Thursday, December 11, 2008

Holiday Jazz 2008: Dig that crazy Santa Claus!

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.08

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

It really is my favorite time of the year.

Say what you will about holiday madness — the glitz, the hype, the hysterical shoppers (some a little too hysterical, at times), several dozen competing productions of The Nutcracker — but there’s no denying the appeal of holiday music.

Particularly holiday jazz.

No seasonal trauma is too great that it can’t be alleviated by a warm fire, a warmer companion and a soulful interpretation of “Silent Night” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by the likes of Oscar Peterson or Dave Brubeck.

Those gentleman represent the talents of Christmas Past: Their holiday CDs are established treasures.
I’m concerned here with the talents of Christmas Present, and the pickings are quite impressive.


Actually, very impressive. During the past decade, this annual round-up has grown into the column that devoured Cleveland. This year, it’s taking out the entire eastern seaboard.

The Web continues to make my annual search a true treasure hunt, since imagination is required to track down offerings from micro-labels. Mind you, “homemade” isn’t necessarily a pejorative: Plenty of top-quality musicians have abandoned the major record labels to strike out on their own. CD technology has turned living rooms into high-tech recording studios, and Web sites provide the best in free advertising.
The Web’s streaming radio networks can be quite useful, and two of the largest — and — play the sounds of the season 24/7.

As-yet undiscovered artists also post their efforts, often as downloadable MP3 files, at Web “collectives” such as CD Baby (, which always has hundreds of holiday-themed albums, several mentioned below.

But be careful: Some of the “artists” you’ll find at CD Baby and its clones deserve to remain undiscovered.

You’ll also want to check out, which has a section specifically devoted to holiday jazz.


Two popular jazz vocalists released new holiday albums this year, representing what could be called the genre’s old and new guard. Tony Bennett’s A Swingin’ Christmas (Columbia 88697 34321 2) is his second seasonal effort, after 1968’s Snowfall; Harry Connick Jr.’s What a Night (Columbia 88697 37020 2) is his third (!), after 1993’s When My Heart Finds Christmas and 2003’s Harry for the Holidays.

Of the two, Bennett’s album is more likely to satisfy jazz purists, thanks to the lively participation of the Count Basie Big Band and the spirited quartet of Monty Alexander (piano), Paul Langosch (bass), Harold Jones (drums) and Gray Sargent (guitar). Bennett gets off to a roaring start, with up-tempo arrangements of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Silver Bells,” both of which feature inventive keyboard solos by Alexander.

Bennett and the band also have a lot of fun with “My Favorite Things,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the latter boasting a wailin’ tenor sax solo from Andy Snitzer.

The mood turns inexplicably mushy during “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which is heavily orchestrated, complete with strings; it can’t be called jazz, and really doesn’t belong on this album. By contrast, Bennett’s lovely phrasing on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is perfectly complemented by the smaller combo.

Bennett is joined by his daughter, Antonia, on “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” She’s not bad, in a gently sultry way, although the song doesn’t make any heavy demands of her vocal range.

The album concludes with a particularly dramatic reading of “O Christmas Tree,” with Bennett accompanied only by Musiker on piano; Bennett almost speaks the lyrics, and he seems to be bidding farewell to a particularly lush tree, rather than celebrating its praises. It’s an unusual finish, given the CD’s primarily upbeat tone.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Rob Parton and JazzTech: Just One of Those Things

Sea Breeze Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.08
Buy CD: Just One of Those Things

Trumpeter Rob Parton is "Mr. Jazz" in Chicago; he plays in groups of every size, from trios to big bands. 

His web site offers the services of not just one, but two big bands, one of which is the JazzTech unit featured on this album. He's a very busy musician; his trio performs more than 250 dates a year at Chicago's Catch 35. 

The big bands are in demand for other occasions, as are larger combos. In his spare time, he's a "first-call" artist for touring shows. 

Oh, and he also teaches and is an associate professor at Chicago's College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University. 

This JazzTech band is one of the smoothest, most precise and "musically correct" units I've ever heard. The arrangements are wonderfully different, echoing the great stuff put out by the Bob Florence and GRP big bands. The execution is faultless: no fluffs or stumbles, either in the ensemble or solo choruses. 

The selection menu provides something for everyone: swinging originals and covers of wonderful old standards that you don't hear often ("Prelude to a Kiss," "You've Changed," "It Might as Well Be Spring," "It Never Entered My Mind"). 

