Monday, January 30, 2012

Christian McBride: Conversations with Christian

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Conversations with Christian

Bassist Christian McBride is almost too young to be the icon he has become. Still in his 30s, he began to play electric bass at age 9, then switched to the acoustic model two years later. He had plenty of family support; his father and a great-uncle both played the instrument. While in high school, where studied classical music and became exposed to jazz, Christian received a partial scholarship to New York’s Juilliard school. But within two weeks, he joined Bobby Watson’s band; after finishing his first year of studies, McBride left school to tour with trumpeter Ray Hargrove.

As McBride put it, he “chose experience with as many musicians as possible, rather than school.”

He achieved that goal; it’s difficult to find an artist or band he hasn’t worked with, whether in jazz, classical or pop, as an instrumentalist or supporting a vocalist. And his discography is huge, with more than 300 albums to date.

McBride isn’t merely a musician. He composes and arranges; is an educator, producer and administrator; a curator; and a major spokesperson for the arts. Oh, yes; he’s also a multi-award winner.

Conversations with Christian presents McBride in a duet role with a baker’s dozen of his “closest musical friends and cohorts.” They include singers (Angelique Kidjo, Sting, Dede Bridgewater), pianists (George Duke, Chick Corea, Eddie Palmieri, Billy Taylor, Hank Jones), violinist Regina Carter, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Russell Malone, tenor saxophonist Ron Blake and actress Gina Gershon.

The usual duet setting involves either a pianist or guitarist in a primary role as an instrumentalist or accompanist. I’ve never encountered an acoustic bassist who takes that lead responsibility ... well, meet Christian McBride. There he is, in the spotlight, for all to see and hear. And he doesn’t merely lay down and maintain a beat; his solo work is magnificent.

Four bars into “Afirika,” this album’s opening track, we know we’re witnessing an absolute master musician. He’s joined on this cut by Kidjo, the Grammy Award-winning vocalist dubbed by Time Magazine as “Africa’s prime diva.” When the track concludes, it’s obvious that, together, they own the song. It’ll never again be done that beautifully by anyone else.

Each selection in this album had that same impact on me. Carter’s violin is supported by both bowed and plucked bass, in pure classical and lightly swinging modes; Sting has never swung like this before; and so it goes, with each duo. Every guest artist performs brilliantly, but McBride clearly is key to each track’s overall excellence.

What a marvelous album!

Jimmy Owens: The Monk Project

IPO Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Monk Project

Folks who know Jimmy Owens either go back a long way or are true jazz historians. He was born in 1943, began to play the trumpet at age 13 — taught by Donald Byrd — and subsequently performed with an almost endless list of jazz icons. He’s also a composer, arranger, lecturer and music education consultant.

Owens’ discography is extensive. He was an in-demand sideman with lesser-known bands during the mid 1960s, and a few years later recorded with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and Duke Ellington bands. Owens was a sideman under Billy Taylor for David Frost’s TV chat show in the early ’70s and, during that period, led and recorded with his own groups.

This album is the most recent in a series of all-star releases that Owens has delivered during the past decade. It features his arrangements of tunes composed by Thelonious Monk, considered by many to be one of the world’s premier jazz artists. I have many of Monk’s recordings: both those that feature him as a pianist, and numerous albums by other artists who covered his compositions.

That said, Owens’ album is different to the point that “everything old sounds new again.”

Owens, on trumpet, employed a septet here: trombone (Wycliffe Gordon), tenor sax (Marcus Strickland), baritone sax and tuba (Howard Johnson), piano (Kenny Barron), bass (Kenny Davis) and drums (Winard Harper). The presence of a tuba is quite unusual, but that isn’t the sole element that makes this group’s sound so great. Owens’ arrangements work: The melodic lines, tempos and phrasing are wonderful, and the interaction included between instruments adds even more to the interest of each chart.

“Bright Mississippi,” although a lesser-known Monk tune, is one of his best compositions. It’s tricky — almost to the point of being “cute” — and it swings like crazy. Listen for the great ensemble phrases that follow the first couple of choruses, and the use of the tuba.

