Saturday, March 4, 2017

Craig Hartley: Books on Tape Vol. 2 — Standard Edition

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Books on Tape Vol. 2 — Standard Edition

Pianist/composer Craig Hartley seems a bit of a recluse; background information is rather sparse. This, the second of his (thus far) self-produced albums, features a typical piano, bass and drum trio. Hartley arranged all the tracks; one (“Just Wait”) is his own composition, and the rest are standards.

Bassist Carlo De Rosa is a well known New York artist who has worked with dozens of musicians and groups in the States and other countries, in both the jazz and classical genres. Drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons, born in St. Louis, moved to the Big Apple in 2003 and has been a first-call artist for many years.

These three fill this album with “polite” — and definitely swinging — jazz. Two selections are by Ellington: “Caravan” and “Mood Indigo.” The former is an up-tempo arrangement; the latter, usually performed as a slow, sexy, close-dance melody, emerges here at a mid-tempo, finger-snapping groove. It brings one of Duke’s favorite melodies to life.

Hartley’s handling of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” is one of the nicest interpretations of that chart I’ve ever heard; the time signature flips back and forth between 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4.

I’m particularly enchanted when standards from two different genres are blended, as when Bach’s Prelude No. 2 in C minor weaves in and out of Miles Davis’ “Solar”; they fit beautifully. “Imagine Peace Piece” is another mash-up: John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece.” The closer in the set, “Just Wait,” is a beautiful ballad.

This is an excellent album: mood music that is pure jazz in a relaxed and restful format.

The Buselli-Wallarab Big Band: Basically Baker Vol. 2

Patois Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Basically Baker Vol. 2

David Baker (1932-2016) devoted his life to jazz. He was a trombonist early on, playing with icons such as Freddie Hubbard, John Lewis and George Russell. A jaw injury prevented Baker from continuing with that instrument, so he switched to cello — composing and arranging — and then teaching.

He taught for years at Indiana University’s Jazz Studies Department, during which time he was commissioned by more that 500 individuals and organizations for compositions. Baker received nominations for both the Pulitzer Prize and Grammy awards, was inducted into several Jazz Halls of Fame, and ultimately received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.

The 17-piece Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra was founded in 1994. Mark Buselli earned degrees from both the Berklee College of Music and Indiana University; he plays piano and trumpet, composes and arranges, and has received numerous awards. Brent Wallarab is a graduate of Southern Illinois University’s Carbondale School of Music, and Indiana University. He currently works at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., where he transcribes, edits and restores works of big bands deemed to be “national treasures.” He also plays trombone in the Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. 

This two-disc album contains 11 of Baker’s best jazz compositions and arrangements; as the title indicates, this is the second such release of his work.

You’ll immediately notice that Baker thinks and writes as a teacher; his chord structures and rhythmic patterns are richer and more “full” than most jazz arrangements. He enjoyed modifying the basic chords of jazz standards: “Sweet Georgia Brown” became “The Georgia Peach”; “Bebop” is transformed into a much more complex “burner” than Gillespie’s original chart, which has almost become the jazz National Anthem. 

Everything swings, and the solo work by the instrumentalists is excellent; it also sounds “new and different.”

This is a masterful album by an outstanding group of instrumentalists who obviously enjoy Baker’s creative interpretations of jazz.

The Mike Jones Trio: Roaring

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Roaring

The two most important prerequisites for jazz are 1) it’s got to swing; and 2) it should to be fun to make and hear. This album accomplishes both.

You’ve heard pianist Mike Jones before, if you follow the magic team of Penn & Teller; Jones is their show’s opening act. Bassist/vocalist Katie Thiroux was a semifinalist in the 2015 Thelonious  Monk Jazz Competition. She recently released an album that received a rave review here. Drummer Matt Witek, a Berklee College of Music grad, frequently works with Thiroux and luminaries such as Les Fuller and Ken Peplowski.

The rhythm section Jones’ trio creates is a true groove: one of the best I’ve heard in a long time.

This release features 10 compositions from the 1920s (thus the album title). Many likely won’t be familiar to today’s fans, but were big hits during that time period, and still can bring a smile to senior citizens. The tunes swing wonderfully, and the trio obviously had a ball recording them. 

Although Jones and his trio mates hadn’t ever played together, they nonetheless were able to complete this session in less than four hours. Further, only one take was required for each tune. I enjoyed all of them, but my favorite is the opener, “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”; my feet were stomping, and my fingers snapping, during every bar.

