Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bill Cantrall and Axiom: Live at the Kitano

Upswing Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Live at the Kitano

It’s been awhile since a swinging trombonist has made a name for himself in the world of jazz, so let me introduce Bill Cantrall. 

Okay, he isn’t brand new, having served apprenticeships with the likes of Gil Evans, James Moody, Paquito D’Rivera and a number of other name artists since 2006, but Cantrall has released only two albums: 2007’s Axiom and this one, so it’s probably safe to say that he’s not well-known outside of the greater New York City area. 

Cantrall was born and raised in and around the Big Apple, but earned his initial college degree — music and electrical engineering — at Northwestern University. After working with musical groups in the Chicago area, he returned to Queens College to study for his master’s degree in trombone, composition and arranging. He formed Axiom in ’07; the unit varies from a trio to septet, depending on the size of the performance venues. For Live at the Kitano, the basic group is a quintet — trombone, sax, piano, bass and drums — although Cantrall added an alto sax and trumpet for the title track. 

As for style, we’re in the hard-bop genre. Cantrall composed all but one of these tracks; the exception is “After You,” a seldom-heard Cole Porter tune written for the 1932 stage play The Gay Divorce (later turned into the Astaire/Rogers big-screen musical The Gay Divorcee). 

This is a young band, age-wise, and none of these artists can be considered familiar, but that doesn’t mean they don’t swing. Many albums that have been recorded live don’t necessarily feel that way, but this production truly gives the listener the impression of being part of the audience. Introductions of the musicians are included, and the club’s ambiance is evident. The Kitano’s acoustics, together with the excellent recording and mixing work, make for a very enjoyable listening experience.

The set is “happy,” with only one tune, “Shaniece,” a ballad; the rest are mid- to up-tempo swingers. No time limitations were placed on the artists; each track runs at least 10 minutes, while “Axiom” lingers for almost 25 minutes. That allows each musician to really stretch out and develop the solo passages. That could be a disadvantage, in lesser hands, but not to worry: These guys truly are that good. 

The Duke Ellington Legacy: Single Petal of a Rose

Renma Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Single Petal of a Rose

Duke Ellington was the man in the1920s and ’30s. He grew in stature during the big band years, and still is considered to be the most important figure in the world of jazz. No surprise, then, that we’ve had (and still have) numerous tribute groups that use Duke’s compositions as the focal point for their music library. The Duke Ellington Legacy is one such unit.

This group, a nonet, boasts some special attributes. Ellington’s grandson, Edward Kennedy Ellington II, is the guitarist; Virginia Mayhew, whose specialty is developing tribute projects related to famous jazz icons, played a key roll in the creation of this band and is one of its two tenor sax artists; Houston Person, a living legend himself‚ is the other tenor player; and pianist Norman Simmons has accompanied jazz vocalists Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Joe Williams and Betty Carter. These artists are supported by vocalist Nancy Reed, trumpeter Jami Dauber, trombonist Noah Bless, bassist Tom DiCarlo and percussionists Paul Wells and Sheila Early, who split duties.

Most of the tunes here are Ellington or Billy Strayhorn compositions; the exceptions are “Home Grown,” by Simmons, and “After Hours,” by Erskine Hawkins. 

Although several of the other tracks are quite familiar — “In My Solitude,” In a Mellow Tone,” “Lush Life” and “Squeeze Me” — the lesser-known compositions highlight this release. “Happy Go Lucky Local” (which later became “Night Train”), “Johnny Come Lately,” “Blood Count,” “Love You Madly” and “Lotus Blossom” weren’t big hits with the general public, but their innovative musical quality is outstanding. And, as far as I’m concerned, “Single Petal of a Rose” remains one of the most gorgeous ballads ever written. The absence of lyrics may explain why it didn’t receive the attention it deserved.

Every member of this group obviously loves Ellington’s music; it shows in the stellar arrangements from Simmons and Mayhew, along with their interpretations of each melody. The result is Ellington “modernized‚” but his unique touch is retained. This is traditional jazz at its finest, with unforgettable melodic lines and solo work of the highest quality. 

As for vocalist Nancy Reed, Duke would have loved her.

I’ve never heard a better interpretation of Ellington’s music than that provided by this wonderful array of artists.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holiday Jazz 2012: Swing Ye Noel!

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.12

[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 17 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

It’s getting harder to find this stuff.

Time was, I’d start haunting the holiday section at music stores shortly before Thanksgiving; the better brick-and-mortar outlets would be laden, with some even giving holiday jazz its own sub-category. Berkeley’s marvelous Amoeba Music continues that practice to this day, and therefore remains an essential part of my annual December rituals.

