Saturday, December 31, 2011

Emmet Cohen: In the Element

Bada Beep Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: In the Element

Emmet Cohen, who composes and plays both piano and Hammond B3 organ, is just 21 years old ... but his talent level is that of an artist twice his age. “Prodigy” is an accurate descriptor; he began to play the piano at age 3, and was studying classical music at the University Of Miami before he was 10. He then was accepted into the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college division. He majored for seven years in classical piano but, as often is the case, his interest in jazz developed during that period; he soon was playing at top jazz clubs in New York City, and at jazz festivals around the world.

Cohen’s awards are numerous: He won a 2008 Downbeat Award as Outstanding Jazz Soloist, was a recipient of the 2009 NFAA Clifford Brown/Stan Getz Fellowship, took first place in a 2011 piano competition at the University of West Florida, and — that same year — was one of five finalists for the American Pianists Association’s Cole Porter Fellowship and came in third in the Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition.

Cohen currently is working toward another music degree at Miami’s Frost School of Music. He also performs as leader or sideman at jazz venues in the NYC and Miami areas.

In the Element, Cohen’s first album, features his basic trio: bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Rodney Green, also in their 20s. Trumpeter Greg Gisbert appears as a guest artist. Six of the 10 tunes are jazz standards; Cohen wrote the rest. This mix allows one to judge how Cohen handles tunes that other artists and groups have performed, and permits an assessment of his compositional skills. He delivers in both cases. The stand-out standards, both ballads, are “For All We Know” and “Goodnight Heartache”; his arrangements match any prior performances I’ve heard.

These musicians demonstrate a maturity that is beyond their years; the only indicator of “youth” is reflected in a “solos for everyone” approach — including the drummer — on most tracks. But golly, that’s what turns young musicians on. And besides, they’re all more than competent soloists.

This is a very promising group, and we’ll be hearing a lot more from them.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Tierney Sutton Band: American Road

BFM Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: American Road

Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: The Tierney Sutton Band is not a unit headed by a jazz vocalist who is supported by a quartet of great musicians. This is, rather, a quintet of exceptional musicians, one of whom uses her voice as an instrument.

Whatever the designation, this unit has been flying below my radar for too many years. It’s certainly not like these folks just arrived on the jazz scene; they’ve been performing together for 18 years. They have released nine albums in the past dozen years, received three Grammy Award nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and Sutton was selected by Jazzweek as 2005’s Vocalist of the Year.

Sutton, a Wisconsin native, is a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music; she taught in USC’s Jazz Studies Department and, in 2008, became the Vocal Department Chair at the Los Angeles Music Academy in Pasadena, California. The band is a legally incorporated unit; they make all musical — and business — decisions together. They decide on a tune to be added to their “library,” and the style/treatment to be utilized; they then rehearse it until satisfied with what they’ve created. In musician’s vernacular, the result is a “head arrangement.”

Nothing remains constant; they vary tempos, keys, melodic lines and harmonies during a performance, and everything meshes wonderfully.

The quintet consists of Sutton, pianist Christian Jacob, two bassists (Kevin Axt and Trey Henry) who play both acoustic and electric instruments, and drummer Ray Brinker. Sutton’s voice is in a higher range than most jazz vocalists; she tends toward soprano rather than alto. That said, her range is extensive, and her ability to use her voice as an instrument is exceptional. She enunciates clearly, whether on a soulful ballad (“Wayfaring Stranger”) or a rocking show tune (“On Broadway”). Additionally, she scats with the best I’ve ever heard, and at tempos that approach the speed of light.

Most impressive, though, is her interplay with the other musicians.

Jacob, born in France, is another Berklee College grad; he received numerous awards as a student and taught there for a period. His first professional job was with Gary Burton, after which Jacob served as performer, composer and arranger for Maynard Ferguson for a number of years. Jacob is an outstanding musician, in a class with Oscar Peterson.

Both Axt and Henry are exceptional; at times they alternate tunes, and at times they play together. Are they great? Axt has appeared on more than 150 albums, and it’s difficult to find a band or orchestra — jazz or classical — with whom Henry hasn’t worked. Both men are in a class with Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen, as far as technique is concerned.

Brinker graduated from North Texas State, one of the world’s finest jazz study colleges. He, Jacob, Axt and Henry are close friends, and have worked together for years. As for Brinker’s skill, he’s a master with brushes; I’ve never heard better. And he often uses his fingers and palms to achieve unique rhythm patterns.

American Road is a splendid collection of folk, traditional and standard compositions. If “Amazing Grace,” “Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Tenderly,” “The Eagle and Me,” “Somewhere” and “Something’s Coming” aren’t enough to convince you, then this band’s rendition of “America the Beautiful” will bring tears to your eyes.

This is the best release I’ve heard in years!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ted Rosenthal Trio: Out of this World

Playscape Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Out of this World

Pianist/composer/arranger Ted Rosenthal is a New Yorker through and through. He was born and raised in a Big Apple suburb, taught by local piano teachers, attended and earned two degrees from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. Although he subsequently toured extensively, he has spent most of his musical career performing in the New York area.

