Saturday, August 30, 2014

John LaBarbera Big Band: Caravan

Jazz Compass
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Caravan

Thank goodness for musicians like John La Barbera ... and the rest of the La Barbera family! When I simply must get another “big band fix,” artists such as La Barbera get the same urge and produce an album like this one.

Let it be shouted from the rooftops: This is a “for real” big band. 

The five-man reed section comprises Brian Scanlon, on alto sax and flute; Pat La Barbera, on tenor and soprano sax; Rob Lockhart, on tenor sax and flute; Kim Richmond, on alto sax; and Bob Carr, on baritone sax and bass clarinet. The brass section features trumpeters Wayne Bergeron, Bob O’Donnell, Willie Murillo and Clay Jenkins; trombonists Les Benedict, Eric Hughes, Ryan Dragon and Ken Kugler (the latter on bass trombone); and a rhythm section of keyboard artist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Tom Warrington, drummer Joe La Barbera, and percussionist Aaron Serfaty. John La Barbera is the leader, arranger and composer, and three of the nine tunes on this menu are his.

The title song is a well-known Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington standard, as are Kenny Barron’s “Voyage” and McCoy Tyner’s “Atlantis.” All the charts swing wonderfully, and the solo work is generous and excellent.

It wasn’t even necessary to close my eyes, to make it feel like I had time-traveled back to the best of those great years, when this kind of ensemble jazz ruled the land.

Producing this kind of music merely (!) requires a blend of some well-known artists — the La Barberas, Clay Jenkins, Bill Cunliffe and Tom Warrington — and a generous helping of the myriad lesser-known, but equally talented artists who frequent the music-oriented schools and studios that are prevalent in cities such as Los Angeles and New York. The result is almost always great jazz. 

We don’t currently get as much of this large ensemble jazz as once was the case, but this album sure will do until the next big band era comes along. It’s mandatory that we support such music for now, so that it’ll survive until the next coming!

Harmonie Ensemble New York: Music for Peter Gunn

Harmonia Mundi USA
By Derrick Bang
Buy CD: Music for Peter Gunn

Henry Mancini’s sleek, sophisticated themes for this ultra-cool private eye had an impact far greater than the three-season TV series itself, which ran from 1958 through 1961. Despite the devotion of fans who adored Craig Stevens’ suave title character, the show never was a ratings hit, posting no better than #16 its first season, and #29 its third. Mancini’s two soundtrack albums, on the other hand, literally set the world on fire, the first — The Music from Peter Gunn — hitting #1 on Billboard’s Pop LP Chart and taking 1958 Grammy Awards for Best Arrangement and Album of the Year. During the next several years, that entire album was covered by jazz artists such as Ted Nash and Maxwell Davis (Peter Gunn), Pete Candoli (More Peter Gunn), Ray Ellis (The Best of Peter Gunn), Aaron Bell (Music from Peter Gunn), Joe Wilder (Jazz from Peter Gunn) and, most successfully, Shelly Manne (Shelly Manne & His Men Play Peter Gunn, Son of Gunn!! and, in 1967, Jazz Gunn).

The title tune, meanwhile, became a regular part of Mancini’s live concerts and, over time, a jazz standard covered by more folks than I could cite.

Now, roughly half a century after the early LP action faded, conductor Steven Richman’s Harmonie Ensemble New York has resurrected the still-swingin’ Gunn music with this disc, which contains all but one track from Mancini’s first album — I guess they didn’t like “Not from Dixie” — and four tracks from the second, More Music from Peter Gunn. The original charts have been used, and even the track sequence retained, but this is no slavish copy. The overall sense is a bit more of everything: more savage urgency to the hard-driving action cues, sweeter shading on the ballads, and an earthier underbelly to the blues numbers. The solos are entirely new, of course, each cut giving plenty of space to members of this 22-piece ensemble.

I only wish the soloists were better identified; I’d like to know, for example, who to credit for the screaming sax chops displayed in the opening “Peter Gunn Theme.”

