Thursday, February 4, 2010

Scott LaFaro: Pieces of Jade

Resonance Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.4.10
Buy CD: Pieces of Jade

Unless you're a Bill Evans fan, the name Scott LaFaro probably doesn't ring any bells. He began to play professionally at age 17, skyrocketed to become a key member of what many consider to be one of the top jazz combos that ever existed, and was killed in a car accident when he was only 25.

Fortunately, he left a legacy of his work.

LaFaro entered New York's Ithica College to study music, taking up the acoustic bass only after learning that a string instrument was required for music education majors. He left college during his sophomore year to join Buddy Morrow's big band; following a cross-country tour, LaFaro left that group to try his luck in the Los Angeles jazz scene.

He became an instant success and worked with luminaries such as Chet Baker, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Cal Tjader and Victor Feldman. In 1959, LaFaro joined Evans, who recently had left the Miles Davis Sextet. This particular trio — with Evans on piano, LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums — is considered to have been Evans' finest.

During his short life, LaFaro was recognized as a master of his instrument. His technique and innovativeness were far ahead of his time.

Pieces of Jade, recorded in 1961, has just been released by Resonance Records; LaFaro is joined by pianist Don Friedman and drummer Pete LaRoca. The album contains five selections; a “practice tape” during which Evans and LaFaro review a chart to be recorded; a 1966 interview that records Evans discussing LaFaro; and a tribute track written by Friedman.

Evans' interview is informative and demonstrates how strongly he felt about LaFaro as both a musician and friend. (It should be noted that Evans stopped performing for months after LaFaro's death.)

I'd like to label this album a gem, but that isn't the case; the audio quality of the tracks featuring LaFaro is sadly lacking. An avid fan may be interested, but many other albums are superior.

John Patitucci Trio: Remembrance

Concord Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.4.10
Buy CD: Remembrance

True musicians don't treat their “jobs” the same way most other folks do; when not playing for their primary gigs, they visit clubs to listen to other artists, sometimes sitting in during a set. Musicians also practice constantly: sometimes alone, but often with peers.

These spontaneous jam sessions seldom get recorded, but technological advances have made it possible for almost everyone to have a “studio” at home. As a result, more and more of these sessions are released as do-it-yourself CDs. That's the case with this album.

Some time ago, bassist John Patitucci, tenor sax star Joe Lovano and drummer Brian Blades were rehearsing for another album. Because the pianist didn't show up, they went ahead as a trio. They liked what transpired so much that, months later, they decided to make this album.

Its title relates to both that practice session, and the fact that most of the tunes are tributes to other artists who no longer are with us.

A “piano-less” trio is rare; the fact that a bass/tenor/drums configuration turned out so beautifully is due to the excellence of the musicians involved. Patitucci is one of the few bassists who can make his “horns” — he plays acoustic and electric instruments — much more than just rhythm-keepers; he plays complex melodic lines and solos that are awesome.

Lovano, who became famous with Woody Herman's Herds, is one of the most “warm” and exciting reed players today. Blades is more than a drummer; he's an exquisite musician.

Although this trio is the core unit, Patitucci's wife, Sachi, adds a cello on one track; an additional percussionist, Rogerio Boccato, contributes to four other tracks.

The result is a musical tour de force.

Sean Nowell: The Seeker

Posi-Tone Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.4.10
Buy CD: The Seeker

Sean Nowell is a multi-degreed musician who is best known in the New York City area, but has traveled and played worldwide.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., he initially sang in a nationally touring a cappella choir and was exposed to vocal music from Germany, Eastern Europe and Africa. He composes — film scores, ballet, theater, big bands, combos — arranges and has played reed with numerous New York groups.

This album features a hard-swinging, straight-ahead jazz group consisting of Nowell on sax, clarinet and flute, backed by piano, bass, drums and, on some tracks, guitar and cello. This is a forceful unit with little subtlety; everyone drives consistently, even at the slower tempos.

Nowell wrote half the tunes, and each is pleasantly innovative. The rest are covers of standards such as “You Don't Know What Love Is,” “I Remember You” and “I Will.”

Fan of the East Coast jazz style will enjoy this group. It'll hold your attention and, most importantly, it swings!

