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.