Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Swing Ye Noel!

By Derrick Bang • Originally published, in abridged form, in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.14

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for 19 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

When it comes to holiday music, the generational tidal shift is massive.

At one end of the beach, we have those who listen to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. At the other end, Celine Dion, Josh Groban and Sheryl Crow. The middle ground is occupied by Vince Guaraldi, James Taylor and Mannheim Steamroller, and then we have the contingent of folks who find the very concept of Christmas music too corny for words.

Well, feh. That latter group simply isn’t listening to the right Christmas music.

Nor is the situation helped by the Balkanization of the other cliques. No matter where you shop, party or land on the radio dial — terrestrial or web — there’s no denying a certain sameness to what’s being played.

Which is where this annual column comes in.

My survey of new holiday jazz has been a tradition since 1997, during which time I’ve seen this rather specialized genre wax, wane and wax again. I’ve enjoyed efforts by heavy hitters such as Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr. I’ve endured a seemingly endless tsunami of puerile swill washed ashore by the so-called “smooth jazz” movement.

I’ve also been heartened by how the Internet has broadened our access to regional artists who previously would have remained unknown to mainstream listeners. You’ll find several of those below: a reminder that talented musicians aren’t confined to major labels on both coasts.

So, the next time one of your holiday party guests wrinkles her nose at the mere prospect of seasonal tunes, plug a couple of these albums into your playing device of choice!


Mack Avenue Records is a relatively youthful label, having been founded in 1999, but it has accumulated an impressive roster of jazz stars during that short time. Roughly 20 have gotten together for It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue, which ranges from bop to blues, frenetic combo work to gentle solos.

The album roars out of the gate with a peppy, hard-bop approach to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” which features sassy solos on trumpet and piano by, respectively, Sean Jones and Orrin Evans. At the other end of the tempo meter, bassist Christian McBride delivers a gorgeous introduction to “Silent Night,” after which pianist Christian Sands takes the melodic lead, joined by drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., favoring quiet brushes. The result is peaceful portrait jazz, and you can practically see the new-fallen snow.

Pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist David Wong are the stars of an inventive cover of “Sleigh Ride,” which alternates between a slow, percussive two-beat and an eyebrow-raising double-time assault that demonstrates Wong’s amazing chops.

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf takes the lead on a truly lovely reading of “Carol of the Bells”; I only wish the equally fine supporting bassist, who comps and occasionally covers melody, had been identified. Wolf then teams up with Diehl for an equally sweet reading of “Christmas Time Is Here,” granting that Guaraldi classic a slightly melancholy atmosphere.

The mood turns slightly mysterious with Tia Fuller’s sax take on an intriguing cover of “The Little Drummer Boy,” the traditional pa-rum-pum-pum-pum backdrop replaced by lively percussive work from Kim Thompson and Khalil Kwame Bell.

The Django-esque Hot Club of Detroit can be an acquired taste, and I’m not sure the accordion lead on Guaraldi’s “Skating” evokes the desired image of children enjoying the delights of a frozen pond. Similarly, Diehl’s solo stride piano handling of John Williams’ “Christmas Star” — the primary theme from the film Home Alone 2 — veers a bit too much into “free jazz” territory, with the melody left far behind.

The Christian McBride romps through a droll original titled “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto,” with the entire Mack Avenue roster contributing to gentle requests that the Jolly Red Elf include inner-city stops such as the Bronx, Jacksonville, Fla. and ... Palo Alto, Calif. It’s a cute call-and-response tune, with pleasant echoes of the Louis Armstrong classic, “Christmas Night in Harlem.”

The album includes a few vocals, most delightfully Cyrille Aimée’s Calypso-hued “Let it Snow,” and Sachal Vasandani’s swinging strut through “Winter Wonderland,” to some finger-snapping bass and piano accompaniment.

I often rate the likely quality of the impending holiday jazz season on the basis of the first CD to hit my eager hands; based on this Mack Avenue release, things looked quite good.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Adam Schroeder: Let's

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Let's

Reed instruments have been featured in jazz groups since the genre began. The clarinet was king in the beginning, when icons such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw gained their fame on that “horn.” As bands grew larger, entire reed sections were introduced, consisting of alto and tenor saxophones, often a pair of each. In many cases, one of those musicians also would double on the baritone sax. That big instrument eventually became a staple, and the reed section grew from four to five members. 

Half a dozen individuals became stars with that big horn during the big band years: Harry Carney (with Duke Ellington’s unit), Cecil Payne (John Coltrane), Serge Chaloff (Woody Herman), Gerry Mulligan (Elliot Lawrence), Leo Parker (Coleman Hawkins) and Jack Nimitz (Herman and Kenton). 

