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.