Monday, February 15, 2016

Sinne Eeg and Thomas Fonnesbaek

Stunt Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Eeg + Fonnesbaek

Danish vocalist Sinne Eeg is quite well known and appreciated in Scandinavia, Japan, China and throughout Europe. But until a recent tour along the West Coast and Southwest, she remained under the radar in the United States. This, her first American album, should change that.

Her partner here is bassist Thomas Fonnesbaek, a superb instrumentalist who has been featured on more than 100 albums. Yes, that’s correct: a marvelous jazz vocalist accompanied solely by an acoustic bass ... and oh my, how they swing! 

These nine songs include half a dozen from the Great American Songbook, such as “Willow Weep for Me,” “Body and Soul,” “Come Rain or Shine.” Fonnesbaek composed “Taking It Slow,” Lionel Hampton wrote “Evil Man Blues,” and Enrico Pieranunzi contributed “Fellini’s Waltz.” Everything is performed in English — interestingly, Eeg’s usual vocal language — and her excellent scatting has no language barriers. 

“I always loved singing duo with bass,” she has said. “It’s just a sound I like very much.”

So do I, and so will you.

Her voice is lush, and her phrasing flawless; her interplay with Fonnesbaek grooves perfectly. Both enjoy a lot of solo space, and Fonnesbaek is both a melodic and rhythmic master, using four strings instead of five.  

The ballads are performed at their standard tempo, as opposed to mid-tempo or faster. Lesser singers sometimes resort to up-tempo arrangements, which can camouflage vocal flaws, but Eeg has none. She’s destined to be a big hit here.

I’m already a big fan.

Jeff Hamilton and Scott Hamilton: Live in Bern

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Live in Bern

Scott and Jeff aren’t related, except by a love of jazz and stellar abilities on their instruments of choice: Scott on the tenor sax, and Jeff on the drums.  They were born within a year of each other, Scott in 1954 and Jeff in ’53, during the latter stages of the swing era, and the early years of the bop revolution. Both worked with icons during their formative years: Benny Goodman for Scott, and Lionel Hampton and the Tommy Dorsey “ghost band” for Jeff.

Scott has been compared to Stan Getz and Zoot Sims but, as time has passed, has developed  a sound of his own: smooth, uncluttered, beautifully toned and always swinging. Most of his time is spent living and touring outside the United States.

Jeff is in demand by all sorts of A-list artists, both instrumentalists and vocalists. I’ve never heard a record of his that wasn’t top-drawer.

This release marks their first time together. Because both work constantly, and were scheduled to perform at the International Jazz Festival in Bern, Switzerland, they met there and made this album.

Scott joins Jeff’s trio in a sumptuous menu of tunes from the Great American Songbook, along with some jazz classics.  The lineup includes “September in the Rain,” “Watch What Happens,” “You and the Night and the Music,” Mal Waldren’s “Soul Eyes,” Benny Carter’s “Key Largo” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Ballad for the Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters.” Jeff Hamilton also features an original, “Sybille’s Day.” All are great tunes, and all handled superbly, as evidenced by the fact that the combo recorded everything in a single session.

The result? This is a marvelous, swinging album. The band also features Tamir Hendelman on piano, and Christoph Luty on bass, both on a grooving par with the two Hamiltons.

What’s not to like?

Friday, February 12, 2016

The 14 Jazz Orchestra: Nothing Hard Is Ever Easy

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Nothing Hard Is Ever Easy

This is the first album by this group, composed of jazz and studio musicians who live and work in and around Miami, Florida.  The ensemble numbers 13 instrumentalists — four reeds, three trumpets, two trombones and a four-man rhythm section, which includes a guitar — along with director/conductor Dan Bonsanti.  

This unit does not focus on the Great American Songbook; it concentrates on modern orchestral jazz from masters such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Charlie Parker and their counterparts. Bonsanti arranged all but one of the 11; the exception is Billy Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G.” 

Although these musicians aren’t household names in Jazz, many have worked with — or played for — the likes of Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Barbra Streisand and others. The ensemble work here is outstanding, and the solo opportunities for key members are many, with their performance equally excellent.

They haven’t yet been together long enough to achieve the “loose” but swinging sound that grabs you by the throat. (Consider the GRP Big Band, for example.) But this album a good start, and it’s refreshing to see signs of promising life in Florida.

