Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mark Sherman Quartet: Live at the Bird's Eye

Mile High Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.09
Buy CD: Live at the Bird's Eye

Mark Sherman began his musical career as a classical pianist, and played with the Cleveland and Boston Symphony Orchestras before he discovered jazz.

During his early years as a jazz man, and while studying at Juilliard, he was a percussionist; because of his earlier training as a pianist, the switch to vibraphone and marimba was preordained. He met — and performed with — Wynton Marsalis while at Juilliard; Marsalis' endorsement paved the way for Sherman's first contract with Columbia Records.

He initially made his living doing studio work in New York City, but soon was working with back-up groups for some of the top vocalists in the music business. Sherman was part of the Peggy Lee Quintet for seven years, and also backed up luminaries such as Lena Horne, Liza Minnelli, Mel Torme and the jazz duo of Jackie and Roy.

Sherman's extensive discography includes seven albums as a leader, almost 50 as a sideman, and another half dozen as a producer.

The quartet used for this double-CD release — recorded live at the Bird's Eye Jazz Club in Basel, Switzerland — features Sherman (vibes), Allen Farnham (piano), Dean Johnson (bass) and Tim Horner (drums). Seven of the 10 tracks were written and arranged by Sherman; the remaining three are covers of the ballads “You Don't Know What Love Is,” “There Is No Greater Love” and “Moon River.”

The result is what I'd call “thinking man's jazz”; the melodic lines are clever, complex and carefully arranged, and the solos are melded into those lines thoughtfully. Everything swings nicely, although at times Sherman's vibes work convey a “Gee, look how fast I can play!” feeling.

No doubt, though: The guy is a master of his instrument.

Joe Locke: Force of Four

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.09
Buy CD: Force of Four

In the beginning, we had Red Norvo, followed by Lionel Hampton, Margie Hyams, Terry Gibbs, Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader and Gary Burton.

They've now been joined by Joe Locke.

All are jazz vibraphone artists.

Although a relative youngster (still in his 40s), Locke has been playing the instrument for more than 30 years; his fame has risen during the most recent decade. He began playing with the “big boys” — Gillespie, for example — while still in high school; he subsequently performed with most of the great jazz groups, and has received numerous awards during his career.

And, thankfully, he has produced an extensive discography for us listeners: more than five dozen recordings, two dozen as a leader. On this, his newest album, Locke fronts his basic quartet: pianist Robert Rodriguez, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez and drummer Johnathan Blake.

Guest artists include Thomas Marriott on trumpet, and Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax.

Locke's style falls between the bop-oriented Jackson and the more avant-garde Burton; he's precise, innovative and — most importantly — swinging. He wrote three of the eight tunes here; Robert and Ricardo Rodriguez wrote one each, and the rest are covers of familiar jazz standards.

Locke's performance on the Mercer/Raksin hit “Laura” is particularly noteworthy. Locke enjoys mixing meters; he can play cool and funky with the best of them, and moves into more complex rhythms easily and fluently. (“Ricky's Tune” is done in 7/4.)

This is a smooth and totally enjoyable group, one you'd savor in either a jazz club or concert stage setting.

Ken Hatfield and Friends: To Be Continued

M/Pub Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.09
Buy CD: To Be Continued

The quintet featured here showcases the music of Bill McCormick, a former student of Boston's Berklee School of Music. McCormick's career as a guitarist was cut short by a debilitating shoulder injury but, after almost a decade of inactivity, he began writing again; he subsequently published a catalogue of books dealing with the guitar.

Ultimately, he formed a quintet for the purpose of presenting his compositions to the public; the success of his first CD, Music for Guitar, Volume 1, led to this album.

McCormick's guitar prowess is heard briefly on this CD, but the primary artist is Ken Hatfield, a leading proponent of the nylon-string (“classical”) instrument.

He's joined by Jim Clouse on soprano and tenor saxes, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Dan Weiss on drums, and Steve Kroon on additional percussion instruments.

The eight McCormick compositions include a minor-key blues waltz, “The Spirit of Soul”; a bop-tinged “Movin' To Cool Breeze City”; a tribute to jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, “El Camino Wes”; two works for solo guitar, “Pastorale” and “Mystery Ship”; a salute to the Brazilian genre, “Persistence of Saudade”; and two complex pieces, “Memories of a Dream” “To Be Continued.”

This is truly “arranged” jazz, with semi-classical overtones. The musicians are excellent, and everything is well rehearsed; the result is a lightly swinging album that is perfect for background listening.

