Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holiday Jazz 2009: Santa's got a brand new beat

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for roughly 14 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing.]

My ever-expanding collection of holiday jazz once again grew by leaps and bounds during the past year, thanks to the growing ease with which regional and foreign releases can be discovered and obtained via the Internet.

As a result, while the major record companies have been surprisingly quiet this year — at least when it comes to new holiday jazz releases — I've no shortage of good music to share. and continue to be excellent sources; the latter even has a specific category for holiday jazz. Amazon, as well, is laden with goodies: some of them hailing from overseas, and more likely available via Amazon's UK or French sites. And, thanks to the growing sophistication of instant Web-based language translators, navigating foreign-language sites isn't nearly as challenging as once was the case.

But why belabor the details? You're here for the music, and this space would be better served fulfilling that desire. So when you're seeking alternatives to eyebrow-raising Christmas pop or oft-heard classics that may have grown a bit tiresome, consider the following.

They'll keep your egg nogged!

I covered Trio West's first seasonal jazz album back in 2007, and was quite impressed by the musicality displayed by this lively combo: producer/arranger/
drummer Tobias Gebb, pianist Eldad Zvulun and bassist Neal Miner.

Well, the unit is back this year with Trio West Plays Holiday Songs Vol. 2 (Yummyhouse Records), and the trio's music is just as lively and engaging; this CD is just plain fun.

Gebb's arrangements are designed as if his group were playing for a lively ballroom dance competition, starting with a tango rendition of "We Three Kings" that's so sultry, we practically can see the long-stemmed rose in Zvulun's teeth.

Gebb apparently loves double-time arrangements, and Zvulun is up to the challenge; "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" are furious sambas, while the group's rendition of "Jingle Bells" positively roars. And while you'd expect a waltz interpretation of "We Three Kings" to be on the gentler side, that ain't the case; this peppy 6/4 waltz would leave any dancers breathless.

"O Tannenbaum" is presented twice: first in a funkified strut with bebop echoes of Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts," and later as a more traditionally rhythmic salsa.

Fortunately, the songs aren't all sprints; both "Joy to the World" and "The First Noel" break up the action, allowing folks to enjoy a slow dance or two.

Gebb's percussion work is always creative, and Zvulun keeps his solos simple, with single-note riffs rather than chords. Sadly, although Miner maintains a steady presence, he remains in the background; these 11 tracks are too brief to afford any extended solos.

But hey: There's nothing wrong with short and sweet.

Thomas Marriott: Flexicon

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: Flexicon

Thomas Marriott plays trumpet and flugelhorn, and is based in the Seattle area. I reviewed an earlier release (Both Sides of the Fence) by this group a few years ago, and found it quite enjoyable.

Marriott once again uses his basic quartet — with pianist Bill Anschell, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Matt Jorgensen — and adds guest artists Mark Taylor (saxophones) and Joe Locke (vibes). Three of these nine tracks are Marriott originals; the rest are covers of tunes written by Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Rogers and Hart, John Barry and others.

Except for the opener — “Take It to the Ozone,” a real burner — all the tracks are mid-tempo. The musicians are first-class, and they sound as if they've been together for years.

This is a perfect example of what I call “thinking” jazz: The arrangements are excellent, and the ensemble and solo passages keep your attention focused. You can listen to this group again and again, and be rewarded anew each time. I'd love to hear them in person.

John Pondel: John Pondel

RGR Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: John Pondel

Guitarist John Pondel is a first-call artists who has played with — and for — darn near everybody over the years, but he isn't well known outside the musical fraternity. Born in Chicago but raised in California, Pondel spent several years choosing an instrument; he began with accordion, flute and clarinet but didn't get hooked until his brother introduced him to the guitar.

By the age of 20, Pondel was playing with the Gerald Wilson Band and was on his way to becoming a studio musician. He worked with most of the West Coast jazz luminaries, then moved to New York City. His band Jazzhole was one of the seminal groups in the acid jazz genre; the unit records to this day.

Pondel's current group, a trio, features bassist Scott Colley and drummer Marivaldo Dos Santos; this album adds David Binney on alto sax and flute. The resulting sound bears no resemblance to acid, rock, fusion or hip-hop; it's relaxed and soothing. All the tracks are originals, all done at mid-tempo.

The result is one of the nicest sets of “background” jazz I've heard in quite awhile, and that descriptor is by no means negative. This is the kind of music you'd enjoy filling your room with while reading, studying or entertaining friends during a quiet get-together.

Scotty Barnhart: Say It Plain

Unity Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: Say It Plain

Scotty Barnhart played trumpet with the Count Basie orchestra for 17 years; this is his debut recording as a leader.

He may be an “unknown” to casual jazz fans, but the fact that he was able to gather an august group of musicians for this album speaks well for their assessment of him. The line-up includes Wynton Marsalis and his pianist father, Ellis, Clark Terry and a number of musicians who've been a part of bands that Wynton Marsalis has formed over the years.

This album contains a dozen tunes, half written by Barnhart; the rest are covers of well-known jazz standards. The styles vary: straight-ahead, swing, blues, ballads, Latin and even a nod to New Orleans.

