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.