Thursday, August 6, 2009

Ezra Weiss: Alice in Wonderland

Northwest Children's Theater and School
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.6.09
Buy CD: Alice in Wonderland

Portland, Ore., sponsors numerous activities and workshops for its citizens; one is the Northwest Children's Theater.

Some time ago, that group decided to expose youngsters to jazz in a way that would entertain them; Lewis Carroll's wonderful Alice in Wonderland became the vehicle. The score that Ezra Weiss wrote utilized songs inspired by jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Monk, with lyrics added to tell the story.

The original production placed a band in the center of a stage; all action happened around the musicians. The cast consisted of a dozen talented kids; the band was made up of well-known Portland musicians, including luminary vocalists Marilyn Keller and Shirley Nanette.

This CD is essentially the play's soundtrack. The drama was presented in two acts; the first included an opening overture, followed by six absolutely delightful tunes that introduced the various characters: Alice, the White Rabbit, the Mouse, Caterpillar, Frog, Duchess and Cheshire Cat.

Act 2 covers the Hare and Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, the Queen, Knave and various other characters. Each composition is marvelously constructed, and the result is a wonderfully swinging little jazz opera.

I would imagine the primary purpose — to introduce kids to jazz — succeeded beautifully. As Weiss commented, “Even if they aren't aware they're hearing jazz, it's there on a subconscious level. So, when they hear it again, they'll think 'Oh, this is like 'Alice'; I liked Alice!' And maybe they'll start listening to Coltrane.”

Keller and Nanette (Dormouse and the Queen of Hearts) sing and scat their way through the score neatly. The band — Farnell Newton, trumpet; Noah Bernstein, saxes; Lars Campbell, trombone; Bill Athens, bass; and Tim Paxton, drums — keeps things swinging wonderfully.

Weiss, who also arranged the works he composed, received rave reviews. He deserves them.

Tom Warrington Trio: The Mountain

Jazz Compass
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.6.09
Buy CD: The Mountain

To borrow the title of the Cole Porter tune used in this album, everything I love about jazz is present on this marvelous release:

• The featured players — bassist Tom Warrington, guitarist Larry Koonse and drummer Joe La Barbara — together with guests Bob Shepard (tenor and soprano sax) and Tommy Peterson (clarinet and bass clarinet) are among the finest musicians performing today.

• The tunes selected include two beautiful old standards — the aforementioned Porter melody and George Gershwin's “My Man's Gone Now” — and originals by Warrington and Koonse.

• Warrington and Koonse's arrangements are excellent, and the entire production process — the selection of artists, recording, mixing and mastering — is of the highest quality.

I've listened to a lot of releases from Koonse, Warrington and La Barbara, together and with other groups, and this is one of their best efforts. The melodic lines are intriguing and beautifully done, and the solo work is exceptional.

The whole is a lot more than “just another trio.” That's partly due to the addition of the two reed artists on four tracks, but mostly results from the manner in which the individual tunes are organized and presented. Melodies and solos meld and rivet your attention to what's going on; this isn't music your mind will drift away from.

This is the kind of stuff that makes my job a joy.

Mount Hood Community College Jazz Ensemble: Doin' the Best Deeds

Sea Breeze Vista
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.6.09
Buy CD: Doin' the Best Deed

For years, Oregon's Mount Hood Community College has provided an excellent musical education for students interested in jazz.

This album, the college jazz ensemble's fifth, demonstrates clearly the quality of the 2008 roster. Although the albums focuses on the big band, two smaller groups — combos A and B — make their debut, and two of the 12 tracks feature student vocalists.

As has been the case with previous releases, the selections here include a mixture of wonderful old standards (“Where or When,” “Cherokee,” “My Foolish Heart,” “Georgia”) and more modern tunes by artists such as Thad Jones, Roy Hargrove and Duke Pearson. All the arrangements are well rehearsed and, as is the case with all MHCC albums I've heard, the ensemble work is excellent.

All three of these units are “looser” and more relaxed than those I've heard previously; as a result, they swing more. Some of the tracks are on a par with those from much more experienced professional groups.

The biggest surprise in this release, however, is the high quality of some of the solo work. Shout-outs are warranted for guitarist Solomon Thelin and bassist Ross Davis: two young men who drive the rhythm section beautifully and swing like crazy.

Susie Jones directs these groups, and she deserves much of the credit for this excellent album. She clearly knew how to help the musicians achieve the high performance level demonstrated on this release.

Keep it up, Susie!

