Sunday, December 4, 2016

Holiday Swing: The platinum edition

[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.]

Bah, humbug!

I began this annual survey of holiday jazz in 1997, which makes this the 20th anniversary entry: a milestone ironically marked by the utter absence of major label releases ... pretty much a first, during these past two decades.

Whatta buncha Grinches!

Granted, there’s no shortage of new Christmas albums by artists in the realms of pop, country, folk, New Age and pretty much every other genre one could mention. But not in jazz.

In fact, the only major jazz label even acknowledging the 2016 holiday season is Verve, but only with two more of its potpourri collections of recordings from years past: a nice way for newbies to start a collection, but not such a much for those of us who already own all the albums in question.

Could the bloom be wearing off the holiday jazz rose?

Definitely not. We always can count on musicians who take the independent route, releasing their albums through online entities such as Amazon or cdbaby, via disc or download. It’s still too soon to call physical CDs an endangered species, but it’s telling that — every year — more artists don’t offer that as an option.

Regardless of the distribution form, and the fact that this year’s list is shorter than usual, you’ll still find enough great jazz to put some swing in your holiday step.


This year’s superlative hit is the Fred Hughes Trio’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas, one of the finest piano trio holiday albums ever released. The Pennsylvania-born Hughes has performed, conducted and taught — nationally and internationally — for more than three decades, and his keyboard chops are ample evidence of a lifetime’s worth of devotion. He has worked alongside jazz luminaries such as Arturo Sandoval, Toots Thielemans and Roy Hargrove, and this seasonal CD garnered a well-deserved 3-1/2 star review from Downbeat magazine.

In a word, it’s terrific.

In another word, Hughes is a keyboard monster.

Such beasts come in two distinct flavors. Some are best known for cacophonous, unmelodic “free jazz” solos that soar into a tuneless stratosphere and prompt little beyond grimaces from all but the most broad-minded listeners. Hughes belongs to the other end of the spectrum: His improvisational solos are a melodic blend of lightning-swift single-note runs and tuneful power chords, the results both exhilarating and very pleasant to the ear.

Hughes compares quite favorably to piano legend Paul Smith: high praise that I don’t offer lightly.

Hughes is supported ably by the talented Amy Shook (bass) and Frank Russo (drums), and this collection of 11 Christmas chestnuts is consistently enjoyable. Hughes is a generous leader, granting ample space to both colleagues on all tracks, and it’s clear that all three are having a great time.

The album kicks off with a mid-tempo reading of “Winter Wonderland,” which offers a taste of things to come: a strong beat, ferocious keyboard chops and a lovely midpoint bass solo. The tune concludes, rather cheekily, on an unresolved chord.

“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is similarly propulsive, with Russo laying down a fast march tempo, and Shook contributing a lively bass solo against Hughes’ deft keyboard comping. “Jingle Bells” opens with Shook’s fast walking bass, Hughes taking the melody with single notes and then lyrical chords, the tempo building as all three get down, until concluding unexpectedly at a gentler shuffle with a droll walking bass finale.

The slower numbers are equally lovely. Hughes opens the waltz-time “Silver Bells” with quiet piano, later inserting a playful keyboard solo against Shook’s equally sweet bass. “The Christmas Song” is given a similarly contemplative arrangement against Russo’s solid 4/4 beat; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is downright poignant, and highlighted by a particularly thoughtful bass solo.

“Let It Snow” opens with a lyrical blend of piano and bass, both trading off in the foreground; the tune’s improv bridge includes a cute bass and drum interlude, along with more of Hughes’ poetic piano riffs. Russo gives “Silent Night” a slow, reverential beat, and he contributes a surprisingly gentle drum solo to an otherwise dynamic reading of “White Christmas.”

The album closes with a mid-tempo 4/4 handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which boasts a sublime bass solo and a playful drum interlude, before concluding with a pleasingly resolved chord: a clever counterpoint to the aforementioned first track.