As time passed, we began to hear from the next generation of artists who chose the baritone sax as their primary instrument. Adam Schroeder is one of the newest, and many consider him to be one of the best. Because of the horn’s size and its musical range, it’s difficult to play while producing a clean tone. Schroeder has no trouble in that regard; he gets a gorgeously full bodied, almost sweet sound throughout the full register.

While swinging like crazy.

Schroeder owes much of his success to Clark Terry, who first heard the newcomer at his Institute of Jazz Studies.  In addition to Terry, Schroeder has worked with Louie Bellson, Ray Charles, Diane Krall, Sting, John Pizzarelli, Chris Botti and Bob Mintzer, to name just a few.

This is the second album released under his own name. Schroeder is supported by guitarist Anthony Wilson and — in my view — the best rhythm duo working today: bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. This use of a guitar, rather than a piano, really helps move the group. 

Five of the 11 tracks are Schroeder originals; the rest are jazz standards such as Duke Pearson’s “Hello, Bright Sunflower,” Sam Koslo’s “In the Middle of a Kiss” and Benny Carter’s “Southside Samba.”

This is a great, swinging album by a quartet of masters.

Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock: Whispering of the Stars

Spartacus Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Whispering of the Stars

Much of the finest jazz is performed as ballads, by instruments and voices played at audio levels just above a whisper; such is the case with this album.

Tommy Smith (sax) and Brian Kellock (piano) are from Scotland, a country not well known on these shores for its jazz prowess. And yet Scotland has its icons just like many other countries, and these two artists have a world-wide reputation as masters of their instruments, and pioneers of overseas jazz. Indeed, many artists from the States are well aware of their excellence, and have worked with and raved about them.

Smith’s stepfather, a rabid jazz fan, was instrumental in getting young Tommy started on sax when he was just 12 years old. His early years were spent playing with groups in Scotland, and then one of his teachers persuading him to attend Boston’s famed  Berklee College of Music. Smith was only 18 when Chick Corea suggested that he join a group led by Berklee vice president Gary Burton; that unit toured the world, and just four years later Smith signed a contract with Blue Note Records. He recorded with many American stars from then on, and has a massive discography.

Kellock, one of the UK’s premium pianists, also has worked with many famed American jazz artists. As would be expected, he and Smith also have worked and recorded together countless times.

This album contains almost two dozen songs from Great American Songbook composers: Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen, Burt Bacharach, Glenn Miller, Jimmy McHugh, Vincent Youmans, T. Monk and many others. If you grew up during the big band years, you grew up with this music. It’s beautifully done by two absolute masters. Smith’s work on both tenor and soprano sax is gorgeous; his tone is as clear and pure as I’ve ever heard. He plays softly and delicately, with little vibrato. Most important, no matter what the tempo — mostly ballads here — he plays true jazz.

Kellock supports him beautifully, and his own solo work is superb. As a tight duo, their many years together are quite obvious.

If you yearn to re-visit to the music of your youth, performed by two absolute masters, this disc must be added to your library.

Mark Buselli: Untold Stories

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Untold Stories

For several years now, “jazz” has become an increasingly misused term. If you look it up in a dictionary, or Google it, you’ll note that every definition includes words like improvisation, syncopation, rhythm, beat and other terms that describe an American art form dating back to the early 20th century. There are, many genres of jazz: Dixieland, straight-ahead, bop, modern and fusion, to name but a few, and they all have one thing in common: They swing. Otherwise, it isn’t jazz.
To borrow the title of that famed 1931 Duke Ellington composition, It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing. 
That doesn’t mean the music always has to roar; some of the most beautiful jazz heard is performed at balladic tempos. It also can be played at different time signatures — straight time, 2/4, 3/4 and so forth — because you can swing at any signature.
Granted, it’s not always easy to characterize jazz ... but to paraphrase an observation frequently made about another art form, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I hear it!”
Why this preface? Because far too much of the music being played — and marketed — these days claims to be jazz, but absolutely isn’t. Rest assured, though: Readers of this blog can be certain that everything discussed here is well and truly jazz
Untold Stories, presented by Mark Buselli and his quintet, is definitely jazz. The talented musicians — Buselli (trumpet) is joined by Danny Walsh (sax), Steve Allee (piano), Jeremy Allen (bass) and Steve Houghton (drums) — also are associated with universities and schools in teaching positions. The name artists with whom they’ve worked would cover an entire page; their experience includes both small and large groups in the jazz and classical fields, and they’re also prodigious composers and arrangers.
Six of these seven tunes are originals by members of the group; Buselli did two, with four from Allee. The only neo-standard is the seldom-heardAngelica,” which came from a session Ellington shared with John Coltrane. One of the charts — “Claude” — is done as a ballad; the rest are mid- to up-tempo tunes that make it impossible to keep your fingers and feet at rest. The rhythm section is as tight as they come, the result of these guys having played together over a period of years. The solo work is thoughtful and masterful.

