Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Here comes S-A-N-T-A ... S-A-N-T-A!

By Derrick Bang 

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for 20 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

I’ve been compiling the annual survey of holiday jazz for two decades.

Some years have provided a wealth of great new releases; other years have been quite disappointing. This year, I’m delighted to report, is one of the best ever.

Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz sagely explained that a cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing day after day, without repeating himself; the same can be true of musicians brave enough to tackle beloved holiday tunes. We know what they sound like, and we want them to sound that way ... or close enough, in some indefinable manner, to pass muster. That attitude is anathema to jazz musicians, who earn their reputations by taking a familiar melody and changing it up.

Serving both masters, then, is an extremely tricky — and delicate — tight wire act.

It’s arguably even harder with Christmas music. Music fans may be impressed by way-way-out interpretations of classic Gershwin tunes or modern pop ditties, but few people are willing to tolerate a cover of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” that has been deconstructed to the point of obliterating the original melody.

Most of this year’s offerings superbly navigate those rough seas. As you’re about to find out, plenty of great new albums are waiting to enliven your upcoming holiday gatherings.


I’ve gone years without any big band ensembles to discuss, and check it out: This year we’re blessed with a bumper crop. First out of the gate is the answer to a longstanding Christmas wish: a holiday album from Gordon Goodwin’s simply amazing Big Phat Band, quite appropriately titled A Big Phat Christmas: Wrap This! (1201 Music).

Dubbing this unit the best and swingingest big band operating today isn’t sufficient praise. These guys don’t merely cook; they explode. The often mischievous arrangements hearken back to Goodwin’s formative years, when he cut his teeth composing and conducting music for the Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain cartoon shows, back in the 1990s. Since then, new albums by his 20-piece Big Phat Band have been treasured classics the nanosecond they’re released.

No surprise, then, that Wrap This! is every bit as vigorously entertaining. The ensemble bolts from the gate with a marvelously sassy arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” which showcases the terrific unison horn ensemble, along with an excellent soprano sax solo from Eric Marienthal. A wildly syncopated version of “The Little Drummer Boy” is equally ferocious, propelled by strong percussion (Bernie Dresel, Joey DeLeon) and highlighted by sparkling solos on guitar (Andrew Synoweic) and baritone sax (Jay Mason).

Not all tracks are screamers; the band is equally tight at slower and more deliberate tempos, as with a reverential handling of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” which opens with nice bass work from Trey Henry, features a thoughtful piano solo from Goodwin, and gradually builds to an intense finale. The mid-tempo handling of John Williams’ “Somewhere in My Memory” (from Home Alone) is sweet and wistful, fueled by locomotive-style percussion touches and Goodwin’s tasty soprano sax solo.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is old-style swing, boasting excellent solos on trumpet (Dan Fornero) and tenor sax (Goodwin); “Santa Baby” opens with an impish duet on ukulele and sleigh bells, and then builds via rolling percussion and sassy solos on tenor sax (Brian Scanlon) and trumpet (Willie Murillo). “Do You Hear What I Hear” positively races to the finish line, powered by Rich Shaw’s smooth bass work and a terrific vocal from the jazz ensemble Take 6.

The album concludes with a slow, solemn reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which features more sublime unison horn work that builds to a screaming climax ... and then retreats to a gentle finale on piano. All I can say is Wow!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Mitchel Forman Trio: Puzzle

BFM Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Puzzle

Only longtime jazz fans are likely to know who Mitchel Forman is; I do, because he was the pianist who performed with Gerry Mulligan — in both his big band and the quartet — and, later, with Stan Getz. Those were all great, great units. 

Forman also was part of the cadre recorded on the Live At Newport album from the 1980 Newport Jazz Festival. He has toured with Phil Woods, Freddie Hubbard, Mel Torme, Carla Bley, Diane Schuur and Astrud Gilberto. (It’s worth noting that vocalists love him.) 

Forman assembled the first of his own groups in 1985, and he continues to produce his own albums. This release — which features Kevin Axt on bass, and Steve Hass on drums — is his newest effort.

The operative terms that apply to Forman are swinging, straight-ahead jazz; blazing keyboard speed; precision and tastefulness. Both members of his rhythm section fit in beautifully. Axt, who accompanied Tierney Sutton for years, is one of the best bassists working; Hass is a vocalist’s dream, supporting and never intruding.