John Fedchock's New York Big Band: Like It Is

MAMA Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Like It Is

Hot darn! 

When you’re truly great, you can follow a previous “fantastic” effort with one that’s even better.

This is the fifth release from John Fedchock’s New York Big Band. I’ve reviewed and enjoyed them all, and this one’s no exception. And no surprise: Some of the artists in this unit have been together for 20 years!

Fedchock was part of Woody Herman’s wonderful Herds for years, as both an instrumentalist and chief arranger, so it’s no surprise to expect great jazz from him. This release contains five tunes from the Great American jazz and classics songbooks, along with five originals by Fedchock, who also arranged everything. The classics include “You and the Night and the Music,” “Never Let Me Go,” Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me,” Cedar Walton’s “Ojos de Rojo,” and the oldie “For Heaven’s Sake.”

Of the Fedchock originals, “Ten Thirty 30” was drawn from Clifford Brown’s music and solos. 

I regard Fedchock as the premier trombonist playing today, which also has been for decades. The tone he gets from his horn is to die for; it’s clear, clean and just plain gorgeous. 

In his day, Tommy Dorsey wasn’t really considered a jazz artist, but he sure had a great tone. Just listen to Fedchock on “Never Let Me Go”; he’s warm and lush. He also swings with the best of them; his solos on five of these charts really groove.

One key factor of Fedchock’s arrangements is the “room” he makes for solo work by his instrumentalists. His charts here include almost 20 solo passages, covering all of the unit’s sections. 

It should be noted that his drummer, Dave Ratajczak, made his final recording during this session; he died just four months later. He was, in the jazz vernacular, a tasty and swinging artist.

Fedchock also fronts smaller groups, in addition to this big band. I probably have most of his albums in my library, which I’m sure is the case with any true jazz collector; Fedchock is great in any venue.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Patrick Williams: Home Suite Home

BFM Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Home Suite Home

Who gets the credit for a great jazz album? It’s usually the performing artist(s), and that almost always means an instrumentalist or vocalist. Well, that isn’t the case here; all the credit belongs to Patrick Williams. He composed and arranged the music; he selected the instrumentalists and vocalists; and he was the driving force behind it all.

Williams may not be a household name among jazz fans, but recording artists and producers certainly know and appreciate him. He has written the music for more than 65 feature films, 100 television films and 25 television series. He has won four Emmys and two Grammys — out of 19 nominations — and he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, for his orchestral work An American Concerto.

Needless to say, he had his pick of the 18 instrumentalists and three vocalists who participated on this album. Every serious jazz fan will recognize all of them, starting with vocalists Patti Austin, Tierney Sutton and Frank Sinatra Jr. The instrumentalists include pianist Dave Grusin, drummer Peter Erskine, trumpeter Arturo Sandavol, trombonist Bob McChesny, and saxists Bob Sheppard and Tom Scott.

The true “stars,” however, are the eight tracks composed and arranged by Williams. Four are tributes to members of his family: children Elizabeth, Greer and Patrick B., and his wife of 53 years, Katherine. The rest relate to musicians Williams reveres: “A Hefti Dose of Basie,” for composer/arranger Neal Hefti and Count Basie; “That’s Rich” (drummer Buddy Rich); “I’ve Been Around” (Frank Sinatra), sung by Frank Sinatra Jr. and Tierney Sutton; and “52nd & Broadway,” sung by Patti Austin.

The arrangement voicings are second to none; the interplay between the brass, reed and rhythm sections is to die for. And the result swings like crazy; I’ve never heard better!

The descriptor genius gets overused, but no other adjective applies to Williams, for what he has created here.  You’ll never tire of listening to what he hath wrought.

Ben Paterson: For Once in My Life

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: For Once in My Life

Those who are familiar with Ben Paterson probably know him as a pianist; he has released three albums on that instrument. This one, however, is his first on the Hammond B3 organ.

Paterson was born in Philadelphia in 1982, and he quickly began playing the piano, studying both classical and jazz. After graduating from the Settlement Music School, he enrolled at the University of Chicago; a year later, he was performing with NEA Jazz Master Von Freeman. That association lasted until Freeman’s death in 2012, at which point Paterson moved to New York City, to further his musical career.

