Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gerald Wilson: Legacy

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Legacy

Legacy is a perfect title for and album that honors and celebrates the life of living legend Gerald Wilson. The man was born in Mississippi in 1918 — that’s not a misprint — and still composes and orchestrates marvelous jazz.

Wilson earned a degree from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, then joined Jimmie Lunsford’s band (replacing the great Sy Oliver) as a trumpeter, composer and arranger; Wilson was 21 at the time. He subsequently played and arranged with Benny Carter, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. During World War II, Wilson was a member of the famous U.S. Navy Band, stationed at the Great Lakes facility. He formed his first name band in the mid-1940s; in 1960, he headed a Los Angeles band that produced a number of hit albums under the Pacific Jazz label.

Wilson never has "retired," although he has restricted his efforts to composition and orchestration for some decades.

The Legacy orchestra truly is a big band: four trumpets, four trombones, six reeds and four in the rhythm section. More important to Wilson, it’s also a family affair: His son Anthony Wilson is the guitarist, and he and Gerald’s grandson Eric Otis each contributed a composition and orchestration for this session ("Virgo" and "September Sky," respectively).

The first five tracks are from the entire Wilson clan; the final seven, done by Gerald, are movements from his Yes, Chicago Is… suite, which was commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival. These relatively short melodies — between one and four minutes — relate to locations and "conditions" ("Blowin’ In the Windy City") associated with that “great jazz Mecca,” as Wilson describes it.

This delicious album is a perfect indicator of the timelessness of both jazz and Wilson. Nothing sounds dated; the music and performances are pure and swinging. If you aren't already a huge fan of the ageless Gerald Wilson, you soon will be.

Mark O'Connor Quintet: Suspended Reality

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Suspended Reality

Mark O’Connor, who plays alto and tenor sax, in addition to composing and teaching, is one of the Chicago jazz scene's excellent musicians. This Texas-born artist earned a bachelor of arts degree from the jazz-oriented University of North Texas; he followed that with a master's from Eastern Illinois University, where he's currently pursuing a doctorate.

Suspended Reality features O’Connor’s basic quartet — his sax, backed by piano, bass and drums — with the addition of trumpeter Victor Garcia. They produce an excellent menu of straight-ahead jazz: no tricks or complexities, just the kind of swinging music that has been predominant around Chicago for decades.

O'Connor composed and arranged all but one of the tunes; the exception is a poignant rendition of the beautiful old standard "A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square," which features some truly gorgeous sax work.

O’Connor’s compositions include ballads, mid-tempo finger-snappers, old-time blues and freeway flag-wavers. "Song for Betony" (his wife) is particularly moving; "The Sound of Joy" is a take on the kind of blues so often heard during the early jazz years; and "Kite Flying" and "Quiet Snow" are very nice "mood" tunes.

I hope that one day O’Connor will decide to share his music with live audiences outside Chicago and its suburbs; until then, we’ll have to make do with his albums.

Gary Burton: Common Ground

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Common Ground

My first exposure to a jazz vibraphonist was in the late 1930s, when Lionel Hampton joined the Benny Goodman band. Then Woody Herman added the instrument to his Herds; Red Norvo, Margie Hyams and Terry Gibbs all served. Dizzy Gillespie followed with Milt Jackson; in the early 1960s, George Shearing and Stan Getz found Gary Burton.

Burton, who was just 20 at the time, still produces wonderful jazz today: Witness Common Ground, his newest album.

Burton’s interests cover the complete spectrum of music. He began with traditional jazz, but his tastes quickly expanded to include bop, rock, fusion, Latin, progressive and chamber jazz. Now, as with; many of today's icons, he concentrates on the latter.

Over the years, Burton has earned 15 Grammy Award nominations, winning five. He has had an extensive affiliation with the famed Berklee College of Music and, until 2003, was an executive vice president, overseeing the school's daily operations.

The New Gary Burton Quartet includes guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez. Lage belonged to one of Burton's previous groups, and Sanchez and Burton often worked together in the past. Colley is a newcomer.

This album contains 10 tunes, only one of them a standard ("My Funny Valentine"). The rest are originals by members of the quartet or previous artists with whom Burton has played.

Burton has always liked the vibraphone/guitar sound, but that combination is relatively uncommon; vibes/piano is the usual mix. But Burton's preference is key to achieving the chamber element in the music this quartet produces. The result is "listening-to jazz": distinctive, soothing and beautiful — "pretty" comes to mind — but not exciting or danceable.

Some of the tunes are complex. Meters vary — "Never the Same Way" is in 7/4 time, for example — and two melodic lines often are overlaid, but what transpires always is appealing.

The quartet’s current tour is booked through the rest of 2011, primarily through major cities. As a result, this album may be your only chance to enjoy this band's masterful music.

