Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holiday Jazz 2009: Santa's got a brand new beat

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09

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

My ever-expanding collection of holiday jazz once again grew by leaps and bounds during the past year, thanks to the growing ease with which regional and foreign releases can be discovered and obtained via the Internet.

As a result, while the major record companies have been surprisingly quiet this year — at least when it comes to new holiday jazz releases — I've no shortage of good music to share. and continue to be excellent sources; the latter even has a specific category for holiday jazz. Amazon, as well, is laden with goodies: some of them hailing from overseas, and more likely available via Amazon's UK or French sites. And, thanks to the growing sophistication of instant Web-based language translators, navigating foreign-language sites isn't nearly as challenging as once was the case.

But why belabor the details? You're here for the music, and this space would be better served fulfilling that desire. So when you're seeking alternatives to eyebrow-raising Christmas pop or oft-heard classics that may have grown a bit tiresome, consider the following.

They'll keep your egg nogged!

I covered Trio West's first seasonal jazz album back in 2007, and was quite impressed by the musicality displayed by this lively combo: producer/arranger/
drummer Tobias Gebb, pianist Eldad Zvulun and bassist Neal Miner.

Well, the unit is back this year with Trio West Plays Holiday Songs Vol. 2 (Yummyhouse Records), and the trio's music is just as lively and engaging; this CD is just plain fun.

Gebb's arrangements are designed as if his group were playing for a lively ballroom dance competition, starting with a tango rendition of "We Three Kings" that's so sultry, we practically can see the long-stemmed rose in Zvulun's teeth.

Gebb apparently loves double-time arrangements, and Zvulun is up to the challenge; "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" are furious sambas, while the group's rendition of "Jingle Bells" positively roars. And while you'd expect a waltz interpretation of "We Three Kings" to be on the gentler side, that ain't the case; this peppy 6/4 waltz would leave any dancers breathless.

"O Tannenbaum" is presented twice: first in a funkified strut with bebop echoes of Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts," and later as a more traditionally rhythmic salsa.

Fortunately, the songs aren't all sprints; both "Joy to the World" and "The First Noel" break up the action, allowing folks to enjoy a slow dance or two.

Gebb's percussion work is always creative, and Zvulun keeps his solos simple, with single-note riffs rather than chords. Sadly, although Miner maintains a steady presence, he remains in the background; these 11 tracks are too brief to afford any extended solos.

But hey: There's nothing wrong with short and sweet.

Thomas Marriott: Flexicon

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: Flexicon

Thomas Marriott plays trumpet and flugelhorn, and is based in the Seattle area. I reviewed an earlier release (Both Sides of the Fence) by this group a few years ago, and found it quite enjoyable.

Marriott once again uses his basic quartet — with pianist Bill Anschell, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Matt Jorgensen — and adds guest artists Mark Taylor (saxophones) and Joe Locke (vibes). Three of these nine tracks are Marriott originals; the rest are covers of tunes written by Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Rogers and Hart, John Barry and others.

Except for the opener — “Take It to the Ozone,” a real burner — all the tracks are mid-tempo. The musicians are first-class, and they sound as if they've been together for years.

This is a perfect example of what I call “thinking” jazz: The arrangements are excellent, and the ensemble and solo passages keep your attention focused. You can listen to this group again and again, and be rewarded anew each time. I'd love to hear them in person.

John Pondel: John Pondel

RGR Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: John Pondel

Guitarist John Pondel is a first-call artists who has played with — and for — darn near everybody over the years, but he isn't well known outside the musical fraternity. Born in Chicago but raised in California, Pondel spent several years choosing an instrument; he began with accordion, flute and clarinet but didn't get hooked until his brother introduced him to the guitar.

By the age of 20, Pondel was playing with the Gerald Wilson Band and was on his way to becoming a studio musician. He worked with most of the West Coast jazz luminaries, then moved to New York City. His band Jazzhole was one of the seminal groups in the acid jazz genre; the unit records to this day.

