CD Reviews - February 2006
by George Fendel
Wildcrafted: Live at the Dakota, Geoff Keezer, piano. This trio recording, done in 2004 at the Dakota club in Minneapolis, features Keezer at his brilliant best. In a live setting, we get to hear his tremendous mastery of the keyboard and a mind that pushes the music forward, searching for new tonalities on the piano and ways to stack chords. He can be at once intensely focused, as on the nearly unrecognizable but searing, breakneck cover of "Stompin' at the Savoy," which opens the disc with jaw-dropping energy. Backed by a highly capable duo of Matt Clohesy on bass and Terreon Gully, Keezer is in his element. His cover material does not court the norm in any fashion, as on the floating calm of Naohiko Uehara's "Koikugari Bushi," or the laid back funky swing of Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy," which sounds barely reminiscent of the original. The disc isn't purely cohesive, but it shows off the range of Keezer's talent, from his lightning quick runs to his tender musings on his own tunes, like the eerily beautiful "Ghost in the Photograph." This is a fearless album and one that cements Keezer as a sophisticated force in the jazz world. MaxJazz, 2005; Playing Time: 68:07, ****1/2.
Falling Up, Geoffrey Keezer, piano. Not sure when pianist/composer Keezer became a new age musician, but this disc of agreeable melodies and lulling textures certainly falls in or near that category. It's not necessarily a bad album. The compositions and arrangements are mostly pleasant to hear, but it's not what one might have expected from the talented player. It's not until the fourth track, the light swinging "Palm Reader," that we really get a sense that there will be jazz played on the album. The opener is an airy Latin number with Ingrid Jensen turning in a nifty solo on flugelhorn. Then the album takes a turn towards Hawaii, with two lush island-sounding tunes with guest Hawaiian guitarist Keola Beemer. "Featherfall," with vocalist Claire Martin, is so sappy it could be on a Disney soundtrack. But the rest falls somewhere between new age and jazz, done well by quality musicians, but it feels like it should be on the Windham Hill label or backing a video of whales. MaxJazz, 2003; PT: 1:06:01, ***1/2.
Concierto, Jim Hall, guitar. Talk about a who's who of jazz stars, this album has it, and a fairly interesting assortment at that. Hall and his superiorly fluid tone set the stage for a tight album of four tunes, but one that lets the players stretch out without ever seeming too long. With Roland Hannah on piano, Ron Carter on bass, a young Steve Gadd on drums, and elders Chet Baker on trumpet and Paul Desmond on alto sax, this all-star lineup manages not to step on anyone else during the recording process, a feat for such luminaries. Hall's playing is central, but others get more than their fair time. Desmond lulls with his exquisite solo on the opener, "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," and Baker pulls out a nice turn as well. While less a pure Hall feature disc, this 1975 session wins for its mix of talents both on their ways up and down, managing to create momentary magic, especially on the tender Rodrigo ballad, "Concierto de Aranjuez," where tonality and texture play a starring role. CTI, 1975; PT: 37:58, ****.
Dedications and Inspirations, Jim Hall, guitar. This is an interesting venture for Hall. It's a solo album, but one he overtracked and added multiple effects for new tones and sounds. And each tune is dedicated to someone that has meant something in his musical life. Oddly enough, it starts with a title track dedication to The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, a quirky jump swing that plays with Hall's lighter side and shows some effects to nice, er, effect. Subsequent tracks are dedicated to "friends in Argentina," Joao Gilberto, "Japanese friends," Monet, Sonny Rollins and others. On "Miro," he takes an angular approach that mirrors the artist in the title. But perhaps the greatest dedication is the four-part ode to Charlie Christian and Leadbelly, where his sound is more gutbucket blues than mellifluous swing, harkening back to earlier guitar times when amplification was less important than soul and technique. This is certainly a departure for Hall's usual straight-ahead sound, and his tone even sounds a bit twangier, but one that gets to the guts of his musical ability, his approach to composition and arrangement as a whole rather than a soloist. Telarc, 1994; Playing Time: 64:01, ***1/2.