But, as a side-note: Rumor has it that Burton and Chick Corea are planning a tour together for 2012; that’s something to look forward to!

Jessica Williams Trio: Freedom Trane

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Freedom Trane

Pianist and composer Jessica Williams really needs no introduction; she has been on the top rung of the jazz ladder for decades. She was another early starter — she began lessons at age 4 and was getting classical training at the Peabody Conservatory of Music at age 7 — and was playing with jazz icons while still in her teens. Her awards are numerous: three Grammy nominations, along with almost a dozen grants and fellowships. She also has an extensive discography that spans four decades.

Williams was born and raised in the eastern United States, and spent her early performance years there. She moved to San Francisco in the 1970s and now resides in Washington. She has long known and performed with bassist Dave Captein and drummer Mel Brown; they’re featured with her on this disc.

As its title implies, this album was inspired by tenor sax icon John Coltrane. Half the tracks are his; the rest, written by Williams, reflect the inspiration she received from his friendship.

Many Coltrane fans would describe him as a hard swinger — driving, raucous and frenetic at times — but that’s not how Williams remembers him. Her interpretations of his compositions deal more with their beauty. “Glorious” isn’t too strong a term for her handling of “Welcome”; “Naima” is another balladic masterpiece, and “Lonnie’s Lamenet” isn’t far behind. Only “Paul’s Pal” is a true swinger.

Williams’ compositions reflect more of Coltrane’s gentle side than the hard and swinging persona most folks associate with him. Whatever your own preference, Coltrane would have loved this album. So do I.

Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White: Forever

Concord Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Forever

Jazz fans already know this: Chick Corea is a living legend, composer, keyboard artist and arranger; Stanley Clarke is one of the finest bassists in jazz; and drummer Lenny White is one of the founders of the fusion genre. All of them are — and have been in the past — members of Corea’s Return to Forever band. This two-CD set celebrates the kick-off of the group's recent world tour.

Disc 1 (recorded live) is identified as a best-of sampler from the 2009 RTF Unplugged world tour. Stylistically, these sessions highlight the artists when they concentrated more on traditional jazz, as opposed to the fusion approach that later dominated their work. "Green Dolphin Street" is the only standard featured here; the rest are originals by Corea and other artists who served time with the band at some point. Most of these iconic melodies have become standards in their own right.

During this period, Corea was using an acoustic piano most of the time and, for me, his command of that "old-fashioned" machine was unmatched by any other artists at the time. I’ve never heard a trio that melded more effectively, or swung more, than these guys did; just listen to "Hackensack" here, to confirm that assessment.

The interplay between Chick and Clarke on the latter’s "La Cancion de Sofia" also is masterful, and one of the most beautiful piano/bass duets ever recorded. Let me amend the "duet" adjective, however: White’s drum support is beyond perfection. He makes everything better without ever intruding on ensemble or solo passages.

Disc 2 was the result of action taken to initiate the reunion tour. Vocalist Chaka Kahn, violist Jean-Luc Ponty and original RTF guitarist Bill Conners joined the trio for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl; all had performed with the band at one time or another. The 10-tune menu from that event contains many of the compositions that made Corea and his various Return to Forever groups famous, including "Captain Marvel" (which originally featured Stan Getz), "SeƱor Mouse" and "500 Miles High."

This magnificent set was produced by White, with Clarke and Corea taking co-producer credits. You needn't be longtime Corea or Return to Forever fans; either way, this is a must-have album!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band: That's How We Roll

Telarc Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: That's How We Roll

More than 10 years have passed since Gordon Goodwin formed his Big Phat Band, and listeners not yet familiar with this ensemble have missed a lot of wonderful, swinging, jazz.

But it’s never too late: This album, the group's first in more than two years, picks up where the previous one left off ... without missing a beat.

When Goodwin says big, that’s precisely what he means. The basic orchestra numbers 18 artists — five woodwinds, four trumpets/flugelhorns, four trombones and a five-man rhythm section — and “guests” always augment the ensemble. (Participants include the Take 6 vocal group, Eddie Daniels, Michael Brecker, Arturo Sandoval, David Sanborn and others.) Goodwin plays keyboards and sax, and each member of the woodwinds also plays clarinet and flute; the group is both big and multi-talented.

Goodwin composed all but one of the 10 songs on this release — the exception is Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" — and did all of the arrangements.

During his career, Goodwin has earned 11 Grammy nominations and one award — for arranging Michael Giacchino's score for The Incredibles — along with three Emmy Awards (two for his work on the cartoon series Animaniacs). When he’s not working on cinematic scoring and orchestration, Goodwin conducts symphony orchestras. The Big Phat Band is his jazz outlet.