Pondel's current group, a trio, features bassist Scott Colley and drummer Marivaldo Dos Santos; this album adds David Binney on alto sax and flute. The resulting sound bears no resemblance to acid, rock, fusion or hip-hop; it's relaxed and soothing. All the tracks are originals, all done at mid-tempo.

The result is one of the nicest sets of “background” jazz I've heard in quite awhile, and that descriptor is by no means negative. This is the kind of music you'd enjoy filling your room with while reading, studying or entertaining friends during a quiet get-together.

Scotty Barnhart: Say It Plain

Unity Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: Say It Plain

Scotty Barnhart played trumpet with the Count Basie orchestra for 17 years; this is his debut recording as a leader.

He may be an “unknown” to casual jazz fans, but the fact that he was able to gather an august group of musicians for this album speaks well for their assessment of him. The line-up includes Wynton Marsalis and his pianist father, Ellis, Clark Terry and a number of musicians who've been a part of bands that Wynton Marsalis has formed over the years.

This album contains a dozen tunes, half written by Barnhart; the rest are covers of well-known jazz standards. The styles vary: straight-ahead, swing, blues, ballads, Latin and even a nod to New Orleans.

Those familiar with Wynton Marsalis are aware that he loves to re-explore older jazz styles as much as he enjoys pushing the envelope into new areas; Barnhart is an obvious disciple. I'm sure John Coltrane never envisioned his classic “Giant Steps” in New Orleans garb, nor did Frank Loesser expect to hear “I've Never Been in Love Before” as a burner.

It's also a real treat to hear Clark Terry play and scat his way through “Pay Me My Money.”

As for Barnhart himself, he's one helluva trumpet player. His treatment of “I'm Glad There Is You” is gorgeous, and his cover of “Put On a Happy Face” is as innovative and swinging as anything I've ever heard.

His tone is crystal-clear at any tempo. The man is flat-out great!

All in all, this is a neat, swinging album. I'm waiting to hear more.

Chris Pasin: Detour Ahead

H20 Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: Detour Ahead

I bet you've never heard of Chris Pasin.

He's a trumpet player/composer/arranger who was a sideman with several bands during the 1980s, including one fronted by Buddy Rich. But Pasin dropped off the music scope for 16 years to raise a family, and is just now playing jazz again around the New York area.

This is a debut album for Pasin, although it was recorded way back in 1987, before he took his extended sabbatical. Because much has changed during the intervening years, this is something of a time capsule.

At the time, Pasin headed a quintet that included Steve Slagle (reeds), Benny Green (piano), Rufus Reid (bass) and Dannie Richmond (drums). The group swings quite nicely.

Pasin wrote six of the eight tracks; the two others are covers of the standards “Detour Ahead” and “My Romance.” The group sounds like many of the small units that abounded on both the West and East coasts in the '80s, which is a compliment.

Although it sounds contradictory, these guys are “tight” during the ensemble passages, yet achieve a “loose” feel during the solos, thanks to the fine rhythm section. Pasin is an excellent musician; his tone is crystal clear, and his solos are inventive. Green and Reid are great, as always.

It's a pleasure to have Pasin back in the saddle.

The Dave Rivello Ensemble: Facing the Mirror

Allora Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: Facing the Mirror

During the heyday of the big bands, all the leaders were famous, as were many of their featured sidemen; most were primary instrumentalists.

Although some of these individuals also composed and arranged tunes that were included in each band's “library,” most of the charts were done by big band arrangers; these folks often were unknown until their contributions became a key part of the band's “character.”

As the big bands faded away, the name musicians became fewer; the same was true of the arrangers. Dave Rivello is a member of the latter group: He's a composer, arranger and conductor. For almost a decade, he worked for — and with — the famous trombonist/composer/arranger, Bob Brookmeyer.

This album marks the debut of Rivello's own ensemble, and he's responsible for all the contents.

