Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ken Peplowski: In Search Of

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: In Search Of

Ken Peplowski is a master of all genres. Born near the end of the swing era, his first musical inspiration was Benny Goodman; as a result, the clarinet was Peplowski’s initial instrument of choice. His career began in a Polish polka band — which he credits with his ability to “play anything at any tempo” — and then transitioned through Dixieland to swing and traditional jazz. Along the way, he also became fluent on the tenor sax.

Peplowski is a musician’s musician: His discography is extensive, both as sideman and leader. By the time he had become a first-call artist, most of the famous swing era band-leaders had retired or died, although some of the orchestras had been reincarnated. One of these was the Tommy Dorsey Band, under the direction of Buddy Morrow; Peplowski toured extensively with that group. Goodman came out of retirement for a limited time in 1984, and hired Peplowski on tenor sax; so, finally, master and student were able to play together for a short time.

As the years passed, and styles changed, Peplowski adapted. It’s therefore difficult to find artists or groups with whom he hasn’t played and recorded. He concentrated on the standards during his early years, but — as this album illustrates — he has moved with the times.

Two sessions were involved. The first involved Peplowski on clarinet and tenor sax, with the backing of pianist Shelly Berg, bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Jeff Hamilton; the second utilized Greg Cohen on bass, Chuck Redd on vibes and Joe Ascione on percussion.

The tunes are a mix of lesser-known charts by other musicians (Freddie Redd’s “The Thespian”), shows (“This Nearly Was Mine,” from South Pacific; “With Every Breath I Take,” from City of Angels) and originals by Berg, Hamilton and Kennedy.

It’s a marvelous selection of songs, done beautifully by consummate artists.

Jane Stuart: Don't Look Back

JSM Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Don't Look Back

For every musician who becomes a name performers, countless others don’t ... but some of those folks definitely deserve to be better known. Many cities have “territory bands,” which keep busy with work at local pubs, clubs, colleges and other venues. Sometimes the musicians who are part of these groups are “retirees” who once worked in name outfits, and have decided to settle down; others simply never felt the urge to leave home and enter the struggle involved in becoming a star.

Of the latter, those who live in prime entertainment areas have a special advantage.

Vocalist/composer Jane Stuart is such an individual. She was born in New Jersey, brought up in New York City and attended schools with Bernadette Peters and Patty Duke. Stuart has been involved in many on- and off-Broadway productions during her career; more recently, she has been performing with her own band, and others, at the numerous musical locations offered by New York City and Jersey.

Stuart is supported here by eight musicians and a quartet of background singers. She presents a dozen melodies, including well-known standards such as “Eleanor Rigby” and “Summertime,” pop songs (“I’ll Follow The Sun”), lesser-known tunes by composers such as Dave Frishberg and Johnny Mandel, and one of her own compositions.

Stuart has an expressive voice and a delivery that favors songs that tell a story. Her vocal quality is best in her mid-range, and at moderate to low volumes. She pays strict attention to her supporting musicians, and works effectively with them.

And she merits our attention.

Bill Anschell: figments

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: figments

Although I’ve reviewed numerous albums by — or featuring — pianist Bill Anschell, each always involves a bit of fear. Aside from being an outstanding musician, Anschell is an excellent writer and humorist; I know that whatever I say, he would have said better (and funnier). That said, here goes...

Anschell is a Seattle, Washington, native who left after high school. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio for two years, and earned his music degree from Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. Jazz was his love; after touring with various groups for several years, he settled in Atlanta, where he served as jazz coordinator for the Southern Arts Federation. Nights were spent with his own trio, as a sideman with groups that were part of that city’s jazz population.

During the next 10 years, Anschell also became Nnenna Freelon’s pianist, arranger and musical director; her album Shaking Free was nominated for a Grammy Award, as the year’s best jazz vocal, during that period. Anschell returned to Seattle in 2002, where he then made his home and became a key member of the Northwest jazz fraternity.

His discography is extensive: He has been a sideman on almost three dozen albums, a collaborator on five others and a leader on four more. figments is his fifth in the latter category, and his first as a solo pianist; it’s also his most inventive release.

To quote Anschell directly (because he says it more succinctly than I ever could):

In the world of jazz piano, going solo can be daunting; it means having to single-handedly (okay, double-handedly, but still—) assume roles more typically covered by at least three players. But, given an open mind and a deviant disposition, playing alone has its benefits. Harmonic progressions and steady time, which keep a band playing in tandem, suddenly become negotiable. Detours from a song’s form or tempo — tangents that might cause a band to implode — can lead to unexpected and inviting places: destinations where imagined figments find a welcoming home.

The album consists of 12 standards and show tunes (some of his favorites), all recorded in his own studio, after other jobs he had played. Even with his innovative reworking, you’ll recognize and thoroughly enjoy them. The varied roster of composers includes Cole Porter, David Clayton Thomas, Arlo Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, and Rogers and Hart.