Mike Stern: New Morning, The Paris Concert

Heads Up International
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.6.09
Buy DVD: New Morning, The Paris Concert

Mike Stern is one of the best-known fusion-jazz electric guitarists of his generation.

He got his start with Blood, Sweat & Tears at the age of 22, played with Billy Cobham's fusion group for a few years, then joined Miles Davis' “comeback band” for a three year stint. Stern also has played with David Sanborn and the Brecker Brothers, and has toured with multiple groups as a leader.

Oh, and he's a five-time Grammy Award nominee.

This 2008 concert took place before a capacity crowd at the New Morning Club in Paris. The almost two hour set consisted of eight songs, all written by Stern. The genre is pure fusion: If you're a fan, you'll be delighted; if not, you'll turn down the volume and then eject the DVD.

There's no doubt about the quality of the musicians. Stern is a technical master of the electric guitar, and his compositions are exciting and innovative; bassist Tom Kennedy is his equal and, because he uses an electronic instrument, he can create solo lines at tempos that would be impossible to attain with an acoustic bass.

Dave Weckl, the finest big-band drummer working today, proves to be equally proficient with this smaller unit; saxophonist Bob Franseschini melds wonderfully with everybody else, providing excellent ensemble and solo lines.

As always is the case with fusion bands, all would be lost in the event of a power failure. The sustained notes and phrases made possible by electronics are a key factor in the success of this jazz style. The ability to sustain — and echo — notes and phrases, and to control volume readily, results in exciting music.

The panning camera shots of the French audience clearly reveal how excited they were to be part of, the happening.

That said, this is a band you'll either love or hate; there won't be any in-between.

Grant Geissman: Cool Man Cool

Futurism Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.6.09
Buy CD: Cool Man Cool

Guitarist Grant Geissman has been affiliated with many jazz genres; he is described as “a straight-ahead, crossover, New Age and contemporary artist.” He's also an Emmy Award-nominated composer and arranger for TV series and movies.

He's a true West Coast musician, born in 1953 in Berkeley. He grew up in San Jose, attended high school and college in that area, worked with numerous local bands and finally relocated to Los Angeles in 1973. While attending Cal State Northridge, he played with Gerald Wilson and Louie Bellson.

Geissman met Chuck Mangione and became a member of his band; their 1977 release of Feels So Good remains one of the top-selling instrumental albums to this day.

Geissman has been a featured sideman on numerous albums since then, and has released more than a dozen as a leader.

This CD utilizes a stellar group of artists: Corea, Mangione, Tom Scott, Russell Ferrante and many others. The 14 tracks provide a veritable smorgasbord of styles, and utilize an equivalent array of instruments: acoustic and electric keyboards, guitars and bases; Hammond B3 organ; saxes; flute; flugelhorn; violin; accordion; drums and bongos.

The instrumentation combinations vary for each tune, as does the musical style. The common thread, however, is that everything swings nicely.

This is a fun album with something for every taste.

Jake Shimabukuro: Live

Hitchhike Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.6.09
Buy CD: Jake Shimabukuro Live

Jake Shimabukuro is an unbelievably talented musician who, except for a relatively small fan base, remains almost unknown.

Why, you may wonder?

He plays the ukulele, that “cute” little instrument usually associated with grass skirts, college kids in raccoon coats during the roaring '20s and vaudeville acts. (Remember Tiny Tim?)

As Shimabukuro has noted, “Climbing on stage with a ukulele in hand is a great advantage with an audience, because they have such low expectations.”

The ukulele has only four strings, is almost small enough to fit into a backpack, and most often is played by strumming all four strings at once, using the other hand to obtain the desired chord changes; the result often is a “tinny-plinky” sound that isn't very musical.

Well, as Tony Soprano was fond of saying, fuggedaboudit.

In Shimabukuro's hands, the ukulele becomes as lyrical, moving and beautiful as any stringed instrument you've ever heard. More importantly, it can swing!

Shimabukuro, born and raised in Hawaii, began to play the instrument at age 4 (“because my mother played it”) but didn't start lessons until a few years later. Once in high school, after hearing artists such as Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix, Shimabukuro began to play the ukulele like a guitar.

This album features excerpts from live concerts he has given in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and several Japanese cities. Most of the tunes are his compositions, or interpretations based on chord structures from standards; the rest run the gamut from traditional Japanese songs to J.S. Bach and Chick Corea.

All border on amazing. Shimabukuro's tone, dexterity and musical quality are phenomenal.

Someday we may be fortunate enough to hear this guy in person; until then, be grateful that we have him on CD!