Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gary Smulyan: Smul's Paradise

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Smul's Paradise

Throughout the big band period, standard reed sections usually consisted of five instruments: two altos saxes, two tenors and a baritone. Many artists could play more than one of those instruments, and also could “double” on clarinet and flute. But artists able to play innovative and swinging solo lines on the “big horn” were few in number.

Those who come to mind include Harry Carney (with Duke Ellington for 45 years), Serge Chaloff (of Woody Herman fame), Gerry Mulligan (who played with everybody) and early boppers Leo Parker and Pepper Adams.

Gary Smulyan can be added to that list; he’s considered one of today’s major voices on the baritone sax. As a teen, he performed with artists such as Chet Baker and Lee Konitz, and was part of Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd from 1978 to ’80. Smulyan then became a member of the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and the Mingus groups, and subsequently performed and recorded with the jazz world’s entire Who’s Who.

Smulyan currently plays with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and numerous other groups; he also heads several units of his own and is a faculty member at New Jersey’s William Paterson University.

This album features a quartet, consisting of Smulyan, Mike LeDonne on Hammond B3 organ, Peter Bernstein on guitar, and Kenny Washington on drums. Many organ quartets have come and gone over the years, but I can’t remember any that utilized a baritone sax. One might worry that the horn’s huge tone would overwhelm the organ/guitar combination, but that isn’t the case here. Smulyan’s tone is clean, clear and smooth, and he compliments the other instruments wonderfully.

As might be expected, the chosen tunes are delivered at mid- to up-tempo meters. Three selections are tributes to another B3 great, Don Paterson. “Up in Betty’s Room” and “Aries” were composed by Paterson, while Smulyan wrote “D.P. Blues.” He’s also is responsible for “Heavenly Hour” and “Smul’s Paradise.” Of the remaining tracks, the pop hit “Sunny” is noteworthy for its arrangement here as a waltz.

Jazz baritone fans — and I’m one — will enjoy this album. This guy really swings!

Harry Allen: Rhythm on the River

Challenge Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Rhythm on the River

Readers of this blog know that my taste in music leans more toward modern genres — straight-ahead, bop, funk, etc. — than the earlier forms of traditional jazz. But that doesn’t mean the artists who produce the latter style aren’t good, or can’t deliver quite entertaining stuff. Such is the case with this album, headed by saxman Harry Allen.

Allen and his quintet members aren’t youngsters, but they aren’t that old, either; they range in age from the late 30s to the early 60s. Allen’s style is a combination of Scott Hamilton and Flip Phillips, with a pinch of Stan Getz’s “smoother than honey and cream” tone.

Warren Vache, who plays cornet here, evokes Roy Eldridge and Ruby Braff, while being much smoother than either, and a lot more innovative. Pianist Rossano Spontiello — regarded by Barry Harris as “the best stride pianist I’ve ever heard” — is light on the keys and extremely smooth. The rhythm section, consisting of bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Chuck Riggs, is as tasty as they get: solid, but never obtrusive.

This release contains a baker’s dozen of grand, traditional tunes, written by icons such as Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Burke, Richard Rogers and others of that time period. As the album title indicates, the operational word is “River”: “Cry Me a River,” “Rhythm on the River,” “Lazy River,” “Sleepy River” and many more. They’re all done superbly: an overused descriptor, but accurate in this case. The ballads are beautiful, and the more up-tempo melodies are just as danceable.

You’ll enjoy every selection on this wonderful album, along with the memories it’ll bring back.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Larry Vuckovich: Somethin' Special

Tetrachord Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Somethin' Special

Fans of mainstream jazz — particularly that dating back to the 1950s and ’60s — will love this album.

The Vuckovich family escaped from Tito’s communist Yugoslavia after World War II and obtained political asylum in the States in 1951. Larry, 14 at the time, had studied classical piano in his homeland, but was drawn to jazz by listening to Armed Forces Radio during the war. The family settled in San Francisco, and his love for jazz blossomed; he haunted the record shops and jazz clubs that filled the city at the time.

Before long, Vuckovich was sitting in with the likes of Brew Moore and Cal Tjader, who he met at the famous Black Hawk. Vince Guaraldi, Tjader’s pianist at the time, accepted Vuckovich as his sole student.

Over time, Vuckovich played, worked and recorded with many of the name musicians who visited San Francisco. He developed a special affinity with jazz vocalists such as Irene Kral, David Allyn, Mel Torme and Jon Hendricks: associations that demonstrated how these contemporaries felt about the young pianist’s talent.

This album teams Vuckovich with four artists from that same era: Scott Hamilton and Noel Jewkes, sax; Paul Keller, bass; and Chuck McPherson, drums. Two tracks — “Loving Linda” and “Zeljkos Blues” — are Vuckovich compositions; the rest are jazz tunes by Sonny Clark, Horace Silver, Tadd Dameron, Dexter Gordon and Thelonious Monk, along with three wonderful standards (“Stardust,” “How Insensitive” and “What Will I Tell My Heart”).

The musical format varies from solo piano (“Pannonica”) to quartets and quintets, depending on the presence of one or two horns. Hamilton is famous for the pure tone he elicits from his tenor sax; early in his career, he emulated Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, but more recently has developed a smoother sound with echoes of Zoot Sims, Don Byas and Stan Getz.

Jewkes plays tenor and alto sax, as well as clarinet. His style is a little “looser” than Hamilton’s, and they complicate each other nicely. Keller and McPherson form the backbone of a truly swinging rhythm section; they drive the beat deftly without intruding on the melodic line.

Guaraldi’s mentorship is evident in Vuckovich’s style; he’s innovative and melds impressively with his cohorts. The result is a smooth and swinging group.

