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.