Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Doug Beavers Rovira Jazz Orchestra: Jazz, Baby!

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.08
Buy CD: Jazz, Baby!

Now, here's a neat idea: big band jazz arrangements of classic children's tunes, and I do mean kiddy stuff. Think "Itsy Bitsy Spider," "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," "Hush Little Baby" and more of that ilk. 

Not that you'd start moppets out with this album, but once they've been exposed to simple melodies by mom and/or dad, they'd be ready to graduate to this swinging album. In keeping with a child's attention span, each tune is kept short, and the familiar lyrics are maintained. Only the interpretation has been changed. 

The band consists of five saxes; four trumpets; six trombones, including a euphonium and tuba; and a rhythm section made up of piano, bass, drums, guitar, banjo and vibes/xylophone/glockenspiel (!). Vocalists handle the lyrics for each tune. 

The arrangements are clever and cute, and they all swing. I suspect adults will listen to this CD just as much as the kids. Aside from exposing the little ones to actual jazz, the album will entertain parents while they chase the children around the house. 

It's also a great conversation piece. If jazz radio gives it air time, I wouldn't be surprised if it turned into a big hit for Origin Arts . 

Finally, the liner insert is darling ... and the song lyrics are included, in case you've forgotten them. 

The Blue Wisp Big Band: Tribute

Sea Breeze Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.08
Buy CD: Tribute

Unless you're from the Midwest, or are an avid big band fan, you've probably never heard of this group. 

The Blue Wisp Big Band is what's known as a "territory band," a unit whose members live and work in — or near — a particular city and seldom venture outside that area. Cincinnati, Ohio, is big enough to attract many touring artists and shows; this provides plenty of work for backup musicians. 

But until drummer John Von Ohlen came to town in 1980, nobody was playing jazz. 

Von Ohlen assembled a few "cats" (his word) and formed this big band, then talked the owners of the Blue Wisp Jazz Club into letting them play every Wednesday night. 

The ensemble is a "pure" jazz group: no singers and no show tunes, just musicians swinging, stretching and exploring. 

Today, 26 years later, that band still blows the roof off every Wednesday night. 

This album is called "Tribute" for several reasons. Marjean Wisby, one of the original club owners who operated the venue for more than 30 years, died in 2006. Additionally, 12 of the band's original 16 members remain active. 

When one thinks of jazz, New York and the West Coast get most of the attention — and credit — for the art form. That's misleading; during the original big band era, the Midwest delivered the primary core audience for this music. Almost every city of any size had ballrooms that operated on weekends, and often featured the famous bands that toured the country. 

Goodman, Dorsey, Krupa, Hampton, Kenton and many others all played regularly in Midwestern cities. 

I lived in Ohio during my college years, and played in several territory groups in the Columbus area; I can vouch for the quality of the local musicians. The excellence of the Blue Wisp Big Band doesn't surprise me at all, nor does its longevity. 

Sea Breeze obviously got smart years ago; this is the label's second album featuring these guys. 

Half the arrangements were written by jazz greats such as Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington and Freddie Hubbard. You'll also hear covers of a few gems ("Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Soon") and originals written by well-known jazz arrangers such as Frank Griffith. 

The band is polished, and the solos are excellent; my only complaint is with the quality of the recording, mixing and mastering. (Before reading the liner notes, I'd already decided that the drummer was the ensemble leader ... because the microphones were too close to him!) 

Granted, the fact that this album was recorded live explains much of the problem. A better effort with the electronics would have raised my rating by half a star, but — even so — it's a keeper.

Eddie Daniels: Homecoming — Live at the Iridium

IPO Recordings
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.08
Buy CD: Homecoming: Live at the Iridium

It has been so long since I've heard a really great clarinetist, that I'd forgotten what one sounds like. 

Enter Eddie Daniels. 

He has been around for quite awhile, but when I first encountered him, he was playing tenor sax with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band. He was "merely" another of the excellent tenor players working at that time (1966-73), and I kind of lost track of him. 

Then, in the 1980s, Daniels put his sax in the closet and concentrated on clarinet. And even though he subsequently released a number of albums featuring that instrument, I wasn't aware of any until this "Homecoming" release. Shame on me! 

I grew up in the big band era, when "the" clarinetists were Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Well, Daniels makes both of them sound like high-school kids. And because this album is pure, straight-ahead jazz — the kind Goodman and Shaw played — you can judge my assessment for yourself. 

You have plenty from which to make such a comparison; this double-CD release contains 15 tracks, half a dozen of them jazz standards. 

