Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Aaron J. Johnson: Songs of Our Fathers

Bubble-Sun Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.09
Buy CD: Songs of Our Fathers

Aaron J. Johnson is another of the many artists well known in musician circles, but not to the general public.

He was born in 1958 in Washington, D.C., and began playing piano at age 12. He switched to drums, but by the time he hit grade school had discovered the trombone. He attended both Carnegie Mellon Institute and the Georgia Institute of Technology, and earned degrees from both; one of those degrees is in electrical engineering!

Johnson played with countless college bands and funk groups in the D.C. and New York City areas. By the 1990s, he was established as an experienced sideman, composer and arranger.

This, his debut album, features a quintet consisting of his trombone, tenor sax/flute/oboe, piano, bass and drums. Johnson composed and arranged all the tunes, which were “done as an homage to hard bop.” It's straight-ahead jazz, and everything swings nicely. Most of the tracks use middle to up-tempo 4/4 and 3/4 meters; one is done in a gospel mode, and another as a Latin-tinged ballad. One is a real kicker in the New Orleans style.

All are great for either listening or dancing.

At times, the group reminds me of Horace Silver — one of the best of the hard bop stylists — but this album is more musical. The relatively unusual combination of trombone and reed instruments carrying the melodies is a plus, and the ensemble and solo efforts by all are excellent.

This is a “happy” group, and the album makes a fun listen.

Bob Sneider and Joe Locke: Nocturne for Ava

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.09
Buy CD: Nocturne for Ava

Some of the best jazz released is what I call “stealth” jazz: the music composed for and used in movie soundtracks.

Unfortunately, the better the movie, the less one is likely to pay close attention to the soundtrack; its purpose is to accent what's happening on the screen ... so, in a sense, if the score does its job properly, it's self-defeating.

That's what soundtrack albums are for.

When you list the best movies you've seen, more often than not they've had superior background music; think of Lawrence of Arabia, Jaws or Titanic. True, those didn't have jazz backgrounds, but dozens of others did, and many fall into the film noir genre. The Thomas Crown Affair, Laura, Afterglow, I Want to Live, The Black Dahlia, Anatomy of a Murder, Last Tango in Paris and Blow Up owed much to composers such as Michel LeGrand, Raskin/Mercer, Mark Isham, Johnny Mandel, John Sneider, Duke Ellington, Gato Barbieri and Herbie Hancock, respectively.

For this album, Bob Sneider and Joe Locke arranged “covers” of tunes from these films. Additionally, Locke includes a tribute to Ava Gardner (“Nocturne for Ava”), who was featured in many noir projects during her career.

The octet used for this release features John Sneider (trumpet), Locke (vibes), Grant Stewart (tenor sax), Sneider (guitar), Paul Hoffman (piano), Martin Wind (bass), Tim Horner (drums) and Luisito Quintero (percussion); the result is a primo group. Their music is smooth as silk, and each track masterfully brings back memories of the films in question.

All in all, a wonderful album.

Lee Shaw Trio: Live in Graz

Artists Recording Collective
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.09
Buy CD: Live in Graz

If you haven't heard of pianist/composer/arranger Lee Shaw, you're not old enough; she's another living legend.

Born in Ada, Okla., in 1926, Lee began to study piano at age 5. During a time when few women attended college, she earned a bachelor of music degree in piano at the Oklahoma College for Women, and followed it with a master's degree in piano at Chicago's American Conservatory of Music.

When she began playing in Chicago clubs, she shared billing with the likes of Anita O'Day, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. Studying with Oscar Peterson turned Lee into the jazz pianist she later became. She met her future husband, drummer Steve Shaw; they formed a piano trio, moved to New York City and toured for more than 40 years.

Steve Shaw died in 2001, but that wasn't the end of Lee's career; drummer Jeff Siegel replaced Steve and, with bassist Rich Syracuse, the new trio performs to this day.

This album, recorded live in 2007 at CafĂ© Stockwerk in Graz, Switzerland, contains both a CD and DVD. The CD audio state of the art and sounds excellent; unfortunately, that isn't the case on the DVD. That said, the DVD includes interviews as well as the performance, and provides wonderful background information. You'll see that Shaw — well into her 80s — remains a vibrant person.

She wrote and arranged five of the eight tunes on this CD. Her style echoes the 1950s, but her performance is more “alive” than many of today's musicians. It's marvelous that an 83-year-old still does what she loves, and this “time capsule” release will make those who shared her generation feel young again.