The menu includes a dozen tunes: Some are new, but the oldies really stand out. The trio’s interpretation of “What Is This Thing Called Love” is sensational; complimentary melodic lines and meter changes put a wonderful shine on this great standard. “Bounce,” using the chord changes of “I Got Rhythm,” is done at a race-horse tempo that’ll blow your hair back. 

Frankly, every track demonstrates this trio’s talent and cohesiveness.

This definitely is not background jazz, and you won’t be able to take your ears off it. Please ... more, more, more!

Sarah Partridge: I Never Thought I'd Be Here

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: I Never Thought I'd Be Here

Numerous vocalists have become actresses, but I can’t think of many performers who took that trip in reverse. Sarah Partridge is one of those rare examples, and she enjoyed modest success for a decade on TV and the big screen, including an appearance in Risky Business with Tom Cruise. Then fate stepped in: While spending an evening with friends at The Improv, they talked her into participating in a karaoke contest. 

An agent in the audience was enthralled, and signed her up; thus began her musical career.

As often is the case, her love of vocal jazz had begun at home; her father was a huge fan of icons such as Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Conner, Irene Kral and Sarah Vaughan. Fortunately, Partridge has a voice that matches their talents, and that led to her success in what has become a 20-year career.

Partridge is featured regularly at many well-known jazz clubs across the country, and this is her fourth album. She has a wonderfully relaxed voice, which is great for both popular standards and jazz genre tunes. Although her first three releases focused on the American Songbook, she switched gears and wrote (words and music) all but one of the tracks here. The exception — “Around the Corner” — is by Alan Farnham, this album’s pianist, arranger and producer.

He and Partridge are joined by six other excellent musicians: bassist Bill Moring, drummer/percussionist Tim Horner, tenor saxman/flutist Scott Robinson, trombonist Ben Williams, and guitarist Paul Meyers. Partridge’s son, Ben Stein, is guest guitarist on the track “Runaway Train.”

This is a great album for listening or dancing. And if Partridge shows up at a lounge in your area, be sure to visit her.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Clarity: Unhinged Sextet

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Clarity

In the beginning, jazz was a “blue-collar” profession. Most artists hadn’t earned more than a high school education; some went on the road without even that degree, although many continued studies after completing their early careers. That isn’t the case today; artist biographies often contain references to colleges and universities that offer advanced degrees up to the doctoral level. 

Consider the sextet Clarity: Every member has one or more degrees, and each is associated with advanced teaching institutions, as a member of the faculty at organizations throughout the country.

Pianist Michael Kocour is an associate professor and Director of Jazz Studies at Arizona State University, in Tempe; he also holds a degree in mathematics from the University of Illinois. Woodwinds player Will Campbell is Director of Jazz Studies and Associate Director of Saxophone at the University of North Carolina. Saxophonist Matt Olson is associate professor of saxophone, and Director of Jazz Studies at South Carolina’s Furman University. 

Trumpeter Vern Sielert has a PhD and teaches at the University of Idaho. Bassist Jon Hamar teaches at Central Washington University, Northwest University, and Edmonds Community Colleges in Washington. Drummer Dom Moio also is on the faculty at Arizona State University, along with a position at Mesa Community College. 

On top of which, all of these guys have worked with many, many name artists.

This, Clarity’s debut album, features a blend of bop and straight-ahead jazz; all concerned excel at it. The 12 tracks are composed/arranged by the various members of the band. With respect to meter, there’s something for everyone: “Unhinged” is a hard bop  flag-waver, and “Watch Out of the Way” is another burner. “Clarity” and “Leaving Soon” are ballads, and the rest are mid-tempo swingers.

The melodic lines are memorable, and the ensemble passages are cohesive. The solo work is some of the best I’ve heard; these fellas are true masters of their instruments.

This is “thinking jazz”: what results when it’s done by artists who’ve spent their lives living with — and teaching — music that they obviously love.

Kevin Stout and Brian Booth: Color Country

Jazzed5 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Color Country

Trombonist/guitarist/percussionist Kevin Stout and saxophonist/flutist Brian Booth love jazz and their home state of Utah, in equal measure. They’re longtime friends and partners who’ve released three previous albums, to rave reviews. Then followed a 10-year pause, during which they often worked together in gigs throughout Utah.

And now comes the release of Color Country.

Their careers have spanned three decades. Stout worked with The Four Freshman for almost a decade, and also has performed with Joe Piscopo, The Four Tops, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Don Menza’s Big Band, as well his own groups. Booth, in turn, has shared a stage with notables such as Natalie Cole, Lou Rawls, Mel Torme and Ray Charles, among others. Booth also has led his own groups in Utah and the surrounding states.

