Friday, April 29, 2011

Eddie Mendenhall: Cosine Meets Tangent

Miles High Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Cosine Meets Tangent

Eddie Mendenhall began to play the piano when he was 4, and was only 8 when he started performing the classics. But he didn’t get hooked on jazz until he attended the Monterey Jazz Festival, at age 13: He earned a place in the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All Star Band, where he was able to accompany Dizzy Gillespie on the Main Stage during the 1990 Festival.

Mendenhall subsequently received a bachelor of arts degree in jazz composition from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, then spent the next seven years in Japan, where he became one of the busiest pianists in Tokyo.

Mendenhall now resides in the States, is an instructor at Monterey Peninsula College and has formed his own quartet; that unit — Mark Sherman on vibes, John Schifflett on bass, and Akira Tana on drums — is featured in this, his first recording. This instrumental format, a favorite of mine, echoes the famous Modern Jazz Quartet: pianist John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath, drummer Connie Kay and vibraphone master Milt Jackson.

Mendenhall’s combo is the MJQ’s musical equal.

Eight of these 10 tracks demonstrate Mendenhall’s prowess as a composer, as well as an instrumentalist. One of the tunes (“The Great Triplet”) is by Sherman, and the last is a cover of Rogers and Hart’s beautiful standard, “So Easy To Remember.”

I’ve always thought that a quartet utilizing both piano and vibes is more musical and “interesting” than one with just a single instrumentalist and a rhythm section. The arrangements are more complex, because the two “lead” instruments are playing with — and against — each other, granting the listener different interpretations of the melodic lines.

In that respect, a comparison of Mendenhall’s group and the MJQ is revealing. Mendenhall and Lewis play the piano quite differently; the former is “busier” and uses both hands extensively, while the latter is predominately right-handed and plays more “loosely.” Putting it another way, Lewis was more of a swinger.

The same can be said of the vibes artists: Sherman has a “cleaner” technique, but isn’t as loose as Jackson. Their styles are different, but excellent in their individuality.

It wouldn’t surprise me if this quartet becomes as popular as the MJQ, and that says a lot about Mendenhall’s future.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Brian Lynch: Unsung Heroes

Holistic Music Works
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Unsung Heroes

Musical giants often are identified by single names. Alternatively, scores of sidemen — who have played and recorded with everybody — aren’t recognized at all. In the category of jazz trumpet, we all know Pops (Louis Armstrong), Roy (Eldridge), Miles (Davis), Dizzy (Gillespie), Fats (Navarro) and others ... but what about Brian Lynch?

He’s a Grammy Award winner, and has played with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Benny Golson, Phil Woods, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Eddie Palmieri. Despite this, many folks aren’t familiar with Lynch.

But you won’t forget him, after hearing this album.

Unsung Heroes is Lynch’s tribute to artists who, in his view, are underappreciated. How many of us recognize trumpet players Howard Mcghee, Charles Tolliver, Joe Gordon, Tommy Turrentine, Idrees Sulleman, Louis Smith, Kamau Adilifu, Ira Sullivan, Donald Byrd and Claudio Roditi? This release attempts to remedy that situation. Some of its tunes were composed by the above artists; the rest were composed by Lynch and dedicated to them.

Lynch fronts a septet that consists of his trumpet and flugelhorn, alto and tenor saxes, piano, bass and percussionists. In keeping with the album’s theme, these sidemen also aren’t well known, but they have one thing in common: Regardless of tempo, they swing like crazy!

Louis Smith’s “Wetu,” in particular, is an up-tempo bop burner that’s on par with the best that Charlie Parker and Dizzy ever recorded; it’ll leave you breathless. The rest, styled for the days of bop-tinged, straight-ahead jazz, also are winners.

This album is a joy, and I hope I don’t have to wait too long for follow-up Unsung Heroes entries!

John Vanore and Abstract Truth: Contagious Words

Acoustical Concepts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Contagious Words

Abstract Truth is a group headed by John Vanore who, in the 1970s, played trumpet and flugelhorn in one of Woody Herman’s Herds. I reviewed this group’s first release (Curiosity) several years ago, and was impressed by Vanore’s skill as both an instrumentalist and composer.

His “little big band” is unique: The brass section is huge — six trumpets/flugelhorns, two trombones and a French horn — while the reed “section” consists of just two men who play alto, tenor and soprano saxes, clarinets and flutes. They’re all joined by a rhythm section of bass, drums and guitar, rather than a piano. Three guest artists are utilized on several tracks: a pianist, another flautist and a bass trombone.