Get this album. You’ll never stop playing it!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Dick Oatts, Mats Holmquist and the New York Jazz Orchestra: A Tribute to Herbie + 1

Summit Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: A Tribute to Herbie + 1

First came the artist, and his music: Herbie Hancock, born in 1940, was a child prodigy. At age 11, he performed a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At 20, he was playing jazz with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins, and he joined Miles Davis’ great quintet in 1963. But Hancock wasn’t merely a player, he’s also a composer and innovator. He earned degrees in music, electrical engineering and fine arts, and was one of the first to introduce electronic instruments into jazz. 

This album is a tribute to Hancock: All but one of the tunes are his compositions.

Mats Holmquist is one of the jazz world’s finest composers and arrangers. He arranged all the charts on this album, and wrote the one equally fine original (“Stevie R.”). Holmquist has long been a huge fan of Hancock’s work, and this album is by way of a tribute.

Saxophone artist Dick Oatts, an icon on that instrument, also is a Hancock fan. Holmquist chose Oatts to co-create this CD, and they assembled the New York Jazz Orchestra: all first-call artists from New York City and Scandinavia. The result is one of the swinging-est releases to arrive in years.

Everybody is familiar with Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and “Watermelon Man” but — as this album demonstrates — “Dolphin Dance,” “Chameleon” and “Maiden Voyage” are equally grooving. “Eye of the Hurricane,” “Jessica” and “Toys” are lesser known, but Hancock’s footprints are all over them.

The arrangements are sensational, and the orchestra’s execution by is outstanding. (The liner notes reveal that the group gathered for only one rehearsal, and that only one of the recording sessions required a second take.) The solo performances are fantastic; every section contributes one or more artists who add to the excitement delivered by the full ensemble.

Thanks to Herbie, Mats, Dick and Summit Records, for this sensational release!

Walter Simonsen: This is Trumpetology

Simonsen Sounds
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: This Is Trumpetology

This album is quite different than any I’ve encountered thus far. It features a brass section of half a dozen trumpets, supported by a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. 

The selections are jazz standards that have been featured, and often composed, by trumpet artists such as Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Dorham. The menu features “Autumn Leaves,” “Milestones,” “Sidewinder,” “Anthropology,” “Blues Walk,” “Skydive,” “Prince Albert,” “So What,” “Unit 7,” “Summertime” and “I Wish.” (Longtime jazz fans should have no trouble associating each tune with its featured musician.)

The ensemble is headed by Walter Simonsen, who plays trumpet/flugelhorn and is a composer, arranger, conductor and educator at the University of Southern California. The brass section consists of students who are artists and educators in their own right: James Blackwell, Tim Gill, Brian Mantz, Brian Owen and Cameron Summers.

Two rhythm sections are utilized: pianist Adam Bravo, bassist Alex Frank, and drummer Adam Alesi on three tracks; and pianist Kait Dunton, bassist Cooper Appelt, and drummer Jake Reed on the other eight. Simonsen arranged each chart, and the liner notes identify the featured soloists.

A unified trumpet section can be fantastic; remember the GRP Big Band’s choruses on  “Cherokee”? Well, the section work here is technically equal, and the individual solos are great. I have only one caveat, which I’ll call an absence of “looseness.” There isn’t a fluff anywhere, but that makes these performances almost too perfect. A metronome keeps perfect time, but it doesn’t swing; these artists would be better swingers if they’d relax a bit.

That aside, this is a fine, fine album.

Joe Mulholland Trio: Runaway Train

Zoho Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Runaway Train

Boston always has been a magnet for musical artists, both classical and jazz, and is famous for the many artists and organizations that call it home. Many jazz greats were students at the Berklee College of Music or the New England Conservatory of Music, and later joined the teaching staff at one or the other. Three such individuals comprise the Joe Mulholland Trio. 

Mulholland, a pianist, has been affiliated with Berklee since 1954, and currently is a professor of harmony. Drummer Bob Tamagni is a professor of percussion at the same school; bassist Bob Nieske is artist-in-residence and director of jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music. They also play professionally, and have enjoyed a 15-year gig at Boston’s Top of the Hub club.

This is the trio’s first release on Zoho Records, although they’ve recorded three previous CDs. Six of these nine tracks are originals composed by Mulholland; the others are jazz standards by Miles Davis (“Nardis”), Jimmy Giuffre (“Me Too”), and Arthur Schwartz and Howard Deitz (“Alone Together”). 