Jazz was an early love, but he initially concentrated on the classical genre because, at that time, only limited opportunities existed for studying jazz at the conservatory level. He nonetheless avidly pursued jazz outside of school and, in 1988, won the Thelonious Monk Competition; that launched his career.

All roads may lead to Rome, but New York City always has been a magnet for jazz artists. As a result, Rosenthal had numerous opportunities to perform with name musicians such as Gerry Mulligan, Ron Carter, Art Farmer, Jon Faddis and Phil Woods. In fact, Rosenthal toured with the final Gerry Mulligan Quartet, and his first albums were as a sideman with that group. After Mulligan’s death, Rosenthal became musical director of the Gerry Mulligan Tribute Band, which also featured Lee Konitz, Bob Brookmeyer and Randy Brecker. Their CD, Thank You, Gerry, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1998.

One indicator of a pianist’s quality is related to his demand as accompanist by vocalists; Rosenthal is a first-call choice. As you listen to this album — his 13th as a leader — you’ll understand why; his touch is impeccable. He supports without intruding.

He concentrates here on timeless classics by Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and the like. All are familiar tunes, but I guarantee you’ve never heard them played like this. Rosenthal’s “de-ranging” (as he describes it) involves meter changes (3/4, 5/4, 9/8), harmonic and melodic variation, and improvisations that makes everything old, new again.

He can play at both blazing and ballad tempos, and his trio compatriots have much to do with the quality of his music. The bassist, Noriko Ueda, is equal to the best I’ve heard on the instrument. The drummer, Quincy Davis, has truly superior control; “fast” often results in “loud,” but not for Davis. He can perform blazing runs at just a whisper when appropriate.

This is a wonderful, enjoyable album: the kind of stuff you can play for hours.

Hiromi: Voice

Telarc Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Voice

Readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of pianist/composer Hiromi Uehara. If you look up the definition for prodigy, you might find her picture; she began to play the piano at age 6, was introduced to jazz at 8, performed with the Czech Philharmonic at 14, and played a concert with Chick Corea at a still youthful 17. She’s a Berklee College of Music grad and was signed by Telarc Records while still in school.

Since her professional debut in 2003, Hiromi has been featured on almost a dozen albums or DVDs. Several are in a solo piano setting, but the majority are with a trio; on this, her newest release, she is joined by bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips. All but one of the nine tunes are Hiromi compositions; the exception is her “rearrangement” of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 (Pathétique).

Voice is a reflection of Hiromi’s belief that, in her words, “people’s real voices are expressed in their emotions. It’s not something that you really say. It’s more something that you have in your heart. Maybe it’s something you haven’t said yet. Maybe you’re never going to say it. But it’s your true voice. Instrumental music is very similar.”

Don’t be surprised, then, at the absence of lyrics in these melodies.

This is concert jazz: something you listen to, not dance or swing to. But, thanks to Hiromi, it’s fascinating, mesmerizing and dazzling. Her technique is near perfect, particularly during up-tempo pieces. Her touch is super-controlled; you won’t hear any fluffs.

What you will experience borders on awe; the lady is almost unbelievable.

Christian McBride: The Good Feeling

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Good Feeling

Most musicians evolve as they gain experience. An individual who starts out playing with a polka group may end up in a modern big band; another might begin as a gospel church organist and become the pianist in a straight-ahead quartet. Generally, though, the core musical genre remains fixed.

That isn’t the case with bassist Christian McBride. At still shy of 40, he has participated in just about every possible musical setting. He enjoys — and is more than fluent — with every element of the jazz family tree, rock ’n’ roll, pop, soul and classical. He also performs with groups of all sizes, ranging from small-jazz units to concert and symphony orchestras.

And, as further proof that he’s a recognized expert by all elements in the musical world, his discography exceeds 300 albums during a 20-year professional career.

And yet this is his first recording as the leader of a big band.

This album’s 11 songs are a combination of favorite standards and original compositions. Whereas most composers and arrangers produce manuscripts that relate to their own personal “likes,” McBride almost always has a specific musician in mind: what he writes, and the style employed, reflect how that artist plays.

The opening track (“Shake ’n Blake”) reflects this approach, with saxophonist Ron Blake serving as the catalyst; likewise, alto saxist Steve Wilson wrought “Brother Mister.”

McBride’s Big Band approach even includes a vocalist, Melissa Walker, who is featured on “When I Fall in Love,” “The More I See You” and “A Taste of Honey.” Many of the great standards begin with “prologues,” but these days nobody sings them; Walker’s inclusion of the introduction to “When I Fall in Love” makes that old song very special.

The orchestra is a big band in every sense: five reeds, four trumpets and trombones, a pianist, drummer and McBride on bass, along with the vocalist. The unit is “classical” in format, but the sound achieved has the personality, exuberance and power of Christian McBride.

