Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Burr Johnson Band: What It Is

Lexicon Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.5.09
Buy CD: What It Is

Guitarist Burr Johnson, though not known as a “straight-ahead” jazz musician, has played with artists such as Ray Charles, B.B. King and Spyro Gyra. Johnson performed at the famous Montreux Jazz Festival two years in a row, headlined the Manchester Jazz Festival, and currently is touring throughout Germany and the United States.

He also has played with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and, as a guitar instructor, particularly enjoys working with youngsters.

His “band” on this CD actually is a trio; he's ably backed by bassist Al Payson and drummer Thierry Arpino. They play a combination of funk, rock and blues. Johnson composed and arranged all the tunes in this album, his ninth, and he's obviously hooked on electronics synthesizers.

While he can play dazzling single-string runs, he's primarily a harmonic-chord player. He consistently uses electronics to sustain chords, overlaying additional chords for both melodic and solo phrases. He has absolute control of his instrument, and is capable of blazing tempos.

Once again, guitar lovers will enjoy this one.

Michael Higgins: The Moon and the Lady Dancing

Michael Higgins Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.5.09
Buy CD: The Moon and the Lady Dancing

Unless you're a rabid guitar fan, you've probably never heard of Michael Higgins ... but he certainly isn't unknown to the music world.

He studied with the likes of Joe Pass and Barney Kessel, and has played — and recorded (more than 300 albums and counting!) — with big bands fronted by Maynard Ferguson, Bob Mintzer and Dizzy Gillespie, and with divas such as Bernadette Peters and Shirley MacLaine.

Higgins earned both a bachelor's and master's degrees in music, and he's on the teaching staff at two California colleges.

This self-released album features his trio: one of the tastiest groups I've heard in a long time. Bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum join this collection of a dozen tunes, only one of which (“Alone Together”) wasn't written by Higgins.

The operative terms for this unit are smooth, melodic and swinging. It's the kind of jazz you can listen to for hours, but it's more than background music. This CD is proof that jazz can be both moving and beautiful. Anderson and Nussbaum's support is excellent, with the back-and-forth of Higgins' guitar and Anderson's bass particularly noteworthy.

This album's a must for those who enjoy guitar. And if that isn't your favorite instrument, The Moon and the Lady Dancing should elevate it on your list.

Jim McNeely/Kelly Sill/Joel Spencer: Boneyard

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.5.09
Buy CD: Boneyard

Pianist Jim McNeely, bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Joel Spencer are well-known musicians who began their careers in the Chicago area.

They first met during the 1970s, but as members of other groups. All have played with literally dozens of name organizations: McNeely with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band, Stan Getz and Phil Woods; Sill with Hank Jones, Don Menza and Clark Terry; and Spencer with Count Basie, Wynton Marsalis and Scott Hamilton.

McNeely earned nine Grammy Award nominations from 1997 through 2006, and serves on the faculties of both the Manhattan School of Music and William Paterson University. Sill, a graduate of the University of Illinois, is involved in jazz festivals within and outside of the United States, as is Spencer.

All are “first call” artists for commercial radio, TV and movie soundtracks.

Two of this album's tunes were written by McNeely, and two by Sill; the rest are jazz standards by Kurt Weill, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Wayne Shorter and Bob Hilliard/David Mann. McNeely handled all the arrangements.

All are beautifully done: Your attention will be riveted to the music, and that's a major accomplishment in a trio setting. These are first-class artists, and they've produced an CD you'll want to play again and again.

Beegie Adair: Dancing in the Dark

Green Hill Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.5.09
Buy CD: Dancing in the Dark

This is the third album by the wonderful Beegie Adair Trio that I've reviewed in the past few years, and it's another winner.

Adair constructs albums based on specific themes and events that have been important in her life. A previous release (Sentimental Journey) featured songs from the World War II period; another (As Time Goes By) covered famous movie songs. This one focuses on melodies that Fred Astaire danced to, and sang, during his career.