I’m eager to hear more from this group!

Songevity: Safe in Sound

GSI Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Safe in Sound

The Songevity trio, headed by bassist Rob Duguay, includes pianist Justin Kauflin and drummer Nadav Snir-Zelniker. 

Duguay was born in Canada but grew up in Queens, New York, where he began studying classical piano at age 6. He discovered jazz — and the upright bass — in high school. He became a business student at the University of Vermont, and was playing with territory bands when he met and had the opportunity to share the stage with Clark Terry. 

After graduating with a degree in international business management, Duguay was  accepted into the University of New Orleans graduate program, where he received an ASCAP award for jazz composition. He then received a masters of music degree in jazz studies, from William Paterson University.

His association with Terry put Duguay in touch with Kauflin, who was part of that ensemble, and was the subject of the marvelous Clark Terry documentary, Keep On Keepin’ On. As the documentary indicated, and this CD demonstrates, Kauflin is a musical force to be reckoned with.

Snir-Zelniker was born in Israel in 1974, and began to play drums at 16. In 1999, after several honorary scholarships, he moved to the States and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in music performance, at SUNY-Purchase College.

All the charts on this album are originals, composed and arranged by Duguay. They’re tasty, delightful, thoughtful and softly swinging tunes. My only caveat is the album’s brevity, with a running time of just over 40 minutes. But what’s present definitely is choice.

I hope any subsequent releases provide a lot more of the music these men capably deliver.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Holiday Swing: The platinum edition

[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 20 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

Bah, humbug!

I began this annual survey of holiday jazz in 1997, which makes this the 20th anniversary entry: a milestone ironically marked by the utter absence of major label releases ... pretty much a first, during these past two decades.

Whatta buncha Grinches!

Granted, there’s no shortage of new Christmas albums by artists in the realms of pop, country, folk, New Age and pretty much every other genre one could mention. But not in jazz.

In fact, the only major jazz label even acknowledging the 2016 holiday season is Verve, but only with two more of its potpourri collections of recordings from years past: a nice way for newbies to start a collection, but not such a much for those of us who already own all the albums in question.

Could the bloom be wearing off the holiday jazz rose?

Definitely not. We always can count on musicians who take the independent route, releasing their albums through online entities such as Amazon or cdbaby, via disc or download. It’s still too soon to call physical CDs an endangered species, but it’s telling that — every year — more artists don’t offer that as an option.

Regardless of the distribution form, and the fact that this year’s list is shorter than usual, you’ll still find enough great jazz to put some swing in your holiday step.


This year’s superlative hit is the Fred Hughes Trio’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas, one of the finest piano trio holiday albums ever released. The Pennsylvania-born Hughes has performed, conducted and taught — nationally and internationally — for more than three decades, and his keyboard chops are ample evidence of a lifetime’s worth of devotion. He has worked alongside jazz luminaries such as Arturo Sandoval, Toots Thielemans and Roy Hargrove, and this seasonal CD garnered a well-deserved 3-1/2 star review from Downbeat magazine.

In a word, it’s terrific.

In another word, Hughes is a keyboard monster.

Such beasts come in two distinct flavors. Some are best known for cacophonous, unmelodic “free jazz” solos that soar into a tuneless stratosphere and prompt little beyond grimaces from all but the most broad-minded listeners. Hughes belongs to the other end of the spectrum: His improvisational solos are a melodic blend of lightning-swift single-note runs and tuneful power chords, the results both exhilarating and very pleasant to the ear.

Hughes compares quite favorably to piano legend Paul Smith: high praise that I don’t offer lightly.

Hughes is supported ably by the talented Amy Shook (bass) and Frank Russo (drums), and this collection of 11 Christmas chestnuts is consistently enjoyable. Hughes is a generous leader, granting ample space to both colleagues on all tracks, and it’s clear that all three are having a great time.

The album kicks off with a mid-tempo reading of “Winter Wonderland,” which offers a taste of things to come: a strong beat, ferocious keyboard chops and a lovely midpoint bass solo. The tune concludes, rather cheekily, on an unresolved chord.

“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is similarly propulsive, with Russo laying down a fast march tempo, and Shook contributing a lively bass solo against Hughes’ deft keyboard comping. “Jingle Bells” opens with Shook’s fast walking bass, Hughes taking the melody with single notes and then lyrical chords, the tempo building as all three get down, until concluding unexpectedly at a gentler shuffle with a droll walking bass finale.