And that says it all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday Jazz 2011: Santa still has plenty of swing

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.14.11

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for roughly 16 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

Starting this annual column with an excellent disc always feels like a good omen, so let’s turn first to Ellis Marsalis’ A New Orleans Christmas Carol (ELM Records 19790). Long before Wynton and his many talented brothers became young cubs on the jazz scene, Daddy Ellis was roaring with the assurance of a venerable lion. He has gotten even better with time.

Although he contributed a few solo piano tracks to earlier anthology holiday albums for National Public Radio, Ellis Marsalis — surprisingly — hasn’t released his own Christmas disc until now. As the saying goes, this one was worth the wait.

The CD’s 20 tracks find Marsalis in four different modes: as soloist, leading a piano trio, leading a piano quartet with vibes accompaniment, and accompanying a vocalist. The combo arrangements are highlighted by driving keyboard work and lively percussion elements, starting with a funky, New Orleans-stompified cover of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” emerges as a slow samba, with a quiet bongo backdrop and some lovely work by Roman Skakun on vibes. Bassist Peter Harris stands out in a toe-tapping arrangement of “Sleigh Ride,” while Jason Marsalis delivers an equally delicious vibes lead, with Ellis’ piano comping behind him, on a solemn reading of “O Holy Night.”

Ellis’ solo piano treatments include an exquisite handling of “O Tannenbaum” and a charming run at “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The two vocals are this album’s only drawback. Cynthia Liggins Thomas and Johnaye Kendrick — on “A Child Is Born” and an Ellis Marsalis original titled “Christmas Joy,” respectively — simply try too hard. Their overwrought deliveries do no favors to the instrumentalists.

The album’s final track includes an Easter egg, so don’t remove the disc too quickly; after a lengthy pause, Marsalis delivers a third piano solo, this one of “The Little Drummer Boy.” That makes three versions of that carol on this disc: probably one too many in anybody else’s hands, but simply more jazz magic from Marsalis.

Definitely one of the season’s must-haves.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Kevin Crabbe: Waltz for Dylan

CrabbClaw Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Waltz for Dylan

It’s funny how you can be too close to something to notice it. Canadian jazz is an example; the country is one of the “lower 48’s” closest neighbors, yet the skills of Canadian musicians in this genre are relatively unknown on this side of the border. My own awareness began years ago, with Rob McConnell’s wonderful Boss Brass Big Band, followed by Maynard Ferguson’s entry into Stan Kenton’s Orchestra. Clearly, some “Canucks” could swing with the best.

As further proof, we have this album by the Kevin Crabb Quartet. Crabb is a bit unusual in a few ways: He has dual citizenship (Canada and the United States), and he’s much more than “just a drummer.” He was born into a musical family, and became a professional vocalist at age 8 (earning “big bucks” as a singer of commercial jingles). He subsequently became a TV and film actor, a professional drummer and composer/arranger.

As for his instrumental skill, he’s a musician, not an exciting “showman.”

Some age-old commentary comes to mind: The first, intended as an ironic joke, is a question: “How big is your band?” Answer: “Fifteen musicians and a drummer.” The second observation comes from a famous musician: “A drummer should be felt more than heard.”

To repeat, Crabb is a musician!

Two members of his group, also Canadians, are bassist Don Thompson and saxophonist Kelly Jefferson; both have played with numerous name artists during their careers. Pianist John Beasley, the sole American, also has worked with many names, including Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand.

The point? This is a talented, first-echelon quartet.

Crabb’s skill as a composer is evident; he wrote all the tunes featured on this release, and their style, feel and content are not what you’d expect from a percussionist. These tracks are tasty — beautiful at times — and yet they always swing. He has a knack for making the soloists, and the group as a whole, sound even better than they are.

So be on the lookout, jazz fans, and keep your ears tuned to the North!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

SSJ All Stars: From California with Love

SSJ-USA Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: From California with Love

Shortly after the horrific earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, SSJ-USA Records’ Bill Reed contacted vocalist/guitarist Diane Hubka — who recently had completed a 12-city tour of Japan — about a fundraising project, with proceeds to be donated to the quake victims. This album is the result of that effort. The well-known singers and musicians who enthusiastically came on board accepted no fees for their performances; the same was true of the companies and services that supported the project.

All the tracks are new and previously unreleased, and all present themes of hope and “positivity.” All of the performances are exceptional; clearly, the hearts of all concerned were deeply involved in the project. Vocalists abound, in keeping with the desire to make the tribute personal; the roster includes Hubka, Sue Raney, Tierney Sutton, Frankie Randall, Kurt Reidenbach, Johnny Holiday, Leslie Lewis, Jim Cox, Dick Noel, Pinky Winters and the late Chris Conners (via a bit of recording tape from her manager). Pianists Alan Broadbent, Christian Jacob and Jim Cox provide soulful accompaniment, as do other supporting instrumentalists.

The song list is further evidence of the desired theme and tone, with selections such as “Blue Skies,” “Sweet and Lovely,” “Here’s to Life,” “We Can Work It Out” You’ll Never Walk Alone” and many others.

