Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Clarity: Unhinged Sextet

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Clarity

In the beginning, jazz was a “blue-collar” profession. Most artists hadn’t earned more than a high school education; some went on the road without even that degree, although many continued studies after completing their early careers. That isn’t the case today; artist biographies often contain references to colleges and universities that offer advanced degrees up to the doctoral level. 

Consider the sextet Clarity: Every member has one or more degrees, and each is associated with advanced teaching institutions, as a member of the faculty at organizations throughout the country.

Pianist Michael Kocour is an associate professor and Director of Jazz Studies at Arizona State University, in Tempe; he also holds a degree in mathematics from the University of Illinois. Woodwinds player Will Campbell is Director of Jazz Studies and Associate Director of Saxophone at the University of North Carolina. Saxophonist Matt Olson is associate professor of saxophone, and Director of Jazz Studies at South Carolina’s Furman University. 

Trumpeter Vern Sielert has a PhD and teaches at the University of Idaho. Bassist Jon Hamar teaches at Central Washington University, Northwest University, and Edmonds Community Colleges in Washington. Drummer Dom Moio also is on the faculty at Arizona State University, along with a position at Mesa Community College. 

On top of which, all of these guys have worked with many, many name artists.

This, Clarity’s debut album, features a blend of bop and straight-ahead jazz; all concerned excel at it. The 12 tracks are composed/arranged by the various members of the band. With respect to meter, there’s something for everyone: “Unhinged” is a hard bop  flag-waver, and “Watch Out of the Way” is another burner. “Clarity” and “Leaving Soon” are ballads, and the rest are mid-tempo swingers.

The melodic lines are memorable, and the ensemble passages are cohesive. The solo work is some of the best I’ve heard; these fellas are true masters of their instruments.

This is “thinking jazz”: what results when it’s done by artists who’ve spent their lives living with — and teaching — music that they obviously love.

Kevin Stout and Brian Booth: Color Country

Jazzed5 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Color Country

Trombonist/guitarist/percussionist Kevin Stout and saxophonist/flutist Brian Booth love jazz and their home state of Utah, in equal measure. They’re longtime friends and partners who’ve released three previous albums, to rave reviews. Then followed a 10-year pause, during which they often worked together in gigs throughout Utah.

And now comes the release of Color Country.

Their careers have spanned three decades. Stout worked with The Four Freshman for almost a decade, and also has performed with Joe Piscopo, The Four Tops, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Don Menza’s Big Band, as well his own groups. Booth, in turn, has shared a stage with notables such as Natalie Cole, Lou Rawls, Mel Torme and Ray Charles, among others. Booth also has led his own groups in Utah and the surrounding states.

This new album celebrates the Southern Utah region that contains five National Parks often visited by Stout and Booth. The 13 tracks, all of which they composed and arranged, are named for points of interest with particular meaning to both of them. 

The supporting musicians include pianist Joey Singer, bassist Tom Warrington, drummer John Abraham and vocalist JoBelle Yonely.

All but one of the tracks are done at mid- to up-tempos, using 4/4, 3/4, Latin, fusion and straight-ahead meters. The exception is the ballad “Weeping Rock,” which features Booth’s soprano sax, Stout’s guitar and trombone, and Yonely (no words, just gorgeous vocal chords).

Every track is great, but my favorite is “Petroglyphs,” which really rocks (pun intended).

I’m particularly impressed by the various instruments interface, during both the ensemble and solo choruses; the arrangements are complex at times, but they always swing. On top of which, the solos are truly excellent.

Plan on “all listening, without much talking” when this album hits your rotation!

Michael Dees: The Dream I Dreamed

Jazzed Media
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Dream I Dreamed

I’ve not reviewed a male vocalist for quite some time, but then ages have passed since coming across one as good as Michael Dees. That’s actually a shame, because he has been around for years; Dees is a “stealth” singer with a quite lengthy résumé, but he simply isn’t well known to the public.

Which doesn’t mean that you’ve not been exposed to him, although likely without being aware of it. Dees had a long career as a studio singer. Back in the 1960s, he appeared on TV’s Steve Allen Show; he recorded an album of his own music; he soundtrack work in numerous films, including the TV movies The Rat Pack and The Mystery of Natalie Wood, along with hundreds of commercials and jingles. For the most part, though, he was singing “other people’s songs.”

This release features his own stuff, both lyrics and music. And it’s excellent.

It may be a bit of a stretch to identify Dees as a jazz singer, but if icons such as Frank Sinatra are so classified, then so be it. Dees’ voice is gentle, warm and smooth, and his interpretation is sincere. He means every line he sings, and his inflections and timing are both jazz-related; whether the style is balladic or up-tempo, he swings.