This is a tasty, less-is-more group. The melodic content and chord structure of Mulholland’s originals are based not only on creating a pleasant tune, but on exposing his students to the various aspects of music: meter, timing, genre and composition. One of the charts is done in 5/4 (“Lesser Than”); another (“Phrenology”) incorporates a bop feel; “The Same Sky” contains counter-melodic lines.

Whatever; everything is entertaining. It would be great if this group performed close enough to visit — and enjoy — on a regular basis.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Bob Mintzer: All L.A. Band

Fuzzy Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: All L.A. Band

Some musicians are like fine wine: The longer they exist, the better the quality when the bottle is opened anew. Saxophonist Bob Mintzer and drummer Peter Erskine are two examples. And, as often is the case, primo artists attract other primo artists; the result is a magnificent case of jazz.

The L.A. Jazz Band features some of the finest musicians who make their home on the West Coast: a trumpet section of five masters; a trombone section of four equally adept artists; a three-man reed section; Larry Koonse on guitar; Russ Ferrante on piano; and a bassist and another percussionist to support Erskine, who also produced this album. 

Mintzer composed and arranged all the tracks, and the result is a monster library that covers all jazz bases. The shelves include three Afro-Cuban selections, one of which is the opener, “El Caborojeno,” which grabs you by the throat and swings madly. The Basie-style charts — “Havin’ Some Fun,” “Home Basie” and “Tribute” — are typical of that wonderful style; every part of your body will start moving, as you join into the beat.

“Original People” is in a reggae mood, and a couple of tunes will take you back to the Yellowjackets days. (Mintzer was a member of that group for 20 years.) He also wrote “Slo Funk” for the Buddy Rich band, when he was a sideman with them. Nor can we overlook hard bop, exemplified by “Runferyerlife.”

This is a wonderful trip through all of the avenues of Jazz City. The ensemble melodic lines groove smoothly, and the many solo choruses are first-class. As always is the case, when I hear big band albums such as this one — produced via only one recording session, or special occasion — I’m reminded of the past, when this kind of music was readily available almost everywhere, almost any time.

This is a very welcome blast from the past.

Mark Murphy: Live in Athens, Greece

Harbinger Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Live in Athens, Greece

Unless you’re a longtime jazz fan — and likely a senior citizen, to boot — you probably haven’t the foggiest notion who Mark Murphy was. That’s a shame, because he’s one of the finest male jazz vocalists who ever lived. 

But he was born too soon (in 1932), and performed during a period when vocalists of his gender were crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Bing Crosby, Mel Tormé and the many others who were all the rage. A few, usually later in their lives, were
indoctrinated into the jazz world — most notably Sinatra and Tormé — but nobody ever reached the skill level that Murphy occupied during his entire career.

It was a long one: He died in 2015, and had performed his final concert just two years earlier. And although the general public likely wasn’t aware of his prowess, iconic jazz musicians and vocalists knew and worshiped him. When he performed or recorded, he had his pick of artists eager to back him. Murphy also was prolific, recording more than 50 albums. The last one released during his lifetime was 2013’s A Beautiful Friendship: Remembering Shirley Horn.

This “new” album was recorded live in 2008, at the Gazarte Club in Athens, Greece, but has just now become available.

Murphy’s performances were unique, in that he melded his songs together, moving from one to another without waiting for applause. He also added lyrics to and between them, to provide a steady flow of words and thoughts. If lyrics didn’t exist, as is the case with many jazz tunes, he created his own. His scatting was phenomenal, with and without actual words. 

In retrospect, that may have been a cause for Murphy’s relative lack of popularity: He often was described as “eccentric,” when in fact he was far, far ahead of his time. He paid no attention to the original intent of meter; he’d transform a ballad into a barn-burner. 

The 11 tunes here include all genres, and Murphy makes them all swing like crazy. Get ready for a genuine treat.

Oh, how I miss him. 

Jane Ira Bloom: Early Americans

Outline Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Early Americans

One doesn’t have an opportunity to review an individual who honestly can be described as “the best” at anything. Well, Jane Ira Bloom is the world’s best soprano saxophonist. 