This new album celebrates the Southern Utah region that contains five National Parks often visited by Stout and Booth. The 13 tracks, all of which they composed and arranged, are named for points of interest with particular meaning to both of them. 

The supporting musicians include pianist Joey Singer, bassist Tom Warrington, drummer John Abraham and vocalist JoBelle Yonely.

All but one of the tracks are done at mid- to up-tempos, using 4/4, 3/4, Latin, fusion and straight-ahead meters. The exception is the ballad “Weeping Rock,” which features Booth’s soprano sax, Stout’s guitar and trombone, and Yonely (no words, just gorgeous vocal chords).

Every track is great, but my favorite is “Petroglyphs,” which really rocks (pun intended).

I’m particularly impressed by the various instruments interface, during both the ensemble and solo choruses; the arrangements are complex at times, but they always swing. On top of which, the solos are truly excellent.

Plan on “all listening, without much talking” when this album hits your rotation!

Michael Dees: The Dream I Dreamed

Jazzed Media
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Dream I Dreamed

I’ve not reviewed a male vocalist for quite some time, but then ages have passed since coming across one as good as Michael Dees. That’s actually a shame, because he has been around for years; Dees is a “stealth” singer with a quite lengthy résumé, but he simply isn’t well known to the public.

Which doesn’t mean that you’ve not been exposed to him, although likely without being aware of it. Dees had a long career as a studio singer. Back in the 1960s, he appeared on TV’s Steve Allen Show; he recorded an album of his own music; he soundtrack work in numerous films, including the TV movies The Rat Pack and The Mystery of Natalie Wood, along with hundreds of commercials and jingles. For the most part, though, he was singing “other people’s songs.”

This release features his own stuff, both lyrics and music. And it’s excellent.

It may be a bit of a stretch to identify Dees as a jazz singer, but if icons such as Frank Sinatra are so classified, then so be it. Dees’ voice is gentle, warm and smooth, and his interpretation is sincere. He means every line he sings, and his inflections and timing are both jazz-related; whether the style is balladic or up-tempo, he swings.

He also recognizes the value of being backed by excellent musicians. The combo that supports him here features pianist Terry Trotter, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Steve Schaeffer, along with Steve Huffsteter and Sal Marquez on trumpet and flugelhorn, Bob Sheppard and Doug Webb on woodwinds, and Don Williams on percussion. The group is truly jazz oriented, and the arrangements of Dees’ 14 tracks give them plenty of room to demonstrates their prowess.

Most of the songs are love-themed ballads; they come across as a possible biographical history of the singer’s life. The “stories” they tell require clear and understandable lyrics, and Dees certainly provides that.

As an “elder citizen” — Dees is in his 70s — he’s on par with the best singers past and present.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Michael Waldrop Big Band: Time Within Itself

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Time Within Itself

Percussionist Michael Waldrop plays both drums and mallet instruments (vibes and marimba). He has a PhD and currently is a professor of percussion at Eastern Washington University, where he teaches both jazz and classical courses. 

He also directs a big band, and this is that ensemble’s inaugural album.

Once upon a time — back in unenlightened times — drummers often were looked down upon. (Question: “How big is your band?” Answer: “Sixteen musicians and a drummer.”) Happily, that’s no longer the case. During the past several months, I’ve reviewed numerous units led by drummers who have college degrees, who compose and arrange their own music, and who are affiliated with — and teach — at upper-level schools. Waldrop is in good company.

He was a member of the Grammy-nominated One O’Clock Lab Band; he has toured the U.S. and Europe with various groups; and he has played with numerous jazz icons and personnel. The big band here is impressive: five reeds, eight brass and a rhythm section of four, along with guest performers on some tracks. 

All of these tracks are original compositions, half by Waldrop. Woodwind impresario Jack Cooper (who also fronts his own big band) wrote the others and masterfully arranged everything on the album. Everybody deserves mention, but I must acknowledge master guitarist and vocalist Jimi Tunnell, and vocalist Sandra Dudley; both contribute “no-word” shading on three tracks, using their voices as instruments, to back up the band’s swinging instrumental passages. The result is impressive, and really adds to the impact.

This is a wonderful orchestra, filled with extremely talented artists. Want more proof? The entire album was completed in just one day!

Jiggs Whigham: not so standards

Azica Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: not so standards

I’m willing to bet that few readers will recognize any of this trio’s artists ... although I might be mistaken when it comes to trombonist Jiggs Whigham. He leads this group, and he played with two of the more famous “ghost” bands: the Glenn Miller orchestra that was led by Ray McKinley in 1961, and the 1963 Stan Kenton “mellophonium” band. 

