Saturday, December 31, 2011

Emmet Cohen: In the Element

Bada Beep Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: In the Element

Emmet Cohen, who composes and plays both piano and Hammond B3 organ, is just 21 years old ... but his talent level is that of an artist twice his age. “Prodigy” is an accurate descriptor; he began to play the piano at age 3, and was studying classical music at the University Of Miami before he was 10. He then was accepted into the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college division. He majored for seven years in classical piano but, as often is the case, his interest in jazz developed during that period; he soon was playing at top jazz clubs in New York City, and at jazz festivals around the world.

Cohen’s awards are numerous: He won a 2008 Downbeat Award as Outstanding Jazz Soloist, was a recipient of the 2009 NFAA Clifford Brown/Stan Getz Fellowship, took first place in a 2011 piano competition at the University of West Florida, and — that same year — was one of five finalists for the American Pianists Association’s Cole Porter Fellowship and came in third in the Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition.

Cohen currently is working toward another music degree at Miami’s Frost School of Music. He also performs as leader or sideman at jazz venues in the NYC and Miami areas.

In the Element, Cohen’s first album, features his basic trio: bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Rodney Green, also in their 20s. Trumpeter Greg Gisbert appears as a guest artist. Six of the 10 tunes are jazz standards; Cohen wrote the rest. This mix allows one to judge how Cohen handles tunes that other artists and groups have performed, and permits an assessment of his compositional skills. He delivers in both cases. The stand-out standards, both ballads, are “For All We Know” and “Goodnight Heartache”; his arrangements match any prior performances I’ve heard.

These musicians demonstrate a maturity that is beyond their years; the only indicator of “youth” is reflected in a “solos for everyone” approach — including the drummer — on most tracks. But golly, that’s what turns young musicians on. And besides, they’re all more than competent soloists.

This is a very promising group, and we’ll be hearing a lot more from them.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Tierney Sutton Band: American Road

BFM Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: American Road

Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: The Tierney Sutton Band is not a unit headed by a jazz vocalist who is supported by a quartet of great musicians. This is, rather, a quintet of exceptional musicians, one of whom uses her voice as an instrument.

Whatever the designation, this unit has been flying below my radar for too many years. It’s certainly not like these folks just arrived on the jazz scene; they’ve been performing together for 18 years. They have released nine albums in the past dozen years, received three Grammy Award nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and Sutton was selected by Jazzweek as 2005’s Vocalist of the Year.

Sutton, a Wisconsin native, is a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music; she taught in USC’s Jazz Studies Department and, in 2008, became the Vocal Department Chair at the Los Angeles Music Academy in Pasadena, California. The band is a legally incorporated unit; they make all musical — and business — decisions together. They decide on a tune to be added to their “library,” and the style/treatment to be utilized; they then rehearse it until satisfied with what they’ve created. In musician’s vernacular, the result is a “head arrangement.”

Nothing remains constant; they vary tempos, keys, melodic lines and harmonies during a performance, and everything meshes wonderfully.

The quintet consists of Sutton, pianist Christian Jacob, two bassists (Kevin Axt and Trey Henry) who play both acoustic and electric instruments, and drummer Ray Brinker. Sutton’s voice is in a higher range than most jazz vocalists; she tends toward soprano rather than alto. That said, her range is extensive, and her ability to use her voice as an instrument is exceptional. She enunciates clearly, whether on a soulful ballad (“Wayfaring Stranger”) or a rocking show tune (“On Broadway”). Additionally, she scats with the best I’ve ever heard, and at tempos that approach the speed of light.

Most impressive, though, is her interplay with the other musicians.

Jacob, born in France, is another Berklee College grad; he received numerous awards as a student and taught there for a period. His first professional job was with Gary Burton, after which Jacob served as performer, composer and arranger for Maynard Ferguson for a number of years. Jacob is an outstanding musician, in a class with Oscar Peterson.

Both Axt and Henry are exceptional; at times they alternate tunes, and at times they play together. Are they great? Axt has appeared on more than 150 albums, and it’s difficult to find a band or orchestra — jazz or classical — with whom Henry hasn’t worked. Both men are in a class with Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen, as far as technique is concerned.

Brinker graduated from North Texas State, one of the world’s finest jazz study colleges. He, Jacob, Axt and Henry are close friends, and have worked together for years. As for Brinker’s skill, he’s a master with brushes; I’ve never heard better. And he often uses his fingers and palms to achieve unique rhythm patterns.

American Road is a splendid collection of folk, traditional and standard compositions. If “Amazing Grace,” “Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Tenderly,” “The Eagle and Me,” “Somewhere” and “Something’s Coming” aren’t enough to convince you, then this band’s rendition of “America the Beautiful” will bring tears to your eyes.

