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.

Brian Owen: Unmei

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.1.07
Buy CD: Unmei

And yet another young lion enters the jazz arena. 

Trumpeter, composer and arranger Brian Owen, born and raised in Everett, Wash., is in his early 20s ... and always has been in a hurry. 

He took advantage of the Running Start program and finished high school and community college simultaneously. While attending Central Washington University, he became immersed in music, playing in symphony orchestras, big bands and small club groups. Because of the limited opportunities available in jazz, he worked on a cruise ship, beginning as a sideman on one of the luxury liners and progressing to become musical director of all the bands employed by the Carnival line. 

During layovers in Seattle, the home port, Owen (trumpet/flugelhorn) formed the quintet that is the core of the group featured on this CD; he's joined by John Hansen (piano), Jon Hamar (bass), Phil Parisot (drums) and Jay Thomas (tenor sax). Steve Treseler (alto sax) and Nathan Vetter (trombone) were added for the title track. 

This is Owen's debut CD, and he composed and arranged all the songs. Some reviewers consider that a "negative" factor for an unknown band, since such collections feature no familiar or "standard" tunes that the listener can compare to arrangements by other artists. Be that as it may, Owen is as interested in exposing us to his composer/arranger skills, as he is to his band. 

Like many new groups today, Owen's form of jazz is super-arranged. Most of the ensemble passages are not played in single-note unison, but as harmonic progressions. In addition, the meter usually isn't the standard 4/4, and it often changes as the tune progresses. That's certainly more interesting, but such a technique increases the need to listen more carefully, to appreciate what's going on. 

And such music usually is presented in concert format, rather than in a lounge or club environment. 

"Perkoosha 3" is typical; the meter varies from 5/4 to 6/4, and the tune is written in what musicians describe as an AABAC format: The intro (A) is played and then repeated, followed by a different chorus (B) and then back (A), before concluding with an "outro" (C). 

"Last Mountain" also is performed in an unusual manner, with a nine-bar phrase that keeps the musicians — and listeners — on their toes. The title track utilizes unusual progressions; "Train Chase" plays with harmonic progressions. 

"The Take House" is almost straight-ahead jazz, done in a 4/4 meter and with tasty solos by each member of the quintet. "Mitsuda's Walk" and "Waltz for Aska" have an Asian feel; the latter was done for Owens' wife. 

This is an impressive first release for a very promising group. Unmei is the Japanese word for "destiny," and it'll be a pleasure to hear these guys develop.

Joe Locke Geoffrey Keezer Group: Live in Seattle

Origin Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.1.07
Buy CD: Live in Seattle

This CD presents the 2005 award-winning concert — and U.S. debut — of the Joe Locke and Geoffrey Keezer quartet. Until recently, this group toured only in Japan, although it made two recordings for the Sony "Eighty-Eight" series label. 

But even a cursory look at the leaders' backgrounds and experience will reveal that we're dealing with a pair of Wunderkinds. 

Locke plays vibes and has long been recognized as the heir apparent to Milt Jackson. By the age of 17, Locke had played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and had moved from the West Coast to New York City. His experience is almost unbelievable for his age: He has produced more than 20 CDs with his own groups, and has been a sideman on 65 others. 

Keezer started to play piano at age 3 and, just out of high school, joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. 

Then Locke and Keezer met. 

They've toured extensively ever since, numerous times in Japan and Russia and — as this review is written — Italy. Many of their CDs were produced in those countries and aren't readily available in the United States. Worse yet, a fast Internet search revealed that many of these foreign disks are priced in the $40-$100 range ... yikes! 

Empty your bank account anyway. 

This quartet must be telepathic. The ensemble work is complex and often played at accelerated tempos, but the interplay between members is unbelievable. Mike Pope (acoustic and electric bass) and Terreon Gully (drums) sound as if they've been with the group since its inception; every note they play adds, never subtracts. 

Additionally, the solo work is backed up by the other instruments without creating a shambles. I've heard only a few groups that can do that successfully; the Modern Jazz Quartet comes to mind. 

Six of the seven tracks are originals, written by either Locke or Keezer; James Taylor's "Native Son" is the only interloper. 

