CD Reviews - August 2005
by Kyle O'Brien
Five, Anders Holst, vocals. Holst is a Swedish native who has ventured into the world of contemporary jazz. At least that's how's he's being billed. His music, at first listen, is more like adult contemporary pop with a jazz sophistication. The arrangements are thick and slickly produced, and possess an air of ‘70s pop. As a vocalist Holst is able, his deep and dusky baritone stays nicely on key and holds up against the full band and string arrangements. Evidence of his Swedish heritage is noticeable on several turns of words, but certainly not any distraction. The problem here is with the lyrical content, which treads no new ground and doesn't go very deep. Holst's lyrics are often banal, with trite phrases and predictable phrasing, and subjects don't delve much past love and personal strength. With lyrics like "Love me like a river, and throw me off my feet, you can carry me over, and make my heart believe," Holst won't be competing with Elvis Costello for any songwriting awards. With guests like smooth jazzers Gerald Albright and Paul Jackson, Jr., Holst is in good company for the genre. He just needs to bring up the depth of his words to compete in the waning world of contemporary jazz-pop. UOM, 2004; Playing Time: 19:53, **1/2.
A Walk in the Park, Dena DeRose, vocals, piano. There are those artists who are just bubbling under. They possess all the talent of the stars, and sometimes more, but they just haven't received the recognition they deserve. DeRose is one of those artists, and perhaps this album will help her get there. She has a classic jazz voice that might remind some of a mix between Carmen McRae, Blossom Dearie and a few others. She's also a fine pianist and backs her vocals well. Her debut on MaxJazz is a simple trio disc that showcases her ability with song. She takes a traditional bossa, "Meditation," and reimagines it as a swing tune with much success, though her tandem scatting-piano run she does would have been better as a simple piano solo, as DeRose's improvisational vocal abilites aren't strong enough to hold up to her playing. She's best when she sticks to the melody, as on her lushly beautiful "In the Glow of the Moon." She's backed by bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson, who all have soloing opportunities, but let DeRose take the forefront. While some of the tunes from the jazz canon are a bit predictable ("How Deep is the Ocean" and "All the Way") DeRose tackles them with grace and fluidity. Let's hope she's recognized by a wider audience. MaxJazz Records, 2005; Playing Time: 60:03, ****.
Bouncing with Bud & Phil, Bud Shank & Phil Woods, alto saxophones. For two artists who claim "we're all Bird's children," compositions made famous by Charlie Parker are nearly absent, and the only true bop of that era is Bud Powell's "Bouncing with Bud," which leads off the disc in true bopping form, with both Shank and Woods sharing the lead. The two septuagenarian altoists play nicely together, their styles complementary, if not alike. On the head of George Cables' pretty "Helen's Song," the two play in wonderful harmony before Shank gets into a solo segment. While Shank is a respected player and a leader of West Coast jazz's history, he has never been a favorite of mine. His tone is overtly harsh and his solo phrasing can be annoyingly repetitive. Woods, on the other hand, pleases at nearly every step of the way; he is fluid and possesses a prototypically smooth and reedy alto tone, while knowing what style to play for what tune, as on his tender take of Benny Carter's "Summer Serenade." With Mike Wofford, Bob Magnusson and Bill Goodwin serving as the backup band, the two legends are in great company, and the crowd at Yoshi's, where the disc was recorded, certainly knew they had something special on stage. Nevertheless, Shank unfortunately makes the disc a little too harsh to be a keeper all around. Capri Records, 2005; Playing Time: 69.31, ***.
In the P.M., Peter Martin, piano. This is Martin's second outing for MaxJazz and he proves again that he is one of the better pianists working the scene today. His playing is smart and taut, and he stays true to the melody even when taking the solos a bit more outside. Working in a traditional piano trio format, with the sizzling Greg Hutchinson on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass, Martin thrives and delivers an album that is both easy to listen to and a fine example of the tradition. Martin plays with energy and knowledge. His solo rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine" bounces along with ease and brings a new life to the classic tune. But it's with his two cohorts that he really shines, as on his own composition, "Modern Cacophony," a dense, disjointed tune that bops and takes everything far out, with the trio listening and following along. The energy feeds off itself and makes for exciting music. The only downfall of the disc is the inclusion of guest vocalist Erin Bode. Her voice is sweet and simple and not terribly suited to the vibe of the trio. She sings straightforwardly and rigidly, not keeping with the free-flowing nature of the trio's originality. MaxJazz Records, 2005; Playing Time: 60:54, ****.
Multiplicity, Dave Weckl Band. Weckl will always be associated with the Chick Corea Elektric Band, where his technically perfect drumming made thousands of drum students' jaws drop to the floor. He doesn't stray too far from the formula that made him a clinic guru - blindingly impressive funk and fusion beats with enough polyrhythmic fills to make the oceans rise. Things start off with a bang on "Watch Your Step," with Weckl's drums searing on a propelling beat while his band, led by saxophonist Gary Meek and keyboardist Steve Weingart, trade melodies and solos. Weingart's "Vuelo," could be straight off a Corea record, with thick harmonies and an electric keyboard-led melody. If there were ever a case to be made for fusion to make a big comeback, Weckl would probably lead the pack. His music is intricate, his playing and that of his group is flawless, and the music is opposite to smooth jazz in that it's smart and exciting rather than elevator boring. Still, one has to think that the whole thing is a little too technical and has not enough melodic feel for some. Still, drum students will be duly impressed. Stretch Records, 2005; PT: 54:22, ****.
