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CD Reviews - April 2005
by Kyle O'Brien

Girl Talk, Mel Brown Quartet. Before long, Brown will have recorded all of his groups that play at Jimmy Mak's. Until the catalog is complete, this will do nicely. Brown's Quartet is his most straight-ahead combo, and it has gained a dedicated following since its inception in 2002. Featuring two Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Famers in Brown and guitarist Dan Balmer, and rounded out by highly respected locals Ed Bennett on bass and Tony Pacini on piano, this group is one of the most finely tuned combos playing the Northwest. With this recording, they capture most of the magic they have each Wednesday night at Jimmy Mak's, but polished up courtesy of the studio. The title track is a Neil Hefti tune, arranged by Pacini. The pianist's take on the easygoing tune is mellow and smooth. Brown, as he does so well, lets the melody come to the forefront, understating his brush work and letting the tune unfold like the petals on a rose -- slowly and beautifully. But, while the quartet knows how to play it subtle, they are best when they're cooking. Bennett's smart tune, "Now's Not the Time" grooves along with his strong walking line as Pacini shows off his muscular soloing. Bennett follows with an impressive solo of his own. Bennett's pen accounts for a majority of the tunes, while Pacini and Balmer both put forth originals of their own. Pacini's "Silverplated Song" jumps back and forth between light Latin rhythms and bop, with rapidly moving chord changes. Balmer's nimble "Oldest Son" lets the guitar come to the front, trading melody lines with Pacini and working the fret board with taste and technicality. Holding it all together is Brown, whose drumming could be called melodic, tasty, tasteful and rock-solid all at once. He knows to let his musicians shine, since all are top-notch, but he hits each snare, each click of the ride, each tom, with a confident ease, then bringing it to a boil when needed, as on the intense Pacini arrangement of "Milestones." The album starts a bit on the mellow side and works up to a frenzied finish, much like one of the quartet's weekly gigs. But what works so well live doesn't mesh as well on disc. A quick tune up front would have set a better tone for the album, grabbing some of the intensity the group displays on stage, but that could be construed as nitpicking, since the album is excellent as is. Saphu Records, 2005; Playing Time: 63:07,****1/2.

Sail Away, West Coast Jazz Ensemble. Longtime Portland woodwind player Larry Nobori leads this quintet that focuses on the West Coast sound; that is to say that the tunes are more highly arranged, and more ensemble oriented. In addition, tunes by West Coast jazz legends like Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck are represented. Nobori is joined by trumpeter Rick Homer, guitarist Christopher Woitach, bassist Michael Papillo and drummer Chris Conrad, and the group's arrangements are nice representations of the tunes, from the subtle interplay of Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now" to the upbeat "Joy Spring." Nobori plays both clarinet and alto sax, but is strongest on clarinet, showing off a full tone, as on the melody on "Black Nile." Homer's trumpet and mellophone complement Nobori's woodwinds. Unfortunately, the recording quality is inconsistent. The drums sometimes sound up front and other times sound like they're in another room. Plus, the arranged parts occasionally sound a bit stiff. But the arrangements are good representations of the classic West Coast sound. Self-produced, 2005; Playing Time: 56:00, ***.

Something to Live For, Mia Nicholson. Local singer and writer Nicholson recently released her debut recording, and it displays a singer with a tender, joyful voice singing unconventional tunes from the jazz standards book. Hers is a smooth voice, delivering melodies purely and clearly. Nicholson is more of a song stylist than an improviser. She sounds like she truly enjoys singing and feels comfortable doing so. It doesn't hurt that she has a collection of some of Portland's best jazz players behind her. Steve Christofferson (he produced as well) is present for much of the album and his touch backing Nicholson's vocals anchors the disc. Ed Bennett and Dave Captein share bass duties, and Ron Steen and Reinhardt Melz trade off on drums. David Evans puts in a couple of well-placed tenor solos, while Eddie Parente's violin, Jerry Hahn's guitar and Bobby Torres's percussion change up the textures. Nicholson's choice of songs is refreshing. Lesser known standards, like "The Best Thing for You" by Irving Berlin, "Laughing at Life" by Nick and Charles Kenny/Bob Todd, and the pretty "Last Night When We Were Young" by Harold Arlen, and the sassy "Baltimore Oriole" by Hoagy Carmichael are welcome changes from the usual standards. A fine CD debut for Mia. Mia Culpa Music, 2005; Playing Time: 43:19, ****.