Carmen McRae: Live at the Flamingo

Acrobat Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.09
Buy CD: Live at the Flamingo

Acrobat Music has produced a series of “reissue” albums that feature well-known jazz artists; this one presents Carmen McRae in a concert she did in 1961, at London's famous Flamingo Jazz Club. It was her first live appearance outside the United States, and initially was released on Ember Records in 1962.

I became familiar with McRae in the latter stages of her five-decade career, when she was better known for her jazz-oriented performances of pop tunes than as a pure jazz vocalist. But, as this concert clearly reveals, the lady was a genuine swinger.

She began as a pianist in Harlem in the 1920s, and played with luminaries such as Benny Carter and Count Basie. Because she was hindered by asthma, she didn't perform as a vocalist until 1953, when she was a guest artist at Harlem's famous Milton's Playhouse. Proprietor Teddy Hill hired her on the spot as a club regular, and McRae was on her way.

For this Flamingo concert, she was backed by a trio led by pianist Don Abney; they supported her beautifully. She performed almost a dozen jazz standards, including “I Could Write a Book,” “Body And Soul,” “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Stardust.”

I can't remember an album where these wonderful tunes have been done better.

Despite the asthma, McRae was a heavy smoker and developed emphysema; she was forced to retire in 1991 and passed away in '94. This album clearly illustrates that she was one of the finest vocalists who ever graced the world of jazz.

Frank Hailey-Eric Zukoski Trio: An Old Sweet Song

Sea Breeze Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.09
Buy CD: An Old Sweet Song

Pianist Frank Hailey, bassist Eric Zukoski and drummer Michael Hailey have released their second album on the Sea Breeze label; the concept this time was to take a dozen quite familiar songs — some very old, some relatively new — and play them in a groovy, straight-ahead style. Almost everyone has heard these selections dozens of times, but not this way.

For good measure, the group also included two bonus tracks from an upcoming Christmas album; those don't fall in the “old sweet” category, but they're popular holiday favorites (“Sleigh Ride” and a variation on “We Three Kings”). The net result is a nice, lightly swinging set that will bring a smile to your face and keep your toes tapping.

With a caveat.

The usual jazz tradition is to begin with a first chorus that establishes the (familiar) melody; follow with additional choruses that use the same chord structure and progressions, but introduce new melodic lines; and then finish by returning to the basic melody, to conclude the performance. That isn't the case here; the basic melody is retained throughout each chorus, although it's embellished each time.

That, in conjunction with the fact that many of these tunes are relatively short to begin with, results in excess repetition.

Despite this quibble, the trio grooves nicely, and would sound great in a supper club venue.

And, frankly, it's wonderful to hear oldies like “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “The Blue Danube,” “Georgia,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Stormy Weather” modernized by musicians who are both good, and having a good time.

The Blue Note 7: Mosaic — A Celebration of Blue Note Records

Blue Note Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.09
Buy CD: Mosaic

In January, Blue Note Records observed its 70th year of existence.

In recognition of that milestone, the label released this album and initiating a 51-city North American tour of the septet that recorded it. When Alfred Lion founded the label in 1939, he intended to “create a forum for composers to write music,” and he trusted them to “go ahead and do what they did best.”

The songs included were selected from the vast catalogue of music recorded during the company's 70 year span, and are favorites of those directing this enterprise. All are covers of tunes previously done by other artists in the Blue Note stable; all but two — McCoy Tyner's “Search for Peace” and Herbie Hancock's “Dolphin Dance” — were rearranged by members of this septet.

This group of artists, described as “the next generation of major players, arrangers and composers,” features pianist and leader Bill Charlap, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, alto saxophonist/flutist Steve Wilson, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. Each is excellent, as is the group as a whole.

The library featured is mellow, and the meters selected generally are mid-tempo; everything is smooth and thoughtful, with no frenetic instrumental “screaming.” The tunes will be familiar to all jazz fans: Cedar Walton's “Mosaic” (written for Art Blakey's group), Joe Henderson's “Inner Urge,” Bobby Hutcherson's “Little B's Poem,” Thelonious Monk's “Chris Cross,” Duke Pearson's “Idle Moments,” Horace Silver's “The Outlaw” and the two mentioned above.

The tour performances — which began in Washington, stopped here at UC Davis on Jan. 13, and will continue across the country before concluding with a six-night run in mid-April, at New York's Birdland — will include additional songs, also from the extensive Blue Note library.

This is an epic endeavor, and the album is well worth your time. If you missed the Blue Note 7 when they hit town a few weeks ago, here's a chance to experience at least a part of their magic.