This is the best release I’ve heard in years!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ted Rosenthal Trio: Out of this World

Playscape Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Out of this World

Pianist/composer/arranger Ted Rosenthal is a New Yorker through and through. He was born and raised in a Big Apple suburb, taught by local piano teachers, attended and earned two degrees from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. Although he subsequently toured extensively, he has spent most of his musical career performing in the New York area.

Jazz was an early love, but he initially concentrated on the classical genre because, at that time, only limited opportunities existed for studying jazz at the conservatory level. He nonetheless avidly pursued jazz outside of school and, in 1988, won the Thelonious Monk Competition; that launched his career.

All roads may lead to Rome, but New York City always has been a magnet for jazz artists. As a result, Rosenthal had numerous opportunities to perform with name musicians such as Gerry Mulligan, Ron Carter, Art Farmer, Jon Faddis and Phil Woods. In fact, Rosenthal toured with the final Gerry Mulligan Quartet, and his first albums were as a sideman with that group. After Mulligan’s death, Rosenthal became musical director of the Gerry Mulligan Tribute Band, which also featured Lee Konitz, Bob Brookmeyer and Randy Brecker. Their CD, Thank You, Gerry, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1998.

One indicator of a pianist’s quality is related to his demand as accompanist by vocalists; Rosenthal is a first-call choice. As you listen to this album — his 13th as a leader — you’ll understand why; his touch is impeccable. He supports without intruding.

He concentrates here on timeless classics by Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and the like. All are familiar tunes, but I guarantee you’ve never heard them played like this. Rosenthal’s “de-ranging” (as he describes it) involves meter changes (3/4, 5/4, 9/8), harmonic and melodic variation, and improvisations that makes everything old, new again.

He can play at both blazing and ballad tempos, and his trio compatriots have much to do with the quality of his music. The bassist, Noriko Ueda, is equal to the best I’ve heard on the instrument. The drummer, Quincy Davis, has truly superior control; “fast” often results in “loud,” but not for Davis. He can perform blazing runs at just a whisper when appropriate.

This is a wonderful, enjoyable album: the kind of stuff you can play for hours.

Hiromi: Voice

Telarc Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Voice

Readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of pianist/composer Hiromi Uehara. If you look up the definition for prodigy, you might find her picture; she began to play the piano at age 6, was introduced to jazz at 8, performed with the Czech Philharmonic at 14, and played a concert with Chick Corea at a still youthful 17. She’s a Berklee College of Music grad and was signed by Telarc Records while still in school.

Since her professional debut in 2003, Hiromi has been featured on almost a dozen albums or DVDs. Several are in a solo piano setting, but the majority are with a trio; on this, her newest release, she is joined by bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips. All but one of the nine tunes are Hiromi compositions; the exception is her “rearrangement” of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 (Pathétique).

Voice is a reflection of Hiromi’s belief that, in her words, “people’s real voices are expressed in their emotions. It’s not something that you really say. It’s more something that you have in your heart. Maybe it’s something you haven’t said yet. Maybe you’re never going to say it. But it’s your true voice. Instrumental music is very similar.”

Don’t be surprised, then, at the absence of lyrics in these melodies.

This is concert jazz: something you listen to, not dance or swing to. But, thanks to Hiromi, it’s fascinating, mesmerizing and dazzling. Her technique is near perfect, particularly during up-tempo pieces. Her touch is super-controlled; you won’t hear any fluffs.

What you will experience borders on awe; the lady is almost unbelievable.

Christian McBride: The Good Feeling

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Good Feeling

Most musicians evolve as they gain experience. An individual who starts out playing with a polka group may end up in a modern big band; another might begin as a gospel church organist and become the pianist in a straight-ahead quartet. Generally, though, the core musical genre remains fixed.

That isn’t the case with bassist Christian McBride. At still shy of 40, he has participated in just about every possible musical setting. He enjoys — and is more than fluent — with every element of the jazz family tree, rock ’n’ roll, pop, soul and classical. He also performs with groups of all sizes, ranging from small-jazz units to concert and symphony orchestras.

And, as further proof that he’s a recognized expert by all elements in the musical world, his discography exceeds 300 albums during a 20-year professional career.

And yet this is his first recording as the leader of a big band.

This album’s 11 songs are a combination of favorite standards and original compositions. Whereas most composers and arrangers produce manuscripts that relate to their own personal “likes,” McBride almost always has a specific musician in mind: what he writes, and the style employed, reflect how that artist plays.

The opening track (“Shake ’n Blake”) reflects this approach, with saxophonist Ron Blake serving as the catalyst; likewise, alto saxist Steve Wilson wrought “Brother Mister.”

