CD Reviews - June 2005
by Kyle O'Brien
A State of Secession, Volume One, Dusty York Trio w/Michael York.
On young tenor man York's second disc, he is joined by his father throughout, making for a double sax attack quartet. It is the elder York who takes the spotlight throughout most of the disc. Dusty's compositions court the post-bop/hard bop styles, with ambitious chord structures and challenging melodies. He seems deeply rooted in the sounds of Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. His tenor sound is raw and his tone forward and harsh. His playing does not quite live up to the demanding nature of his own tunes, as his licks - and he goes for them with gusto - can sometimes be awkward and repetitive. This doesn't mean Dusty is a bad player, just one that needs more polish. As for the music, melodies intertwine between the two horns, sometimes smoothly, sometimes awkwardly, as bassist Keith Brush and drummer Ken Paine hold down a solid rhythm section. The lack of a chordal instrument - a piano would have been nice on several meatier tracks - is good for explorative soloing, but not as good for melodic structure. Veteran tenor man Michael York's playing moves the music forward. He uses his fluid skills to great advantage, most evident on the free-flowing ballad, "Libera Me," which would have been a better showcase for one horn rather than two. Dusty York shows promise as a player and more so as a composer. One hopes that "Volume Two" is stronger. Diatic Records, 2005,** 1/2.
Life on an Oblate Spheroid, Anomalous Quintet.
The Anomalous Quintet has changed quite a few members since its last CD in 1999, with the lone holdout being founder, guitarist and composer Jason Newsom. The group leans on the funky side of jazz, with slap-funk grooves and soul jams throughout. While the band creates a cohesive sound, full of smart melodies and solid arrangements, the rhythm section doesn't lock into some grooves tightly enough making it sound like a minor struggle with the melody. The two alto saxophonists, Brad Schrandt and Daniel Covrett could be stronger in tone. Through it all, though, shines tenor saxophonist Michael York's exemplary playing. He sizzles on the supremely funky "Groove of Happiness," ripping off a searing solo, with outside riffs and fleet-fingered runs, to close out the tune. His beautifully smooth tone highlights the Grover Washington, Jr.-style melody of "Goodbye Belize." Newsom's finger-pick style guitar work is solid, and his songwriting and arranging are fitting with the genre. His 4/4 arrangement of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" shows off an angular approach to the melody that is refreshing and punchy. Sparging Worts Music, 2005, ***.
Yellow Dance, Dick Titterington, trumpet.
Titterington is one of those musicians we wish we heard more from. Maybe that will happen with the release of his latest disc (released June 14) on HeavyWood Music, a label run by him and Randy Porter. This is a pared down trio disc, with Titterington's mellifluous tone and skilled playing at the forefront. He's joined by Scott Steed on bass and Todd Strait on drums throughout, with guest appearances by Porter and tenor saxophonist Rob Davis. The tunes are varied, showing off Titterington's compositional fortitude. The title track rips along at a disjointed bop, with sax and trumpet sharing the obtuse melody and solos. He also courts New Orleans street music with "Lunky" and turns around with a blend of Celtic and Latin on the lovely "How Are Things in the Glocca Morra?" with Porter on melodica. "Seams" creeps along at a slow funk, with Titterington and flutist Tim Jensen melding on the melancholy melody. While the disc may challenge the listener on several of the freer tunes, it remains accessible throughout, thanks to stellar musicianship and Titterington's honed and inventive playing, as is evidenced on his "Lose the Crowd," a bouncy duet with Strait that jumps all over the range of the horn like a notey game of hide and seek. The disc sometimes sounds like it doesn't know which direction it wants to go, but the journey throughout is always enjoyable. HeavyWood Music, 2005; Playing Time: 55:41, **** 1/2.
S'Wonderful, The Great Jazz Trio.
