Thursday, May 19, 2016

Julie Wood: Synkkä Metsä

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Synkkä Metsä

Folks understandably may not be familiar with Julie Wood and her group, aside from those who live in the Chicago area; she’s a regular performers there, but apparently doesn’t wander far from home. Well, this release is a gem, and Wood definitely deserves  our attention.

She plays tenor sax; her cohorts are guitarist Alejandro Urzagaste, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Mike Schlick. The song titles are almost unpronounceable — unless you’re Finnish — because they’re all in that language. But their content is presented in the common language of jazz, which is recognizable around the globe.

Synkkä Metsä is one of the most relaxing and listenable releases I’ve heard in a long time. As with many folk tunes, the melodic lines are simple, yet beautiful; the arrangements swing quietly, tastefully and smoothly. Wood gets a subtle tone out of her instrument, and her supporting cast members are equally elegant. 

The tunes are a varied mix of balladic and up-tempo melodies; all are explained briefly in Wood’s liner notes. You’ll want to listen to this disc again and again.

Congratulations to OA2, for recognizing the talent and value of these artists, and for sharing them with the wider world outside of Chicago.

Amina Figarova: Blue Whisper

In + Out Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Blue Whisper

Pianist/composer Amina Figarova was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, where she initially studied to become a classical artist. She switched to jazz and came to the States, where she studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. During that time she met her future husband, flutist Bart Platteau, who also is featured on this release.

Figarova has recorded about a dozen albums. She’s an outstanding composer and keyboardist, and she always surrounds herself with top-notch musicians. As a result of the early training, her style goes beyond straight-ahead jazz and into post-bop, classical and impressionistic; as time has passed, the latter forms have become more prominent. Such is the case with this album.

Almost a dozen artists contributed to these 10 songs; only Figarova and Platteau are constant throughout. She often bases her music as “responses to social turmoil, personalities encountered and transitions of life.” The results are intense, at times complex melodies, often balladic in tempo. It often doesn’t swing, and seldom excites the listener ... but that’s not to say it isn’t great music.

Figarova’s compositions are classically founded and played: quite sophisticated, harmonious stuff. Several of the charts — notably “Pictures” and “The Travelers” — were commissioned by Lincoln Center, for its New Jazz Standards series. 

The performance feature excellent ensemble lines and instrumental solo work. One tune (“Hewa”) has vocal passages sung in Swahili; Figarova’s many interests include that country’s customs, music and people.

This album may not swing like some of her previous work, but it’s deeply moving music: certainly worth your attention.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Lyn Stanley: Interludes

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Interlude

This is a beautiful album, first-class in every way, starring a multi-talented woman graced with a flawless voice. 

But it isn’t true jazz.

Lyn Stanley is quite exceptional. She’s a college graduate with a PhD in communications, and a successful career in business. She has won championships in USA DanceSport, and placed third in a World ProAm event. She also has studied voice under coach Annette Warren Smith — famed jazz pianist Paul Smith’s wife — and is an audiophile fanatic. Stanley’s recordings have been released on high-end vinyl, SACD stereo and reel-to-reel tape.

(Incidentally, Stanley dedicated this album to Paul Smith.)

Interlude has a lot going for it, starting with 14 classics from the Great American Songbook, with excellent arrangements by some of the music world’s best. Additionally, the two bands supporting Stanley include some truly great artists: among others, pianist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Chuck Berghofer, trombonist Bob McChesney and guitarist John Chiodini.

Stanley’s voice is flawless: Her tone, range, enunciation, warmth and phrasing are superb, and she “sells” a song as well as anyone alive today. No surprise, she’s quite popular. Her albums sell in the tens of thousands globally, which — considering the relatively limited “buying audience” that exists for jazz today — is exceptional.

So, why the caveat regarding her style? Well, Stanley doesn’t swing like artists such as Anita O’Day, Kim Nazarian, Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday. Stanley is more like Sarah Vaughn, although she could swing like crazy, when it suited her. (Remember her cover of “Cherokee”?)

Still, anyone who collaborates with the range of arrangers, producers and musicians assembled for this album — and her earlier releases — surely has a passport to the jazz genre, as far as I’m concerned. Call it what you will, this much is certain: Stanley is in a class by herself.

Brian Fielding: An Appropriate Response, Volume 1

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: An Appropriate Response, Volume 1

Some background is in order:

A Google search on the name “Brian Fielding” yielded numerous results: one for an attorney, another for a business network, and others for a petitioner, a partner in a law firm, a sports executive, a new business company, and still more. And, yes, one for a pianist/composer. Guess what? They’re all the same individual: a living Walter Mitty. 

Fielding was living in Montclair, New Jersey, when drummer Ali Jackson — taking a pleasant walk — happened to pass his house. Jackson heard some tasty jazz piano emanating from within, stopped to listen, then decided to find out who was responsible. He and Fielding chatted, and then Jackson returned later with some musician friends, including tenor saxist Mike Lee and bassist Andy McKee. Just like that, a quartet was formed.