McBride’s Big Band approach even includes a vocalist, Melissa Walker, who is featured on “When I Fall in Love,” “The More I See You” and “A Taste of Honey.” Many of the great standards begin with “prologues,” but these days nobody sings them; Walker’s inclusion of the introduction to “When I Fall in Love” makes that old song very special.

The orchestra is a big band in every sense: five reeds, four trumpets and trombones, a pianist, drummer and McBride on bass, along with the vocalist. The unit is “classical” in format, but the sound achieved has the personality, exuberance and power of Christian McBride.

And that says it all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday Jazz 2011: Santa still has plenty of swing

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.14.11

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for roughly 16 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

Starting this annual column with an excellent disc always feels like a good omen, so let’s turn first to Ellis Marsalis’ A New Orleans Christmas Carol (ELM Records 19790). Long before Wynton and his many talented brothers became young cubs on the jazz scene, Daddy Ellis was roaring with the assurance of a venerable lion. He has gotten even better with time.

Although he contributed a few solo piano tracks to earlier anthology holiday albums for National Public Radio, Ellis Marsalis — surprisingly — hasn’t released his own Christmas disc until now. As the saying goes, this one was worth the wait.

The CD’s 20 tracks find Marsalis in four different modes: as soloist, leading a piano trio, leading a piano quartet with vibes accompaniment, and accompanying a vocalist. The combo arrangements are highlighted by driving keyboard work and lively percussion elements, starting with a funky, New Orleans-stompified cover of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” emerges as a slow samba, with a quiet bongo backdrop and some lovely work by Roman Skakun on vibes. Bassist Peter Harris stands out in a toe-tapping arrangement of “Sleigh Ride,” while Jason Marsalis delivers an equally delicious vibes lead, with Ellis’ piano comping behind him, on a solemn reading of “O Holy Night.”

Ellis’ solo piano treatments include an exquisite handling of “O Tannenbaum” and a charming run at “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The two vocals are this album’s only drawback. Cynthia Liggins Thomas and Johnaye Kendrick — on “A Child Is Born” and an Ellis Marsalis original titled “Christmas Joy,” respectively — simply try too hard. Their overwrought deliveries do no favors to the instrumentalists.

The album’s final track includes an Easter egg, so don’t remove the disc too quickly; after a lengthy pause, Marsalis delivers a third piano solo, this one of “The Little Drummer Boy.” That makes three versions of that carol on this disc: probably one too many in anybody else’s hands, but simply more jazz magic from Marsalis.

Definitely one of the season’s must-haves.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Kevin Crabbe: Waltz for Dylan

CrabbClaw Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Waltz for Dylan

It’s funny how you can be too close to something to notice it. Canadian jazz is an example; the country is one of the “lower 48’s” closest neighbors, yet the skills of Canadian musicians in this genre are relatively unknown on this side of the border. My own awareness began years ago, with Rob McConnell’s wonderful Boss Brass Big Band, followed by Maynard Ferguson’s entry into Stan Kenton’s Orchestra. Clearly, some “Canucks” could swing with the best.

As further proof, we have this album by the Kevin Crabb Quartet. Crabb is a bit unusual in a few ways: He has dual citizenship (Canada and the United States), and he’s much more than “just a drummer.” He was born into a musical family, and became a professional vocalist at age 8 (earning “big bucks” as a singer of commercial jingles). He subsequently became a TV and film actor, a professional drummer and composer/arranger.

As for his instrumental skill, he’s a musician, not an exciting “showman.”

Some age-old commentary comes to mind: The first, intended as an ironic joke, is a question: “How big is your band?” Answer: “Fifteen musicians and a drummer.” The second observation comes from a famous musician: “A drummer should be felt more than heard.”

To repeat, Crabb is a musician!

Two members of his group, also Canadians, are bassist Don Thompson and saxophonist Kelly Jefferson; both have played with numerous name artists during their careers. Pianist John Beasley, the sole American, also has worked with many names, including Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand.

The point? This is a talented, first-echelon quartet.

Crabb’s skill as a composer is evident; he wrote all the tunes featured on this release, and their style, feel and content are not what you’d expect from a percussionist. These tracks are tasty — beautiful at times — and yet they always swing. He has a knack for making the soloists, and the group as a whole, sound even better than they are.

So be on the lookout, jazz fans, and keep your ears tuned to the North!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

SSJ All Stars: From California with Love

SSJ-USA Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: From California with Love

Shortly after the horrific earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, SSJ-USA Records’ Bill Reed contacted vocalist/guitarist Diane Hubka — who recently had completed a 12-city tour of Japan — about a fundraising project, with proceeds to be donated to the quake victims. This album is the result of that effort. The well-known singers and musicians who enthusiastically came on board accepted no fees for their performances; the same was true of the companies and services that supported the project.

