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!