So, you might ask, why not a 5-star rating? 

It's too good. Excellence can exist without passion, and that's the case here. I suspect that the cause relates to how busy these musicians are; they play so often — in the same locales, for the same audiences — that they don't have the same "fire in their bellies" that the great old big bands had ... or that the special, short-lived ensembles like the GRP or Florence units muster for their special concerts or recording sessions, before returning to their regular jobs. 

That said, JazzTech is near-perfection, and you can't help being impressed by it.

The Kelly Brand Nextet: The Door

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.08
Buy CD: The Door

Kelly Brand is a composer, arranger and pianist and a key fixture in the Chicago jazz scene; this album is the third under her name. 

The liner notes don't clarify what a "Nextet" is, but it doesn't have anything to do with the size of her group, which — for this CD — is a septet. Brand is joined by her husband (and bassist), Kelly Sill, along with Geof Bradfield on tenor sax and flute, Art Davis on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jon Dettemyer on drums and Mari Anne Jayme on vocals. 

Cellist (and daughter) Naomi Sill joins the group on one tune. 

All but one of the songs were composed by Brand, who proves to be both a gifted writer and pianist. The melodies are, to quote famous pianist Marion McPartland (with whom Brand has performed), "written and played with elegance and sensitivity." 

Those descriptors also apply to the artists who make up this group. The melodic lines played by the instrumentalist, either in unison or harmony, are wonderfully soothing while still swinging. The quality of the sidemen is such that their solos meld perfectly with those melodic lines. 

Sill is particularly noteworthy, no doubt due to all the time he has spent performing with many other artists. 

This "Nextet" is not a driving, up-tempo unit, but it's a pleasant group that delivers primo "listening jazz."

Dempsey & Ferguson: What's Going On?

City Tone Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.08
Buy CD: What's Going On?

Guitarist Tom Dempsey and bassist Tim Ferguson, both based in New York City, have played together for years. They've been in numerous groups, from trios to sextets; more often than not, though, they play as a guitar and bass duo. 

Dempsey received his bachelor's degree in music in 1991 from Rutgers, and his master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music in '98. His guitar style is very modern — essentially no vibrato in any notes or passages — but wonderfully swinging. 

Ferguson is one of the few bassists with so much command of his instrument that he can play lyrical solos on ballads, and keep up with the guitar at any tempo. He comes close to the late Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen in that regard. As a result of their years together, they think as one: a major element in the quality of their music. 

This album is a potpourri of the old, new and seldom heard. Their covers of the spiritual "Deep River" and the ballad "Stardust" are particularly moving. 

When you want to listen to something smooth and soothing, a guitar/bass duo doesn't necessarily come to mind. But this release is proof that this combination, when dealing with two truly talented artists, can provide beautiful music.

Bob DeAngelis: Champagne Memories

Somerset Entertainment Ltd.
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.08
Buy CD: Champagne Memories

Bob DeAngelis is to present-day Canada what Paul Whiteman was to the United States in the late 1920s and early '30s. 

Although Whiteman's band couldn't be classified as a true jazz unit, his sidemen and vocalists included famous jazz icons such as Bix Beiderbecke and Mildred Bailey. Whiteman's orchestra was huge; it included strings and played primarily in concert halls. It also did much to introduce jazz to the relatively up-scale masses. 

DeAngelis' orchestra is much like Whiteman's. Performing under the name of The Champagne Symphony, it consists of 50 musicians: 14 in the jazz group, a large string section, vocalists and even a unit called The Dazzling Swing Dance Divas. It's the most famous orchestra in Canada, and performs for many affairs hosted by Canadian heads of state. 

Benny Goodman's wonderful band of the 1930s and '40s had a significant role in DeAngelis' development as a musician (he also plays the clarinet). This album, along with a series of concerts held in both Canada and the United States, was intended as a tribute to Goodman's famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. 

In fact, The Champagne Symphony celebrated that performance with another Carnegie Hall concert this past Jan. 16 ... precisely 70 years from the initial event. 

This release features many of the tunes Goodman performed at that concert, including such swingers as "Sing, Sing, Sing" and "Air Mail Special." 

Although this album reaffirms my belief that string sections can't swing, it does provide a very pleasant return visit to the wonderful "book" that Goodman's band used. Those songs were so great that they still make your toes tap while resurrecting great memories.

