Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Chris Walden Big Band: Full-On

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Full-On

If Chris Walden is unfamiliar, you’ve some catching up to do. He mostly creates musical settings for major stars such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Buble, Diana Krall and Neil Young — as he puts it, “That’s where the money is” — but his real joy is big band jazz. This is his newest release in that genre.

Walden was born in Hamburg, Germany, apparently emerging from the womb as a fully formed musician. He was playing the recorder at age 5, the piano at 7, and the trumpet at 13; by the time he turned 16, he was writing arrangements and compositions for local high school bands. He studied at Hamburg’s Music Academy and subsequently graduated from the Cologne University of Music with two master’s degrees, in trumpet and composition.

He was a member of the German National Youth Orchestra, and he became involved in orchestrating and composing music for German films. He immigrated to Los Angeles in 1996, and went to work scoring TV movies for ABC, CBS, A&E, Hallmark and the Sci-Fi channels. In his spare time, he wrote arrangements for Paul Anka, Nancy Wilson, Michael Bolton and Christopher Cross.

Walden’s first love finally took over in 1999, and he created his first big band. 2005 saw the release of his first album, Home of My Heart, which received two Grammy nominations. That debut was followed by No Bounds and Kurt Marti Suite, and now Full-On.

Walden’s core group is a standard 18-piece unit, but 21 artists contributed to this album’s 12 tracks. Arturo Sandoval makes a guest appearance, as do six different female vocalists; one of the latter is Tierney Sutton, a personal favorite.

Five of the tunes are Walden originals, with the rest coming from Stevie Wonder, Leonard Bernstein, Hank Williams, Christopher Cross and other composers. Walden’s arrangements are true swingers, but quite tasteful and relatively “quiet,” because so much of his work is for vocalists. I’ve seen Walden’s work described elsewhere as “orderly,” an appropriately apt term.

This album will take you back to the heart and soul of the big band era, while simultaneously showcasing the talent and modern approach of today’s artists.

Nir Naaman: Independence

Nir Naaman Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Independence

Nir Naaman was born and raised in Israel, where every able-bodied citizen is required  to serve time in the military; he wound up playing lead alto saxophone in the Israeli Air Force Band. He moved to the States in 2004, graduated from the Berklee College of Music, and then earned a master’s degree in jazz studies from Purchase College. Next up was a stint at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C., where he was mentored by George Cables, Billy Taylor, Curtis Fuller and others. 

Still striving to further his education, Naaman currently is enrolled in the doctor of musical arts program at Boston’s New England Conservatory. He splits his time between Boston and New York City, where he leads a quartet. 

Independence is Naaman’s debut album. He plays both alto and soprano sax, and composed all but three of the tunes: Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You,” Jimmy Van-Heusen/Johnny Burke’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and the traditional “Eshal Elohai.” Naaman is supported by Marcus Printup (trumpet), George Cables and Roy Assaf (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass) and Gregory Hutchinson and Ulysses Owens Jr. (drums).

The varied album menu includes up-tempo, bop-tinged swingers; soft, danceable ballads; and the aforementioned Yemenite Jewish dance.

Naaman is a promising artist, and his combo is excellent. I look forward to hearing more from him.

Hendrik Meurkens and Misha Tsiganov: Junity

Hendrik Meurkens Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Junity

Despite Toots Thielemans’ decades-long reign as a master of the jazz harmonica, that particular “mouth organ” remains one of the last instruments one thinks of, when considering our favorite music genre. Well, for much of that same time, German-born Hendrik Meurkens also has been considered a harmonica master, although he began his career playing the vibraphone. After hearing Thielemans, however, Meurkens concentrated on the smaller  instrument. 

He and Russian pianist Misha Tsiganov have performed together for years. Both gained early fame in their home countries; both became immersed in jazz; both attended Boston’s famed Berklee College Of Music; and both ultimately settled in New York City. And, needless to say, both have worked with many of the world’s famous jazz artists. 

On much of this album, the harmonica/piano duo is joined by bassist Oleg Osen Osenkov and drummer Willard Dyson; the former also hails from Russia — and also attended Berklee — while the latter is from San Francisco. 

Like Thielemans, Meurkens plays the chromatic harmonica. While Thielemans concentrated on jazz — playing guitar, harmonica and “whistling” — Meurkens was trained in both classical and jazz genres. This release demonstrates his skill with both. He achieves a pure, clean tone that is second to none, whether performing a ballad (“Ruby My Dear,” “Luiza,” “Close Enough for Love”) or swinging standards (“West Coast Blues,” “Pent Up House,” “Blackbird,” “Norwegian Wood”).

