Monday, November 2, 2015

Mitchel Forman Trio: Puzzle

BFM Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Puzzle

Only longtime jazz fans are likely to know who Mitchel Forman is; I do, because he was the pianist who performed with Gerry Mulligan — in both his big band and the quartet — and, later, with Stan Getz. Those were all great, great units. 

Forman also was part of the cadre recorded on the Live At Newport album from the 1980 Newport Jazz Festival. He has toured with Phil Woods, Freddie Hubbard, Mel Torme, Carla Bley, Diane Schuur and Astrud Gilberto. (It’s worth noting that vocalists love him.) 

Forman assembled the first of his own groups in 1985, and he continues to produce his own albums. This release — which features Kevin Axt on bass, and Steve Hass on drums — is his newest effort.

The operative terms that apply to Forman are swinging, straight-ahead jazz; blazing keyboard speed; precision and tastefulness. Both members of his rhythm section fit in beautifully. Axt, who accompanied Tierney Sutton for years, is one of the best bassists working; Hass is a vocalist’s dream, supporting and never intruding.

The menu includes a dozen tunes: Some are new, but the oldies really stand out. The trio’s interpretation of “What Is This Thing Called Love” is sensational; complimentary melodic lines and meter changes put a wonderful shine on this great standard. “Bounce,” using the chord changes of “I Got Rhythm,” is done at a race-horse tempo that’ll blow your hair back. 

Frankly, every track demonstrates this trio’s talent and cohesiveness.

This definitely is not background jazz, and you won’t be able to take your ears off it. Please ... more, more, more!

Sarah Partridge: I Never Thought I'd Be Here

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: I Never Thought I'd Be Here

Numerous vocalists have become actresses, but I can’t think of many performers who took that trip in reverse. Sarah Partridge is one of those rare examples, and she enjoyed modest success for a decade on TV and the big screen, including an appearance in Risky Business with Tom Cruise. Then fate stepped in: While spending an evening with friends at The Improv, they talked her into participating in a karaoke contest. 

An agent in the audience was enthralled, and signed her up; thus began her musical career.

As often is the case, her love of vocal jazz had begun at home; her father was a huge fan of icons such as Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Conner, Irene Kral and Sarah Vaughan. Fortunately, Partridge has a voice that matches their talents, and that led to her success in what has become a 20-year career.

Partridge is featured regularly at many well-known jazz clubs across the country, and this is her fourth album. She has a wonderfully relaxed voice, which is great for both popular standards and jazz genre tunes. Although her first three releases focused on the American Songbook, she switched gears and wrote (words and music) all but one of the tracks here. The exception — “Around the Corner” — is by Alan Farnham, this album’s pianist, arranger and producer.

He and Partridge are joined by six other excellent musicians: bassist Bill Moring, drummer/percussionist Tim Horner, tenor saxman/flutist Scott Robinson, trombonist Ben Williams, and guitarist Paul Meyers. Partridge’s son, Ben Stein, is guest guitarist on the track “Runaway Train.”

This is a great album for listening or dancing. And if Partridge shows up at a lounge in your area, be sure to visit her.

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.