The 50th Anniversary All Stars: Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival 2007

Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.08
Buy CD: Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival 2007

2007 marked the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival, and this live album is the first that hasn't been released from the festival's archival files. 

The intent was to assemble a band that had a history with the festival, then record the session and send the group on a 54-date tour; that began in January 2008 (the month this album was released) and concluded in March. The sextet features James Moody (tenor sax), Terence Blanchard (trumpet), Benny Green (piano), Derrick Hodge (bass), Kendrick Scott (drums) and Nnenna Freelon (vocals). These artists, combined, have a history of 28 appearances at Monterey Jazz Festival concerts from 1962 through '07. 

It's a shame this album doesn't live up to the history, or the hype, associated with the festival. Of the 10 tracks here, only four are instrumentals; the other six consist of three vocals by Freelon, and spoken introductions to those vocals. She doesn't come close to previous Monterey Jazz Festival singers such as Anita O'Day and Sarah Vaughn; Freelon's voice isn't unpleasant, but she's simply not on a par with those two ladies. 

And the time taken for the introductions would have been spent better on an additional instrumental. 

It's also unfortunate that Moody, Blanchard and Green aren't nearly up to their usual standards. The only stand-out in this group is Hodge; he puts down a driving beat and has a couple of very nice (although short) solos. 

This is not an auspicious beginning for Concord's MJFR label.

Eliane Elias: Something for You

Blue Note Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.08
Buy CD: Something for You

Eliane Elias is a consummate pianist, vocalist, composer and arranger. 

She was born in Brazil in 1960, began to play the piano at age 6, and was writing her own pieces — and performing — at 17. She toured throughout South America with top Brazilian artists and then, while in Europe, met jazz bassist Eddie Gomez; he encouraged her to move to New York. 

Once in the Big Apple, she joined Steps Ahead, a jazz fusion group with which Gomez was playing. The other members included Mike Mainieri on vibes, Michael Brecker on tenor sax and Peter Erskine on drums. 

After leaving that band, Elias worked with trumpet player Randy Brecker (Michael's brother); they subsequently married. She formed her own group in 1986 and in '88 was elected best new talent by the JAZZIZ magazine poll of jazz critics. Several of her albums have received Grammy Award nominations. 

Her discography is quite extensive; between 1986 to the present day, she has been featured on 22 albums. 

She has a wonderful, laid-back style, and an innovative approach — second to none — to anything she plays. Although she has a great jazz voice, she didn't make that part of her act until '89; since then, her vocals have become a key element of her albums. 

Although Elias never worked with pianist Bill Evans, she was deeply influenced by his music. Marc Johnson, her current husband, played with Evans' trio during the final few years of his life. (He died in 1980.) Her respect for Evans led to this album. 

Six of the tunes here were written by Evans; the rest — except one of Elias' compositions — are covers of melodies that he performed during his concerts. Too many Evans "favorites" exist for any one album, so Elias decided to keep her renditions short, rather than plan for a follow-on release. 

That was a mistake. The arrangement are so beautiful, the renditions so great, that just when the listener is really locked-in ... the piece ends. Granted, an old adage states that a performer should leave the audience wanting more, and that's certainly true with this CD ... but I'd rather look forward to another album! 

I also must note that Johnson adds tremendously to the quality of her group; they read each other's minds. 

This lady — and her trio — are as good as anything I've heard in years.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Taeko Fukao: One Love

Flat Nine Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.08
Buy CD: One Love

Japanese-born Taeko Fukao moved to New York City in 1998, intending to expand her vocal career; she became intrigued with jazz. She chose her teachers wisely; one had been a vocalist with the Thad Jones orchestra , while another was a disciple of Jon Hendricks. 

Fukao's voice is pitched a tad higher than most jazz singers, but it's clean and clear, and she has an excellent command of it. She knows how to alter melodic lines, which creates the impression of a musical instrument, rather than just another voice. Her phrasing augments this effect. 

She opens and closes this album with very short versions of the title tune, then works her way through a mix of standard American tunes — "It Could Happen to You," "I've Never Been in Love Before," "I Hear a Rhapsody" — and unfamiliar (to us) songs that highlight her command of Asian melodic lines and chord structures. 

She sings a little too softly at times; a more authoritative approach would draw more audience attention, particularly when she "scats" (the Jon Hendricks influence) on upper-tempo tunes. The latter style is very tough to learn and, at present, Fukao still needs some work. 