Something Special, Jim Hall, guitar. This drumless trio, featuring Larry Goldings on piano and Steve LaSpina on bass, slowly unfolds into a modern jazz album that combines Hall's traditional sensibilities with his need to forge ahead. The album is pleasing for the most part and a fine display of Hall's fortitude as a leader. Hall has a canny ability to play with pianists, not an easy feat for most chordal instruments. His strength in listening and meshing with keys is impressive. When the trio takes it outside the realm of swing, on his obtuse composition, "Steps," we hear Goldings and Hall come alive. Their interweaving lines aren't just random shots in the dark. Rather they combine to make a swirling effect of tone, with noteworthy additions by LaSpina. Whether this disc is a straight ahead effort or one that courts the edges, it's a nice listen either way. Music Masters Jazz, 1993; PT: 60:29, ***1/2.
Jim Hall & Basses, Jim Hall, guitar. Guitarist Jim Hall, a veteran now in his fifth decade of recording, pairs himself with five premier bassists for a 13-track exploration of just about everything a guitar and bass can do together. Hall chose his regular bassist Scott Colley, along with Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Christian McBride and George Mraz, all players hard to beat. Some tunes are too abstract to swing; for example, Abstract 1 with McBride, Abstract 2 with Colley and Mraz, Abstract 3 with Colley and Mraz and Abstract 4 with just Colley. McBride is the lead for the first half of Dog Walk, with Hall comping lightly in the background. When they reverse, Hall delivers one of his most lyrical solos on the album. Telarc Jazz, 2001; Playing Time: 68:23, ***. (Reviewed by Dick Bogle in the January, 2002 Jazzscene.)
Jim Hall and Friends Live at Town Hall,Jim Hall guitar. After decades in the business, Hall has built up a mass of friends, and they're seemingly all here on this two disc set. Disc one is the more subdued of the bunch, with Hall's mellow guitar joined by folks like Ron Carter, Gerry Mulligan, Gary Burton and a string section. With mostly a straight ahead focus, sprinkled with a bit of chamber music, it's most listenable and calmly enjoyable. The same cannot be said for disc two though. Call it guitar-o-rama, with Hall trading licks with Mick Goodrick, John Abercrombie, Peter Bernstein, and John Scofield. Sure, it was probably a lot of fun to put together, but the result is a cacophony of strings, with instruments clashing rather than a fluid trade of ideas. It's just too much. Jazz Heritage, 1991; Playing Time: 110:92, **1/2.
I Can't Be New, Susan Werner. This reformed folkie has actually had a penchant for jazz since she was in the singer-songwriter scene. Werner released four albums of contemporary folk before diving into jazz. But with a Master's degree in classical voice, she's always had the chops. This disc is a mix of traditional swing with torch songs, lush ballads, and folksy two beats, all studded with intelligent lyrics. Not that all songs on here are completely jazz. There is the old-style two-beat swing of "Seeing You Again," and the stark ballads like "Much at All," but there are also elements of her earlier career, with some songs leaning towards Joni Mitchell territory. That's part of the charm, and her knack for writing smart lyrics and melodic lines comes through better than some other crossover artists. Werner certainly knows jazz inflections, and her veteran vocals are a welcome addition to the genre. She shows promise in jazz for years to come and with time her unique nature will carve out a new niche. Opera Window Music, 2004; PT:40:16 ,****.
In Flux, Ravi Coltrane, saxophones. Coltrane will fortunately and unfortunately be compared to his father. Fortunate for the fact that he will always be striving to come out from John's shadow, therefore pushing himself to the limits of his horn, seeking the truth through music. Unfortunate in that he will always be unfairly compared to his father, and this before he truly finds himself as an artist. Perhaps this album's title refers to Coltrane's growth as an artist. Coltrane has taken his tenor and soprano saxophone to the quartet setting, playing music that vaguely recalls his father's middle period, with open-ended chordal structures and a flexible band that ebbs and flows with the tunes and Ravi's own rapidly improving sense of self on his horn. Coltrane knows now that the song comes first and his interpretation of the solo accents that. With a solid band consisting of bassist Drew Gress, pianist Luis Perdomo and drummer E.J. Strickland, the music is at the forefront. This isn't playing for exercise. It's music that creates moods, from the free flowing "Dear Alice," to the altered frenzy of "Variations I." Coltrane has grown and this album is the first to really delve into what promises to be a musically rich future for the son of one of jazz's true greats. No wonder he was nominated for a Grammy this year. Savoy Jazz, 2004; Playing Time: 54:16, ****.
