Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Holiday Jazz 2013: Joy to the jingle

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.13

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

Bing Crosby,  Mariah Carey and the Carpenters have their place during the holiday season, but if you really want to impress your mistletoe-smooching friends, dig into the Christmas jazz.

Although jazz stars have recorded seasonal classics going back to the swing era of Glenn Miller and Lionel Hampton, the pickings remained quite small up through the early 1960s, despite marvelous albums such as Ella Fitzgerald’s Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960), Kenny Burrell’s Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas (1966) and Duke Pearson’s Merry Ole Soul (1969).

By the early ’80s, however, compilation releases such as Mistletoe Magic and the three-album GRP Christmas series demonstrated the viability of “Christmas jazz” as its own sub-genre ... not to mention Vince Guaraldi’s steadily selling soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, which received additional publicity each December, when that Peanuts special repeated on TV.

Within the next decade, everybody from Dave Brubeck to Wynton Marsalis got into the act, and we’ve enjoyed the up-tempo results ever since.

I began covering holiday jazz in 1997, when the avalanche of new releases made it necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. I continue to be delighted by the wealth of albums, whether from established stars or newcomers doing their best to be noticed via Internet outlets such as CD Baby and iTunes. As always is true in the music world, fame is no guarantor of quality; a couple of this year’s best albums come from folks you’ve never heard of.

A handful of selections from the following list can’t help making you the hit of your own holiday party. As the lyrics insist, you gotta dig that crazy Santa Claus!


Nnenna Freelon gallops out of the gate, with a swinging assist from the John Brown Big Band, on Christmas (Brown Boulevard Records), the best blend of chanteuse and full-blown jazz orchestra we’ve heard since Diana Krall teamed with the Clayton-Hamilton ensemble back in 2005.

Freelon is a belter, often going for the back row in the second balcony; she clearly could deliver a smashing rendition of the National Anthem. She and the band get off to a great start with a lively (and appropriately re-titled) arrangement of “Swingle Jingle Bells,” which displays the obvious joy she gets from performing this material.

When she modifies the lyrics to proclaim “Oh what fun it is, to jam in a one-horse open sleigh,” she’s definitely talking about this entire album.

Brown’s ensemble is a truly big band; he leads on bass and is joined by five saxes, five trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, drums and percussion. The arrangements leave plenty of space for the band to roar, as they do during a march-oriented handling (Adonis Rose on drums) of “Little Drummer Boy” and a swinging medley of spirituals that climaxes with a heartfelt “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Christmas leftovers

By Derrick Bang

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

Holiday jazz has become a full-time pursuit, in part because the Web has allowed it to flourish. Back in the day, brick-and-mortar stores wouldn’t display their seasonal music until mid-November, and then everything would get boxed up right after the New Year. But the Internet knows no season, which is both a blessing and a curse: the latter only in the sense that my friends roll their eyes when they hear Christmas music in May. Or August.

For the most part, my annual survey of holiday jazz focuses on new or new-ish releases. That makes it difficult to discuss older albums that come to my attention late: In a column otherwise devoted to current, easy-to-obtain titles, it’s not necessarily fair to extol the virtues of an obscure disc which, being a decade old, may not be readily available any longer.

All this by way of explaining (justifying?) this bonus column’s “catch-up” theme. Most of the albums discussed here will require some dedicated searching, either because they didn’t sell well; or were released in small numbers; or released only in a specific region (or outlet); or have international origins. But as I learned years ago, obscurity isn’t necessarily an indication of quality; if the Web’s involvement in the changing music scene has taught us anything, it’s the need not to judge a disc by its cover. I’ve been burned by plenty of ubiquitous mainstream releases, and delighted by an equal number of seemingly “sketchy” albums that prove to contain plenty of great music.

Fair warning, then: If my enthusiasm prompts a flicker of interest in any of the following titles, be prepared to indulge in the thrill of the hunt. After all, the best things in life are worth struggling for, right?



