Friday, November 4, 2011

Sam Yahel: From Sun to Sun

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: From Sun to Sun

When I first heard Sam Yahel, he was best known for his skill on the Hammond B3 organ, usually in a trio setting. He has returned to his original instrument — the piano — for most of the tunes on this album; I’m quite impressed. He has maintained his trio format, which includes bassist Matt Penman and drummer Jochen Rueckert. They’ve been together for more than 10 years, and it shows.

All but three of the 13 tracks are original compositions by Yahel; the exceptions are Donald Kahn’s “A Beautiful Friendship,” Cole Porter’s “So in Love” and Vernon Duke’s “Taking a Chance on Love.” Yahel’s interpretations are superior to most I’ve heard; he prefers mid and up-tempos meters, and his touch is impeccable. But I’m most moved by his melodic experimentation; he finds ways to add neat “frills” while still maintaining the original melodic line in the background. That skill nails your attention to what he’s doing.

The piano is a “friendlier” instrument than the B3, when it comes to demonstrating technique, dexterity and skill; the organ’s sound and tone tend to “muffle” the musical lines. There’s no place to hide with a piano; every note (and fluff, for that matter) stands out crisply. Yahel’s complex fingering and runs on “A Beautiful Friendship” — and on many of his originals — would be muddled on a B3, if not impossible to achieve.

Yahel is an excellent organist, but on the piano he’s an artist.

Curtis Fuller: The Story of Cathy & Me

Challenge Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Story of Cathy & Me

Trombonist Curtis Fuller — born in 1934, and still alive and swinging — has played with many of the jazz icons from the 1950s onward. Cathy, his beloved wife for almost 30 years, died in 2010. This album, a poignant love story set to music, covers their life together. Each song relates chronologically to events that were special to their union.

Fuller also includes four short spoken interludes. The first covers his years prior to their meeting; the second concerns their children; the third relates to the discovery of Cathy’s lung cancer; the last summarizes his wishes for Cathy and their friends. The titles of the 14 surrounding tunes perfectly describe the phases of their lives together.

Fuller is a great musician, still in heavy demand. His career began in a unit with Paul Chambers and Donald Byrd; after two years in the army, he played with Cannonball Adderley, Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis, Sonny Clark and John Coltrane. Fuller also was a member of the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Quartet and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, then joined bands headed by Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. Fuller has toured the world, and currently is on staff at New York State Summer School of the Arts and the School of Jazz Studies.

Fuller utilized 10 of his closest musician friends as backup here. His trombone is augmented by Lester Walker (trumpet), Daniel Bauerkemper and Akeem Marable (tenor sax), Nick Rosen and Kenny Banks Jr. (piano), Henry Conerway III and Clarence Levy (drums/percussion); Brandy Brewer and Kevin Smith (bass); and Tia Michelle Rouse (vocals).

A painter or poet creating a work of art in memoriam would do the best possible job, and Fuller is no exception. This occasion itself is sad, but if the tune relates to happiness, so does the performance.

Fuller is up there in years, but his heart and soul are evident in his playing. Ignore the interludes and sorrow inherent in this album’s creation — if you must — but do concentrate on the quality of the music. It’s superb.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Westchester Jazz Orchestra: Maiden Voyage Suite

WJO Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Maiden Voyage Suite

In 2003, an august group of musicians — many of whom lived in Westchester, a suburb just north of New York City — formed the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (WJO) to “promote jazz, contribute to its evolution and advance the appreciation and understanding of this uniquely American cultural treasure.”

WJO is a 16-member big band in the standard sense: four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, piano, bass, drums and a director (Mike Holober, one of the group founders). This unit met periodically and constructed a “book” of original compositions and arrangements, rehearsed and performed at concerts held throughout the New York area.

WJO’s first album, All In, was released in 2007 to rave reviews; this, their second, is a re-imaging of the classic 1965 Herbie Hancock album of the same name.

Only a few of the members of WJO are well known outside the jazz community — probably pianist/composer/arranger Mike Holober, reedists Jay Brandford and Ralph LaLama, trumpeter Tony Kadleck and trombonist Pete McGuinness — but every artist is an upper-echelon musician.

As for this release, several accolades apply. Hancock, now in his 70s, was way ahead of his time; Maiden Voyage Suite is an exceptional piece of music. WJO is an outstanding unit, and the “re-imagining” by Holober and other group members is excellent. Best of all, the ensemble passages and solos are superb.

The suite opens with a moving prologue, progresses through seven passages and concludes with an epilogue. It all meshes neatly, whatever the tempo, and everything swings wonderfully.

This orchestra ranks with groups such as the GRP All Star and Bob Florence bands: the best we’ve had since those wonderful aggregations headed by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson.

Don’t miss this album; it’s a must.