources as varied as Gershwin, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Guaraldi himself.

This album’s dexterous musicality certainly is a selling point, but — most of all — it’s fun. As with Guaraldi’s many albums, you can’t help wanting to play this one again ... and again and again.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Steve Gadd Band: 70 Strong

BFM Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: 70 Strong

Those who don’t know Steve Gadd must not be serious jazz fans. He’s not merely one of the top drummers working today; he’s an impressively prolific, experienced and in-demand artist, when it comes to his fellow musicians. He has participated on more than 150 albums produced by top artists and groups during his 40 years as a professional. 

He was born in 1945 in a suburb of Rochester, New York, began drum lessons when he was 7, and was sitting in with Dizzy Gillespie by age 11. Gadd attended both the Manhattan School of Music and Eastman School of Music. After graduation, he joined Chuck Mangione’s band; Gadd’s first recording session was in 1968, on Mangione’s debut album.

Gadd spent three years in the Army, with their Jazz Ambassadors band. After his military service, he began playing with some of that period’s best groups: Chick Corea, Simon and Garfunkel, Steely Dan, Carly Simon, Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Quincy Jones, to name a few. He also worked with James Taylor and in many, many studio bands while backing vocal icons. (Note the wide variation of styles.)

Gadd’s tasteful percussion work has made him a first-call favorite with vocalists. One example is Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and I still get a kick out of Gadd’s phrasing on that gem.

This new album celebrates Gadd’s 70th birthday. It’s done with a quintet format, featuring Walt Fowler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Larry Goldings on keyboards and accordion, Jimmy Johnson on bass, and Michael Landau on guitars. As is usually the case with Gadd, the tracks concentrate more on these side artists ... but Gadd’s work backing and driving the group is fantastic; pay attention to the timing, accents and fills on “Foan Home,” the album’s opening track.

Another of Gadd’s notable characteristics is his love of moderate to balladic tempos; this album has no flag-wavers or drum solos, just great, tasty drumming on a wide range of musical styles.

Here’s to another quarter-century, Steve!

Benny Sharoni: Slant Signature

Papaya Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Slant Signature

I did my first review of tenor saxman Benny Sharoni about five years ago; he had just released his first album, Eternal Elixir. I was impressed. But then, no sign of him until now, when spring brought this album.

He’s even better now.

Sharoni was born in Israeli and raised in a kibbutz near the Gaza strip. He served the mandatory three-year stint in the Israeli army; during that period, he fell in love with jazz. (Sonny Rollins was a major influence.) After his military service, he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music, and chose the life of a professional musician.

Both albums have featured a sextet, although two pianists switched that chair in the first release. Four of the artists who supported him on Elixir — pianist Joe Barbato, guitarist Mike Mele, bassist Todd Baker and drummer Steve Lagone —also are present in on this new release. They’re joined by Jim Rotondi on trumpet.

This group plays bop, although in several styles: straight-ahead, Latin, New Orleans strut and blues. Through it all, you’ll also detect a hint of his homeland. Most important: Everything swings. Sharoni demonstrates Rollins’ influence, but without being a copycat. 

Five of the eight tracks are Sharoni originals. The three jazz standards are by Lee Morgan (“Ceora”), Freddie Hubbard (“Down Under”) and Ray Bryant (“Tonk”).

Don’t make us wait so long for your next session, Benny!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The John Fedchock Quartet: Fluidity

Summit Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Fluidity

I’ve always been partial to jazz trombone. During the big band era, I was knocked out by artists such as Bill Harris, Bob Brookmeyer, Carl Fontana, Bill Watrous, Frank Rosolino, Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson; these days, it’s John Fedchock. 

Born during the latter years of that wonderful era, Fedchock studied at Ohio State University and the Eastman School of Music. He began his career in the 1980s, touring with Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd for seven years, during which time he was a featured soloist, musical director and arranger. 

Fedchock also worked with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Louie Bellson and the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra. These days, he fronts his own big band and smaller combos. Fluidity, recorded live at the Havanah Nights Club, features him in a quartet setting with pianist John Toomey, bassist Jimmy Masters and drummer Dave Ratajczak.

This release is deliciously relaxed and beautifully performed. Six of the nine tracks are well-known standards, done at moderate and balladic tempos: they include “East of the Sun,” “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Such immediately familiar tunes clearly had a positive impact on the musicians and their audience. 

Additionally, just to make sure everyone had something to groove to, the guys included a few charts composed by Fedchock — “Havanah” and “Under the Radar” — along with Joe Henderson’s “Homestretch.”

Fedchock produces a great tone from his horn. At ballad tempos, it’s smooth, pure and expressive; conversely, during up-tempo movers, he gets a little rougher and more strident ... and really grabs you by the throat! His solos are inventive at any tempo. 

His cohorts are the ideal complement; Fedchock has known and played with them for years. Toomey and Ratajczak also attended the Eastman School of Music, and the latter isn’t your average jazz drummer; he also worked in the pit bands for numerous Broadway shows.

Fedchock’s liner notes are excellent and informative, so don't ignore them. Sadly, the Havanah Nights Club — like too many similar venues — folded not long after this live session. Finally, and sadly, Ratajczak passed away from cancer, less than a year later. He’ll be missed.

But be sure you don’t miss this release. It’s an excellent reminder of the top-notch jazz still available in (ever fewer?) venues nationwide

The H2 Big Band: It Could Happen

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: It Could Happen

The world boasts many excellent musicians, but very few top-of-the-line arrangers. They know who they are, of course, but the listening public usually doesn't even know their names. That’s a real shame, because they’re often the individuals who transform a good combo into a great one. 

Dave Hanson, who arranged every track on this release, is my current favorite in this category.

The H2 Big Band was created by two Denver-based artists: pianist, teacher and “arranger supreme” Hanson, and trumpeter Al Hood is the other (thus the H2). This is their third album, following Just a Little Taste and You’re It! It should be noted, however, that the “big band” descriptor didn’t become appropriate until the second release ... and, while that group was comprised of Denver-based artists, this one uses L.A. studio musicians.

Almost two dozen personnel were utilized here: six woodwinds, four trumpets/
flugelhorns (one of them Hood), four trombones, five in the rhythm section —  including Hanson on piano, and Larry Koonse on guitar — guest vocalist Rene Marie, and a small string section on two tracks.

The results are stunning, the two-day session having produced 11 fantastic tracks. The arrangements include fabulous melodic lines that are interwoven with equally great improv sections. The solo work swings and, when appropriate, is elegant. This album demands your attention: truly incomparable concert big band jazz.  

“Hocus-Pocus,” “CP You” and “B in C” are great swingers; standards including “The Look of Love,” “It Could Happen to You” and “You Go to My Head” shine like brand new vehicles; and “The Healing Hymn” is absolutely gorgeous.

Three tracks — “Black Lace,” “Freudian Slip” and “Autobiography” — are composed and sung by Marie, who has an expressive voice and jazz feel. She’s probably better known for her writing, acting and (at times) “attitude,” but she sure can sell her songs.

I still miss the original big band days, but this H2 release genuinely soothes my soul.