CD Reviews - October 2005
by Kyle O'Brien
The Pilgrimage, Ben Fowler Quintet, saxophone. This disc goes back to the funky blues of early contemporary jazz, with Fowler's Sanborn-like tone ringing throughout the length of this local artist's debut recording. It's not smooth jazz. It displays elements of blues ("So Long, So Far"), funk (title track), and gospel-influenced hand-clappers ("Take Me Home"), along with light waltzy compositions and R&B-inspired numbers. The spiritual, gospel element is the connective tissue here. Fowler's compositions, according to his liner notes, are a blend of his two main musical influences - his church-going Sundays as a child, and his modern jazz training. It's a good balance and one that doesn't get mired in either genre too heavily. The Portland native, who has played with bands like Body & Soul, Jazz Explosion, Ezra Weiss, Pepe & the Bottle Blondes, and others, is a welcome voice on the alto in a town that's fairly tenor-heavy. He has a clear, contemporary tone with a solid sense of melody. He is not overtly flashy, though he does know how to take his solos outside the chords, all the while maintaining a harmonic center. The songs that lean towards gospel pack the most punch, as on the soul groover, "Lord Have Mercy," where his emotive playing cuts through the undulating keyboards of organ player Dave Fleschner. Aside from the always reliable Fleschner, Fowler is surrounded by plenty of good talent, including guitarist Dan Gildea and drummer Ed Pierce. The bass of Tyler Smith is unfortunately too soft in the mix and takes away from his solid lines. On the songs that could be considered "contemporary jazz," Fowler is good but fairly standard, But overall, this Pilgrimage is worth taking, a fine debut from a promising contemporary saxophonist. Ben Fowler's CD release party is 9 p.m. Saturday, October 22, at Jimmy Mak's, 300 NW. 10th Ave.; $8 at the door. Self-produced, 2005; Playing Time: 52:18, ***1/2.
One Two Three, Gordon Lee, piano. Lee's last release was big, literally. His GLeeful Big Band blasted Lee's complex arrangements with precision and swing. On his latest disc he is a bit more subdued but certainly no less complex. It opens with a metered ponder, "Afternoon Shadows," a thick yet somehow melodic composition that builds in classical fashion, rising slowly into a crunching crescendo, then dropping to a pensive wash of an ending. Lee's piano is the main catalyst, but bassist Andre St. James and drummer Carlton Jackson move the composition forward with subtlety and restrained power. Lee's compositions have always been heavily influenced by classical composers, especially 20th century scribes, and that level of difficulty comes through, though with a tempered brilliance.His cover of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields" seems a throwaway, since it sticks fairly close to the original form and melodic structure, though Renato Caranto does an admirable job not miring the tune in sentimentality. "Autumn Leaves" fares better as a bouncy bop duo with Caranto. Lee elaborates on the chordal structure, giving a fresh take to the classic. It's Lee's original compositions that make the grade here. As on the medium swinger "Too Much News," and the propelling 7/4 number "Spring in the Park," which has just enough disharmony to be interesting-yet-accessible. The trio format may not be as compelling as a big band, but the smart conversations Lee has with his trio and duo partners make for a pleasing and occasionally challenging listen. Diatic Records, 2005; Playing Time: 62:12,****.
Something Good, Mitzi Zilka, vocals. Zilka, the founder of the popular Portland Jazz Singers Concert Series, has released her second solo CD after nearly four years since her debut. The veteran vocalist has teamed up with some of Portland's best musicians for a refined take on classic tunes and some not so classic gems. Zilka possesses a sweet and clear voice, with laid back phrasing and a strong melodic sense. She also has a great sense of lyrics, penning original lyrics to classic tunes, like her smart dual-language take on the standard "Blue Bossa." Some of her tonality, especially on key change turns, goes slightly out of tune, but she catches them quickly and goes right back into pure tone. But give her kudos for trying something new, especially on the Ellington standard "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," which she does in a very un-swing like thing, putting the tune in 7/4 time. She brings a few forgotten gems to the table, as with the bluesy ballad "Something Good" by Richard Rogers, and a lovely "Introduce Me To Your Friend," by Norma Martin. Also nice is a bossa-style take on Tadd Dameron's "Bring Me Love (Lady Bird)," to which she adds her own lyrics in seamless fashion, and a fun version of Randy Newman's "Short People." A puzzling alternate take of "It Don't Mean a Thing" closes out the disc, space which would have been better served by another new song. Trumpeter Dick Titterington is one of the many standout guest artists on this disc, doing a great, funky muted trumpet backing on the slinky cover of "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do." Other notable players are Randy Porter on both piano and melodica, Dan Balmer on guitar, John Witala on bass and Reinhardt Melz on drums and percussion. Zilka's CD release party is October 28 at Wilf's Restaurant, 800 N.W. 6th Ave. HeavyWood, 2005; PT: 48:50, ***1/2.
