Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lester Young: Centennial Celebration

Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.7.10
Buy CD: Centennial Celebration

Concord Records periodically releases “legacy” albums from its huge jazz catalogue, to honor artists whose contributions earned them recognition as icons. Tenor sax artist Lester Young is one of the chosen few.

He was born in 1909 to a musical family. His father taught him to play the trumpet, violin and drums as well as the reed instruments; tenor sax and clarinet became young Lester's favorites. He was part of the “family band” until 1927, when he went out on his own, finally joining Count Basie's ensemble in 1933.

Young became famous with that group, and he changed the tenor sax style forever: from the gutsy, aggressive approach of artists such as Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, to the much more relaxed sound that still exists today. Young was the beginning of “cool.”

This album presents recordings made by Young — nicknamed “Prez” by Billie Holliday — during 1952, '53 and '56. The earlier sessions were done during tours by Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic groups; the latter were done at Olivia Davis' Patio Lounge in Washington, D.C. All the tracks were recorded live.

Longtime jazz fans familiar with Webster and Hawkins will recognize just how different Young was, and that distinction was apparent in his “presentation” as well as his playing. He held the tenor sax in a slanted, rather than vertical position: a characteristic that resulted from having to play at close quarters on crowded bandstands.

A key part of Young's attire was a pork-pie hat, and he was a key originator of the “language” musicians developed. (In those days, he was a “hipster.”)

But he remains admired for his marvelously relaxed and swinging, relatively soft tone. He influenced guys such as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Dexter Gordon, Al Cohn and Gerry Mulligan; listen to this album, then listen to anything they recorded. You'll hear what I mean.

Yes, this album's audio quality isn't what we expect today, but goodness; it was recorded more than 50 years ago! Just settle back and enjoy the mastery of a musician who was that far ahead of his time.

Sharel Cassity: Relentless

JLP Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.7.10
Buy CD: Relentless

Here's a talented anachronism: a musician from the Midwest — an area not known for developing jazz artists — who is an instrumentalist rather than a vocalist or pianist. Composer/arranger Sharel Cassity plays alto and soprano saxes and flute, and excels in all these activities.

She was born in Iowa, raised in Oklahoma, and concluded her schooling at New York's prestigious New School Of Jazz and the Juilliard Institute of Jazz. She has worked with the Diva Jazz Orchestra, Jimmy Heath's Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Sextet and the Roy Hargrove Big Band.

This is Cassity's second album; she heads nine groups, ranging from quartets to octets, utilizing musicians she worked with during her “school days” in New York. All are young and relatively unknown, but we'll obviously hear a lot more from them in the future.

Six of the eight tracks are Cassity originals, and she arranged everything in a style that combines straight-ahead and post-bop genres. This is the first group I've heard — in a long time — where all the solo work is excellent, with no discernible shortcomings. These folks have a gently swinging “togetherness” that sets them apart from most units on the horizon today.

Keep your eyes peeled for more from Cassity and her compatriots.

Jackie Ryan: Doozy

Open Art Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.7.10
Buy CD: Doozy

The term “jazz vocalist” is overused by record companies, promoters and even reviewers when describing singers who perform with musicians associated with that same genre; the excuse must be, “If the band plays jazz, then anyone who sings with them is a jazz vocalist.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. The descriptor “jazz vocalist” properly applies to a musician who uses (usually) her voice as an instrument to express actual talent in the jazz vernacular. Their number remains limited: Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day, Shirley Horn, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McCrea, Sarah Vaughan, Cleo Laine and Diana Krall come to mind.

Well, we can add Jackie Ryan to that list. She has performed only for the past decade, and while the list of jazz artists with whom she has sung is quite extensive, she issued only two albums during that period. She's better known in England and Japan than in the States, except on the East and West Coasts.

Her voice is perfection; it's elegant, smooth as silk, expressive and swings throughout a 3 1/2 octave range. And, vitally important for jazz, her phrasing is equally impressive.

This double-CD release covers 20 tunes, ranging from 1929's “Do Something” to 2006's spirited “Doozy,” with covers of famous and seldom heard classics that we've grown up with. In addition, this multilingual lady performs a number of beautiful, traditional Brazilian ballads in their native language.