Financial constraints and changing tastes have made it difficult to maintain a true big band; you could call this 12-piece ensemble a “big band lite.” Rivello fields three woodwinds, include a soprano sax/flute, tenor sax/clarinet and regular/bass clarinet; three trumpets/flugelhorns; two trombones; a tuba; and a standard piano/bass/drums rhythm section.

Some of the musicians are experienced local pros; the rest are alumni or students from the Eastman School of Music, where Rivello is an assistant professor.

This is a very modern group, and it truly swings. All eight tracks are melodic, and a lot of attention is given to harmonic phrasing. The unit is based in Rochester, N.Y., and has played one night each week for years at a local venue, with frequent supplementary concerts at the Eastman School.

It's unlikely that this organization will ever tour or be heard live outside the East Coast, but we can look forward to future albums. Thank goodness!

The Stanley Clarke Trio: Jazz in the Garden

Heads Up Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: Jazz in the Garden

Long ago, when meters usually were 2/4 time, the acoustic bass was just a straight rhythm instrument. Unless you were listening to a concert orchestra, it never was used for solos, and then it was “bowed.”

Then along came guys such as Chubby Jackson, who played with one of the early Woody Herman “Herds,” and things began to change. The beat was a solid, driving 4/4, and Jackson even added a fifth string to the basic four-string instrument, to make it easier to place the fingers to achieve desired melodic lines.

As icons such as Ray Brown, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and Stanley Clarke entered the scene, the bass became an important musical instrument.

This album features the incomparable Clarke and his trio.

Stanley Clarke has been “the” bassist for a long time. He's both a master of the instrument, and a master of innovation, moving quickly from straight-ahead jazz into fusion and the more eclectic genres.

For this release, he's joined by Lenny White — one of the tastiest, hardest-driving drummers working today — and Hiromi Uehara, a young Japanese pianist who made her recording debut just six years ago. White is a living legend who, like Clarke, first played with the Joe Henderson band.

The dozen tracks in this release include covers of great jazz standards such as “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Miles Davis' “Solar,” Joe Henderson's “Isotope” and a take-off on Duke Ellington's “Take the A Train,” titled “Take the Coltrane.” The rest include half a dozen originals by Clarke or Hiromi, along with a traditional Japanese folk song.

It's a marvelous performance by a trio of masterful artists. I hear something new every time I listen.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tony Bennett & Bill Evans: The Complete Recordings

Fantasy Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.05.09
Buy CD: The Complete Recordings

There's no question about pianist Bill Evans' importance to jazz, or his position within that genre's Hall of Fame.

He was, without question, one of the finest composers, arrangers and instrumentalists of the past 50 years, and he had immense influence on other musical artists who developed during that period.

On the other hand, many will raise eyebrows at the thought of Tony Bennett being considered as a jazz vocalist. (Isn't he the guy who sang ballads for so many years?) Well, he has sold more than 50 million records to date, and — believe it or not — he's considered by an untold number of jazz artists to be one of the best male jazz vocalists who ever lived.

During his career, Bennett has sung and recorded with the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and — as this album demonstrates — the incomparable Evans.

This double-CD is a compilation of two recording sessions: the first in 1975, the second a year later. Evans plays and Bennett sings, and that's all we need. The 21 tracks on the first disc, the “chosen” takes from both sessions, are mostly ballads and show tunes made famous by both artists.

The second disc consists of alternate takes from the same sessions, and don't despair: While you'll detect similarities, they aren't “copies.” Remember, these guys were improvising, without rehearsals, after deciding on the proper “key” and “order” of the choruses.

All but three tracks are duets; the exceptions are solos by Evans. And while only a few of these tunes are up-tempo, recall that some of the greatest jazz played is balladic; phrasing and innovation are the important elements.

You can listen to this album for hours, and hear something new each time. It's a double-masterpiece!