Hank Jones turns 87 this year. You wouldn't know it by his playing. He can still rip off quick runs, he can still comp with the best of them, and he sounds just as young as his cohorts on this disc, Jack DeJohnette and John Patitucci. This is the sixth installment of the Great Jazz Trio since 1975, and this sounds as good as any of them. The title track, in the hands of lesser talents, can be one of the smarmiest songs around, but the trio takes it at breakneck speed, DeJohnette's drums propelling it along, while all three do impressive solos. Jones also takes some of it in stride piano, as on (track 2), which lopes along smoothly and displays his touch. There's a reason the trio is called "Great," simply because all are consummate musicians who work together perfectly, listening to what each is doing and never getting in the way, though DeJohnette is sometimes prone to flourish. The song choices aren't terribly original, ranging from the simple "Moanin' to a light version of "Take Five." But it's the musicianship that makes this disc sing. (scheduled for release June 28). Columbia, 2005; Playing Time: 51:19, ****.
Joyous Encounter, Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone.
One expects Lovano to smack the listener in the ear from note one. Such is his reputation as an experimentalist and fiery player. But ever the changeling, Lovano begins this disc with a tender take on "Autumn in New York," subduing his tone and sounding a bit Ben Webster-ish; a starkly beautiful opening track. Of course, his last disc, "I'm All For You," was a full ballads album, so this might be considered a continuation, though it's certainly not all slow. His "Bird's Eye View" bops along smoothly, with his inventive playing backed superbly by bassist George Mraz, drummer Paul Motian, and the currently ubiquitous Hank Jones on piano. Jones sounds as good as ever, trading solos and melodies with Lovano and bringing out Lovano's plaintive tone. One might call this holding back for Lovano, but it's so nice to hear him and Jones share ideas, and their collaboration on the ballad "Alone Together" is a highlight. The title track, by Lovano, is a more forward and Lovano-like, a bouncy, free hard-bopper that takes a cue from Coltrane. But it's the melodies that are the focus here, backed by solid soloing. Blue Note, 2005; Playing Time: 66:49, ****.
For My Father, Hank Jones, piano.
Jones is on no fewer than three albums released this year, and two as a leader, which, at 87, is impressive in itself. That he still plays as vibrantly as ever is even more commendable. On this disc, with longtime collaborators George Mraz on bass and Dennis Mackrel on drums, Jones creates a cohesive album of tribute covers to the people who influenced his music, including Ellington, Strayhorn and Monk, with a few others thrown in for balance. He smooths out the harsher qualities of Monk's "Bemsha Swing" and does a lovely 5/4 version of James Black's "Queen of Hearts." An equally pretty version of "Sophisticated Lady" leads into a slow swinging "Prelude to a Kiss." Jones handles all with grace and skill. Of all three albums Jones has out this year, this may be the most intimate - a trio setting for one of jazz's great ivory ticklers. Justin Time Records, 2005; ****.
Bill Charlap Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul. If Charlap keeps covering the great songwriters of the 20th Century, we'll have a heck of a catalog in the archives. As a follow-up to his acclaimed "Songs of Leonard Bernstein" disc, the stellar pianist dives into Gershwin with gusto. It's essentially a trio album with perks. Charlap does a nimbly subdued take on "Who Cares" backed by bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, and "Liza" zips along at a sophisticated clip. Then the horns kick in, making it an instant septet, with Nicholas Payton, Slide Hampton, Phil Woods and Frank Wess - WOW! The four legendary horn players - all obviously great soloists in their own right - work tightly as a horn section, especially impressive since this is the first time Charlap has utilized a horn section in his arrangements. They're first featured in a thick horn arrangement on "Somebody Loves Me," but all get a chance to shine on their own. Wess smooths the melody on "How Long Has This Been Going On" while Hampton does nicely on "A Foggy Day" which also features great ensemble work. Woods bops his best on "S'Wonderful" and turns around for a tender take on "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." This may not be as vital an album as the Bernstein compilation, but it brings new life to Gershwin's tunes and lets us hear several generations of jazz stars on one disc. (scheduled for release June 28). Blue Note,2005; Playing Time: 51:17, ****.
Vegas '58, Keely Smith, vocals.
