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.

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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.

Joe Mulholland Trio: Runaway Train

Zoho Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Runaway Train

Boston always has been a magnet for musical artists, both classical and jazz, and is famous for the many artists and organizations that call it home. Many jazz greats were students at the Berklee College of Music or the New England Conservatory of Music, and later joined the teaching staff at one or the other. Three such individuals comprise the Joe Mulholland Trio. 

Mulholland, a pianist, has been affiliated with Berklee since 1954, and currently is a professor of harmony. Drummer Bob Tamagni is a professor of percussion at the same school; bassist Bob Nieske is artist-in-residence and director of jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music. They also play professionally, and have enjoyed a 15-year gig at Boston’s Top of the Hub club.

This is the trio’s first release on Zoho Records, although they’ve recorded three previous CDs. Six of these nine tracks are originals composed by Mulholland; the others are jazz standards by Miles Davis (“Nardis”), Jimmy Giuffre (“Me Too”), and Arthur Schwartz and Howard Deitz (“Alone Together”). 

This is a tasty, less-is-more group. The melodic content and chord structure of Mulholland’s originals are based not only on creating a pleasant tune, but on exposing his students to the various aspects of music: meter, timing, genre and composition. One of the charts is done in 5/4 (“Lesser Than”); another (“Phrenology”) incorporates a bop feel; “The Same Sky” contains counter-melodic lines.

Whatever; everything is entertaining. It would be great if this group performed close enough to visit — and enjoy — on a regular basis.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Bob Mintzer: All L.A. Band

Fuzzy Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: All L.A. Band

Some musicians are like fine wine: The longer they exist, the better the quality when the bottle is opened anew. Saxophonist Bob Mintzer and drummer Peter Erskine are two examples. And, as often is the case, primo artists attract other primo artists; the result is a magnificent case of jazz.

The L.A. Jazz Band features some of the finest musicians who make their home on the West Coast: a trumpet section of five masters; a trombone section of four equally adept artists; a three-man reed section; Larry Koonse on guitar; Russ Ferrante on piano; and a bassist and another percussionist to support Erskine, who also produced this album. 

Mintzer composed and arranged all the tracks, and the result is a monster library that covers all jazz bases. The shelves include three Afro-Cuban selections, one of which is the opener, “El Caborojeno,” which grabs you by the throat and swings madly. The Basie-style charts — “Havin’ Some Fun,” “Home Basie” and “Tribute” — are typical of that wonderful style; every part of your body will start moving, as you join into the beat.

“Original People” is in a reggae mood, and a couple of tunes will take you back to the Yellowjackets days. (Mintzer was a member of that group for 20 years.) He also wrote “Slo Funk” for the Buddy Rich band, when he was a sideman with them. Nor can we overlook hard bop, exemplified by “Runferyerlife.”

This is a wonderful trip through all of the avenues of Jazz City. The ensemble melodic lines groove smoothly, and the many solo choruses are first-class. As always is the case, when I hear big band albums such as this one — produced via only one recording session, or special occasion — I’m reminded of the past, when this kind of music was readily available almost everywhere, almost any time.

This is a very welcome blast from the past.

Mark Murphy: Live in Athens, Greece

Harbinger Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Live in Athens, Greece

Unless you’re a longtime jazz fan — and likely a senior citizen, to boot — you probably haven’t the foggiest notion who Mark Murphy was. That’s a shame, because he’s one of the finest male jazz vocalists who ever lived. 

But he was born too soon (in 1932), and performed during a period when vocalists of his gender were crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Bing Crosby, Mel Tormé and the many others who were all the rage. A few, usually later in their lives, were
indoctrinated into the jazz world — most notably Sinatra and Tormé — but nobody ever reached the skill level that Murphy occupied during his entire career.

It was a long one: He died in 2015, and had performed his final concert just two years earlier. And although the general public likely wasn’t aware of his prowess, iconic jazz musicians and vocalists knew and worshiped him. When he performed or recorded, he had his pick of artists eager to back him. Murphy also was prolific, recording more than 50 albums. The last one released during his lifetime was 2013’s A Beautiful Friendship: Remembering Shirley Horn.

This “new” album was recorded live in 2008, at the Gazarte Club in Athens, Greece, but has just now become available.

Murphy’s performances were unique, in that he melded his songs together, moving from one to another without waiting for applause. He also added lyrics to and between them, to provide a steady flow of words and thoughts. If lyrics didn’t exist, as is the case with many jazz tunes, he created his own. His scatting was phenomenal, with and without actual words. 

In retrospect, that may have been a cause for Murphy’s relative lack of popularity: He often was described as “eccentric,” when in fact he was far, far ahead of his time. He paid no attention to the original intent of meter; he’d transform a ballad into a barn-burner. 

The 11 tunes here include all genres, and Murphy makes them all swing like crazy. Get ready for a genuine treat.

Oh, how I miss him. 

Jane Ira Bloom: Early Americans

Outline Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Early Americans

One doesn’t have an opportunity to review an individual who honestly can be described as “the best” at anything. Well, Jane Ira Bloom is the world’s best soprano saxophonist. 

That instrument, a high-register member of the saxophone family, isn’t as common in jazz as the alto, tenor and baritone instruments, but a few musicians have used it. (Remember Woody Herman?) Even so, it’s a tough horn from which to get a smooth, warm, beautiful tone. That’s not a problem for Bloom.

She began playing the drums and piano as a child, then the alto sax, and settled on the soprano at age 9. She earned liberal arts and master’s degrees in music from Yale University. After graduation, she moved to New York City and founded Outline Records, while simultaneously beginning a career of performing with masters of the music world. 

She’s an eight-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association Award; and has won the Downbeat Critics Poll, the Charlie Parker Award for Jazz Innovation, the Guggenheim Fellowship in Jazz Composition, the Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Award, and many others.

In short, Bloom is a phenomenon.

This album, her 16th, includes a baker’s dozen of tunes: twelve of her own compositions plus the Bernstein/Sondheim hit “Somewhere.” All are performed at balladic tempos, and all are simply gorgeous.

She’s backed by bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bobby Previte. With that limited — but definitely tasteful — support, there’s no place to hide ... not that she needs to worry about such things. We’re treated, throughout, to her consummate skill, tone and originality.

What a performance!