That instrument, a high-register member of the saxophone family, isn’t as common in jazz as the alto, tenor and baritone instruments, but a few musicians have used it. (Remember Woody Herman?) Even so, it’s a tough horn from which to get a smooth, warm, beautiful tone. That’s not a problem for Bloom.

She began playing the drums and piano as a child, then the alto sax, and settled on the soprano at age 9. She earned liberal arts and master’s degrees in music from Yale University. After graduation, she moved to New York City and founded Outline Records, while simultaneously beginning a career of performing with masters of the music world. 

She’s an eight-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association Award; and has won the Downbeat Critics Poll, the Charlie Parker Award for Jazz Innovation, the Guggenheim Fellowship in Jazz Composition, the Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Award, and many others.

In short, Bloom is a phenomenon.

This album, her 16th, includes a baker’s dozen of tunes: twelve of her own compositions plus the Bernstein/Sondheim hit “Somewhere.” All are performed at balladic tempos, and all are simply gorgeous.

She’s backed by bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bobby Previte. With that limited — but definitely tasteful — support, there’s no place to hide ... not that she needs to worry about such things. We’re treated, throughout, to her consummate skill, tone and originality.

What a performance!

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Michael Blum Quartet: Chasin' Oscar

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Chasin' Oscar

I’m overwhelmed by this young artist and his quartet. 

Guitarist Michael Blum, at just 21 years of age, already has three albums to his credit, along with rave reviews from Down Beat magazine and All About Jazz, and kudos from  other guitar icons and jazz reviewers. As the son of a classical guitarist, Blum began his musical education on the piano, then switched to saxophone and finally, at age 9, settled on the guitar.

He graduated with a double degree — music and cognitive science — from Dartmouth College, then entered world-famous Berklee College of Music. His professor was Jim Stinnett, with whom his father had studied. Within a year, Stinnett suggested that he and Michael Blum should make an album together; that debut recording for Blum, Initiation, was followed by Commitment. 

Chasin’ Oscar resulted from a passing comment that Blum once made to Stinnett, expressing a desire to “learn to play guitar as well as Oscar Peterson played piano.” Stinnett took Blum at his word, and suggested that he listen to — and learn — Peterson’s recording of “Tristeza.” The process took uncountable hours, and it’s one of the tracks featured on this new album.

Blum’s quartet also is superb, which isn’t surprising after learning that all the sidemen are music college graduates and teachers. Blum, bassist Stinnett and pianist Brad Smith all are from Berklee, while drummer Dom Moio teaches at Arizona State University. Believe me: They’re all swingers!

Most of the tunes were staples in Peterson’s performances and recordings. One of them, “Nightingale,” was a Peterson original. Stinnett contributes “Whisper” and “Pine.” Oh, and Blum also sings; he delivers smooth vocals on two tracks. 

The tour de force performance of “Tristeza” is worth more than a listen; to see why I used the adjective “overwhelmed,” check out the tune’s YouTube video. The skill and technique are unbelievable!

Blum didn’t merely chase Oscar; he caught him!

The Danny Green Trio: Altered Narratives

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Altered Narratives

Pianist/composer Danny Green was born and brought up in San Diego, California. He took piano lessons until he was 12; from that point, influenced by rock, he became self-taught. He delved into Latin sounds and began to write in that idiom, then earned an undergraduate degree in piano performance at UC San Diego ... and went on to earn an M.D. from San Diego State University.

This is his fourth album. As with his prior releases, he utilizes a trio — bassist Justin Grinnell and drummer Julien Cantelm — as the primary format, supplementing with a string quartet on three of the 11 tracks: Antoine Silverman and Max Moston, violins; Chris Cardona, viola; and Anja Wood, cello. Green composed and arranged all of the charts.

The album menu is a combination of two genres. The trio’s mid- to up-tempo tunes are tied to the blues, while the string section appears on tracks that evoke 19th century European classical music. “Chatter from All Sides” and “The Merge” are 16-bar blues based, while “October Ballad” and “6 AM” are more balladic, the latter evoking a Latin-tinged mood. The tunes with the string section occupy the “middle” of the album, followed by additional bluesy pieces that conclude the session with a neat, groovy feel: “Benji’s Song,” “I Used to Hate the Blues,” “Friday at the Thursday Club” and “Serious Fun.”