Tim Davies Big Band: Dialmentia

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.05.09
Buy CD: Dialmentia

You don't often encounter drummers who also are composers, arrangers and producers; Tim Davies is a member of that relatively small fraternity.

He also leads a really big band that usually features (according to his Web site) “a mixture of jazz, hip-hop and death metal.” It's certainly all of that. The cadre includes nine reeds, eight trumpets, four trombones, two guitarist, two bassists, two keyboardists — I assume these pairs split duties on the various tracks, but I could be wrong — a percussionist (in addition to Davies, who is drummer and leader), a cello and a lady who plays a didjeridu.

Surprisingly, they don't sound the least bit cluttered, and it all swings like crazy.

The Australian-born Davies began to play drums when he was 12, formed his first big band in Melbourne in 1998, and his second in 2000 when he moved to the United States. He composed seven of these nine tunes and arranged all of them. One of the two tunes he didn't compose — a riff on “Caravan” — is of particular interest; to paraphrase Davies, “It's the way Duke Ellington would have written it if he'd lived in the age of hip-hop.”

You know what? I think he's right.

In his “spare” time, Davies is an in-demand composer, arranger, orchestrator and conductor for film, TV and recordings. He's very busy and quite talented, and one of the tastiest and most controlled drummers who has come down the pike in a long time.

Karrin Allyson: By Request

Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.05.09
Buy CD: By Request

I started to type “Vocalist Karrin Allyson” and changed my mind; Allyson is much more that just a vocalist. She's a three-time Grammy-nominated artist who composes and arranges, writes lyrics, plays piano and sings ... and does all these tasks marvelously.

Allyson was born and raised in Kansas City, where she spent her early years working; she finally moved to New York City about a decade ago. After a self-released debut CD, she was signed by Concord Records, which has been responsible for all subsequent releases, including a re-issue of that first album.

By Request is a retrospective of her past 15 years; the album contains songs that have been “most requested” by fans during her live performances. She's capable of singing everything and anything: ballads, blues, “roots music,” Great American Songbook classics, straight-ahead and Latin jazz. Everything succumbs to her talent.

Language is no barrier, as well; she uses English, French and Portuguese in this release. As for scatting, her burning cover of “Cherokee” will take your breath away.

Another key to Allyson's success is her ability to attract stellar jazz artists to her groups. Pianists Paul Smith and Mulgrew Miller, and bassists John Patitucci and Bob Bowman, are just a few of the names who have joined lesser-known but equally capable musicians.

Most important, however is her innate talent; the lady is, without doubt, one of our top jazz vocalists. Her voice, phrasing and range are exceptional.

And my, does she swing!

Paul Meyers: World on a String

Miles High Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.05.09
Buy CD: World on a String

Over the years, many artists who “made their bones” with straight-ahead jazz have ventured into Latin water.

The two styles have many similarities, rhythmically and melodically, and that has encouraged artists from both schools to expand their musical fields. Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz (who moved “south”) and Claudio Rodeti and Arturo Sandoval (who came “north”) were some of the earlier pilgrims.

These days, it's hard to find a musician who isn't fluent in both styles.

Add guitarist Paul Meyers to that cadre. He began playing the piano at age 5, switched to violin at 7, and found his home with the guitar at 12. Like so many string artists, his early teaching was in the classics, but exposure to Wes Montgomery triggered the move to jazz.

Meyers attended the New England Conservatory of Music and ended up in New York City, where he has spent more than 20 years working with many name bands and vocalists.

One of this album's key goals was to meld Meyers' expertise in both jazz and Latin, to create a larger audience for his quintet; he succeeded. He's joined by Donny McCaslin on saxes and flute, Helio Elves on piano, Leo Traversa on electric bass, and Vanderlei Pereira on drums. The result is a neat, quiet, gently swinging group that produces some very nice “thinking-man” jazz.

It's great for your listening pleasure, and also makes nice background music.