The Kentucky-born Adair, now a Tennessee resident, once again is supported by bassist Roger Spencer and drummer Chris Brown. They thinks as one.

Adair is one of those pianists who, while you listen to her, prompts wistful thoughts like “Gee ... I wish I could play like that.” She's technical perfection, light on the keys and marvelously innovative, and she always swings.

Each tune here is covered in the same way: the introductory theme, often ignored by today's artists; then the standard, familiar chorus; then additional choruses that allow Adair to stretch out and show her chops; and a final chorus that re-states the melody line. Generally, the length of each song is limited by the interval (scene) that featured Astaire's dancing or singing performance.

You've heard all these songs before, but boredom never sets in.

I'm already anticipating next year's effort by Adair and her band.

Wayne Wallace: The Nature of the Beat

Patois Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.5.09
Buy CD: The Nature of the Beat

Fans of Latin big band jazz are certain to enjoy this album.

The leader of this group, Wayne Wallace, composes, arranges and plays trombone and Wagner tuba. He has worked with name bands (Count Basie, Lionel Hampton) and artists (Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder). He's conversant with (to use his terminology) “the three genres of the Music of The Americas: jazz, R&B and Latin jazz.” The latter format is featured on this release.

This is a genuinely large unit: more than a dozen instrumentalists and almost as many supporting vocalists. The 10 tracks include Latin jazz, Latin funk, timba and timba-funk, bolero, cha cha, Cuban funk and orisha variations. Wallace wrote several cuts; artists such as Herbie Hancock and Teddy Powell contributed others.

The most interesting arrangements, however, are based on Gershwin's “Fascinatin' Rhythm” and Gerry Mulligan's “Jeru,” both of which sound great in this Latin translation.

This album is strong, and the musicians and vocalists provide as good a Latin “feel” as I've heard in awhile. Get out the rum, mix up some of those feel-good cocktails, and practice your dance steps ... then put on this CD and par-tay!

The Dave Brubeck Quartet: On the Radio — Live 1956-57

Acrobat Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.5.09
Buy CD: On the Radio: Live 1956-57

This release from Acrobat Music's premier collection, which showcases famous jazz artists of the past, features never-released radio transcripts of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. The recordings were made during broadcasts from New York City's Basin Street Jazz Club in 1956, and Chicago's Blue Note in 1957.

Brubeck was a relatively late arrival to the jazz scene. He managed to graduate from college without learning to read music; then, after several years in Europe with an Armed Services band in the early 1940s, he remained overseas to study with French classical composer Darius Milhaud.

This training, combined with the West Coast “cool jazz” sound he'd heard during his college years, resulted in the unique style that made him famous. His first recordings, on Atlantic Records, were with an octet that featured Cal Tjader and Ron Crotty; Brubeck and this duo also recorded two trio albums in 1949 and '50.

Brubeck also met alto saxman Paul Desmond while both were in the service. After the war concluded, they were together in a trio Desmond headed; the latter didn't become a regular with Brubeck's group until later.

Brubeck, Desmond, bassist Norman Bates and drummer Joe Dodge made up a quartet for several years, and that cadre is featured on the Basin Street Jazz Club '56 broadcast; the only personnel change for the '57 Blue Note club date was Joe Morello, who replaced Dodge on drums.

Dodge was an excellent — and steady — percussionist, but Morello was far more innovative. The stylistic change that occurred with his arrival was significant, and is evident in the tracks presented on this album. That said, both groups were unique; their cover of “Stardust” (for example) was unlike anything done by any other band.

Desmond set the primary tone for the quartet. His soft, clean, almost vibratoless style made that band; no other alto player sounded like him. This release includes most of the tunes that appeared in the many albums this quartet recorded over the years, but — big “but” — because they never played 'em the same way twice, this listening experience is well worth your time.

The album's only weakness is the audio quality, but considering the fact that these are radio transcripts, that's to be expected. The announcer's introductions and comments bring back memories of jazz's importance during that time period; only the commercials have been eliminated.

Acrobat is to be congratulated — and supported — for this series.