These artists are clever; they know how to swing, and they work together impressively. (No fluffs or errors allowed!) Spending an evening with them would be a joy.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Ken Peplowski: Enrapture

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Enrapture

Jazz has numerous roots. One was swing, a term that can’t be used without thinking of Benny Goodman, often identified as “The King of Swing.” His horn was the clarinet; although a few pretenders came along, no one else had the same impact.

Many reed players start with that instrument, but most “graduate” to the saxophone, in its many variations. The major exception was Ken Peplowski, born 20 years after Goodman had been coronated.

Peplowski’s home was Cleveland, Ohio; his earliest experience (while still in elementary school) was playing in a Polish polka band for dances and weddings, almost every weekend. By the time young Ken was in high school, he was teaching at a local music store and playing with territory bands.

During his first year in college, he was hired by the Tommy Dorsey band, at that time led by Buddy Morrow. Peplowski played lead alto sax with the big band, and clarinet in a smaller combo within the ensemble.

During a subsequent lengthy career, Peplowski has recorded more than 50 CDs as a soloist, and at least 400 as a sideman. It’s almost impossible to find a name vocalist or musician with whom he hasn’t worked. As for his level of performance, as recently as 2015 he continues to receive awards for excellence.

This album features Peplowski on both clarinet and tenor sax. He’s joined by pianist Ehud Asherie, bassist Martin Wind, and drummer Matt Wilson. Peplowski’s execution is flawless, his tone a thing of beauty, and his ideas boundless.

As for the album contents, Duke Ellington’s “The Flaming Sword” is a calypso-flavored gem; “An Affair to Remember” and John Lennon’s “Oh My Love” are beautiful ballads. “Cheer Up Charlie” hails from the soundtrack to Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, of all things; “Vertigo Scene D’Amour” comes from the Hitchcock film. We know “Willow Tree” from Fats Waller, and “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart” from Noel Coward. That’s just a taste; everything is gorgeous.

Dave Anderson: Blue Innuendo

Label1 Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Blue Innuendo

Dave Anderson plays soprano, alto and tenor sax; he also composes and leads this quartet. He probably isn’t too well known outside the jazz world, but he should be. 

Born and educated in Minnesota — and a graduate of the University of Minnesota — he received a full scholarship to perform at the Aspen Music Festival, spent almost a decade in and around New York City, and then moved to the Seattle area. He has performed with Clark Terry and Mel Torme, and garnered accolades from Ray Brown, Rufus Reid and others.

For this, Anderson’s third album, he’s supported by guitarist Tom Guarna, drummer Matt Wilson and B3 organist Pat Bianchi. Anderson wrote all but one of the tunes; the exception (“22 Doors”) was contributed by Devin Lowe, a friend and bassist on one of the earlier releases. All are traditional jazz charts; regardless of the tempo, they truly swing. In fact, these are some of the most musically clever arrangements I’ve heard in a long time.

Several other reviews cite these artists as “some of New York City’s finest sidemen,” but they’re actually better than that. Guarna is an exciting guitarist; his solo phrases often depart from what a given melodic line leads us to expect, and we wind up waiting to hear what he’ll play next. Bianchi is more “delicate” than many other Hammond organ artists, and his phrasing is sharper and “shorter.” Both of these characteristics eliminate the Hammond’s tendency to overwhelm the lines of the other instrumentalists. 

Wilson isn’t merely rock-solid; he’s what we sometimes label a “quiet” drummer. He’s never obtrusive. Anderson, as the primary composer, has a personal interest in getting the most out of each note; this is evident in his use of phrasing and chord structure.

These guys are very good, and they enjoy what they play. So will you.

Hendrik Meurkens: Harmonicus Rex

Height Advantage Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Harmonicus Rex

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, most kids played — or tried to play — a harmonica. Even for a neophyte, it was possible to make music with relative ease. And even at its worst, the resulting sound was reasonably pleasant. All in all, the harmonica was an inexpensive way to develop an interest in music, and it often led to more intricate instruments.

For Hendrik Meurkens, though, it was the instrument.  

