Thursday, December 6, 2018

Swingle Bells: Holiday jazz 2018

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s primary jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for 22 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

So much terrific new Christmas music, and most of the season’s publicity is going to Captain Kirk.

The rest of the media attention focuses on releases by John Legend, Pentatonix, Lindsey Stirling and Eric Clapton (!). Jazz isn’t even an afterthought this year.

There is no justice.

Okay, fine; 87-year-old William Shatner deserves credit for longevity and a willingness to step wayoutside his comfort zone, and he was smart enough — with Shatner Claus — to align himself with top-flight engineers and an impressive roster of guest stars, that ranges from Judy Collins and Todd Rundgren, to Rick Wakeman and Iggy Pop.

But trust me: You can do better.

You won’t find any heavyweights or readily familiar names among this year’s roster of holiday jazz releases, although Joey Alexander should prompt a smile of recognition. But that’s not the point: The goal here is cool seasonal sounds, and it’s always gratifying when terrific material comes from hitherto unknowns, who subsequently make it to your preferred playlist.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s dive in!


Proving once again that jazz is an international phenomenon, this year’s round-up starts with Italian trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso’s Merry Christmas Baby. Bosso has played his horn since age 5, and his career took off with the release of his first album in 2000; subsequent projects included collaborations with Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Dianne Reeves and a veritable Who’s Who of Italian jazz stars.

His quartet on this tasty holiday release features Julian Oliver Mazzariello (piano), Jacopo Ferrazza (acoustic double bass) and Nicola Angelucci (drums), and their interplay is tight. Most arrangements hover in the mid-tempo range, and Bosso grants ample time for generous solos by his compatriots.

The album-opening handling of “Winter Wonderland” is typical of the delights to come: a straight-ahead arrangement with Bosso’s sweet trumpet introducing the melody, then yielding the floor to Mazzariello and Ferrazza. The former’s quiet keyboard solos introduce “Grown-Up Christmas List” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with Bosso’s horn taking over for the respective melodies, against gentle piano and bass comping.

The quartet’s delivery of “Silent Night” is a lot of fun: Angelucci lays down a terrific New Orleans-style beat that gives this tune an atypically peppy reading, with some wild solos on trumpet and piano. Mazzariello opens “Let It Snow” with some stride piano, then shares the stage with Bosso for what becomes a bouncy little duet. The entire combo goes wild on “Jingle Bells,” which kicks off with some lively drumming, sassy trumpet and “shimmering” piano riffs, eventually yielding to trumpet and piano solos that shoot off into the stratosphere.

Guest vocalist Karima’s wistful handling of “The Christmas Song” is backed by gentle trumpet and piano comping, both instruments supplying lyrical solos when she pauses during the bridge. Walter Ricci offers an equally delicate vocal on “What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve,” against soft trumpet and piano; he has more fun scatting throughout a lively “Jingle Bell Rock,” with Angelucci shifting into swing time during a bridge that features nifty keyboard and trumpet solos.

Bosso’s switch to muted trumpet is a cute touch on “Merry Christmas, Baby,” as you can almost hear the lyrics emanate from his expressive horn; the song also features some sultry byplay between piano and bass during the bridge. All and all, this is a nifty album that deserves plenty of rotation in your holiday library.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Steve Slagle: Dedication

Panorama Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Dedication

This new release by alto/flute/soprano reed man and composer Steve Slagle grew on me. It begins nicely and gets increasingly better, as we progress through its nine tracks.

Slagle isn’t a jazz newcomer, but he’s not as well known as many top-flight musicians. He has had plenty of experience, but is better recognized by the artists with whom he has played, than by their fan base. Slagle has advanced degrees from Berklee and the Manhattan Schools of Music; he has written arrangements and performed with Charles Mingus’ Big Band; he has played with Lionel Hampton, Jack McDuff,
Carla Bley and Woody Herman; and is now fronting his own groups.

The unit backing him here includes pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Scott Colley, drummer  Bill Stewart, percussionist Roman Diaz, and guitarist Dave Stryker. Slagle composed all but two of the charts; the exceptions are Stryker’s “Corazon” and Wayne Shorter’s “Charcoal Blues.”

