Thursday, December 13, 2007

Holiday Jazz 2007: Quite a cool yule

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.13.07

[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 12 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing.]

OK, I admit it, I’m a holiday junkie. I’ve even got a new nickname: Captain Christmas.

Friends and family members just roll their eyes and shake their heads, when the calendar page flips from October to November, because they know what it means: Every free moment from that point onward is devoted to decorating the house ... first outside (gotta make it by Thanksgiving weekend!) and then inside.

Naturally, the proper mood must be set for such activities, and nothing keeps my spirits raised — particularly as I approach the conclusion of an all-day session — better than a toe-tapping, finger-snapping collection of Christmas jazz.

Having now been accumulating such albums for the better part of a quarter-century, I must have one of the best collections in the country ... with no end in sight.

Although mainstream labels have decreased their new releases during recent years, the flow has remained constant, thanks to Web sources such as cdbaby and Both are excellent sites, and the latter even has a section devoted to holiday jazz.

One must apply a bit of caveat emptor to cdbaby, though; since the site stocks and sells pretty much everything submitted, one can bring home an eye-opening grade of trash.

Fortunately, I’m here to help spare the pain. Yes, I listen to the bad ones, just so you won’t wind up with a nasty surprise.

While 2007 has not been a banner year for new arrivals — very few must-have stand-outs — most of the albums cited below would rate a solid B on the standard grading scale. That still makes them eminently listenable, and therefore worth your time.

Moving to it, then...

Searching for cool new sounds is a full-time endeavor, and the Christmas jazz sub-genre is no different. As always, several titles came to my attention just after I published last year’s edition of this annual round-up, so I’ll start with those.

Credit for calling this first album to my attention goes to Shaunna Morrison Machosky, music director at the Pittsburgh-based National Public Radio station WDUQ, who in late 2006 published her list of “the best holiday jazz CDs.” She resisted adding the word “ever” to that title, but since her compilation includes Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song and Ella Fitzgerald’s Wishes You a Swingin’ Christmas, her taste obviously is impressively wide-ranging.

Machosky’s list concluded with Diane Delin’s Offerings for a Peaceable Season (Blujazz BJ3351), and I was drawn to it by virtue of Delin’s instrument of choice: the violin.

Jazz violin, I hear you cry?

Indeed. This tasty little album proves that strings can swing, particularly when accompanied by solid support from a piano-bass-percussion trio. The tone is mostly quiet and contemplative, with several tracks — notably “My Favorite Things” and “Winter Wonderland” — demonstrating a gentle, Latin-hued samba beat that serves as ample foundation for Delin’s sassy violin chops.

I also like her program choice; she goes for lesser-known carols such as the traditional “Gloucestershire Wassail,” Victor Herbert’s “Toyland” and a lively bop version of the overture to Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” (rapidly becoming a holiday staple).
Delin’s handling of “Deck the Halls,” with its piano and bass underscore, reminds me of Duke Pearson’s classic arrangement of “Sleigh Ride”; the result is impossible to resist.

She’s also a generous leader; an exquisitely pretty reading of “Petit Papa Noel” grants a full three minutes to pianist Dennis Luxion and bassist Eric Hochberg, before Delin’s violin finally weighs in.

She brings the set to a lively conclusion with her own up-tempo reading of “Sleigh Ride,” and I immediately wanted to listen to the entire album again. So will you.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Jay Lawrence Trio: Thermal Strut

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.3.07
Buy CD: Thermal Strut

From the opening eight bars of the title tune, you know this will be an excellent release. 

Although the individual musicians in this trio aren't well known to the listening public, they are key members of the musical fraternity. And, as is becoming the norm today, all are college graduates and teachers. 

Jay Lawrence, the drummer and leader, has recorded more than 90 albums with the luminaries of music: You name the individuals or groups, and Lawrence has worked with them. He began his career at age 15, playing in Nevada showrooms, then moved into the fields of Broadway shows, movies, TV shows and concerts. 

He's currently an assistant professor at the University of Utah, and a director of music at Brigham Young University, Snow College and Utah Valley State College. 

Bassist Lynn Seaton began playing guitar at age 7, then switched to bass at 11. He studied music at the University of Oklahoma, and has played in 49 states of the union, not to mention more than 35 foreign countries. He currently teaches at the University of North Texas. 