Her backup group is quite good. Two pianists (Harry Whitaker and Misha Tsiganov) and two bassists (Duane Burno and Gaku Takanashi) share the tracks; Doug Richardson, one of the album's producers, also performs on both drums and piano. 

Fukao has been featured at several of the upper echelon of jazz clubs in New York City, and she seems to be off to a good start.

Rob Lockart: Parallel Lives

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.08
Buy CD: Parallel Lives

Rob Lockart is Texas born and educated at the University of Texas' Eastman School Of Music; he completed studies at the Banf School. He has lived and worked in New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles, where he now resides and teaches. 

His musical experience includes jobs with the Woody Herman Orchestra, Doc Severinson's Big Band and performances with numerous smaller groups headed by well-known artists such as Clark Terry, Joe La Barbera and Mel Lewis. Lockart currently is an active member of both the Chris Walden Big Band and the Woody Herman West Coast Band. 

Lockart has recorded several albums with the Walden group, but this is the first release under his own name. 

He's an excellent tenor sax artist, composer and arranger, having written all but two of the tunes here. The basic quartet consists of Lockart on tenor sax, Bill Cunliffe on piano, Jeff DiAngelo on bass, and Joe La Barbera on drums. Bob Sheppard plays tenor sax on one track, while guitarist Larry Koonse guests on another. 

All the musicians are well known and highly regarded, and their contributions are key to making Lockart's debut release a success. The group is quiet, thoughtful and swings wonderfully. 

Lockart has been a sideman with many great bands but, as a result, hasn't received the recognition he deserves. Whether he decided to take the step himself, or was talked into it, this debut is outstanding. 

Another reviewer mentioned that Lockart's cover of the old standard "All or Nothing at All" is so moving that it's hard to move forward through the rest of the tracks. I agree, and I wish I'd said it first. 

But do listen to everything; it's all prime.

Kutztown University Jazz Ensemble: Dance You Monster

Sea Breeze Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.08
Buy CD: Dance You Monster

Although this is the Kutztown University Jazz Ensemble's fourth CD, it's my first exposure to the group. I not only hadn't heard of them, I wasn't familiar with Kutztown — found between Allentown and Reading, Pa. — or its university. 

All that matters, though, is that we can add another school to the list of colleges and universities exposing their students to jazz. 

The contributing musicians on this album include seven woodwinds, seven trumpets/flugelhorns, five trombones, four pianists, two bassists, one guitarist, three drummers/percussionists and a female vocalist. The musicians also trade places to achieve the five reed/10 brass/four rhythm sections that are big band standards. 

The compositions include popular songs by the likes of Hammerstein and Porter, along with jazz standards by Basie, Mingus, Sammy Nestico and Billy Strayhorn. Some arrangements were done by the composers, the rest by the students. 

This orchestra is smooth and swings quietly, like countless "territory" and second-tier popular bands that toured during the 1940s, most of which were great dance orchestras. Every track on this CD is danceable. The ensemble work is excellent, the solos are good but not intrusive, and the female vocalist completes the big band-era feel. 

If you're old enough to remember those years, you'll probably enjoy this release.

Maceo Parker: Roots & Grooves

Heads Up International
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.08
Buy CD: Roots & Grooves

Maceo Parker isn't related to Charlie Parker, either genealogically or musically. 

Maceo, born in 1943, followed the paths of soul, R&B and funk; his idols were Louis Jordan, James Brown and Ray Charles. Parker came from a musical family, picked up the saxophone before his teens and played in a band with his brothers: one a drummer, the other a trombonist. 

Vocalist Ray Charles turned Parker on, and his sax style was based on emulating Charles' voice and phrasing. 

Then Parker's brother, Melvin (the drummer), was hired by James Brown; Melvin convinced his new boss that he also should take Maceo as part of the package. Brown agreed if Maceo would switch to baritone sax, which he did. 

Maceo Parker remained a fixture of Brown's band for six years, and then left to form his own group. Three years later, he returned to Brown, this time on alto sax. During the subsequent years, he alternated between Brown's band and several other funk groups before setting off on his own for good. 

Although I'm not a rabid fan of R&B or funk, this two-CD release is a true swinger. In large part, that's because Parker is supported by Germany's WDR Big Band, one of the hottest jazz orchestras on the European continent. It's truly a big band, with five trumpets, five trombones, six reeds, a B-3 organ and piano, two bassists and two drummers (who play on alternate CDs), a guitar and — last, but not least — a "conductor." 