Slagle’s sax “sound” is different than most. Art Pepper (as one example) produced  “cleaner,” more rapid phrasing — like a popcorn popper — while Slagle’s approach is “earthier.” That said, he sure swings. He’s also adept on the soprano sax and flute.

Although a lot of his work — and compositions — are based on a Latin sound, most of this release features grooving, bluesy modern lines that make use of multiple key changes and up-tempo phrasing. This is particularly true of the menu’s latter half.

This is a nice, swinging, album: Slagle is a genuine pleasure to experience.

John Vanore: Stolen Moments

Oliver Nelson, who died too young at 43, is one of our icons. He played saxophone and clarinet, but is best known as a composer, arranger and bandleader. He started as an instrumentalist at age 15, playing in territory bands in the St. Louis area; he joined the Louis Jordan group at 20, then served as a Marine. During this military stint he was exposed to “concert” music, and it changed his life; once returned to civilian life, he studied music composition and theory, graduating with a master’s degree.

Nelson quickly became an in-demand artist, playing with Erskine Hawkins, Louie Bellson, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones. Nelson’s skill as an arranger, then composer, moved him into the big time; he did background music for TV shows and movies, and worked with key entertainers such as Nancy Wilson, James Brown and Diana Ross. All this, while continuing to work with many of the greats in groups that produced some of the historic jazz of the 1960s and ’70s. 

Composer/arranger and trumpeter John Vanore is one of many influenced by Nelson, and this album was created to acknowledge the latter’s contribution to jazz. Vanore chose not to use Nelson’s arrangements, but to “re-imagine” and rearrange some of his most famous music. 

Vanore also uses a unique format in his ensemble: two reeds, five trumpets or flugelhorns, two trombones or French horns, and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass, guitar and drums. This instrumentation, in conjunction with Vanore’s arrangements, results in a smooth, refined sound. It still swings, but the music is more “polite” than that generally associated with a big band.

The nine tracks here are all based on Nelson compositions or arrangements. The most famous is the album title tune, “Stolen Moments,” a staple in every jazz group library. (As just two examples, Bill Evans and Bill Cunliffe have delivered terrific covers.) “Blues & the Abstract Truth” is another from Nelson’s “jazz bible,” and this album also includes famed standards such as “A Taste of Honey,” “St. Louis Blues” and “Greensleeves.” Additional Nelson originals include “Self Help Is Needed,” “Reuben’s Rondo,” “El Gato” and “I Hope in Time a Change Will Come” ... all done with finesse by Vanore’s ensemble.

All in all, a very enjoyable album.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Hal Galper & The Youngbloods: Live at the COTA Jazz Festival

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Live at the COTA Jazz Festival

Beat always has been one of jazz’s key elements. Tempo and “style” can change — it can be balladic, grooving, flag-waving, funk, rock, bop or whatever — but beat usually is consistent. That’s what makes it “danceable.” 

Ah, but that has changed, as some jazz has moved into the modern age. Some artists have moved to what is referred to as a “rubato” style of playing: A consistent beat isn’t used. This is left up to the predominant soloing instrument; the other artists in the group follow this lead’s beat variations.

Pianist Hal Galper is a proponent of this style; the Youngbloods who support him here are his disciples. Alto saxophonist Nathan Bellott, bassist Dean Torrey and drummer David Frazier are honor graduates of Galper’s Purchase Conservatory; this album was recorded at last year’s COTA (Council On the Aging) Jazz Festival, held to honor great alto sax artist Phil Woods.

The rubato style also can be open-ended, which is to say, it doesn’t have a set number of bars or choruses. As a result, each tune generally is longer than the usual jazz composition, and that’s the case here. The four charts (respectively) run more than 17, 11, 14 and 14 minutes. Galper composed of them; Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye” is the exception.

This release doesn't “swing” in the usual sense, but it’s definitely musical, and can be classified as modern jazz. Each artist’s skill is evident during solo sections, and unison passages and supporting contributions are outstanding. It’s beautiful “listening” music, clearly meant for concert hall presentation.

