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.