Once upon a time, during happier economic days, Nordstrom stores often featured live music by local pianists who’d set up at the base of the escalators: an impressive “touch of class” that, sadly, was axed by cost-cutting bean-counters. For awhile, though, it was great exposure for up-and-coming musicians, and the store also released a few seasonal CDs on an in-house label.

I somehow missed Dehner Franks’ Holiday Lights (AEI Music Network), a 1999 release that deserved far better exposure than it received; it’s a lovely, lyrical and frequently lively collection of holiday standards, delivered in a blend of solo piano and small combo formats.

I love Franks’ up-tempo arrangements, best showcased on tracks such as the opener, “Sleigh Ride,” and a rock-inflected handling of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” He cleverly syncopates “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which also offers a cool bass line, and his samba-hued cover of “Feliz Navidad” is a lot of fun.

He’s well supported by bassist Douglas Barnett and drummer Steve Korn; guest guitarist Dan Heck also brings considerable sparkle to a bluesy arrangement of “This Christmas.”

A few percussive elements are overworked, such as the intrusive cymbal pops in the aforementioned “Sleigh Ride” — not sure whether to blame Korn or percussionist Larry Barilleau for those — but for the most part, this is a tasty collection of music.

Franks’ solo offerings include a slow, sweet reading of “The Christmas Song,” an unusually gentle handling of “Silver Bells,” a sentimental cover of “What a Wonderful World” and a meditative interpretation of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which closes the album. He also includes a charming original: “Holiday Lights,” highlighted by soulful keyboard work and a pleasant trio arrangement that includes a finger-snapping bridge.

Franks doesn’t include this album on his website discography, and that’s a shame; it begs to be played every holiday season.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Chip Stephens Trio: Relevancy

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Relevancy

Every time I turn around, a swinging new trio has entered the jazz stage (and I wouldn’t have it any other way!). One of the newest is this pleasant combo led by pianist, composer and arranger Chip Stephens. He’s well known in the jazz world, having played with iconic groups associated with Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Benny Golson, Curtis Fuller and many others.

All told, Stephens has recorded as a sideman on more than 70 albums. As it happens, I reviewed him on Fuller’s 2010 release, I Will Tell Her; I was impressed then, and even more so here, with Stephens fronting his own trio.

Like many of today’s jazz musicians, Stephens also is a teacher — currently at the University of Illinois — with more than 15 years’ experience at the college level. He maintains a full schedule of performance and teaching.

Bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer Joel Spencer provide Stephens with excellent support on this release, which includes three of his own compositions: “Somewhere Before the End,” “A Day in May” and “Chip’s Blues.” The trio also puts its stamp on “34 Skidoo,” one of Bill Evans’ charts; Rogers and Hart’s  seldom-heard “This Funny World”; and Sammy Cahn and Nicholas Brodzsky’s “Be My Love,” which Mario Lanza made famous

Just in passing, I never expected the latter to be done in a jazz mode.  

All the tracks are delightful, done with harmonic variations and chord changes that give them new lives. My favorite is “Chip’s Blues,” a catchy, groovin’ 12-bar piece that is impossible to hear without swingin’ in time to the melody.

Stephens is one hell of a pianist, and this unit is a “must listen to” group!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Michael Treni Big Band: Pop Culture Blues

Bell Production Company
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Pop Culture Blues

If it weren’t for the blues, jazz would be a lot less interesting; jazz artists love that genre, and so do most fans. That being said, you should genuinely enjoy this album: 10 tracks of blues you’ve never heard before, performed by a truly big (20 musicians), swinging band.

Leader Michael Treni is one of the four (!) trombonists, and is the composer and arranger for the “Pop Culture Blues Suite” that is featured in the album. Although Treni played with other bands during his early years, he’s far better known today as a composer, arranger, teacher and — for awhile — businessman and inventor of audio systems. Wherever he teaches, he creates combos and ensembles using students, faculty or friends; the big band featured here is one such unit. 

The blues come in various formats; the compositions on this disc involve the 12-bar version, with variations. Several of these tunes are stylized, in recognition of famous name artists. “One for Duke,” for example, is a 12-bar atonal. (Try to figure out the “keys” that are used; they were Ellington favorites. “BQE Blues,” inspired by Count Basie’s bands, uses a 16-bar format (the basic 12 bars, with a 4-bar “extension.” 