Closer to home, alas, the options aren’t nearly as diverse. Or rewarding.

Which brings us to the ever-more-ubiquitous online alternative. Although Amazon’s search engines continue to improve, one still can’t get reliable results from the phrases “Christmas jazz,” “holiday jazz” or similar choices. CDBaby is a bit better, although I still wade through a lot of non-jazz while hunting for the good stuff. Sadly, EJazzlines.com, once a great source for hard-to-find holiday jazz, no longer sells CDs.

On the other hand, being able to hear samples — at both Amazon and CDBaby — is a treasure.

Take comfort, then, from the fact that I’ve done the legwork and returned with tidings of jazzy comfort and joy. Patience may have been required, but it turned out to be a good year. Nog those eggs, don a Santa hat and prepare to swing!


The season’s prize is a 2011 release that arrived too late for last year’s column: the Marcus Roberts Trio’s Celebrating Christmas (J-Master Records). This is what jazz is all about: a tightly arranged melodic dance between Roberts, on piano; Rodney Jordan, bass; and Jason Marsalis, drums.

I’m hard-pressed to cite a favorite track, although this group’s inventive approach to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is first among equals: The tune, often redundant as an instrumental, is delivered here in 12 different styles, and with each day represented by one of the 12 major keys. That’s simply brilliant.

The trio’s handling of “Little Drummer Boy” is equally clever, with Marsalis establishing a peppy march beat that Roberts initially refuses to follow, choosing instead to play “behind” the beat at a much slower tempo. Roberts gradually picks up speed as the song continues, until finally all three musicians are in synch.

Jordan’s walking bass is the highlight of a velvet-smooth “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and he also dominates a short but deliciously whimsical cover of “Frosty, the Snowman.” “Let It Snow” has a south-of-the-border ambiance, with some great keyboard wandering and another nice bass solo.

“Winter Wonderland” blends striking percussion with Roberts’ New Orleans grease; “Jingle Bells” has a similar bouncy, New Orleans-style strut, with some more fabulous bass and drums action. This cut features one of Roberts’ many signatures: He fails to complete the line as the song concludes, leaving us a few chords shy.

“Silent Night” is delivered at a slow 6/4, with an achingly sweet call-and-response between piano and bass; later in the song, Roberts delivers similar counterpoint between his left and right hands. Sheer genius.

Three tracks are solo piano: “We Three Kings,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World.” Each is slow, deliberate and lyrical: a bit extemporaneous, with a touch of ragtime on “Joy to the World.” Stylistically, these evoke memories of Roberts’ earlier Christmas release, 1991’s “Prayer for Peace,” a solo keyboard album that was far more solemn.

“Celebrating Christmas,” in great contrast, is lively, vibrant and fun: an album that demands close attention because it’s so creative and joyous.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ryan Truesdell: Centennial

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Centennial

This album brings back a lot of memories. Gil Evans was one of the finest composers/arrangers in the years leading up to, during and beyond the big band era; Claude Thornhill, with whom Evans worked for many years, led one of finest of those bands.

producer Ryan Truesdell has spent much of his life studying and researching notable jazz artists such as Evans; Centennial is his most recent project.

I lived through the decades when Evans and Thornhill reigned supreme, so this album has a special meaning to me. But it’s even more special, because the Evans tunes here never were published or recorded previously: Everything old is new again. The detailed liner notes discuss the songs superbly, so I won’t be repetitious; suffice it say that Truesdell has uncovered a musical treasure trove, and also has assembled an orchestra that does full justice to this discovery.

Since Evans wrote most of the “book” for Thornhill’s band, some background is warranted. Thornhill’s ensemble was different than the other bands of that era. As one of his ex-musicians put it, “he wasn’t a swing band, he had an orchestra.” Thornhill’s instrumentation included French horns, tuba and a clarinet “choir,” and he wanted his musicians to play “without vibrato.” The result was a smooth, at times “pretty” tonal quality. 

Evans was partly responsible for that; he specified such instrumentation additions. But swing entered the scene in later versions of the orchestra, which utilized bebop disciples such as Red Rodney, Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan.

Another factoid: Evans was a huge fan of Miles Davis. It’s not widely known, but Evans did the arrangements for four of Davis’ best known albums: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights. That alliance is evident in everything Evans wrote.

Centennial’s discoveries include 10 gems that represent Evans’ best, and clearly demonstrate that he was in a class of his own.