New Wings, Margaret Slovak, guitar. The story behind this disc is as heartbreaking as some of the music, but also just as beautiful. Slovak is a longtime Portland musician, her intricate guitar work impressing jazz and classical fans alike. After playing in smoky bars, she dedicated much of her time to working at hospices and hospital units, playing her lovely compositions for the sick and the dying, including her mother and the late bassist Leroy Vinnegar. She brought joy to numerous people who were bedridden. Slovak unfortunately was involved in a bad car wreck that injured her nerves and which affected the function of her right hand. After two years of intense rehabilitation, she regained 70% of the function in her hand and started recording this disc of songs she plays to patients. While it is frustrating for her to not have the full use of her hand, she still plays wonderfully and has recently started playing publicly again. She has finished the recording, and her songs are rich and intricate. Her finger-picking style is somewhere between Segovia and Pat Metheny when he plays acoustic. She performs solo on most of the disc, but Dave Captein and Doug Smith make appearances on bass and guitar respectively, and George Mitchell plays piano on one track as well. The music is soothing yet interesting in its complexity. Perfect for bedside manners. One hopes that Slovak continues her recovery so she can continue to help people in their times of need. Slovak Music, 2005; Playing Time: 65:52, ****.

Letting Go, Bill Beach, piano. Beach is a favorite on the Portland circuit, and this disc will do nothing but further his reputation. The songs are a pleasing mix of original compositions and Jobim bossas, along with scattered others. Mostly, though, the trio disc, featuring bassist Dave Captein and drummer Reinhardt Melz is cohesive in its approach and execution. The three musicians work together flawlessly. Melz is perfectly suited to his Latin rhythm approach, as on the propelling "Oakville Road," where he lays down polyrhythms to complement Beach's fresh and exact comping and Captein's agile bass playing. And guess what, Beach is a pretty darned good singer too. He tackles Jobim tunes in their native Portuguese and does a fine job, doing them in a sort of talking sing-song, much like Joao Gilberto, and only slightly less smoothly than a native speaker. The album also features songs that are a tribute to his late sister, Alice. The waltz, "Alice Annette" is a lovely musical memory of her. The only song that doesn't quite mesh is "People," which, even with chord alterations, can't shake the stigma of Streisand's overwrought delivery from decades back. Overall, though, this disc deserves to be in every local jazz fan's collection. Bill Beach, 2004; Playing Time: 59:33, ****.

Legacy, Joey DeFrancesco with Jimmy Smith. It's not often that proteges are able to record with their mentors. While Smith may not exactly be DeFrancesco's true mentor, he certainly had a big influence on DeFrancesco, and virtually every other jazz organist to come after him. This recording is made all the more important with the recent passing of Smith, arguably the biggest name the jazz organ has ever known. It becomes a true passing of the torch, with a legend imparting one final bit of wisdom to his most notable student. The bluesy warmth of Smith's sound meshes with DeFrancesco's organic touch. DeFrancesco and Smith share Hammond B-3 licks on about half the tracks, with DeFrancesco giving Smith the organ spotlight on the others while he plays piano and synth. They bring out the best in each other, with Smith getting energized by DeFrancesco's enthusiastic playing, as on "Off the Top," and DeFrancesco tempering his fleet fingers on ballads like "I'll Close My Eyes." The rest of the band lets the two shine while providing a solid backbone, and saxophonist James Moody makes a welcome appearance on DeFrancesco's "Jones'n for Elvin." Only a couple of tracks don't quite work, as on the bossa "Corcovado," where DeFrancesco's synthesized strings make the song teeter on cheesiness. But to get two great players like this together, especially since this was most likely Smith's last recording, makes it a noteworthy sendoff for a true legend. Concord Jazz, 2005; PT: 75:37, ****1/2.

