CD Reviews - April 2006
by Kyle O'Brien
Sandan Shuffle, Virginia Mayhew, saxophones. I must say, it is nice to hear more female saxophonists recording these days, especially one like Mayhew, who plays with fluidity and diversity on this debut disc. Her sound is polished as she plays tunes that range from light jazz waltzes to mellow funk tunes and hard bop takes. While this album won't light the jazz world on fire, it shows off a talent deserving to be heard more. She shows influences of Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, especially on soprano, where her tone serves her well on ballads like the plaintive "I Get Along Without You Very Well." Her blues doesn't really inspire, especially the mundane title track whose 7/4 beat feels like a novelty. But her own tunes are nice, especially the "Crescent"-esque "I Thought You Loved Me," where her legato take is pleasing. With a little more focus, Mayhew might just make an impression past just one album. Renma Recordings, 2006; Play Time: 61:19, ***.
Cowboy Justice, Ben Allison, bass. With a title like this, one expects a bit of a renegade sound, shooting from the hip as it were. Bassist Allison's latest disc is a forward thinking album, but its precision belies its freewheeling moniker. Instead, listeners are treated to a textural album with interesting rhythms and nimble lines that are pulled together by Allison's balanced compositional touch. There are elements of Charlie Haden (the loping "Hey Man"), nouveau funk ("Emergency"), and floating Latin rhythms ("Midnight Cowboy"). The liner notes talk politically liberally, attacking the current Washington administration, though you'd never know it by the tone of the tunes. Instead, we get a highly compositional, sophisticated album from one of jazz's rising stars. His new group has wonderful studio communication, with drummer Jeff Ballard, trumpeter Ron Horton, and guitarist Steve Cardenas all speaking the same language. Palmetto Records, 2006; Playing Time: 47:16, ****.
Meaning & Mystery, the Dave Douglas Quintet. Trumpeter Douglas continues to grow musically. The music flows freely, and while the playing is loose, it is not sloppy. Douglas, electric keyboardist Uri Caine, drummer Clarence Penn, and bassist James Genus have been together for six years, and the musical interplay is evident, though tenor man Donny McCaslin is a recent addition. Penn's relaxed percussion fits in with the tenor of the disc, which verges at times on avant garde. It's a blend of hard bop, free-form, compositional musings, and disjunct sounds. One might wonder what Douglas's motivation was for this recording, but his sense of adventure seems to be the driving force. It's nothing terribly new, but it is inspired and a pleasure to hear for those who like their jazz a little outside the lines. Greenleaf Music, 2006; Playing Time: 61:19, ****.
Internet, Charnett Moffett, bass. Moffett is one of those touted young lions who has grown into his promise since his early days with Wynton. He is a monster bassist who can play both upright and electric with equal ease, jumping between hard bop and funk with nary a blink. He is also a fine composer, with the ability to groove and solo like a madman. He is more tempered than his early days, which means he can still work the fretboard with fleet fingers but he knows when to stay mellow and when to push forward. Here he plays all his own compositions, and they all fit his diverse style. The disc starts with a couple of swing tunes, including his "Icon Blues," which, with its bass melody, will remind some of "So What." The more contemporary tunes aren't quite as effective as the more straight ahead numbers. "PTL" is impressive in Moffett's varied voices on acoustic, fretless electric, and piccolo basses, but the mild Caribbean groove is less effective. More compelling is the "Free Raga," which impressively shows off Moffett's quick hands and experimentation with foreign tones, and bleeds into a world music. He's backed by a great band that features Stephen Scott on piano, one of the most underrated keyboardists in the genre. Moffett sings on "Enjoy Your Life" and his voice and lyrics are odd on a tune that sounds like a late Weather Report tune. More interesting is his take on the "Star Spangled Banner," which is highly electric and an obvious ode to Jimi Hendrix's version. The final bonus track, the kickin' "RAS" is a funk groover to the Nth degree. It's not the most fluid album, but it shows off a talent that needs to be heard often. Piadrum Records, 2006; Playing Time: 71:38, ****.
Around and Back, the Hank Hirsh Quintet, Hirsh, saxophones. Hirsh is a relatively new transplant in Oregon. He's a Chicago native who recently moved to Portland. His thing is swing, mostly, which puts him in category with veteran players like Lee Wuthenow and the like. But he also courts calypso, Latin and bits of funk. He possesses an easygoing delivery, and this disc features all original music from Hirsh. The tunes are relatively simple and pleasingly so. They are melodic, and Hirsh, with help from trombonist Rob Boone, play the melodies with a light touch, as on the kick-back "Hip-Lypso." Gary Moran on piano, Fred Hayes on drums and Scott Black on bass all hold everything together, though the rhythm section on rare occasion isn't in the pocket. While Hirsh is a fine player, his tone is slightly pinched and occasionally squeaks ever so slightly. Perhaps a new mouthpiece or reed combo is in the works for him, since he only recently switched to tenor as his main horn from alto, which he plays on the funky "Dirty Henry." It would have been nice to hear Hirsh's son Sam play piano on a tune or two, since the youngster backs him in live settings and is already a solid keyboardist with room to grow. But perhaps that's next on Hirsh's list. Six Perfections Music, 2005; Playing Time: 63:24, ***.