Meurkens’ first musical instrument  was the vibraphone ... until he heard Toots Thielemans (one of the first, and most famous, musicians to introduce harmonica to the jazz world). At age 19, Meurkens was hooked.

The harmonica is a free reed instrument that produces sound by using the mouth — lips and tongue — to direct air into or out of a series of holes located in a mouthpiece. Each hole contains one of more reeds, which produce a chord or specific tone. Because of a harmonica’s relatively small size, it’s limited in range and volume; it’s also hard to play single-note phrases.

This album contains a mix of songs: some from the Great American Songbook (“Falling in Love with Love,” “What’s New”); some from well-known jazz artists (Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,”  Milt Jackson’s “SKJ”); and several originals by Meurkens. The supporting combo includes Dado Moroni on piano, Marco Panascia on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Joe Magnarelli on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Anders Bostrom on alto flute. They make a swinging group with equally great solo work.

Meurkens more that holds his own; his solo work is excellent and moving, particularly when you consider the limitations of his “horn.” Move over, Toots; you’ve got company!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Leslie Pinkchik: True North

Pintch Hard Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: True North

This is the third album I’ve reviewed by this talented pianist, and she just gets better and better.

Pintchik was a teaching assistant in English literature at Columbia University — where she received a master’s degree in philosophy — before she discovered that her future lay in the field of jazz, as a pianist and composer. “Discovering” her took longer because, as with many musicians, she performs mostly in the area where she grew up and resides. Her territory is in and around New York and New Jersey.

She initially performed in trios and quartets; as time passed, she added instrumentalists. This album features a sextet; she’s joined by Steve Wilson on soprano and also sax; Ron Horton on trumpet and flugelhorn; Scott Hardy on bass; Michael Sarin on drums; and Satoshi Takeishi on additional percussion.

Pintchik composed six of the 10 charts; the remaining tracks are arrangements of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Hollander and Lerner’s “Falling in Love Again,” Mancini and Mercer’s “Charade,” and a live performance of Coots and Lewis’ “For All We Know.”

Most of the arrangements are soft, swinging tempos, with rhythmic lines that include waltz, samba, bossa nova, straight-four and even R&B feelings. The exception — and my favorite track — is “Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg,” which is a tricky, bluesy, up-tempo tune that changes chords for each soloist. It’s guaranteed to get your fingers snapping and toes tapping.

All the musicians are superb. Pintchik’s piano is tasty, thoughtful, reserved but joyful; as I’ve mentioned previously, she’s on a level with Bill Evans. Wilson and Horton are inventive; they play off each other — and Pintchik — wonderfully. Hardy, Sarin and Takeishi not only provide a solid background, but nicely enhance the interactions among the other instrumentalists.

They’re a first-class jazz group, and this is a first-class album.

Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra: Portraits and Places

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Portraits and Places

Great jazz orchestras are harder to find these days than the proverbial hen’s tooth. The general public no longer desires to hear the music that made the Big Band years so fantastic, and established talents such as Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Stan Kenton and so many others. Groups like those are no longer cost-effective to work or tour with. 

Thankfully, a market still exists for the smaller combos that jazz clubs and CD sales can support, but the excitement of those larger, grooving organizations has become only an occasional joy.

Which is why, when such a unit has been assembled, by artists who miss them as much as we do, we’ve got to pay attention and get the word out as quickly as possible. After all, we don’t want the effort to become just another memory. 

This fantastic release by the Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra is not to be missed.

Twenty swingers participated in this gem: six in the reed section, nine in the brass sections, and three in the rhythm section, along with a couple of vocalists. Reeves doubles as conductor.

He also composed and/or arranged most of the charts, and they’re all swingers. The melodic lines are clever, with enough thematic “quotes” to keep listeners on their toes, and there’s lots of “space” for solo work. It’s all super.

It’s easy to tell when artists enjoy what they’re playing, and these guys clearly had a ball during this session. Don’t you dare miss this release ... and let’s hope that others will follow in the future.

Julian Shore: Which Way Now?

Tone Rogue Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Which Way Now?

The current jazz scene has expanded to include artists who produce varying kinds of music. The descriptive terminology can include terms such as modern, classical and abstract, but the characteristics are similar: balladic tempos, complex phrasing and usually low-volume music. Some might refer to it as “quiet music.” 