Ted Kooshian: Underdog and Other Stories

Summit Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.4.10
Buy CD: Underdog and Other Stories

Not long ago, I reviewed an album that featured theme songs from old, avant-garde movies; the point was that much of the music designed as cinematic background was, in itself, quite worthwhile. But unless the film in question became a smash hit, these compositions seldom achieved recognition.

This album is similar, although it features the theme songs from comedies, dramas and cartoon series from both TV shows and movies. Pianist Ted Kooshian, who leads the quartet featured here, is typical of the excellent — but relatively unknown — musicians in constant demand by studios, Broadway shows and back-up bands for star concerts.

Kooshian is supported by a bassist, drummer and sax player; he also arranged all the tunes.

Those who watched lots of television, or had children who spent Saturday mornings glued to the infinity of cartoon shows, will recognize most of these songs. And even if you can't remember the titles, the melodies will strike a chord. The roster includes themes from “Underdog,” “Sanford and Son,” “Wild Wild West,” “The Odd Couple” and many more.

You'll likely be surprised by some of the composers: Quincy Jones, Dave Grusin, Neal Hefti, Duke Ellington, Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach are among those who augmented their roles as “name” artists with these assignments.

The music is sprightly — allowing for the occasionally too-enthusiastic sax — and it's a fun trip down Memory Lane.

Beegie Adair: Parisian Café, Moments to Remember

Green Hill Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.4.10
Buy CDs: Parisian Café; Moments to Remember

Pianist Beegie Adair specializes in theme albums. Parisian Café is based on the music you'd hear at the small clubs or sidewalk cafés in Paris; Moments To Remember covers pop hits of the 1950s.

Adair's usual trio — bassist Roger Spenser and drummer Chris Brown — is utilized on both albums; the Parisian set is augmented by David Davidson (violin) and Jeff Taylor (accordion).

The 13 compositions included in Parisian Café are exactly what you've heard in every movie that features Paris as its locale, and what probably still gets played today in the City of Lights. Vocals by the likes of Edith Piaf have been replaced by the violin/accordion duo; as always, Adair establishes and carries the primary melodic line.

If you lived during the '50s, you've heard the tunes from Moments many, many, many times. Unless you're a lover of nostalgia releases, there's nothing different here from what was done to distraction during that decade. Like most of Adair's albums, the length of each tune is limited to what would have fit on the old 78 RPM vinyl disks; that further enhances the “days of old” feel, and limits possible boredom.

Adair is a fine pianist, and her trio can be a very entertaining listen. But I'd like to see them stretch out a little more, and move back into the traditional jazz genre.

Chuck Owens Jazz Surge: The Comet's Tail

Mama Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.4.10
Buy CD: The Comet's Tail

Jazz Surge is a dynamic 17-piece orchestra; Chuck Owens is its director, and also one of the five arrangers who contributed to this album, which presents eight compositions by legendary saxophonist/composer Michael Brecker.

All true students of jazz know about the Brecker brothers. Michael, the youngest, played reed instruments; his older brother, Randy, played trumpet and flugelhorn. Both performed with numerous jazz groups, but Michael had a major influence on the genre. He grew up when rock was on top, and his first job was with the jazz/rock band, Dreams, which included his brother.

Michael's style was influenced more by rock guitar, however, than R&B saxophone. Nobody else was such a key part of so many different styles; Michael played with backup groups for Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkle, Frank Zappa, Spiro Gyra and many others, and with just about every jazz unit in existence.

But Michael was admired even more for his composing, which was the key factor in the creation of this album. The University of South Florida's Center for Jazz launched an international competition seeking arrangements of Michael's compositions; more than 80 works from five countries were submitted.

“Peeps,” the initial track on this release, is the winner. All other tracks are arranged by musicians who were a key part of Michael's career. These tracks include “flag-wavers” and ballads, and are both complex and “simple”; the common threads are their beauty and the fact that they swing like crazy, no matter what the tempo.

The band is beautifully rehearsed, and the solo work is exemplary.

We lost Michael in 2007 Brecker, at the age of 57, from complications of leukemia (myelodysplastic syndrome). Fortunately, this legendary artist left a comprehensive discography, including this gem.