Friday, August 24, 2012

Brandon Wright: Journeyman

Posi-Tone Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Journeyman

So, who is Brandon Wright? This 30-year-old tenor sax artist is relatively unknown outside of the music world, but he has been a key element in some of the most famous groups in jazz, including bands led by Chuck Mangione and Charles Mingus. And what is a journeyman? In Wright’s own words, “It’s someone who has learned a craft, finished his apprenticeship, and is now out there refining his trade so that one day he, too, can become a jazz master.”

This release, the second under Wright’s leadership, indicates that he’s well on his way to achieving this goal. 

Wright was a senior in high school when he first heard the Mingus Big Band; that prompted the young musician to change his plans about attaining a master’s degree. Instead, he began his music career immediately. Seven years later, he crossed paths with saxophonist Abraham Burton, who asked him to sit in during an upcoming Mingus band gig. Wright met Sue Mingus — the jazz legend’s widow, who managed several of his follow-up groups — and, a few months later, she asked him to join the band. 

The quartet featured here includes pianist David Kikoski, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Donald Edwards, all of whom were colleagues in the Mingus band that included Wright. All Mingus groups swung like crazy, and these guys carry on that tradition. 

During the big band years, having an outstanding tenor sax artist in the reed section was an absolute must. Think about them: Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Flip Phillips, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane are just a few. As those large units faded away, these artists fronted smaller combos and, for years, were at the forefront of the jazz clubs. 

Wright’s quartet takes me back to that era, albeit with a caveat: This album doesn’t include any of the jazz standards that were the backbone of that period. 

The vast majority of these tracks were composed by more modern artists, the sole exception being Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” And yet, you’ll notice that several of these tunes sound familiar: “Shapeshifter” is based on the chord structure of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love,” while “She’ll Make Me Happy” will be recognized from the movie The Muppets Take Manhattan. Wright wrote six of the 10 tracks, basing them on events in his life, or individuals he has known.

As Jazz Times put it, “Wright is definitely one to watch out for.” This release corroborates that assessment.

Amina Figarova: Twelve

In+Out Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Twelve

Amina Figarova, born in Baku, Azerbaijan, was playing piano and composing at a very early age. Her initial training was classical, as with many beginners, but because her parents were jazz fans, she also was exposed to icons such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson. After schooling at the Baku Conservatory, jazz became her primary interest; it subsequently dominated her advanced studies at Rotterdam Conservatory and Boston’s Berklee College of Music. 

Figarova played extensively at festivals and concerts around the world with her groups, but she didn’t record her first CD (Attraction) until 1994. This new album is, aptly, her 12th release, and the 12 tracks are her own compositions. They’re based on places she has visited or resided, events that have been part of her life, or individuals she has known or worked with. 

The majority of her tunes can be categorized as tone-poems; balladic tempos are the norm, and the harmonic lines are relatively modern. The title tune resonates with December — her birth month — the release of this album, and the 12/8 meter used in the composition. In another composition, flavored by a beach-side picnic with her husband (flautist Bart Platteau), “Sneaky Seagulls” attempt to snatch bits of food from their table; the mood shifts to a happy, up-tempo format. 

All her songs make the listener a part of the interesting, and full, life that she has lived.

Figarova’s sextet has been a constant throughout her musical career. Platteau is an outstanding artist and one of most tasteful masters of that instrument I’ve ever heard. As for the rest, Ernie Hammes (trumpet and flugelhorn), Marc Mommaas (tenor and soprano saxes), Jerden Vieroad (bass) and Chris Strik (drums) have been key elements in most of her groups for years, and their talents meld wonderfully. 

Figarova and her group are at the top level of today’s jazz world, and they produce some of the most interesting music you’ll ever hear. This is a must-have album.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Rich Thompson Trio: Generations

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Generations

As this album’s title suggests, trios have been a mainstay in jazz for, well,  generations. It’s a lot easier to gather simpatico musicians into a trio, than into a larger group. It’s an affordable combo; small clubs can’t foot the bill for larger groups. It also isn’t necessary to write the special arrangements required by bigger bands. 