Her backup group swings; she's accompanied by artists such as Cyrus Chestnut (piano), Eric Alexander (sax) and Jeremy Pelt (trumpet/flugelhorn).

A final note: The album packaging is superb, with great artwork and fold-out engineering. It's a very professional touch.

Eddie Harris and Ellis Marsalis: Homecoming

ELM Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.7.10
Buy CD: Homecoming

Sometimes it takes a child to bring the parent into the light.

Ellis Marsalis, born in 1934, is regarded by many as the premier modern New Orleans jazz pianist ... although for a long time he wasn't well known outside that area. He began as a clarinetist, joined the Marines and, while stationed in Southern California, honed his skills on piano.

After his discharge, he returned to New Orleans, married and helped raise six sons, most of whom became well-known musicians. Two of them, Wynton and Bradford, had a lot to do with transforming their father into a nationally known star.

Ellis Marsalis met Chicago-born tenor sax artist Eddie Harris in the 1970s; they recorded the original Homecoming album in the mid-'80s. The record company disappeared shortly thereafter, as did the album. Almost 24 years later, at a concert in Toledo, Ohio, the pair agreed to record again; the original 42-minute Homecoming menu was expanded to 70 minutes by adding material recorded during the Toledo session.

The result is ... interesting. Marsalis' style was, and still is, more “traditional” than what Harris does. Marsalis' New Orleans roots are evident, and I find them more musical; Harris is “farther out.” At times, they clash. Even so, the result is pleasant, and reincarnating the original with some new material is worthwhile.

James Moody: Moody 4A

IPO Recordings
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.7.10
Buy CD: Moody 4A

James Moody, reed player par excellence, is 84 years old and still swinging.

He began with an alto sax at age 16; after hearing the Count Basie band's reed section, Moody switched to tenor. He joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band after World War II, and that was the start of something Big.

It's difficult to find any jazz icons with whom Moody hasn't worked, or any jazz labels for which he hasn't recorded. Like many other African-American musicians who decided it was more pleasant to live in Europe than the United States during the post-war years, he spent several years in France and Sweden, finally returning home in 1952.

His instrumental arsenal had grown to encompass the entire reed family, including flute; many believe that he's the most proficient on flute.

Moody isn't a “honker”; no matter what instrument he chooses, his tone is clean and smooth, and is inventiveness is unsurpassed. As a result, he has been a member of bands supporting major stars such as Dinah Washington, Ann-Margaret, Elvis Presley, The Osmonds and many others, in addition to being a first-call sideman for any jazz group you could name.

Moody's quartet on this album includes another icon, Kenny Barron, on piano; they're joined by bassist Todd Coolman and drummer Lewis Nash. Only three of the eight tracks can be classified as jazz standards; the rest are covers of wonderful old tunes such as “Stella by Starlight” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

The result is joyful proof that some senior-senior citizens still can make the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Chick Corea and John McLaughlin: Five Peace Band

Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.7.10
Buy CD: Five Peace Band

Chick Corea needs no introduction to a true jazz fan.

He has been a name artist for decades; has been a member of iconic groups, such as Miles Davis' famous 1969 unit; has formed and performed with numerous bands — Return To Forever remaining the best-known — and has created the most prolific discography of any jazz artist (close to 100 albums, and still counting).

Corea began as a “traditional” acoustic pianist — and was a sideman with Cab Calloway for awhile, believe it or not — then became enamored with the Fender Rhodes electric piano. As time passed, he embraced a style that was a combination of rock/funk/fusion, and his bands became increasingly dependent on electric instrumentation.

But whatever the decade or genre, everything he wrote, arranged or played swung like crazy.

The Five Peace Band, formed in 2008, includes some of today's finest musicians: John McLaughlin on guitar, Christian McBride on bass, Kenny Garrett on sax, and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. Corea plays piano and keyboards. Herbie Hancock also appears as a guest pianist on one track.

This double-CD album is the group's debut recording, and the selections were gathered from 22 concerts performed during a tour throughout Europe in 2008. Because the band members were “new to each other” as a group, and the audiences were live, the results provided some of the most exciting music you'll ever hear.

Each disk contains just four tunes, and half of them run more than 20 minutes each; these were true jam sessions, where each artist stretched to his limit and was given all the time necessary to do so.

Whatever style turns you on, this is a primo album.