Balance, Michelle Medler Quartet. Saxophonist/flutist Medler has built her reputation as a music educator, first with Wilson High School and then with the lauded Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra groups she leads with her husband, Ben. But she's also quite a good woodwind player, something she displays on this disc. Playing a handful of her own tunes, Medler flows through melodies and solos with the smoothness she obviously relays to her students. She explores the horns on her solos, as her alto's altissimo on "Balance" displays. And she experiments with funk on a new take on "Yesterdays." Occasionally she can be too timid and play it too safe. She sounds like she's holding back on some of her volume and fortitude. She is backed by a familiar crew, including Ben on bass, Marcus Reynolds on keys and Edwin Coleman III on drums, who seem to put her at ease. Still I could use a little more from her. She has a nice tone on all three instruments, but I'm not hearing as much passion as I think she can bring to the table. Still, it's nice to hear her and her tunes on disc. Shoo-wah Records, 2006; Playing Time: 38:18, ***.
Azure, Ben Medler Trio. While he played a backing role on his wife's CD, Ben gets to take the helm on this one. Free from his teaching role, Medler is able to show off his chops on trombone and flugelhorn. He plays with a lovely, clear tone and keeps the melodies simple before launching into solos. Some of the melodies, as on the standard "Indiana," are a little too by-the-book, but he redeems those with fine solos. He even brings out the mutes for the drop-funk arrangement of Ellington's "Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues). With Dennis Caiazza on bass and Jeff Cumpston on bass, Medler has a solid base for which to place his notes. His own tunes aren't bad either, as on the cool blues of "Rhythm Thing" and the propelling swing of "Terry-cloth." He shows a penchant for lesser known Ellington tunes, which is refreshing, especially the slinky version of the title track. Shoo-wah Records, 2006; Playing Time: 30:57, ***1/2.
Lucky to Be Me, Taylor Eigsti, piano. The title is fitting. Here is a 21 year old pianist who has heavyweights Lewis Nash and Christian McBride on his major label debut album, and has been creating buzz for his amazingly mature playing for years. Now I know why Darrell Grant told me several years ago that he thought this Northern California youngster might just be the next big thing. If this disc is any indication, he has a very promising future. He plays like a much more seasoned player, though in truth, Eigsti has been playing with the big guys for years, having already shared the studio with Marian McPartland, and stages with Dave Brubeck, James Moody, Ernestine Anderson, Alan Broadbent, and Bobby Hutcherson, to name a few. Here we get to hear why he has been such a lauded youth. He plays with precision and feel, his staccato runs accenting his broad chordal knowledge. He's even a terrific composer and arranger, with several of his own tracks on here, including the complex "Argument," backed by another hot rhythm section of Billy Kilson on drums and James Genus on bass, and featuring the guitar work of another young phenom, Julian Lage. Eigsti tackles "Giant Steps" from the get go and nails it while taking a fresh approach. And he funks it up with a stinging version of "Woke Up This Morning," featuring horn blasts. Eigsti should have a long career in jazz. Let's just hope he's not peaking too early. Concord Records, 2006; Playing Time: 59:33, ****1/2.
What Love Is, Erin Boheme, vocals. From the looks of the cover, it seems as though the record label is trying to sell a pretty Cameron Diaz look-alike young vocalist, with her over-makeuped visage all over the CD jacket. The music is a little more substantial, and Boheme's little-girl breathy vocals show an artist who obviously grew up influenced by Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra and others of earlier eras. She's a decent singer, with good intonation and a good grasp of behind the beat delivery. The disc is full of lush arrangements and retro-sounding tunes, like her own "One Night With Frank," and "What Love Is." She's best when courting the older sounds, like "Teach Me Tonight" and "Let's Do It" by Cole Porter. It's a little unclear where she wants to go with her career though, as she seems to be trying to find her way as a crossover artist, with more modern takes, like "Someone To Love," which is a bit too Norah Jones. She has some impressive players here, like the aforementioned Eigsti, bassist Brian Bromberg and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, but she needs to mature a bit and focus her energies on one side of the musical equation. Concord Records, 2006; Playing Time: 50:53, ***1/2.