He soon began working with artists such as Bobby Broom, Red Holloway and guitarist Peter Bernstein (who, with drummer George Fludas, is a member of the trio featured on this release). Paterson’s reputation grew rapidly; he joined groups that opened for the likes of B.B. King and Steely Dan, among others. Paterson also played at the 2006, ’09 and ’13 Chicago Jazz Fests; the 2007, ’08 and ’11 Chicago Blues Fests; and the 2010 Montreal Jazz Festival.  

So, how does he do on the B3? Quite well, thank you. In fact, he’s several rungs up that ladder, above any jazz organist I’ve hear lately. You’ll immediately notice Paterson’s touch; he’s soft and gentle, and, as a result, gets an expressive melodic line. For reasons unknown, too many organists use the instrument more like a cannon than a pistol; as a result, the surrounding instruments tend increase their volume, to make sure they’re heard.

Paterson’s second attribute is keyboard dexterity. The organ is larger and arranged differently than a piano, making it more difficult to navigate at increased tempos (which also has an effect on volume). 

Finally, Paterson has a marvelous ability to create — and play — inventive and melodic lines: a must  for a jazz artist.

He also swings quite nicely, and you’ll definitely groove right along.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: Jeunehomme

Spartacus Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Jeunehomme

I’ve generally limited this blog’s content to individuals and groups that occupy the upper echelon jazz. Some may consider this album an exception to that guideline, but numerous factors warrant its discussion.

First and foremost, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is, and always has been, one of the finest big band groups outside of the United States. This ensemble has produced some of the best jazz albums ever released; the roster includes many truly excellent musician. 

So, why the concern?

Well, using classical music as the core of an arrangement isn’t playing fair. And, let’s face it; Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 is about as purely classical as it gets! 

The catalyst for this release is the presence of featured Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone. To quote him, “There’s a lot joy in Mozart’s music, and he was a great improviser ... and, of course, jazz is all about improvisation.” 

As befits the notion to combine jazz and classical forms, this arrangement features three “movements”: Adagio Swing, Andantino Tango and Rondo/Presto Be-Bop. Needless to say, the instrumentation is jazz related: trumpets, trombones and saxophones, along with the usual piano/bass/drum rhythm section. (No strings or classical horns.) The resulting sound therefore is lighter and less “stodgy” than a typical symphony orchestra.

And it swings a lot more.

Mozart fans won’t have any trouble recognizing familiar passages. As Ozone notes, "I’ll be darned; Mozart was already doing bebop 300 years ago." And that’s almost accurate.

If you don’t mixing a classic Classic with jazz, this album is a must-have. (That said, purists at both extremes may find it too much to bear.)

Beegie Adair and Don Aliquo: Too Marvelous for Words

Adair Music Group
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Too Marvelous for Words

Those old enough to remember the jazz scene in the late 1940s and ’50s know what it was like to enjoy the music that was being played on the countless radio stations and clubs that operated in every big city across the United States. Quite a few of the artists who were part of that kind of jazz — or influenced by it — are still active today. Tenor/alto sax player Don Aliquo and pianist Beegie Adair are two examples, and they’ve gotten together for this album.

Adair is the senior member here. Born in 1937 in Kentucky, she began to play piano at age 5; after obtaining a college degree, she moved to Nashville and became a session musician. Not many can say they’ve played with a range of singers such as Peggy Lee, Cass Elliot, Dinah Shore and Dolly Parton.  

Adair and her husband anchored their own trio, and over the years produced scores of albums.

Aliquo, born in Pittsburgh in 1960, worked there until 1999, when he moved to Nashville. He soon met and performed with Beegie, but this is the first album they’ve made together; they’re joined by bassist Roger Spencer and drummer Chris Brown (Adair’s regular trio members).

Jazz fans who still love 1950s stylings will enjoy this release. Most of the 10 tracks hail from the Great American Songbook, and only one — “Isfahan” — was written later than 1952. You’ll certainly recognize all of them.

Aliquo is a smooth artist who plays in the style of Stan Getz and Ted Nash. Adair is another Marian McPartland, but swings more. As a team, Aliquo and Adair groove nicely.

This is a wonderful trip to the past: more than an hour of melodies you enjoyed then, and will want to hear again and again.

Deborah Latz: sur l'instant

June Moon Productions
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: sur l'instant

There’s only one thing wrong with this album. It’s too darn short.