Faith, Sherman Irby, alto saxophone. It's nice to see the alto sax making a bit of a comeback. Irby is a lesser known addition to the ranks and has already made a name for himself as a solo artist and sideman. He was a part of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and was in Roy Hargrove's group for four years before getting his own recording contract. As a player Irby is true to the instrument, covering bop and ballads with ease and a rounded tone. As a composer he is able, though he could use an infusion of originality. His melodies are unrecognizable and his tempos on many of the tunes merely mid-tempo. The chords move along well, though, and he makes some tidy runs around the keys. With Willie Jones III on drums, Larry Willis on piano and Gerald Cannon, Irby is in a safety zone, but not one that pushes him far enough. His ballads, particularly his "Worth the Wait," show off a depth of tone and feeling, but many of the other compositions just don't take it to that next level. One can't complain about the music per se, but one can only wish it had more of something, or that he had more to say. Black Warrior Records, 2004; Playing Time: 68:16, ***.
And So is Love, Rita Coolidge, vocals. Rita Coolidge doing jazz? It's not as far out as you think. Though the singer made a name in the rock, blues and pop world, Coolidge's deep vocals, now a bit dusky, seem finely suited to the jazz genre. Her bluesy-swingy version of "Come Rain or Come Shine" shows an ease with the material, one that lets her stylize and bring out the true jazz in her voice. It doesn't hurt that she has plenty of jazz veterans helping her out. Produced by Yellowjacket Jimmy Haslip, it also features fellow buzzers Bob Sheppard and Russell Ferrante, but this is no smooth jazz disc. Smooth yes, but not in the elevator sense. The tunes swing and the chords are rich like Coolidge's vocal delivery. She knows how to craft a ballad as well, with her haunting version of "Cry Me a River," which shows shades of Rosemary Clooney. She can do bossa too, as on "Estate" with guests Herb Alpert on trumpet and Alex Acuna on percussion. If Coolidge should choose to just go the jazz route, I don't see how anyone could fault her. Concord Music, 2005; Playing Time: 52:08, ****.
First Time Over, Tom Stewart, guitar. My first thought as this disc started playing was, turn off the darned reverb. Even Mike Stern would say, ‘hey, that's too much verb, man.' The echo effect makes it seem like Stewart is playing in a cavern, and it takes away from his otherwise stylistic playing on modern and contemporary jazz originals. His tone, through the din, is rich and full, and he shows off smooth technique and a decent sense of melody. The guitarist was a Berklee grad but ultimately became a lawyer. The Florida resident has now decided to return to his first love, jazz, and he may be able to make it in spite of this poorly recorded disc. Aside from the heavy reverb, the drums sound distant and were obviously miked wrong, and the bass is muddy. This is more like a demo than a saleable disc. Based on that, sure, I'd hire the guy but wouldn't recommend my friends go out and buy this recording. Try again in a better studio, Tom, and maybe it's worth more of a listen. Joe Hand Music, 2005; Playing Time: 57:31, *1/2.
What Now?, Kenny Wheeler, flugelhorn. The soft-spoken Ken Wheeler has ties to two of the other three musicians on this disc. Wheeler and pianist John Taylor played together in the trio Azimuth, and those two played with bassist Dave Holland recording together in the 1990s. Only Chris Potter, a member of Holland's groups, did not have a direct tie to Wheeler, but his seamless saxophone playing fits like a glove with Wheeler's post-bop sound. As a drummer-less quartet, there is no loss of rhythm and the focus is more on the soloists and the interplay between the instruments. Potter plays a more subdued, though no less interesting fashion, as he and Wheeler share melodic lines and solo opportunities on Wheeler's tunes. From the bop of "Iowa City" to the threading lines of Verona, the quartet travels through the music with an elegance of improvisation. Potter and Wheeler traipse through the waltzing melody of "One Two Three" while Holland delivers a deep solo. Wheeler's plaintive tone is most evident on the melancholy ballad "The Lover Mourns," where he emotes through his mellifluous horn. A lovely album by four consummate professionals. CamJazz, 2005; Playing Time:64:55, ****1/2.
Poem for You Today, Jay Collins Band. The disc starts with a soul jazz kick with vocalist-saxophonist-electric pianist Collins singing in a gravelly blues-like voice. He sounds like he's trying to be a bit of a Dr. John, but his voice just doesn't have the strength or tonal originality to pull off the quirky nature. It's almost like he's forcing a growl when he could actually just sing. The songs border on blues and funk rather than jazz, and his lyrics, as well as his delivery, are simplistic. The band is decent enough, but I'd rather listen to Dr. John. Hipbone Records, 2004; Play Time: 56:14, **1/2.
