Thursday, February 28, 2013

Jessica Williams: Songs of Earth

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Songs of Earth

Pianist/composer Jessica Williams is an elite musicians who is so well known that she needs little introductory or background verbiage to inflate reviews of her albums. Like many pianists, she began her studies with the classics and switched to jazz during her teens. Unlike most beginners, however — who start out playing with unknowns — Williams was associated with icons from the get-go; her first group was headed by Miles Davis drummer Philly Joe Jones. Further jobs were with Eddie Harris, Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz. 

Williams is prolific; during a career of more than four decades, she has been featured on at least one album per year. 

Her style has matured during this period; she has moved from bop-oriented traditional jazz to a more serious, concert hall genre. Most of what she plays today is in a solo setting, rather than with combos. She also composes extensively, and she now concentrates on her own work rather than that of other composers. Six of this album's seven tracks are her originals; the sole exception is John Coltrane’s "To Be."  

These compositions aren't scripted on a note-by-note basis, nor are they played as pre-rehearsed melodic lines; they're improvisations of melodies or themes that have “come to her.” They're based on events or individuals — not always human; one is inspired by her Boston Terrier — that are, or have been, important in her life.

Whatever the catalyst, this is music to sit back and enjoy: whether at a concert or, in this case, in your own music room. This album is gorgeous and, as Williams hopes, it will bring you joy. 

Joe La Barbera Quintet: Silver Streams

Jazz Compass
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Silver Streams

During the years I’ve reviewed jazz releases, I’ve noticed that certain individuals often contribute to the albums I enjoy the most. Such players generally appear individually, as one of the sidemen in a group fronted by different leaders, but sometimes they'll perform together. Such is the case in this album: The “leader” is drummer Joe La Barbara, supported by bassist Tom Warrington, pianist Bill Cunliffe, trumpeter Clay Jenkins and reed master Bob Sheppard.

These artists have much in common: All obtained college degrees from schools famous for the jazz artists they have graduated; all are teachers who play jazz as a sideline; all compose and arrange; and all have extensive experience with famous "name" combos and orchestras (many were with these groups at the same time).

Jenkins has appeared with Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Harry James and Count Basie; Sheppard with Rich, Bob Florence and Chick Corea; Cunliffe with numerous artists, and with several of his own orchestras; Warrington with Rich, Florence, Peggy Lee and Freddie Hubbard; and La Barbara with Rich, Bill Evans and many, many others.

On top of which, these five musicians are all close friends, and they play together brilliantly. 

Two of the eight tracks were contributed by Cunliffe ("Afluencia" and "Silver Streams") and one  by La Barbara ("Monkey Tree"). The late Scott LaFaro, who played bass with Bill Evans for years, contributed "Jade Visions." The rest are standards by other jazz composers, and the common denominator is swing: They all groove wonderfully.

This is what results when a handful of great artists — who enjoy each other — get together: truly great jazz!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Steve Williams and Jazz Nation

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Steve Williams and Jazz Nation

Composer, arranger and saxophonist Steve Williams is another of the many individuals who is famous within the music world, but relatively unknown outside it. He’s a graduate of the University of North Texas — formally North Texas State University, an institution that has produced a number of great jazz musicians — and Florida State University; during his 35 years as a freelance musician, he has worked with, and done arrangement for, numerous name artists and orchestras. 

Because it’s no longer economically feasible to operate with a true “big band” these days, he formed Jazz Nation in 2010, comprising musicians in the Washington, D.C., area, as a vehicle for his original compositions and arrangements. This is that group’s debut release. 

Close your eyes, and you’ll be carried back to the days of Ellington, Herman and Kenton, followed by more recent orchestras led by Blakey, Cunliffe, Florence, Gillespie, Hawk-Richard, Jones and others. The ensemble features five reeds, eight brass, four rhythm players (including a guitar) and guest artist Eddie Daniels, on clarinet and tenor sax.

The album kicks off with “Certified,” and the opening two choruses, featuring the rhythm section, nailed me! Now, that’s the way some of those great old bands used to sound! Williams is more a traditionalist than a bopper, and he totally avoids the ultra-modernist style that so many young composers are producing. This band, and its members, truly swing! 

Williams’ charts are exceptional, all the soloists are excellent, and Daniels simply has no peers. Great clarinetists are all but extinct these days, and when you realize that Daniels also plays masterful tenor sax, you just sit in awe. 

I hope we’ll hear a lot more from Steve Williams and Jazz Nation.

Iris Ornig: No Restrictions

Iris Ornig Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: No Restrictions

You can count the female jazz acoustic bassists on the fingers of one hand. Many ladies are proficient on the electric instrument, particularly in the rock world, but in the last few years only Esperanza Spalding and Iris Ornig stand out on the upright. The former, also a vocalist, has received all kinds of coverage. Ornig isn’t as well known, but — for my taste — is a better instrumentalist.