Dues in Progress, Keith Oxman, saxophone. I am not familiar with Oxman, but he's obviously a respected player, since Benny Golson did the liner notes for this album. This is a very competent album, with all players doing an admirable job. It's a medium sized ensemble with three horns - Oxman is its center and driving force - with trumpet and trombone lending equal time. Curtis Fuller is the trombone and he is, as usual, a great addition to any ensemble. The problem here is that even well played, these tunes don't really go anywhere and could be the epitome of sterile jazz. Maybe because the production is so clean, the ensemble so tight and calculated that it could just as easily be background music, albeit very good background music. This just sounds like a group of studio musicians getting together for an impromptu session rather than a vibrant recording session. Too bad, because obvious dues have been paid to get to this level of musicianship. Capri Records, 2006; Playing Time: 72:25, ***.
Transformation, Colin Stranahan, Stranahan, drums. Again, I don't know this player, but from the sound of it, he's a drummer who likes to use tone to color his playing. The music is creative and precise, yet it has plenty of improvisational integrity. Stranahan handles the jumps in tempo and rhythm with ease. It is mastered to the point of clarity usually reserved for the most calculated digital classical recordings, but you can still hear the passion of the group. With a double sax attack at the melody level from Michael Bailey and Remy Le Boeuf, the tunes are both angular and tonally rich. Much of the music was written by Le Boeuf and his brother, Pascal, along with Stranahan and bassist Dominic Thiroux. It's interesting enough and takes listeners through a journey of composition. Stranahan maintains a steady and understated rhythm throughout on this modern jazz outing. The expression of the players is sometimes muted by the complexity of the compositions, but it is a solid listening experience and one that can be both reflective and freeing. Capri Records, 2006; Playing Time: 67:58,****.
Love Pages, Café Soul All-Stars. When will soul and R&B pop stop being confused with jazz. Just because an album has artists that fall under the contemporary jazz genre doesn't mean the album is anything close to a jazz album. On its own basis, though, this album still stinks. It's a bunch of over-produced adult contemporary R&B, cookie cutter and utterly, predictably, painfully pedestrian. Guest artists like Boney James and George Benson don't make this syrupy, pseudo-soul album any better at all. Best to just throw it in an elevator and bother people for only a few floors rather than buy it and let it collect dust for eternity. Jazz, this is not. Good, this is not. You Entertainment, 2005; Playing Time: 56:42, *1/2.
Rewind That, Christian Scott, Trumpet. Scott is a product of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts High School, and Berklee College of Music, which gives him a unique musical perspective, one that combines jazz traditions with rock, hip-hop and R&B. Scott is not your typical Big Easy trumpeter. He has a velvety tone which he uses on solid funk-jazz tracks, being both sparsely Miles Davis-ey, as on a back beat-laden version of "So What," or blasting, as on "Say It." He has an exceptional band that forwards his vision, especially bassist Luques Curtis, a rock on all tunes. Drummer Thomas Pridgen is a very good timekeeper, but he gets a little fill-happy on some of the more propelling tunes. Scott, on the other hand, underplays it, letting the melodies build and the tunes evolve. This is modern jazz at its finest - influenced by other mediums but still true to the colors and flavors that make jazz America's music. Concord Records, 2006; Playing Time: 64:43, ****1/2.
Inventions & Dimensions, Herbie Hancock, piano. Remember when jazz was still an experimental art form? In the '60s, when artists like Coltrane, Ornette and Cecil Taylor turned sound upside down and created something wholly new and groundbreaking? Those times are sadly gone, but their spirit remains. This disc, a reissue of Hancock's 1963 original, isn't as far out as some of what Taylor was doing, or Coltrane would do in subsequent years, but it is a departure from what was the norm in those days. It finds Hancock experimenting with new time signatures, world rhythms and repeating themes. The opener, "Succotash," is an Afro-Cuban exercise in recurring themes, with Hancock playing close harmonies and pointed improvisations while drummer Willie Bobo and percussionist Osvaldo "Chihuahua" Martinez expand on the rhythms. "Triangle" is a more straight ahead jazz piece, while "Jack Rabbit" leaps quickly in its frenetic rhythmic patterns. While it is not a jazz "avant garde" album, as the original liner notes state - truly, it seems rather tame nowadays - it is an important disc in Hancock's growth as an artist, and one that would lead him to be one of the most forward thinking jazz composers of his day. Blue Note Records, 2005; Playing Time: 50:01, ****.
Collage, Mike Tucker, saxophone. Tucker is a promising young tenor player, and his band is a sizzling collection of budding talent as well. Tucker is a fiery player, with plenty of ideas and derivations of earlier player's licks mixed up just enough to sound like his own man. His tunes, while predictably energetic for an artist on his way up looking for recognition, also are tempered with searching subtleties. His tune "Kathy" is sparse at points and at other richly orchestrated. He gives plenty of time throughout to his bandmates, including pianist Leo Genovese, bassist Hogyu Hwang and drummer Lee Fish. Tucker still leans on patterned licks that sound like they were honed in music school, but he also has the fortitude to push past those and find his own sound. With time, Tucker should have a grasp on that concept and be able to further his artistic integrity. Self-Produced, 2005; Playing Time: 64:18, ***1/2.