Hilary Kole: Haunted Heart

Justin Time Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.05.09
Buy CD: Haunted Heart

Although relatively unknown outside New York City, Hilary Kole is a key performer in regional hotels, lounges and jazz clubs.

She began singing and playing the piano at age 5; at 14, her composing skills garnered a scholarship to the Walden School for Music Composition.

By 17, she had won three National Federation of Music Awards and a Delius Award. She received a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music for jazz composition, but — after attending a jazz vocal class — made singing her major. During this period, she was house vocalist with the Rainbow Room Orchestra, working six nights a week, five hours a night.

After graduating in 1999, she co-created and starred in the musical production Our Sinatra, at the Algonquin Hotel's famous Oak Room. During the past decade, that production has played thousands of performances Off-Broadway. Oscar Peterson heard her perform at Birdland and, in '06, asked her to record with him.

She was the last vocalist to have that honor.

This is Kole's debut album. The quartet that backs her is headed by guitarist John Pizzarelli, who also produced; supporting artists include pianist Ted Firth, bassist Paul Gill and drummer Mark McLean. Kole is the pianist and arranger on one track — “Blackberry Winter,” an Alec Wilder tune — and she acquits herself nicely.

Her voice is smooth as silk throughout, her pitch perfect, phrasing excellent and — most important, for a singer — she knows how to sell a song. She's as good as any I've heard for a long time, and has a bright future.

Texas Christian University Jazz Ensemble: Just Friends

Sea Breeze Vista
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.05.09
Buy CD: Just Friends

I always smile when obtaining an album from a university that offers students a jazz program.

Texas Christian University is one of the best of these schools; this is its 17th album during the past 32 years, and it's a two-CD treasure.

This endeavor involved a total of almost 30 student musicians, plus seven alums and teachers. Three units are featured: a big band ensemble and two different quintets. Not everyone plays at once, but they all get a chance to participate in these 27 tunes.

TCU is world-renowned for its school of music in general, and its jazz program in particular. Its big band has been featured in concerts with literally dozens of jazz greats, both “at home” and in venues across the United States and Canada. The unit also has toured Europe several times.

The current ensemble director, Curt Wilson, has taught there since 1976; the bands, and their members, have received numerous awards over the years.

As usually is the case with college bands, much of the “book” used here has been contributed by name composers and arrangers, but a significant number of student and faculty originals also are included. Every one of them swings. The ensemble and section work is excellent throughout, and the solos aren't far behind ... which isn't often the case for young students.

One individual deserves special mention: Trombonist Andy Martin is outstanding in the ensemble's cover of “Caravan.” He's on par with some of the great artists I've heard over the years.

This is a wonderful album: Everyone is having a ball, and it shows.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Resonance Big Band: Plays Tribute to Oscar Peterson

Resonance Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.1.09
Buy CD: Plays Tribute to Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson needs no introduction: He simply was the world's best jazz pianist, in any generation. His death, at age 82 in 2007, left a void that'll never be filled.

Indeed, he was so revered that no pianists are able — or willing — to claim the capability to succeed him.

But one of his fans and close friends, Arnold van Kampen, happened to catch some YouTube clips of an unknown pianist playing “Indiana.” Research failed to bring up any biographical information or albums for this individual, although van Kampen did learn his name: Marian Petrescu.

The Romanian-born pianist was 36 years old, had been playing since age 4, and was living in Finland. Resonance Records' George Klabin, another Peterson fan, also had become aware of Petrescu, and contacted him regarding a planned a tribute to Peterson; this album is the result.

The big band assembled for this effort is, in itself, a major accomplishment: The instrumentation included five reeds/flutes, four trumpets/flugelhorns, four trombones, a tuba, guitar, bass, drums and — of course — Perrescu on piano. A few tracks also include a string quartet, a second pianist, and a cabasa. Finally, three conductors were involved. The luminaries taking part included Joe La Barbara, Bill Cunliffe and Claus Ogerman.

