Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Jane Ira Bloom: Sixteen Sunsets

Outline Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Sixteen Sunsets

One doesn’t often win an audience with royalty in any field of the arts, but we consider ourselves blessed when it happens. Such is the case with this album by soprano saxophonist and composer Jane Ira Bloom. She’s the queen of that instrument; no one else come close to her mastery.

Merely listing her career’s many awards and accolades would fill several pages. She’s currently a professor at New York City’s New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, and is a constant performer on the world’s stages as a soloist, and with both small and large musical ensembles. This release features her quartet, in which she’s supported by pianist Dominic Fallacaro, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Matt Wilson.

The album title, Sixteen Sunsets, is based on a quote from U.S. astronaut Joseph Allen: “...and you see 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every day, when you’re in space. No sunrise or sunset is ever the same.” 

As for this album, you’ll never hear another musical performance like it.

This is Bloom’s 15th album as a leader, and her first all-ballad collection. The track list features American Songbook standards (among them “For All We Know,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and “My Ship”) and five original compositions.

Bloom gets a marvelously pure tone from her horn, which, along with her beautiful phrasing, makes every tune a mesmerizing event that you’ll not soon forget. Her compatriots are an equally important element in the performance, which you’ll want to hear again and again. At 77 minutes, the album also is generous. Finally, the superior audio quality — 5.1 high-resolution surround sound — is the icing on the cake. 

All in all, this is an album that you must have!

Chris Biesterfeldt: Urban Mandolin

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Urban Mandolin

Chris Biesterfeldt isn’t a household name in the big world of music, but he is well known in New York City, and particularly on Broadway. He has worked in musical groups that support shows, on and off that famous street, and with the small jazz combos that flourish in the area. He’s best known as a guitarist, but for this album his “horn” is the mandolin, a higher-toned relative of the lute family. The musical format is a trio, with the mandolin replacing the usual guitar or piano. 

The mandolin dates back hundreds of years, and recently has been used extensively in country/western and rock groups, but almost never in jazz. Its tone isn’t as sweet or “full” as that obtained from a guitar; that’s the first thing you’ll notice when listening to this album. The mandolin is plucked or strummed, with a resulting volume that is softer than a guitar. 

Biesterfeldt’s instrument isn’t amplified ... nor, for that matter, is the accompanying bass.

Adam Armstrong is the bassist in question; Eric Halvorson handles drums. Their support of Biesterfeldt is masterful. This trio doesn’t come across as three guys who sit down and jam; every one of these 16 tracks is beautifully arranged. The melodic lines are delivered in unison, with the emphasis and excursions from the basic melody done precisely and meticulously. Since most of the tunes are mid- to up-tempo, the result is stunning. 

Armstrong’s bass lines often are exact duplicates of those on the mandolin: no mean feat on compositions such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop,” as just one example. 

Many of the tunes are composed by jazz artists; a few are standards; several were written by guitarists; and the rest are familiar R&B oldies. Regardless of origin, they’re all terrific.

But this album’s key attraction is the fact that these musicians are having fun, and it shows. I don’t know whether Biesterfeldt even attempted to get a major label to handle the resulting album, but — fortunately — he was happy enough to produce it himself. 

I love seeing — and listening to — folks who have a ball performing together. You just can’t beat the energy. 

Ali Ryerson: Game Changer

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Game Changer

Flutes didn’t become a common jazz instrument until the latter years of the big band era, when members of the reed sections added it to their arsenal of horns. But once the flute appeared, it became essential; the soft, airy sound produced by the various tonal models had a marvelous impact on the way the band sounded. This emergence of flutes also prompted the creation of arrangements that were more complex and interesting, both for the musicians and the audience.

This album’s featured orchestra consists of 16 flautists backed by a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. Five different flute models are utilized: C and alto, bass, piccolo and contrabass. Most of the musicians are fluent on more than one model. The arrangements replace the usual brass section horns with the reed instruments, producing a softer, less brilliant sound. This results in more balladic, and danceable meters. Don’t be fooled, though; this is jazz, and it swings every bit as much as the bands and combos that use brass horns.

A casual read through the liner notes reveals no indication of artists who use flutes as a “secondary” instrument. This cadre is composed of pure flautists; as a result, only true “flute groupies” are apt to recognize any names. That said, all of these players know and enjoy jazz; just listen to their solos and ensemble phrasing. (Needless to say, Ryerson’s great rhythm section — Mark Levine, Rufus Reid and Akira Tana — doesn’t hurt!) 

But don’t take my word for it; give this album a listen. As the title promises, it’s a true game changer!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Frank Wess: Magic 201

IPO Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Magic 201

I reviewed a wonderful IPO album a few months back: Frank Wess’ Magic 101. I stated that it was the best jazz record I’d heard that year. Well, thanks to splendid foresight, Magic 201 was recorded during that same session ... and it’s every bit as sensational as its predecessor. 

The cast of artists has changed slightly, but the result still is some of the best music you’ve ever heard. Wess plays both tenor sax and flute; Kenny Barron returns on piano, and Winard Harper repeats on drums. They’re joined by bassist Rufus Reid and guitarist Russell Malone. Once again, the selected menu includes some wonderful standards (“It Could Happen to You,” “After Paris” and others), and a couple of Wess originals (“Blues for Ruby” and “If You Can’t Call, Don’t Come”). It’s all danceable; two of the charts are mid-tempo, while the rest are ballads.

Wess demonstrates his chops as a flautist on Bergman and Legrand’s “The Summer Knows”; he uses his tenor sax on the rest of the tunes. In all cases, his gorgeous tone and marvelous timing are to die for. As for his forays into the blues, nothing could groove more intently. Barron’s piano is superior, as always; Reid’s bass is solid; and Harper’s drumming is just wonderful ... swinging, but never getting in the way of the other artists. 

The addition of Malone on guitar is brilliant; this “relative youngster” fits into the group splendidly, and more than holds his own during the solo passages.

Let’s hope IPO has additional Magic chapters to lay on us, in the near future.

Mike Jones: Plays Well with Others

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Plays Well with Others

You’re probably not familiar with pianist Mike Jones unless you’re a regular visitor to Las Vegas, and a fan of magicians Penn & Teller; Jones became an opening act for their show in 2006, and is with them still, as I write this review. Jones provides an hour of music — with a beaming Penn Jillette on bass — before the magicians take the stage for the main event.

Jones, born in 1962, was performing professionally by the age of 10. At the suggestion of Oscar Peterson, he attended Boston’s Berklee School of Music, after which he pursued a career as a studio musician. In addition to being an on-air pianist, Jones performed with Boston and New York City jazz groups; as his local fame grew, he became part of events such as the “Floating Jazz Concerts” that were held on the SS Norway and Queen Elizabeth II. 

Jones’ style is traditional, rather than bop, and he loves the old standards. This album contains a baker’s dozen of classic tunes: “Besame Mucho,” “It’s a Wonderful World,” “September Song,” “Detour Ahead,” “Day by Day” and others that will bring back memories. Fans who’ve seen him in Vegas know that he often plays at blazing speeds; his right hand is like lightning, and his left hand is much “busier” than what you’ll hear from an average pianist. 

For this album, though, Jones has toned down the “Gee, look how fast I am” fireworks; instead, he concentrates on the wonderful melodic lines found within these standards.

Jones is joined by Jeff Hamilton, one of the finest drummers playing today, and 21-year-old bass prodigy Mike Gurrola. As expected, they provide smooth and swinging support. You’d camp out at any lounge or concert hall to hear this trio, and you’d totally enjoy these guys.