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!

Diane Marino: Loads of Love

M&M Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Loads of Love

You’ve got to hand it to Houston Person. The 78-year-old tenor sax player isn’t merely an icon who has performed professionally for more than four decades, with a discography of almost 80 albums; he also has helped relatively unknown jazz vocalists develop their careers. He assists in a production capacity, and often helps select the backup groups for recording sessions. Such is the case with Diane Marino’s new album, Loads of Love

Marino plays swinging piano, sings up a storm, and is an accomplished arranger. She initially worked solo in New York City jazz clubs, until she met and married bassist Frank Marino. They subsequently worked together, formed the M&M record company and began to release albums; Loads of Love is her fifth. The combo used for this session features Person on 10 of the dozen tracks, which probably will help this album get the attention it deserves.

The backup musicians are excellent. Diane plays grooving piano, and husband Frank is a driving bassist; he lays down a beat that really drives the group. Guitarist George Bergeson and drummer Chris Brown complete the fine rhythm section. Trumpeter George Tidwell guests on one track. As for Diane’s vocal skills, she’s one of the best I’ve heard in the past several years. Her voice and phrasing are great. I suspect she’d sound even better, if she didn’t also need to concentrate on the keyboard.

This set mostly visits the Great American Songbook, with contributions from Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Duke Ellington, Jimmy McHugh, J. Lerner and Louis Armstrong, along with lesser-heard gems such as “Never Let Me Go” and “I See Your Face Before Me.” 

Diane demonstrates her ability to swing on the album’s opening track, “Get Out of Town.” She does the tune up-tempo, and some very tasty tenor sax work by Person immediately establishes his importance to this session. Add Diane’s well-crafted arrangements, and the resulting album deserves to be called special. This isn’t your usual “support the singer” group; a lot of thought went into creating the charts, so that each instrumentalist can demonstrate his prowess. 

Congratulations to all concerned: If this album doesn’t bring Diane Marino more notoriety, nothing will!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Joe Clark Big Band: Lush

Jazzed Media
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Lush

Without musicians such as trumpeter/composer/arranger Joe Clark and drummer/composer/arranger Jeff Hamilton, we wouldn’t be treated to big band jazz very often. Thankfully, every once in awhile, the likes of Clark and Hamilton get an urge to revisit the days when those wonderful “large groups” ruled the roost in the world of music. 

Clark and Hamilton took the effort to create the arrangements, obtain the necessary financial backing, and gather the musicians to rehearse and produce albums like the subject of this review. Sometimes bands like this actually play a concert or two, but often the album created during the recording session is the sole result of all of the effort involved. What a shame!

Lush is such an endeavor, and it’s a winner. This is truly a big band: five reeds, five trumpets and flugelhorns, four trombones including a bass instrument, and a rhythm section with piano, guitar, bass and drums. The drummer is Hamilton himself: simply one of the best at his instrument. The fact that this group never had performed together, before the first rehearsal, is proof of their excellence as musicians.

The tunes on the menu include five standards — “Lush Life,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “Tenderly,” “Yesterday’s Gardenias” and “Samba de Martelo” — and three originals specifically created this album. Many members of this august group are featured soloists in various tracks, and each is excellent.

As you absorb this performance, you’ll note that it does come across as a concert effort; yes, it definitely swings, but the excitement generated by live bands — say, those fronted by Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton or Don Ellis — is missing. Be that as it may, these guys are outstanding. Let’s hope that they, and others like them, continue to produce this kind of music.

New York Voices: Live

Palmetto Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: New York Voices Live

Fans categorizing jazz tend to concentrate on the stars of the bands and combos, and the vocalists who worked with such groups. Often overlooked are the vocal groups that have gained fame, either as an attraction on their own, or as part of a big band. Remember Glenn Miller’s Modernaires, and Tommy Dorsey’s Pied Pipers

Such groups were — and are — famed as artists in their own right: Think of the Hi-Lo’s, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, the Manhattan Transfer and New York Voices. All these groups did things in the jazz genre that hadn’t been done before, and the latter two remain active. This album features New York Voices, with one of the world’s best big bands: the WDR Big Band Cologne.

New York Voices began in 1987, as an Ithaca College alumni group. The first generation was a quintet consisting of two guys and three gals; today it’s a quartet with two guys and two gals. Damon Meader, Peter Eldridge and Kim Nazarian are original members; Lauren Kinhan is the newcomer. From 1989 through 2007, the ensemble released seven albums; this album with the WDR Big Band is their first in almost seven years, and marks their 25th anniversary. 