Mum is the Word, Chris Cortez, guitar & vocals. Cortez seems a bit confused here. His fluid hollow-body style has bits of Django, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery and others, but the disc is all over the map stylistically. There are blues standards, like "Every Day I Have the Blues," but also a smooth jazz-meets-bossa version of "Georgia on My Mind" that doesn't do the classic any favors. His originals sound more old-school than some of his covers, as the hoppin' "My Way is Better" displays, with Django-style bounce. Traditional takes on tunes like "Honeysuckle Rose," and "Sweet Georgia Brown" serve Cortez's style better. Cortez is a decent if unspectacular singer. On the opening track, he traipses lackadaisically through the melody, making the listener wish he had made it an instrumental. He's better on the blues, but his singing style is over-pronounced and not suited to the laid back style of his music. If he would focus more on the swing and not the smooth, Cortez would be much better off. Blue Bamboo Music, 2004; Playing Time: 45:25, **1/2.

Tomo, Tomo. Tomo is a collection of veteran L.A. area musicians, led by two respected names in pianist Bill Cunliffe and saxophonist Bob Sheppard. On this polished disc, the five musicians (Larry Koonse on guitar, Darek Oles on bass and Mark Ferber on drums) play the music of composer Reed Kotler. The result is an uplifting jazz album full of warm melodies, easy swing, bop and bossa, and honed musicianship. One might call the music safe, and it is, but Kotler's tunes are also joyful and lighthearted, and as played by Tomo, nicely executed. A good disc to have on for those who might be apprehensive of the harder stuff. Torii Records, 2004; Playing Time: 64:01, ***1/2.

Exploration, Grachan Moncur III Octet. If this recording sounds like it came from the late 1960s, it's because many of the tracks were written during that period. Trombonist Moncur hasn't put out an album as a leader since 1977, and his free-form avant-garde pieces recall earlier eras. Moncur started his career with Ray Charles, then with Art Farmer and Benny Golson. He is an explorative musician, and his compositions flow like Monk's and Coltrane's, with a solid beat, but with horns free to fill the spaces within the structures of the tunes. The small big band he employs, with such artists as bari saxophonist Gary Smulyan, saxophonists Gary Bartz and Billy Harper, and bassist Ray Drummond to name a few, come together cohesively, swinging on angular compositions like "Monk in Wonderland" and the title track. Some of the tones are harsh, as on many "free jazz" albums of the 60's, but there is also structure, written horn lines, and a collective purpose. Moncur's tone is thinner than in his younger days, but he still retains that renegade nature, pushing the music forward. If you liked Moncur back then, you'll like the new old version as well. The American Jazz Institute/Capri Records, 2004; Playing Time: 54:06, ****.

Parker's Mood, Stefano di Battista, saxophones. Italian saxophonist di Battista pays tribute to one of America's greatest musicians on this decidedly bop album. The tunes are played the same as they were by Parker -- many at breakneck speed, and true to the form. "Salt Peanuts" comes complete with the vocal shouts, while "Embraceable You" finds di Battista using some of the same licks as Parker, note-for-note. Di Battista has a lovely tone, and he tackles the lightning fast runs with ease and fluidity. Backed by pianist Kenny Barron, drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Rosario Bonaccorso, and trumpeter Flavio Boltro, the band is outstanding in its tribute to bop players of the past. But one wonders why this album needed to be made, since it's such a note-on representation of Parker's music. Only "Night in Tunisia" has a more modern feel. Sure, it shows how well contemporary players can play bop, but other than that, listening to the original recordings, even with all their scratches and mono sound, are still plenty enjoyable. Blue Note Records, 2004; Playing Time: 51:43, ***1/2.