Special Encounter, Enrico Pieranunzi, piano. The Italian pianist obviously has admirers, since he got Charlie Haden and Paul Motian to be the two and three of his trio. The effect, recorded live in the studio, is one of delicate interplay. There is a definite nocturnal feel, one in which Haden excels. He does a thoughtful solo on the opening track, a subtle version of "My Old Flame." Motian is well-versed in modes of touch and intricacy, and here he uses brushes and a minimalist feel, letting Pieranunzi's piano lead the way. All three certainly listened to each other intensely, as nobody gets in the way. Nor, though, does it feel like anyone is holding back. Pieranunzi's own tunes, like the pendulous "Earlier Sea" fit with the restrained theme, though it's the true ballads, like Haden's darkly luring "Nightfall" that really showcase the musical subtlety of the session. CamJazz, 2005; Playing Time: 56:59, ****1/2.
Have You Heard, Javon Jackson, tenor saxophone. Jackson is one of those players who has never gotten over the hump and achieved true stardom in the jazz world. He's well respected and a fine player, but remains on the second tier of the jazz elite. Whatever the reason, Jackson remains a solid artist and this disc does nothing to diminish that. It's uniquely funky, beginning with a ‘70s-style Grover Washington-like groove, "In This Corner," which features a solid jam by the group, which includes stars like Dr. Lonnie Smith on B-3 organ, and Mark Whitfield on guitar. Maybe Jackson's lack of true stardom comes from his eclectic nature. This disc is essentially a funk disc that could have been recorded 25 years ago. Whitfield coaxes odd, clavinet-like sounds from his guitar, Smith sears on the organ, and Lisa Fischer layers tracks of vocals in true pop-funk fashion. It's full of bluesy soul, greasy funk and heavy backbeats. For those who miss the ‘70s, this is a soulful way to revisit them, and Jackson does his best to play it close to the heart without getting flashy. Palmetto Records, 2005; Playing Time: 53:45, ****.
La Espada de la Noche, Ted Nash and Odeon. Saxophonist Nash has taken a turn towards the Iberian peninsula, South America, Europe, New Orleans and beyond on this disc, and somehow it works. Working with a group that includes a violinist, accordion player, tuba and drums, this is about as eclectic as it gets from a man known mostly for his straight ahead jazz work. One applauds Nash's true eclecticism and the fact that the music travels all over the map and still manages to sound cohesive, interesting and lively. "A Night in Tunisia" gets a tango treatment, while "Tico Tico" is a spirited ethnic march with Nash impressing with his clarinet noodling. The group plays two movements of Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto De Aranjuez," and nails the joyous feeling of the piece of the Allegro movement, swinging with feeling, while the Adagio section pulls out Moorish modalities. New Orleans street beats come out on the finale "Walk This Way," closing out a cultural music fusion which Nash deftly makes his own in the very best way. Nash's album is a keeper. Palmetto Records 2005; PT: 50:48, *****.
Noche Inolvidable, Jazz at Lincoln Center's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with Arturo O'Farrill. While the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra may get all the notoriety, this group certainly holds up as a shining example of what great Latin jazz orchestras should be. The execution is flawless, sometimes almost overtly so. The rhythms are exacting, and some might argue not free flowing enough. Such is the nature when you get an ensemble together that's supposed to be the standard of the genre. Still, this big band creates serious sizzle, playing Cuban, Caribbean, South American and Mexican rhythms that would make Xavier Cugat, Perez Prado and the like very proud. With guest vocalists Herman Olivera and Claudia Acuna, the 17-piece band gets a chance to show what true Afro-Latin jazz is, from fiery percussive rhythms ("Havana Special") to sultry ballads ("Somos Novios"). Even if you don't speak Spanish, or can't name the individual styles being played, you'll appreciate the heart and melody, as well as the polyrhythms, of this vital jazz music. Palmetto Records, 2005; Playing Time: 59:57, ****.
Scott Fisher, Scott Fisher. Portlander Fisher created a big buzz from his first disc, and now he's starting to get looks from major labels who are drawn to his jazz chops and catchy songwriting. The singer-songwriter-keyboardist is one of those artists not easily categorized, like a Norah Jones. At times he can sound like a pure pop star, as on the single "Nothing" where he uses his emotive voice against a propelling groove and piano-centered chord backdrop, sounding a bit like Coldplay-meets-Train. At others, he's an introspective pianist, as on the instrumental "Interlude." This disc certainly courts the pop world more than his first, as many of the tracks seem cut directly for modern rock radio. But his jazz influences come in through his keyboard. The Fender Rhodes he uses creates a retro sound, buoying the bouncy "Struggle," a mash of funky jazz, pop and ska styles, while his piano dances over both drums and programmed beats, as on the textured "Humility." His sweetly emotive voice jumps into falsetto nicely and Fisher seems poised to hit pop's big time with the right help, taking with him bits of jazz along the way and hopefully drawing some new listeners to the music, even if subversively. Jazz fans who want to venture into pop might find Fisher just the right artist to take them there. Scott Fisher Music, 2005; Playing Time: 39:57, ****.