Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Riverside City College Jazz Ensemble: A Minor Case of the Blues

Sea Breeze Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.30.10
Buy CD: A Minor Case of the Blues

Riverside City College is large, boasting campuses in four locations with a semester enrollment of 19,000. This album, the college jazz ensemble's second, covers classes from 2006 to '09. All the personnel were full-time students: no faculty members, alumnae or guest artists.

The college student instrumentalists included 17 reeds, 15 trumpets, 13 trombones, four guitarists, four pianists, four bassists, 10 drummers, three additional percussionists and a violinist.

As often is the case with college groups, this album's nine tracks are covers of compositions by professional musicians and arrangers: Michael Brecker, Stanley Turrentine, Bob Florence, Pat Metheny, Bill Russo and others.

The ensemble work is consistently excellent, and the soloists are much better than those usually heard in student bands. The arrangements are far from rudimentary: They're quite complex, and everything swings beautifully. For the most part, the tempos are fast ... but whatever the meter, it's straight-ahead, big band jazz at a near-professional level.

There is, however, one caveat: As often is the case with school units, this CD's audio quality is needful. You'll detect a “bottom of a well” sound at times, and the solo work doesn't stand out as it should.

Three different set-ups were utilized: Six tracks were done at a professional studio, and two at a River City College studio. The final one was recorded live at a college auditorium. All are somewhat lacking.

Big Crazy Energy New York Band: Inspirations

Rosa Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.30.10
Buy CD: Inspirations

For a guy who remains relatively unknown, Norwegian-born trombonist, composer and arranger Jens Wendelboe has been involved in a wide range of musical activities.

He studied composition at New York's Manhattan School of Music; toured with the rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears; scored the music for the soap opera Guiding Light; and, since 1984, has fronted his Big Crazy Energy New York Band.

And a big band it is, consisting of five reeds, four trumpets and four trombones — one of which doubles on euphonium — along with an electric bass, piano, drums and a vocalist. It's an exciting, swinging, beautifully orchestrated group.

Wendelboe composed four of these nine tracks; the rest are covers of tunes by Lennon and McCartney, Billy Cobham, Joe Henderson and Scott Lafaro, along with the traditional “Dear Old Stockholm.”

Wendelboe's arrangements often borrow motifs and riffs from well-known jazz artists. Miles Davis' trumpet solo from his version of “Dear Old Stockholm,” for example, is played by the entire reed section; Bill Evans' piano solo from his Live at the Village Vanguard album is orchestrated in “Gloria's Step.” It's an effective way to demonstrate how superbly these icons could improvise.

This is an excellent and very promising band, and I'm delighted to note that it's billed as volume 1; that suggests we have more to look forward to.

Michael Pagan Trio: Three for the Ages

Capri Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.30.10
Buy CD: Three for the Ages

Thanks to the relatively low cost involved with recording and releasing CDs these days — it's almost a “do it yourself” project — we can be exposed to musicians whose talents never would have cracked the mainstream market back in the day.

Michael Pagan's trio is an example. The members of this group live and perform in the Kansas City area, but they're not well known outside that region.

Pagan, a pianist, is another of the multi-degreed artists who composes, arranges, plays and teaches. He's never needed to leave home to do any of these things, although — like most musicians — he has performed throughout the United States and Europe during his career.

Bassist Bob Bowman and drummer Ray DeMarchi, who support Pagan admirably, have been part of the trio long enough to produce that “these guys have been together forever” feel. This is particularly evident during their take on wonderful old ballads such as “You Don't Know What Love Is,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “I Should Care” and “Persona.”

All are lengthy arrangements that give the artists plenty of time to elongate and build on the basic melodic lines.

The seldom-heard “Gethsemane,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber's score for Jesus Christ Superstar, is particularly noteworthy; the interplay between piano and bass is masterful.

The album also includes several mid- to up-tempo tracks that lighten the mood and add to the listening pleasure. This is an extremely pleasant release by a trio of excellent musicians who have that important basic ability: they swing.