The slower numbers are equally lovely. Hughes opens the waltz-time “Silver Bells” with quiet piano, later inserting a playful keyboard solo against Shook’s equally sweet bass. “The Christmas Song” is given a similarly contemplative arrangement against Russo’s solid 4/4 beat; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is downright poignant, and highlighted by a particularly thoughtful bass solo.

“Let It Snow” opens with a lyrical blend of piano and bass, both trading off in the foreground; the tune’s improv bridge includes a cute bass and drum interlude, along with more of Hughes’ poetic piano riffs. Russo gives “Silent Night” a slow, reverential beat, and he contributes a surprisingly gentle drum solo to an otherwise dynamic reading of “White Christmas.”

The album closes with a mid-tempo 4/4 handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which boasts a sublime bass solo and a playful drum interlude, before concluding with a pleasingly resolved chord: a clever counterpoint to the aforementioned first track.

Get this album. You’ll never stop playing it!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Dick Oatts, Mats Holmquist and the New York Jazz Orchestra: A Tribute to Herbie + 1

Summit Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: A Tribute to Herbie + 1

First came the artist, and his music: Herbie Hancock, born in 1940, was a child prodigy. At age 11, he performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At 20, he was playing jazz with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins, and he joined Miles Davis’ great quintet in 1963. But Hancock wasn’t merely a player, he’s also a composer and innovator. He earned degrees in music, electrical engineering and fine arts, and was one of the first to introduce electronic instruments into jazz. 

This album is a tribute to Hancock: All but one of the tunes are his compositions.

Mats Holmquist is one of the jazz world’s finest composers and arrangers. He arranged all the charts on this album, and wrote the one equally fine original (“Stevie R.”). Holmquist has long been a huge fan of Hancock’s work, and this album is by way of a tribute.

Saxophone artist Dick Oatts, an icon on that instrument, also is a Hancock fan. Holmquist chose Oatts to co-create this CD, and they assembled the New York Jazz Orchestra: all first-call artists from New York City and Scandinavia. The result is one of the swinging-est releases to arrive in years.

Everybody is familiar with Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and “Watermelon Man” but — as this album demonstrates — “Dolphin Dance,” “Chameleon” and “Maiden Voyage” are equally grooving. “Eye of the Hurricane,” “Jessica” and “Toys” are lesser known, but Hancock’s footprints are all over them.

The arrangements are sensational, and the orchestra’s execution by is outstanding. (The liner notes reveal that the group gathered for only one rehearsal, and that only one of the recording sessions required a second take.) The solo performances are fantastic; every section contributes one or more artists who add to the excitement delivered by the full ensemble.

Thanks to Herbie, Mats, Dick and Summit Records, for this sensational release!

Walter Simonsen: This is Trumpetology

Simonsen Sounds
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: This Is Trumpetology

This album is quite different than any I’ve encountered thus far. It features a brass section of half a dozen trumpets, supported by a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. 

The selections are jazz standards that have been featured, and often composed, by trumpet artists such as Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Dorham. The menu features “Autumn Leaves,” “Milestones,” “Sidewinder,” “Anthropology,” “Blues Walk,” “Skydive,” “Prince Albert,” “So What,” “Unit 7,” “Summertime” and “I Wish.” (Longtime jazz fans should have no trouble associating each tune with its featured musician.)

The ensemble is headed by Walter Simonsen, who plays trumpet/flugelhorn and is a composer, arranger, conductor and educator at the University of Southern California. The brass section consists of students who are artists and educators in their own right: James Blackwell, Tim Gill, Brian Mantz, Brian Owen and Cameron Summers.

Two rhythm sections are utilized: pianist Adam Bravo, bassist Alex Frank, and drummer Adam Alesi on three tracks; and pianist Kait Dunton, bassist Cooper Appelt, and drummer Jake Reed on the other eight. Simonsen arranged each chart, and the liner notes identify the featured soloists.

A unified trumpet section can be fantastic; remember the GRP Big Band’s choruses on  “Cherokee”? Well, the section work here is technically equal, and the individual solos are great. I have only one caveat, which I’ll call an absence of “looseness.” There isn’t a fluff anywhere, but that makes these performances almost too perfect. A metronome keeps perfect time, but it doesn’t swing; these artists would be better swingers if they’d relax a bit.

That aside, this is a fine, fine album.