Friday, February 16, 2018

One O'Clock Lab Band: Lab 2017

North Texas Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Lab 2017

I’ve always been partial to colleges that offer degrees in jazz. The University of North Texas is one of many and, in fact, was the first to do so. The school formed a stage band as far back as 1923, performing Friday night concerts that were broadcast live from a Fort Worth radio station. The unit really became famous in 1927, and in 1947 North Texas launched the world’s first jazz degree program. Things have accelerated ever since, and the program’s faculty, students and graduates are legion. 

The One O’Clock Lab Band — named for the class rehearsal time — is one of nine such university units, all of which use standard 19-piece instrumentation: five reeds, five trumpets, five trombones, piano, bass, guitar and drums.

The band director for this album is Alan Baylock; all charts were arranged by band members. Only three are from the Great American Jazz Standards book: Harold Arlen’s “My Shining Hour,” Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High” and Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Every track is a gem, but my favorite is the opener, “My Shining Hour.” It’s a real barn-burner; I haven’t heard a track that swings like that in years.

The band is stunning.

Two words say it all: swinging and meticulous. You can’t often group those words, because one of the key factors in jazz is spontaneity; that sometimes leads to fluffs or mistakes. Not so with his group; it’s one of the best-rehearsed units I’ve ever encountered.

Fortunately for all jazz fans — and this blog’s readers — North Texas’ many years of operation, and its excellence, have produced an extensive discography starring the various Lab Bands.

Don’t miss this album ... and stay tuned for more equally fine releases from the University of North Texas!

Tom Rizzo: Day and Night

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Day and Night

This album is proof-positive of several things:

• Tasty, swinging jazz is alive and well in the Los Angeles/greater West Coast region;

• The artists from that neck of the woods continue to demonstrate that they’re among the best who share the love for this genre; and

• Origin continues to be one of the top distributors that satisfies the souls of true jazz fans.

Guitarist Tom Rizzo produced this release, and his performance truly stands out. He has been heard by millions, due to his membership in several of the bands that have been key to television’s Tonight Show. His basic quartet — pianist Dennis Hamm, bassist David Hughes, and drummer Steve Schaeffer — is the core of the tentet (the “little big band”) that makes this album groove.

Trombonist Dick Lane did all the arrangements; the rest of the brass section includes Bob Summers (trumpet), John Dickson (French horn) and Doug Tornquist (tuba). The reed section features Bob Sheppard (tenor sax) and Jeff Driskill (soprano sax).

The menu is a nice blend of standards and originals: Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” Vincent Youmans’ “Without a Song” and Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” along with up-to-date melodies such as Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Peter Bernstein’s “Little Green Men,” Ornette Coleman’s “Law Years” and Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” And if those aren’t enough, we also re-visit “School Days” and “Lonesome Cowboy,” as interpreted by Rizzo.

This a genuinely pleasant jazz journey: danceable, listenable and quite swingable. Bring it home.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Let it swing, let it swing, let it swing!

By Derrick Bang 

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

It’s another solid year for holiday jazz albums, and the nicest surprise — to paraphrase the Old English rhyme — is that this year’s offerings feature both “something old, something new.”

To be more precise, a trio of “something olds.”

Longtime readers of this annual survey know that three vintage albums have topped my Gotta Have list for decades: classics which, for unknown reasons, have neither been digitized nor re-released since their initial vinyl appearance. I’ve complained about this for years and years; apparently, somebody finally listened.

To a degree.

Jazz pianist Bobby Timmons released Holiday Soul on the Prestige label way back in 1964; jazz organist Don Patterson confused things by using exactly the same title for his Prestige release the same year. Five years later, jazz pianist Duke Pearson produced Merry Ole Soul for Blue Note. All three albums are terrific, although Pearson’s boasts the most inventive arrangements and tastiest jazz chops; his iconic cover of “Sleigh Ride” has been included on at least a dozen holiday jazz compilation albums.

(For the sake of historical accuracy, I should mention that Pearson’s album was issued on CD by Japan’s Toshiba EMI in 2004, with a bonus track — “An Old Fashioned Christmas” — that isn’t available anywhere else. But it’ll cost you a pretty penny, assuming you even can find the blamed thing.)

All three albums once again are readily available — finally! — but with a hitch. In a nod toward current market forces, you have the option of vinyl or streaming ... but not CD. That’ll be fine for vinyl purists who prefer the warmth of LPs, and new-tech streaming fans who aren’t concerned about bitrates and information loss via compression ... but it leaves CD fans out in the cold. Which is a shame.

As for this year’s crop of new releases ... read on!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Tom Dempsey/Tim Ferguson Quartet: Waltz New

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Waltz New

Guitarist Tom Dempsey and bassist Tim Ferguson have been friends for more than 25 years, and have worked together numerous times since their college days. Dempsey may be better known, because his career experiences have included stage and TV exposure: with dancer Savion Glover, in Bring In ’da Noise, Bring In ’da Funk; and as part of the ensembles behind The Rosie O’Donnell Show and HBO’s Sex and the City. Dempsey is one of the best jazz guitarists I’ve ever heard, and he also is a teacher, educator and author.

Ferguson has been a first-call bassist in the New York City jazz scene for 20 years. He also composes and arranges, and teaches privately. 