The more familiar “Well You Needn’t” initially is done at a slow, waltz-like gait, which turns into grooving, double-time meters when you least expect them. “Blue Monk,” which has been recorded by just about everyone, is presented as a very slow (arms wrapped around your partner) and sexy love-dance.

Each of the remaining tunes is massaged in a similar manner: “Stuffy Turkey,” “Pannonica,” “Let’s Cool One,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Brilliant Corners,” “Reflections” and “Epistrophy” never had it so good!

As you can tell, I love this album!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

New World Jazz Composers Octet: Breaking News

Big & Phat Jazz Productions
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Breaking News

This group is one of several headed by saxophonist, flutist, composer and educator Daniel Ian Smith. He’s a Berklee College of Music grad and has been an associate professor there for more than 15 years. He therefore has been able to perform with literally dozens of the master musicians who have attended the school; this, in turn, has allowed him to mix and match their talents. At the present time, Smith leads five ensembles.

The New World Jazz Composers Octet, created by Smith for a concert series titled Jazz at the Sanctuary, consists of Felipe Salles (also on sax and flute), Ken Cervenka and Walter Platt (trumpet and flugelhorn), Tim Ray (piano), Keala Kaumeheiwa (acoustic bass) and Mark Walker and Ernesto Diaz (percussion). Unless you’re a member of the musical community — or a Berklee associate — these names probably won’t be familiar; rest assured, all are top-grade instrumentalists.

All the compositions are originals. Two were written by members of this group, the rest by individuals with whom Smith has been associated during his years at Berklee.

This release primarily explores composition, rather than the musicians’ expertise; but in fairness to the composers, top artists were utilized to be sure the charts were presented at their best. Up-tempo and ballad meters alternate; the former are real burners, while the latter are thoughtful tone-poems.

The final “tune” (my personal favorite) is presented as a trilogy, dedicated to three well-known composers: “Thad” (Thad Jones), “Strays” (Billy Strayhorn) and “Willis” (Bill Holman).

The octet, whether in unison or when featuring individual players, is stellar. The melodic lines and ensemble work achieve a sound that is “larger” than the combo’s actual size, and the solos are exceptional.

This is a wonderful album, created by extremely talented artists.

Tito Carrillo: Opening Statement

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Opening Statement

Tito Carrillo, originally from Austin, Texas, is a key member of Chicago’s thriving jazz and Latin musical community. He plays trumpet, composes, arranges and teaches, and is deeply immerged in both the classical and jazz genres. He has played with numerous name artists, but is primarily associated with the “territory” bands and musicians at home in the Chicago area.

His style is Latin-tinged bop, similar to that played by the groups that Dizzy Gillespie fronted late in his career. Carrillo is a member of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, the latter under the direction of Jon Faddis and Bill Russo. Carrillo also is a full-time jazz trumpet professor at the University of Illinois.

All but one of this album's tunes are Carrillo compositions. Most are mid- to up-tempo swingers, with the emphasis on swing; these guys really groove. The basic group is a quartet that features pianist Benjamin Lewis, bassist Lorin Cohen and drummer Dana Hall. For this session, Carrillo also added Geof Bradfield and Phillip Doyle on reeds; and Darwin Noguera handles keyboard duties on two tracks.

One of the indicators of a good composer/arranger is how “big” the band sounds when performing his charts; this album’s ensemble passages make the group sound much larger than it is, and that’s a plus. Carrillo’s trumpet work is excellent; he has a clean, brilliant tone and extensive range, yet he’s restrained: no screaming. The other players also are upper-echelon.

Chicago is fortunate to have this group in its fold.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Bob James and Keiko Matsui: Altair & Vega

eOne Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Altair & Vega

First, a caveat: Pianists Bob James and Keiko Matsui, though outstanding musicians, are not swingers. Reviewers and fans sometimes use terms like pop, smooth-jazz, hip-hop, fusion, contemporary, crossover or classically influenced, but whatever you call it, such music won’t make you groove or snap your fingers. That said, both James and Matsui are master artists, and both have produced — or contributed to — huge discographies.

