Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tony Kadleck Big Band: Around the Horn

Tony Kadleck Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Around the Horn

Tony Kadleck’s dreams as a kid were to become a professional baseball player, but the “growth spurt” that he needed never arrived; he therefore followed his alternate desire and turned to music. Forty years later, he has become a sought-after trumpet sideman, composer and arranger in the New York area. 

He attended the New England Conservatory in Boston, studying both classical and jazz; was a member of the Boston Pops Orchestra; and then joined the Buddy Rich Big Band, moving to New York later that year. After graduating from the Manhattan School of Music in 1989, he toured with stars such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Then, back in New York, he embraced studio recording with the likes of Elton John, Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Steely Dan and others. 

Most recently, he has been on Broadway, in the orchestra for Disney’s Aladdin.

He never lost his love for big bands, though, and has performed with John Pizzarelli’s Swing Seven, Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra, and John Fedchock’s New York Big Band.

This album fulfills Kadleck’s desire to head his own large ensemble. He has assembled a cadre of top-notch colleagues: More than two dozen artists took part in these recording sessions, although they switched chairs for the 10 tunes on the menu. Kadleck arranged everything: compositions by artists such as Stevie Wonder, Michel LeGrand, Michael Brecker, Leonard Bernstein and others.

As for the quality Kadleck’s arrangements, and the band itself, both are top drawer. The same is true of the liner notes, which identify each song’s players and soloists, so you don’t have to wonder who’s who. The charts all swing, although they aren’t burners; the band sounds like one that audiences once crowded up to watch, to “absorb what was being laid down,” so they didn’t miss a thing.

This is a marvelous release, and you won’t want to miss a thing either! 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra: Over Time — The Music of Bob Brookmeyer

Planet Arts Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Over Time

Jazz fans who lived during the Big Band era know that Bob Brookmeyer was one of that period’s giants. His primary instrument was the valve trombone, but he also played piano and, most importantly, was a master composer and arranger. It simply isn’t possible to name a jazz great with whom he didn’t play, or a colleague who didn’t admire his talent, or a modern artist who doesn’t revere him.

Brookmeyer’s first horn was the clarinet, but he quickly turned to the piano. By the age of 14, he was writing arrangements for full orchestras, and making a living out of it! All that aside, he fell in love with the trombone: not the common slide instrument, but the version that used valves. The tone and “sound” he got out of that model were beyond compare. He blessed us with a lengthy career — born in 1929, died in 2011 — and he worked with literally hundreds of combos and bands. His discography ran from the 1950s to just a year before his death.

Brookmeyer was associated with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra for years, and this CD features his compositions and arrangements. The original 16-piece orchestra was formed in 1966 by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis; this album gathers 19 musicians.

The result is gorgeous. The set list features eight compositions, including a three-movement suite; although these arrangements don’t swing as much as some of Brookmeyer’s earlier music, it’s true modern jazz. His talents continued to grow and advance throughout his life, and this release is proof positive of his overall mastery and place in the jazz pantheon.   

Jeff Colella and Putter Smith: Lotus Blossom

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Lotus Blossom

Pianist Jeff Colella and bassist Putter Smith aren't well known to the general public, but they’re considered 'royalty' in the jazz world. Even a full type-written page couldn’t adequately list the musical artists and groups with whom they've played, and the compositions they've written.

Colella toured with Lou Rawls for 16 years, as pianist and conductor. Colella also has supported famed vocalists such as Diane Schurr, Anita O'Day, Morgana King, Dolly Parton and Jack Jones; dancers Gregory Hines, Savion Glover and the Jazz Tap Ensemble; and numerous top instrumentalists (including my favorite guitarist, Larry Koonse). 

Smith's associates include Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Alan Broadbent, Bob Brookmeyer and many, many more groups and vocalists.  He composed the scores for several films and even played the role of assassin Mr. Kidd, in the James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever. Oh, yes; Smith also writes music instruction books.

Lotus Blossom features these two master artists as a duet. The seven tracks include some originals — Smith’s “Desert Passes” and Colella’s “Gone Too Soon” — alongside Bill Evans’ “Time Remembered,” Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” Michel LeGrand’s “You Must Believe in Spring” and Koonse’s “Candle.” 

The resulting album is one of most moving releases I’ve heard in years. You’ve heard this phrase dozens of times: “They sound like they’re able to read each other’s minds." Well, in this case it’s particularly apt, because Colella and Smith have worked together for years. This is smooth, softly swinging and beautiful jazz: music that you’ll listen to over and over.

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.