The result is a wonderful album, with warm and earnest work from all involved.

Friday, December 2, 2011

John Brown Trio: Dancing with Duke

Brown Boulevard Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Dancing with Duke

John Brown is a master of many skills. He began to play the double bass when he was just 9, and hardly big enough to reach the full range of the strings. He has an extensive education, having graduated from both the University of North Carolina-Greensboro School of Music, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Law. He teaches at several universities in North Carolina, including Duke; he plays with several symphony orchestras; he’s a “first-sought” bassist as a sideman; and he fronts his own trio, quintet and larger groups.

And occasionally sleeps.

He has performed with numerous name artists and vocalists — including the Marsalis clan, Rosemary Clooney and Diahann Carroll — and he won a Grammy Award as a co-writer of Nnenna Freelon’s album Shaking Free.

Dancing With Duke, Brown’s second album, was released from his own studio.

Brown worships Duke Ellington, and this release features 10 of the latter’s most famous tunes. As the album title implies, each track is done at a danceable tempo ... which is to say, close dancing: the kind enjoyed by couples in love ... or falling in that direction. Even the relatively up-tempo tunes are done at a danceable pace. That’s unusual these days, particularly with a trio.

Brown is backed by pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Adonis Rose: one of the tightest, highly grooving rhythm sections I’ve heard in a long time. Even if you haven’t danced for awhile, these guys make you want to move your feet. Chestnut’s style, a delightful combination of gospel and light bop, fits perfectly with Brown’s solid beat; Rose also is a solid and tasteful compliment to the group.

As for the tunes selected, I’m particularly moved by this rendition of “Solitude.” You don’t often hear a bowed bass solo, and this one is superb. You’ll recognize many of these standards — “In a Mellow Tone,” “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” “Perdido,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “I Got It Bad” — and it’s refreshing to hear the lesser-known “Pie Eye’s Blues” and “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.”

All in all, this is a neat album.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Reynolds Jazz Orchestra: Three Penny Opera

Shanti Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Three Penny Opera

Some artists inevitably are ahead of their time; a few others are so far ahead that it’s unbelievable. Kurt Weill was one of the latter. Born in Germany in 1900, he achieved fame while he was still in his 20s, during the period when Hitler was beginning his rise to power. Because Weill was Jewish and a socialist, he fled Germany in 1933, living briefly in Paris and London before settling in New York. He died in 1950.

Weill was an amazing composer, creating cantatas, chamber music, chorals, piano music and film scores. His best-known work was the Three Penny Opera, first presented in Germany in 1928. It wasn’t an immediate hit, but it became an iconic work as the years passed. Few have been exposed to the complete opera, but almost everyone is familiar with one of its tunes: “Mack the Knife” has become a classic.

The Reynolds Jazz Orchestra, consisting of internationally famous musicians led by Fritz Reynold and his wife Helen Savari Reynold, was formed in 1999; its first performance was a Duke Ellington tribute concert that featured several members from Duke’s orchestras. That performance was quite popular, and the Reynolds have made such tribute events an annual tradition.

Their ensemble’s version of Three Penny Opera was performed in 2000 in Aarau, Switzerland; the orchestra, consisting of 15 artists — in the tradition of the Ellington tribute — included Randy Brecker and Bobby Watson from the States. The double-CD set contains 24 tunes from the original score, arranged by French-born pianist and composer Christian Jacob. He also contributed a 25th track, “Warehouses Blues,” which ends this recording.

The opera’s already marvelous score is recreated as an instrumental tour de force. I can’t think of any other almost-century-old work that would survive such a fresh interpretation of this magnitude, and sound as magnificent as this one does. The melodic lines are maintained, the solo work is fantastic, and everything swings like crazy.

Interestingly, “Mack the Knife” is presented much less frenetically than the takes we’ve heard from Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald and so many others ... but it’s still a show-stopper.

For that matter, so is the entire album!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sam Yahel: From Sun to Sun

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: From Sun to Sun

When I first heard Sam Yahel, he was best known for his skill on the Hammond B3 organ, usually in a trio setting. He has returned to his original instrument — the piano — for most of the tunes on this album; I’m quite impressed. He has maintained his trio format, which includes bassist Matt Penman and drummer Jochen Rueckert. They’ve been together for more than 10 years, and it shows.

All but three of the 13 tracks are original compositions by Yahel; the exceptions are Donald Kahn’s “A Beautiful Friendship,” Cole Porter’s “So in Love” and Vernon Duke’s “Taking a Chance on Love.” Yahel’s interpretations are superior to most I’ve heard; he prefers mid and up-tempos meters, and his touch is impeccable. But I’m most moved by his melodic experimentation; he finds ways to add neat “frills” while still maintaining the original melodic line in the background. That skill nails your attention to what he’s doing.