John Pizzarelli: Rockin' in Rhythm

Telarc Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.30.10
Buy CD: Rockin' in Rhythm

John Pizzarelli is the guitarist/vocalist member of the musical Pizzarelli family. His father, Bucky, also is a guitarist; brother Martin is the bassist in the group featured on this album.

Rockin' in Rhythm is a tribute to Duke Ellington; it contains 14 of the most famous charts performed by that august band, including classics such as “In a Mellow Tone,” “East St. Louis Toodle Oo,” “Satin Doll,” “C-Jam Blues,” “Just Squeeze Me,” “Cottontail” and many more.

Although most of Ellington's melodies originally were performed — and are remembered — as instrumentals, many contained lyrics; this album includes both the words and music. John Pizzarelli is the primary vocalist, accompanying himself on guitar, and two guest vocalists are included: Kurt Elling and Pizzarelli's wife, Broadway star Jessica Molaskey.

Pizzarelli's Swing Seven group — a basic rhythm section plus trumpet, trombone/alto horn, alto sax/clarinet and baritone sax/baritone clarinet — is joined by a violin and tenor sax. Bucky Pizzarelli also gets involved with a few tracks.

The result is a smooth, sophisticated and swinging time-capsule of musicians and music that so many of us grew up to. It's wonderful to be exposed to a group of talented artists who have been part of the prime jazz era, and are doing their best to keep it alive.

Dan Dean: 251

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.30.10
Buy CD: 251

I'd never heard of Dan Dean when I received this album, and the media release and liner notes provided little about his background; I therefore Googled him.

Although his contribution to this CD is as a bassist, Dean is a master of many skills. He creates and produces video commercials, digital “libraries” of complex instrumental disks and educational material related to various instruments.

And, oh yes, he plays the heck out of an electronic (not acoustic) bass.

The title of this album references the “root tones of the scales controlling the opening chords of 'Chopsticks' (and many other tunes).” Four different keyboard players support Dean: Kenny Werner, George Duke and Gil Goldstein on piano — the latter also on accordion — and Larry Goldings on the Hammond B3 organ.

They're all featured individually on these 11 tunes, so we effectively have a collection of bass/keyboard duets. But given the arrangements, and the artists' skills, the “whole” is much greater than that. Seven tracks are interpretations of great standards; the rest are jazz originals by Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, James Brown and George Duke.

Rarely have so few musicians produced so much groovy jazz! A lot of the credit goes to Dean; his skill on the electric bass is amazing. Because that instrument is held and played like a guitar, it's easier to achieve runs of notes at up-tempo meters, than is possible on an acoustic instrument.

This is an impressive album, and a lot of fun.

Bill Carrothers: Joy Spring

Pirouet Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.30.10
Buy CD: Joy Spring

For a guy who has played jazz piano for more than three decades, Bill Carrothers has remained pretty much under the radar to the general public.

This, despite releasing 18 albums as a leader, along with an equal number as a sideman; participating in numerous jazz festivals and concerts in the United States and Europe; and playing with a long list of the best jazz artists alive. Carrothers' preference is small groups; on several of his early releases, he was supported only by a drummer.

This album features a trio; Carrothers is joined by bassist Drew Gress and drummer Bill Stewart.

One of Carrothers' favorite musicians (and mine, as well) was a legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown, who was killed in 1956 in an automobile accident, at the age of 25.

All 12 tracks on this album were either composed or frequently performed by Brown. He was known as a hard bopper, and he was exciting and sensational to experience. His life was alarmingly short, but few have accomplished what he did in the short time he was with us. This album is an homage.

Carrothers is, at times, reminiscent of Bill Evans; he's thoughtful, sensitive, innovative and soulful. Regardless of the tempo, Carrothers grabs us by the throat and holds our attention. Additionally, the more we listen to him, the better he sounds. He could play something a dozen times, and it would be different each time.