Also of note: It seldom swings.

Even so, this influx has become so pervasive that I’m loath to ignore it. This album, by pianist/composer Julian Shore, is one such example. His basic group features guitarist Gilad Hekselman, tenor saxman Dayna Stephens, bassist Aidan Carroll and drummer Colin Stranahan. This album also utilizes additional artists on alto sax, tenor sax, clarinet, bass and guitar, along with different reed artists and “voices.” 

All 10 tracks are written by Shore, although several are based on other compositions, such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” and Debussy’s “Lullaby” passage from Clair De Lune.

Everything is beautifully performed, and gorgeous to hear. But it’s all for “listening,” not dancing or grooving. If those who create such music wish to place it in a category identified as jazz, I guess that’s okay; it is where some of the newest music seems to be heading.

With that caveat in mind, jazz fans looking to expand their horizons are certainly to enjoy this release.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ernie Krivda: Requiem for a Jazz Lady

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Requiem for a Jazz Lady

Only folks with a great memory — or those who hail from Cleveland, Ohio — are likely to be familiar with tenor saxist Ernie Krivda. Born in 1945 in that city, his first job with a name orchestra was when, at age 18, he joined the Jimmy Dorsey band. As the years passed, Krivda’s primary experience came with “territory groups” in and around Cleveland. In the 1970s he became the leader of the house band at the Smiling Dog Saloon, where he shared the stage with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and others.

Flash-forward to the present day: Krivda has recorded close to a score of albums, is artistic director of the Cuyahoga Community College Jazz Studies Program, and is a touring clinician for the Yamaha Instrument Company.

His style takes us back to earlier jazz years; he has a “big” tone on his horn, and plays with a noticeable vibrato that evokes artists such as Coleman Hawkins. Krivda doesn’t have the “smooth” sound of (for example) Stan Getz, but nonetheless is a real swinger in every sense. 

This album contains seven charts, only one of which — “I’ll Close My Eyes” — is a standard; the rest are Krivda originals that run the genre gamut: some blues, a waltz, a funky swinger, and a couple of gorgeous ballads. He’s joined by pianist Lafayette Carthon, bassist Marion Hayden, and drummer Renell Gonsalves. You’d love to watch this quartet jam at the end of the day.

We don’t usually think of Cleveland as a jazz town, but it’s the center of a Midwest circuit that includes Pittsburgh, Columbus, Detroit and Chicago; all have a rich history of jazz groups and musicians.

This release helps us appreciate how relatively easy it has become to produce an album readily available to “the masses.” In olden times, scores (hundreds?) of individuals and groups created quite palatable jazz that went unnoticed outside of the areas where they lived and performed.

Kudos to Capri, for allowing us to notice and support Krivda and so many others.

Todd Coolman & Trifecta: Collectables

Sunnyside Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Collectables

The Trifecta is led by bassist Todd Coolman, supported by pianist Bill Cunliffe and drummer Dennis Mackrel. Their collective experience is impressive.

Coolman is a two-time Grammy Award winner who, during a 25-year career, has worked with Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, James Moody, Jon Faddis and many others. Cunliffe has played with Buddy Rich, Clayton Hamilton, Benny Golson, Ray Brown and more; Mackrel was hired by Count Basie, stayed with that band when Frank Foster took over as leader, and also joined the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars and groups led by Buck Clayton.

The trio format demands excellent artists, and this album proves that these guys are among the best working today. The melodic lines often are carried by a pianist and a horn, but in this case the “horn” is the bass; Coolman not only provides a solid rhythm line, but is an outstanding melodic soloist. He works beautifully with Cunliffe, and lays down some of the finest solo passages I’ve ever heard. Along the way, Mackrel keeps  everything moving solidly.

The menu includes charts from the Great American Songbook — “You’re My Everything,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “We’ll Be Together Again” — and a number of mid- to up-tempo arrangement by members of the trio. 

This group doesn’t produces “background music,”; this stuff grabs — and holds — our attention. One of my criteria long has been Is it music I’d enjoy hearing in a club that I attend regularly?  The answer is a rousing yes!