Pianist Tamir Hendelman began playing at age 6. He attended the Anazagi Conservatory in Tel Aviv, Israel, following that with Tanglewood Institute and the Eastern School of Music. He's an outstanding pianist and arranger; he did six of the 10 tracks on this release. 

This is a "happy" CD: wonderfully tasty, swinging, straight-ahead jazz. These guys really enjoy playing together, and they love what they're doing. The album is innovative but not far out; it makes you want to listen, and it's all danceable. 

Lawrence supports beautifully, and never intrudes. Seaton is rock-solid, and is one of the few bassists I've heard who can play "bowed" solos and maintain the beat and melodic line. Hendelman is the icing on this trio cake: He plays effortlessly and flawlessly, and swings like crazy. His treatment of "Love for Sale" is particularly impressive. 

This is the best trio to have come along in years ... don't miss it!

JC and the Jazz Hoppers: Chillin' at Home

Jazz Hop
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.3.07
Buy CD: Chillin' at Home

If you haven't heard about this trio, it's because (1) they're from Australia; and (2) this is their first CD. 

It has been awhile since a group was put together around a Hammond B-3 organ; the last one I remember was Joey DeFrancesco. Of course, they were preceded by Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff, not to mention the many pianists — including Fats Waller — who played around with the instrument. 

The B-3 is one of the two primary instruments in the Jazz Hopper trio; the other is a guitar. Jason Campbell (JC) is the guitarist; Col Nolan plays the B-3; and Andrew Dickeson is the primary drummer. (Evan Mannell play drums on one track.) This is a relatively short album: only seven tracks, including a second take of "Our Delight," a Tad Dameron bopper from way back. 

Two of the tunes are written by Campbell ("Fresh Roast" and "Aria 4 Daria"); the rest are arrangements of familiar songs that were made popular by other artists, such as Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and Nora Jones' "Don't Know Why." 

This is a surprisingly pleasing listen. The combination of guitar and organ isn't new, but neither is it common. 

One of Campbell's major influences was guitarist George Benson who, for several years, played in a group with McDuff. JC loved that sound, and one of the admitted highlights of his life occurred when he had an opportunity to jam with Benson. That event was key to the formation of the Jazz Hoppers. 

Campbell plays a lot of guitar. You can hear the influence of both Benson and Wes Montgomery in his work, and that's a compliment. 

Nolan's organ is a genuine contribution. He isn't as frenetic as DeFrancesco and, as a result, blends beautifully with Campbell's guitar during the ensemble passages, while providing a tasty background for JC's solos. Nolan also is a talented soloist on his instrument. 

Both drummers contribute a driving beat. 

This is an interesting group, and it should have a bright future.

Various Artists: One More — The Summary Music of Thad Jones, Vol. 2

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.3.07
Buy CD: One More: The Summary Music of Thad Jones, Vol. 2

Many famous jazz artists are named Jones, but one family stands out for having produced three brothers who became giants: Thad was the trumpet player, Hank was the pianist and Elvin was the drummer. 

This album, the second with this group released by IPO, features Hank's piano and Thad's compositions. 

Born in the mid- to late 1920s, they were key members of the group of musicians who created the "East Coast sound" that ruled jazz from the 1940s through the '70s. Although Dizzy Gillespie was the trumpet player whom everyone emulated, Thad Jones wasn't far behind, as far as popularity in the jazz fraternity was concerned. Aside from playing wonderfully, he was a prolific composer and arranger. 

Thad Jones was a key member of the Count Basie orchestra; after Basie's death, he took over the group and kept it active for a number of years. In later years, he was part of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. Jones lived in Denmark for several years and played a key role in the development of jazz in that country. 

The musicians featured on this CD are from the Who's Who list that made that period so great. The reed section consists of Eddie Davis, Benny Golson, James Moody and Frank Wess; the rhythm section features Hank Jones on piano, Kenny Washington on drums, and Richard Davis on bass; and the brass section includes Jimmy Owens on trumpet and John Mosca on trombone. 

This isn't modern jazz, but it is the best retro album to come along in years. Volume I, released a few years ago, was a smash hit; Volume II matches it. 

Because the tunes are Thad Jones originals, their titles won't ring any bells unless you're a "remember when" jazz fan. Suffice it to say, they all swing ... and I'd forgotten how great jazz flutist by Frank Wess was; his instrument really moves me. 

IPO is to congratulated for this album, and it's a handsome CD package, as well.