Unspeakable, Bill Frisell, guitar. The opening track of this fusion disc sounds like a soundtrack to a gritty cop drama, funky, dark and cleanly produced, like a Corvette driving through a city at night. The continuing tracks do nothing to dispel that feel. It's groove-oriented the whole way, with catch-you-by-the-throat grooves that just won't quit, thanks to a band that knows how to play hard. Drummer Kenny Wollesen, bassist Tony Scherr, percussionist Don Alias, and turntable artist Hal Wilner combine for a core group that vaults this disc past jazz and into electronica-meets-70s funk-meets-groove jazz and more. The turntables churn out samples of house and world music, giving Frisell a palate which he paints with his innovative guitar and string arrangements. It's undeniably cool, and certainly something not heard much, if at all, in jazz. And Frisell, ever the pioneer, pulls it all together without making it sound gimmicky. There is even a pensive ode, a string-rich, harmonic "Hymn for Ginsberg." While there is nothing to fault musically, one can't get over the fact that it sounds a lot like a soundtrack. Nonesuch Records, 2004; Playing Time: 72:47, ****.
McCoy Tyner Plays John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, piano. McCoy Tyner once told me John Coltrane was like a big brother to him. Tyner was only 17-years old when he first joined the Coltrane band. Therefore, it's easy to know why Tyner would choose to honor his mentor, near the 75th anniversary of Coltrane's birth, with this priceless celebration of Coltrane the composer. Bassist George Mraz and drummer Al Foster join Tyner for Naima, Crescent, After The Rain, Mr. Day and Moment's Notice. Billy Eckstine's I Want To Talk About You and Mongo Santamaria's Afro Blue also are included. Tyner proves his mastery once again and in company with rhythm-section legends, bassist Mraz and drummer Foster. This is an important recording. Impulse Records, 2001; Playing Time: 66:22, *****. (Reviewed by Dick Bogle in the January, 2002 Jazzscene.)
Illumination, McCoy Tyner, piano. Tyner has remained high in the jazz firmament for some 40 plus years, and this stimulating album attests to his lofty status. The title tune gets his quintet off to a rousing, churning, bop-quenched start with everybody flying at macho velocity. Tyner's writing takes on differing perspectives. Compare Illuminations or the lilting Angelina with the brusque turn-of-the-century New Orleans Stomp, for instance. The trio takes on Harold Arlen's Come Rain Or Come Shine and is followed by Solstice, an absolute burner for the entire quintet. The other players, incidentally, are Gary Bartz, saxophones; Terrence Blanchard, trumpet; Christian McBride, bass and Lewis Nash, drums. Blanchard's stately original, Blessings, is followed by a soprano feature for Bartz, the standard If I Should Lose You. The Chase, a steamy Steinway romp puts the trio to the test. I'm sure you knew. They passed. West Philly Tone Poem is a delicious feature for bassist McBride and the group closes the show with Blanchard's feature, Alone Together. This is a very satisfying performance, showcasing the brilliance of both the leader and his hand-picked associates. Telarc, 2004; Playing Time: 57:50, ****1/2. (Reviewed by George Fendel in July, 2004 Jazzscene.)
Listen Here, Eddie Palmieri, piano. One can't get a much more star studded band than this without being a legend. Lucky for Palmieri, he is a legend, so for his core band on this disc, he has a searing hot band, with players like Conrad Herwig on trombone, Brian Lynch on trumpet, and Donald Harrison to name few. And this doesn't count all the guest soloists, which include violinist Regina Carter (who kicks off the disc with a sizzling solo on the title track), saxophonist Michael Brecker, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist David Sanchez, and guitarist John Scofield. Palmieri is the respected master here, and his compositions and solid rhythmic piano are at the core. Sure, we've heard similar music from countless other Latin jazzers, but Palmieri's deft arrangements and rock solid steering of the ship makes this a sterling effort. The old guy still has plenty of life, and with gig guests like these playing with copious amounts of energy, it's really hard not to get up and hit a memorable groove. Concord Music Group, 2005; Playing Time: 62:22, ****1/2.
Ceremonial, Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone. Puerto Rican saxophonist Zenon makes his Marsalis Music debut with flash and sophistication. The Berklee educated player came to Branford Marsalis's attention on fellow Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez's albums, and made his solo debut with his 2001 "Looking Forward" album. Here he shows a maturing sound as both a player and saxophonist. His compositions, like the journeying title track, are full of varied influences, from Latin rhythms to classical ideas, thick jazz chords, and fusion runs. And Zenon himself has a full, broad sound and technical knowledge to pull off fleet-fingered runs along with melodic passages. His varied interests come across in his music, like the bluesy-gospel influence on "Transformation," and the double-time Latin swing of "Mega." Some of the compositions meander a bit too much, but it's always nice not to be able to predict where the tune will end up. With his inherent talent and big sound, Zenon should be a multi-cultural force for some time. Marsalis Music, 2004; PT: 1:10:05, ****.