Fielding composed all the charts featured on this release, which also demonstrates his chops as an accomplished jazz pianist. The music is Zen-like — a term used by Jackson — as opposed to straight-ahead jazz: contemplative, light, soft and swinging stuff that’ll make you smile (and quite happy). Some of the charts are balladic; others are more up-tempo. The arrangements provide a lot of space for solos, after a basic theme is established; each musician delivers some wonderful passages.

I wasn’t previously familiar with the musical Mr. Fielding and his friends; this album has changed that. Give this group a try; you’re bound to enjoy the result.

Friday, April 29, 2016

David Friesen and Glen Moore: Bactrian

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Bactrian

This album likely is meant for a limited audience: those who are turned on by the acoustic bass and two of the finest artists who play that instrument, David Friesen and Glen Moore. This is a duet concert by these two masters.

Admittedly, both also are pianists, and half of the selections feature one of them on that instrument, with the other on bass, but the rest are bass duets. The genre is modern classical jazz, and just two of the pieces were composed by familiar names: Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The rest are originals by Friesen and Moore.

Friesen, born in 1942, picked up the bass while serving in the Army in Germany. He has worked with many of the greats during his career, including John Handy, Chick Corea, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and many more. (On a side note, his sister is actress Dyan Cannon.) Moore, a Portland, Oregon native born in 1941, began his bass instruction after college. He also has played with numerous names, including Jim Pepper and Nancy King. Moore’s association with Friesen has lasted more than 30 years.

The liner notes clarify who plays what on each track, and includes information on the (also famed) instruments, along with the superior electronic equipment utilized to amplify and record them.

As for the performances, well, everything is outstanding. This isn’t music to dance to, or swing with, but it sure makes gorgeous listening. 

Kim Nazarian: Some Morning

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Some Morning

In spite of her years of experience on the musical stage, this is vocalist Kim Nazarian’s first album, and it’s a technical tour de force. More than 25 musicians, vocalists, engineers, mixers, masters and producers participated. 

Nazarian got her start as one of the founding members of the famed New York Voices. She’s the overall vocalist here, and is joined on some by Peter Eldridge — a former New York voices member — and her son, Ian Ashby. Various instrumentalists appear on one or more tracks, and it’s quite the family affair: pianists Mark Shilansky and Mark Soskin; bassists Dwayne Dolphin and Leo Traversa; trumpeters Sean Jones and Steve Hawk; trombonist Jay Ashby (Nazarian’s husband); reedists Paquito D'Rivera, Greg Nazarian (her father), Anna Nelson, Jesse McCandless and Alexa Still; guitarists John Pizzarelli, Marty Ashby (her brother in-law) and Jiro Yoshida; drummers Roger Humphries and Jamey Haddad; vibist Gary Burton; and harpist Caitlin Mehrtens.

Nor are we done. Production utilized half a dozen recording studios and many mixers, masters and engineers. That’s where the technology comes in; most of the tracks were recorded with various combos, but several featured a virtual “big band.” The instrumental horns/sections were overdubbed in the studio by clever engineers! “Road to Kursk,” a variant of an old bebop tune, is the prime example; you’d swear that an entire big band had been involved.

Nazarian is a true jazz vocalist; she makes you believe she has “lived” the lyrics. She’s also one of the great scatters: Her voice — tone, clarity, expression and capability to improvise — blends perfectly with other voices and horns.

I hope we’ll hear more from Nazarian, her family members and friends.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dan Trudell Plays the Piano

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Dan Trudell Plays the Piano

A lot of good musicians never stray far from home, yet make a solid living playing near where they were born, or grew up, or moved to and settled later in life. The groups with which such musicians perform are often referred to as “territory bands.” 

Dan Trudell is just such a guy. He was born in Michigan, began his musical studies on the organ at Western Michigan University — with a short stop on the tuba — and transferred to North Texas State, where he majored in piano. During his early career, he made a living playing on cruise ships. He ended up in Boston, formed his first trio, then moved to Chicago where he played with Sabretooth, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and the B-3 Bombers.

Deciding that the Midwest was his favorite part of the country, Trudell settled in Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva resort area: close enough to Chicago and Milwaukee to facilitate playing there on occasion. He’s best know as an organist, but lately has returned to piano. This is his first album on the latter instrument.

The session features his trio — Matt Wilson on drums, Joe Sanders on bass — performing songs either written by, or associated with, famous pianists. The package also includes a couple of Trudell originals.

It’s interesting that his organ “style” is evident in his piano chops. He often plays chords, rather than single notes, which are done with “trill” fingering; this tends to “fill” the tonal spaces, much like an organ would. That said, it all swings quite nicely.

Since Trudell obviously has found his comfort zone, and is unlikely to stray far from it, he isn’t likely to become a well-known performer; that said, I’m sure he’ll keep the territory natives happy. I’d love to have a club close enough to enjoy artists like Trudell, at the mere price of a short drive.