Thursday, May 7, 2009

Elaine Elias: Bossa Nova Stories

Blue Note Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.7.09
Buy CD: Bossa Nova Stories

Can you believe that more than 50 years have passed since bossa nova was born?

This musical child's “parents” were Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, who wrote a tune titled “Cheda de Saudade.” But the recording of “The Girl From Ipanema” — by Gilberto, Stan Getz and Gilberto's wife/vocalist Astrud — was the smash hit that turned the United States on to the bossa nova genre.

Interestingly, although Astrud Gilberto had been singing (without pay) with the group that had developed this style, the “Ipanema” recording marked her first professional appearance.

Eliane Elias grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the 1960s, when bossa nova was the popular genre. Although it was her “daily bread,” she was a classically trained pianist who also embraced the music of jazz pianists Art Tatum and Bud Powell. She studied and toured with de Moraes from age 17 through 20, during which interval she met Jobim several times.

In 1990, when she recorded her Plays Jobim album for Blue Note, Jobim was so impressed that he recommended her for his piano substitute when he became ill. Elias followed that famous album with her equally popular 1998 release, Sings Jobim.

Bossa Nova Stories is Elias' 21st album. Half of its 14 tracks are covers of classic bossa nova tunes; the rest are equally classic American standards, all done in bossa style. When you hear them — “The More I See You,” “They Can't Take That Away from Me,” “Day In, Day Out,” “Too Marvelous for Words” and “Day by Day” — you'll quickly realize how beautifully these familiar tunes fit the bossa nova style.

If you're a fan, this is a “must have” album. And even if you aren't, I bet it'll fit onto your “wanna have” list.

Michael Tracy and Harry Pickens: Conversations

Sea Breeze Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.7.09
Buy CD: Conversations

This is an unusual album.

It consists of saxophone and piano duets, with no rhythm section; Michael Tracy is the saxophonist, and Harry Pickens the pianist.

Additionally, both men are part of the Louisville Kentucky School of Music faculty; their primary job is in the field of education. They had early careers as performers — Pickens with luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody — and then morphed into the education field as they got older.

Musicians often play and practice together, to work out compositions, arrangements and phrasing; they sometimes record such sessions in order to assess the results. Sometimes a horn player and pianist will play together just for their own enjoyment; vibraphonist Gary Burton once referred to such events as “like having a conversation with an old friend.”

This album falls into that category, but it's important to realize that such occasions usually aren't released for commercial listening. This CD is an exception.

Pickens wrote two tunes; the rest, by other composers, date from the late 1930s to the present day. Five of those are arranged by Tracy and/or Pickens. The results, though pleasant enough, can become tiresome because of the limited instrumentation. (I suggest these tracks be programmed in a “shuffle” mode, along with other recordings.)

I suspect sales will be limited, outside of relatives, friends and students.

Miles David All-Stars: 1958-59 Broadcast Sessions

Acrobat Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.7.09
Buy CD: 1958-59 Broadcast Sessions

This, another of the Acrobat Music albums of “never before released” sessions by various jazz icons, focuses on Miles Davis.

The time period is 1958 and '59; the medium is broadcast radio. The venues include the Café Bohemia and Birdland, both in New York City; the Spotlight Lounge in Washington, D.C.; and the Mosque Theater in Newark, N.J.

Those were the days when jazz was at its peak, and live radio broadcasts were common from the clubs and theaters that featured the famous artists of the period.

Davis, born in 1926, was playing in name bands by the time he was 15. He met and began working with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-'40s; by 1949, he had fallen prey to heroin ... no surprise, since Parker also was an addict. Unlike Parker, though, Davis decided to break the habit; he returned to his family home in 1953 and battled his way off heroin.

He didn't return to New York until after the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, when he was certain he had well and truly defeated the habit.

The Bohemia tracks feature Davis, John Coltrane (tenor sax), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and “Philly” Joe Jones (drums). By the Spotlight Lounge gig, six months later, Cannonball Adderley had been added on alto sax, Red Garland had replaced Bill Evans on piano, and Jimmy Cobb was the drummer.

Later that month, a “jazz party” was featured at the Mosque Theater; it included Davis, Adderley and his brother Nat (on clarinet), Bennie Green (trombone), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Red Garland (piano) and Barry Miles (drums). Two months later, at Birdland, Wynton Kelly was the pianist.

All these units featured Davis at his best: when he was drug-free, at his most innovative, and before he began drinking to excess.