More than 12 Blues”  — inspired by Gerry Mulligan and the “cool school” — uses multiple 12-bar segments with an 8-bar “bridge” as separation; “Minor Blues,” related to Charles Mingus, is done in a minor key, with dominant substitutions and chord extensions. 

The rest of the suite movements evolve in a similar manner: “Blues in Triplicate” is done in ¾ time; a 14-bar form is used in “Summer Blues”;Smokin’ Blues” uses a 16-bar format, and so on. The album liner notes contain a more detailed description for each composition, granting an educational background for listeners who like what they hear, and also would like to understand it better.

So ... you’ll not only enjoy the music here, you’ll end up a lot smarter!

Pete McGuinness: Voice Like a Horn

Summit Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Voice Like a Horn

Before discussing this album, a brief confession: 

I’ve always made a point of discussing music that’ll be worth your time: albums that rank as good, better and best. Anything of lesser quality is set aside. My first pass at any given CD usually involves relatively short “scans” of each track (hence this blog’s name!). Albums that make the cut then are analyzed (and enjoyed) at length, as the review is composed and written.

Didn’t happen that way this time. I was hooked during the first 16 bars of the first track, listened to the entire album without skipping anything ... and then listened to it again. Almost forgot that I was supposed to be contemplating a review.

Yep, it’s that good.

The basic format is a quartet. McGuinness plays trombone and handles vocals, and is joined by Ted Kooshian on piano, Andy Eulau on bass, and Scott Neumann on drums. Jon Gordon (alto sax and flute) and Bill Mobley (trumpet) guest on a few tracks. Six of the eight selections are from the Great American Songbook, including “Yesterdays” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” The remaining two tunes are jazz traditionals: Dizzy Gillespie’s “Birks Works” and “49th Street” (a head arrangement based on the chord structure of “Lover”). McGuinness handled all of the arrangements, except for “49th Street.”

The performances and arrangements are excellent, and everything swings like crazy. McGuinness, however, is the unique element. He not only plays great jazz trombone; he’s an exceptional male jazz vocalist ... the best to have come along in years. We’ve all enjoyed many who can really rock — guys like Joe Williams, Jimmy Rushing, Mark Murphy, Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme — but only a few have been masters of scat singing. Torme was one; Bobby McFerrin and Darmon Meader are others. 

McGuinness belongs in their company; his voice truly mimics an instrument. He brings flavor and originality to the lyrics, then takes off with innovative scat choruses that essentially add another “horn” to the combo.

The ensemble and solo work on every track is exceptional; you won’t be able to keep your fingers and feet from moving. This is an exciting, grooving experience. Let’s hope for more recording sessions — and some concert tours! — from these guys.

Kikoski, Carpenter, Novak and Sheppard: From the Hip

BFM Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: From the Hip

This quartet features artists who aren’t household names to the general public, but are quite well known in the jazz world. 

All have played in numerous name groups during their careers, and all have quite lengthy discographies. Pianist David Kikoski, a Berklee College of Music grad, was a member of the Woody Herman Alumni Band, and Charles Mingus’ Big Band and Orchestra; he also worked with Chick Corea, both Brecker brothers and numerous other familiar artists. Bassist Dave Carpenter spent time with Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson and many others. Saxophonist Bob Sheppard has shared a stage with Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder; drummer Gary Novak’s sessions have been headed by the likes of Corea, George Benson and Lee Rittenour.

As would be expected from four musicians with such varied experience, the result is primo jazz. This album was recorded in front of a relatively small studio audience in 2006. (The lengthy period from studio to public release isn’t uncommon.) There was no rehearsal, merely the desire to create something that each artist “felt like doing at the moment.” Five of these nine tracks are beloved standards: “Star Eyes,” “My One and Only Love,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “If You Could See Me Now” and “Autumn Leaves.” The others hail from less familiar jazz charts: Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.,” Corea’s “Tones for Joan’s Bones,” Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia” and Toninho Horta’s “From Ton to Tom.”

