Thursday, April 1, 2010

Phil Kelly: Ballet of the Bouncing Beagles

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.10
Buy CD: Ballet of the Bouncing Beagles

It's great when a wish comes true.

I previously reviewed an album (My Museum) by Phil Kelly and the Southwest Santa Ana Winds Big Band, and expressed interest in future “Compass Wind” groups.

Well, here's another, and this ensemble is dubbed the Northwest Prevailing Winds.

Whatever. It's even better than its predecessor.

This is a truly big band of 22 musicians: four trumpets, four trombones, seven reeds and a seven-member rhythm section. Oh, and another individual is credited for “string programming,” whatever that means.

I love the titles given to the original compositions; each refers to something with which Kelly has been associated during his career. “Play Tonic Buds” is based on the harmonic structure of the old jazz standard “Just Friends,” but the original melodic line is quite different. “Limehouse Blues,” while recognizable, is done at a slower tempo than usual, which makes it sound brand-new.

The title tune — “Ballet Of The Bouncing Beagles” — relates to Kelly's pets. “Ewe Doo on Bubba's Shoux” morphed from New Orleans street-beat music, and so on.

Do be sure to read the liner notes.

The ensemble work and solos are excellent, and you'll certainly recognize many of the artists involved. This is, without question, one of the top big bands operating today.

Eric Muhler Quartet: The Jury Is Out

Slow Turn Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.10
Buy CD: The Jury Is Out

Pianist Eric Muhler began taking lessons at age 6, led a rock band at 12, and continued to perform in that genre for another decade.

It was tough going; he worked side jobs to make ends meet until the late 1980s, when he got married. He loved parenting; because his wife had a highly paid job, Muhler became a stay-at-home dad and essentially dropped out of the music business until their children became teens.

When Muhler returned to the biz, he abandoned rock and developed a style of straight-ahead jazz., playing his own compositions and arrangements. This album presents his newest group — a quartet — that consists of Michael Wilcox (electric bass), Brian Andres (drums), Sheldon Brown (tenor and soprano saxes) and Muhler himself on acoustic piano.

The quartet has a “big” sound; the combination of a standard piano and an electric bass delivers a much richer background than the electric keyboard/acoustic bass approach used so often today. Brown's sax work — particularly on tenor — also is full-toned, and Andres isn't a shy percussionist.

The result is an energetic and exciting group; it isn't “noisy,” but it sure keeps one's attention. The album was recorded live at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, and that also helped; we can hear the crowd response at times, and everybody clearly was enjoying the music.

And we want to join in.

Jeff Hamilton Trio: Symbiosis

Capri Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.10
Buy CD: Symbiosis

Trios usually aren't headed by drummers.

That statement alone indicates how drummers often aren't regarded in the same category as other musicians. An old music joke goes, “How big is your band?”

Answer: “Fifteen musicians and a drummer.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jeff Hamilton is a drummer; he's also a musician and arranger, and leader of this group. He's joined here by pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty. All these gentlemen are excellent, experienced and in-demand artists. Hamilton has worked with Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Diana Krall, and co-leads the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which also features Hendelman and Luty.

This trio has been together for nine years.

Symbiosis blends wonderful oldies (“You Make Me Feel So Young,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and “Blues in the Night”) with jazz standards (“Blues for Junior,” “The Serpent's Tooth”) and a Hamilton original (“Samba De Martelo”). The tunes cover the musical waterfront: ballads, blues, bop and bossa nova.

The melodic lines are freshly interpreted; the solos are impressive, and everything swings wonderfully. Hamilton's contribution has a lot to do with that; he's “felt” more than heard. His playing always adds to the sum total, and never interferes with what's going on.

This is a marvelous group.

Dana Legg: The Other One

Sea Breeze Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.10
Buy CD: The Other One

You don't often find a big band that works steadily and successfully in this day and age; Dana Legg's Stage Band is an exception.

This group plays in — and around — the Chicago area for festivals, weddings, college events and dances. The basic group employs 19 musicians, but this album derives from two studio sessions; the total contributing cadre numbers almost three dozen artists. About half the tracks were recorded in 2002, and the rest were done in '07.

The five-year delay illustrates this group's popularity: Everybody was too busy to finish the album all at once.

Actually, this group is more accurately a dance band than a stage ensemble. Half the tracks are covers of standards that were enjoyed years ago; the rest are original compositions. All are danceable.

Most important, the musical quality is great, and the solo work excellent. And yes, everything swings nicely.

A glance at the photos included in the liner notes suggests the reason: The musicians are mature and obviously experienced, yet still young enough to enjoy what they're doing.

The fact that an organization this large remains fiscally viable is a credit to the group's quality and Legg's acumen, both as a musician and a businessman.

Harry Allen: New York State of Mind

Challenge Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.10
Buy CD: New York State of Mind

The music world has tiers of excellence: musicians who, on the basis of their association with “name” artists or bands, receive continuous exposure to the public and achieve name-brand status themselves; and those who work more behind the scenes and, as a result, remain relatively unknown.

Many of the latter tend to work near where they live: some survive comfortably doing studio work; others play in local orchestras or groups; some teach; and many others have different day jobs and play on the side.

Tenor sax artist Harry Allen is one of the “relatively unknown.”

Allen was born in Washington, D.C., in 1966; he went to Rutger's University, in New Jersey, and currently lives and works in New York City. It's difficult to name an artist he hasn't worked with, and everybody is fully aware of his talent. Allen has more than 20 recordings to his name, and three of his CDs have won Japan's Gold Disc Awards.

The man can swing with the best.

This album contains 11 portraits of New York City, presented via familiar compositions that run from the roaring '20s through today; the track list begins with Irving Berlin's “Puttin' On The Ritz” and William Jerome's “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” and concludes with Billy Joel's “New York State of Mind,” along the way stopping at every other Big Apple-themed melody you can recall.

The resulting CD is a gem. Allen's sax is superb; his tone is lush perfection, and he's supported by an outstanding quartet of piano, bass, drums and trombone. This is traditional, straight-ahead jazz at its best: no bop, no funk, no hip-hop ... just wonderful swinging music.

Graham Dechter: Right on Time

Capri Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.10
Buy CD: Right on Time

Once in a great while, after listening to just the first 16 bars of the first track, I know an album will be a winner; such is the case with Graham Dechter's inaugural release.

At 23, Dechter is a young guitarist; even so, during the few years of his career he has managed to become a part of the jazz fraternity's upper echelon. He was a member of the famous Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at 19: the youngest member of that great organization. That feat automatically led to Dechter's association with top artists across the country: Name a current, famous jazz artist, and Dechter undoubtedly has played with him (or her).

This album's quartet is an example: Dechter is backed by former Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra mates John Clayton (bass), Jeff Hamilton (drums) and Tamir Hendelman (piano).

The result is one of the cleanest, “swingingest” small groups I've heard in months. The majority of tunes here are familiar jazz standards, which makes it possible to equate this group's quality against that of others who've performed the same songs. I can't think of another group that did these charts better.

These guys lay down a beat that just swallows you up. Every one of the 10 tracks is great, but a few deserve special mention: the old Johnny Hodges tune, “Squatty Roo,” is a burner that'll take your breath away; Duke Ellington's “In a Mellow Tone” and “I Ain't Got Nothin' but the Blues” really rock; and “Right on Time,” written by Dechter's father, is particularly moving.

Dechter himself is a top-drawer guitarist; his tone is crystal-clear, his technique impeccable and his solo work inventive.

I want to hear a lot more from him and this group.