Tony DeSare: Last First Kiss

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.3.07
Buy CD: Last First Kiss

When I reviewed DeSare's first CD about a year ago, I predicted a great future, assuming he was managed properly. 

This album is further proof that he's on track to stardom. 

He has a great voice, plays more than adequate piano and (can't hurt!) is really good-looking. Given sufficient exposure, he should develop a huge fan base, both men and women. 

While listening to this release, one of my first thoughts was, "This guy sounds like a male version of Diana Krall" (intended as a sincere complement). After reading the CD liner notes, I found a quote by DeSare in which he makes the same comparison. 

We're both right: Krall plays better piano, but DeSare's voice and phrasing are on a par with hers. And, although he sounds a little like Harry Connick Jr., DeSare is a better vocalist. 

This album contains a baker's dozen of tunes, four of which DeSare wrote: "Let's Just Stay In," "I'll Never Have Enough of You," "Lover's Lullaby" and "Last First Kiss." The rest of the tunes are standards, several arranged in a jazz format; pleasing examples include "Kiss," a Prince tune, and Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move." 

The backup groups, ranging from trios to octets, are excellent. Bucky Pizzarelli (guitarist on most tracks) and a tasty rhythm section keep the arrangements moving ... always adding, never subtracting. 

It can be hard for a vocalist to hold an audience's attention, because of the sameness of each arrangement: vocal chorus, one or two instrumental solos, then a closing chorus and out. DeSare uses several techniques to solve that problem: Each tune is short — three to four minutes — and the quality of his piano playing, and the talents of the other soloists, prevent any boredom. 

This is an excellent album, and it's true jazz: a genuine delight.

The Stryker/Slagle Band: Latest Outlook

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.3.07
Buy CD: Latest Outlook

The Stryker/Slagle "band" actually is a quartet: Dave Stryker on guitar, Steve Slagle on alto and soprano sax, Jay Anderson on bass, and Billy Hart on drums. 

For this session, they also added tenor sax player Joe Lovano on a couple of tracks. 

The group is based in New York and works primarily in the East Coast area. Although all the members are excellent musicians, only Hart and Lovano are jazz "names": Hart has played in numerous groups, while Lovano is best known for his membership in one of Woody Herman's Herds. 

All but one of the tunes on this CD were composed and arranged by either Stryker or Slagle. The one exception is "Self Portrait In Three Colors," written by Charles Mingus. 

Most of the tracks follow a format in which the guitar and featured horns play a relatively tricky theme in unison, after which each artist follows with a solo, and then the group concludes with a repeat of the unison theme. This style is reminiscent of the many groups that created the "West Coast sound" back in the 1950s and up through the '70s ... and, for me, the routine verges on boring after a while. 

On the other hand, the solo work is truly excellent, and the beat established by Hart and Anderson really drives each track. 

This is a promising group, but less complex arrangements and more solo work would have raised my rating.

Hiromi: Sonicbloom Time Control

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.3.07
Buy CD: Sonicbloom Time Control

Hiromi Uehara is a 26-year-old pianist, born and raised in Japan, who came to the United States in 1999 to study at Boston's Berklee College of Music. 

She began to play piano at age 6, and within a year was a student at the Yamaha School of Music. At 14, already recognized as a prodigy, she went to Czechoslovakia and played with the Czech Philharmonic. She was 17 when she met Chick Corea, who invited her to perform with him. 

Corea was just the first jazz artist impressed by her; Ahmad Jamal co-produced her first CD for Telarc ("Another Mind") in 2003. 

This is the fourth album she has released on the same label. 

Her basic group is a trio, but she added a guitar for this CD; she also wrote all the arrangements. She plays both standard and electric keyboards; David Fiuczynski plays electric guitar. The rest of the rhythm section consists of British bassist Tony Grey and Slovokian drummer Martin Valihora. 

The quartet's sound clearly shows Corea's influence, though Hiromi's compositions are far more intricate than anything he did. Take note: This is definitely not straight-ahead jazz, and it may be far too "modern" for mainstream listeners. 

But based on the number of CDs released, and the comprehensive sales package assembled by Telarc, this group obviously is considered a "hot property." 

And yes, as a keyboard artist Hiromi is dazzling: blazing fast one moment, serenely soft the next. 

Her love for jazz was late to arrive, and her classical training is evident in the slow and mid-tempo compositions. But too much is going on in some of her arrangements, and she erred in using a jazz-rock guitarist, rather than a more standard player. Her compositions have a distinctly Asian feel and atmosphere, which clashes with the jazz-rock guitar stylings. 

