Friday, February 25, 2011

Luther Hughes: Things Are Getting Better

Primrose Lane Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Things Are Getting Better

Luther Hughes is another "jack of all aspects" musician: He has played bass with jazz legends such as Gene Harris, Horace Silver, Don Ellis and Louis Bellson; he taught at numerous colleges in the Los Angeles area; he founded Primrose Lane Music, which produces records and publishes music; and, as a musician, he currently leads several groups.

This album features one of them: the Cannonball Coltrane Project. This quintet concentrates on music by two of the most gifted artists in the hard bop jazz fraternity: Cannonball Adderley, who played alto sax; and John Coltrane, who played tenor sax.

Adderley and Coltrane became almost instant icons when they entered the jazz scene, and both died while still in their 40’s. But although both left huge discographies, they were together on only one album: The Cannonball Adderley Quintet In Chicago.

This release gave Hughes the idea to create the Cannonball-Coltrane Project, which consists of Hughes on bass, Glenn Cashman on tenor sax, Bruce Babad on alto, Ed Czach on piano, and Paul Kreibich on drums. The quintet plays everything Adderley and Coltrane composed individually, along with what both jazz giants played as members of the many bands they were part of, and subsequent tunes others created in their memory. This is the fourth album by Hughes' group.

The dozen tracks here include some of the really classic hard bop arrangements released during the 1960s. "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" first was done by Coltrane in his Live at the Village Vanguard album; "Take the Coltrane" was written by Duke Ellington for his Duke Ellington and John Coltrane release; and several other tunes relate to sessions at the famous Lighthouse jazz club in Hermosa Beach, California, which remains a periodic gig for the Cannonball Coltrane Project.

This great, swinging album will sooth the soul of every bop fan.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dan Block: From His World to Mine

Miles High Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: From His World to Mine

Dan Block is among the many reedmen who make New York City their home. Although not well known to the public outside that area, he's a respected member of the music world. During his career, Block has played with icons such as Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Clark Terry, and in bands supporting myriad headliner vocalists.

Block also is one of the few reed players equally fluent on the clarinet.

He holds Duke Ellington in the highest regard, and this album is a compilation of tunes composed by Duke or his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn; they were featured in the band's repertoire from the 1930s through the ‘50s. You may not be familiar with most of the menu, but don’t let that dissuade you; these 14 tracks demonstrate Ellington’s genius as a composer and arranger. Although all the famous members of his bands have passed on, the artists used here have done a magnificent job of recreating the sound and "feel" of those groups.

Ellington was a "portrait" composer; many of his songs were done with a specific member of his band in mind. Bassist Oscar Pettiford was the catalyst for "New York City Blues"; cornetest Rex Stewart for "Morning Glory"; clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton for "Are You Stickin' "; tenor sax artist Jimmy Sears for "Suburbanite"; and so on. Duke’s association with the Cotton Club and a theatrical production called Jump For Joy also are acknowledged.

This album is a trip down Memory Lane, in that marvelous Ellington style, rendered faithfully in trio, quartet and septet formats by excellent musicians. If you’re a Duke fan, you’ll love Block's work here.

Marcus Miller: A Night in Monte Carlo

Concord Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: A Night in Monte Carlo

Marcus Miller is best known as an electric bassist, composer, arranger and producer, but he also plays the piano, clarinet and bass clarinet. He was performing professionally and writing songs by age 13; just two years later, he was working regularly in New York City as a first-call musician. His discography is enormous: He has contributed to more than 500 albums that feature many of the greats of the music and entertainment world (Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Wayne Shorter, Luther Vandross and others).

A Night In Monte Carlo, a commissioned concert performed there in 2008, features Miller with his basic quartet, guest artists Roy Hargrove and Paul Midon, and L’Orchestre Philharmonique De Monte-Carlo (a 40-piece symphony). Several musical genres are represented, including opera, spiritual and various forms of jazz. "Blast," a Miller composition, presents fusion/funk in a full orchestral setting; "So What" and another Miller tune, "Amandla," are present for Miles Davis fans. "I Loves You Porgy," from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, is a highlight: a beautiful ballad that is seldom heard in a full orchestral jazz format.