She was born in Germany and studied music in Switzerland and England, before moving to New York City in 2003. She’s a composer, arranger and leader as well as an excellent bassist; she performs regularly in New York City’s many jazz venues. 

No Restrictions, her second album, features an instrumentation format which — by today’s standards — is unique; she uses a full rhythm section (piano, bass, drums and guitar), while the customary sax is replaced by a trumpet, played by Michael Rodriguez. He’s one of the best on his instrument that I’ve encountered in some time; his melodic lines are extremely tasteful, and his tone is to die for. Kurt Rosenwinkel’s guitar adds tremendously to the aforementioned rhythm section, which also includes the excellent Helen Sung (piano), Marcus Gilmore (drums) and Ornig (acoustic bass). 

This is a really smooth group, which plays what I’d describe as “afternoon jazz.” Several years ago, the city of Portland, Oregon, sponsored a series of summer concerts that took place in a City Center Park every Thursday; the events were called “P-Nut Butter and Jazz.” Folks would gather during the lunch hour and listen to performances by various local artists, and everyone had a ball. The groups were quite talented, and the event gave listeners a happy buzz. 

Ornig’s combo reminds me of the music that came out of those concerts: relaxing and restful, yet spirited. Eight of these 10 tracks are composed and arranged by Ornig; the other two are covers of Bjork’s “Venus as a Boy” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” It all swings politely, and the latter track establishes a sleek, traditional-jazz groove, which showcases Ornig’s bass chops at their best.

This is a promising quintet, offering excellent artists and content. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Bruce Forman Trio: Formanism

BFM Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Formanism

One of the great things about jazz is that periodically I discover a “new” artist, despite having spent most of my life deeply involved in the art. I sometimes become convinced that I’ve heard all of the ones who count ... and, gratefully, that’s never the case. To paraphrase a popular line: So much great jazz, so little time.

Guitarist Bruce Forman is one such example. I’ve heard him many times, but without knowing who I was listening to. Most Clint Eastwood fans know that he’s a true jazz nut; just listen to the soundtracks in many of his movies, and you’ll know what I mean. So, who played the guitar on the soundtrack for Million Dollar Baby, and several others Eastwood films? That would be Bruce Forman.

He has been part of the jazz scene for more than two decades, both as a sideman and leader, and has recorded with luminaries such as Ray Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Barney Kessel and Kenny Burell. Forman also has taught since his teens, conducted workshops internationally, and published written and video teaching guides.

One of the most interesting aspects of Forman’s musical career is his interest — and fluency — in all music genres. This new disc features him in a traditional/bop-tinged style, but he also has released albums that demonstrate his skills as a Country/Western artist; Swingin’ Out West and Route 66, featuring a group named Cow Bop, are examples.

Trio formats come in many, many flavors. Forman’s guitar-led group is a welcome variation, and this release blends standards (“I’ve Told Every Little Star,” “Flamingo,” “Happens to You”) with original compositions. The operative description? Everything swings brightly.

You’ll immediately notice the immaculate interplay among these three artists. When Forman plays a complex melodic line, bassist Gabe Noel doesn’t merely keep the beat; he echoes the same line, or a similar chord progression, which results in a delightful mix. In a similar manner, drummer Jake Reed further augments the beat, without ever interfering. 

This is an extremely tasteful group: so good that you won’t feel like any conversational background. You’ll just want to listen.

Chick Corea and Gary Burton: Hot House

Concord Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Hot House

Pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton are as well known as any artists in the music world. Born within two years of each other, each initially worked in straight-ahead and bop-related groups, then developed styles that were offshoots of the bop era. Corea worked with Miles Davis, Burton with George Shearing; then both formed a series of groups and toured extensively with top-level sidemen. Corea and Burton met during this period, and have worked together for almost 40 years.

Both are multiple Grammy Award nominees and winners, five of which were received for their collaborations. Hot House is their newest release. 

Although both are composers (Corea the most prolific), all but one track were written by others. The album opens with “Can’t We Be Friends,” a Kay Swift/Paul Swift tune; other highlights include Lennon & McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,”  Bill Evans’ “Time Remembered” and Dave Brubeck’s “Strange Meadow Lark.” The disc closes with Corea’s “Mozart Goes Dancing.” It’s of interest that all but one of these tunes was written by a pianist.

Neither Burton nor Corea is a “frenetic” artist; each always is in complete control of his instruments at every tempo. As a result, everything produced here is thoughtful, gentle and beautiful. Only two of these tracks are done up-tempo: the title tune and Corea’s original. The rest are treated as ballads, and presented softly and poetically. 

Everything is done as a duet, except for “Mozart Goes Dancing”; the Harlem String Quartet guests on that track, which results in a true classical feel and sound. Corea uses a standard piano throughout the album. 

Corea and Burton obviously respect and enjoy each other; just listen to the beautiful music they make!