The musical content of these sessions is exceptional; only the audio fidelity is lacking. Those of us who grew up during that period, before hi-fi systems became affordable, remember the limitations of monaural radio 'casts.

The digital re-mastering done here probably is the best that can by expected, and only this compromised audio quality prevents the album from receiving a 5-star rating. For those who appreciate the artistry that Davis brought to jazz, this release is an essential part of one's musical library.

Ann Hampton Callaway: At Last

Telarc Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.7.09
Buy CD: At Last

Ann Hampton Callaway is a multitalented musician with experience in Broadway shows, clubs and lounges, and is involved in every aspect of her craft. She's listed as an arranger for each of the 11 tunes on this release, and she wrote two of them. She's also an excellent vocalist.

Callaway likes theme albums; her first featured tunes with blues variations, while this one addresses the various aspects of love. She covers well-known standards by Cole Porter, Lew Brown, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Harold Arlen and Michel LeGrand; although some of the charts are done up-tempo, most are performed as ballads.

Callaway's remarkable vocal range is richly evident, above and below her natural alto voicing; she can be sensuous and exciting, and her enunciation and pitch are excellent.

But I detect performance differences, when comparing this album to her previous release; she has become more theatrical and less of a jazz vocalist. Putting it another way, she's developing Barbara Streisand's characteristics: Every tune sounds like the sort of production number you'd expect on a stage or in a high-class supper club, rather than the more casual and relaxed format of a jazz club.

Her backup group features the basic trio with which she usually performs — pianist Ted Rosenthal, bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Victor Lewis — and also includes a sextet consisting of flugelhorn, tenor sax, trombone, guitar, violin and percussion. It's a smooth ensemble, and they complement Callaway admirably.

Mike Holober: Quake

Sunnyside Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.7.09
Buy CD: Quake

Pianist/composer/arranger Mike Holober has worked with — and written for — some of the top artists in the jazz scene; he can be heard on more than 40 recordings as a sideman.

As a leader, he has recorded with both a quintet and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra; this album features the latter group.

In addition to Holober's work in the New York City area, he has toured extensively in Europe and has performed and/or recorded with the HR Big Band in Frankfort, the WDR Big Band in Cologne, and the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra. He's also an assistant professor at the City College of New York.

Holober's style is in the contemporary classical jazz idiom. His compositions are musical, rhythmic and complex: definitely written for the concert stage, and not for dancing. The Gotham Jazz Orchestra consists of five saxes, four trumpets, four trombones, a guitar, a bass and drums, with Holober playing both piano and Fender Rhodes.

The musicians are excellent, and the unit is beautifully rehearsed: no fluffs to be heard. The content consists of thoughtful and brilliant ensemble passages, interspersed with outstanding solo work by members from each section of the orchestra.

It's almost too precise; a little less perfection might have yielded a more exciting performance. That said, what's present is choice!

Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard

Keepnews Collection, Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.7.09
Buy CD: Sunday at the Village Vanguard

If one were to list influential artists in the field of jazz, pianist/composer/arranger Bill Evans would be near the top.

A large segment of the general public doesn't know about him, because he never played with any of the “famous” bands of the jazz years, and in fact usually worked with small groups. Few musicians, however, fail to recognize his genius.

Evans, born in 1929, was playing classical piano at age 6, and he also studied flute and violin as a child. He received a degree in piano performance at Southeastern Louisiana College in 1950, and studied composition at New York's Mannes College of Music. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he worked in the Chicago area, then moved to — and got noticed — in the New York City jazz scene.

Miles Davis asked Evans to join his group in 1958, where the pianist remained for nearly a year. In '59, Evans formed his most innovative trio, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums; that trio — recorded during a “Sunday At The Village Vanguard” concert in New York in '61 — is featured in this album.

It was Evans' first live recording session and initially was released on vinyl; this CD is a 24-bit re-mastering of that session.

The original LP contained six tunes; this CD retains those tracks and adds four alternate takes.

Let's face it, gang: This album is a gem.

I've never heard another trio that thinks and plays together as cohesively, and beautifully. Evans is masterful, and LaFaro is his equal. (Tragically, LaFaro was killed in an automobile accident mere months after this session, and Evans didn't play again for almost a year.)

Unfortunately, Evans left us too soon; he died in 1990 from illnesses related to excessive drug use.

Fortunately, he left an extensive discography, and this album is one of the best. Shame on anybody who doesn't partake of his genius.