Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dan McMillion Jazz Orchestra: Nice 'n' Juicy

Sea Breeze Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.10
Buy CD: Nice n' Juicy

Jazz fans who date back to the 1960s and '70s probably are familiar with Maynard Ferguson, one of the stratospheric trumpeters from that time period.

If you liked him, you'll love Dan McMillion.

McMillion is essentially a clone of Ferguson: Both play trumpet, flugelhorn and valve trombone; both had experience with great bands of the day (the former with Stan Kenton, the latter with Woody Herman and Buddy Rich); and both led big bands of their own.

Finally — fortunately! — each produced some great albums.

Brass players know that it's difficult to play both the trumpet and trombone; one must possess a “freak lip,” because of the difference in the size of the mouthpieces. And even those who can switch from one instrument to the other find it quite difficult to reach the extreme high registers; it's even harder to play each note cleanly, and produce clear melodic lines.

Ferguson had that ability, and so does McMillion. As the saying goes, they and their exciting bands can “blow the hair off your head.”

This album reprises some of the tunes for which Ferguson was known during his career, many of them quite popular during that period: “MacArthur Park,” “Hey, Jude,” “Love for Sale” and “Lush Life,” among others.

That said, McMillion's decision to repeat so much of the stuff Ferguson did is unfortunate. McMillion's band is so great that he should soft-pedal the “homage” covers and concentrate more on original stuff.

Even so, this is a solid example of what the best big band jazz sounded like.

Gene Harris: Another Night in London

Resonance Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.10
Buy CD: Another Night in London

Pianist Gene Harris had no peer.

If he had released an album that contained solely a 40-minute interpretation of “Chopsticks,” I'd have been ready to give it a five-star rating even before hearing it.

The self-taught Harris was playing at his church when he was 6, and so the style he developed was a combination of gospel and blues. Most jazz pianists are primarily one-handed; they play the melodic line, and solo, with the right hand, using the left for supporting chords. Think Count Basie and John Lewis (of Modern Jazz Quartet fame).

Others, like Oscar Peterson and Gene Harris, were equally adept with both hands, and could play different lines and meters simultaneously. And nobody — nobody — could swing like Harris.

During his early professional years, he headed a trio — The Three Sounds — consisting of piano, bass and drums; he later added a guitar to make it into a quartet. He was an in-demand sideman, and played with most of the famous artists until the late '70s, when he moved to Idaho and “retired.” He was a permanent fixture at Boise's Idanha Hotel for years.

Then bassist Ray Brown talked Harris into joining his trio, which eventually led to Harris fronting his own groups again. He recorded and toured extensively until the late 1990s, when ill health ended his career. He died in 2000,

This album, recorded live in 1996 at London's Pizza Express, is one of Harris' final releases. He's backed by British musicians Andy Cleyndert on bass and Martin Drew on drums, with Scottish artist Jim Mullen on guitar.

Harris' approach to jazz is demonstrated beautifully in the opening track, “Sweet Georgia Brown”: An opening vamp is delivered by guitar, bass and drums, then Harris enters with a softly voiced melodic line for several choruses, supported by subtle left-hand chords.

During subsequent choruses, the left hand becomes more dominant, and both hands more inventive, and everything builds and builds to a climax.

But it's not over: The arrangement returns to the softer, original melodic line, with a final second ending.

This album left me breathless, and wanting more ... and I bet you'll feel the same.

The Lee Shaw Trio: Blossom

ARC Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.10
Buy CD: Blossom

Regular readers of this column may remember a long-ago review of octogenarian pianist Lee Shaw.

Well, she and her trio are back with another wonderful album.

The artists are the same: Shaw on piano, Rich Syracuse on bass, and Jeff “Siege” Siegel on drums. Eight of the 10 tunes were written by these three musicians; the other two tracks are a blues number by early bopper “Fats” Navarro, and pianist Johnny Guarnieri's “Virtuoso Rag.”

As the menu suggests, Shaw is fluent in jazz genres that cover more than six decades, and small wonder: She recently celebrated her 84th birthday!

She plays marvelously, regardless of her advanced age. Her touch is exceptional at every tempo; her facility across the keyboard — with both hands — is better than many of today's much younger artists.

Shaw studied with Oscar Peterson and has accompanied Anita O'Day, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan, among others, during a lengthy career. Over the years, Shaw has been offered jobs by many name bands, but trios have been her forte. She has worked with her current partners for years, and it shows; they think as one and are wonderfully proficient together.