Those familiar with Wynton Marsalis are aware that he loves to re-explore older jazz styles as much as he enjoys pushing the envelope into new areas; Barnhart is an obvious disciple. I'm sure John Coltrane never envisioned his classic “Giant Steps” in New Orleans garb, nor did Frank Loesser expect to hear “I've Never Been in Love Before” as a burner.

It's also a real treat to hear Clark Terry play and scat his way through “Pay Me My Money.”

As for Barnhart himself, he's one helluva trumpet player. His treatment of “I'm Glad There Is You” is gorgeous, and his cover of “Put On a Happy Face” is as innovative and swinging as anything I've ever heard.

His tone is crystal-clear at any tempo. The man is flat-out great!

All in all, this is a neat, swinging album. I'm waiting to hear more.

Chris Pasin: Detour Ahead

H20 Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: Detour Ahead

I bet you've never heard of Chris Pasin.

He's a trumpet player/composer/arranger who was a sideman with several bands during the 1980s, including one fronted by Buddy Rich. But Pasin dropped off the music scope for 16 years to raise a family, and is just now playing jazz again around the New York area.

This is a debut album for Pasin, although it was recorded way back in 1987, before he took his extended sabbatical. Because much has changed during the intervening years, this is something of a time capsule.

At the time, Pasin headed a quintet that included Steve Slagle (reeds), Benny Green (piano), Rufus Reid (bass) and Dannie Richmond (drums). The group swings quite nicely.

Pasin wrote six of the eight tracks; the two others are covers of the standards “Detour Ahead” and “My Romance.” The group sounds like many of the small units that abounded on both the West and East coasts in the '80s, which is a compliment.

Although it sounds contradictory, these guys are “tight” during the ensemble passages, yet achieve a “loose” feel during the solos, thanks to the fine rhythm section. Pasin is an excellent musician; his tone is crystal clear, and his solos are inventive. Green and Reid are great, as always.

It's a pleasure to have Pasin back in the saddle.

The Dave Rivello Ensemble: Facing the Mirror

Allora Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: Facing the Mirror

During the heyday of the big bands, all the leaders were famous, as were many of their featured sidemen; most were primary instrumentalists.

Although some of these individuals also composed and arranged tunes that were included in each band's “library,” most of the charts were done by big band arrangers; these folks often were unknown until their contributions became a key part of the band's “character.”

As the big bands faded away, the name musicians became fewer; the same was true of the arrangers. Dave Rivello is a member of the latter group: He's a composer, arranger and conductor. For almost a decade, he worked for — and with — the famous trombonist/composer/arranger, Bob Brookmeyer.

This album marks the debut of Rivello's own ensemble, and he's responsible for all the contents.

Financial constraints and changing tastes have made it difficult to maintain a true big band; you could call this 12-piece ensemble a “big band lite.” Rivello fields three woodwinds, include a soprano sax/flute, tenor sax/clarinet and regular/bass clarinet; three trumpets/flugelhorns; two trombones; a tuba; and a standard piano/bass/drums rhythm section.

Some of the musicians are experienced local pros; the rest are alumni or students from the Eastman School of Music, where Rivello is an assistant professor.

This is a very modern group, and it truly swings. All eight tracks are melodic, and a lot of attention is given to harmonic phrasing. The unit is based in Rochester, N.Y., and has played one night each week for years at a local venue, with frequent supplementary concerts at the Eastman School.

It's unlikely that this organization will ever tour or be heard live outside the East Coast, but we can look forward to future albums. Thank goodness!

The Stanley Clarke Trio: Jazz in the Garden

Heads Up Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09
Buy CD: Jazz in the Garden

Long ago, when meters usually were 2/4 time, the acoustic bass was just a straight rhythm instrument. Unless you were listening to a concert orchestra, it never was used for solos, and then it was “bowed.”

Then along came guys such as Chubby Jackson, who played with one of the early Woody Herman “Herds,” and things began to change. The beat was a solid, driving 4/4, and Jackson even added a fifth string to the basic four-string instrument, to make it easier to place the fingers to achieve desired melodic lines.

As icons such as Ray Brown, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and Stanley Clarke entered the scene, the bass became an important musical instrument.

This album features the incomparable Clarke and his trio.

Stanley Clarke has been “the” bassist for a long time. He's both a master of the instrument, and a master of innovation, moving quickly from straight-ahead jazz into fusion and the more eclectic genres.

For this release, he's joined by Lenny White — one of the tastiest, hardest-driving drummers working today — and Hiromi Uehara, a young Japanese pianist who made her recording debut just six years ago. White is a living legend who, like Clarke, first played with the Joe Henderson band.

The dozen tracks in this release include covers of great jazz standards such as “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Miles Davis' “Solar,” Joe Henderson's “Isotope” and a take-off on Duke Ellington's “Take the A Train,” titled “Take the Coltrane.” The rest include half a dozen originals by Clarke or Hiromi, along with a traditional Japanese folk song.

It's a marvelous performance by a trio of masterful artists. I hear something new every time I listen.