Although not part of the original concert, Billy Holliday’s classic "Strange Fruit" is included here as a bonus track: It, all by itself, is worth the price of the album.

This release demonstrates how great jazz can be found in many formats.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Toots Thielemans: European Quartet Live

Challenge Records International
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: European Quartet Live

You don't need to be a musician to recognize Toots Thielemans, but it helps. This senior-senior citizen, born in 1922 in Brussels, Belgium, began playing an accordion at age 3, then took up the harmonica as a hobby. Fortunately for us, and history, he was hooked on jazz during the German occupation of his country during World War II. 

Benny Goodman "discovered" Thielemans during a European tour in 1950, and added him to the band for that event. Thielemans immigrated to the States two years later, and was transfixed by Charlie Parker; Thielemans became a member of Parker's All Stars early on. 

Thielemans subsequently worked with dozens of name artists  George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon and Billy Joel, to name just a few  but achieved mainstream fame by virtue of his harmonica and whistling work on film soundtracks and TV commercials.

And here he is, at almost 90, still playing, touring worldwide and knocking them out. You've never heard the harmonica played like this! His tone is gorgeous, his facility unbelievable; his unique ability to play and whistle simultaneously adds another dimension to this lowly "horn."

This European quartet also features Karel Boehlee on piano and synthesizer, Hein Van de Geyer on bass, and Hans van Oosterhout on drums. These artists have worked together for years, which is evident; they think and play as one. 

Listeners who expect an instrument that plays chords at an up-tempo meter will be stunned; Thielemans' solo work is done utilizing single-note phrasing, and his most impressive tunes are ballads. The dozen songs here include selections such as "I Loves You Porgy," "Summertime" and "The Days of Wine and Roses." Needless to say, his own composition, "Bluesette," is a highlight. 

If you're already a Thielemans fan, you won’'t need encouragement. And if you're not yet a fan, don’'t let any preconceived notions about this instrument prevent you from hearing a master at work.  

The Lynn Baker Quartet: Azure Intention

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Azure Intention

Lynn Baker is another musician with a primary job as a teacher, and is a player in a secondary capacity. When jazz was at its peak, schools didn't teach this art form; openings as sidemen were so abundant that talented, mostly self-taught, artists had all the work they desired. 

Then, just as a demand arose for high school- and college-age courses in jazz, public interest began to wane. As a result, many of today's jazz musicians must augment their income by teaching, in order to be able to make a living composing and playing the music they love.

This album contains selections composed and arranged by Baker during the past 20 years. Since 1993, he has been director of the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music. Three members of this quartet were students there: Pianist Reggie Berg and drummer Paul Mullikin join Baker, who performs on soprano/tenor saxes and congas.  Brazilian bassist Buoux Barbosa moved to Denver in 1996, where he remains much in demand.

This is a thinking listener's jazz; every track has a motive or theme behind it. The music is relatively complex, without being stuffy, performed with variations in meter, key and style. For example, "Into the Blues" begins in 5/2 time, then transitions into a driving 4/4 straight-ahead groove. 

The resulting tracks will never bore you. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Andy Farber: This Could Be the Start of Something Big

Black Warrior Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: This Could Be the Start of Something Big

I knew I'd like this album before the first 16 bars of the opening melodic line were completed. This is big band jazz the way it used to be, performed by a group of musicians who grew up in households where that genre was the standard. 

At just over 40 years old, Andy Farber's first instrument was a clarinet, but he switched almost immediately to tenor sax. His father played drums, and their musical library favored the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and other (then) modernists. 

Farber has performed with artists such as Randy Brecker, the Marsalis brothers and others, and was a member of the Jon Hendricks Explosion. Farber composes and arranges, and has numerous films and shows to his credit.

The group featured here is a big band in every sense of the word: Seven reeds, four trumpets, four trombones, a standard rhythm section  including a vibraphone  and a Jon Hendricks vocal group were involved. The 14 tracks include originals by Farber and classic jazz standards, beginning with Pete Johnson's "Roll 'em Pete" and gems such as "Body and Soul," "Broadway," "The 52nd Street Theme," "Jack the Bellboy," "Seems Like Old Times," "The Man I Love" and others. 

The arrangements are excellent, as are the musicians, and everything swings wonderfully.