While Hiromi obviously is a prolific composer, I'd like to hear her versions of some basic jazz standards. 

But I certainly understand why Telarc is excited about her. It will be a pleasure to hear Hiromi grow musically.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Full Spectrum Jazz Big Band: Pursuits

Sea Breeze Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.07
Buy CD: Pursuits

Ten years ago, a group of Silicon Valley professionals — who also happened to be part-time musicians — formed a big band for their after-hours enjoyment. 

The operative word here is big, the group consisting of four trumpets/flugelhorns, five trombones, five woodwinds, a full rhythm section (piano, drums, bass and guitar) and a vocalist. Their intent, to cover a wide range of musical styles and genres, is illustrated in this release. 

Many of tracks are familiar jazz standards: "Au Privave" and "Night in Tunisia," by Dizzy Gillespie; "Willowcrest," by Bob Florence; "Raggy Waltz," by Dave Brubeck; "Almost Like Being in Love," by Lerner and Loewe; "The Way You Look Tonight," by Jerome Kern; and a group of Latin tunes. 

As you might expect, Valley professionals who deal with detailed electronics approach their after-hours fun with the same precision. The band is beautifully rehearsed, and — considering that these are not professional musicians — the solo work is more than adequate. Unfortunately, the recording, mixing and mastering are quite poor. The band sounds as if the instruments were muffled by cheesecloth, and the entire rhythm section is missing in action. 

The drummer's cymbals are inaudible, and the drums themselves sound more like practice pads than the instruments. Only the electronic bass is audible, and — except for during solos — the piano remains unheard. 

As a result, no emotion is evident, and the group doesn't really swing. And while the vocalist is pleasant enough, there's too much of him and not enough of the band. 

Since this endeavor is intended to provide its participants with "fun" time, we have to assume that they're satisfied with the results. With respect to marketing the band, however, they won't be ready for prime time until they fix the recording and engineering problems.

They really only deserve an E for effort.

The MHCC Jazz Band & Combo: My Foolish Heart

Sea Breeze Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.07
Buy CD: My Foolish Heart

MHCC stands for Mount Hood Community College, near Portland, Ore. It's a renown institution, and young musicians flock to it, to expand their jazz education. MHCC releases a CD each year, and this one showcases the Class of '06. 

This is a really big band, with 20 members (although not everyone is involved in every track). The band has five musicians in the reed section; five trumpets/flugelhorns; four trombones; and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass, guitar and drums. The musicians also perform as a "Winter Green" sextet, comprising members of the basic orchestra. 

As in the past, the band is beautifully rehearsed, the arrangements are excellent, and the ensemble work is outstanding. Because of the musicians' limited experience, however, the solos aren't quite up to the standards of the group as a whole. 

More to my taste, the band doesn't really swing ... as does the Western Michigan University Jazz Orchestra, for example. 

Be that as it may, this CD certainly is worth your time and money. 

Only one of the tunes is a standard: the title song, "My Foolish Heart." This arrangement by Chuck Owens is done at a "close dancing" tempo, with an excellent tenor sax solo by Sam Solano. It's the album's most moving track. 

A couple of tunes are written by name musicians who often contribute arrangements to MHCC, and they're very good. Sammy Nestico's "88 Basie Street," featuring Andrew Washington on piano, really grooves; Matt Harris' "MAS Production" highlights an excellent rhythm section. 

It's wonderful to know that another generation of youngsters is carrying on the jazz tradition. Sea Breeze is to be congratulated for its continuing interest and involvement with the MHCC groups. 

And you should hop on their band wagon, as well.

Liam Sillery and the David Sills Quartet: On the Fly

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.07
Buy CD: On the Fly

Trumpeter Liam Sillery is another of today's musicians who has developed his skills during an extensive college educational program. Born in New Jersey, he attended the University of South Florida and graduated in 1992. 

He returned to New Jersey and, during the next 10 years, played with a number of jazz groups in the New York area. In 2002, he entered the Manhattan School of Music, graduating in 2004. During that period he met David Sills, a gifted tenor sax player with his own quartet. 

Sillery joined the group — which consisted of Sills, Joe Bagg (organ), Larry Koonse (guitar) and Tim Pleasant (drums) — for this release. Sillery plays both trumpet and flugelhorn. 