All the tracks are new and previously unreleased, and all present themes of hope and “positivity.” All of the performances are exceptional; clearly, the hearts of all concerned were deeply involved in the project. Vocalists abound, in keeping with the desire to make the tribute personal; the roster includes Hubka, Sue Raney, Tierney Sutton, Frankie Randall, Kurt Reidenbach, Johnny Holiday, Leslie Lewis, Jim Cox, Dick Noel, Pinky Winters and the late Chris Conners (via a bit of recording tape from her manager). Pianists Alan Broadbent, Christian Jacob and Jim Cox provide soulful accompaniment, as do other supporting instrumentalists.

The song list is further evidence of the desired theme and tone, with selections such as “Blue Skies,” “Sweet and Lovely,” “Here’s to Life,” “We Can Work It Out” You’ll Never Walk Alone” and many others.

The result is a wonderful album, with warm and earnest work from all involved.

Friday, December 2, 2011

John Brown Trio: Dancing with Duke

Brown Boulevard Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Dancing with Duke

John Brown is a master of many skills. He began to play the double bass when he was just 9, and hardly big enough to reach the full range of the strings. He has an extensive education, having graduated from both the University of North Carolina-Greensboro School of Music, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Law. He teaches at several universities in North Carolina, including Duke; he plays with several symphony orchestras; he’s a “first-sought” bassist as a sideman; and he fronts his own trio, quintet and larger groups.

And occasionally sleeps.

He has performed with numerous name artists and vocalists — including the Marsalis clan, Rosemary Clooney and Diahann Carroll — and he won a Grammy Award as a co-writer of Nnenna Freelon’s album Shaking Free.

Dancing With Duke, Brown’s second album, was released from his own studio.

Brown worships Duke Ellington, and this release features 10 of the latter’s most famous tunes. As the album title implies, each track is done at a danceable tempo ... which is to say, close dancing: the kind enjoyed by couples in love ... or falling in that direction. Even the relatively up-tempo tunes are done at a danceable pace. That’s unusual these days, particularly with a trio.

Brown is backed by pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Adonis Rose: one of the tightest, highly grooving rhythm sections I’ve heard in a long time. Even if you haven’t danced for awhile, these guys make you want to move your feet. Chestnut’s style, a delightful combination of gospel and light bop, fits perfectly with Brown’s solid beat; Rose also is a solid and tasteful compliment to the group.

As for the tunes selected, I’m particularly moved by this rendition of “Solitude.” You don’t often hear a bowed bass solo, and this one is superb. You’ll recognize many of these standards — “In a Mellow Tone,” “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” “Perdido,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “I Got It Bad” — and it’s refreshing to hear the lesser-known “Pie Eye’s Blues” and “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.”

All in all, this is a neat album.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Reynolds Jazz Orchestra: Three Penny Opera

Shanti Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Three Penny Opera

Some artists inevitably are ahead of their time; a few others are so far ahead that it’s unbelievable. Kurt Weill was one of the latter. Born in Germany in 1900, he achieved fame while he was still in his 20s, during the period when Hitler was beginning his rise to power. Because Weill was Jewish and a socialist, he fled Germany in 1933, living briefly in Paris and London before settling in New York. He died in 1950.

Weill was an amazing composer, creating cantatas, chamber music, chorals, piano music and film scores. His best-known work was the Three Penny Opera, first presented in Germany in 1928. It wasn’t an immediate hit, but it became an iconic work as the years passed. Few have been exposed to the complete opera, but almost everyone is familiar with one of its tunes: “Mack the Knife” has become a classic.

The Reynolds Jazz Orchestra, consisting of internationally famous musicians led by Fritz Reynold and his wife Helen Savari Reynold, was formed in 1999; its first performance was a Duke Ellington tribute concert that featured several members from Duke’s orchestras. That performance was quite popular, and the Reynolds have made such tribute events an annual tradition.

Their ensemble’s version of Three Penny Opera was performed in 2000 in Aarau, Switzerland; the orchestra, consisting of 15 artists — in the tradition of the Ellington tribute — included Randy Brecker and Bobby Watson from the States. The double-CD set contains 24 tunes from the original score, arranged by French-born pianist and composer Christian Jacob. He also contributed a 25th track, “Warehouses Blues,” which ends this recording.

The opera’s already marvelous score is recreated as an instrumental tour de force. I can’t think of any other almost-century-old work that would survive such a fresh interpretation of this magnitude, and sound as magnificent as this one does. The melodic lines are maintained, the solo work is fantastic, and everything swings like crazy.

Interestingly, “Mack the Knife” is presented much less frenetically than the takes we’ve heard from Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald and so many others ... but it’s still a show-stopper.

For that matter, so is the entire album!