The performances utilize meters ranging from ballad to mid- and up-tempos; the common thread is that everything swings nicely, and the rhythm section is particularly tight.

It should be noted that, shortly after this session, Carpenter suffered a fatal heart attack. He’ll be missed. 

As often is the case with artists of this caliber, even though the music is familiar, their interpretation of each song makes everything new again. As I’ve noted previously, I’d love to have a group like this close enough to home, in order to enjoy them regularly ... and in person.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Eddie Daniels and Roger Kellaway: Duke at the Roadhouse

IPO Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Duke at the Roadhouse

The jazz world offers musicians, great musicians and master musicians. This album features two of the latter: Eddie Daniels, who plays clarinet, tenor and alto sax, flute and piccolo; and Roger Kellaway, who plays piano, composes and arranges. They collectively have more than a century of experience, and are fluent in both the jazz and classical genres. 

They’re peers; Daniels was born in 1941, and Kellaway in 1939. Daniels’ first instrument was the alto sax, but he switched to tenor, then added the clarinet by the time he entered college. Since the early 1980s, clarinet has been his primary instrument. Kellaway has concentrated on the piano, but he also describes himself as a cello addict. In classical circles, he’s probably best known for his 1970s cello quartet recordings.

It’s difficult to find jazz-related individuals, or organizations, that Daniels and Kellaway haven’t worked with, and almost as hard to find classical ensembles that didn’t feature them. Both have won numerous awards.

This album isn’t their first collaboration; I reviewed — and loved — Duet of One several years ago. This time out, Daniels and Kellaway are honoring Duke Ellington’s music. The menu therefore includes seven of Duke’s compositions (“In a Sentimental Mood,” “Sophisticated Lady” and others), along with one that Duke didn’t write, but always has been associated with him: Juan Tizol’s “Perdido.” The disc is rounded out by two originals: Daniels’ “Duke at the Roadhouse” and Kellaway’s “Duke in Ojai.” 

For the most part, these tracks are presented as duets: Kellaway on piano, Daniels on clarinet or tenor sax. A cello is added a few times; be advised that Kellaway wrote every note for that instrument, including the solo passages.

This is a must-have album, particularly for Ellington fans. It’s the jazz equivalent of watching da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Dick Reynolds: Music & Friends

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Music & Friends

I’ve not heard a real “dance band” for quite some time. This organization, headed by pianist Dick Reynolds, falls very nicely into that category. 

In the 1960s, Reynolds was the house pianist at Mr. Kelly’s Jazz Club, in Chicago; in that capacity, he worked with the likes of Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McCrea and many others. Reynolds subsequently started his own commercial endeavor (Com Track) in Chicago, where he wrote, filmed and recorded advertising jingles for International companies such as United Airlines and McDonalds. He’d knock out ads by day, then play music at night.

His other longtime love is fishing: a pastime that relaxed and soothed the mind, and brought him recognition as “The Fishin’ Musician.” That said, this album illustrates that music remains front and center.

The roughly two dozen “Friends” who participated here are, to quote Reynolds, “mostly guys I worked with.” The format is big band, although not everyone plays on all 13 tracks. The rhythm section consists of piano, bass, drums and guitar; the basic brass section draws from half a dozen trumpets/flugelhorns and five trombonists; the reeds number another half-dozen; and a harmonica and additional percussionists are thrown in for good measure. 

The liner notes don’t detail the cadre members for each tune, but I’m guessing that the basic unit averages a dozen to 15 artists.

Whatever the size, the performance is smooth, mellow and — most important — danceable. Interestingly, no standards are performed; each track is an original, and several are tributes to other musicians. The album presentation evokes echoes old LPs, in that most of the tracks run three to six minutes. It definitely takes us back to the big band years.

This is a neat release, and certain to be enjoyed by listeners who lived through that period.

