Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Jeff Holmes Quartet: Of One's Own

Miles High Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Of One's Own

Jazz reviewers are exposed to musicians with all levels of talent. Many are good enough to make a decent living with their skills, and some have become name artists; the latter group makes this job worthwhile. 

Once in awhile, though, I’m exposed to an individual or group so far above the norm, that the album in question doesn’t merely make my day; it makes my entire year. Such is the case with the Jeff Holmes Quartet.

Were I living in the New York City area, I’d probably know these guys by now, because they all work — and have spent most of their careers — in that locale. But as a West Coaster, they’ve been under my radar until recently. 

Holmes is a multitalented musician. His primary instrument now is the piano, but he’s also an extremely talented trumpeter, composer, arranger and educator. He has played with, and created arrangements for, numerous name artists and musical groups. This album showcases his current small combo, and he’s also in the process of creating a big band.

Holmes is joined here by Adam Kolker, who plays tenor and soprano saxes, bass clarinet and flute, and also is an arranger. He has led numerous groups of his own, and has a larger discography than Holmes. James Cammack plays both acoustic and electric bass and, until now, has been best known for his work with the Ahmad Jamal Trio. Drummer Steve Johns, finally, has played with most of the famous groups that make the Big apple their home base. 

This quartet is, without doubt, the best I’ve heard in years.

Holmes is responsible for all the arrangements, and he composed five of the nine tunes. The four standards are John Abercrombie’s “Labour Day,” Nat Simon’s “Poinciana,” Toby Holmes’ “Waltz #3” and Rogers and Hammerstein’s “So Long, Farewell,” from The Sound Of Music. I haven’t heard a fresh cover of “Poinciana” in years and, to my knowledge, this is the first time “So Long” has been done in a jazz mode. They’re the session’s two most impressive charts.

The basic melodic lines are complex, but so beautifully arranged that they’re relaxed and fluid in execution. All solo work is impressive and joyful, and, best of all, no matter how many times each track is played, you’ll hear something that you missed previously ... and you’ll rejoice again.

It’s all marvelous fun. Needless to add, this is the kind of music that reviewers hunger for!

Jon Hamar: Hymn

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Hymn

Bassist Jon Hamar is another of the many excellent jazz artists based in the Seattle area. The Washington state native began to play the acoustic bass as an 11-year-old, and added the electric instrument a year later. He earned a bachelor’s degree in classical double bass performance from Eastern Washington University, followed by a master’s degree in jazz and contemporary media from Eastman University. 

Hamar moved to Seattle in 2001, where he became a fixture in the thriving jazz scene.

In addition to his involvement with many Pacific Northwest orchestras and combos, he teaches at several state universities and colleges; his prowess as an instructor is best indicated by the fact that many of his former students have been accepted by the prestigious Eastman School Of Music for advanced studies.

The trio used in this album is quite unusual: Hamar is the bassist; Geoffrey Keezer plays piano and Rhodes; and Todd DelGiudice is on alto sax. That combination, initially used at a jazz festival, intrigued Hamar; he recalls thinking, “This could work out, if everybody has a similar time concept”.  He discussed the idea with bassist John Patitucci, who opined that the choice of pianist would be crucial; Keezer’s name headed his list of potential candidates. 

The more Hamar thought about it, the more excited he got; he composed several trial tunes for that instrumental grouping, then contacted Keezer, who reacted positively. Hamar already was familiar with DelGiudice, who had worked with the likes of Woody Herman, Maria Schneider and Ray Charles. As a result, as Sherlock Holmes would have put it, the game was afoot.
Half of the dozen tracks in this album are Hamar compositions, the rest are arrangements of tunes written by other artists. Chinese pianist Xia Jia, whom Hamar met at Eastman, wrote “Tea”; and Steve Swallow’s “Falling Grace” is a jazz standard, as are Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” Jimmy Van Huesen’s “It Could Happen to You” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan.” The styles range from ballads, tone poems and traditional melodies to grooving tunes such as “The Big Fat Hen.” The common thread is the scintillating performance provided by the trio members. 