Over time, both have worked with numerous name members of the jazz fraternity; they’ve also played in a quartet format with tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm and drummer Eliot Zigmund. One of those meet-ups produced the 2013 album Beautiful Friendship; Waltz New is their second outing.

Dempsey and Ferguson both admire guitarist Jim Hall, who composed six of this new album’s songs. The rest are Dempsey’s “Village Waltz,” Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “All The Things You Are,” Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s “Alone Together,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” and Ron Carter’s “Receipt Please.” Dempsey handled the new arrangements.

All the tracks are played beautifully, with masterful recording and mixing. Each artist delivers thoughtful and imaginative solos, which perfectly complement the melodic themes and chord changes. This “blending” of instruments adds greatly to the album’s enjoyment. It deserves prime placement in your musical library.

The Blueprints Trio: Souvenir

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Souvenir

When we left Los Angeles for to Portland, Oregon, more than 30 years ago, my only concern was missing the excitement and variety of the jazz Mecca that runs from Southern California to San Francisco. I shouldn’t have worried.

I’ve yet to find a big band outfit here, but Portland does offer jazz-oriented clubs and, surprisingly, enough fans to keep combos busy with public and private gigs for “special occasions.” I’m also delighted by the considerable jazz interest in the local public schools, some of which include combos and orchestras as part of their music curriculum.

This album features one of the many jazz groups that make the Pacific Northwest their home: a trio consisting of Matt Tabor (piano), Craig Snazelle (bass) and Dave Averre (drums). It’s interesting to note that — as with many of the musicians who populate this area’s jazz fraternity — these guys began their careers in other parts of the country, then decided to settle down here, where they teach and play.

Their forté is straight-ahead jazz, and the album focuses on standards: Cole Porter’s “All Of You,” Mel Tormé and Robert Wells’ “Born to Be Blue,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” Joe Henderson’s “Isotope,” David Mann and Redd Evans’ “No Moon at All,” and the Herb Ellis/John Frigo/Lou Carter classic, “Detour Ahead.” The remaining tracks are originals: Averre’s “Waltz of the Rainbow Trout” and “Kind of Bill,” and Tabor’s “Can’t Quite Get It Right.”

These guys swing nicely, and their years together is evident. Tabor is a “less is more” pianist, while Snazelle’s facility on bass is impressive; his solo work is quite lyrical.  Averre, in turn, is a “tasteful” drummer who keeps things moving.

It’s a genuine pleasure to hear this group swing.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Brian Landrus: Generations

BlueLand Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Generations

I got turned on to baritone sax after hearing Serge Chaloff, who played that instrument in Woody Herman’s second herd. That unit’s reed section set the standard for all subsequent big bands. Gerry Mulligan arrived on the scene next; his prowess truly cemented that horn’s importance to jazz. More great artists have followed those two, but one who really stands out is Brian Landrus, the musician/composer featured on this release.

Landrus plays all of the low woodwind instruments: baritone and bass saxophones, bass clarinet and flute. He’s also a gifted and prodigious composer. He began to play professionally at 15, earned master’s degrees in music and composition from New England Conservatory, and currently is finishing a doctorate in composition at Rutgers University. 

Generations, Landrus’ newest release, is an artistic and compositional tour de force. It features a 25-piece orchestra that contains the basic instrumentation of a big band, along with horns more commonly found in symphonic groups (oboe, bassoon, tuba, etc.), strings (violin, viola, cello), a harp and a vibraphone. The music is presented in a dozen segments: five movements presented as the “Jeru Concerto” (Gerry Mulligan’s nickname); and seven stand-alone tunes that reflect individuals or elements of Landrus’ life. These are titled “Orchids,” “The Warrior,” “Arrow In The Night,” “Arise,” “Human Nature,” “Ruby” and “Every Time I Dream.” 

I lack descriptors accurate enough to describe the impact and excellence of this album’s music. It’s in a class of its own, and must be heard time and again to appreciate.

Generations is amazing concert jazz. Do not miss it!

Ben Markley Big Band: Clockwise

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Clockwise

All jazz fans know pianist, composer and arranger Cedar Walton. He was born in 1934 and immersed in the scene at the same time as Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, but was best known for his association with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Many of Walton’s charts are legendary, and are staples in the books of name combos and big bands throughout the jazz world.

Every tune in this tribute album by Markley is a Walton original.

Markley is a pianist, educator, composer and arranger; he heads the big band featured in this release. He’s an active performer in the Denver area, and is director of jazz studies at the University of Wyoming. He also teaches applied jazz piano and improvisation. 

His group here is standard: five reeds, four trumpets — including the famed Terell Stafford — four trombones, and a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. Two tracks also feature guitar. This tasty result has earned rave reviews, including four-and-a-half stars from Downbeat.

Walton’s compositions were always swingers at any tempo, and Markley maintains that level of excellence. As an added bonus, the chord structure and changes made possible by the use of full reed and brass sections makes “everything old, new again.” The artists have been given plenty of room for solos, and they make good use of every opportunity.

I hadn’t heard Stafford for awhile, and had forgotten what a groovin’ horn player he is.

It’s terrific to hear a truly excellent band swing like this one. Purists who yearn for those good ol’ days — and the wonderful groups that rocked us back then — will find that this album brings back some great memories, and satisfies the soul.