Whigham was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1943; he was only 17 when he joined the Miller group. But touring wasn’t what he wanted as a profession, so — after his stint with Kenton — he settled in New York City to play commercially. That didn’t satisfied him either, so he migrated to Germany, where he still lives and works.

Whigham teaches and is a regular with big bands led by Kurt Edelhagen, Bert Kaempfert and Peter Herbolzheimer (likely unknown in the States, but big in Germany). Whigham also has been musical director for the Radio in the American Sector Big Band, and currently conducts Great Britain’s BBC Big Band. He periodically returns to the U.S., where he plays and records with American jazz artists.

The trio featured on this release is unusual, in that it consists of trombone, piano and electric bass. German-born Florian Weber is on piano, while Romanian-born Decebal Badila handles the bass. The session, recorded live at Cleveland’s Nighttown Jazz Club, contains three Great American Songbook standards (“The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come”), two jazz standards (“Bags’ Groove” and “Saint Thomas”) and one original by Whigham. 

The trio sound is unique: definitely not what most folks are accustomed to hearing. Part of that is the instrumentation: The electric bass isn’t as “full” as an upright, and there’s no drummer to help fill in the “bottom.” Additionally, the musicians’ overall style shows a noticeably modern European influence: smooth and “clean,” and not as loose or swinging as many American talents.

All that said, “different” is no less enjoyable. Whigham’s trio delivers an impressive album, and one that deserves placement in your library.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Good Grief! It's Still Jim Martinez

Invisible Touch Music
By guest critic Derrick Bang
Buy CD: Good Grief! It's Still Jim Martinez

Vince Guaraldi has been gone for almost 40 years, but his signature themes are more popular than ever; all manner of jazz musicians have covered the “big three” — “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time Is Here” — with more renditions popping up every year.

Northern California jazz pianist Jim Martinez includes the first two on his new album, which honors Guaraldi’s decisive musical influence on the neighborhood inhabited by Charlie Brown and the rest of Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts gang. But this isn’t a garden-variety collection of Guaraldi covers; eight of these 14 tracks are sparkling Martinez originals, all written and performed in Guaraldi’s larkish, Latinesque “Peanuts style.”

Martinez has Guaraldi’s facility for cute, clever melodic hooks that immediately sound familiar, even when heard for the first time. Better still, they’re catchy and instantly hummable, with the cheerful ebullience that always characterized Guaraldi’s performance style. You can’t help nodding in time to Martinez’s effervescent keyboard work; you also can’t help smiling.

He’s a generous leader, granting plenty of exposure to core band mates Josh Workman (guitar), Marcus Shelby (bass), and Tim Metz and Tony Savage, trading off on drums. Indeed, numerous tracks — such as Martinez’s “Chillin’ at the Warm Puppy Café” — feature engaging “duels” between Martinez and Workman, alternating vigorous solos and comping behind each other. (The title references the aptly named coffee shop adjacent to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California.)

Workman’s deft guitar work also highlights the gentle, Brazilian-hued “Samba for Snoopy,” and the flamenco elements of the impish “Spike and the Cactus Club,” with its shifting time signatures; one imagines Snoopy’s rail-thin brother dancing with a rose between his teeth.

Shelby’s accomplished bass work powers the percussive “Bang!,” which Martinez fills with Guaraldi-esque flourishes; Shelby’s walking bass also drives the sassy “Blues for Beagles,” which gets additional snap from Lucas Bere’s smoldering tenor sax.

The lyrical “Waltz for Vince” feels very much like the style and delivery of Guaraldi’s early Fantasy albums, while “Schroeder Can Play” is a spirited finger-snapper granted plenty of swing by both Martinez and Shelby.

The band’s cover of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is slightly faster than Guaraldi’s version, with Martinez roaring through the lengthy improv bridge. “Linus and Lucy” also is up-tempo, with Metz’s propulsive drum work setting the stage for an initially faithful (but not slavish) adaptation that breaks away when Martinez takes the second bridge into entirely new directions. Guaraldi’s lively “Surfin’ Snoopy” is treated like a classic combo swinger, with Savage and Shelby setting the stage for vigorous solos by Bere, Workman and finally Martinez.