Rich Thompson’s trio is one of the newest.

Thompson’s career began in 1980, during the period when many original big band icons had retired, or passed away, even though their bands still toured under different leaders. (Examples include Count Basie and Glenn Miller.) Thompson was a drummer with both of those units; he also played with Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie. Additionally, Thompson has played in the rhythm sections of numerous symphony orchestras across the country; he’s a professor at the Eastman School of Music, and is the author of several Drum Set educational volumes and videos.

Pianist Chris Ziemba, also associated with the Eastman School, is relatively unknown outside of the educational field, despite his considerable exposure within that circle. Bassist Miles Brown, another Eastman associate, is — like Thompson — conversant in both the jazz and classical genres. 

On one track (“I’m in Love with the Girl Next Door”), Thompson added Doug Stone on tenor sax; he has played with numerous names, including an extended tour with Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau.

This album is a mix of originals from Thompson and Brown, along with some great old jazz standards (“I Hear a Rhapsody,” “Keep Me in Mind” and “I Thought About You”). The trio’s version of that latter Jimmy Van Heusen tune is superb; you won’t be able to keep your fingers or feet still.

Thompson, Brown and Ziemba make an excellent rhythm section, and the primary factor is Thompson’s drum work. He’s more tasteful than most who play drums, and he really grooves; that inspires the bass and piano. 

These guys have a real future as a unit, if they decide to go for it.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Bill Evans Trio: Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate

Resonance Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate

All serious jazz fans are aware of Bill Evans’ impact on our favorite musical genre; that said, he was a late bloomer. As a 6-year-old, he began training as a classical pianist, became a proficient flautist at 13, and also could play the violin. But the piano became his love. Interestingly, he developed his skills backwards: He could sight-read anything put in front of him but, as he put it, “I couldn’t play ‘My Country ’Tis of Thee’ unless you put the notes in front of me.”

Evans also was very slow to learn the technical aspects of music; when he    began to play jazz professionally, the bassist would call out the chord changes. Evans hadn’t studied harmonics at that point, and he wasn’t able to improvise. All that changed as he studied music in college, under a scholarship.

Few artists have left us with such an extensive discography. During his all-too short career, he was featured on well over 100 albums: almost 50 as a sideman with name artists; more than 70 with various versions of his own groups (usually trios); and more than a dozen compilations (most released after his death).

This album — in many ways, one of his best — was recorded live on October 23, 1968, at the then-famous Greenwich Village jazz club Top of the Gate, which was located above the equally famous Village Gate; both were owned by Art D’Lugoff. Twenty-two-year-old recording engineer George Klabin was granted access to the club on that night by Evans’ longtime manager, Helen Keane. Klabin positioned microphones on each member of the trio and, considering the technology available at that time, the result is phenomenal; this album has been described as “quite possibly the best engineered and most gorgeous-sounding live recording ever made of Evans.”

Evans’ trio at the time included bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell; the former worked with the pianist for 11 years, while the latter had joined the group just that week. Two sets were played that night; both are included in their entirety. Evans was concentrating on standards then; only one of his originals (“Turn Out the Stars”) was included.

These two CDs contain a total of 17 tracks, and three tunes (“Emily,” “Yesterdays” and “ ’Round Midnight”) appear in both sets. Not to fear: The trio’s treatment is not in the least repetitive. 

The musicians weren’t constrained by time limitations associated with the usual  recording sessions; Evans, Gomez and Morell got everything possible out of each song. The result was perfection, as the club patrons well knew. 

Consider this: Thanks to this double-CD, listeners can witness a performance originally heard only by a very limited audience, experiencing one of the finest groups that ever existed. Lucky, lucky you!

The Budman/Levy Orchestra: From There to Here

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: From There to Here

Oh, how I miss those wonderful big band years. 