The latter, Michael Abene, also arranged all the tunes. 

The first CD, dubbed A Tribute to Ray Charles, contains big band versions of six of the jazz great's most famous tunes. Parker is featured on alto sax and also handles all the vocals; he's not Charles, but he's more than adequate. 

All but one of the six tracks on the second disc, Back to Funk, are written by Maceo. 

Yes, the rhythmic beat and vocal lines are repetitive, but everything swings like crazy. You won't be able to keep your toes from tapping or your fingers from snapping. It's a fun, driving, two-hour excursion into bliss.

Michael Camacho: Just for You

New Found Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.08
Buy CD: Just for You

When I say that Michael Camacho isn't well known, I mean it; if you research the name on the Internet, the first individual listed is a real estate agent. 

This particular Michael Camacho is a vocalist, and he reminds me of Chet Baker. The voice isn't robust; Camacho sounds like a Vienna Choir Boy with a jazz mentality. I don't mean that negatively, but the first time you hear him it's almost a shock ... not at all what you'd expect. 

Camacho uses his voice like an instrument, and his phrasing is all jazz. He's backed by an excellent sextet that truly swings. I'm not familiar with any of the players, but they must be upper-class musicians from the New York jazz scene: Tim Regusis on piano; Frances Moutin on bass; Randy Napoleon on guitar; Dan Block on soprano and tenor sax; Darryl Pellegrini and Marcello Pellitere alternating on drums; and Norman Hedman on additional percussion. 

When listening to a vocalist, one generally doesn't pay too much attention to the musicians. That isn't the case here; I found myself looking forward to their background, choruses and solos. 

Camacho wrote five of the 12 tunes on this album. The remainder are covers of some almost forgotten standards — "I'm Old Fashioned," "Skylark" and "This Is Always" — along with several tunes not often vocalized: "Blue Room" and "Spanish Harlem." 

This guy, and his group, grow on you; each replay has impressed me more. I'm awaiting his next CD.

Marian McPartland: Twilight World

Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.08
Buy CD: Twilight World

One definition of legend is "a person who achieves legendary fame." 

The jazz world has produced a number of legends — Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman come to mind — but only a few are still with us. One of those, still performing, is pianist/composer Marian McPartland, who celebrated her 90th birthday March 21. 

Born in England in 1918, Margaret Marian Turner was a child prodigy who played piano by age 3. She was exposed to jazz in her teens and, from that moment on, her future was fixed. She enrolled in London's famous Guildhall School of Music in 1938; Billy Mayerl, at the time a famous music hall entertainer, asked her to join his four-piano stage act. She did so ... despite a financial bribe offered by her father if she'd complete her schooling. 

She performed on the vaudeville circuit, using the stage name of Marian Page. In 1944, while entertaining troops during World War II, she met Jimmy McPartland, a traditional cornetist from Chicago. They married the following year and, after war's end, McPartland brought his wife home to the Windy City. 

They worked there until 1949, at which point they moved to New York and soon were immersed in that jazz universe. From 1952 to '60, Marian led a trio at the Hickory House, a restaurant/jazz club on famous 52nd Street. Between sets and after work, she'd visit the other nearby clubs, to listen and learn. In 1978, she began her famous alliance with National Public Radio; Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz remains the network's longest-running cultural show. 

McPartland's attributes are many. She's an outstanding pianist, and her harmonic sense and innovative ability are second to none. If she played the same tune half a dozen times in straight succession, each rendition would be completely different. Additionally, her memory is prodigious; it's impossible to name a song she doesn't know. 

Most importantly, her style has grown with the time: No matter when she plays — or has played — she sounds "current." 

Twilight World is the 21st album McPartland has done for Concord Records during her 30-year association with the label; it's also her first studio release in nine years. 

Except for a short (and unsatisfying) stretch with Benny Goodman, McPartland has concentrated on performing with small jazz groups. That preference continues here, where she's backed by bassist Gary Mazaroppi and drummer Glen Davis. The album is living proof that she's as new and fresh as any instrumentalist on the scene. 

The nine tracks contain several of her own compositions and a few by Ornette Coleman and Bill Evans, along with some wonderful old standards. Needless to say, they all swing. 

As for retirement? 

McPartland already has guest artists lined up for the next two years of Piano Jazz

The lady is unbelievable, and this album is an absolute must-have. 