You’ll love these guys.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Juli Wood: Synkkä Metsä

OA2 Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Synkkä Metsä

Folks understandably may not be familiar with Juli Wood and her group, aside from those who live in the Chicago area; she’s a regular performer there, but apparently doesn’t wander far from home. Well, this release is a gem, and Wood definitely deserves  our attention.

She plays tenor sax; her cohorts are guitarist Alejandro Urzagaste, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Mike Schlick. The song titles are almost unpronounceable — unless you’re Finnish — because they’re all in that language. But their content is presented in the common language of jazz, which is recognizable around the globe.

Synkkä Metsä is one of the most relaxing and listenable releases I’ve heard in a long time. As with many folk tunes, the melodic lines are simple, yet beautiful; the arrangements swing quietly, tastefully and smoothly. Wood gets a subtle tone out of her instrument, and her supporting cast members are equally elegant. 

The tunes are a varied mix of balladic and up-tempo melodies; all are explained briefly in Wood’s liner notes. You’ll want to listen to this disc again and again.

Congratulations to OA2, for recognizing the talent and value of these artists, and for sharing them with the wider world outside of Chicago.

Amina Figarova: Blue Whisper

In + Out Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Blue Whisper

Pianist/composer Amina Figarova was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, where she initially studied to become a classical artist. She switched to jazz and came to the States, where she studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. During that time she met her future husband, flutist Bart Platteau, who also is featured on this release.

Figarova has recorded about a dozen albums. She’s an outstanding composer and keyboardist, and she always surrounds herself with top-notch musicians. As a result of the early training, her style goes beyond straight-ahead jazz and into post-bop, classical and impressionistic; as time has passed, the latter forms have become more prominent. Such is the case with this album.

Almost a dozen artists contributed to these 10 songs; only Figarova and Platteau are constant throughout. She often bases her music as “responses to social turmoil, personalities encountered and transitions of life.” The results are intense, at times complex melodies, often balladic in tempo. It often doesn’t swing, and seldom excites the listener ... but that’s not to say it isn’t great music.

Figarova’s compositions are classically founded and played: quite sophisticated, harmonious stuff. Several of the charts — notably “Pictures” and “The Travelers” — were commissioned by Lincoln Center, for its New Jazz Standards series. 

The performance feature excellent ensemble lines and instrumental solo work. One tune (“Hewa”) has vocal passages sung in Swahili; Figarova’s many interests include that country’s customs, music and people.

This album may not swing like some of her previous work, but it’s deeply moving music: certainly worth your attention.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Lyn Stanley: Interludes

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Interlude

This is a beautiful album, first-class in every way, starring a multi-talented woman graced with a flawless voice. 

But it isn’t true jazz.

Lyn Stanley is quite exceptional. She’s a college graduate with a PhD in communications, and a successful career in business. She has won championships in USA DanceSport, and placed third in a World ProAm event. She also has studied voice under coach Annette Warren Smith — famed jazz pianist Paul Smith’s wife — and is an audiophile fanatic. Stanley’s recordings have been released on high-end vinyl, SACD stereo and reel-to-reel tape.

(Incidentally, Stanley dedicated this album to Paul Smith.)

Interlude has a lot going for it, starting with 14 classics from the Great American Songbook, with excellent arrangements by some of the music world’s best. Additionally, the two bands supporting Stanley include some truly great artists: among others, pianist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Chuck Berghofer, trombonist Bob McChesney and guitarist John Chiodini.

Stanley’s voice is flawless: Her tone, range, enunciation, warmth and phrasing are superb, and she “sells” a song as well as anyone alive today. No surprise, she’s quite popular. Her albums sell in the tens of thousands globally, which — considering the relatively limited “buying audience” that exists for jazz today — is exceptional.

So, why the caveat regarding her style? Well, Stanley doesn’t swing like artists such as Anita O’Day, Kim Nazarian, Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday. Stanley is more like Sarah Vaughn, although she could swing like crazy, when it suited her. (Remember her cover of “Cherokee”?)

Still, anyone who collaborates with the range of arrangers, producers and musicians assembled for this album — and her earlier releases — surely has a passport to the jazz genre, as far as I’m concerned. Call it what you will, this much is certain: Stanley is in a class by herself.