Fans of this sub-genre will be thrilled by this album. If it’s new to you, give it a try. I suspect you’ll be quite impressed.

Delfeayo Marsalis: Kalamazoo

Troubadour Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Kalamazoo

The Marsalis family remains one of the most famous gatherings of jazz artists in existence. Father Ellis is a pianist and teacher; Wynton, the best known, plays the trumpet; eldest brother Branford chose saxophone. Their brother Delfeayo, the trombonist, is featured here. 

Delfeayo is much more than an instrumentalist and composer; he’s also an educator and producer, and his work in recording techniques has earned him both Grammy and 3M Visionary Awards. Although he has played with many well-known jazz artists and groups, this is his first live album, recorded during a concert at Western Michigan University. The players’ reactions and comments can be heard during the performance.

Delfeayo heads a quartet that consists of his father, Ellis, on piano; Reginald Veal on bass; and Ralph Peterson on drums.

The album menu is traditional in that the tunes are familiar: “Autumn Leaves,” “My Funny Valentine,” “If I Were a Bell” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing,’ among others. Almost all the swingers use a blues format, including the theme from Sesame Street. It obviously was a very relaxed and entertaining concert; one of the charts even includes participation by two audience members. Everyone had a ball!

You will, as well.

Friday, February 16, 2018

One O'Clock Lab Band: Lab 2017

North Texas Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Lab 2017

I’ve always been partial to colleges that offer degrees in jazz. The University of North Texas is one of many and, in fact, was the first to do so. The school formed a stage band as far back as 1923, performing Friday night concerts that were broadcast live from a Fort Worth radio station. The unit really became famous in 1927, and in 1947 North Texas launched the world’s first jazz degree program. Things have accelerated ever since, and the program’s faculty, students and graduates are legion. 

The One O’Clock Lab Band — named for the class rehearsal time — is one of nine such university units, all of which use standard 19-piece instrumentation: five reeds, five trumpets, five trombones, piano, bass, guitar and drums.

The band director for this album is Alan Baylock; all charts were arranged by band members. Only three are from the Great American Jazz Standards book: Harold Arlen’s “My Shining Hour,” Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High” and Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Every track is a gem, but my favorite is the opener, “My Shining Hour.” It’s a real barn-burner; I haven’t heard a track that swings like that in years.

The band is stunning.

Two words say it all: swinging and meticulous. You can’t often group those words, because one of the key factors in jazz is spontaneity; that sometimes leads to fluffs or mistakes. Not so with his group; it’s one of the best-rehearsed units I’ve ever encountered.

Fortunately for all jazz fans — and this blog’s readers — North Texas’ many years of operation, and its excellence, have produced an extensive discography starring the various Lab Bands.

Don’t miss this album ... and stay tuned for more equally fine releases from the University of North Texas!

Tom Rizzo: Day and Night

Origin Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Day and Night

This album is proof-positive of several things:

• Tasty, swinging jazz is alive and well in the Los Angeles/greater West Coast region;

• The artists from that neck of the woods continue to demonstrate that they’re among the best who share the love for this genre; and

• Origin continues to be one of the top distributors that satisfies the souls of true jazz fans.

Guitarist Tom Rizzo produced this release, and his performance truly stands out. He has been heard by millions, due to his membership in several of the bands that have been key to television’s Tonight Show. His basic quartet — pianist Dennis Hamm, bassist David Hughes, and drummer Steve Schaeffer — is the core of the tentet (the “little big band”) that makes this album groove.

Trombonist Dick Lane did all the arrangements; the rest of the brass section includes Bob Summers (trumpet), John Dickson (French horn) and Doug Tornquist (tuba). The reed section features Bob Sheppard (tenor sax) and Jeff Driskill (soprano sax).

The menu is a nice blend of standards and originals: Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” Vincent Youmans’ “Without a Song” and Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” along with up-to-date melodies such as Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Peter Bernstein’s “Little Green Men,” Ornette Coleman’s “Law Years” and Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” And if those aren’t enough, we also re-visit “School Days” and “Lonesome Cowboy,” as interpreted by Rizzo.

This a genuinely pleasant jazz journey: danceable, listenable and quite swingable. Bring it home.