And, yes, the lady still swings!

Sound Assembly: Edge of the Mind

Beauport Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.09
Buy CD: Edge of the Mind

Sound Assembly is a 17-piece orchestra led by David Schumacher and J.C. Sanford, who composed, arranged and conducted this album's nine tracks.

Although Schumacher also is a saxophonist and Sanford a trombonist, neither performs as instrumentalists here. Their orchestra consists of five reeds, four trumpets/flugelhorns, four trombones and a basic rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass and drums. A female vocalist appears on one track.

Although the liner notes identify this group as a “jazz orchestra,” I must take exception. Readers of this column know that — for me — if it doesn't swing, it isn't jazz. This group does everything but swing. The musicians are excellent, flawless and well-rehearsed, but the compositions are complex in the extreme (altered chord structures and meters abound).

The result is music strictly for a concert hall. The album echoes some of the compositions done years ago, when Igor Stravinsky melded his talent with the likes of Duke Ellington and Woody Herman, It was avant-garde, but certainly not jazz.

One must appreciate the musical accomplishment and skill associated with this group, and the album certainly will intrigue those who enjoy abstract musical “art.” But Edge of the Mind is identified as “jazz” because of the personnel involved, not because of the content.

Amina Figarova: Above the Clouds

Munich Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.09
Buy CD: Above the Clouds

Hey gang, this time you get a twofer: a review of an excellent pianist/composer (Amina Figarova) and a geography lesson.

Figarova was born in 1964 in Baku, Azerbaijan, situated in the Caucasus between Europe and Asia. The country borders Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Iran and the Caspian Sea.

Figarova, raised by a musically appreciative family, grew up listening to her parents' records of Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, and became attracted to the piano at age 2. As is the case with many European musicians, she received much of her training in the classical field of 19th century compositions; as a student at Baku Conservatory, she concertized professionally and recorded the repertoire of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.

Even so, she was intrigued by jazz, tinged with an ethnic folk music mix.

She began to write her own music. She initially used commercial pop formats but, after visiting the Moscow Jazz Festival in 1988, she accepted an invitation to study composition in the Netherlands. Within a month, she switched to a jazz program; after a year, she went to the Berklee College of Music.

In 1998, she was accepted into the Thelonious Monk Jazz Colony in Aspen, Colo. She met her husband, multi-flutist Bart Platteau; they formed a combo and began touring internationally.

This album features their usual septet — piano, flute, bass, drums, trumpet, flugelhorn and sax — with an added trombone and sax on several tracks. The group is truly excellent: Figarova and Platteau in particular, but also the entire supporting cast as well.

Figarova composed and arranged all the tunes. The arrangements demand your attention: The album is lyrical and beautiful, and it really swings.

This is modern jazz at its best!

Dave Frank: Turning It Loose

Jazzheads Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.09
Buy CD: Turning It Loose

There are — and have been — many virtuoso pianists, but precious few are great jazz artists. And of those few, an even more limited number can play at speeds that make an audience (and other pianists) shake their heads in disbelief.

During the very early years, Art Tatum led the way. Then Lennie Tristano appeared, and he was followed by the incomparable Oscar Peterson. All played beautiful, innovative, melodic music at every tempo; their ability to perform at mind-boggling speed was just the icing on the cake.

Dave Frank takes a back seat to none of the above artists. He was a co-founder of the New York School of Jazz, where he remained through 1986; he then became an associate professor of piano at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he remained through '04. He then began to direct the Dave Frank School of Jazz, in midtown Manhattan.

Frank has performed world-wide and appeared at numerous jazz festivals since 1994, and is the author of two best-selling Hal Leonard music books/videos: Joy of Improv and Breakthrough to Improv.

This album, his third release on the Jazzheads label, joins two previous solo piano CDs: Power of the Piano (1997) and Ballads and Burners (2007).

Frank composed three of the dozen tracks here: “Snow Falls on 5th Avenue,” “Prayer at St. Patrick's” and “Musical Roots.” The rest are covers of standards that every jazz musician has grown up with, granting equal time to ballads and up-tempo “barn-burners.” All are exceptional.

Pay particular attention to Frank's left-hand techniques. I won't even attempt to describe it in technical terms; suffice it to say you've never heard anything like it.

This is a great album by an amazing musician.