All but one of the tracks are originals written and arranged by either Sillery or Sills; the result is a pleasant, moderately swinging session. The musicians are excellent, the ensemble work is clean, and the solos are more than adequate. 

But the use of an organ has a significant effect on the group's jazz "feel." Bagg is as good as any organist playing today, but because it's not possible to play that instrument "crisply" (compared to a piano), all the arrangements are a little too laid-back for my taste. Koonse does his best to raise the excitement level, but even he isn't capable of making this group really swing. 

"Down the Line" gives an indication of what might have been, but it's the only track that kept my full attention. It's frustrating ... I know these guys are capable of better.

Trio East: Best Bets

Origin Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.07
Buy CD: Best Bets

Back in the days of the big bands, most musicians barely finished high school before they began to play professionally. As time passed and those bands disappeared, many musicians retired or simply disappeared. 

Some of the best found jobs with studio bands that supported the movie and TV industries, and a relatively few found small groups that continued to perform in jazz clubs and lounges. I can't think of any who went back to school, although some did become teachers. 

Things have changed. 

Many of today's jazz-bent musicians enter colleges immediately after high school, and obtain degrees in their chosen field. Some are good enough to be offered teaching jobs at these colleges; many of those individuals form — or join — jazz groups and play professionally in their spare time. 

Such is the case with the members of Trio East: All are graduates and teachers at New Jersey's Eastman School of Music. Trumpeter Clay Jenkins, the group elder, did play with a number of the great bands — Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and Count Basie — before going back to school, and he continues to play with the Clayton/Hamilton orchestra. 

The other two (younger) members of this trio, bassist Jeff Campbell and drummer Rich Thompson, also have played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Diana Krall and Marian McPartland. 

All three are excellent musicians who, by virtue of their close association at Eastman, think and play as one. 

When listening to this group, you'll immediately realize that advanced learning has had a considerable impact on their jazz style. Five of these nine tracks are originals written by one of the trio members; the remaining tunes are standards (Ellington's "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart," John Abercrombie's "Sweet Sixteen," Arthur Hamilton's "Cry Me A River" and John Coltrane's "Bass Blues"). 

The melodies and tempos of the latter are recognizable and danceable. Such is not the case with the originals; they're much more modern, with tempo changes, simultaneous — and different — melodic lines, and dissonances that may turn some listeners off. 

The excellence of these musicians is unquestionable, but unless you enjoy advanced jazz, this release may not be for you.

Phil Woods and the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra: Unheard Herd

Jazzed Media
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.07
Buy CD: Unheard Herd

Those who love jazz are aware of the contributions by Woody Herman and his big bands. 

In his early years, his was "The Band That Played The Blues," but he didn't become big-time until forming his first "Herd" in the mid-1940s. The Herd musicians became living legends: Flip Phillips (tenor sax), Bill Harris (trombone), Jimmy Rowels (piano), Shorty Rogers (trumpet), Dave Tough (drums), arrangers Ralph Burns and Neil Hefti, brothers Pete and Conti Candoli, and the fantastic "Four Brothers" sax section of Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Serge Chaloff. 

Woody's second Herd produced far fewer recordings than either the first or subsequent groups. This LA Jazz Orchestra CD was conceived by Jazzed Media owner Graham Carter who, with the help of Phil Woods (sax) and Ron Stout (trumpet) — two alumni of the Herds — used actual arrangements of the second herd for this session. 

When one considers that these charts were written more than half a century ago, it becomes clear that Woody was quite far ahead of the rest of the big band world. 

The slightly diminished rating here results primarily from the way these arrangements have aged. Jazz continues to advance; the Herds of the 1970s and '80s were even more swinging than the initial groups, and those albums would earn a five-star rating even today. 

That said, this CD hasn't received the attention it deserves since being recorded in May 2004, and I'm trying to correct that. 

All the tracks are familiar swingers. "Keen and Peachy," an arrangement by Shorty Rogers of the "Fine and Dandy" melodic line, is a bop standard. "The Great Lie," an Andy Gibbson/Cab Calloway tune, dates back to 1949 but wasn't released until some 20 years later. "Man, Don't Be Ridiculous" was another 1949 chart written for Serge Chaloff, but was used primarily as an "air-check" rather than part of the band's "book." 