Same Time Twice, Matthias Lupri Group. Vibraphonist Matthias Lupri has come a long way since his rock drumming days in Germany and Canada. The Berklee College educator has been on the rise as a solo artist and composer for several years now, and this disc finds him in fine form as both scribe and player. His compositions have a modern flair, traveling through chords and rhythms on a musical journey, somewhat like Pat Metheny's early work. His lyrical vibes propel the music along, bolstered by Gregory Hutchinson's understated drumming and Reuben Rogers' steady bass. Mark Turner's focused saxophone and Kurt Rosenwinkel's versatile guitar work share the soloing duties with Lupri, who shows plenty of conventionally inventive solo style. With a little more verve, Lupri can take his journeying sound even further afield, beyond texture and melody. Summit Records, 2002; Playing Time: 69:13, ****.

The Sound of Love, and Spartacus, Tommy Smith, tenor saxophone. Scottish saxophonist Smith made a big splash at the Portland Jazz Festival recently with Joe Locke's 4 Walls of Freedom. He is a monster talent, one of the best working today. His last disc pushed the boundaries of jazz way out, and his explorative nature and mastery of the instrument produced fireworks in the studio. With these two albums, we hear a more tempered Smith, one who favors melody and tone over squawks and altissimo notes. With "The Sound of Love" his tone is front and center as on "In a Sentimental Mood." It is rich, round and warm, like hot chocolate by a fire. But he also swings relentlessly, as on the Strayhorn tune "Johnny Come Lately," staying true to the melody until the solo section, when he sends forth perfectly placed runs and licks, taking it just enough outside to keep it interesting. He fills the horn with richness on "Spartacus," beginning with a ballad that has Smith running the entire length of the horn's range, with just as much balance on the high notes as on low B-flat, amazing for both his technical prowess and his musical integrity. He treats the tunes with respect and care, with attention to melody and texture. Both discs feature the superb piano work of Kenny Barron. Smith is a blend of Ben Webster, Brecker and Coltrane, with his own unique style. No doubt, he will be a superstar worldwide soon. The Sound of Love, 1998, Linn Records; Playing Time: 67:38. *****. Spartacus, 2000, Spartacus Records; Playing Time: 61:30, ****1/2.

Local Color, Jay Anderson, acoustic bass. For an acoustic bassist Anderson is pretty funky. On his track "Down Time," he lays down a hefty groove, while his horn players, Billy Drewes and Tim Hagans channel late Miles Davis-style sparse licks. As for the rest of the album, it's an odd mix of what sound like remnants of the early smooth jazz era ("Local Color") to tender ballads ("On This Day") and covers of rock and soul songs ("Third Stone From the Sun," "What's Going On"). Anderson is a talented bassist, but even at a decade old (recorded in 1994), this seems dated already. Digital Music Products, 1994; Playing Time: 55:06, ***.

Ballad Essentials, Rosemary Clooney, vocals. Concord Records has re-released and compiled its extensive Clooney catalog, and this disc adds to that growing collection. This disc borrows from multiple Clooney albums from her 1977-1998 Concord career, so this isn't the young woman from the 50's. Rather, it's when her distinctive and beautiful voice gained some seasoning and emotional depth. Songs like "Falling in Love Again," and "Laura" are poignant, with an undercurrent of melancholy. "Tenderly" and "I've Got a Crush on You" join "One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)" and a handful of other signature Clooney ballads for a congruous album that represents the singer at some of her best moments in the studio, accompanied by Concord's superb stable of sidemen. Concord Jazz Records, 2005; PT: 51:50, ****.

Ballad Essentials, Kenny Burrell, guitar. Another compilation by Concord from its deep archives features longtime Concord artist Kenny Burrell, who knew how to strum a guitar into submission. His big, warm sound resonated gorgeously, especially on ballads.While most tracks have backing musicians, one relishes the solo pieces,since Burrell knew how to create a fullness with just his six strings. "WarmValley," recorded in 1995, is lush, with Burrell throwing in chord alterations while staying firm with the cascading melody. Jimmy Smith's comforting organ fills the bottom end on "Solitude" to let Burrell explore the melody, while "Body & Soul" is simply sublime. A romantic disc if there ever was one. Concord Records, 2005; Playing Time: 58:49, ****1/2.

Copyright 2007, Jazz Society of Oregon