Martinez is equally adept at softer tempos, as with his worshipful handling of Guaraldi’s “Theme to Grace,” an interior theme from the Jazz Mass Guaraldi wrote for San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in the mid-1960s. Workman and Martinez trade quiet, reverential solos in a manner evoking the latter’s numerous “Jazz Praise” albums. Similarly, Martinez’s “Thank You Sparky” is a hushed, heartfelt lament, with his keyboard backed solely by violin.

The album includes one vocal: a tender cover of Rod McKuen’s poignant title song to the 1969 film A Boy Named Charlie Brown, with Margie Rebekah Ruiz’s expressively soulful voice accompanied by Bere’s equally sweet sax solo and a string quartet.

The album is highlighted both by everybody’s tight solo and ensemble work, and by Martinez’s overall impish tone. Most of his original compositions are droll to begin with, and he enhances that exuberance with occasional quotes from sources as varied as Gershwin, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Guaraldi himself.

This album’s dexterous musicality certainly is a selling point, but — most of all — it’s fun. As with Guaraldi’s many albums, you can’t help wanting to play this one again ... and again and again.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Steve Gadd Band: 70 Strong

BFM Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: 70 Strong

Those who don’t know Steve Gadd must not be serious jazz fans. He’s not merely one of the top drummers working today; he’s an impressively prolific, experienced and in-demand artist, when it comes to his fellow musicians. He has participated on more than 150 albums produced by top artists and groups during his 40 years as a professional. 

He was born in 1945 in a suburb of Rochester, New York, began drum lessons when he was 7, and was sitting in with Dizzy Gillespie by age 11. Gadd attended both the Manhattan School of Music and Eastman School of Music. After graduation, he joined Chuck Mangione’s band; Gadd’s first recording session was in 1968, on Mangione’s debut album.

Gadd spent three years in the Army, with their Jazz Ambassadors band. After his military service, he began playing with some of that period’s best groups: Chick Corea, Simon and Garfunkel, Steely Dan, Carly Simon, Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Quincy Jones, to name a few. He also worked with James Taylor and in many, many studio bands while backing vocal icons. (Note the wide variation of styles.)

Gadd’s tasteful percussion work has made him a first-call favorite with vocalists. One example is Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and I still get a kick out of Gadd’s phrasing on that gem.

This new album celebrates Gadd’s 70th birthday. It’s done with a quintet format, featuring Walt Fowler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Larry Goldings on keyboards and accordion, Jimmy Johnson on bass, and Michael Landau on guitars. As is usually the case with Gadd, the tracks concentrate more on these side artists ... but Gadd’s work backing and driving the group is fantastic; pay attention to the timing, accents and fills on “Foan Home,” the album’s opening track.

Another of Gadd’s notable characteristics is his love of moderate to balladic tempos; this album has no flag-wavers or drum solos, just great, tasty drumming on a wide range of musical styles.

Here’s to another quarter-century, Steve!

Benny Sharoni: Slant Signature

Papaya Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Slant Signature

I did my first review of tenor saxman Benny Sharoni about five years ago; he had just released his first album, Eternal Elixir. I was impressed. But then, no sign of him until now, when spring brought this album.

He’s even better now.

Sharoni was born in Israeli and raised in a kibbutz near the Gaza strip. He served the mandatory three-year stint in the Israeli army; during that period, he fell in love with jazz. (Sonny Rollins was a major influence.) After his military service, he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music, and chose the life of a professional musician.

Both albums have featured a sextet, although two pianists switched that chair in the first release. Four of the artists who supported him on Elixir — pianist Joe Barbato, guitarist Mike Mele, bassist Todd Baker and drummer Steve Lagone —also are present in on this new release. They’re joined by Jim Rotondi on trumpet.

This group plays bop, although in several styles: straight-ahead, Latin, New Orleans strut and blues. Through it all, you’ll also detect a hint of his homeland. Most important: Everything swings. Sharoni demonstrates Rollins’ influence, but without being a copycat. 

Five of the eight tracks are Sharoni originals. The three jazz standards are by Lee Morgan (“Ceora”), Freddie Hubbard (“Down Under”) and Ray Bryant (“Tonk”).

Don’t make us wait so long for your next session, Benny!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The John Fedchock Quartet: Fluidity

Summit Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Fluidity

I’ve always been partial to jazz trombone. During the big band era, I was knocked out by artists such as Bill Harris, Bob Brookmeyer, Carl Fontana, Bill Watrous, Frank Rosolino, Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson; these days, it’s John Fedchock. 

Born during the latter years of that wonderful era, Fedchock studied at Ohio State University and the Eastman School of Music. He began his career in the 1980s, touring with Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd for seven years, during which time he was a featured soloist, musical director and arranger. 