He also recognizes the value of being backed by excellent musicians. The combo that supports him here features pianist Terry Trotter, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Steve Schaeffer, along with Steve Huffsteter and Sal Marquez on trumpet and flugelhorn, Bob Sheppard and Doug Webb on woodwinds, and Don Williams on percussion. The group is truly jazz oriented, and the arrangements of Dees’ 14 tracks give them plenty of room to demonstrates their prowess.

Most of the songs are love-themed ballads; they come across as a possible biographical history of the singer’s life. The “stories” they tell require clear and understandable lyrics, and Dees certainly provides that.

As an “elder citizen” — Dees is in his 70s — he’s on par with the best singers past and present.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Michael Waldrop Big Band: Time Within Itself

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Time Within Itself

Percussionist Michael Waldrop plays both drums and mallet instruments (vibes and marimba). He has a PhD and currently is a professor of percussion at Eastern Washington University, where he teaches both jazz and classical courses. 

He also directs a big band, and this is that ensemble’s inaugural album.

Once upon a time — back in unenlightened times — drummers often were looked down upon. (Question: “How big is your band?” Answer: “Sixteen musicians and a drummer.”) Happily, that’s no longer the case. During the past several months, I’ve reviewed numerous units led by drummers who have college degrees, who compose and arrange their own music, and who are affiliated with — and teach — at upper-level schools. Waldrop is in good company.

He was a member of the Grammy-nominated One O’Clock Lab Band; he has toured the U.S. and Europe with various groups; and he has played with numerous jazz icons and personnel. The big band here is impressive: five reeds, eight brass and a rhythm section of four, along with guest performers on some tracks. 

All of these tracks are original compositions, half by Waldrop. Woodwind impresario Jack Cooper (who also fronts his own big band) wrote the others and masterfully arranged everything on the album. Everybody deserves mention, but I must acknowledge master guitarist and vocalist Jimi Tunnell, and vocalist Sandra Dudley; both contribute “no-word” shading on three tracks, using their voices as instruments, to back up the band’s swinging instrumental passages. The result is impressive, and really adds to the impact.

This is a wonderful orchestra, filled with extremely talented artists. Want more proof? The entire album was completed in just one day!

Jiggs Whigham: not so standards

Azica Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: not so standards

I’m willing to bet that few readers will recognize any of this trio’s artists ... although I might be mistaken when it comes to trombonist Jiggs Whigham. He leads this group, and he played with two of the more famous “ghost” bands: the Glenn Miller orchestra that was led by Ray McKinley in 1961, and the 1963 Stan Kenton “mellophonium” band. 

Whigham was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1943; he was only 17 when he joined the Miller group. But touring wasn’t what he wanted as a profession, so — after his stint with Kenton — he settled in New York City to play commercially. That didn’t satisfied him either, so he migrated to Germany, where he still lives and works.

Whigham teaches and is a regular with big bands led by Kurt Edelhagen, Bert Kaempfert and Peter Herbolzheimer (likely unknown in the States, but big in Germany). Whigham also has been musical director for the Radio in the American Sector Big Band, and currently conducts Great Britain’s BBC Big Band. He periodically returns to the U.S., where he plays and records with American jazz artists.

The trio featured on this release is unusual, in that it consists of trombone, piano and electric bass. German-born Florian Weber is on piano, while Romanian-born Decebal Badila handles the bass. The session, recorded live at Cleveland’s Nighttown Jazz Club, contains three Great American Songbook standards (“The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come”), two jazz standards (“Bags’ Groove” and “Saint Thomas”) and one original by Whigham. 

The trio sound is unique: definitely not what most folks are accustomed to hearing. Part of that is the instrumentation: The electric bass isn’t as “full” as an upright, and there’s no drummer to help fill in the “bottom.” Additionally, the musicians’ overall style shows a noticeably modern European influence: smooth and “clean,” and not as loose or swinging as many American talents.

All that said, “different” is no less enjoyable. Whigham’s trio delivers an impressive album, and one that deserves placement in your library.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Good Grief! It's Still Jim Martinez

Invisible Touch Music
By guest critic Derrick Bang
Buy CD: Good Grief! It's Still Jim Martinez

Vince Guaraldi has been gone for almost 40 years, but his signature themes are more popular than ever; all manner of jazz musicians have covered the “big three” — “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time Is Here” — with more renditions popping up every year.

Northern California jazz pianist Jim Martinez includes the first two on his new album, which honors Guaraldi’s decisive musical influence on the neighborhood inhabited by Charlie Brown and the rest of Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts gang. But this isn’t a garden-variety collection of Guaraldi covers; eight of these 14 tracks are sparkling Martinez originals, all written and performed in Guaraldi’s larkish, Latinesque “Peanuts style.”