The result is a rich, and swinging “chorale,” with major emphasis on the brass section.

Vanore composed most of the music and arranged all but one of the tunes: the wonderful old standard “You Go to My Head,” handled instead by trumpeter Kevin Rodgers.

This group is definitely a concert orchestra; the music is contemporary and relatively complex, but still exciting ... and it does swing. The rich ensemble work provides a background that, from the soloists’ viewpoint, is to die for.

In general, today’s musicians are better educated than those of the past, and are more likely to search for ways to create something new, than to merely keep playing the styles that initially intrigued them. That’s all well and good, as long as the basic premise of jazz is maintained: It has to swing! Vanore, and bands like Absolute Truth, have achieved that goal.

The Yellowjackets: Timeline

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Timeline

The Yellowjackets are an institution. The band has been around for more than 30 years, beginning in 1977 as a unit called the Robben Ford Group; the first album under the Yellowjackets name was recorded in 1981.

This is the group’s 21st release and, although the personnel has varied over the years, most of the original artists still are present. Today’s members include Russell Ferrante on keyboards and synthesizer, Jimmy Haslip on bass, Will Kennedy on drums, and Bob Mintzer on reeds. Original guitarist Robben Ford and trumpeter John Diversa pop up as guest artists.

What set this band apart, when it came on the scene, was its combination of R&B and straight-ahead jazz genres. As time passed, the band’s sound delivered less of the former and more of the latter, but the ability to swing like crazy always was present.

The 11 tracks here consist of a little old and a lot new, mostly composed by Mintzer and Ferrante.

This session blasts off with a couple of burners: “Why Is It” and “Tenacity.” Both will get your attention, and set your heart to thumping. Kennedy’s “Rosemary” is a neat treatment of a ballad, which demonstrates how a drummer can be lyrical; “Timeline,” the title piece, is a cohesive little swinger that arrives — then departs — all too quickly. “Magnolia,” originally presented on a 2008 album — and the vehicle for Ford’s guest appearance — demonstrates how much electronic technology has meant to the guitar. The remaining tunes, all done as ballads, illustrate just how beautifully this quartet can perform.

With offerings like these, it’s clear that the Yellowjackets can be with us as long as they desire.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Matija Dedic: MD in NYC

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: MD in NYC

This album demonstrates anew that jazz truly is an international art. Matija Dedic, born in Croatia in 1973, began to play classical piano at age 5: a common path for Eastern European music students. He had broadened his interests by his 18th birthday, and he subsequently entered the Graz Jazz Academy. After graduation, he delivered his style of jazz while touring throughout Europe, Scandinavia, South America and the United States. He has worked with his own groups and many others, writes music for TV and theater, and often plays with touring pop stars.

MD in NYC was recorded during a 2009 stay in the Big Apple. Dedic's basic trio — in which he plays both piano and Fender Rhodes — includes bassist Vincent Archer and drummer Kendrick Scott. That core group is backed on several tracks by an unidentified string section.

Dedic wrote six of the 10 compositions; the rest are covers of tunes from Herbie Hancock ("Maiden Voyage"), Miles Davis ("Blue in Green"), Sting ("Fragile") and Toby Gad ("If I Were a Boy"). All are done at near balladic, but softly swinging tempos.

You can always tell when a pianist has had classical training. Jazz artists often are essentially one-handed; the right hand establishes the melodic line and is the "innovator" ... which is to say, the hand that produces the solo lines that the mind creates. The left hand plays a "supporting" role, maintaining the chord structure and providing emphasis where appropriate.

That isn’t the case with Dedic. Both hands are intensely involved at all times; sometimes you'd swear that two solo lines are occurring simultaneously. Additionally, one is "forced" (in a very positive way!) to listen intently to this album, to catch everything; as a result, the tunes seem to just fly past. A 5-minute track is over before you want it to end.

And that's the case with every track on this album. It’s beautiful, pensive, attention-getting and memorable jazz. Dedic is a talent to be reckoned with!

Francis Coletta and Jonas Tauber: Port Said Street

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Port Said Street

Marseilles-born guitarist Francis Coletta and Swiss cellist Jonas Tauber joined forces last year to create this marvelous duet album. I can’t remember ever having heard this instrumental combination in a jazz framework, but it works beautifully.