I’m particularly enchanted by vibist Christos Rafalides, who delivers lovely solos in “Session at Pete’s Pad,” “Brief and Breezy” and “A Profound Gass,” and grants lovely call-and-response support to the flutes in “Blue Steel.” Guitarist Bob Mann also is quite evident throughout, his rock-oriented licks alternately sweet, as on the smooth and sexy handling of “Dreamsville”; or droll, as on “The Floater” and “A Profound Gass”; or sultry, as on a slow 2/2 delivery of the boogie-inflected “Spook,” where he lends able support to sinister saxes and a particularly dirty horn solo.

The unison work also is excellent, particularly on “Fallout,” the ominous cue played behind the nefarious activity taking place during each show’s prologue; Fran├žois Moutin’s smooth walking bass and Victor Lewis’ drums set up this cue, which then offers a sleek trumpet solo while building to a breathtaking horn climax. At the other end of the excitement scale, the unison horns are serene and lovely on the ballad-esque “Slow and Easy.” (Let us pause to admire Mancini’s sense of humor, concocting cue titles such as “Slow and Easy” and “Brief and Breezy.”)

The tone shifts gracefully, from track to track, whether minor-key moody and ominous (“Sorta Blue”), slow and sassy (“Blues for Mothers”) or ferocious, to accompany action-oriented cues such as “Blue Steel” and “Fallout.” Ronnie Cuber’s baritone sax is a highlight of the drum-heavy “My Manne Shelly,” a cue Mancini wrote for Manne, which is given similar fire here by Lewis.

The disc’s final track repeats the title theme, this time served up as more of a showcase for soloists, notably pianist Lincoln Mayorga, who toured with Mancini, back in the day. Mayorga solidly anchors this entire album, whether soloing or gently comping behind his compatriots.

Between this disc and Timeless Media’s recent DVD re-issue of the TV show’s entire three-season run, it’s safe to say that Peter Gunn is back in business. To quote Pete himself, when explaining the nickname assigned to the jazz-playing title character in the episode “Streetcar Jones,” “When he plays, all you gotta do is get on and ride.” The same can be said for Richman and his marvelous ensemble.

George Cotsirilos Trio: Variations

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Variations

Jazz guitarist George Cotsirilos is well known in Northern California, whether as a member of the San Francisco Nighthawks, a sideman for artists such as Pharaoh Sanders and Eddie Marshall, or an accompanist for vocalists such as Etta James and The Whispers. Cotsirilos is joined on this album by bassist Robb Fisher and drummer Ron Marabuto; together they’re as smooth and swinging a group as you’re likely to hear. These 10 tunes, mostly Cotsirilos originals, are a pleasant mix of straight-ahead jazz and Latin-tinged melodies. 

Fisher probably is the best known of these three artists; he worked with Cal Tjader’s group for a number of years, and also played with luminaries such as Chet Baker, Art Pepper and Anita O’Day. Marabuto has played with Pepper Adams, Roland Hanna and Tommy Flanagan, and regularly is heard at Bay Area clubs such as Yoshi’s and Jazz at Pearls. Those two provide a solid underpinning for Cotsirilos.

The entire album is fine, but special mention is due the treatment given the well-known standard “But Beautiful.” If you aren’t moved by this one, you aren’t paying attention! 

This is the kind of group that would make you smile, the moment you walked in the door of a club or restaurant where they were featured.

Jon Di Fiore: Yellow Petals

Third Freedom Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Yellow Petals

You don’t often find the descriptors “drummer” and “composer” in the same review, but Jon Di Fiore joins Louie Bellson in that regard. The latter, regarded by Duke Ellington as “the world’s greatest drummer,” got his start by winning a contest sponsored by Gene Krupa and the Slingerland Drum Company, besting 40,000 other entrants. The former got his first drum set at age 3 and, because he couldn’t reach everything, began practicing while propped up at his mother’s kitchen table in New Jersey.