The piano is a “friendlier” instrument than the B3, when it comes to demonstrating technique, dexterity and skill; the organ’s sound and tone tend to “muffle” the musical lines. There’s no place to hide with a piano; every note (and fluff, for that matter) stands out crisply. Yahel’s complex fingering and runs on “A Beautiful Friendship” — and on many of his originals — would be muddled on a B3, if not impossible to achieve.

Yahel is an excellent organist, but on the piano he’s an artist.

Curtis Fuller: The Story of Cathy & Me

Challenge Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Story of Cathy & Me

Trombonist Curtis Fuller — born in 1934, and still alive and swinging — has played with many of the jazz icons from the 1950s onward. Cathy, his beloved wife for almost 30 years, died in 2010. This album, a poignant love story set to music, covers their life together. Each song relates chronologically to events that were special to their union.

Fuller also includes four short spoken interludes. The first covers his years prior to their meeting; the second concerns their children; the third relates to the discovery of Cathy’s lung cancer; the last summarizes his wishes for Cathy and their friends. The titles of the 14 surrounding tunes perfectly describe the phases of their lives together.

Fuller is a great musician, still in heavy demand. His career began in a unit with Paul Chambers and Donald Byrd; after two years in the army, he played with Cannonball Adderley, Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis, Sonny Clark and John Coltrane. Fuller also was a member of the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Quartet and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, then joined bands headed by Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. Fuller has toured the world, and currently is on staff at New York State Summer School of the Arts and the School of Jazz Studies.

Fuller utilized 10 of his closest musician friends as backup here. His trombone is augmented by Lester Walker (trumpet), Daniel Bauerkemper and Akeem Marable (tenor sax), Nick Rosen and Kenny Banks Jr. (piano), Henry Conerway III and Clarence Levy (drums/percussion); Brandy Brewer and Kevin Smith (bass); and Tia Michelle Rouse (vocals).

A painter or poet creating a work of art in memoriam would do the best possible job, and Fuller is no exception. This occasion itself is sad, but if the tune relates to happiness, so does the performance.

Fuller is up there in years, but his heart and soul are evident in his playing. Ignore the interludes and sorrow inherent in this album’s creation — if you must — but do concentrate on the quality of the music. It’s superb.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Westchester Jazz Orchestra: Maiden Voyage Suite

WJO Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Maiden Voyage Suite

In 2003, an august group of musicians — many of whom lived in Westchester, a suburb just north of New York City — formed the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (WJO) to “promote jazz, contribute to its evolution and advance the appreciation and understanding of this uniquely American cultural treasure.”

WJO is a 16-member big band in the standard sense: four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, piano, bass, drums and a director (Mike Holober, one of the group founders). This unit met periodically and constructed a “book” of original compositions and arrangements, rehearsed and performed at concerts held throughout the New York area.

WJO’s first album, All In, was released in 2007 to rave reviews; this, their second, is a re-imaging of the classic 1965 Herbie Hancock album of the same name.

Only a few of the members of WJO are well known outside the jazz community — probably pianist/composer/arranger Mike Holober, reedists Jay Brandford and Ralph LaLama, trumpeter Tony Kadleck and trombonist Pete McGuinness — but every artist is an upper-echelon musician.

As for this release, several accolades apply. Hancock, now in his 70s, was way ahead of his time; Maiden Voyage Suite is an exceptional piece of music. WJO is an outstanding unit, and the “re-imagining” by Holober and other group members is excellent. Best of all, the ensemble passages and solos are superb.

The suite opens with a moving prologue, progresses through seven passages and concludes with an epilogue. It all meshes neatly, whatever the tempo, and everything swings wonderfully.

This orchestra ranks with groups such as the GRP All Star and Bob Florence bands: the best we’ve had since those wonderful aggregations headed by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson.

Don’t miss this album; it’s a must.

Friday, October 14, 2011

New York Standards Quartet: Unstandard

Challenge Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Unstandard

Take four highly experienced musicians, all born within a six-year span, who have played with literally dozens of name artists; put ’em together, and you get the New York Standards Quartet. The group was formed in 2006 by Tim Armacost, who plays saxophones and alto flute; he’s joined by pianist David Berkman, drummer Gene Jackson and bassist Yosuke Inoue.

Each also works independently, playing with other units and teaching; they get together when schedules permit, to perform at various jazz venues and concerts in the United States, Europe and Japan. All four share a common love for Japanese culture, food and language, which explains their many visits to that country.

As the group’s name suggests, these gentlemen also have a particular love for jazz standards. Their first album (“Live in Tokyo”) consisted of only such tunes; no original compositions were included. This time, the mix includes a number of originals composed by members of the group. The rest are standards, but while these tunes may be familiar, the interpretations are unique.

“How High the Moon,” usually performed as up-tempo barn-burner, is turned into a plaintive, mid-tempo lament featuring a beautiful soprano sax showcase for Armacost. He and Berkman are the highlights in “All the Things You Are.” Armacost switches to tenor sax for Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” presented in a Latin jazz mode; the entire rhythm section is marvelous in backup. “But Beautiful” also features Armacost, this time on alto flute.