We folks on the West Coast periodically find out that not living in, or near, New York City can be a real pain. Such is the case with my only now discovering Deborah Latz, the performer featured on this release. I’m quite unhappy that it took me so long to become aware of her, and her many talents. 

Although born in Northern California, Latz moved to the East Coast fairly early in her career. That said — and what’s particularly galling — is the fact that she was featured on Lynn Darroch’s radio show in Portland, Oregon (my stomping ground) in May of 2011, and yet I missed her.

Ah, well. Better late than never.

Latz is an actress with an award-winning career in dramatic and musical theater; she’s also a writer, arranger and singer/performer. (Note that I’m not using the term vocalist, because she’s much more than that.)
Her voice falls in the alto/soprano range, and is wonderfully expressive. Although she has dead-on pitch when necessary, she hasn’t ever found a flatted-note she can avoid, which puts her in the company of numerous boppers.

She’s backed on this album by French pianist Alain Jean-Marie and bassist Giles Natures. The track list includes standards such as “All the Things You Are,” “Over the Rainbow” and “Nature Boy,” along with relatively unknown melodies such as the “Love Theme” from Spartacus. She also handles great swingers from the world of jazz: “Throw It Away,” “Weep No More,” “Four,” “Blue Monk” and “Mr. PC.” 

All too often, she obeys the classic stage adage of leaving the audience wanting more; some of the tracks just aren’t long enough.

Although I’ve yet to see her in person, the Web offers plenty of short videos that demonstrate what it means to sell a song.

And I swear, Ms. Latz: I’ll never miss another of your albums ... or any appearances, if you happen to visit Oregon again!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Bruce Forman: The Book of Forman

B4Man Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: The Book of Forman

You may not be familiar with Forman’s skill as a guitarist, but chances are you’ve heard him. That’s particularly true for Clint Eastwood fans; Forman was featured on the soundtracks of Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers and Hereafter.  

Oh, yes: and on 18 other albums prior to this one.

Essentially self-taught, Forman started to play professionally after graduating from high school. His early years were spent in San Francisco and New York, and he began working with name musicians in the late 1970s. He served as a sideman in numerous groups, and played with Richie Cole from 1978 through ’82. Forman didn’t release albums under his own name until 1980; during the subsequent decade, he averaged about one a year. 

He’s currently an educator as well as a performer, teaching master classes and serving as an adjunct assistant professor at USC’s Thornton School of Music.

Although primarily identified as a bebop guitarist, Forman formed a western jazz group known as the Cow Bop Band in the early 2000s, and played swinging versions of songs by Patsy Cline and other country stars. For this new release, though, he has returned to his bop/straight-ahead roots.

Forman composed the majority of the 11 tunes on this album, which also includes three titles from the Great American Songbook: “On the Street Where You Live” (Lerner and Lowe), “The Song Is You” (Kern and Hammerstein) and “You Go To My Head” (Gillespie and Coots). 

Forman and his trio swing wonderfully. He’s supported by young bassist Alex Frank, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums; the latter has been around for years, and has worked with many name bands.

Considering how grooved this trio is, it’s also one of the most relaxed and tasteful groups working these days. Whether at a club, or from your sound machine, you’ll enjoy this stuff immensely.

Mark Winkler: Jazz and Other Four Letter Words

Cafe Pacific Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Jazz and Other Four Letter Words

Los Angeles-born singer/songwriter Mark Winkler has performed and recorded since the mid 1980s. He’s another hip vocalist in the style of Dave Frishberg, Mose Allison, Michael Franks and Bobby Troup, although Winkler’s delivery is a bit more smooth. He has written charts for others — such as Liza Minnelli and Randy Crawford — but is best known for performing his own material. He’s also a crossover artist, in that he does a lot of pop music and has even written a Broadway show.

His recording output was limited for awhile, with only half a dozen albums until the new century. Since then, he has been much busier. 

Winkler always surrounds himself with talent. The backup musicians on this release include pianist Jamieson Trotter, guitarists Larry Koonse and Pat Kelley, bassists John Clayton and Dan Lutz, drummers Jeff Hamilton and Mike Shapiro, and instrumentalists Bob McChesney and Walt Fowler. 

Winkler also does a couple of duets with Cheryl Bentyne, of Manhattan Transfer fame.

The menu includes tunes by Frishberg, the Gershwins, Paul Simon and Richard Rogers, along with some originals. Everything is appealing, and — more importantly — everything swings.