Live at Jazz Standard, Bill Mays Trio. There's something to be said for having a steady working band. The cohesion and interplay between the players is finely tuned. When musicians have known each other for years, they know what works and what doesn't, which is why the latest Bill Mays disc feels so comfortable and so polished. Pianist Mays and his trio of six years, drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Martin Wind, are absolutely fluid on this straight-ahead disc. They march into tunes with confidence and the knowledge that each knows where the other will be going musically. The opening track, the Rodgers & Hart classic, "Have You Met Miss Jones?" is taken as a refined light waltz, but there is much improvisation within the highly melodic chordal structure. Mays and Wind share interwoven countermelody lines with precision, while some fun comes with a line of operatic melody thrown in haphazardly but perfectly placed. Mays knows how to play behind a soloist too, as evidenced on his subtle backing of Wind's bowed melody on "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" Mays' version of "Darn That Dream" is inspired, with an eerie opening that finds him plucking the strings and muting texturally while Wilson and Wind noodle sparsely. The same inspiration is found on the deconstructed "Willow Weep for Me." He can boogie too, on the original "Music House," which takes it inside and outside the lines as the rhythm section grooves solidly. "Let's Call This," salutes Monk, while "Smile" courts a lovely melody. This is as near perfect a trio album as you can find - innovative, melodic, practiced and cohesive, and a fine live recording to boot. You can hear Bill Mays in Oregon this month for yourself at several home parties and in a concert Oct. 19 at Warner Pacific College. Palmetto Records, 2005; Playing Time: 72:17, ****1/2.
Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday, Nnenna Freelon, vocals. One expects any tribute to the late great Holiday to include tunes like "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit." What one doesn't expect is for the opening track to blast forth with polyrhythms, screaming trumpets, a modern funky nature, and vibrant vocals. That's how Freelon's latest disc hits the listener on "I Didn't Know What Time it Was." This is not a recreation of Holiday's poignant, sometimes heart-wrenching vocal delivery. Rather, it's celebration of one of the first ladies of song in spirit, a contemporary homage. Her voice sparkles on the John Clayton-arranged version of "What a Little Moonlight Can Do." The whole disc is not as upbeat as the opening tracks. Freelon gives her melancholy take on Holiday's "Don't Explain," with her pliant, emotive vocals, then she funks up "God Bless the Child." A plaintive take on "Strange Fruit" bleeds into a disjointed beat behind the fluid melody of "Willow Weep for Me." Freelon even brings an original to the table, with her stripped-down, minor-toned bossa, "Only You Will Know," which captures the spirit of Holiday's heart-on-the-sleeve delivery, as does the soulful take on "Lover Man." Freelon, ever the free spirit, pays a loving yet signature take on Holiday's legacy. Freelone appears Oct. 19 in a concert at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. (See story on page 14.) Concord Records, 2005; Playing Time: 62:55, ****1/2.
The American All Stars in Paris, Sarah Morrow, trombone. There aren't a whole lot of solo trombone artists out there anymore, which makes Morrow a breath of fresh air. The former member of Ray Charles and Dee Dee Bridgewater's bands, Morrow is a fine player, knowing how to slide with the best of them, as well as use mutes to her advantage. On this, she plays with other American ex-pats now living in Paris, including organist Rhoda Scott and tenor sax man Hal Singer. The disc is lively, kicking off with spirited versions of "And the Angels Sing" and Morrow's "All Star Boogie." The only problem, Morrow and Singer sound more like they're at a jam session rather than on a studio album. Much of that may stem from Singer's lack of precision. He seems tired, and at times behind the beat. His tone is lacking and he can't keep up with Morrow's tight playing on the dual melodies. He's much better on ballads, like the tender "You've Changed." Scott, on the other hand, is tops, grooving with the rhythm section and providing some necessary soul. That rhythm section unfortunately pushes some of the beats, as on the sped-up "Honeysuckle Rose." Morrow might serve herself better back in New York. O+ Music, 2005; Playing Time: 52:59, **1/2.