This is one of the finest albums of beautiful, moving jazz, performed by magnificent musicians, that I’ve heard in years. Don’t miss it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tony Kadleck Big Band: Around the Horn

Tony Kadleck Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Around the Horn

Tony Kadleck’s dreams as a kid were to become a professional baseball player, but the “growth spurt” that he needed never arrived; he therefore followed his alternate desire and turned to music. Forty years later, he has become a sought-after trumpet sideman, composer and arranger in the New York area. 

He attended the New England Conservatory in Boston, studying both classical and jazz; was a member of the Boston Pops Orchestra; and then joined the Buddy Rich Big Band, moving to New York later that year. After graduating from the Manhattan School of Music in 1989, he toured with stars such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Then, back in New York, he embraced studio recording with the likes of Elton John, Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Steely Dan and others. 

Most recently, he has been on Broadway, in the orchestra for Disney’s Aladdin.

He never lost his love for big bands, though, and has performed with John Pizzarelli’s Swing Seven, Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra, and John Fedchock’s New York Big Band.

This album fulfills Kadleck’s desire to head his own large ensemble. He has assembled a cadre of top-notch colleagues: More than two dozen artists took part in these recording sessions, although they switched chairs for the 10 tunes on the menu. Kadleck arranged everything: compositions by artists such as Stevie Wonder, Michel LeGrand, Michael Brecker, Leonard Bernstein and others.

As for the quality Kadleck’s arrangements, and the band itself, both are top drawer. The same is true of the liner notes, which identify each song’s players and soloists, so you don’t have to wonder who’s who. The charts all swing, although they aren’t burners; the band sounds like one that audiences once crowded up to watch, to “absorb what was being laid down,” so they didn’t miss a thing.

This is a marvelous release, and you won’t want to miss a thing either! 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra: Over Time — The Music of Bob Brookmeyer

Planet Arts Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Over Time

Jazz fans who lived during the Big Band era know that Bob Brookmeyer was one of that period’s giants. His primary instrument was the valve trombone, but he also played piano and, most importantly, was a master composer and arranger. It simply isn’t possible to name a jazz great with whom he didn’t play, or a colleague who didn’t admire his talent, or a modern artist who doesn’t revere him.

Brookmeyer’s first horn was the clarinet, but he quickly turned to the piano. By the age of 14, he was writing arrangements for full orchestras, and making a living out of it! All that aside, he fell in love with the trombone: not the common slide instrument, but the version that used valves. The tone and “sound” he got out of that model were beyond compare. He blessed us with a lengthy career — born in 1929, died in 2011 — and he worked with literally hundreds of combos and bands. His discography ran from the 1950s to just a year before his death.

Brookmeyer was associated with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra for years, and this CD features his compositions and arrangements. The original 16-piece orchestra was formed in 1966 by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis; this album gathers 19 musicians.

The result is gorgeous. The set list features eight compositions, including a three-movement suite; although these arrangements don’t swing as much as some of Brookmeyer’s earlier music, it’s true modern jazz. His talents continued to grow and advance throughout his life, and this release is proof positive of his overall mastery and place in the jazz pantheon.   

Jeff Colella and Putter Smith: Lotus Blossom

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Lotus Blossom

Pianist Jeff Colella and bassist Putter Smith aren't well known to the general public, but they’re considered 'royalty' in the jazz world. Even a full type-written page couldn’t adequately list the musical artists and groups with whom they've played, and the compositions they've written.

Colella toured with Lou Rawls for 16 years, as pianist and conductor. Colella also has supported famed vocalists such as Diane Schurr, Anita O'Day, Morgana King, Dolly Parton and Jack Jones; dancers Gregory Hines, Savion Glover and the Jazz Tap Ensemble; and numerous top instrumentalists (including my favorite guitarist, Larry Koonse). 

Smith's associates include Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Alan Broadbent, Bob Brookmeyer and many, many more groups and vocalists.  He composed the scores for several films and even played the role of assassin Mr. Kidd, in the James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever. Oh, yes; Smith also writes music instruction books.

Lotus Blossom features these two master artists as a duet. The seven tracks include some originals — Smith’s “Desert Passes” and Colella’s “Gone Too Soon” — alongside Bill Evans’ “Time Remembered,” Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” Michel LeGrand’s “You Must Believe in Spring” and Koonse’s “Candle.”

The resulting album is one of most moving releases I’ve heard in years. You’ve heard this phrase dozens of times: “They sound like they’re able to read each other’s minds." Well, in this case it’s particularly apt, because Colella and Smith have worked together for years. This is smooth, softly swinging and beautiful jazz: music that you’ll listen to over and over.