Fortunately, I can console myself with groups such as the Budman/Levy Orchestra, another of the large units formed periodically to assuage members of the jazz fraternity’s desires to revisit those days, and create the kind of music that dominated then. If we’re lucky, perhaps we’ll get concerts to attend, along with additional recording sessions that result in albums such as this one.

Alex Budman and Jeremy Levy co-lead this marvelous band. Budman plays sax, clarinet and flute; he has led a 16-piece contemporary jazz orchestra in the San Francisco area, where he also has recorded albums and played literally hundreds of shows. He moved to Los Angeles in 2005, where he is a first-call musician. 

Trombonist Levy, after receiving a master’s degree from the University of Miami, also moved to L.A., where he has been active in film, television and video game activities. He became involved with Budman and their collaborative orchestra in 2007.

Indeed, this is a big band, with 24 musicians: eight artists in the reed section; 11 in the brass sections; and a rhythm section of five. On top of this, one track features four string players. Levy arranged all 11 songs, and composed all but two; “Zona Mona” is by Bela Fleck and Jeff Coffin, while “Slings & Arrows” comes from Michael Brecker. 

As often is true these days, the compositions and arrangements are much more complex, interesting and exciting than was the case during the tenure of icons such as Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Count Basie and their peers. That said, the answer to the most important question — “Does it swing?” — is a resounding yes.  

In addition to the great arrangements, the solo work is excellent throughout. This is the kind of jazz you’ll want to play for hours. You’ll love this orchestra!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Oliver Jones Trio: Live in Baden, Switzerland

Justin Time Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Live in Baden, Switzerland

Thank goodness for folks who don’t dispose of recording sessions that, for reasons unknown, aren’t released after completion. This album, which stars Canadian-born pianist Oliver Jones and his trio, features a concert that took place in Baden, Switzerland, on May 20, 1990. 

It’s an absolute gem.

Jones, born in a Montreal neighborhood in 1934, lived just a few doors away from Oscar Peterson. Jones was a child prodigy: At age 3, he could play tunes he had heard on the radio just once. He was only 5 when he made his “debut” at Montreal’s Union United Church. He studied classical piano; for an eight-year period, his teacher was Daisy (Peterson) Sweeney, Oscar Peterson’s sister.

Jones came relatively late to jazz; he worked primarily in bands in Quebec, and toured extensively in the Caribbean and the United States, playing Top 40 songs. He began to sit in with jazz groups during this period, but not until the early 1980s did he devote himself to jazz on a permanent basis.

During the next 20 years, Jones toured the world but continued to live — and work — primarily in Canada. He taught at both Laurentian and McGill Universities during the 1980s and ’90s, and he has won numerous Juno, Felix and other Canadian awards. Although he “retired” in 2000, he remains active.

Jones’ trio for this Baden concert featured bassist Reggie Johnson and drummer Ed Thigpen. Johnson, born in the States in 1940, began his career in the ’60s; he was a Swiss resident at the time this concert took place (and still lives there). Thigpen was born in the States in 1930. He worked with Andy Kirk during the 1930s and ’40s, then with icons such as Lennie Tristano, Bud Powell, Billy Taylor, Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown. Thigpen also toured with Ella Fitzgerald for five years. He moved to Denmark in 1974 and lived there until his death in 2010. 

This album captured these artists at the peak of their careers. The menu includes American Songbook standards (“Fallin’ in Love with Love,” “Emily” and medley of Gershwin compositions), traditional gospel (“Just a Closer Walk with Thee”); jazz standards (“Up Jumped Spring,” “ ‘Round Midnight” and “Hymn to Freedom”); and three of Jones’ compositions. 

These guys really swing, particularly on Jones’ charts. “Blues for Helen” has a mid-tempo groove; “Something for Chuck” is a slow blues number; and “Snuggles” is a burner that is equal to the best up-tempo stuff Peterson ever did. 

You’ll find hours of pleasure in this release, thanks to these super-talented artists. Kudos to Justin Time Records, for unearthing this treasure.