Serene Renegade, Rene Marie, vocals. Marie is one of those "talents deserving greater recognition." The vocalist has built up a catalog of four discs on the MaxJazz label, all critically lauded, quietly building up a base of respect and adulation. Her voice has a clarity of delivery and a purity of emotion. On this disc of original material, Marie takes her talents to the next level. She crafts not only unique lyrics, as on the very personal "The South is Mine," but also a wandering evocative feel in the arrangements. The aforementioned tune follows her father's journey as a black man in the south, and his artistry as a poet. The whole disc is one-on-one, as if Marie were telling us about her own personal experiences at the dinner table. She tackles herself in "Autobiography" and emotes deeply on the heartbreaking "Wishes." Her band, featuring pianist Takana Miyamoto, bassist Herman Burney, drummer Quentin Baxter, percussionist Roland Guerrero, and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, lets Marie speak for herself without getting in the way. They perfectly accent Marie's heartfelt experiences. There is very little that isn't personal, but there are several lighter spots, including a bluesy version of the Beatles' "Hard Days Night," that doesn't quite fit the feel of the rest of the disc but is nonetheless a fine cover. For those who aren't familiar with Marie, this is a great way to get acquainted. MaxJazz, 2005; PT: 64:35, ****1/2.
San Francisco ChamberJazz Quartet. The terms chamber jazz and classical jazz always make me a bit uneasy. I usually think the artists are trying to be forcing classical and jazz styles together awkwardly rather than just going for an organic feel. Such is the case with this Bay Area group. There are artists in the jazz realm who do it without attaching such labels, but this group hails it in their name. The music is an amalgam of jazz, classical music and contemporary new age that never really reaches high points in any genre. Is it nice to listen to? Sure. Is it played (and sung) well? Yes, mostly. But it's also nondescript often, sounding more like a soundtrack to a 1980s miniseries. Take the chamber out of the name and this is just another group of decent musicians retreading outdated styles. Music Wizards, 2005; PT: 59:49, **.
Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz with Elvis Costello. McPartland's long-running radio show has taken a journey beyond jazz recently, and with former new-wave punker Costello on the show, she finds the jazz in an artist not known for that genre. Costello, married to Diana Krall, is no stranger to jazz. He recorded a version of "My Funny Valentine" years ago, he worked on an album with Burt Bacharach, and he co-wrote many of the songs on Krall's last studio album. He is also one of rock's most respected musicians and lyricists. So hearing him subduing his usual sneering vocal delivery on a tender version of "At Last," may take some fans by surprise and may open the ears of jazz purists. As with all in her "Piano Jazz" series, we get to hear the reasons for the songs in recorded studio interviews. It's an intimate form and one which McPartland excels. "Valentine" is rediscovered, and Costello's own tune, "Almost Blue" is played like a familiar melancholy ballad standard. Costello does not have a traditionally pure jazz voice, but his expert delivery makes up for any lack of vocal prowess. Most tunes tend towards the extremely slow side of tempos, which makes for kind of a downer of a listen, but hear the conversations between McPartland and Costello, and you'll gain new insight to this songwriting genius and his love of jazz. Concord Records, 2005; Playing Time: 53:42, ***1/2.
Mell of a Hess, Jamie Stillway, guitar. Stillway is a Portland talent who plays a style that isn't quite jazz, isn't quite bluegrass and isn't quite folk. It can be called roots music, as it's deeply rooted in the roots of jazz, gypsy and classical folk styles. Stillway has a fine command of her acoustic guitar, plying its strings with thick chords, gentle picking and plenty of swing. She has a great Django feel on the bouncier tunes, grabbing on to the jump-swing aesthetic with a vice grip and pulling out a combination of power and rhythm. The title track sounds like a Parisian café tune, one perfect to eat a baguette and brie by. Her original material is derivative in the best sense of the word. From ragtime to jump swing, to classic tango and roots-folk, Stillway manages to meld these styles into her own sound while paying homage to those who popularized them. And she's backed by an assortment of Portland's roots players, including Caleb Kaluder on mandolin and Tim Renner on upright bass. A fine debut by a unique Portlander. Self Produced,2005; Playing Time: 40:28, ****.
Steve Hall Quintet, self titled. Hall is a Hammond B-3 organist in the vein of post-boppers like Charles Earland, Jack McDuff and others, with the ability to swing like Joey DeFrancesco and the soulful vibrato of Jimmy Smith. Hall isn't quite in those players' league, but he does have a decent feel, rooted in the hard-bop sounds of the '60s. With tunes like "Monk's Dream," and Coltrane's "Moment's Notice," Hall has picked tunes that are all suited to his instrument. His band is decent, if unspectacular. Hall's solid organ work is accompanied by guitarist Pete Schwimmer and drummer Kenny Morse, while the horns consist of saxophonist Cal Hudson and trumpeter/flugelhorn player Richard Watson. The arrangements don't light the world on fire. They convey the melodies but don't bring anything new to the table. And the band doesn't play with any real intensity, sounding like they're walking through some of the tunes rather than digging in. The best is when they court the blues, as on "Cap'n Jack Blues," in tribute to Jack McDuff, where Hall gets to get a little gritty. Hall needs to ramp up a little energy in his players to bring out the better aspects of his playing. Moovealong, 2005; PT: 61:44, **1/2.
Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, Sonny Rollins, saxophone. The recording of this concert in Boston by Rollins and band is four years old, and in this time of devastation by Katrina, a 9/11 tribute album seems not relevant. But look again and see that in times of national tragedy, any music of emotional gravity has relevance for those looking for solace in musical form. Recorded on September 15, 2001, the concert captures a somber-yet-uplifting musical experience. The weight of the events of 9/11 weighed on the group, yet music was the one thing to unite, to give at least temporary relief. There is joy here, as on the calypso tune "Global Warming," but there is sorrow as well, as in the poignant delivery of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," with Rollins' signature honky-shaky tone seemingly going inwards as he delivers a powerful and plaintive solo, backed by trombonist Clifton Anderson's mellifluous tones. Any tragedy can spawn inspiration, and this is the case with Rollins and crew. Concord Records, 2005; Playing Time: 72:27, ****.
Identity, Jeremy Pelt, trumpet. Trumpeter Pelt has been growing as a solo artist since his MaxJazz debut. On "Identity," he takes a step closer to having a true sound all his own, both as a player and composer. He takes post-bop to a freer level, as on his opening track, "Re-Invention," which meanders around any semblance of normal chord changes, instead creating an amorphous melodic center. Pelt now has his own group with which to develop charts and sounds, including keyboardist Frank LoCrasto, bassist Vincent Archer, and drummer Eric McPherson. The able group allows Pelt to further his compositional skills, which is evident on the complexly subtle "Eddie's Story," and the electronically-infused "Eye of the Beholder" and "Scorpio." Those looking for a sense of melody or an easy listen won't find it here. This is more about pushing chordal limits and creating new textures. There are elements of beauty here, as on the pensive "Haiku," but Pelt's developing sound owes more to Miles than Mercer. MaxJazz, 2005; Playing Time: 73:48, ****.
Live in Japan 2004, Satoko Fujii Four. Japanese pianist Fujii won't be mistaken for Count Basie any time soon. Her style leans much more towards Cecil Taylor, Keith Jarrett and the like. She is a highly creative, very free player who owes much to players and composers like Anthony Braxton, Gary Peacock and those in the structured-meets-untethered world that is free jazz. Fujii is joined by husband and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, who effortlessly meshes with her free-flowing compositions. With Mark Dresser on bass and Jim Black on drums, they form a cohesive group that plays with color, timbre, texture and tone. "Illusion Suite" starts off with bowed bass in high register, sharp squeaks of cymbal, and pointed chord jabs. It expands into controlled, propelling rhythm and dissonant chords. It evolves and devolves over the course of 36-plus minutes, lunging and retreating. If this kind of jazz doesn't intrigue you, stay away, but if you're open to the possibilities of freedom from melody and straight-ahead rhythms, Fujii and company certainly know how to take you through the journey. Polystar, 2005; Playing Time: 68:24, ***1/2.
Live at Yoshi's, Volume Two, Jessica Williams, piano. This is the second half of Williams' acclaimed concert at the Bay Area club, Yoshi's, and part two is just as good as number one. Backed by bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Victor Lewis, Williams' subtle, strong and inventive playing is well supported. The arrangements of standards and classic songs are exceptional, bringing new life to melodies like Miles' "Flamenco Sketches" and Hammerstein & Kern's "Why Do I Love You." Her original tracks, which make up the center of the recording, are equally intriguing, as on the lush ballad, "Spoken Softly" and the Monk-like waltz, "Elbow Room." Closing it off with "Summertime" brings it full circle, with Lewis keeping a nearly double time feel while Williams treats the melody respectfully and dances through alternate chord changes. A truly sophisticated, if subdued, trio album. MaxJazz, 2005; Playing Time: 69:23, ****1/2.
Love is Here to Stay, Bill Charlap & Sandy Stewart. Pianist Charlap has been playing the past of jazz lately and this pared-down disc is no exception. He gently backs vocalist Stewart on a series of torch songs and tender ballads, like the title track and "The Boy Next Door." The whole album is chock full of ballads, which is cohesive, but a bit on the lullaby side. Charlap does a wonderful job of underplaying, accenting Stewart's heartfelt delivery. Stewart also does a lushly beautiful job, though she occasionally puts a little too much behind her voice and over-emoting. The song choices are all nice, with tracks like "Here I Am In Love Again," and "It Might As Well Be Spring." But the slow pace of the album makes it a better fireplace, nighttime mood disc than a sit-and-listen experience. Blue Note, 2005; PT: 57:06, ***1/2.