This is true concert jazz. You can't dance to it, nor would you want to. It's modern, not straight-ahead, and at times pushes the envelope ... but the more you hear, the better it sounds. The technical work — recording and mixing — is excellent, particularly since the performance was recorded live. 

This is a remarkable group with superior musicians. Enjoy!

Rick Culver Trio: I'm Old Fashioned

Sea Breeze
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.1.07
Buy CD: I'm Old Fashioned

Trombonist Rick Culver, who began playing when he was 10, decided right then that music would be his life. 

When he was old enough, he joined the Army and spent three years with the Army Field Band. He then earned a master's degree from Juilliard, and followed that with another master's from Michigan State University. 

Culver subsequently moved to Los Angeles and, for more than 18 years, was immersed in the West Coast jazz scene and became a "made" musician. He played in many of the great groups, including those fronted by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and Bob Florence. Culver then returned to Michigan, where he teaches, writes and plays with his own trio (Jeff Kressler on piano, Nick Calandro on bass). 

All 14 tracks on this CD were arranged by Culver, who also wrote eight of them. One might worry, because of a trio's limited instrumentation, that this could make for boring listening. That's definitely not the case. 

The selections include four of the wonderful old standards that my generation grew up with — "I'm Old Fashioned," "Darn That Dream," "If I Had You" and "Emily" — each done beautifully. 

Then Culver takes a chunk of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("Going Home") and turns it into a neat little mid-tempo swinger. 

My favorite track is a new take — and sweet piano solo — on a really early jazz form, "Late Life Rag." 

Even "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," although unseasonable, will have you dusting off the ornaments. 

You'll play this album again and again, thanks to the combination of melodies and tempos, and the talent of the trio members. Culver's trombone work is silky-smooth and unforced; he's a master. Kressler's piano is just right for a trio, with his innovative solos and wonderful back-up for the ensemble passages. 

Calandro is excellent on bass, and his solo work is on par with the best I've heard on this instrument. He really drives this group; he has a wonderful beat, with delicate and accurate fingering. 

I haven't yet heard Culver's Painted Scarves, also available on CD, but it just hit my "must have" list.

Larry Koonse and Darek Oleszkiewicz: Storybook

Jazz Compass
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.1.07
Buy CD: Storybook

This column's regular readers know I'm a huge fan of guitarist Larry Koonse. 

Storybook, the newest release by this gifted artist — in collaboration with bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz and percussionist Munyungo Jackson — reinforces my conviction that Koonse is, very simply, the best. 

He wrote six of this album's 10 tracks; the remaining four are by Oleszkiewicz, one of the most lyrical bassists I've ever heard. 

Jackson is a perfect choice on percussion; he quietly supports and never intrudes. 

Storybook presents a beautiful potpourri of low-key jazz stylings. It begins with a short, moving "Vignette," done in a classical Spanish style, then moves into "For Chopin," with the guitar taking the place of the harpsichord. "Between Nowhere and Goodbye" is an extension of the Chopin-like theme, with the bass and guitar exchanging passages. 

The ballad-like "Candle," with its 5/4 feel, features Oleszkiewicz; his slow-tempo solo work is masterful. 

Because of the relatively long length of that instrument's strings, it's difficult to place the finger at the exact position that'll result in the actual note desired. 

As a result, most bassists don't try to hit that position initially; they'll purposely contact the string in a lower (flat) location, then slide the finger up to reach the perfect note. Indeed, that technique — known as "bending" — is standard in jazz. 

Well, when Oleszkiewicz wants to hit a note perfectly, he hits it ... no bending, just square on. This beautifully augments his solos and permits him to play a lyrical melodic line. 

Each track echoes another melodic style: "Island Song" and "Beautiful Eyes" take us to the islands; "Seventh Heaven" and "Harlequin" move us to Spain; "Senegal Trance Dance" is an African sojourn; and we return home with the pensive "Valentine." 

This is a beautiful, wonderfully produced album. The music won't make you want to dance, but you'll never get tired of listening to it. The interplay between bass and guitar is intricate, precise, lyrical and almost hypnotic. 

Storybook is a perfect demonstration of a jazz form that doesn't blow you away, but there's no denying that it's jazz.