Goodwin’s arrangements aren’t simple — you can’t begin to appreciate everything that’s going on, until about the third or fourth listen — but the musicians are so talented, they make it sound effortless. The outstanding solo work takes place over those marvelous ensemble passages, and all I can say is, wow. It’s like a high-speed train that just swings on and on and on.

It’s difficult to pick out the most impressive tracks, but you’ve never heard "Rhapsody in Blue" like this before. Gershwin would love it! "Gaining on You" is another flag-waver you won’t forget.

As an aside, Goodwin's titles for his tunes — such as "Rippin' and Runnin' " and "Hunting Wabbits 3" — are as clever as the music is great.

You’ll never hear a group that’s better rehearsed or "cleaner"; they’re like a Swiss watch. At the same time, they swing like mad.

Pedro Giraudo: Cordoba

Zoho Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Cordoba

Pedro Giraudo is an Argentinean bassist, composer and arranger; his birthplace is Cordoba. And his orchestra is the hottest, swingingest and most exciting Latin jazz outfit to come along in years.

Most of the commentary and reviews written about Giraudo use the adjective "big" to describe his ensemble, but that isn’t really the case. The famous big bands of the past included 16 or 17 musicians, and many were even larger. But as that era passed, and fans drifted into R&R, funk and other genres, the size decreased. The economics of maintaining a large group also contributed to that change.

But Latin jazz bands always have been more compressed, and 13 artists is “big” for that genre. Giraudo's ensemble contains four reeds, four brass and a five-man rhythm section. But size be damned; these guys roar.

Cordoba is the result of a composer’s commission awarded to Giraudo through New York’s Jazz Gallery. The composition is a suite consisting of eight movements, each of which is related to the locales, lifestyles, attitudes, experiences and people he has encountered during his lifetime.

The meters, chord structures and "excitement" levels of each movement vary, as a result of Giraudo's memory — and interpretation — of the factors that affected him. The ensemble work establishes the various "themes," and the solo work provides the "emphasis" factors. Both elements are masterfully accomplished.

This is the best, and most exciting, Latin jazz I’ve ever heard.

Thomas Marriott: Human Spirit

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Human Spirit

Pacific Northwest trumpet and flugelhorn master Thomas Marriott was born into a true musical family: Both grandparents were professional musicians, as are a sister and brother. Marriott received his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Washington; then, after winning the prestigious Carmine Caruso Jazz Trumpet Competition Award, he moved to New York City and immediately began to play with the big guys.

Marriott completed three world tours with Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau Band, then worked with other name artists such as Chico O’Farrell, Les Brown, Joe Locke, Ritchie Cole and Eric Reed. Marriott then returned to Seattle, where he has become a key member of that area’s marvelous jazz population.

Although his East Coast years usually were with big band groups, he now concentrates on smaller units; this album features a quartet consisting of Marriott, Mark Taylor (alto sax), Matt Jorgensen (drums) and Gary Versace (B-3 organ).

You’ll immediately notice Marriott’s tonal excellence; he’s one of the best-sounding brass players working today. What comes out of his horns is brilliant and beautiful: no shrillness, no excessive vibrato and no “screaming.” And considering how difficult it would be to keep his instrument from becoming overbearing, he melds perfectly with the sax and organ.

Marriott opens this album with a beautiful cover of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and then puts a cherry on top of the sundae with Ellington’s seldom-heard “Low Key Lightly.” Those songs, by themselves, were enough to win me over.

Marriott closes with Miles Davis’ “The Brown Hornet,” from his 1969 studio album Filles De Kilimanjaro. The remaining tunes are Marriott originals which, considering the limited instrumentation, are quite interesting and surprisingly “full.”

I’ve never heard Marriott when I didn’t thoroughly enjoy him, and this release maintains that standard.

Sheryl Bailey: For All Those Living

PureMusic Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: For All Those Living

Unless you’re a really avid guitar fan, or spend time in the New York City area, you likely don't know about Sheryl Bailey. She's a relatively young artist who usually plays with small groups and is more interested in making music than becoming a name.

Today's electronic technology has made it remarkably easy to record music, and it isn't much more difficult to self-release an album. That's both an advantage and a curse; you don't need a contract with a recording company, or even a manager, but it's much more difficult to establish a presence and get publicity.

Bailey composes her own tunes, and has her own recording studio and record company. This is her newest release.

The first few bars of the first track are enough to prove that we're listening to a master of the instrument. Bailey's technique is excellent, and she's in complete control at all times. Her ability to produce background chord structure, while maintaining melodic lines, is outstanding. She enjoys and performs a wide range of jazz genres, from traditional through bop.

The backing trio — pianist Jim Ridi, bassist Gary Wang and drummer Shingo Okudaira — provides a solid foundation without interfering with the smooth musical content that Bailey lays down. Her menu covers all tempos, including solid swingers and balladic "memorials" to other artists who've influenced her.

Those who love guitar will want this album.