This package contains both a CD and a DVD of the session, and the 11 tracks are arrangements of classic tunes recorded by Peterson over the years. Although the big band doesn't swing like the combos Peterson headed, it's an excellent unit. Perrescu is a masterful technician, at least as fast and facile on the keyboard as Peterson, but — and it's a huge “but” — he doesn't come close to swinging like ol' Oscar.

This album is a major accomplishment and a worthwhile tribute, but it's for the concert stage. The excitement, joy, feel and pure talent of Peterson are missing.

The Beaty Brothers Band

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.1.09
Buy CD: The Beaty Brothers Band

Twin brothers John (alto sax) and Joe Beaty (trombone) grew up under extremely “hard time” circumstances, with numerous foster parents. Even so, they received scholarships to New York's New School University, where they studied music.

They were homeless at times, and years were required to become recognized as first-call musicians in the area. Then, after having just achieved such recognition, Joe developed a serious heart condition that turned into a five-year struggle.

Both men are healthy now, and are active in the New York City jazz world. On this, their debut album — the tracks were laid down prior to the final surgery that solved Joe's heart condition — they're joined by three close friends who helped them make it through the tough times: pianist Yayoi Ikawa, bassist Jim Robertson and drummer Ari Hoenig.

Nobody in this group is well known outside of New York, but they've obviously played together long enough to meld nicely. All the compositions and arrangements on this CD are by the Beaty brothers; they're innovative, interesting and — most important — they swing.

I look forward to hearing more from these guys, as they work their way up the ladder.

The Bridge Quartet: Night

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.1.09
Buy CD: Night

About a year ago, I reviewed an album titled Day by this quartet, which is based in Portland, Ore. Drummer Alan Jones organized the unit — Canadian saxophonist Phil Dwyer, bassist Tom Wakling and pianist Darrell Grant — for a few club dates. A recording session was scheduled right after the first club date, and “Day” was the result.

The second club date was held the subsequent evening; it, too, prompted a recording session. That album, the subject of this review, was appropriately titled Night.

The primary difference between the two albums is the ambient atmosphere. Only the musicians and studio technicians were present for Day, but Night was done for a live audience. Both sessions were excellent, but the group definitely was more lively when fans were present. Their appreciation and applause clearly improved the quality of the music.

Two tunes — “Wouldn't It Be Loverly” and “Strode Rode” — appear on both releases, and the difference between the two takes is quite noticeable.

The remaining tracks on this album are covers of well-known jazz standards: “Green Dolphin Street,” Billy Strayhorn's “Isfahan,” Thelonious Monk's “Bemsha Swing” and Victor Feldman's “A Face Like Yours.”

This is a very good quartet. I'd love to have a group like this playing in a club nearby, so I could enjoy it often.

Pamela Luss: Sweet and Saxy

Savant Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.1.09
Buy CD: Sweet and Saxy

This is the newest release by primo vocalist Pamela Luss, who — unfortunately for the rest of the world — makes her home and performs primarily in the New York City area. The rest of us have to make do with her annual albums.

Her 2007 release, Your Eyes, clearly indicated her potential; 2008's Magnet proved her talents as a top vocalist. Sweet And Saxy further confirms her talent and future.

As was the case on her previous releases, Luss is backed by an excellent, swinging group headed by tenor sax artist Houston Person. John di Martino continues to demonstrate that he's one of the better pianists and arrangers around; he's joined by guitarist James Chirillo, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Willie Jones III. These guys add immeasurably to this album's quality.

The dozen tracks include covers of some wonderful old tunes that we haven't heard in years: “Canadian Sunset,” “You Better Go Now,” “Why Was I Born” and “Ain't No Sunshine” are just a few of the songs that my generation grew up to. They're long overdo for encores.

Because of her mellow voice and gorgeous phrasing, Luss is most impressive on ballads, but this album also contains a number of mid- to up-tempo tunes that prove Luss can sing anything ... particularly when backed by the likes of Houston Person and crew.