As Louis Prima's "straight man" Smith was always second banana, as Prima took all the accolades. By herself, Smith was a deserving star, her rich vocals and polished delivery exceptional. Here, she recreates the days she shared with Prima when they performed at the Sahara Lounge in Vegas. The disc was recorded live last year at the Regency Hotel in New York City and the sound is pure Vegas. Smith sings many of the tunes Prima made popular, including "When You're Smiling" and "Jump, Jive and Wail!" She's backed by a high-powered compact big band and holds her own even as trumpets scream at high decibels. Smith's voice isn't as clear as in her younger days and can't quite reach as it used to, but the richness and character are still right there, as is made clear on the lovely "More Than You Know." Much of the disc has Smith talking about Prima and his legacy, and she even sings in his traditional Italian on several tracks. It's a nice visit back to the good old days in Vegas, but one remembers that you can truly not go home. Concord Records, 2005; Playing Time: 54:10, *** 1/2.
Porgy & Bess Redefined, Mark Masters Ensemble.
I'm sure George and Ira would never have imagined their most notable work as it is presented by this big band. The intro is a mangled mess of free jazz, punched with motifs of the work, melding into a tempo-changing version of "Summertime." The project was presented by the American Jazz Institute, and the players in the ensemble are all top-notch, giving credence to this "redefined" version. The band hops between straight-ahead takes, like the swing on "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" to more explorative arrangements, like the ever-changing "Gone, Gone, Gone." Tenor saxophonist Billy Harper and trumpeter Tim Hagans handle a good bulk of the solos, though baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan and drummer Joe La Barbera put in some nice licks as well. Overall, though, it's an ensemble piece and one that reinterprets a classic. It mostly works, but one might ask what the point is. Just good music, perhaps? Capri Records, 2005; Playing Time: 61:26, ****.
Flow, Terence Blanchard, trumpet.
Blanchard has always been one to push jazz to its limits while staying within its parameters. Here, he toys with funk, African themes, and electronic aural painting. That Herbie Hancock both produced the disc and plays on a couple of the tracks helps bring focus. Hancock, ever the experimenter, infuses a bit of his "Sextant" and "Thrust" days here, though it's Blanchard's overall vision. The title track is revisited several times, and grows every visit. "Wadagbe" is a funky and African suite, with melodic tribal chanting to go along with the wash of keyboards, guitar and jazz chords. Blanchard is also a film composer and there are times that this disc sounds like a soundtrack to an unseen movie, with its flowing (there's the title again) musical landscapes. It's an ambitious project to be sure, and one that won't appeal to all jazz audiences - one might argue that it's not really a jazz recording. But for those forward thinking in their listening habits, they'll be rewarded with an album that has no equal. The concepts behind it are cerebral and not possibly fully understood unless one reads the liner notes, and possibly not even then. Blanchard always challenges himself and his listeners, but its always good to have someone to push forward. Blue Note, 2005; Playing Time: 73:33, ****.
Back in New York, Scott Hamilton, tenor saxophone.
Hamilton, who channels the sounds of saxophones past in his mellifluous sound, has a knack for picking the right people to collaborate with, musicians who share his sense of swing and melody. He's outdone himself this time, partnering with pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. Both Washingtons know how to play it subtle and focus on the tunes rather than the flash, having backed up Charlap for a while now. But it's Charlap who really brings out the best of Hamilton's ability. His subtlety allows Hamilton's sweet-as-honey melodies come to the forefront, but his exemplary comping style lays back just enough, while pushing forward in the most subdued fashion. Simply sublime. The album swings "Wonder Why" and bops ("Blue ‘N' Boogie"), but as is the case with many a Hamilton album, it's the ballads that really shine. "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," finds both at their delicate best. Charlap's enveloping chords stay just below the surface and Hamilton's breathy delivery lulls the listener. The same is true for the gorgeously understated "This is Always." Thanks to both for hooking up on record. Concord Jazz, 2005; Playing Time: 68:28, **** 1/2.
Homage to Jobim, Charlie Byrd, guitar.
