Thursday, December 7, 2006

Holiday Jazz 2006: Yule be swingin'

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.7.06

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for roughly 11 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing.]

Researching this annual round-up just became a bit harder.

Whatever the chain’s other vices and virtues, Tower Records always displayed an impressive selection of seasonal music, and — at Sacramento’s Watt Avenue outlet — even divided the releases by genre. Flipping through discs to find new holiday jazz releases was an annual treat, and one I greatly anticipated each November.

But now, with Tower gone, my only local option is Borders. I’ve nothing but praise for their variety of books, but the music section has needed serious help for quite some time; it appears as if nobody even bothers to alphabetize the discs in many sections, let alone divide by sub-category. Have you ever tried to find a soundtrack in that mess?

Fortunately, the still-cherished “search the bins” experience remains a possibility, albeit with a bit more planning. Berkeley’s Amoeba Music sets up a dynamite display of holiday music in late November, and those folks also stock an impressive supply of used CDs and — wait for it — even LPs.

I call it paradise.

Even a visit to Amoeba, however, didn’t reveal all that much in the way of 2006 holiday jazz releases, which makes me wonder if the last decade’s “soft jazz”-inspired deluge finally might be receding. One year does not a trend make, but I am surprised by the relative scarcity of new material.

Thank goodness for the Internet, and for below-the-radar Web outlets such as cdbaby and I’ve long shouted the joys of cdbaby, but ejazzlines is new to me this year ... and they even have a special section wholly devoted to Christmas jazz.

Thanks to such resources, I found quite a few recent and even older CDs to round out this yearly celebration of holiday jazz. As usual, an initially reasonable article therefore blossomed into a monster of redwood status, and I’ll be mightily impressed by anybody who keeps reading to the bitter end.

But the journey, as the say, is reason enough. I had my usual good time with all this music, and I hope some of it winds up in your home, as well.

Those who’ve grown tired of the same old-same old in seasonal jazz will want to run, not walk, to find a copy of the Classical Jazz Quartet’s Christmas (Kind of Blue 10014). This positively sublime album features some of today’s finest jazz stars: Kenny Barron on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Stefon Harris on vibes and marimba, and Lewis Nash on drums.

And you won’t find a trace of Rudolph, Frosty or the Chipmunks.

As befits the ensemble’s name, these guys have compiled an album of classically hued tracks: two stand-alone pieces — the “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah, and Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” — and an ambitious, six-movement arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

The overall tone may be on the occasionally solemn side, but the jazz chops are magnificent. Harris struts his stuff with a dynamic interpretation of the melody line from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”; he yields to Barron’s equally vigorous piano work, and then the entire quartet goes to town.

Bach comes next: Carter gently plucks the opening melody, which expands to include both piano and vibes until kicking into high gear after another minute or so. Many Christmas jazz albums serve nicely as background music, but you can’t help but pay close attention to these four guys; musicians who complement each other so well demand a listener’s full concentration.

As for the nearly 40-minute “Nutcracker,” all I can say is wow. The second movement — the “March” — is particularly delightful.

I’d love to have been in the studio while this album was recorded, because these guys clearly had a great time. And they just might help sway that Bach, Beethoven and Mozart-oriented friend of yours, who hasn’t yet found a reason to like jazz.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Liam Sillery Quintet: Minor Changes

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.16.06
Buy CD: Minor Changes

Liam Sillery is relatively unknown outside the New Jersey/New York area. He was born in a New Jersey suburb; attended the University of South Florida, where he received a bachelor's degree in music; then settled in New York and became exposed to jazz via artists such as Joe Henderson and Red Rodney. 

Sillery worked in that arena for 10 years, attending the Manhattan School of Music in his spare time. 

When I first played this CD, I thought I'd accidentally chosen an older, 1960s-vintage disc from my collection. This quintet's instrumentation is the standard trumpet/flugelhorn, tenor sax, piano, bass and drums that was so popular in that era. 

The ensemble work features trumpet and sax playing the primary theme in unison, and then each musician gets a solo before the track ends by revisiting the primary theme. The CD has seven tracks, six originals — written by Sillery — and one old standard ("You Are So Beautiful"). 

Except for the latter, which is a trumpet solo, each follows the above-mentioned unison/solos/ unison treatment. That becomes monotonous after awhile. 

The musicians are competent and relaxed, and they've obviously played together for a long time. 

But their solo work never rises above average, and that's also true of Sillery. He sounds like a blend of Chet Baker and Red Rodney (an early influence), but never wanders into Rodney's hard-bop style. 

That makes the group pleasant, but dated. You wouldn't take this CD off the changer if you walked into a room, but I doubt you'd play it again.