Bellson had a wealth of experience, playing with icons Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Harry James, Duke Ellington and many others. Di Fiore’s background was much more restricted, being localized to Jersey and the New York City areas, with musicians from those locales. Both individuals developed into composers of note during their careers, due in part to their ability to play the piano. Indeed, Di Fiore teaches both drums and piano in his present positions as adjunct professor of music at Essex County College, with a sidebar instructional post at Serrano’s Music Academy in Belleville, New Jersey.

Whereas Bellson limited himself to jazz organizations, Di Fiore performs with both jazz and classical orchestras, and has received numerous awards in the latter genre.

For this album, his third, Di Fiore is supported by Billy Test (piano) and Adrian Morning (bass). Di Fiore wrote every track. All compositions are by Fiore. A mere few bars into the first tune — “Demise” — it’s easy to tell that he’s a true musician, and not “just a drummer.” His taste, control of volume, and complexity of emphasis phrases are superb; he never overwhelms the melodic passages. On top of which, Test and Morning also are outstanding. I haven’t heard a smoother unit in a long time. Simply put, these guys are great!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Anne Drummond: Revolving

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Revolving

Seattle-born Anne Drummond’s first instrument wasn’t a flute. It was a recorder: a first for many children because of the relative ease with which simple melodies can be played. Introduced in medieval times, the instrument remains quite popular today. As often is the case, the piano followed; that was her primary instrument when she entered New York’s Manhattan School of Music at age 18. She also had replaced the recorder with a flute by that time, and played it extensively; even so, she earned her degree on the piano keyboard.   

Drummond was raised in a musical family. An aunt exposed the budding musician to modern jazz, using her own collection. Interestingly, Drummond attended the same high school as Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix, and her piano teacher at the Manhattan School was Kenny Barron. After hearing her play the flute, Barron invited her to join his band. She did so. 

In addition to being a stellar artist on two instruments, Drummond teaches and composes; she wrote all but three of the songs on this release. She cuts a wide swath in the music field, from penning commercial jingles, to joining classical groups and orchestras. She’s featured here on both piano and flutes (soprano and alto).

Seven artists joined her: guitarist Vic Juris, additional pianists Benny Green and David Chesky, cellist Dave Eggar, bassist Brandi Disterheft, and drummers Kassar Overall and Keita Ogawa. The menu ranges from spritely up-tempo tunes to balladic/mood selections, everything done with a smooth jazz feel. 

You’ll want to listen time and again to this project by master musicians. Don’t miss it.

Lauren Kinhan: Circle in a Square

Dotted i Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Circle in a Square

The big band years resulted in the formation of numerous instrumental groups, ranging in size from trios to full orchestras. Many featured vocalists who became as famous as the units with which they performed, although few were classified as jazz vocalists. Exceptions include icons such as Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, June Cristy and many more, most of whom mixed the jazz with popular songs. 

With the passage of time, many bands no longer could afford to carry vocalists. The truly famous soloists survived in other venues, while groups had to find another way to survive. The result was the creation of voice combos such as the Hi-Lo’s, the Four Freshman, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the Manhattan Transfer and New York Voices; the singers used their voices as instruments.

Lauren Kinhan has been a member of the New York Voices since 1992, and the group celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013.

But Kinhan isn’t merely a vocalist; she’s also a composer, lyricist and producer. In the latter role, she co-founded two other vocal groups: Moss and JaLaLa. The former released its first CD (Moss) in 2008, and the disc went on to be listed in Downbeat’s Best CDs of the 2000s issueJaLaLa’s initial album (That Old Mercer Magic) hit the streets in 2009. Additionally, Kinhan has released solo albums: Hardly Blinking and Avalon. As for her compositional skills, she wrote or co-wrote all but two of the tunes on this new release, and also contributed the lyrics for all but one. 

The resulting album truly swings, due both to Kinhan and a wonderful cadre of instrumentalists. A bonus feature is the inclusion of printed lyrics; you appreciate each song even more. I had a blast listening to this; unless you’re not breathing, you should have just as much fun.