Evolution, Stefon Harris & Blackout. Vibraphonist Harris is the leading young player to take over the crown of top vibes player, and this disc cements him as a risk taker and experimentalist, fusing styles and not playing it safe in the swing zone. It starts with a frenetic funk version of Michael Brecker's "Nothing Personal," peppered with Harris's echoing vibes and Casey Benjamin's taut alto playing. Harris uses the woody color of the marimba to highlight the world-beat polyrhythms of "For Him, For Her." "Until" is a flowing waltz that highlights his marimba soloing prowess. His band follows him through all the moods on the album, from the world-beat samba of "Red-Bone, Netti-Bone," to the slow funk of "A Touch of Grace" and the Latin funk version of "Summertime." Even people who don't like vibes will appreciate the colors Harris and his group coax, with nods to ‘70s and ‘80s fusion, modern funk, world beat and jazz. Percussive, melodic, genre-pushing and engaging, this is the new face of jazz and Harris is guiding the way. Blue Note, 2004; Playing Time: 1:07:21, ****.
J'ai Deux Amours, Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocals. Take a ride along the Seine with Bridgewater as she travels through her adopted country, France, for this lovely album of French jazz. While most know Bridgewater as a singer of vibrant jazz, she has lived in Paris on and off for over a decade. This disc is her tribute to the country, and it's nothing we've ever heard from her before. She starts very Parisian, with a French cabaret version of the title track, then she ventures into jazzier territory with the French version of "Beyond the Sea." Hearing Bridgewater's expressive voice in French may take some aback when they hear it at first, but once you've inundated yourself into the Francophile way, you're rewarded with a new take on French music. Bridgewater's voice is so immediately engaging that it startles initially with its forward nature on music that is usually considered laid back, but give it a couple of listens and you'll be won over by her passion and sincerity, like on the sassy "Mon Homme," which she sings in French and English. And her version of "La Vie en Rose," with its percussive undercurrent, is a lovely update of the classic. This Grammy-nominated album is a breath of fresh French air. DDB Productions, 2005; PT: 56:30, ****1/2.
Vertigo, Rene Marie, vocals. Oh! Oh! Get ready for a thrilling listening experience and then prepare to make room at the top for Rene Marie, a truly great singer. What a fine mix of original tunes and standards like Them There Eyes, Detour Ahead, I Only Have Eyes For You and Blackbird. Her kickoff is Them There Eyes, backed by drummer Jeff Tain Watts and bassist Robert Hurst. Her sprightly personality bubbles to the top and she demonstrates excellent scat chops. So far it's excellent. But she even raises the level of excellence on the medley of Dixie/Strange Fruit. Dixie is a killin' number as she mixes soul and country phrasing in the execution of her unaccompanied and dramatic solo. However, there is a message: Today's South belongs to both black and white. Her updated interpretation of Strange Fruit is a chilling reminder of the past. She makes it clear — with power and with goose-bump producing phrasing — in her statements about that. Max Jazz Records, 2001; Play Time 67:11, *****. (Reviewed by Dick Bogle in the January, 2002 Jazzscene.)
State of Grace, Anson Wright, guitar. This debut disc by local Portland guitarist Wright is over six years old, but it feels as fresh as if it were recorded yesterday. His warm and rich hollow-body sound recalls players from an earlier era and Wright plays his axe with a fluid approach. His lines flow nicely and he connects with a melodic approach that doesn't muddy up with flashy runs. Here he is backed by a very able crew of Chris Lee on drums, Scott Steed on bass and alternate bassist Ken Anoe. His song choice is a different matter. He plays it very safe, almost too much so. Beginning with "Footprints" and "Stella by Starlight," we are set up for a very standard album of standards. Only Wright's originals, like the lovely "Waltz for Evelyn," take us away from all-too-familiar melodies. Not that there's anything wrong with having a nice, listenable album played well, but I'd rather hear more of Wright's originals, and maybe a few other unheralded standards. Bonita Records, 1999; PT: 58:19, ***.