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Sam Yahel Trio: Truth and Beauty

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.08
Buy CD: Truth and Beauty

This trio utilizes a Hammond B3 organ (Sam Yahel), a tenor sax (Joshua Redman) and drums (Brian Blade). All are superior musicians. 

Six of the nine tracks were written and arranged by Sam; the rest include a bop standard by Ornette Colman, a tune by Paul Simon and another by Gilberto Gil/Joao Donato. 

The operative word here is "arranged." The melodic lines shared by Yahel's B3 and Redman's tenor are not extemporaneous; both artists "read" the music, note for note. The tunes range from simple to complex, and cover a spectrum of meters: from standard 4/4 to waltz, Latin-tinged and no regular beat at all. 

The solos that occur within the framework of the specific melody and meter are beautifully matched to each tune's theme, and the interplay between instruments is something to experience. The background rhythm supplied by Blade's drums always complement, and never intrudes. 

Each artist plays expressively and gently: no "honking" of the sax, and no bravado keyboard phrases from the B3. 

The liner notes include six pages of almost-too-small-to-read background data, written by Brad Mehldau (a marvelous musician in his own right); this essay provides more detail than you need about the artists, instruments, keys, etc. for each track. But you need not read everything to appreciate the music. 

This soothing, melodic CD will provide hours of listening pleasure.

The Brad Steinwehe Jazz Orchestra: Nutville

Sea Breeze Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.08
Buy CD: Nutville

Brad Steinwehe, who plays trumpet and flugelhorn, is a graduate of San Diego State University. This is the first album released under his name, but he has been involved in several others with musicians from the San Diego area, and has served as lead trumpet in back-up bands for many name artists who've performed in that city. 

He also has toured throughout Europe; this album's band, formed in 2004, was invited to play at jazz festivals in Paris. 

Steinwehe appears to be something of a perfectionist. Nutville was recorded during a two-year period (2005 and '06) at San Diego State; either he felt he didn't have enough material that was ready for prime time in '05, or he wasn't able to interest a record producer at that date. 

The finished result features nine tunes, including one each by heavy hitters Miles Davis, Horace Silver (who contributed the title chart), Woody Shaw and Frank Mantooth. The orchestra uses a standard big band setup: five reeds, four trumpets/flugelhorns, four trombones and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass, guitar and drums. 

Steinwehe used 27 different musicians in the two sessions. 

The key word for this group is "precision." Two factors are required to attain it: musicianship and rehearsal. Both are obvious here. Unfortunately, too much rehearsal can adversely affect the end result. This orchestra is so precise that, at times, it sounds sterile. The near perfection of both the ensemble and solo passages are too tight; if the group played more loosely, the result would swing more. 

That said, it's wonderful to hear another unit doing its best to keep big band jazz alive and well. More seasoning, and a little relaxation, should result in a great future for this group.

Frank Rosolino and Carl Fontana: Trombone Heaven

Uptown Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.08
Buy CD: Trombone Heaven

Within eight bars of this CD's opening track, I knew it was a five-star keeper. 

Regular readers of this column know that I'm partial to jazz trombone, and Frank Rosolino and Carl Fontana were two of the best who ever played. This album is a never before released live recording of a 1978 performance at the Bayshore Inn, in Vancouver, B.C. The audio quality is excellent, except for the microphones not being placed close enough to the piano. 

The performance by all concerned is so magnificent, that this minor flaw isn't important. 

This group was a quintet: Rosolino and Fontana on trombone, Elmer Gill on piano, Torban Oxbol on bass and George Ursan on drums. I must confess that Rosolino and Fontana were the only two familiar to me, but that's OK; this rhythm section is outstanding. 

I can't say enough about the artistry of both trombonists. In the words of Bill Watrous, one of today's 'bone masters, "They were both at the absolute top of their instrument. They are the high priests of jazz trombone." 

Both used a "repetitive tonguing" technique that was far beyond the capabilities of other trombonists. Both had played with the top bands of that era: Rosolino with Stan Kenton, Supersax and the Howard Rumsey All Stars; and Fontana with Kenton, Woody Herman and Lionel Hampton. Each fell into the hard bop category, but could play fantastically at any tempo. 

Two of the six tracks on this release are ballad medleys: One combines "Here's that Rainy Day" with "Stardust," while the other blends "Laura" with "Embraceable You." You'll never hear anything as beautiful as those renditions. 