Martinez has Guaraldi’s facility for cute, clever melodic hooks that immediately sound familiar, even when heard for the first time. Better still, they’re catchy and instantly hummable, with the cheerful ebullience that always characterized Guaraldi’s performance style. You can’t help nodding in time to Martinez’s effervescent keyboard work; you also can’t help smiling.

He’s a generous leader, granting plenty of exposure to core band mates Josh Workman (guitar), Marcus Shelby (bass), and Tim Metz and Tony Savage, trading off on drums. Indeed, numerous tracks — such as Martinez’s “Chillin’ at the Warm Puppy Café” — feature engaging “duels” between Martinez and Workman, alternating vigorous solos and comping behind each other. (The title references the aptly named coffee shop adjacent to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California.)

Workman’s deft guitar work also highlights the gentle, Brazilian-hued “Samba for Snoopy,” and the flamenco elements of the impish “Spike and the Cactus Club,” with its shifting time signatures; one imagines Snoopy’s rail-thin brother dancing with a rose between his teeth.

Shelby’s accomplished bass work powers the percussive “Bang!,” which Martinez fills with Guaraldi-esque flourishes; Shelby’s walking bass also drives the sassy “Blues for Beagles,” which gets additional snap from Lucas Bere’s smoldering tenor sax.

The lyrical “Waltz for Vince” feels very much like the style and delivery of Guaraldi’s early Fantasy albums, while “Schroeder Can Play” is a spirited finger-snapper granted plenty of swing by both Martinez and Shelby.

The band’s cover of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is slightly faster than Guaraldi’s version, with Martinez roaring through the lengthy improv bridge. “Linus and Lucy” also is up-tempo, with Metz’s propulsive drum work setting the stage for an initially faithful (but not slavish) adaptation that breaks away when Martinez takes the second bridge into entirely new directions. Guaraldi’s lively “Surfin’ Snoopy” is treated like a classic combo swinger, with Savage and Shelby setting the stage for vigorous solos by Bere, Workman and finally Martinez.

Martinez is equally adept at softer tempos, as with his worshipful handling of Guaraldi’s “Theme to Grace,” an interior theme from the Jazz Mass Guaraldi wrote for San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in the mid-1960s. Workman and Martinez trade quiet, reverential solos in a manner evoking the latter’s numerous “Jazz Praise” albums. Similarly, Martinez’s “Thank You Sparky” is a hushed, heartfelt lament, with his keyboard backed solely by violin.

The album includes one vocal: a tender cover of Rod McKuen’s poignant title song to the 1969 film A Boy Named Charlie Brown, with Margie Rebekah Ruiz’s expressively soulful voice accompanied by Bere’s equally sweet sax solo and a string quartet.

The album is highlighted both by everybody’s tight solo and ensemble work, and by Martinez’s overall impish tone. Most of his original compositions are droll to begin with, and he enhances that exuberance with occasional quotes from sources as varied as Gershwin, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Guaraldi himself.

This album’s dexterous musicality certainly is a selling point, but — most of all — it’s fun. As with Guaraldi’s many albums, you can’t help wanting to play this one again ... and again and again.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Steve Gadd Band: 70 Strong

BFM Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: 70 Strong

Those who don’t know Steve Gadd must not be serious jazz fans. He’s not merely one of the top drummers working today; he’s an impressively prolific, experienced and in-demand artist, when it comes to his fellow musicians. He has participated on more than 150 albums produced by top artists and groups during his 40 years as a professional. 

He was born in 1945 in a suburb of Rochester, New York, began drum lessons when he was 7, and was sitting in with Dizzy Gillespie by age 11. Gadd attended both the Manhattan School of Music and Eastman School of Music. After graduation, he joined Chuck Mangione’s band; Gadd’s first recording session was in 1968, on Mangione’s debut album.

Gadd spent three years in the Army, with their Jazz Ambassadors band. After his military service, he began playing with some of that period’s best groups: Chick Corea, Simon and Garfunkel, Steely Dan, Carly Simon, Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Quincy Jones, to name a few. He also worked with James Taylor and in many, many studio bands while backing vocal icons. (Note the wide variation of styles.)

Gadd’s tasteful percussion work has made him a first-call favorite with vocalists. One example is Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and I still get a kick out of Gadd’s phrasing on that gem.

This new album celebrates Gadd’s 70th birthday. It’s done with a quintet format, featuring Walt Fowler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Larry Goldings on keyboards and accordion, Jimmy Johnson on bass, and Michael Landau on guitars. As is usually the case with Gadd, the tracks concentrate more on these side artists ... but Gadd’s work backing and driving the group is fantastic; pay attention to the timing, accents and fills on “Foan Home,” the album’s opening track.

Another of Gadd’s notable characteristics is his love of moderate to balladic tempos; this album has no flag-wavers or drum solos, just great, tasty drumming on a wide range of musical styles.

Here’s to another quarter-century, Steve!