It's also worth mentioning that Carrothers' sense of humor is exceptional; just visit his website, and you'll see what I mean!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Paul Meyers Quartet: The Paul Meyers Quartet

Mile High Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.10
Buy CD: The Paul Meyers Quartet

Guitarist Paul Meyers is another “stealth” musician. He plays steadily in the New York area, and has supported a number of name artists, but isn't well known to the general public.

Tenor saxman/flutist Frank Wess is a polar opposite; he's 88 years old and has been a sideman with everybody. You name the band, and he played in it. (I first heard him with the Count Basie band in the 1950s.) Wess is another reed player who, as the years have passed, gained more fame as a flutist than as a tenor sax artist.

He plays both on this album, and in both cases he's another senior citizen who still swings. A lot.

This is a smooth, relaxing album. Meyers and Wess are joined by Martin Wind (acoustic bass) and Tony Jefferson (drums); vocalist Andy Bey pops up on one track. The album features three originals — two by Meyers, one by Wess — and the remaining tracks are covers of some wonderful old standards that aren't often performed: “I Cover the Waterfront,” “My One and Only Love,” “Lazy Afternoon,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and a few others.

The track list also includes a Billy Strayhorn tune (“Snibor”) that I hadn't heard before.

And they're all performed beautifully.

This group would be great in a jazz lounge setting, or as background music while you're reading or working around the house.

Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts: Fourteen Channels

Tapestry Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.10
Buy CD: Fourteen Channels

According to its mission statement, the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts “provides youth with jazz education opportunities for the study and performance of jazz music, culture and history.”

This nonprofit school, based in Denver, offers classes, ensembles and camps to its students. This CD was produced during a camp held for 17 musicians, ages 16 to 24, who were assigned to create a commercial album of their own compositions. They were exposed to every aspect of the recording industry: pre-planning; layout of the interior studio; microphone location; recording the tunes; mixing and mastering the results; and establishing their own publishing company and assisting with promotion.

Tapestry, a division of Capri Records, was a key part of this process.

The musicians divided themselves into two different groups. The Dominant 7 instrumentation consisted of a trumpet, two reed players — one played flute and soprano, alto and tenor sax; the other played baritone sax — a guitarist, pianist, drummer and bassist. (Two students shared the latter chair.)

The Jazz Arts Messengers unit utilized four individuals in the reed section (alto/ clarinet, alto, tenor/flute and tenor saxes), a trombonist and, again, a rhythm section with piano, guitar, bass and drums. The two bands split the album's 14 tracks.

The results are outstanding: great innovative melodies, ensemble work and solos. I got a warm and very positive feeling about jazz's future!

Joe Locke: For the Love of You

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.10
Buy CD: For the Love of You

Thanks to Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Terry Gibbs, Gary Burton, Cal Tjader and Milt Jackson, the vibraphone has become a key element in the jazz world.

Joe Locke joined that august group in the 1960s, and he has been an in- demand instrumentalist ever since. I'd have trouble naming a top jazz artist with whom he hasn't played.

Locke also has produced a significant discography over the years, and this album, his most recent, features one of his best quartets: He's joined by pianist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist George Mraz and drummer Clarence Penn. Although most of Locke's previous work has been instrumental in nature, for this release he added Kenny Washington, a young jazz vocalist Locke first heard at the Douglas Beach House in Half Moon Bay.

Many of the most popular jazz standards have lyrics, but they're seldom heard. This album corrects that deficiency. Washington sings those lyrics on seven of the 10 tracks; his interpretations, in conjunction with the quartet's backing, produces a very special performance.

Much of this music will be melodically familiar, but if you've forgotten the lyrics — or never heard them — you're in for a double treat. Three tracks are Locke's compositions, which you'll find as charming as the standards.

This beautiful, relaxing album presents balladic jazz at its best.

Holly Hoffman and Bill Cunliffe: Three's Company

Capri Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.10
Buy CD: Three's Company

Regular readers know that I lean toward hard-swinging instrumental and vocal jazz performers. That said, an album comes along every so often that — while not in my desired category — is intriguing enough to get noticed. Such is the case with this one.