Both Coletta and Tauber began playing in the classical genre; as their interests expanded, they became members of jazz units and/or accompanists to vocalists and dance groups. Although Colleta has concentrated on the guitar, Tauber has switched back and forth between the cello and acoustic bass.

Six of the 10 tracks are originals by Coletta, and the rest are jazz standards by American composers: Horace Silver’s "Nica's Dream," Johnny Green's "Body and Soul," Ellington and Tizol's "Caravan" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "How Insensitive."

Three factors contribute to the excellence of this release: the quality of the instrumentalists, the compositions chosen, and one of the finest recording studio efforts I’ve heard in ages.

The resulting album sounds like Coletta and Tauber have been performing together for years. The basic melodic lines and variations are so fascinating and complex, you’d swear that everything is "written" ... but that’s not the case. These artists must use nothing short of "mind-melding."

You’ll never grow tired of this album.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Beegie Adair: Swingin' with Sinatra

Green Hill Music
By guest reviewer Derrick Bang
Buy CD: Swingin' with Sinatra

Pianist Beegie Adair, once again indulging her fondness for theme albums, returns to the massive Frank Sinatra catalogue for Swingin’ with Sinatra. The result is another one of her tasteful jazz gems, with ample support from longtime collaborators Roger Spencer (bass) and Chris Brown (drums).

The album opens with breezy renditions of “You Make Me Feel So Young” and “Nice ’n Easy,” the latter suitably describing Adair’s facility on the keyboard; she effortlessly maintains any melody line with a blend of pleasing chords and delicate little runs. Spencer adds nice counterpoint to “Nice and Easy,” as well.

Tempo and mood shift with “Guess I’ll Have to Hang My Tears Out to Dry” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” both emerging as bluesy laments. Adair avoids the energetic runs here, choosing instead to supply the melody with minimalist single notes and quiet chords. It’s not hard to imagine snuggling up to a constant companion in the darkened, sultry basement of an old-style jazz joint (minus the cigarette smoke, one hopes).

All these songs are best known as vocals, of course, and occasionally the lyrics are missed; Adair does her best to “fill” by varying her approach and adding cute quotes from other sources. She opens “New York, New York” with a droll flourish from The Wizard of Oz (“You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night...”) and then launches into the song as Brown lays down a solid two-beat.

“Call Me Irresponsible” is dreamily romantic, “Angel Eyes” even more so. The latter is delivered with husky solemnity, and in this case, one can almost hear the missing lyrics. A smile-inducing arrangement of “(Love Is) The Tender Trap” gets some additional juice from syncopation changes throughout, not to mention an animated piano solo.

Spencer wails away on a finger-snapping arrangement of “Come Fly with Me,” providing solid support for Adair’s lead on melody. It would have been nice to hear him granted a full solo, and that’s worth repeating; both Spencer and Brown deserve more time in the spotlight.

Adair concludes things in a slow, bluesy mode, with a gently swinging cover of “Don’t Worry ’Bout Me.” The approach fits the album’s theme; one expects sultry torch songs from Ol’ Blue Eyes.

This is Adair’s second stab at the Sinatra songbook, following 1997’s The Frank Sinatra Collection, also with Spencer and Brown. Given the wealth of material still available, we can hope for a trilogy ... but it would be nice not to have to wait another 14 years.

Tony Guerrero: Blue Room

Charleston Square Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Blue Room

One must go back decades to find bands — and recordings — that featured what I call "happy jazz." It became popular in the years between Dixieland and traditional, and it had several characteristics: a relatively simple melodic line, mid- to upbeat tempos, and plenty of swing. Additionally, those who played it always had fun.

Brass player Tony Guerrero and his supporting musicians have recreated that style.

Guerrero, who plays cornet, trumpet and flugelhorn, heads a quartet with pianist Llew Matthews, bassist Dave Enos and drummer Matt Johnson. Five guest artists are added for this release: guitarist Jamie Findlay, saxophonists Doug Webb and Robert Lyle, pianist Frank Giebels and B3 organist Joe Bagg. Their contributions are sprinkled throughout the 13 tracks.

The majority of the tunes are familiar standards ("It’s Only a Paper Moon," "Body and Soul," "Candy," "Blue Room" and others); the remaining tracks are lesser-known pop tunes ("Black Orpheus," "Just Squeeze Me") and a couple of originals by Guerrero.

I love everything, and others of my generation likely will feel the same. The musicians are excellent, and everything is done is a delightful manner. You’ll find yourself humming along, snapping your fingers and wanting to dance.