The remaining tunes are all up-tempo covers: Monk's "Well You Needn't," Miles Davis' "All Blues" and "Just Friends," and Dizzy's "Ow." The solos, both as singles and duets, are unbelievably great. 

This CD is one of the longest I've heard, at more than 79 minutes, so there's plenty of time for each player to stretch out. Bassist Torban Oxbol contributes a great beat and several remarkably facile solos, in the manner of Niels-Henning Pedersen. 

I cannot understand why this album took so long to become available to jazz fans.

Larry Koonse: What's in the Box?

Jazz Compass
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.08
Buy CD: What's in the Box?

Guitarist Larry Koonse has played jazz for years, but I only recently found and reviewed an album with him as leader. That release, Dialogues of the Heart, featured Koonse and his father, Dave, playing duets of some familiar old standards. 

I called it "one of the tastiest jazz guitar records I've ever heard." 

Not long afterwards, Larry Koonse and bassist Darek "Oles" Oleszkiewicz recorded another beautiful album, Storybook; it was even better than the first. 

Well, Koonse, his father and Oleszkiewicz have done it again, only this time they're playing the music of guitarist Jimmy Wyble. To spice things up, they've added Gary Foster on clarinet, and Joe La Barbera on drums; Oleszkiewicz and another bassist, Putter Smith, split the tracks. 

The result is magnificent. 

Wyble, born in 1922, has a long musical history, having played every style that exists. He started out with country/western, cruised through Dixieland and New Orleans, and finally arrived in the straight-ahead jazz genre, playing with luminaries such as Red Norvo. Wyble also composed and arranged much of what he played and, for three years, was Larry Koonse's teacher. 

Wyble was so impressed with his student that he was willing to "hear his music expressed in a different format." He turned over his manuscripts to Koonse with only two requests: that Dave Koonse and Oleszkiewicz be involved in the project. 

As Larry Koonse put it, "no constraints on manner, tempo, style or arrangement" were placed on the project. 

To paraphrase: No greater admiration hath one musician for another, than when he grants that kind of freedom. 

This album is the result. 

You'll likely recognize only two tracks: "Stella by Starlight" and "Variations on a Theme," based on the old standard "All Of Me." All the rest are Wyble originals. Many of the latter are dedicated to Wyble's favorite musical artists; one, "Chorale for Lily," was written for his wife. 

They're all wonderful; the units, which range from duos to quintets, really bring them to life. This album is an absolute must.

The Dave Finck Quartet: Future Day

Soundbrush Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.08
Buy CD: Future Day

Dave Finck's group actually is a sextet; he added a trumpet and reed player for this session. The unit consists of "first-call" personnel: local musicians who're always contacted to provide backup for "name" vocalists and bands that come into town for concerts. 

It's a successful arrangement on both sides: The big acts don't have to contend with the expense and hassle of transporting a lot of folks around the country; the local guys get experience and exposure, without having to leave their homes and regular jobs. 

This group is smooth and quietly swinging. 

It's difficult to find a Broadway or jazz vocalist who Dave Finck hasn't supported; he also has played with the Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock bands. Vibraphonist Joe Locke has been touted as the next Milt Jackson, and drummer Joe La Barbara's talent is indicated by the fact he played with the final Bill Evans trio. 

Pianist Tom Ranier also composes and arranges; trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, a young lion (born in '76), was part of the Charlie Mingus big band; multi-reed player Bob Sheppard is another first-call regular. 

Half of the dozen tunes on this record were written by one of these musicians, while the other tracks are interpretations of compositions by other well-known jazz artists. 

Only three tracks run more than 5 minutes; several clock in at less than 3. That's a little disconcerting; at times, one gets the impression that something has been left out. All in all, though, this will be a pleasant addition to your library.

Diane Schuur: Some Other Time

Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.08
Buy CD: Some Other Time

Diane Schuur was born blind in 1953 in Tacoma, Wash. But, as is often the case, her disability was ameliorated by other attributes: She had perfect pitch, a voice to take advantage of it, and the will to teach her self to play the piano. 

Her father also was a pianist and her mother an avid jazz fan, so young Diane grew up in a home filled with music. By age 10, she was performing in public. Her big, rich, vocal style at that age is evident on one of the tracks included in this album, made at a Holiday Inn in 1964. 