Winkler is an excellent vocalist, and his voice is smooth as silk. Give him a try.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

John Basile: Penny Lane

Stringtime Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Penny Lane

John Basile is a well-known guitarist; he’s also an adept computer programmer. He employs both skills for this release.

Basile was born in Boston, and educated at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. Like many musicians, he moved to New York City, where he became a first-call artist for numerous vocalists and small jazz groups. It’s interesting to note that his major influences haven’t been other guitarists, but vocalist Frank Sinatra and pianist Bill Evans. 

Basile’s technique is different; his finger-style combines the melodic line with fragments of chord structure. Then — and this results in a huge impact — he uses MIDI computer programming to expand the sound into a musical background, which results in a virtual “combo,” rather than just a solo guitar.

This album’s title highlights the source of the musical menu: All 14 melodies are famous hits by The Beatles. If you’re both a jazz and Beatles fan, you’ll love this album.

A few caveats, however: Many of these tracks electronically fade out, rather than being allowed to run their course. In some cases, that results in a relatively abrupt ending. Basile perhaps could have done better justice to a smaller number of tunes.

Additionally, the MIDI “sweetening,” blended with guitar, occasionally winds up sounding like Muzak. Listeners might feel that they’ve wandered into a department store. Even so, Basile’s skillful technique, along with the Beatles menu, are enough to make this a must-have album.

Terell Stafford: Brotherlee Love

Capri Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Brotherlee Love

Some time has passed since I’ve reviewed a “small jazz” (quintet)-sized combo that plays a truly pleasant mix of both new and standard straight-ahead arrangements, all of which swing nicely. Of course, with the artists involved here, that’s no surprise. Terell Stafford is one of the most gifted — and hardest-working — trumpet players to have developed during the past 20 years, and his pianist, Bruce Barth, has the same reputation.

Stafford was attending the University of Maryland in 1988 — to obtain a degree in music — when he met Wynton Marsalis, who recommended that he study with William Fielder (who, at the time, was at Rutgers University). During this period, Stafford joined Bobby Watson’s group, Horizon. Stafford subsequently played with McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Kenny Barron, Jon Faddis and the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Band, along with his own groups.

This album is dedicated to Lee Morgan, a sensational young trumpeter who, at 18, had joined Dizzy’s big band. Morgan was another icon who met an untimely death; he was shot to death by his common-law wife when he was just 33.

Morgan wrote seven of these nine tracks; Stafford composed “Favor.” “Candy,” the lone standard, is an Alex Kramer tune.

This is a “happy” album; you can feel the enjoyment projected by the artists during each track. Very often, even with famous names, the musicians can sound a bit bored, but that absolutely isn’t the case here.

This is the kind of group you want to spend an entire evening listening to.

Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble: Circulation

Planet Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Puzzle

I suspect only true jazz historians — or fans from my generation — are familiar with Gary McFarland. Born in Los Angeles in 1933, he came to jazz relatively late, while in the Army. He tried trumpet, trombone and piano, and settled on vibes in the mid 1950s. He also was a vocalist, but his skills as a composer, arranger and producer set him apart.

A musician is known by the company he keeps, and by those who seek him out. McFarland’s closest friends included luminaries such as Bill Evans, John Lewis, Bob Brookmeyer, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Anita O’Day and Clark Terry. And, like so many of his peers, McFarland attended the Berklee School Of Music.

Alas, his life and career were all too short. He and a friend were poisoned at a bar by someone who poured liquid methadone into their drinks. McFarland suffered a fatal heart attack and died; he was only 38 years old.

This album, by the Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble, includes 11 of McFarland’s compositions. The quintet features another vibes icon, Joe Locke, along with pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Mike Lawrence, saxophonist Sharel Cassity, and drummer Michael Benedict. 

The track menu was chosen from different segments of McFarland’s all-too-brief career. The opening track, “Dragonhead,” is an up-tempo swinger from his time at Berklee. “Why Are You Blue” and “Blue Hodge” demonstrate his feel for the blues; the latter has become a jazz standard. “The One I Could Have Loved” and “Summer Love” represent his softer, balladic, side. Everything clearly demonstrates McFarland’s talent.

“Unknown” usually means “not missed,” but that isn’t the case here, or with McFarland in general. Thanks are due all those associated with the creation of this lovely memorial.