The Miami Saxophone Quartet: Four of a Kind

Fourtitude Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Four of a Kind

Instrumental “choirs” have been around for hundreds of years in the classical genre, whether featuring string, woodwind, brass or mixed instruments. Jazz groupings, on the other hand, are much less common. I strongly believe that the swinging saxophone sections that were part of Woody Herman’s Herds did much to extend the choir concept to the jazz world. 

The year was 1947; tenor sax artist Jimmy Giuffre, who was playing with Buddy Rich at the time, wrote an arrangement for Herman and the marvelous reed section that worked with him at the time. Rather than employ the format common at the time — two altos, two tenors and a baritone — Herman used three tenors and a baritone. Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward were on tenor; Serge Chaloff played baritone. All four artists used the smooth style of Lester Young, who played with Count Basie; Giuffre’s arrangement took that into account and his song title — “Four Brothers” — acknowledged the section’s wonderful sound. 

The Miami Saxophone Quartet is a reed ‘choir’ that reminds me of the Four Brothers format and sound. The core members of the group are Gary Keller, who founded the unit and plays soprano here; Gary Lindsay, on alto; Ed Calle, on tenor; and Mike Brignola, on baritone. They’re supported by pianist Jim Gasior, bassist Chuck Bergeron and drummer John Yarling. Guest appearances are made by Brian Lynch (trumpet) and Svet Stoyanov (vibes and marimba). 

Each musician is a master artist, boasting years of experience with name artists and groups. Keller and Brignola paid their dues as members of Woody Herman bands; Keller and Lindsay have toured with stars such as Frank Sinatra; and all are (and have been) members of classical organizations. They also teach ... and on, and on. 

Lindsay arranged all the tunes on this release, with support from Calle on the opener, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Three wonderful jazz standards are included: Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” Ralph Burns’ “Early Autumn” and Dave Brubeck’s “It’s a Raggy Waltz.” The rest are Gary Lindsay originals.

This is a marvelous album. The ensemble passages are complex at times, but always smooth as silk; the solo work is brilliant. You’ll rarely hear a combo that swings this much, or is as pleasant on the ears. This is the Miami Sax Quartet’s fifth CD; if you’re as impressed as I am, you’ll soon track down their previous releases.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chris Amemiya: In the Rain Shadow

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: In the Rain Shadow

There’s a Chris Amemiya who plays trombone, has performed with combos and big bands in Hawaii (his birth place), Boston and Seattle, and has formed the swinging sextet featured on this release. 

There’s also a Chris Amemiya who completed his college undergraduate degree at Purdue University, obtained a PhD in genetics at Texas A&M, received an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship in molecular studies, completed postdoctoral studies in comparative immunology at the Tampa Bay Research Institute, and another postdoctoral fellowship working on the Human Genome Project at the Livermore National Laboratory ... not to mention several other teaching projects. Oh yes, and is a full professor in the biology department at the University of Washington. 

Believe it or not, they’re one and the same guy.

I’m concerned here with his musical alter ego, of course, as a Doctor of Jazz. Amamiya’s first instrument during high school was the euphonium, but by the time he hit college he had switched to trombone. Although his career in science took top priority, he never stopped playing and was hooked on jazz early on. He performed with jazz, blues, salsa and R&B groups, recorded jingles, and ultimately formed his Jazz Coalescence sextet in 2006; that’s the straight-ahead unit featured on this album.

The members include Jay Thomas, a multi-instrumentalist who plays trumpet and flugelhorn on this release, but also is fluent on the reed instruments and flute; Travis Ranney, on alto and tenor sax; John Hansen, on piano; Jon Hamar, on bass; and Steve Korn, on drums. Amemiya handles the trombone chores. 

All these players are key elements in the Seattle/Pacific Northwest jazz scene: first-class musicians who have played with many bands as sidemen and/or leaders. In this unit, their melding is particularly noteworthy. 

One of the primary goals for this sextet was to be a group that not only worked well together (“coalesced”), but featured artists who could produce great solos. To that end, the average running time for the tunes exceeds 10 minutes, which provides space for clever ensemble work and solos by all six musicians. Eight composers are represented; in several cases, arrangements are by members of the group. 