It'll be tough to wait another year for Luss' next album!

University of Louisville: Jazz Connection

Sea Breeze Vista
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.1.09
Buy CD: Jazz Connection

The University of Louisville School of Music has hosted the Open World Leadership Cultural Program for the last four years. This two-CD album features the performance output of 40 jazz artists who attended these conferences during that period: 22 from Russia, a dozen University of Louisville students, four faculty members and two area professionals.

The groups range in size from duet to septet, with standard instrumentation (i.e. no electronic keyboards). Straight-ahead jazz is the common denominator. The 26 tracks include both old and new jazz standards, a number of originals and even a couple of old American pop tunes (“Moon River” and “Honeydripper,” for example).

In a way, listening to this album is akin to taking a time-capsule trip from the 1940s through the '90s, visiting the jazz clubs that existed in each era, and listening to radio broadcasts from each period.

The Russian artists are excellent, but their styles are almost exclusively based on those of American musicians from earlier eras. That works out nicely, because the “learning stage” of many students — and some faculty members — reflect the styles of famous artists from that same time period.

It's interesting to note the relative capabilities of the various groups: The Russians are better than the faculty members, who in turn are better than the students. No doubt about it, though: These Russians can swing!

Programs like Open World, which expose artists from various countries to each other's customs, talents and citizens, are tremendously worthwhile. This double-album is a clear indication that jazz can promote friendships and understanding on a worldwide basis.

Wynton Marsalis: He and She

Blue Note Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.1.09
Buy CD: He and She

Wynton Marsalis needs no introduction: He's a musician exemplar, a composer, arranger and leader.

Indeed, he has become the same type of figurehead in today's music world that Duke Ellington was in his day. And Marsalis isn't just a musician, he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning artist. From the sheer standpoint of instrumental excellence, he's probably the finest trumpet player alive; his tone is pure, his technique is excellent, and he's imaginative and innovative.

He can — and has — played every musical genre, from classical through jazz of all types. And, as evidenced by this CD, he's a poet.

He and She explores, as the liner notes explain, “the relationship between a man and a woman.” This takes place progressively, from the “schoolboy” through the “young adult” phases of life. As these periods pass, so do the musical styles that provide background for this emotional progression. A dozen “intervals” are covered, each preceded by a spoken free-verse introduction.

Marsalis' style advanced as he grew as an artist, from swinging bop through funk and then fusion; he then returned to earlier jazz periods. His groups, whether combos or big bands, tackle compositions that reflect the sounds of days-gone-by music and artists.

That's true of this release as well, although he masterfully entwines that earlier style with the more modern feel of today's artists. The result is quite engaging: Marsalis tells a familiar and compelling story that'll hold your attention ... and, as with a good book, you'll want to experience it again and again.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Scott Reeves Quintet: Shape Shifter

Miles High Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.3.09
Buy CD: Shape Shifter

Chicago-born Scott Reeves is an innovative musician, composer, arranger and educator. He began playing the trombone when he was 10, having been turned on by Count Basie's bands of the 1950s and '60s. After earning a master's degree in music from Indiana University, he worked with a number of Midwest bands.

Reeves has been on the faculty of a number of major institutions, including Juilliard, the University of Southern Maine and City College of New York. He also has written several books that are widely used in schools; after moving to New York in 1999, he played with a number of name groups.

He currently leads two bands: Manhattan Bones, which has four trombones and a rhythm section; and the quintet featured on this album (which uses the same rhythm section).

Although Reeves is best known as a trombonist, he doesn't play that instrument here. On seven of the nine tracks, he uses an alto flugelhorn, which is pitched a fifth lower than the standard version; as Reeves describes it, the tone is a combination of a valve trombone, French horn and regular flugelhorn.

On the other tracks, he switches to an alto valve trombone (the standard instrument, with one-third of the tubing cut off).