Hamar was right: Everything did work out, and the result is some of the most tasty jazz I’ve hear in years.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Greg Abate Quintet Featuring Phil Woods

Rhombus Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Greg Abate Quintet Featuring Phil Woods

Greg Abate is a 67-year-old saxophonist, flautist, composer and arranger. His music career began shortly after high school, when he gigged with relatively unknown bands in the California area, but he didn’t really become “known” until joining the Ray Charles band in 1973. Another job with the reincarnated Artie Shaw orchestra followed in ’82, along with stints with the likes of Red Rodney, but the major part of Abate’s time has been spent with lesser-known groups. His discography is quite limited (about a dozen albums). 

Phil Woods, a famed saxophonist, clarinetist and composer, is in his 80s. Unlike Abate, Woods has worked with most of the name musicians who ruled the roost from the 1960s onward. His discography is in the hundreds, both as a sideman and leader. Abate — and the music world — consider Woods to be one of the premier alto saxophonists of the bop era, which explains Abate’s thrill at having this giant as a member of the quintet featured on this album.

The supporting members include pianist Jesse Green, son of trombonist Urbie Green (an icon unto himself); bassist Evan Gregor; and drummer Bill Goodwin. The latter is another elder statesman, still swinging at age 71. Green is in his  40s and Gregor is the youngster, still in his 30s. I must note that Woods performs on only five of these 10 tracks, and thus the quintet becomes a quartet on the other tunes.

Abate composed and arranged all but two of the selections. “Marny” is a John Patrick chart, and Woods contributed “Goodbye Mr. Pepper,” a tribute to the great Art Pepper. The genre is bop; except for “Marny,” delivered as a ballad, everything is done at mid- to up-tempos. Woods performs exclusively on alto sax, while Abate switches between alto, soprano, baritone saxes and flute.

This session takes me back to the peak of the period that began in the 1950s. This group feels more West Coast than East; it’s relaxed and pensive. Both Abate and Woods are exceptional talents, but there’s no doubt that Phil remains one of the major names on alto. Charlie Parker was “the man,” but Woods fully deserved — and still deserves — his reputation as “one of the new Parkers.” The fact that he’s in the sunset of his career (age-wise) pains me deeply, but he still blows up a storm.

This is a stellar album, and Abate deserves kudos for producing it.

The Julian Bliss Septet: A Tribute to Benny Goodman

Signum Classics
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: A Tribute to Benny Goodman

Signum Classics is a British label and Julian Bliss, born in the United Kingdom in 1989, is an internationally famed clarinetist; he also designed a range of clarinets for Conn/Selmer that bear his name. He was a child prodigy, performing in public at the age of 5, who became much better known for his work with concert and  symphony orchestras than as a leader of jazz combos. 

At the age of 7, during a trip to New York City, Bliss heard — and fell in love with — Benny Goodman, thanks to a CD the boy purchased as a souvenir. That was it: Bliss had found his bliss. Years later, still enthralled, he decided to do something about it. With the support of arranger Neal Thornton, Bliss selected a baker’s dozen of Goodman hits, formed a septet, and recorded this album.

Jazz has taken many forms over the years. Some are “locale” related — Chicago, Kansas City, East Coast, West Coast — while others have been “time” related: 4 to the bar, 2 to the bar, and so forth. Goodman was part of the swing era, which was most often “4 to the bar” dance and pop. It was an infectious and wonderful genre, and those who lived through that period still miss it. 

Bliss has revived it in this tribute album.

You’ll recognize many of these tunes. “Don’t Be That Way,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Seven Come Eleven” and “Soft Winds” are Goodman classics, written in conjunction with (respectively) Edgar Sampson, Charlie Christian and Fred Royal; all were members of Benny’s band at one time or another. These and others on this album — “Up a Lazy Rive,” “Lady Be Good,” “Here’s That Rainy Day” — are done under their original titles, but their chord structures have been utilized to create “new” tunes within the bop genre.

Every member of Bliss’ septet obviously had a great time during this recording session. If you’re from my generation, you’ll experience the same thrill.