Without exception, everything swings nicely. Short passages — running less than a minute each, and identified as “Beamlets” — separate the various segments of the program. These evoke some of the old classical composers.

This is a really nice unit: the kind of group you could listen to for hours. The players are cohesive, relaxing and swinging, all at the same time. The resulting mood is similar to that created by the Modern Jazz Quartet, with the reed instrumentation replacing the vibraphone, along with the major emphasis on jazz standards.

I want to hear more from these guys!

New York Jazz Initiative: Mad about Thad

Jazzheads Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Mad about Thad

“Thad” is Thad Jones, the trumpeter/composer/arranger member of the Jones clan (all now deceased) that also included pianist Hank and drummer Elvin. Thad Jones’ professional career began with Count Basie, continued as a freelance composer and arranger in New York City, and then he and Mel Lewis formed the Mel Lewis/Thad Jones Orchestra, one of the best big bands from the 1960s onward.

The New York Jazz Initiative was founded in 2008, to foster the advancement, creative spirit and appreciation of jazz arts through education and performance activities that harness the talents of master musicians, to educate and inspire the next generation of performers and listeners.

This memorial album features eight tunes from Thad Jones “book” of compositions, performed by 10 swinging artists: Rob Derke, Ralph Lalama and Steve Wilson (sax); David Smith (trumpet/flugelhorn); Sam Burtis and Mike Meyers (trombone, although Burtis also is featured on tuba); Carlo de Rosa (bass); Eric Mcpherson (drums); and Art Hirahara and David Bryant (piano). Rob Derke, Justin Flynn and Toby Wine wrote the arrangements.

Jones utilized dense chords that used dissonant voicings. That, in turn, necessitated correctly tuned performance by the instrumentalists. Jones used a lot of minor seconds and major sevenths, particularly in long, powerful chords. The resulting “voicing” is quite evident in the album selections.

The difference between that approach, and the sound created by most bands playing at the time, was a key element to the excitement that the Lewis/Jones band created for listeners. The first track on this album (“Bird Song”) is a perfect illustration of Jones’ voicing technique and, additionally, features a wonderfully swinging tuba solo by Burtis.

Jones loved tempo changes. “Quiet Lady” is done as a waltz; “Mean What You Say” is a ballad, as is his best-known chart, “A Child Is Born.” “Three and One” is Latin-tinged, and both “Lady Luck” and “Evel Deklaw Ni” are neat mid-tempo tunes that present some great solo work by group members.

The closer, “Elusion,” features some grooving ensemble choruses by the reed section and a tasty piano solo by Bryant.

All the Jones brothers were exceptional, but — perhaps because of his association with the Lewis/Jones orchestra — Thad was a tad more special.

Bill Carrothers Trio: A Night at the Village Vanguard

Pirouet Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: A Night at the Village Vanguard

I won’t make the same mistake with Bill Carrothers and his trio that I made years ago with pianist Bill Evans!

At that time, I was so immersed in big band jazz — and the arrival of icons such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker — that the superb talent of Evans slipped under my radar. When I finally realized how marvelous the man was, he was near the end of his career. Well, I’m older and wiser, and pianist Bill Carrothers is another such talent.

Small musical groups, usually headed by pianists, are a mainstay in the hundreds of jazz venues that exist in cities throughout the United States and Europe. Carrothers has spent three decades performing in that element of the musical world. He never played with a name band, so he didn’t receive the public exposure that those groups provided; he didn’t have an association with a major record company (as, say, Dave Brubeck did); and he didn’t become part of jazz tours such as those assembled by Norman Granz (as Oscar Peterson did). As a result, appreciation of Carrothers’ talent was limited primarily to his fellow musicians.

That said, it’s difficult to find a name club that hasn’t hosted him.

This double CD presents Carrothers’ Trio — bassist Nicolas Thys and drummer Dre Pallemaerts — performing one night at the famed Village Vanguard. Two complete sets are provided. The first (running close to 70 minutes) includes four jazz standards composed by the famous Clifford Brown; one each from Jimmy Dorsey, Richie Powell and Duke Jordan; two Carrothers originals and a couple of oldies by McHugh/Loesser (“Let’s Get Lost”) and Raskin/Fomin (“Those Were the Days”).

Set 2, roughly the same length, contains four more Carrothers originals; one each from Brown and Powell; Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses” and an old standard by Gordon Jenkins (“Blue Evening”).

This marvelous evening of jazz is the next-best thing to having been in the audience. It was Pirouet’s first live recording session, and this is the label’s first double CD. I don’t care how many times you may have heard these standards; Carrothers’ interpretations are fresh. And you won’t get bored during this musical tour de force; whether the approach is grooving, up-tempo or balladic, it’s all wonderful jazz.

Jimmy Amadie Trio: Something Special

TP Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Something Special

During his youth in Philadelphia, Jimmy Amadie was a typical American kid who was interested in baseball, football and boxing ... and in learning to play the piano, which his father insisted on. Little did young Jimmy know that the former would have such a large impact on the latter. He broke fingers and hands numerous times; they always healed. As time passed, his interest in the piano — and jazz — increased, as did his skill on the instrument. He practiced and played as much as 70 to 80 hours a week, and in 1959 was hired by Woody Herman.