James, born in 1932, became recognized in the mid-’70s when he released Nautilus and Westchester Lady. During that same period, he composed “Angela,” the theme song for the TV show Taxi. In 1981 he earned a Grammy Award, with Earl Klugh, for their One on One release. James and David Sanborn then shared a Grammy in 1986, for their album Double Vision.

Matsui — born Keiko Doi, in 1963, in Tokyo — began to play classical piano at age 5; she became interested in jazz in junior high school. She graduated at the top of her class at the Yamaha Music Foundation, which hired her to record with its jazz fusion group, Cosmos; she subsequently worked on seven albums with them. Yamaha then sent her to the United States to record an album, where she met and married Kazu Matsui, who produced the project. She subsequently released more than two dozen solo albums, and has been part of numerous compilations with other artists and orchestras.

Altair & Vega is Keiko Matsui’s most recent effort, and her second duet album with James; it follows 2000’s Dancing on the Water. Their duet technique utilizes only one piano; they sit side by side, on the same bench. At times, they switch positions between the treble and bass keyboard. This album package contains both a CD and DVD; the former consists of six original compositions and one “rework” — the familiar “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” chorale From Bach’s Cantata BWV 147 — while the latter features half a dozen originals and the old pop standard “The Touch of Your Lips.”

As already noted, it isn’t straight-ahead — or any other relative of jazz — but it’s all marvelous music. You’ll be mesmerized.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dave Shank Quintet: Soundproof

Rhombus Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Soundproof

Dave Shank is living proof of a valuable adage: If at first you don’t succeed, try it a different way. He began his musical career in high school, as a trumpeter — as he puts it, “not a very good one” — so he switched to vibes. It was the best move he ever made.

After a stint in the armed forces, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in theory and composition at the University of Nevada. He then spent most of his early professional years playing for headline acts on the Las Vegas strip, and performing with local jazz groups. He moved to Los Angeles and worked with the likes of Quincy Jones and others, and in bands supporting name acts such as Frank Sinatra, Dionne Warwick, Linda Ronstadt and Bette Midler. Shank also joined guitarist Tim Weston’s jazz quintet Wishful Thinking.

After relocating to New York City, Shank worked extensively on Broadway but nonetheless found time for other projects; you can here his vibes on the Steely Dan album Two Against Nature.

The best indication of how highly Shank is regarded by his fellow artists is the cadre that joined him for this album: bassist John Patitucci, pianist Barry Miles, drummer Terry Silverlight, and saxman Mike Migliore.

As for the result ... this is one of the swinging-est groups I’ve heard in a long time, and that applies to both the up-tempo and ballad charts.

Which brings me to Shank’s second major talent: He composed and arranged all the tracks on this album. True, he uses chord sequences and structures from several old standards in a couple of tunes — “Come Rain or Come Shine” becomes “Fair or Foul,” while “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” morphs into “Some Nice” — but the melodic lines are totally different.

Significant attention has been paid to each artist: Migliore and Shank compliment each other beautifully on the title track; Patitucci and Miles own “Alla Brevity”; Silverlight moves into the spotlight on “Last Resort”; and Shank’s vibe work is key to “Snoopin.’ ” Behind it all is the truly great rhythm section: You need only hear Patitucci’s first bar to realize that he’s one of the top bassists working today. Miles’ piano, both as backup and solo, is stellar; and Silverlight’s tasty drumming holds it all together.

Don’t miss this album; it really grooves.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Eddie Daniels and Roger Kellaway: Live at the Library of Congress

IPO Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Live at the Library of Congress

There are musicians, famous musicians and icons; Eddie Daniels and Roger Kellaway fall into the latter category. Both are 70-something years young; both have classical and jazz backgrounds.

Daniels’ first instrument was the alto sax, which he played in the Newport Jazz Youth Festival at age 15; he had added clarinet to his arsenal upon entering college, and he subsequently included the tenor sax, which was his horn when hired by the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band. Since the 1980s, however, Daniels has concentrated on the clarinet.