Anschell used two pianos: a standard, and a “programmed.” The latter was a standard that he stuffed with items from his studio — mouse pads, beads, books, towels, packaging, etc. — to achieve different sounds and create various effects. (Don’t laugh; it worked!)

I haven’t enjoyed anything this much in years.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Delfeayo Marsalis: Sweet Thunder

Troubadour Jass Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Sweet Thunder

Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis brought along some family members for this album: brothers Branford on sax and Jason on drums and vibes. They’re joined by 11 additional artists.

After a series of concerts back in the day — sponsored by the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival — Duke Ellington and compatriot Billy Strayhorn (both Shakespeare fans) wrote the jazz suite “Such Sweet Thunder.” It was recorded in 1957 by Columbia Records. That album release set the music world on fire, and is considered by many to be Ellington’s masterwork.

Delfeayo Marsalis, also a lover of The Bard, has updated and arranged that manuscript for an octet format, rather than a full orchestra. The original 12 tracks have been retained, though their order has been modified.

Delfeayo, who earned a master’s degree in jazz performance at the University of Louisville, also studied literature at the master’s level at the University of New Orleans. His thesis related Ellington to Shakespeare, and was a catalyst in his decision to take a fresh look at Ellington’s manuscript. Marsalis accomplished that marvelously.

The musical genres here run the gamut, from early Ellington through his big band years, and on to what many refer to as his “classical jazz” period. The condensed orchestration doesn’t have the power of a full band, but does provide for more interesting solo work by the artists.

This is relatively complex stuff, with meter and chord changes galore. It may not be your cup of tea, but regardless of such feelings, you can’t help admiring what Ellington, Strayhorn and now Delfeayo Marsalis have accomplished.

Atsuko Hashimoto: Until the Sun Comes Up

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Until the Sun Comes Up

I’ve always enjoyed small groups that feature the Hammond B3 organ. In the right hands, that instrument can swing wonderfully ... and Atsuko Hashimoto is among the artists who can bring out the best in that big beast. Hashimoto, born and raised in Japan, began her musical training on an actual organ — as opposed to those who start on a piano — then switched to the B3.

Many pianists at some point in their career have played that instrument — even Oscar Peterson, for example — but those who have made it their primary “horn” are limited: Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff and Joey DeFrancesco come to mind.

We can add Hashimoto to that list.

The size of the keyboard, coupled with the simultaneous use of foot pedals and a plethora of hand-operated controls/stops to achieve the various volumes and tonal styles, makes it one of the more difficult instruments to play well ... particularly for somebody of small physical stature. Although Hashimoto is tiny, her small size may contribute to a “light” touch that avoids the excess volume which can be a problem. She’s also quick; she plays lightning phrases and minimizes an organ’s natural “carry-over” resonance.

The artists who support her here are two of the best: Guitarist Graham Dechter is a fast-rising star, and drummer Jeff Hamilton is one of tastiest percussionists working today. The menu includes covers of some wonderful tunes, all played at tempos that are perfect for the instrumentation.

The opener, “All or Nothing At All,” seldom is heard at an up-tempo meter ... but it works. The same is true for “Moon River,” “Yours Is My Heart Alone,” “Cherry” and “The Good Life.” And a couple of oldies — “You Are My Sunshine” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” — really rock. Finally, those who love the blues will find that “Soul Station” and “Blues for Naka” fill that bill nicely.

This trio is as good as it gets; these musicians sound like they’ve been together for years.

Christine Jensen: Treelines

Justin Time Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Treelines

Christine Jensen probably remains under your radar screen, unless you’re a native Canadian, a regular visitor to that county, or a jazz fan who keeps very close tabs on the genre. This native of British Columbia, a graduate of McGill University’s jazz program, has performed extensively throughout the world. She plays alto and soprano sax; she also composes.

Jensen received a grant from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Quebec, which included a six-month residency in Paris. While there, she sketched many of her compositions before returning to Canada.

Although her initial work was done for small groups — and featured on two previous releases — Treelines is performed by a really big (21 piece) jazz orchestra. Jensen leads the unit and plays soprano sax. Her sister, Ingrid Jensen, contributes trumpet and flugelhorn solos as part of the brass section.

The reed section is six large, the brass section has five trumpet/flugelhorns and four trombones, and the rhythm section features piano, bass, guitar and percussion.

Artists who earn college degrees in music always receive training in composition; that’s a major factor in their ability — and desire — to write their own material. Decades ago, jazz usually was limited to four meters: 2/4 (Dixieland), 3/4 (waltz), 8/4 (boogie woogie) or 4/4 (straight-ahead). As “progressive” jazz entered the scene, we began to hear more complex time signatures; Jensen is fluent in all of them. She also writes for specific musicians; in her own words, she composes in “three dimensions.”

Treelines contains nine of her original compositions, each featuring multiple soloists. This is truly a concert jazz orchestra; the pieces run from seven to 10 minutes in length, and are all theme oriented, relating to various elements of the Canadian outdoors. This is a serious — and swinging — suite that will draw you back for replays, time and time again.

Jensen is a marvelous talent, and she has created an orchestra fully capable of playing her music.