Several notable artists "discovered" — and made significant contributions to — her development; Doc Severinson, the longtime leader of the Tonight Show band; Ed Shaughnessy, Severinson's drummer, who also had a band of his own; Stan Getz, Maynard Ferguson and Count Basie. During Schuur's early years she recorded almost a dozen albums, including two Grammy winners. She has been with Concord Records since '99. 

This album, a tribute to her mother (who died at age 31), features music Schuur was exposed to during childhood; the set list includes tunes by the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein and Sammy Cahn. The back-up musicians include pianist Randy Porter, guitarist Dan Balmer, bassist Scott Steed and drummer Reggie Jackson. They swing nicely and are key to making this release a keeper. 

If you're a fan of beautiful old standards performed by a superior vocalist, you'll want this one.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sathima Bea Benjamin: A Morning in Paris

Ekapa Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08
Buy CD: A Morning in Paris

This recording, and its history, read like a fairy tale. 

It's one of those stories where a near-miracle occurs: The results of that miracle are lost, then found more than 30 years later and, finally, brought to full light after more time passes. 

Sathima Bea Benjamin is a South African vocalist who, although she gained fame singing songs from her own country, is almost an unknown in the jazz genre. In 1963, at the age of 23, she attended a Duke Ellington concert in Paris, France. She managed to catch Ellington's ear after the concert, raved about the ability of her pianist boyfriend (Abdullah Ibrahim), and talked Duke into visiting the Club Africana, where that trio was playing. 

Duke agreed to hear the ensemble, but also insisted that Benjamin sing for him. He was so impressed by both that he arranged for them to record albums for Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records. Ibrahim's album was released, but hers wasn't deemed "commercial" enough to sell ... and subsequently was "lost." 

The tapes for that session re-surfaced in 1996, when they were found by a writer doing a biography of Billy Strayhorn. 

So, what's so special about all of this? 

Well, three pianists backed up Benjamin's album: Ibrahim, Ellington and Strayhorn (one of Duke's arrangers at the time). The other musicians on that session included a bassist, drummer and Svend Asmussen, who played pizzicato violin (plucked, like a guitar, rather than bowed). Its effect, in conjunction with Benjamin's voice, is perfect for this recording. 

All 12 tunes are old "love song" standards that have been done hundreds of times, by as many artists, but you've never heard them performed like this. Benjamin's voice is velvet-smooth: clear as a bell and, as another reviewer has commented, with an "innocence" that just forces you to listen. 

Some of that is lost in her later, African-hued performances, but she was near perfection in this session. 

If you're yearning for the kind of music that meant so much when you were younger, this album is a must!

Dizzy Gillespie: Live at the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival

MJF Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08
Buy CD: Live at the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival

Once upon a time, the Monterey Jazz Festival was the venue for both audiences and musicians. 

This release was recorded live at the 1965 edition of that annual concert ... and, unfortunately, sounds like it. The festival was a huge, open-air affair, somewhat like a football field with a tent-like structure around the rim and over the stage, located at one end. Most of the audience members were seated in the central area, exposed to whatever weather existed at the time. 

Higher-priced ticket holders were under cover of the "tent," but many were hundreds of feet away from the stage. Needless to say, the acoustics were terrible; at that time, electronic correction devices were relatively unknown. As a result, this CD's auditory quality is really poor. 

In 1965, Dizzy was in his Afro/Cuban phase. He was touring with a basic quintet: himself on trumpet, James Moody on flute and tenor sax, Kenny Barron on piano, Christopher White on bass and Rudy Collins on drums. They had just been augmented by Big Black on congas. 

Although this recording's audio quality is poor, the musical content is much better. Dizzy is at his best: At this stage of his career, he had total command of his instrument and played a lot in the higher trumpet range. Moody was concentrating more on flute than tenor sax, and was excellent on that instrument. Barron was playing pure bop-tinged jazz, and White's bass was a major driving force. 

Collins was an adequate drummer, but in this session his "ride" cymbal was too close to the microphones; as a result, at times he drowns out Moody and Barron. Big Black's congas adds a Latin flavor to the beat, but — for my taste — are overwhelming at times. 

The CD is only a tad more than 45 minutes long, and almost 5 minutes are spent on what was supposed to be a comedic interchange between Dizzy and Big Black after one of the tunes. It might have been amusing at the time, but it sure isn't politically correct now, because of racial references. 

If you must have everything Dizzy ever did, this album may be worthwhile as a collectors item ... but plenty of other discs are musically superior.