Daniels' quintet consists of him on both clarinet and tenor sax, Joe Locke on vibes, Tom Ranier on piano, Dave Finch on bass and Joe La Barbera on drums. These guys swing like crazy, and the fact that the album was recorded live at New York's Iridium just makes it better 

Daniels thought highly of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and three of these tracks illustrate that fact. You'll hear two versions of that group's famous "Django," written by MJQ pianist John Lewis: one an extended, 14-minute cut that's just marvelous; and a 7-minute bonus track. They're accompanied by "Déjà vu MJQ," written by Roger Kellaway. 

Daniels wrote three of the other tunes; the rest include Ellington, Cole Porter and Rogers & Hart melodies. 

I can't give more than five stars, but this is the best album I heard in 2007. Even the liner notes and CD design are superior.

Stanley Clarke: The Toys of Men

Heads Up International
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.08
Buy CD: The Toys of Men

Clarke is another iconic bassist who has played with many of the jazz giants. He entered the New York scene shortly after graduating from the Philadelphia Academy of Music in 1971, and immediately found work with the likes of Art Blake, Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, Gil Evans and a young Chick Corea. 

Clarke and Corea formed the electric jazz/fusion group, Return To Forever, one of the most famous groups of that era. By age 25, Clarke was recognized as the prime pioneer of the jazz fusion movement. He doubled on both the electric and acoustic instruments; he also invented and played two "new" instruments, the piccolo and tenor basses. 

Clarke is a multi-Grammy Award winner, has been the model for aspiring young bassists for decades, and has recorded countless albums during his career. 

All of which makes this the hardest review that I've written in a long time. Quite simply, "The Toys of Men" is the poorest release I've ever heard from Clarke. Granted, his musicianship is excellent, as is that of all the artists supporting him in this endeavor. Sadly, the content is wanting. 

All the tunes were written and arranged by Clarke or other members of the group, and not one of them swings at any tempo. This obviously was intended to be a serious concept album — a musical anti-war expression — but the result is more ostentatious than moving. 

I've noticed this tendency in other great jazz artists: As they leave the zenith of their careers and move onward, they abandon the roots of the artistry and styles that made them famous, and decide it's time to "really get serious." This seldom works to their advantage. 

Once upon a time, Clarke was a joy to see and hear; he was exciting and moving. This album is neither. I don't want somebody preaching at me when I listen to music; I want to be awed and amazed by the genius at work. 

This album didn't do it.

Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen: The Unforgettable NHOP Trio Live

ACT Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.3.08
Buy CD: The Unforgettable NHOP Trio Live

NHOP is the nickname for Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, affectionately known as "the Danish bassist with the never-ending name." He was born in 1946 and died, far too young, from a heart attack in 2005. 

He began studying piano while a child but, at age 13 — when he was tall enough — he switched to bass. He was a natural; by age 15 he was playing in Copenhagen nightclubs, accompanying both local musicians and famous U.S. jazz artists who toured through European countries. 

One such individual was Count Basie, who offered Orsted Pedersen a job with his band. The young bassist, still only 17, turned Basie down so that he could finish his schooling! 

Orsted Pedersen became a fixture with the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1973, an association that continued until 1987. Ray Brown, who had been Peterson's bassist for years, once commented that "Niels was the only other bassist who could keep up with Oscar." 

Orsted Pedersen was in constant demand; during his career he was the chosen bassist on more than 400 albums. You name the artists or groups, and he played with them. 

During the early days of jazz, the bass was the plodding marker of the beat and chord changes. Orsted Pedersen wasn't the first artist to include counter-melodic lines, and to make the bass a front-line instrument, but he advanced technique to almost unbelievable levels. He played bass like a "vertical guitar," using all four fingers on his right hand to pluck the strings. 

This technique resulted in an agility and speed that were awesome; he could play frenetic tempos, and do so for sustained periods. In addition, he provided a big, rich sound; his intonation was impeccable, and his imaginative solo work was breathtaking. Because the complexity, speed and content of his passages made it difficult for the listener to follow, he used an amplifier. 

This album features excerpts from two concerts: the first recorded in Denmark in 1999, the second in Germany in '05. Guitarist Ulf Wakenius and drummer Jonas Johansen were key members of Orsted Pedersen's trio for both events. The tracks range from Bach, NHOP originals, jazz ballads ("The Song is You," "A Nightingale Sang In Barkley Square"), bop (Charlie Parker's "My Little Suede Shoes") and a gorgeous pair of Scandinavian folk songs. 

The performances are beyond exceptional.

I haven't been able to remove this CD from my player since I received it ... a definite must-buy!