The 10 tunes here include four beautiful old standards (“Love Me or Leave Me,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “Darn That Dream” and “Almost Like Being in Love”), and two by Paul Simon (“Baby Driver” and “I Do It for Your Love”), along with Oliver Nelson and Mark Murphy’s “Stolen Moments” and three originals by members of the quartet.

The arrangements are stunning. Each performer is outstanding as a soloist; their combined efforts, harmonically and rhythmically, are fantastic. As for the WDR Big Band, its reputation as the world’s best steadily working jazz orchestra is absolutely accurate; the orchestrations and soloists are a match for anything I’ve heard in years.

This is a fer-shur Grammy winner, and an album that every jazz fan will adore.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Keith Jarrett: Somewhere

ECM Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Somewhere

You can’t be a jazz fan and not be familiar with pianist Keith Jarrett; he’s one of the world’s best known and most recorded artists. He’s also one of the most prolific, although his concerts and recordings have slowed during the past decade; this album is only his tenth in recent years. That’s quite a change, considering he produced more than 70 (!) during the preceding three decades. 

I also must note that he has done a dozen or so classical albums to date. 

Jarrett was born in 1945 and began playing piano at age 3; he was giving concerts at the tender age of 7. After graduating from high school, he attended Boston’s Berklee School of Music for a year, then moved to New York City and began playing at the famous Village Vanguard. That’s where Art Blakey heard and hired him, to play with the Jazz Messengers. During that period, drummer Jack DeJohnette — then playing with the Charles Lloyd Quartet — talked Jarrett into joining that group. Miles Davis was next, and then Jarrett began to record with his own groups. 

Somewhere was recorded during a 2009 concert by Jarrett’s trio — DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock — that took place at the KKL Luzern Concert Hall, but hasn’t been released until now. For the most part, the album features Great American Songbook classics, although the opening tracks are Miles Davis’ “Solar” and Jarrett’s “Deep Space.” The trio then deconstructs gems such as “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and “I Thought About You.” They combine Bernstein’s “Somewhere” with Sondheim’s “Everywhere,” then proceed to Bernstein’s “Tonight,” the latter unexpectedly played up-tempo. The stylish closer: Johnny Mercer’s “I Thought About You.” 

The result is one of Jarrett’s best albums. Peacock has been with him for years, and his work on this release is superior to anything I’ve heard previously; he’s as good as any bassist playing today. DeJohnette is a truly great drummer; I remember praise given by another percussionist, who said that “the best drummers are those who are ‘felt’ more than heard,” and that perfectly describes DeJohnette. 

Jarrett’s fans are certain to love this.

Aaron Diehl: The Bespoke Man's Narrative

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Bespoke Man's Narrative

During the period from the early 1950s to the early ‘90s, the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) was one of the most famous and influential jazz groups. Their elegant musical style — which combined blues, bop, cool and third-stream genres with the classics — was unlike any other unit in the music world. The MJQ’s discography was huge — almost four dozen albums during this period — and that long career was an indication of excellence. Fans wept when they left the scene.

Well, cheer up! The quartet featured on this album won’t merely take you back to the joys of the MJQ; this new group goes beyond them. This band’s instrumentation is identical: piano (Aaron Diehl), vibes (Warren Wolf), bass (David Wong) and drums (Rodney Green).   

Their styles aren’t identical, but the results are marvelous. Diehl plays piano more softly and eloquently than John Lewis’ funky melodic line; Wolf’s vibes are right on the beat, where Milt Jackson was looser and a little “behind” the beat. Wong and Percy Heath are two of a kind, stylistically, as are Green and Connie Kay. 

Most important: Both groups create beautiful music. 

Back in the days of the big bands, many groups would open their shows with a theme: Then the curtain would roll open, and they’d swing into an up-tempo tune. The show would conclude with a repeat of the theme, or the band might go out with one of its famous hits. Diehl uses that technique here; he opens with a short “Prologue,” grooves into a program of eight featured tunes, then closes with a short “Epilogue.” The technique remains just as effective today.

I thoroughly enjoyed the inclusion of several jazz standards that are seldom recorded by other artists: Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose,” Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is My Woman” and Blackburn & Suessdorf’s “Moonlight in Vermont.” They’re all done beautifully. The rest of the menu features originals from the group, along with Milt Jackson’s “The Cylinder.” The latter chart and “Generation X” produce a sound that perfectly clones the MJQ.

One disappointment: Wolf isn’t utilized on about half of these tunes, which turns the group into a trio. That’s a shame, because he’s a key figure in the group’s sound.

That said, these guys are a splendid addition to the jazz world. I hope we hear a lot more from them.