Kellaway’s experience began in the classical genre, then expanded into pop and jazz. His early love was the piano (at age 7), but he also studied the double bass; his first “road” job was as a bassist. After several years, however, he returned to the piano. His early fame came as an accompanist to great vocalists such as Lena Horne and Tony Bennett, and Kellaway later became musical director for Bobby Darrin. But Kellaway truly shined as a composer; he has written scores for TV, films, ballets and concert orchestras, and has won Grammy Awards and their equivalent in France.

Daniels and Kellaway have performed together numerous times. Some time ago, I was blown away by another of their IPO releases (A Duet of One); this new album, performed live in Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, is its equal.

Performances at that facility are quite an honor, and more than 2,000 have taken place over the years. Attendance is usually free, so attendance usually is standing-room only. These concerts cater to all aspects of the arts, but jazz performances are relatively limited.

This performance features 10 well known and much-loved compositions: jazz standards (“Rhythm-a-ning,” by Thelonious Monk; “Just Friends” by Klenner & Lewis), show tunes (“Strike Up the Band,” by the Gershwins; “Somewhere,” by Leonard Bernstein; and “Pretty Women,” by Stephen Sondheim); traditional tunes (“America the Beautiful”); and originals by both Daniels and Kellaway. It’s a stunning collection and performance.

During the early years of jazz, the clarinet was a star instrument: Barney Bigard, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman are just a few of the famous names. But as time passed, and big bands proliferated, the alto, tenor and baritone saxes rose to prominence. Only a few top clarinetists remain, and Daniels is at the top of the list.

Kellaway also is a champion at his skill set. What more could one desire, than to hear these two artists together?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hal Galper Trio: Trip the Light Fantastic

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Trip the Light Fantastic

If you aren’t familiar with pianist Hal Galper, you haven’t been paying attention. He was a scholarship student at Boston’s School of Music, just a few years after it came into existence in the 1950s; he has more than 80 recordings to his credit — 20 as a leader — and, in addition to his skill as a pianist, is a composer, arranger, publisher, teacher and author.

Galper always has been ahead of his time. In a biographical note, he recalls that, “For a time I was a free player. It became obvious that this wasn’t in vogue in Boston, when my fellow musicians ran off the bandstand holding their ears.” Those “fellow musicians” were turning the jazz world upside-down at the time, playing a style identified as bebop ... which indicates just how advanced Galper was. Well, he’s still that kind of musician.

That said, his list of artistic colleagues proves that he was capable of throttling back to achieve compatibility with his peers. He was on the road with Chet Baker for three years, then spent an equal period with Cannonball Adderley, followed by 10 years with Phil Woods.

At that point, the urge to stretch out took hold, and Galper formed a piano/bass/drum trio and went back on the road. Jeff Johnson has been his bassist for more than seven years; he recommended John Bishop, who now is Galper’s drummer.

Jazz usually is played at a steady beat, whether 4/4, 2/4, 3/4 or other more exotic tempos. But a significant element of Galper’s style involves rubato: rhythmic flexibility within a phrase, often against a steady rhythmic accompaniment. This technique is used more in classical genres, but has become common in jazz as time has passed.

Three of the tunes here are old standards (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” and “Be My Love”); three are Galper originals, and one is by Ron Miller. You’ll first notice is that Galper is a “busy” pianist; less is not more with him. That said, his melodic lines certainly aren’t cluttered. Second, his style is demanding for the bassist and drummer, and these two artists provide excellent backing.

If you’re seeking something a bit different — which nonetheless swings — these guys should do it for you.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Matt Baker: Underground

Matt Baker Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Underground

Australian-born Matt Baker is another musician we probably wouldn’t have heard from, if recording technology hadn’t made it so easy to self-produce CDs. Baker plays piano and Fender Rhodes, composes and teaches. He began with classical piano at age 5, discovered jazz at 12 and began teaching when he was 16; after two decades, that remains his primary source of income.

