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

Self-Published
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.

Bill Cunliffe: BACHanalia

Metro Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: BACHanalia

This terrific album comes from Bill Cunliffe, one of the finest big band composers and arrangers in the modern jazz world. The music is performed by some of today’s best instrumentalists, and the result is a marvelous demonstration of what the “new” can do with the very “old.”

The core of this release is based on compositions by J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Sergei Prokofiev and Manuel de Falla. Cunliffe has taken several of their most famous works, rewritten and arranged them into big band charts, and then gathered the most disciplined and swinging jazz orchestra that has come down the pike in years.

Two dozen artists are involved; the basic unit consisted of 18 performers, although the sessions were mixed and matched so that each was used on one or more tracks. Cunliffe conducts and serves as pianist on everything, as does drummer Joe La Barbara. 

The “classic” tracks include J.S. Bach’s “Sleepers Wake” and “Goldberg Contraption”;
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, First Movement; C.P.E. Bach’s “Solfeggietto”; and de Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat.” 

Cunliffe’s re-writing and arranging is unbelievably excellent, and his keyboard skills are marvelous. The orchestral passages, support and instrumental solo work are mind-boggling. Pay particular attention to La Barbara; he’s a stupendous percussionist. He hits every emphatic phrase perfectly, has beautiful volume control, and drives the band like crazy.   

The other charts are equally great. A Cunliffe original (“Afluencia”) is joined by “Blame It on My Youth,” featuring trumpeter Terell Stafford and guitarist Larry Koonse; and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” starring vocalist Denise Donatelli. She also contributes vocalese passages to several of the other charts; she has a gorgeous voice, hits every note dead-on, and is a true swinger.

This fantastic album is a must.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra: Sweet Ruby Suite

Self-Published
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Sweet Ruby Suite

Once in awhile, if lucky, you stumble across a musical diamond in the rough: a wholly unfamiliar gem. This album is just such a find.

Canada’s University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra (UTJO) is one of that school’s many musical ensembles, built from faculty and students. Gordon Foote directs this group. Prior to this job, he worked for more than 25 years as a professor of jazz studies at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. 

The UTJO consists of five trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass and drums. David Liebman guests here on soprano sax, and Norma Winstone on voice. All the music was written by trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler, who was born in Toronto in 1930, but spent most of his life and career in Great Britain. He died in a London nursing home at age 84. As this release amply demonstrates, he was an outstanding artist, way ahead of his time in many respects.

More than half of the album — almost 30 minutes — is devoted to Wheeler’s “Sweet Ruby Suite,” a beautiful balladic composition. The orchestral work is gorgeous, and some of the finest I’ve heard in years: particularly impressive, given that students comprise the aggregation. Winstone’s contribution consists largely of vocalese passages, as opposed to actual lyrics, and the lady has a stunning voice. Liebman’s sax work is equally impressive. 

Three shorter works — “WW,” “Canter No. 1” and “Winter Sweet” — complete the album. The music won’t make you dance or snap your fingers, but its elegance is mesmerizing; you’ll want to hear it again and again.

The University of Toronto clearly is a music school to be reckoned with. One can only hope that we’ll hear a lot more from these students.