Chick Corea: The Ultimate Adventure

Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.16.06
Buy CD: The Ultimate Adventure

Chick Corea is one of the jazz field's most widely experienced and prolific musicians and composers. It's difficult to name a jazz great he hasn't played with and been influenced by, or a style he hasn't visited. 

He was born in the early 1940s, at the beginning of the bop era, so his initial catalysts were Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and pianists Bud Powell and Horace Silver. 

Then Bill Evans arrived on the scene, and Corea's world expanded. He subsequently delivered exquisite free, jazz-rock, fusion, Latin, funk and classical recordings, and was one of the first to provide a distinctive, personalized sound with electric as well as acoustic instruments. 

Corea played free jazz with the Miles Davis groups, Latin jazz with Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, then teamed up with Blue Mitchell and Stan Getz, and finally rejoined Miles, whom he left in the '70s, to form the first of his own groups. Corea changed direction many times during this period, beginning as an acoustic jazz-rock unit with an Afro-Latin bent, becoming a propulsive fusion band with a decided rock tilt, then transforming into a pop unit with a New Age feel. 

Since then, Corea has concentrated on his Elektric and Touchstone bands, the latter of which is featured on this Concord release. 

Corea has had a "lifelong connection with L. Ron Hubbard's works." Because one of Hubbard's stories had a southern Spain-northern Africa-Arabian background, Corea was prompted to compose the tunes included in this CD. 

"Three Ghouls" is a suite that begins with Bartok, moves through a groove section featuring flute and Fender Rhodes electric piano, and closes with a Latin-influenced jam with a hand-clap undercurrent. "Queen Tedmur" and "King & Queen" introduce a theme for the book's two romantic characters, then moves into the "Moseb the Executioner" suite. The "story" concludes with eight melodic lines, featuring the various members of the Touchstone group playing flute, bass, drums and Corea's Fender Rhodes piano. 

If the Hubbard story ever is made into a movie, they'll already have the perfect soundtrack.

The Tom Warrington Trio: Back Nine

Jazz Compass
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.16.06
Buy CD: Back Nine

Take guitarist Larry Koonse, add well-known drummer Joe La Barbara, meld them with superb bassist Tom Warrington, and the result is one accomplished trio. 

The customary trio instrumentation consists of piano, bass and drums; replacing the piano with a guitar changes not only the sound, but the type of arrangement being played. 

When a pianist wants to hold a note, the pedal action holds not only that note, but also anything else played at that moment. This often results in a cacophony of sounds, so the piano is better suited to up-tempo melodic lines. 

A guitarist can hold individual notes without affecting other notes, thus providing a more harmonious and flowing melodic line for ballads. A guitar also is superior to a piano for blending lines with the bass. 

It's therefore no surprise that most of this album's tracks are slow- to moderate-tempo arrangements. That makes Back Nine wonderful jazz "mood music," but don't think it doesn't swing! 

Two of the tracks — "Light and Shadow" and "Labyrinth" — were written by Koonse; "Nardis" is a Miles Davis tune; the beautiful "Whisper Not" comes from Benny Golsen; and the remaining tracks were written by Warrington. All are a joy to the ears. 

This group is so laid-back, so innovative, that it's difficult to believe I'm hearing only three musicians. Back Nine is a true gem, and a must-have album.

Dave and Larry Koonse: Dialogues of the Heart

Jazz Compass
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.16.06
Buy CD: Dialogues of the Heart

This is the first CD I've reviewed from Jazz Compass, another small studio that has appeared on the scene in recent years. As is true of the Sea Breeze label, this company features musicians and groups that are well known in the jazz fraternity but relatively unknown to the public. 

Dialogues of the Heart features guitar duets by Dave Koonse and his son, Larry, and it's one of the tastiest jazz guitar records I've ever heard. Since Larry was taught by his father, it's almost impossible to tell who is playing a particular solo passage, and the ensemble work is just gorgeous. Their techniques are flawless — it's like listening to two Earl Klughs playing jazz — and the studio work borders on perfection. 

The album features arrangements of lesser-known standards such as "Beautiful Love," "Like Someone in Love," "Summer Nights" and "You Must Believe in Spring." "Isfahan" is an almost unknown Duke Ellington tune, arranged by Billy Strayhorn. 

"Jazz Passacaglia" is a beautiful, almost classical little tune written by Larry Koonse. "Everything I Love" is a relatively unknown ballad by Cole Porter, while "Django" is one of the wonderful jazz lines written by John Lewis, of Modern Jazz Quartet fame. Both the final two selections — "Minority" and "Young and Foolish" — are performed beautifully, as is true of everything else on this album. 

It's all jazz in its purest form, and it even swings. Guitar fans will love this CD.