"Yardbird Suite," written for Woody by Gerry Mulligan, never was recorded by him. "My Old Flame," the only ballad on this release, usually was done by Herman as a solo; Woods does it here as a tribute. "We The People Bop" was the Herd's contribution to the scat vocal mode that was so familiar to bop. 

The closing track, "Boomsie," is a blues in F arrangement by Rogers; it later became known as "That's Right," and was done by the band after it got tired of playing "Caldonia." 

Those who remember Woody will love this release. I certainly do!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Doug MacDonald: Gentle Rain

Sea Breeze Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.07
Buy CD: Gentle Rain

Doug MacDonald is not new to the world of jazz. 

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Honolulu, he moved to the West Coast in 1982 and became a fixture, with periodic forays to New York and Las Vegas. He has played in groups of every size, from trios to big bands. 

He has been a sideman with dozens of organizations (George Shearing, Buddy Rich, Bill Holman and the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, to name a few); many famous vocalists; and some of the best guitarists in jazz (Joe Pass and Herb Ellis). MacDonald has been referred to as a "bop" guitarist, but his style really is more laid-back, mellow and swinging. 

The basic group performing on this release is a quartet: guitar, bass, piano and drums. Two different pianists were used: Ross Tompkins and Marty Harris. 

Five tracks feature a trio — guitar, piano and drums — and MacDonald plays solo guitar on "Gentle Rain." 

This is one of the best releases in the "casual enjoyment" genre I've heard in a long time. Eight tunes are familiar jazz standards that my generation grew up with, from "Once In A While" and "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" to "Picnic" and "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." The ballads are wonderful for close dancing, and the arrangement of "Picnic" is particularly moving. 

Even the more up-tempo tracks — like "Idaho" — are danceable. The arrangements are excellent, as are the ensemble and solo work. 

And everything swings, thanks to the quality of the rhythm section — Harvey Newmark on bass, Jack LeComte on drums — that perfectly complements either pianist and MacDonald's guitar. 

You won't grow tired of this album.

The Bill Holman Band: Live

Jazzed Media
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.07
Buy CD: Live

Bill Holman and I were born within three months of each other, so he's had a lot to do with my love for jazz. 

Holman was born and schooled in California, took up the clarinet and tenor sax in high school, and was leading his own band while still a teenager. After serving in the U.S. Navy, where he studied engineering, he decided that he really wanted to write music for the big jazz bands that prevailed in the 1940s. 

He studied at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, and was a key contributor to the West Coast Jazz movement during the '50s, playing with bands led by Ike Carpenter, Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne, and writing arrangements for Charlie Barnet. Holman began his long association with Stan Kenton in 1952 and became his chief arranger, writing most of the band's library. 

Over the next 25 years, Holman played with or wrote arrangements for almost every big band in existence, including Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show Orchestra. In his spare time, Holman wrote for vocalists such as Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn, June Christy and Anita O'Day. 

He did the arranging for Natalie Cole's Grammy winning "Unforgettable" album, and received one of his Grammy Awards for his arrangement of "Take The 'A' Train" for Doc Severinsen's. 

The point: Even if you didn't know it, if you like jazz, you've been exposed to Holman most of your life. Thank goodness he has made some great recordings over the years: Great Big Band in the 1960s, The Bill Holman Band in the late '80s, A View From The Side and Brilliant Corners during the '90s ... and — the subject at hand —this release in 2005. 

Whatever Homan does, concerts or recording sessions, he has his pick of musicians. They stand in line just for a chance to play his arrangements, which create a symbiosis between baroque textures and modern jazz harmonics. 

Holman wrote all the arrangements on this CD. "Woodrow," done in memory of Woody Herman, works his "Blue Fame" theme song into a swinging melody. "A Day In The Life," another swinger, is a perfect example of how Holman combines styles. 

"Bary Me Not" salutes longtime associate Gerry Mulligan, while "Zoot 'n' Al" is in memory of Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, two of the "four brothers" who played with Herman when Holman also was a member. 

The album's most interesting chart is "Donna Lee," one of the bop lines played by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who always did it at a blazing tempo. Holman's arrangement slows it down a bit, which permits the listener to realize just how complex and swinging this composition was. 

The remaining tracks, all originals by Holman, further reinforce his genius. 

Not to be missed.

Taylor/Fidyk Big Band: Live at Blues Alley

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.07
Buy CD: Live at Blues Alley

You probably aren't familiar with either Mark Taylor or Steve Fidyk, but you'll want to be after listening to this wonderful release. 