Baker has traveled extensively throughout his career. He was a jazz staple in his homeland while young, but he also spent a lot of time in both Europe and the United States. He was associated with the Montreux Jazz Festival for several years, and led the festival jazz club’s in-house band at one time. He also was a semi-finalist in the Montreux International Solo Jazz Piano competition in both 2004 and ’05. He moved to New York City in 2010.

His basic group is usually a trio or quartet, but for this — his debut CD — he added a trumpet (Jeremy Pelt) and tenor sax (Dayna Stephens). Baker’s rhythm section includes bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Gregory Hutchinson.

The eight tracks here include three standards (“If I Were a Bell,” “Mood Indigo” and “The Gypsy”) and five of his own compositions. As often is the case, the standards demonstrate the group’s ability to swing more fluently than the originals do. The artists have played the “old tunes” hundreds of times, and don’t need to think about melodic lines and chord changes, which permits total concentration on improvisation.

That observation notwithstanding, this is a smooth combo and a pleasure to hear. Baker plays sensitively; he has total command of the keyboard and reminds me of Benny Green at times.

He and his combos won’t have any trouble finding fans or work.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Alan Pasqua: Twin Bill

BFM Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Twin Bill

Alan Pasqua is a pianist, composer, arranger and educator — currently an associate professor at USC — who refuses to settle into a specific genre of jazz. He enjoys, and performs, throughout the total musical spectrum: pop, rock, fusion, straight-ahead, classical and even film scoring. You’ll not be able to name many other musicians who have played with the smorgasbord of Bob Dylan, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Dave Grusin, Henry Mancini and John Williams.

That said, Bill Evans lit Pasqua’s fire in the very beginning.

Twin Bill is all about Evans in one way or another. Six of these 11 tracks were composed by him; one (“Nardis”) is a Miles Davis tune from the period when Evans worked with him; and another (“Gloria’s Step”) was written by Scott LaFaro, the bassist with one of Evans’ groups. The remaining three tunes are interpretations (done in Evans’ style) of a Swedish folksong (“Vindarna Sucka Uti Skogarna”), a Pasqua original (“Grace”) and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” a tribute to Pasqua’s second favorite thing: He’s a baseball addict.

Aside from referencing Evans himself, this album’s title reflects both a baseball double-header and Pasqua’s decision to use two pianos. He first created the basic melodic line, then over-dubbed a second “support” line and/or the solos. That’s a lot more difficult than it might sound; it’s essential to avoid any “conflict” between the two instrumental lines. Pasqua succeeded beautifully.

Evans would have enjoyed this release. I certainly did.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Tim Mayer: Resilience

JLP Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Resilience

Tim Mayer began to play sax when he was 10 years old; he was introduced to jazz at Florida State University’s Summer Music Camp in 1980. Within a decade, he was working cruise ship bands, a gig that lasted until he entered Boston’s Berklee College of Music (invariably the ultimate choice of many jazz wannabes).

Mayer’s cruise ship experience exposed him to numerous countries, and their music styles, and his time at Berklee offered experience with the many jazz musicians who have attended that school. He subsequently became a sideman with literally dozens of name artists. Watiki 7, an exotica group, won consecutive Hawaiian Music Awards during the period Mayer performed with them.

Resilience, Mayer’s first album as a leader, showcases his bebop persona. His basic quartet, consisting of his tenor sax, George Cables (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass) and Willie Jones III (drums), is supported by half a dozen top-tier guests: trumpeters Greg Gisbert, Claudio Roditi and Dominick Fasrinacci; trombonist Michael Dease; guitarist Mark Whitfield; and flutist Don Braden.

The musical menu contains Jule Styne’s seldom-heard standard “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” along with a swinging mix of jazz classics such as Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” Cables’ “Klimo” and Dease’s “For Miles,” along with originals by Mayer, Kenny Durham, Charles Tolliver, Fats Navarro and Lee Morgan.

One thing becomes clear immediately: These guys swing wonderfully.

This release illustrates a simple truth: Don’t ignore jazz artists — indeed, any musicians — simply because they’re unfamiliar. Take the time to check out unknowns; you’ll often find a gem under the plastic wrap. Tim Mayer and his friends fall into that category.