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.