Taylor is a composer/ arranger who got his start doing charts for the Stan Kenton orchestra; Fidyk is a percussionist who has played in many of the great jazz groups and in back-up bands for innumerable vocal artists. They met while both were members of the Army Blues, a well known military band. 

This CD, only their second release, was done live at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. 

The group is a standard big band: five saxes, four trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass and drums. All but one of the tracks were arranged by Taylor; Fidyk did the arrangement of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." 

The result: This band really swings. It's like a visit to the past, resurrecting memories of Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others of that genre. 

"Full Count" is typical of the up-tempo openers with which those bands would begin a concert; the second tune in the set, "Maiden Voyage," is a real burner that lets the audience know what to expect. "Bradley's Bop House," a groovy mid-tempo tune, demonstrates how a great rhythm section can drive a band and its featured trumpet and tenor sax soloists. 

"My One And Only Love" is the first of five old standards; this one's a great arrangement for dancers. The "close dancing" crowd will appreciate the samba treatment given "What'll I Do," which has beautiful trumpet and piano solos. 

As for "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," I've never heard it played like this ... and I love it! 

I've also never heard a version of "Anthropology" played at a (relatively) slow tempo. This version will make you even more impressed with this great bop standard. 

Taylor was collaborating with drummer Louie Bellson when he composed "Brush Taps." It's reminiscent of Neal Hefti's "Cute," and demonstrates the groove created when a drummer uses brushes instead of sticks. 

"My Cherie Amour" is done as a jazz waltz: wonderful for both listening and dancing. Finally, the set closes with "The Gorillaman Blues," a real rocker in my favorite jazz format. The ensemble and solo work on this track are fantastic, and you won't be able to keep your feet still. 

This is a great group, and I look forward to future CDs.

Scott Burns: Passages

Origin Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.07
Buy CD: Passages

Scott Burns was born and raised in Ohio's Dayton/Cincinnati area. While still in school, he decided that music, jazz and the tenor sax would be major elements in his life. 

A chance to sit in during a 1996 concert tour by one of Clark Terry's bands — and encouragement he received at the time — were instrumental in Burns' decision to move to Chicago, where opportunities abounded. While attending DePaul University to expand his musical education, he worked with jazz groups and formed his own quartet. 

He received a Downbeat award in 1999, and by 2002 was playing with Connick's big band. Eventually, though, Burns returned to his own quartet. 

This is a standard group, with Burns on tenor sax, Ron Perrillo on piano, Dennis Carroll on bass, and George Fludas on drums/percussion. Burns composed all the tunes on this CD. Two of them, "Black Orchid" and "Waiting," are pretty ballads: perfect for slow dancing with a significant other. 

The rest of the tunes are mid- to up-tempo compositions, better suited for listening than dancing. 

A group that works in and around one area — Chicago, in this case — is known as a "territory" band. They're the bread and butter of the musical world and, because they aren't well known outside their own areas, most of the musicians have two jobs. The daytime jobs buy the groceries, pay the rent and support the family. 

At night, they turn into musicians to augment their basic income, get their kicks and (hopefully!) make their way up the musical ladder of success ... which then would allow them to quit those humdrum day jobs. 

This quartet is good: better than most living this kind of life. As you'd expect, the solo work is done primarily by Burns and Perrillo; both are excellent. The bassist and drummer are more than adequate. 

But, as is the case with most small combos, it's hard to prevent boredom from creeping in unless the group includes a rising superstar. That isn't the case yet, but these guys play pleasurable jazz: great background music while you're reading or hosting a gathering of friends.

Tony DeSare: Want You

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.07
Buy CD: Want You

I almost didn't review this CD; it's borderline jazz, more like what you'd hear in a lounge than in a club or concert. 

But since I've covered at least half a dozen female singers in recent months, I must be equally fair to this new male vocalist. 

DeSare is well known in the New York area, where he attended college and formed his first trio. He's a vocalist who plays more than adequate piano, and he sounds a lot like Harry Connick Jr. — without the New Orleans accent — and strongly resembles John F. Kennedy Jr. 

That combination guarantees a significant female fan base for starters, and DeSare's excellent performance level also should bring the guys on board. 

DeSare's songwriting abilities, though, will ensure his breakthrough to the upper echelon. He wrote six of the tunes on this album, five teamed with bassist Mike Lee. The biggie he'll ride into fame is "If I Had Drew," from the movie "My Date With Drew." 