Cinzia Spata: Into the Moment

Koine Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Into the Moment

Cinzia Spata may be new to U.S. jazz fans, but this Italian-born artist is an internationally acclaimed vocalist. Actually, she’s much more than just a vocalist; she composes, arranges and writes lyrics. She regards her voice as an instrument, and uses it as such. Although this album is the first she has recorded in the States, it’s her third as a leader, and it’s a swinging joy!

The first indicator of a vocalist's quality is the caliber of the supporting musicians. The artists in Spata's supporting quintet are superior, and most of them are — or have been — associated with the prestigious Berklee College. They include Bruce Barth on piano, Dave Clark on bass, Yoron Israel on drums, Ken Cervenka on trumpet and flugelhorn, and George Garzone playing tenor sax. This group, by itself, is one of best combos I’ve heard in a long time.

When joined by Spata, the result is a great, great album.

Many jazz genres are represented in the menu. Spata scats with the best — just listen to "Questar" and "Carlos" — and her expanded vocal range is evident on her cooking version of "My Favorite Things."

I've generally found that singers who scat can't always do ballads beautifully, but that’s not the case with Spata; her performances on the lovely "Widow in the Window" and "Soul Eyes" are quite moving. And I particularly enjoyed two lesser-known tracks: Bill Evans’ "Very Early" and Charles Mingus’ take on Duke Ellington’s "Sounds of Love."

Nor can I ignore Spata's version of "Tea for Two." I never expected to hear anything on par with Anita O’Day’s performance of this song at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, but Spata's take matches it.

What an opening act for an entry onto the U.S. jazz stage. Spata is a keeper.

The Walt Weiskopf Quartet: Live

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Walt Weiskopf Quartet Live

Walt Weiskopf is one of today's many multi-talented musicians; he plays tenor sax and clarinet, composes, arranges, teaches and is a writer. He joined the Buddy Rich band when he was just 21, after earning a bachelor of arts degree from the prestigious Eastman College. Then, just a few years later, he began a 14-year relationship with Toshiko Akiyoshi and her big band, touring throughout the United States, Japan and Europe.

Weiskopf continued studying during this period, and earned a master's degree from Queens College. He added the clarinet to his arsenal and began to play extensively with classical orchestras. In 2002, he became a member of the Eastman College faculty.

This is the first live concert album Weiskopf has released. His quartet —pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Paul Gill and drummer Tony Reedus — performed at the University of South Carolina's Koger Hall. Although the concert was recorded, Weiskopf hadn't planned to release a CD commercially. But when Reedus died unexpectedly shortly after that performance, Weiskopf decided to issue the album as a tribute.

Weiskopf isn’t new to me; I’ve always been impressed by his originality and technique, and he doesn’t disappoint here. Weiskopf composed four of the tracks and arranged the remaining tunes: a traditional Scottish folk song and a couple of standards ("Blame It on My Youth" and "Love For Sale").

But I wasn't familiar with Rosnes, and she's a huge surprise; this Canadian-born artist is truly excellent. She swings wonderfully and is quite inventive. The rhythm section of Gill and Reedus provides solid backing, although the latter is too "busy" at times for my taste.

All in all, this is an intriguing combo. I look forward to hearing more from them.

Deborah Pearl: Evening Star

Evening Star Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Souvenir of You

Deborah Pearl — a vocalist, lyricist and screenwriter — has idolized Benny Carter most of her life.

Every jazz fan knows about Carter, icon and legend of the alto sax. He was born in New York City in 1907 — yes, 1907 — and lived until 2003, and was an active performer and composer for more than 80 years.

His mother began to teach him to play the piano when he was 10, but he switched to the trumpet in his teens, then finally chose the alto sax.

It’s virtually impossible to find an artist or band with whom Carter hasn’t performed: He played with Horace Henderson in college, Duke Ellington in the 1920s, Fletcher Henderson in ’28 and Chick Webb in ’31. Carter launched his own orchestra in 1932. He moved to Paris in ’35, toured Europe and then returned to the States in ’38, just in time for the swing era. By this time, he had developed his composition and arranging skills to the point where he was doing Hollywood film scores. He also continued to play with the new generation of musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles and many others. That continued into the 1980s.

In 1996, Carter received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor. His other awards are too numerous to count. Sadly, he passed away in 2003.

Pearl chose a baker’s dozen of Carter's compositions, wrote special lyrics for them, then set up recording sessions with two swinging big bands: Carter’s own group and the Rutgers University Orchestra. Carter himself is featured on two of the tracks: "Happy Feet" and "Anniversary Dance."

This album clearly demonstrates that both Carter and his work were essentially ageless. Some of the tunes were written decades ago, but they remain as fresh and "modern" as much of today’s music. Pearl is to be congratulated for a masterful effort that honors both Carter and her own talents.