If there's anyone who is more fitting to pay tribute to bossa master Antonio Carlos Jobim, I don't know him, save for the Gilberto family. Byrd's prowess on bossa nova tunes is legendary. His subtle nature combined with his technical prowess on the nylon string guitar made him a master of the genre. This disc, recorded live at the Fujitsu-Concord 26th Jazz Festival, is a reissue from 1995, but it still has a vital quality ten years later. The recording definitely sounds live, with the requisite echoes and audience applause, but the music cuts right through, like a Bahia breeze. Byrd is joined by an able crew, including clarinetist Ken Peplowski and pianist Allen Farnham. Peplowski fits best, his clear, smooth tone working with Byrd's melodies fluidly. The inclusion of Hendrik Muerkens' harmonica doesn't work as well, but it gives diversity of sound, though that's not really needed when you have Byrd and Peplowski. The band goes through a few Jobim favorites, like "Desafinado" and "Favela" but also lesser knowns like the plaintive "Once I Loved" and "Beyond the Horizon" as well as the rousing "Chega De Saudade (No More Blues). Now if we could just remove that harmonica... Concord Records, 2005; Playing Time: 42:04,****.
The Best of the Parlophone Years, Dr. John.
It's difficult to categorize Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack. The New Orleans favorite has been labeled blues, jazz, smooth jazz and soul. This compilation of his discs from 1998-2004 is not easy to place in any category either. It starts with the swamp-funk of "I Like Ki Yoka" from his "Anutha Zone" disc, a voodoo creeper that plies the bottom end of his characteristic gravel voice. The album also gets even funkier, with a severely backbeat, slap-funk version of Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing." There are plenty of guest stars here, including Cyril Neville, Paul Weller, B.B. King, Randy Newman and Mavis Staples. New Orleans street music grooves on "Now That You Got Me," and he locks into the horn-based groove, James Brown style, with Fred Wesley on "Food for Thot." What John is, especially on this compilation, is a Big Easy-based funkster with a jazz and blues edge. Nothing bad here, but less jazz than soul. Blue Note Records, 2005; Playing Time: 73:34, *** 1/2.
Next Generation, Gary Burton, vibes.
Gary Burton has been an educator at Berklee College of Music for years, and his ability to spot young talent is exceptional. Here he has gathered a group of young players that he feels not only are the next generation of jazzers but that also form a cohesive group. Burton's vibes are at the core of the group, but he lets all players be involved completely, as both musicians and composers. Pianist Vadim Neselovskyi is a player and composer and equally adept at both sides of the talent. His "Prelude for Vibes" leads off the disc and is impressive in its Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays meandering quality of jazz fusion. Bassist Luques Curtis brings a different tone with his slinky funk blues "‘Ques Sez," and his rhythms are solid throughout. All four young players show a maturity beyond their years, as James Williams displays on drums, creating complex rhythms without skipping a beat, so to speak. The most impressive, besides Neselovskyi's dual talents, is guitarist Julain Lage. Burton found the prodigy when he was only twelve and already playing on the 2000 Grammy Awards telecast. He has since nurtured his talent and, just in his teens now, is already more mature than many of the string pickers decades older. He shows the fluidity of Metheny and the restraint of Jim Hall, and he's still growing as a player and composer. This is a group to watch, but considering all are worthy of a solo career, this may be the last time all will be together. Concord Music, 2005; Playing Time: 62:47, ****.
Mercy Streets, Kate McGarry, vocals. The line between jazz and folk music keeps blurring, thanks to artists like Norah Jones, Joel Harrison and others. Certainly, if Joni Mitchell had been just starting her career today, she would no doubt have been a jazz artist with pop leanings, rather than the folkie as she was categorized. Add McGarry to the mix to this group. She begins, fittingly, with Mitchell's vibrant folk-jazz tune, "Chelsea Morning" and handles the jumps in the vocals easily. Her voice is both soothing and challenging. Her enunciation relays the lyrics well and her phrasing is jazz-like in its sophistication. The Massachusetts singer was taught by Archie Shepp, among others, and she retains a sense of the outside, especially in her fluid scatting, as on "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets." She does a Rickie Lee Jones-style delivery of "How Deep is the Ocean," but opens up to freer jazz on the sparse swing of "But Not For Me." Her sole self-penned tune, "Going In," is straight out of the Lilith Fair folk genre, a smartly-written folk-pop tune, but not much of a jazz tune. McGarry is tough to categorize, which is both refreshing and a sign of what jazz has to embrace to capture younger and more diverse listeners. Palmetto Records, 2005; Playing Time: 53:26, ****.