This is the way a lot of jazz used to sound, and this album proves that a lot of artists Out There still care about that very thing.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Pat Hall: Time Remembered — The Music of Bill Evans

Unseen Rain Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Time Remembered: The Music of Bill Evans

Every jazz fan remembers pianist Bill Evans; not nearly as many know about Pat Hall. Well, Hall is something of an anachronism: He didn’t grow up in a musical family, although his father — who worked for GM in Flint, Michigan — had an 8-track player in his car, on which he played a lot of Pink Floyd, which young Pat grew to love. He also was lucky enough to attend a relatively advanced public school system, which made it possible for kids to learn to play musical instruments; his choice was a trombone.

At age 16, Hall attended a summer session at Boston’s famed Berklee School of Music, where he was exposed to records by J.J. Johnson. That set his future course.

Ornette Coleman was another huge influence, and Hall’s initial recording session was a tribute to that icon. This new album, as the title makes clear, is a remembrance of Evans and his music. The quartet is somewhat unusual, in that the usual piano and acoustic bass have been replaced by Greg Lewis’ Hammond B3 organ and Marvin Sewell’s guitar. They’re joined by drummer Mike Campenni, with Hall on trombone. 

All seven tracks are tunes that Evans and his groups made famous, and four were composed by Evans: “Waltz for Debby,” “Know What I Mean?,” “Time Remembered” and “Peri’s Scope.” Evans’ famous bassist, Scott LaFaro, contributed “Gloria’s Step,” and the musical menus is completed with Rogers and Hart’s “Spring Is Here,” and Earl Zindars’ “Elsa.”

The instrumentation may be different, but the quality of the music — and the chops displayed by the musicians themselves — make this an excellent release. We all miss Evans and his groups, and it’s nice that releases like this are keeping his work alive.

Tim Hegarty: Tribute

Miles High Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Tribute

When good jazz musicians get together, you can almost always look forward to a swinging album. That’s certainly the case with this release, which features saxophonist Tim Hegarty. He’s not yet a name artist, but this album demonstrates that he’s well on the way. 

Hegarty grew up in a musical family, began playing at an early age, received his education at Miami University, the Manhattan School of Music, and the New School, and earned his master’s degree from Queens College.

During his early years he was good enough — and lucky enough — to learn from, and play with, luminaries such as Frank Foster, Gil Evans and the Mingus Big Band. Names like that provide the musical “keys to the city,” and Hegarty took full advantage.

Hegarty performs on both tenor and soprano sax on this album; his style is clean, straight-ahead, smooth and always swinging. He’s supported by some like-minded artists: Kenny Barron on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, and Carl Allen on drums. The excellent vibraphonist Mark Sherman also guests on half of the 10 tracks. 

The album title reflects Hegarty’s acknowledgement and appreciation of the past and present artists who have influenced him.

The musical menu include a couple of Hegarty originals, four charts from Jimmy Heath, and jazz standards from Frank Foster, George Coleman, Joe Henderson and T. Monk.

Hey, you just can’t miss with these cats!

Holly Hofmann: Low Life

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Low Life

Holly Hofmann is one of the finest flautists ever to have graced the musical stage. Of course she began her career in the classical genre, but she expanded into the field of jazz back in the early 1980s, and she followed that path to fame. She has worked with artists who are tops in the jazz world — far too many to list — and has created an extensive discography over the years, with more than a dozen highly rated albums. 

Most of Hoffmann’s previous releases feature her on the C flute, but she plays the alto flute exclusively for this album. That instrument’s range is more limited, but it compensates with a tone that’s more lush. 

The supporting cast includes her husband, Mike Wofford on piano, along with bassist John Clayton, drummer Jeff Hamilton and guitarist Anthony Wilson. These gentlemen are in the top echelon of the jazz world: Wofford has been well known from the 1960s, both as an accompanist for stars Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, but also as a member of great bands fronted by Benny Carter, James Moody, Gerald Wilson and countless others. Hamilton, to many the finest drummer working today, has gained considerable fame with the Clayton/Hamilton Big Band; John Clayton is the Clayton in that same great group. Wilson frequently works with Diana Krall and numerous other name artists.  

All things considered, this group is the Rolls Royce in a fleet of other classic cars.

Four of the tunes from the album menu were composed by group members: “Lumiere de la Vie,” by Hofmann; “Jack of Hearts,” by Wilson; and “Touch the Fog” and “Cedar Would,” by Clayton. The familiar Ray Noble gem, “The Very Thought of You,” is particularly moving; and Mulgrew Miller’s “Soul-leo” swings quite nicely. 

All the charts are beautifully done; whatever the tempo, everything swings wonderfully. You’re in the hands of true pros.