Fedchock also worked with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Louie Bellson and the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra. These days, he fronts his own big band and smaller combos. Fluidity, recorded live at the Havanah Nights Club, features him in a quartet setting with pianist John Toomey, bassist Jimmy Masters and drummer Dave Ratajczak.

This release is deliciously relaxed and beautifully performed. Six of the nine tracks are well-known standards, done at moderate and balladic tempos: they include “East of the Sun,” “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Such immediately familiar tunes clearly had a positive impact on the musicians and their audience. 

Additionally, just to make sure everyone had something to groove to, the guys included a few charts composed by Fedchock — “Havanah” and “Under the Radar” — along with Joe Henderson’s “Homestretch.”

Fedchock produces a great tone from his horn. At ballad tempos, it’s smooth, pure and expressive; conversely, during up-tempo movers, he gets a little rougher and more strident ... and really grabs you by the throat! His solos are inventive at any tempo. 

His cohorts are the ideal complement; Fedchock has known and played with them for years. Toomey and Ratajczak also attended the Eastman School of Music, and the latter isn’t your average jazz drummer; he also worked in the pit bands for numerous Broadway shows.

Fedchock’s liner notes are excellent and informative, so don't ignore them. Sadly, the Havanah Nights Club — like too many similar venues — folded not long after this live session. Finally, and sadly, Ratajczak passed away from cancer, less than a year later. He’ll be missed.

But be sure you don’t miss this release. It’s an excellent reminder of the top-notch jazz still available in (ever fewer?) venues nationwide

The H2 Big Band: It Could Happen

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: It Could Happen

The world boasts many excellent musicians, but very few top-of-the-line arrangers. They know who they are, of course, but the listening public usually doesn't even know their names. That’s a real shame, because they’re often the individuals who transform a good combo into a great one. 

Dave Hanson, who arranged every track on this release, is my current favorite in this category.

The H2 Big Band was created by two Denver-based artists: pianist, teacher and “arranger supreme” Hanson, and trumpeter Al Hood is the other (thus the H2). This is their third album, following Just a Little Taste and You’re It! It should be noted, however, that the “big band” descriptor didn’t become appropriate until the second release ... and, while that group was comprised of Denver-based artists, this one uses L.A. studio musicians.

Almost two dozen personnel were utilized here: six woodwinds, four trumpets/
flugelhorns (one of them Hood), four trombones, five in the rhythm section —  including Hanson on piano, and Larry Koonse on guitar — guest vocalist Rene Marie, and a small string section on two tracks.

The results are stunning, the two-day session having produced 11 fantastic tracks. The arrangements include fabulous melodic lines that are interwoven with equally great improv sections. The solo work swings and, when appropriate, is elegant. This album demands your attention: truly incomparable concert big band jazz.  

“Hocus-Pocus,” “CP You” and “B in C” are great swingers; standards including “The Look of Love,” “It Could Happen to You” and “You Go to My Head” shine like brand new vehicles; and “The Healing Hymn” is absolutely gorgeous.

Three tracks — “Black Lace,” “Freudian Slip” and “Autobiography” — are composed and sung by Marie, who has an expressive voice and jazz feel. She’s probably better known for her writing, acting and (at times) “attitude,” but she sure can sell her songs.

I still miss the original big band days, but this H2 release genuinely soothes my soul.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Don Aliquo/Clay Jenkins Quintet: New Ties and Binds

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: New Ties and Binds

As the title of this release implies, we’re not dealing with any standards on this session. All the charts are by members of the quintet: Tenor saxman Don Aliquo wrote four, while his colleagues — trumpeter Clay Jenkins, pianist Harold Danko, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Jim White — each contributed one. 

Each musician’s resume could fill an entire page. Jenkins has worked with Harry James, Buddy Rich, Count Basie and the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Danko has supported Woody Herman, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and myriad groups led by icons such as Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz and Chet Baker. Reid has been part of units fronted by Art Farmer, Stan Getz and Jack DeJohnette. With respect to Australian-born White, it’s easier to say, “You name an Aussie group; he played with them.” Aliquo, finally, is a well-known sideman and teacher in the Tennessee area.

This quintet’s style is complex straight-ahead: The melodic lines, chords and key-changes keep the artists and listeners on their toes. The various arrangements’ unison sections must have been written, as they’re too complicated to commit to memory.