As for Truesdell’s orchestra, it’s huge and magnificent. The woodwind section consists of 13 artists, including oboes, bassoons, flutes, clarinets, English horns and piccolos; the brass section numbers 10 and includes trumpets, trombones, French horns and a tuba; the nine-man rhythm section features piano, bass, drums, two guitars, timpani, vibraphone, tenor violin and tabla. Finally, three vocalists split duties on the tracks with lyrics.

This is a stupendous album that deserves a “best of the year” award. When you listen, you’re in the company of geniuses.

The Virginia Mayhew Quartet: Mary Lou Williams — The Next 100 Years

Renma Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Mary Lou Williams — The Next 100 Years

Unless you’re a bona fide senior citizen or jazz historian, you may not be familiar with Mary Lou Williams, and that’s a shame. She was born in 1910 and died in ’81, so many potential fans never had an opportunity to hear her in person. Further, during the period that encompassed the 1960s until her death, the genre emphasis was on the big bands and bop and, but Williams preferred to play straight-ahead jazz with combos. 

As a result, her recording endeavors were limited; so is her discography.

All that said, the important indication of her quality comes from the impact she had with jazz icons. She was playing with Duke Ellington when she was just 15; at 19, she was asked to join Andy Kirk’s famous Clouds of Joy band; she later rejoined Ellington’s Orchestra and then had a gig at the famous CafĂ© Society. Throughout this period, she was writing arrangements for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, and was mentoring the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron and Hank Jones. They knew how great she was!

Williams’ career flourished through the 1970s, and she performed at numerous concerts and festivals. She was a guess artist at the White House and participated at Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall Concert, both in 1978.

Saxophonist/composer/arranger and historian Virginia Mayhew is a huge Williams fan. Mayhew has been active in the New York City jazz scene since 1987, and has worked with many renowned artists, including some who were part of Williams’ tenure. This tribute album, one of Mayhew’s projects, concentrates on Williams’ prowess as a composer; during her career, she produced more than 100 compositions, and well over that number of arrangements for name bands.  Ten of her best are featured here.

You’ll immediately notice how “modern” everything sounds, which is further proof of how far ahead of her time Williams was. Nothing sound dated. Admittedly, Mayhew’s re-arrangement skill has much to do with this. Additionally, the excellent artists involved also deserve credit: Guitarist Ed Cherry, bassist Harvie S, drummer Andy Watson and guest trombonist Wycliffe Gordon joined Mayhew, who plays a lotta tenor sax. 

The result: a joyful, swinging group that plays the heck out of just a few of Williams’ charts. She would have loved it!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Holiday Jazz: How it all began

By Derrick Bang

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — began writing about the annual holiday jazz scene in 1997. His interest in the sub-genre began many years earlier, however, as the following essay explains. Quick links to these annual columns — archived within this blog — can be obtained by clicking on CHRISTMAS in the list of labels at the bottom of this post.]

It started reasonably enough.

Back in the Stone Age of the 1970s, years before our local National Public Radio outlet (KXPR) begat a sister station (KXJZ), the former catered primarily to local classical music enthusiasts. Jazz fans were restricted to the late evening hours, when most sensible people would be getting ready for bed. (I could argue that jazz fans rarely are sensible people, but that’s another discussion.)

Aside from the occasional one or two tunes that might pop up in the middle of otherwise conventional sets, jazz covers of familiar Christmas songs were restricted to a two-hour, 10 p.m. to midnight timeslot on Christmas Eve, appropriately dubbed Jingle Bell Jazz.

I lived for those two hours.

Although I grew up enjoying the holidays, and particularly its melodies, there was something faintly ... well ... corny about most Christmas music being played in the ’70s. It was the stuff of Muzak and easy-listening schlock, with gag-me choruses and more damn strings than you’d find in most symphony orchestras. Much like some aspects of the holiday itself, most Christmas music had become gaudy, overly commercialized, lowest-common-denominator pap.

Christmas jazz, though ... now that had an edge: some genuine bite and enough musicality that you’d stop and really listen to the stuff, instead of tuning it out the way you’d desperately ignore the junk you heard in department store elevators.

No seasonal trauma is too great that it can’t be alleviated by a warm fire, a warmer companion and a soulful interpretation of “Silent Night” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by the likes of Oscar Peterson or Dave Brubeck.

And for an all-too-short 120 minutes every Dec. 24th, host Gary Vercelli played a tasty and delectable selection of hip holiday tunes, drawing from a woefully limited supply. Options were few back then: CDs weren’t even a dream on the horizon, let alone iTunes and other Internet downloading sources. LPs still ruled the roost, and many of those had gone out of print. That’s what made radio both good and bad: Avid listeners often heard things they didn’t own, but at the same time might have little chance of purchasing, short of a lucky find in a used-record store.