Amadie next accompanied Mel Torme for several years, and also played frequently with icons such as Red Rodney, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Ventura. Then, finally, the damage that had been done to his fingers and hands during his more athletic days took its toll. Severe tendonitis, and its associated agony, kept Amadie from playing for more than 30 years.

As Amadie puts it, he could only practice and play in his head. He turned instead to writing and teaching.

After seven operations — and treatments that still continue — Amadie began to play again. He was severely restricted, however; his first album took multiple sessions and more than two months to create. This release is the seventh on his long journey back.

The trio setting includes bassist Tony Marino and drummer Bill Goodwin, with whom Jimmy has worked previously. Two of the 10 tracks (“Blues for Sweet Lizzy” and “Happy Man’s Bossa Nova”) are Amadie compositions; the rest are famous standards.

As Jimmy says, “I love the standards, because they allow me to compare my skills to others who have played these tunes.” As a reviewer, I love them for the same reason.

Amadie’s renditions are surprising at times; his introduction and initial chorus will be performed as a ballad, then he’ll shift to a swinging mid-tempo meter: “Sweet Lorraine” and “My Funny Valentine” are excellent examples. Then he’ll take a swinger like “Sweet Georgia Brown” and do it at a much slower tempo than usual. Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” originally recorded as a big-band screamer, is served as a mid-tempo, Latin-tinged toe-tapper. The beautiful “All the Things You Are” begins as a light little swinger, then moves into a more intense rocker that displays Amadie’s prowess as a true jazz pianist, and offers plenty of room for solos by his bassist and drummer.

These are the tunes, and the styles, that were a huge part of jazz’s mid-years. I loved them then, and I still do.

Warren Wolf: Warren Wolf

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Warren Wolf

Warren Wolf is a young artist who plays vibraphone, marimba, piano and drums; he was born and raised in Baltimore, and graduated from the Berklee College of Music. Thanks to a musical father, he began at an early age: drums at age 3, piano and vibes just a few years later. Wolf toured with the Baltimore Symphony when he was 9, composed his first tune at 10, started playing professional jazz gigs at 12, and entered Berklee at 17.

Wolf’s early entry into the jazz scene, his association with the myriad Berklee attendees — and his recognition as a prodigy — assured that he’d work with many name artists. Bassist Christian McBride, who was Jazz Aspen’s artistic director at the time, was one of the first to recognize Wolf’s talent. McBride — along with Gregory Hutchinson (drums), Peter Martin (piano), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet) and Tim Green (alto and soprano sax) — join Wolf on this, his debut album for Mack Avenue.

Most of the tunes were composed by members of the sextet; the exception is Chick Corea’s “Senor Mouse,” originally recorded as a duet with vibes icon Gary Burton, who was a member of Corea’s group for awhile. Wolf’s cover demonstrates his prowess on both vibraphone and marimba (the latter is overdubbed). Wolf also uses the marimba on the ballad “How I Feel at This Given Moment”; as he explains, “I wanted to add the marimba’s sweet wooden sound.”

The album menu includes a nice mix of ballads, blues, mid-tempo swingers and one supersonic flag-waver (“One For Lenny”). The sextet grooves nicely, and Wolf clearly demonstrates that he’s a musical force to be reckoned with. His multi-instrument abilities evoke Lionel Hampton, who also was on speaking terms with the drums and piano, as well as vibes. Hamp was a great traditional jazz artist, and Wolf demonstrates that this sort of talent remains relevant in the modern jazz world.

Stan Killian: Unified

Sonnyside Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Unified

Although Texas is best known for its country & western musicians, a surprising number of jazz artists hail from that state. Many have made the saxophone their instrument: Ornette Coleman, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and Buddy Tate immediately come to mind.

Stan Killian plays that kind of jazz.

Killian spent his early years in his home state, attended Texas State University and freelanced in that area until moving to the East Coast. He worked in the Baltimore and D.C. area for awhile, before joining the jazz scene in New York City.

For this, his initial recording, he features two combos that consist of bassists Bryan Copeland and Corcoran Holt, pianist Benito Gonzalez, drummers Darrell Green and McClenty Hunter, trumpeters Jeremy Pelt and Roy Hargrove (the latter also a Texan), and alto saxman David Binney. Killian composed and arranged all but one of the tunes (“Elvin’s Sight”).

The groups play traditional, bop-tinged jazz that evokes what we used to hear from Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. Killian has been credited as a “Texas-style” tenor player, but he’s more smooth and musical than icons such as Jacquet and Cobb.

The album title, Unified, aptly describes the group’s sound and style. It all swings quite nicely, whether done at a waltz, 4/4 or 5/4 meter.

I love to hear this sort of stuff in a jazz venue, and the Big Apple has enough of those to keep these guys working steadily.