Most of the charts are mid- to up-tempo, and they all swing nicely. Reid deserves much of the credit; some bassists may play more creative solos, but none is more steady. Additionally, Reid is a great “producer,” meaning that he has a great talent for getting the most out of any group with which he plays.

All in all, this is an intriguing and engaging album. Give it a shot.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ted Howe Jazz Orchestra: Pinnacle

Hot Shoe Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Pinnacle

Some individuals are blessed with a single talent that sets them apart from others; very few folks are able to use that talent to expand their lives in ways that not only affect their own future, but that of others encountered along the way. Ted Howe is one such individual. 

He began as a lover of music, particularly jazz; he took piano lessons from Henry Smith, one of the founders of the Berklee College of Music. Howe began as a student and eventually became a professor, teaching theory, improvisation and arranging.

He was only 24 years old.

After some military service, he returned to civilian life and got a job at The Surf Supper Club, a major Boston venue that often featured major artists. Howe often created arrangements for them, in addition to performing with his own groups. Those years were key to the development of his skills as a composer and producer.

His base combo is a trio, which he often uses to produce shows — and albums — that feature music by icons such as Duke Ellington, Elton John and Dave Brubeck. Much of that work has included dance theater and ballets. 

Pinnacle, Howe’s newest CD, features a 13-piece jazz orchestra that uses a unique combination of instruments. The rhythm section contains a piano (two artists share that chair), bass, guitar, drums and another percussionist; the reed section consists of only three musicians, but they switch between flute, four clarinet versions, and soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes. Finally, a “heavy” brass section features trumpet/flugelhorn and as many as four trombones.  

Howe composed and arranged all the charts in a “classical” jazz format that features four individual pieces and a three-movement suite. The styles vary from swing and funk, to Latin and bop, done in different meters. And, oh my, how they swing!

It’s impossible to pick favorite tracks, although I’m blown away by those that feature bassist John Patitucci: “Presto for Two Trombones” and “Jazz Etude for Three Clarinets.” The latter chart brought back memories of Benny Goodman’s classic recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” with Patitucci’s bass doing the Krupa drum lines, battling Goodman’s clarinet line as a trio.

This is a truly great CD, among the best I’ve reviewed in years.

Ezra Weiss Sextet: Before You Know It

Roark Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Before You Know It

My first exposure to pianist/composer Ezra Weiss occurred in 2009, when I reviewed Alice In Wonderland, an album he specifically designed to expose young children to jazz. The idea was excellent; the music and musicians were outstanding.

Before You Know It is Weiss’ newest album, and he and his sextet continue to produce some genuinely fine stuff. Weiss composed most of these songs; the exceptions are George and Ira Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day,” and John Coltrane’s “Alabama.”

Weiss is supported by Farnell Newton (trumpet), John Nastos (alto sax), Devin Phillips (tenor sax), Jon Shaw (bass) and Christopher Brown (drums).

They’ve worked together in numerous jazz clubs throughout the States, but home is Portland, Oregon. As a result, this album was recorded live at Portland’s Ivories Jazz Lounge. As usually is the case, an audience brings out the best in the artists. 

The number of balladic tempos featured during the set also is refreshing. Yes, Weiss & Co. deliver some real swingers — “The Crusher” and “The Five AM Strut” are noteworthy — but the musicians truly shine during the gentler charts for “Winter Machine,” “Don’t Need No Ticket” and “A Foggy Day.”

Pay attention to Mr. Weiss and his friends. This is another of the many fine groups that make the Pacific Northwest a jazz Mecca.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Vance Thompson's Five Plus Six: Such Sweet Thunder

Shade Street Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Such Sweet Thunder

Here’s another swinger from the American heartland. The locale is Knoxville, Tennessee: a part of the country not generally known for jazz. Trumpeter and arranger Vance Thompson initially formed a standard 18-piece unit — the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra — patterned after those of the big band era. He then stripped that down to a bebop quintet — the Marble City Five — consisting of trumpet, sax, piano, bass and drums. But he decided that something was missing, so he added half a dozen horns: hence Five Plus Six.

Thompson then expanded the reed section to include two more saxes (one a baritone), two more trumpets and a bass trombone. That’s the group featured on this debut release.

Most of the menu’s nine tunes are jazz standards: three by Thelonious Monk (“Pannonica,” “Four in One” and “Ugly Beauty”); three by Duke Ellington (“Such Sweet Thunder,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm”); and Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan.” The two exceptions are a traditional Appalachian Folk song, “He’s Gone Away”; and the real surprise, Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow.”

Don’t laugh, it’s a gem!