Whatever. They both sound great.

Reeves composed and arranged all the tunes. The result is relatively complex, “thinking man's jazz” that is melodic and swings nicely.

John Stowell: Solitary Tales

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.3.09
Buy CD: Solitary Tales

Guitarist John Stowell lives and works in and around Portland, Ore. He may not be well known to the general public, but he's a “musician's musician” to name guitarists and those who know the music world well. Stowell also is a famous clinician who conducts classes throughout the United States and Canada.

This solo guitar album is his newest release on Origin; it's a true gem for those who enjoy the instrument.

As it happens, Mike Doolin, one of the country's foremost luthiers — an individual who designs and builds string instruments — also lives in Portland. One of the guitars Stowell utilizes in this release is a nylon acoustic/electric instrument done by Doolin. Stowell also used another electric instrument, tuned a major third lower, that was designed by Jim Soloway; both deliver gorgeous tones.

Another plus for this session: It was recorded at Doolin's home, not at a studio. That location, and the recording set-up, provided exceptional acoustics; you can hear the selection and movement of Stowell's fingers over the strings. It's as if you're sitting in the room with the artist, and he's playing just for you.

The tunes include six Stowell originals, a couple of standards and one each from modern jazz composers Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman. All are done beautifully.

Jacques Loussier: Plays Bach

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.3.09
Buy CD: Jacques Loussier Plays Bach

Some time ago, I was blown away by an album from master pianist Jacques Loussier.

Telarc has released another CD to celebrate this artist's ongoing involvement with his Play Bach Trio ... and this album is every bit as stunning as the last one I heard.

In the 1950s, Loussier — a young artist trying to find a way to improvise on the compositions of J.S. Bach — sometimes entertained his friends by mixing Bach with jazz. This concept was such a hit that he organized his first Play Bach Trio in 1959. This album recognizes that group's 50th anniversary, and also is an early birthday gift; Loussier will be 75 in October.

The tracks re-issued here were recorded as part of a Bach tercentenary celebration in 1985. In response to a request from cohorts, Loussier (who had retired the trio) re-formed it, using brilliant bassist Vincent Charbonnier and drummer Andre Arpino.

I've never heard better quality and cohesiveness.

Their original recordings have been out of circulation since the late 1990s; this album resurrects them. The 11 tracks of various Bach inventions were from concerts performed in France, Japan and England. Some are more “classical” than others, but just as you think to ask, “Where's the jazz?,” it works its way into the melody line.

Bach's compositions have inspired jazz musicians for years. As jazz has matured and become more modern, the great composer's “lines” are heard more and more frequently.

Let's face it: Deep down, ol' Johann Sebastian was a swinger!

Geof Bradfield: Urban Nomad

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.3.09
Buy CD: Urban Nomad

Much time has passed since a tasty, swinging, straight-ahead jazz quartet has come my way; this release by Chicago-based saxophonist Geof Bradfield fills the bill.

Originally from Texas, where he began his schooling, Bradfield moved to Chicago and entered DePaul University. He then went on to Los Angeles, where he received a master's degree from CalArts; moved to, and worked in, the New York area for three years; then returned to Chicago for a short time before he relocated to the West Coast and taught at Washington State University.

Bradfield returned to Chicago in 2003, where he's currently on the faculty of Columbia College and works with his own unit and several other local bands.

He uses both tenor and soprano saxes on this album. Seven of the nine tunes are originals, and all are his arrangements. His tone is clean, with minimum vibrato — Paul Desmond comes to mind — and his technique is flawless. The rest of Bradfield's group includes pianist Ron Perrillo, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer George Fludas. They compliment each other nicely, and their ensemble and solo work are excellent.

I appreciate it when standards are included in an album — in this case, “You're My Everything” and “Con Alma” — because I like to hear how their interpretation and performance compares to what other artists have done. Bradfield performs both tracks beautifully.

This unit is promising.