Although Albany, N.Y., has been home for much of her career — she's a faculty member at The College of St. Rose — Shaw still tours frequently and has more club (and other) dates than she can accommodate.

What a great, swinging lady!

John Vanore: Curiosity

Acoustical Concepts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.10
Buy CD: Curiosity

John Vanore is an instrumentalist — trumpet and flugelhorn — composer and arranger. He's an alum of Woody Herman's band, and formed his own group (Abstract Truth) some time ago.

Curiosity initially was released in 1991 but, for reasons unknown, hardly caused a ripple on the jazz pond. This new, re-mastered version of that recording is well worthwhile.

This is one of the most interesting albums I've heard in a long time. The instrumentation is unique; the 13-member band includes eight in the brass section: five trumpets/flugelhorns, two trombones and a French horn! The reed “section” contains only two artists; one plays alto and soprano saxes and flute, while the other is on tenor sax and flute.

The rhythm section is the standard piano, bass and drums, although three different percussionists split the chores on this album's eight tracks. The result is something of a brass chorale ... that really romps.

Vanore composed half of the tunes and arranged all but two of the others. I won't call this “modern” jazz, because that genre doesn't always swing, and sometimes isn't very melodic; I'll settle for the term “advanced.” The meters are straight-ahead and, for the most part, up-tempo. Three tracks are ballads, and the liner notes describe them as “pretty.” I agree, although that's not a term usually applied to jazz.

This is an excellent unit; give it a try.

Charito: Watch What Happens

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.10
Buy CD: Watch What Happens

Charito, a vocalist born in the Philippines and based in Japan, may not be well known in the States, but French composer Michel Legrand is a living legend everywhere.

Legrand has collaborated with other vocalists — Sarah Vaughn and Lena Horn come to mind — but he rarely plays piano with them. Well, in this album Legrand is both the pianist in the supporting jazz combo, and sings duets and scats with Charito on four tunes.

Charito entered the spotlight in the early 1990s, with performances and recordings on Japanese labels. She's a star in that country, and has toured extensively throughout the world. During a trip to Paris, she arranged a meeting with Legrand; after hearing her sing, he agreed to record with her.

This album, which contains 13 of his most famous songs, is the result.

Everything Legrand writes becomes a classic, but we best remember the melodies associated with movies. Nobody could forget the soundtracks and title songs from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Summer of '42 and The Thomas Crown Affair. Those melodies and lyrics remain with the listener forever; this album contains all of them, along with many more of Legrand's beautiful tunes.

Charito's voice is rich and expressive, and her phrasing is exquisite. Legrand's piano is excellent, his voice surprisingly good. Their back-up band is unidentified, except for an additional pianist, but the support is perfect for the tunes selected.

You're certain to put this album into heavy rotation.

The Trio: Live at Charlie O's

Fuzzy Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.10
Buy CD: Live at Charlie O's

The Trio consists of bassist Chuck Berghofer, pianist Terry Trotter and drummer Peter Erskine; Charlie O's is a jazz club in Valley Glenn, Calif.; and this is one of the best small groups I've heard in ages.

There are musicians, professional musicians and just a very few true musicians like these three individuals, who posses a combined century's worth of experience. A list of the bands and artists they've worked with would fill an entire page, but the key element is that each has performed extensively in back-up groups for vocal icons (Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme) and top-ranked bands and instrumentalists (Diana Krall, Stan Kenton, Shelley Manne).

After Berghofer, Trotter and Erskine decided that their touring days were over, they settled into teaching and studio work. For kicks, they play together at clubs such as Charlie O's.

Which is great for the rest of us.

This album is a collection of originals and some of the best standards ever written. When did you last hear “Put Your Little Foot Right Out”? Well, here it is, in a jazz idiom. Two beautiful classics — “Ghost of a Chance” and “How Deep Is the Ocean” — also are present, along with the lesser-known “Afternoon In Paris.”

This isn't background music; it'll grab you by the throat and keep you riveted to the performers. Although Trotter's piano carries the responsibility for the melodic lines and much of the solo work, boredom never sets in. Berghofer's bass is elegant, and Erskine is one of the tastiest drummers working.

Since receiving this album, not a day has passed that I haven't played it. This Trio is mesmerizing.