The musicians are split age-wise; half are veterans, and half are Knoxville’s younger lions. They’re all excellent, and the band swings wonderfully. I have only one complaint: What took them so long to bring their talents to our attention?

May a lot more be forthcoming.

Mitch Shiner and the Blooming Tones Big Band: Fly

Patois Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Fly

I love jazz for many reasons, particularly the wonderful way it evolves with time. New artists arrive on the stage, many superior to those who preceded them. Styles morph, often related to geography — Dixieland, ragtime, etc. — cultural or ethnic background, or even technical advances in instruments. But the major factor often is the thought processes of the musicians themselves, and the composers and arrangers who create the music.

Early “advanced thinkers” included Boyd Raeburn, Ed Finckel and George Handy: artists relatively unknown to the general public, but nonetheless considered masters by many name band leaders. Raeburn’s unit never was commercially successful, although he resurrected it many times, but his arrangements were used by stalwarts such as Stan Kenton and many other. Needless to say, Duke Ellington loved Raeburn.

I regard Mitch Shiner and his Blooming Tones Big Band as today’s equivalent of Raeburn. Shiner’s group is brilliant, powerful and among the best I’ve heard in years.

Shiner plays drums and vibes, and composes and arranges. He also teaches; he graduated from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and is an active band/group leader in the Bloomington and Indianapolis areas. Most impressive is the fact that the Blooming Tones Big Band is composed entirely of students. The album’s 10 tracks feature (not all at once) five woodwinds, five trombones, five trumpets and flugelhorns, a tuba, two French horns, a guitar, three upright or electric basses, a pianist, two vibraphones, three drummers, four percussionists and two vocalists. (Whew!)

This isn’t like any college group I’ve ever heard. It’s the equivalent of today’s top professional bands in all respects; the phrasing, power, accuracy, tone and solos are all exceptional. Eight of the 10 songs are originals, and two are standards (“When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”). All the arrangements are stunning, and goodness, but these folks swing.

Do not miss this album!   

Sunday, May 31, 2015

David Benoit and Jane Monheit: 2 in Love

Concord Records
By Derrick Bang
Buy CD: 2 in Love

Longtime jazz pianist David Benoit has worked with numerous vocalists and instrumentalists over the years, but his albums have tended to be primarily solo affairs with guests on only a few tracks. This one’s an exception: a true collaboration that  blends Benoit’s diverse keyboard work with the sultry tones of swing-hued chanteuse Jane Monheit. The result is thoroughly engaging: a warm give-and-take between two pros who obviously had a lot of fun recording these 10 tracks.

Things get off to a lively start with the bossa nova-inflected “Barcelona Nights,” a rocker that boasts a strong percussive background until a bridge that slows and features Monheit’s lyrical vocal against Pat Kelley’s tasty guitar work. Benoit follows the interlude with a brief but lively piano solo, demonstrating anew that he’s too frequently (and unfairly) tagged as “merely a smooth jazz pianist.”

The mid-tempo “Too in Love” finds Monheit in a similarly saucy samba vibe, with the tune’s romantic lyrics again nicely augmented by Lauren Kosty’s percussive backdrop and Benoit’s driving piano chops.

Most of the remaining tunes are slower, gentler ballads such as “Fly Away,” which builds to melodramatic crescendos that allow Monheit (in her own words) to “wail ... [on] a style of music that I don’t often get to sing.” A quiet piano prologue from Benoit opens the sweet, waltz-timed “Dragonfly,” which blends backing piano with violin (Michelle Suh) and cello (Cathy Biagini); the latter two also add pleasing touches to the haunting, melancholy “Something’s Gotta Give,” originally written by Benoit and lyricist Mark Winkler for the stage musical Don’t Count Me Out, a depiction of the final weeks of the doomed Marilyn Monroe’s life.

Benoit released an earlier version of that latter tune on his 2005 album Orchestral Stories; he similarly “freshens up” another of his tunes — the much older “Life Is Like a Samba,” from his 1977 album Heavier Than Yesterday — and, re-christened with a new title (“Love in Hyde Park”), turns it into a delightful instrumental. The album concludes with a second instrumental: Benoit’s soulful solo piano fusion of Leonard Bernstein’s love theme from Candide and Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music.

Aside from the individuals already mentioned, the album’s drumming chores are divided between Clayton Cameron and Jamey Tate, while John Clayton and Davis Hughes trade off on bass.

At not quite 40 minutes, 2 in Love is short but definitely sweet: a nice interlude for late-night snuggling.