DeSare augmented his normal trio for this recording, adding Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar), John Swana (trumpet), Bob Howell (tenor sax), Vic Stevens and Brian Czach (drums) and Tedd Firth (piano). Lee plays bass on every track. 

All the arrangement are tastefully done, and the few featured solos are quite good. DeSare uses the same gimmick that pianist Paul Smith has become famous for: Smith concludes every live set with a short, fast version of the Looney Tunes theme, while DeSare does the same with the tune "Five Foot Two," delivering various styles at a blazing tempo.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Ann Hampton Callaway: Blues in the Night

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.1.07
Buy CD: Blues in the Night

The spotlight goes on, the curtain opens and out steps another muti-talented jazz vocalist. 

But wait, I hear you say ... this lady isn't new; she has been around for years. 

So why don't we West Coasters know her better? 

Callaway lives and works primarily in the New York music world, and she's better known as a writer/composer, Broadway stage performer — she had a featured role in the Broadway stage musical Swing — and top-o'-the-heap lounge artist. She has been part of more than 40 albums and has played most of the famous jazz clubs and toured extensively in Europe, but the demand for her writing and composing skills apparently has buffered her from the usual jazz scene. 

This CD's liner notes credit her as co-arranger on almost every track; she performs all the vocals (several with her sister, Liz Callaway), wrote all the special lyrics and played a key role in the recording/production process. I wouldn't be surprised if she swept out the studio and make sure the lights were off, before leaving each day! 

Callaway is backed on several tracks by the all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra, a big band — headed by Sherrie Maricle — that really swings. Callaway is backed by smaller ensembles — quartets or quintets — on most of the songs, however. Either way, the arrangements, musicians and solo work are excellent. 

And she can sing. 

Callaway has a remarkable range, approaching that of Cleo Laine. Callaway is a natural alto: smooth and sensuous for ballads, bright and swinging for up-tempo tunes. She can progress into a stratospheric soprano in a heartbeat, without distortion, hitting each note clear as a bell. 

Oh, yes, she also scats. 

Blues in the Night is a well conceived and performed album. All the songs are blues-related, in various meters, and include many tried and true oldies: "Blue Moon," "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," "Lover Come Back to Me," "Stormy Weather," "When the Sun Comes Out," "It's All Right with Me," "Blues in the Night" and "The Glory of Love." 

I'm not usually a huge fan of vocalists, but this lady moves me. Based on this CD and her wealth of previous releases — along with what appears to be a top-rated management team — this lady can go as far as she wants.

Beegie Adair: Sentimental Journey

Village Square
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.1.07
Buy CD: Sentimental Journey

This is a labor of love by pianist Beegie Adair, who grew up during World War II. She was exposed constantly to the many songs that were written and performed during that period, and she recently decided to create an album as a tribute to what she terms "this wonderful music." 

Sentimental Journey is the result. 

Adair was born and brought up in Kentucky, and she now lives and works out of Nashville, Tenn. She's proof that "country" isn't the only musical form emanating from that area. Much of her early experience came from working with the likes of Dolly Parton and Chet Atkins, of course, but her real love always has been related to jazz. 

Adair is a prolific artist; she has produced — or been part of — almost two dozen CDs since the early 1990s. Her core group is a trio, with her piano accompanied by Roger Spencer (bass) and Chris Brown (drums). Both gentlemen are consummate musicians who've played with the likes of Maynard Ferguson and Les Brown. 

This trio swings; Adair & Co. have played together so long, that they think as one. 

The album contains a dozen unforgettable tracks. Those of us who were part of that period remember that "records" produced at the time were limited to about 3 1/2 minutes of playing time. Adair performs each tune with the same constraint, which creates a similar "feel" as those old 78s. 

Additionally, each song is performed at the ballad tempo longtime listeners will well remember. "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," "Moonlight Serenade," "Sentimental Journey," "I'll Never Smile Again," "It's Been a Long, Long Time," "At Last," "You'll Never Know" and "I'll Be Seeing You" are perfect for slow dancing, while the up-tempo "Begin The Beguine," "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "String of Pearls" and "In the Mood" will make you want to Lindy again. 

This album should appeal to all who lived through this era. It probably won't be a big seller for today's youth, or even for the boomer generation, but enough of us senior citizens are around to make this a winner for Adair and Village Square.