My favorite track is Eubie Blake’s 1930s hit, “Memories of You,” which is given a complete overhaul and a grooving meter. Sammy Fain’s “Secret Love” is another seldom-heard melody that glistens anew.  

In fact, everything on the menu is a winner. 

Michael Dease: Coming Home

D Clef Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Coming Home

I’ve been a jazz fan all of my life, and I’m turned on by most of its sub-genres and the potpourri of instruments involved. That said, I’ve always been partial to the slide trombone. That love began when I first heard the Woody Herman Herd, with Bill Harris starring in the trombone section; his brilliant, driving style was a key part of those bands, and he led the way for artists such as J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Bob Brookmeyer, John Fedchock, Curtis Fuller, Wycliffe Gordon and a host of others. 

The newest to join that august group, Michael Dease, is the star of this album. This relatively young (early 30s) musician is a master of the instrument. His tone is superb, his solo passages are tremendously innovative, and he swings like crazy. Combine that with his prowess as a composer and arranger, and we have the next big jazz artist.

The Georgia native began his musical career playing sax, but he switched to trombone before graduating from high school. He received both bachelor and master of music degrees from Juilliard and, while there, earned numerous awards. His first breakthrough was with Illinois Jacquet’s big band in 2002, and Dease currently performs with numerous other groups headed by Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, Jimmy Heath and Charles Tolliver. Dease also is a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s All Stars, and he plays with many smaller groups, including those under his own name. This release features one of his quintets.

The membership includes bassist Christian McBride, pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., alto saxophonist Steve Wilson and, of course, Dease on trombone. In addition, Eric Alexander (tenor), Tony Lustig (tenor and baritone) and Andrew Swift (percussion) guest on several  of this album’s 11 tracks. Five are Dease originals; one is written by Rosnes, and another by McBride. The rest are jazz standards from Oscar Peterson, Freddie Hubbard and Duke Ellington, along with and Jules Stein’s great “Just in Time.” There’s something from — and for — everyone.

That said, my favorites include takes on “Just in Time” and Peterson’s “Blues Etude.” The latter is a tricky melodic line involving trombone, piano and bass in unison, and trading solo lines that groove wonderfully; the former is done at a blistering tempo that demonstrates Dease’s facility with the slide at an almost unbelievable speed, along with McBride’s second-to-none bass pyrotechnics. 

You absolutely shouldn’t miss this album.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

David Arnay: 8

N Studio Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: 8

Pianist/composer David Arnay is another of the many artists likely unknown beyond the borders of New York, where he spent his early years; or the Los Angeles area, where he now resides and works. Like many of today’s musicians, he teaches and embraces other jobs in order to compose and perform. 8, his third album as a leader, demonstrates that he is both talented and promising.

This disc’s format is unique: The tracks develop and “grow” as they proceed. The opening tune — one of only two that aren’t original compositions — is a swinging solo piano rendition of the Duke Ellington/Juan Tizol classic “Caravan.” Then, as each subsequent track follows, another instrumentalist is added until an octet is created. 

Thus, the addition of bassist Edwin Livingston results in a scintillating duo performance of “11/12/11,” and then drummer Peter Erskine turns the duo into a trio for “Billville,” Arnay’s tribute to Bill Evans. Tenor sax artist Doug Webb creates a quartet that burns its way through “Step Four,” a post-bop swinger. A quintet is formed with the arrival of percussionist Munyungo Jackson, and Webb switches from tenor to bass clarinet for “Old Man Says.” The sextet introduces Paco Loco on guitar, for John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” which — as a striking change — is done as a ballad. (Webb switches to soprano sax for this track.)

Trumpeter Dan Fornero and trombonist Vikram Devasthali replace the guitar to create the septet that performs “Six of One” and, finally, Loco returns on guitar — and Webb picks up his baritone sax — for an octet handling of “Dream Groove.”

No matter the combo  size, the performances are smooth, swinging and unique. If there’s any justice in the music world, Arnay and his associates will receive many more opportunities to entertain us, while — I’ve no doubt — having a lot more fun in the process.