Ernie Krivda: Blues for Pekar

JLP Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Blues for Pekar

I’ll bet most of you haven’t the foggiest idea who either “Pekar” or Ernie Krivda are.

Well, in one of my recent reviews of a Benny Green album, I noted that this wonderful jazz pianist grew up in the same time period that gifted us with Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson; as a result, although Green is a star in the jazz world, he’s almost unknown to the public. Fame has only so much room, at a given time, for superstars in a given medium and genre. Two additional factors can be involved, having nothing to do with talent: locale (where you’re born and raised) and what I’ll call “personal happiness” (say, an unwillingness to tour).

Which brings us to Blues for Pekar.

Tenor sax artist Ernie Krivda, along with writer/jazz critic Harvey Pekar, were residents of Cleveland, Ohio. Both were brought up in families and neighborhoods with very strong ethnic ties. They loved everything about home life, families and friends, and weren’t the least bit interested in leaving ... despite developed skills that offered opportunities to do so.

Krivda’s family was musical; his father was a professional, as were other relatives. Krivda began to play the clarinet when he was 6; before long, he was playing in Polish polka bands in neighborhood bars. It wasn’t the kind of music that he preferred, but the income couldn’t be ignored. He still was in high school when he switched to sax, at which point he began to head his own groups.

Many fine young musicians lived in Cleveland — Chuck and Bob Findley, Jiggs Wigham, for example — and the city was a “must stop” for the big bands and stage shows that toured continuously in those days. Krivda became a first-call musician for the backup orchestras required by these artists, and he was able to jam with visiting jazz artists. As a result, he had short stints with the likes of Cannonball Adderley, the Jimmy Dorsey “ghost” band and others, but he always went back to Cleveland.

And that’s where he is today.

Blues For Pekar is a memorial to Krivda’s good friend Pekar, who died not long ago; The writer rated Krivda as “one of the greatest jazz tenor sax players in the world,” and this album demonstrates that Pekar knew his business. Krivda’s group consists of piano, bass, drums and (on some tracks) trumpet. The combo swings wonderfully, and everyone’s obviously having a ball. Half the tunes are standards, while the rest are Krivda originals. The players’ enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s clear that the Cleveland jazz climate is alive and well!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dida Pelled: Dida

Red Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Dida

Mandatory military service is required of all 18-year-old Israeli citizens: men must serve for three years, women for two. Guitarist/vocalist Dida Pelled already had established herself as an in-demand musician in her homeland when she entered military service. Following that, Pelled relocated to the United States, received a full scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music and a scholarship to New York City’s New School University, where she’s still studying. In very short order, she began to play with name musicians at well-known jazz venues in the Big Apple.

This album features Pelled as a guitarist and vocalist in a trio setting, supported by bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. They’re joined by two guest trumpeters: Roy Hargrove contributes to three tracks, and Fabio Morgera to two.

Pelled’s choice of tunes is excellent for a newcomer; more than half the tracks are familiar standards, which provide a meaningful comparison between her talents and those of other artists who visited these same songs. A couple of compositions by Wes Montgomery and Horace Silver — “Fried Pies” and “Calcutta Cutie,” respectively — also are included.

Bottom line: This young lady swings. Her guitar style combines the strumming technique of icons such as Charlie Byrd and Joe Pass, and the single-string finesse of Herb Ellis, Wes Montgomery and Larry Koonse. She is adept at both balladic and up-tempo material, and her fingering is crisp and clean.

As for her skill as a vocalist, she has a great jazz feel, and I love her relaxed tonal quality. Finally, her choice of supporting musicians indicates a clear awareness of the important role they play in the success of all jazz vocalists.

Pelled is a promising talent with a very bright future.

Scenes: Silent Photographer

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Silent Photographer

Scenes is the nom de trio of guitarist John Stowell, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer John Bishop. These individuals have played with literally dozens of name musicians during their busy careers and, together or individually, have been involved in hundreds of recording sessions.

Their common thread? They’re part of the flourishing Pacific Northwest jazz population. Bishop is the founder of Origin Arts and OA2 Records, and he began Seattle’s annual Ballard Jazz Festival. Johnson often works with pianist Jessica Williams, another resident in the Seattle area, and tours with pianist Hal Galper’s trio. Stowell teaches and tours extensively outside the States and is particularly well known in Japan.

All three are consummate artists, and they share another characteristic: Each is a first-call choice by vocalists who select backup musicians for their recording sessions. That speaks volumes about their ability to meld effectively, and not overwhelm the featured artist’s melodic lines.

Most of the tunes on this album are originals by members of the trio. The exceptions are Herbie Hancock’s “Chan’s Song,” John Coltrane’s “Resolution” and Wayne Shorter’s Black Eyes. No matter who the composer is, the result is beautiful, relaxed, easy-listening jazz. Tempos range from balladic to up-tempo swingers, and the interplay among the artists is wonderful; their time together is quite evident during both the ensemble melodic lines and solo passages.

You should seek out any of the many albums with which these three master artists have been involved ... starting with this one.