You're Not the Bossa Me!, Bossa Nouveau. This Portland world music group is the brainchild of guitarist Jorge Zamorano. It combines elements from all over the Latin jazz world, from the bossa nova and Carnival music of Brazil to the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the Caribbean and bits of Americana jazz and Spanish and Latin folk music. Some of it is decidedly retro, like the Esquivelian take on Jobim's "Aguas de Marcos." Others are folk-based, as on Zamorano's Argentinian flamenco-ish "Tres Generaciones," while more still goes further overseas with an Indian chant on "Passion Play." It's playful one moment and tender the next, ranging from the inexplicable rolling mash of "Beautiful Ball," to the sultry guitar and saxophone (played beautifully by Renato Caranto) musing of "Insensatez." Zamorano has hit on something that the Portland market really hasn't seen - a multi-disciplinary take on world music that knows how to have fun. If live performances are as lively as the disc, and hopefully more so, this should be a gem at the Portland Jazz Festival. BZ Producers, 2004; Playing Time: 50:81, ***1/2.
Push, Toby Koenigsberg Trio. Pianist Koenigsberg is young but already well decorated as an artist. He received a Masters in music from Eastman School of Music, and received many awards during his school years, including having his composition "Song for Aki," which opens this disc, named best original song by Down Beat's 2002 Student Music Awards. Currently, Koenigsberg is an assistant professor of jazz piano at the University of Oregon, no doubt teaching people barely younger than he. It's easy to hear why he has already reached such a lofty plateau. His compositions are equal to peers twice his age and show a maturity beyond his years. He shows a light touch on the keyboard, with a nimble nature and a fleet 10 fingers. But he also has a subtle side, as his cover of Johnny Mercer's "Too Marvelous for Words" shows. Koenigsberg's strengths are his technical ability and his compositions. My only argument would be that he occasionally comes off as too technical for his own good. I want to be transported when I listen to complex jazz, and I'm not hearing that here. I'm hearing a very impressive young talent who has room to grow emotionally as an artist. Toby Koenigsberg, 2005; PT: 61:38, ***1/2.
Good Night and Good Luck, Soundtrack. The Golden Globe and Oscar nominated film by George Clooney has a winning soundtrack to match. Featuring the fabulous Dianne Reeves on vocals, the choices for the period piece are well matched to the 50s-era story of Edward R. Murrow. Reeves sings tunes from Nat King Cole, Cole Porter, Ellington, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and others in her retro best, and the recording, with its stark and booming production, sounds like it was recorded in the 50s, giving it authenticity. The band is highly talented, with pianist Peter Martin, drummer Jeff Hamilton, bassist Robert Hurst, and saxophonist Matt Catingub (who also arranged the pieces) backing Reeves perfectly. Executive Producer Clooney obviously knows a thing or two about jazz, thanks to his late aunt Rosemary, and it shows here, with smart tunes performed by some of the best in the business. A great listen, even without the accompanying film. Concord Jazz2005; Playing Time: 51:18, ****1/2.
For the Rhythm, Tineke Postma, saxophone. No matter how I try to say this, it will sound sexist. So in this no-win situation, I'll just come out swinging: The search for a truly great female saxophonist continues. I don't know if it's because not many women gravitate to the saxophone as a main instrument or that jazz society hasn't accepted the idea of a woman with a horn, but I haven't heard a great female saxophonist yet. Sure, there's Jane Ira Bloom, but she's better for her compositions than her inspirational playing. Then there's Candy Dulfer, pretty in both tone and looks, but not exactly a stellar talent. So that brings us to Postma, who may be the best I've heard in this small category. She certainly has the schooling, having received a Masters at the University of Amsterdam. And her teachers are no slouches. She learned from Chris Potter, Dave Liebman, Dick Oats and others. This disc, mostly originals, finds a young but maturing artist, and one with the technical ability to take it to the next level. She shows a knack for melodic tunes and also a great grasp of jazz chordal structure. Postma is not afraid to push the limits as a player, and she's assisted here by bassist Darryl Hall and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, among others. While her tone is a bit modernly harsh, especially on soprano, her fingers are nimble and her runs well thought out. She isn't to the point where she can be considered a great player, but with time and seasoning, she may just get there. Munich Records, 2005; Playing Time: 63:57, ***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. Concord Records, 2005; Playing Time: 62:55, ***1/2.