Geof Bradfield: Melba!

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Melba!

Unless you’re a senior jazz fan, or you “cheated” and checked Geof Bradfield’s website, you probably don’t have any idea who “Melba” is, or was ... which is a shame. 

Melba Liston was born in 1926, loved jazz, became enamored with the trombone (“chose it because it’s such a pretty horn”) and became a professional musician at age 16. She didn’t merely play; she became one of the finest copyists and arrangers during the Big Band years, and worked with some of that era’s finest jazz musicians and bands. The names Gerald Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and Randy Weston — among many, many others — should ring the necessary bells. Liston arranged for, or played with, all of them during her career. 

Bear in mind that female musicians, particularly when on the road, were almost unknown during that time period.

Tenor sax artist and composer Geof Bradfield is well aware of Liston’s contribution to jazz, and he created this tribute album to honor her memory. He acknowledges a debt to Randy Weston, who Liston and her music to her attention. Her early career was oriented toward the bebop and post-bop genres, but many consider her finest work to have resulted from her long-term association with Weston, and the arrangements she produced during that period. Bradfield’s interaction with Weston led him to dig in to Liston’s scores and work in great detail; this disc is the result.

The album more or less follows the timeline of Melba’s career. Seven “movements” begin with “Kansas City Child,” which dates back to her early years. “Central Avenue” follows, covering 1940s Los Angeles, when she was working with Gerald Wilson and making arrangements for luminaries such as Mary Lou Williams. 

“Dizzy Gillespie” moves into the 1950s, when the Latin influence emerged and the U.S. State Department became involved, using jazz for political purposes on a world-wide basis. Bradfield uses trumpeter Victor Garcia and drummer George Fludas to project the Brazilian influence that became predominant during this period. “Randy Weston” covers an interval of 40 years, and related movements — “Solo Sax,” “Detroit/Kingston” and “Homecoming” — are the album’s most lyrical treats.

The program concludes with Liston’s inner prayer: “Let Me Not Lose My Dream.”

She was quite a lady, and this is quite an album.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

George Shearing at Home

JazzKnight Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: George Shearing at Home

You know how it is; you’re cleaning out the attic, or a closet in a seldom used room, and you find something that has been overlooked for years, and it’s a treasure. That’s what happened to bassist Don Thompson, shortly after pianist George Shearing died in 2011. Thompson found tapes, in a drawer, that he and Shearing had recorded back in 1983, while working a six-week job at a New York jazz club. The two artists often spent afternoons in Shearing’s apartment, “playing just for fun.” One day they rented microphones and pre-amps and, using a four track reel-to-reel recorder that Shearing had, laid down a few tracks: no studio, no audience and no contract pressure to contend with.

This album contains the results of that session.

Shearing was one of the true jazz giants. Born blind in 1919, in England, he began to play the piano at age 3. He worked in pubs, playing both piano and accordion, and became well known in England via numerous appearances on BBC Radio. He met and recording with Leonard Feather while still in his 20s, then emigrated to the United States in 1947, where he gained immediate fame.

His style was unique, often described as “Shearing’s voicing.” He utilized a “locked hands” approach, often credited to pianist Milt Buckner. Shearing was one of the early artists to combine jazz with classical melodic lines. And my, he was prolific; he’s credited with more than 300 compositions, and he released well over 100 albums during his career. He still was working in his 90s, and his awards are legion: he was knighted in 2007. 

As he put it, “The poor blind kid from Battersea became Sir George Shearing.  Now that’s a fairy tale come true.”

This album contains 14 songs: four solos, and the rest duos with Thompson. Most are standards, including “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “Can’t We Be Friends” and “I Cover The Waterfront.” Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” and Lee Konitz’s “SubconciousLee” will be familiar to jazz fans, and the program is rounded out with Thompson’s “Ghoti” and a traditional Scottish song, “The Skye Boat.” 

I’ve never heard Shearing more lyrical, more relaxed, or better. No question, as well, that Thompson was part of bringing out the pianist’s best. This album is a true treasure!