Pianist Bill Cunliffe began as a classical musician, then expanded his horizons to include jazz; flutist Holly Hoffman followed the same path. Both also are composers and arrangers, and have known each other, and worked together, for more than 20 years. This duet album is their third.

They modified their usual instrumentation for this session. Four of the tunes are piano/flute duets, while the rest employ guest artists to produce unusual trios: two “horns” and piano; flute, violin and piano; and flute, piano and drums. The result is quite tasteful chamber jazz.

The guests include violinist Regina Carter, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, trumpeter Terell Stafford and drummer Alvester Garnett. The selections aren't free-for-alls; they're carefully arranged and quite musical, and they swing gently. Cunliffe composed half of them, while Hoffman wrote one; the others are covers of songs by Burton Lane, Billy Strayhorn and Gabriel Faure.

The resulting album is innovative, beautifully executed and genteel.

Hiromi: Place to Be

Telarc Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.10
Buy CD: Place to Be

This is Japanese pianist Hiromi's sixth Telarc album under her own name; she also was featured in a release with the Stanley Clarke Trio, Jazz in the Garden.

She was part of a small group on the earlier albums, and this is her first solo recording.

I was dazzled by her technique on 2007's Time Control, but wasn't sure that she'd become a true jazz artist. But she definitely entered the jazz arena with 2008's Beyond Standard, which contained covers of jazz standards, allowing favorable comparison to other pianists.

As for 2009's Jazz in the Garden, she couldn't help but swing with Clarke's group.

As a soloist here, though, Hiromi is performing her own compositions, and the jazz “feel” has almost disappeared. Her technique and execution are exemplary, particularly in her up-tempo tunes, but the neat, exciting, swinging chops that she demonstrated previously are missing in action.

Based on this album, Hiromi is more of a concert artist, in the style of George Winston, than a swinger like Oscar Peterson.

Still, one must stand in awe of her keyboard mastery.

Tim Hagans: The Avatar Sessions

Fuzzy Music
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.10
Buy CD: The Avatar Sessions

This phenomenal album features some of the world's best musicians ... and yes, I mean the world's best.

Americans Tim Hagans, Peter Erskine, Dave Liebman, Randy Brecker, Rufus Reid, George Garzone and Vic Juris are joined by Sweden's Norrbotten Big Band, which is known all over Europe.

Trumpeter/composer Hagans and drummer Erskine, both master musicians, first met while with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Erskine is an exceptional big band drummer; he keeps everything moving, catches every accent and “fills” superbly. Liebman (tenor sax) is a Miles Davis alum; Brecker (trumpet) got his start with Blood, Sweat and Tears; Reid (bass) played with Dexter Gordon and Thad Jones; and Garzone (tenor sax) has worked with everyone in New York City.

Juris, a famed guitarist, appears on one track.

It should be noted that all these musicians have been around for years; their average age is in the late 50s to mid-60s.

And as for the Norrbotten Big Band, it's simply the most swinging big band working in that country ... and the rest of Europe.

This release's seven tracks, all written and arranged by Hagans, are sensational: They're intricate and complex, they swing like crazy, and the ensemble and solo work will take your breath away.

Each tune is related to an individual or event in Hagans' career: “Buckeyes,” a real burner, is a tribute to the many great jazz musicians hailing from Ohio; “Boo” is a boogaloo chart written for Brecker; “Box of Cannoli” is a relatively up-tempo love song; and “Here with Me,” a true ballad, features Liebman's soprano sax.

“Palt Seanuts” mixes Dizzy Gillespie's bop anthem with a traditional Swedish food item. “Rufus at Gilly's” allows Reid to demonstrate his chops, while “Song for Mirka” pays homage to Mirka Siwek, the producer of the Norrbotten Big Band.

The Avatar in the title refers to the New York studio where the recording session took place. The recording quality, mixing and mastering are superb.

Last, but not least, the album packaging is excellent: plenty of photos, concise writing and helpful information. This is a “must have” album for jazz lovers; it's the best thing I've heard in more than a decade.