Jamie Ousley: A Sea of Voices

T.I.E. Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: A Sea of Voices

During recent years, we’ve been hearing more of a style I regard as “gentle jazz”: classically oriented music with relatively complex melodic lines, which nonetheless produces a definite sense of swing. I suspect this results, in part, from the significant increase in formal schooling available to today’s music students.

From the late 1920s through the ’60s, it wasn’t unusual for high school kids (and younger!) to obtain jobs with name bands; these days, I sometimes think everybody has advanced degrees from premier colleges such as Boston’s Berklee College Of Music and Miami’s University of Music. Such institutions generally include studies in the classics, as well as composition and arranging; that has major impact on the style students develop.

Jamie Ousley is a prime example of such an upbringing. Tennessee-born into a musical family, he picked out the melody to the Star Wars main theme when he was only 5; his parents immediately enrolled him in violin classes, but he switched to double bass at age 12. He attended graduate school in the University of Miami’s prestigious jazz program, and subsequently earned a doctorate in musical arts.

Although Ousley tours extensively, he spends most of his time playing and teaching in his home territory of Southern Florida.

This album finds Ousley supported by pianist Joe Davidian, drummer Austin McMahon and soprano vocalist Nanami Moridawa; pianist Gabriel Saientz and percussionist Carlomagno Araya guest on several tracks. Ousley wrote five of these 10 tunes, and arranged all of them. The wonderful old standard “How Deep Is the Ocean” and the traditional “Shenandoah” are highlights. The latter features a vocal by Moridawa, whose voice fits the tune perfectly.

Ousley uses a bow — a rarity in jazz — during some passages of Coldplay’s “Swallowed by the Sea.” Indeed, the interplay between bass and piano is particularly moving throughout this release.

This is first-class jazz: beautiful and, yes, gentle.

Wes Montgomery: Echoes of Indiana Avenue

Resonance Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Echoes of Indiana Avenue

Wes Montgomery, who died in 1968, was one of best jazz guitarists of all time.

He was one of the first — Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian preceded him — to modify the instrument’s basic performance style: from primarily backing vocalists or supporting the piano and bass of a rhythm section, to producing complex melodic lines and solos via a single-string plucking technique. Amazingly, he was self-taught and couldn’t read music; he memorized melodies and riffs by listening to other musicians and records. But, oh my, how he could improvise!

His style also differed in another way: Instead of using a pick on the strings, he employed his thumb, which produced a “softer” tone.

Montgomery was born in 1923, into a musical family; one brothers played bass, another piano and vibes. Wes began using a four-string guitar when he was 12; at 20, after hearing Charlie Christian, Wes switched to a six-string model. He memorized every note of every song — and solo — that Christian played. When Lionel Hampton heard Montgomery play, the young guitarist was hired on the spot.

Montgomery toured with Hampton for awhile, but the stress of being away from family brought the guitarist back to his home in Indianapolis; he worked in a factory by day, and haunted local jazz clubs each night. Despite job offers by the likes of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, Montgomery chose to stay at home.

As a result, he didn’t become a star until being signed by Riverside Records, on the basis of a recommendation by Adderley. From 1960-67, inclusive, Montgomery earned six Downbeat magazine Critic’s Poll awards as best jazz guitarist; during that same time, he was nominated for half a dozen Grammy Awards, winning in 1966 for his recording of the song “Goin’ Out of My Head.”

Echoes of Indiana Avenue features long-lost tape recordings made from 1957-58, when Montgomery played at clubs in Indianapolis. His brothers, Buddy (piano) and Monk (bass), appear on some tracks; others feature Earl Van Riper and Melvin Rhyne, piano; Mingo Jones, bass; and Sonny Johnson and Paul Parker drums.

These nine tracks feature compositions by Shorty Rogers (“Diablo’s Dance”), Thelonious Monk (“Straight, No Chaser” and “Round Midnight”), Horace Silver (“Nica’s Dream”), Van Heusen (“Darn That Dream”), Billy Strayhorn (“Take the ‘A’ Train”), Earl Garner (“Misty”) and Johnny Green (Body and Soul), along with an improv number (After Hours Blues). The result feels like a visit to a small jazz club of days gone by.

The tapes were more than half a century old, so restoration was necessary; the result is surprisingly good, but certainly not equal to modern audio standards. Despite this, Montgomery’s amazing talent is unmistakable.

This is a must-have album.

The Marlene Rosenberg Quartet: Bassprint

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Bassprint

Relatively few women embrace the acoustic bass; Marlene Rosenberg — a “territory” artist born, raised and schooled in Illinois — has done just that.

Although she has played professionally throughout the world, she performs and teaches primarily around Chicago. She began studying clarinet at the age of 10, switched to electric bass in high school, and finally settled on the acoustic instrument while attending the University of Illinois. She focused on classical bass and earned scholarships while playing with college-affiliated symphony orchestras and jazz groups; she graduated with several advanced degrees.

Thanks to a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz fellowship grant, Rosenberg could study privately with the likes of Ron Carter, Hal Galper and other renowned jazz bassists; that cemented her interest in the genre. She also studies various ethnic music forms, is active with modern dance troupes, and teaches privately in the Chicago area.

Bassprint is Rosenberg’s second self-produced album. She works here with Geoff Bradfield, tenor and soprano sax; Scott Hesse guitar; and Makaya McCravan, drums. Rosenberg wrote nine of these 11 selections, many the result of class assignments undertaken during her advanced college degree work. The remaining two songs, “Lullaby” and “Sunshower,” are by Kenny Barron.

Groups that use a guitar rather than a piano, to establish and maintain the melodic line, always deliver a “different” sound: in this case lighter and brighter. Bradfield’s use of soprano sax on several tracks augments that characteristic.

Rosenberg’s combo swings nicely and is extremely pleasant; I hope she releases additional albums.