CD Reviews - June 2006
by Kyle O'Brien
Sense of Direction, Farnell Newton/Marcus Reynolds Quintet. The debut disc from this quintet has elements of 60s' post bop. One can hear the influence of Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter and others. But trumpeter Newton and pianist-composer Reynolds play into the retro sound while forging ahead with original material and often excellent musicianship. The original compositions, most by Reynolds with a few by Newton, are short jazz journeys, taking the listeners on a chordal exploration. "The Two Larrys," gets off to a bold start, with a Lee Morgan-esque double horn melody, with Newton and saxophonist Tim Wilcox sharing a raw boned melody that flows with a sense of relaxed adventure. Newton's trumpet is fluid and the restrained backing by Reynolds, drummer Jason Brown and bassist Ameen Saleem gives the soloists plenty of room to explore. The disc travels through different moods, but all with the same sense of adventure. The modal groover, "The Bluest Eyes," pulls and releases tension deftly, while tunes like the bossa "Litoral" and the slinky "Noir" give the disc diversity. Reynolds is a pianist with an ear for avant garde-leaning melodic sensibilities and his compositions have a sense of tapestry. While the textures and musicianship are at high levels, the restrained nature seems to temper the music a bit too much. Let the emotion flow a little freer and they would have an outstanding first effort. As it is, it's still a first-rate disc that marks Newton and Reynolds as rising stars. Diatic Records, 2006; Playing Time: 52:38, ****.
Piano a la Carte, Tony Pacini. Pacini steps out from his Mel Brown Quartet shadow to take the helm on his second disc as a leader. It's a bold one, as he also goes away from the comfort zone of his trio and flies acoustically solo. Pacini is known for his ability to swing and bop, and for his fleet-fingered runs up and down the 88. But here he displays a softer side, with an album that pays tribute to the pianists that have come before him, taking a walk through the instrument's history while still keeping true to himself. Produced by Gary Fantz, who helped convince Pacini to go it alone, the disc was recorded at bassist Ed Bennett's studio, and the simple miking and engineering - without overdubs, splicing or editing - makes for a pure recording. On it, Pacini shows off his ability to play tender ballads, taken straight from the jazz canon, as on the languorous version of "Body & Soul," or the plaintive "Skylark." That's not to say that this disc can't swing. "Lullaby of the Leaves" gets a tad jaunty and the slow-burn swing of "Come Rain or Come Shine" is infectious. What stands out is Pacini's use of stride piano, a skill he rarely uses in his other outings. Taking cues from Art Tatum, he strides his way through a few gems like "Eastside Westside" and Ellington's "??". It's nice to hear him stray from his norm, but at times he sounds slightly uncomfortable with the style and doesn't attack the keyboard with as much vigor as he should. But returning to the romantic ballads that really make this disc click, Pacini is right at home, and beautifully so. His two originals, including the sweet, slow "Golden Boy," display an exceptional sense of melody and emotion while keeping it restrained and sophisticated. One looks forward to his next trio album, but until then, this is a refreshing and lovely departure. Saphu Records,2006; Playing Time: 72:40, ****.
Live at the Jazz Standard, Nancy King with Fred Hersch. Kudos to MaxJazz for recognizing the talents of one of Portland's finest musicians. Nancy deserves all the accolades she can get and hopefully the association with this rising label will help her to a higher level of recognition. As part of its Vocal Series recordings, this is a stark recording with just King's pliable vocals and Hersch's brilliant piano. The two had never met before this live performance at the noted New York club. The tapes were rolling without King's knowledge, making for an impromptu performance that makes you wish you were one of the lucky few to be witness to this magical night. Luckily we have this as an archive. "There's a Small Hotel" begins the set, and King and Hersch connect like long lost partners, instantly creating a rapport. Hersch knows when to let King shine, as on the plaintive melody of "I Fall in Love Too Easily," and King knows when to let Hersch play one of his chordally rich solos. While most singers should never ever scat, King is one of the few who should and does. Her playful scatting on the melody of the Parker classic "Little Suede Shoes" sets up the vocals of "Day By Day," and it sounds as though the two are having a wonderful time, drawing in the listener so they don't want to miss a note. The selection of tunes, on the fly, is a great mix of standards and slightly less known swingers. "Ain't Misbehavin'" leads into the swaying bossa of "If You Never Come to Me," which goes into a jaunty "There Will Be Another You." By the final strains of a boppin' "Four," one wishes these two would go out on the road for years in a row. MaxJazz Records, 2006; Playing Time: 73:35, *****.
Water in My Hand, Shelly Rudolph, vocals. Shelly Rudolph has lived and sung around the world, from the Caribbean to New York, L.A. and Asia, and finally back to her Oregon home. Her travels have created a fusion she calls "world soul." While this isn't truly a jazz album, there are influences found throughout. Her folksier tunes - all written by her, save for a funk-folk version of Bruce Springsteen's "Fire" - recall Norah Jones, with a jazz-meets-American roots music sound. But most of this is pure R&B, with touches of Afro-Caribbean, Appalachian back porch, tango, and New Orleans soul. It's a showcase for Rudolph's powerhouse voice, one that wraps the listener in a strong caress. She belts out the blues on one tune, then goes sweet and tender on another. Lyrics are on-the-sleeve romantic for the most part but have a sense of imagery, like referring to the morning as "Chet Baker gray." Self produced, 2006; Playing Time: 62:03, ****.
Extra Step, Grant Richards, piano. A blind listen to this debut disc and one would be hard pressed to place the artist, but nonetheless be impressed by the players involved, including an impressive pianist who shows both chordal knowledge and a restrained interaction with his band. Knowing that the pianist is a 15 year old high school student would make any listener say WOW! Richards obviously has the talent to go as far as he wants in this business. Just listen to the complexity of the chords and melody on Richards-penned tunes like "Snowy Beach" and "Nighttime in Southeast," with their cascading lines and rhythmic involvement. He even explains the way he divided the rhythms on "Extra Step" in the liner notes, comparing the 5/4 gait to that of a giant. Of course, when you're this much of a prodigy, you need accomplished musicians to keep up and help foster your talent. Gordon Lee and engineer Randy Porter had a hand in building his talents, but saxophonist Rob Davis, bassist Dave Captein and rising star drummer Drew Shoals brought the best out of Richards' playing and tunes. With time and a bit more seasoning, Richards and his compositions can grow past the norm of what's out there and become one of the best on the jazz scene. Go hear him now before he goes and conquers the world. Half Rest Music, 2006; Playing Time: 50:26, ****.
Time Share, Thomas Storrs and Sarpola. You know you're always going to get something spontaneous and interesting from drummer Dave Storrs. He's a musician who lives outside the realm of jazz normalcy. Here he works with two guys he rarely sees, due to the fact that they both live in New York. Violinist Rob Thomas was in town for the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival last year and so he, bassist Dick Sarpola, Storrs, and percussionist George Sarpola got together for an impromptu session. As spontaneous improvisations go, this one is better than many out there. Thomas's wonderfully lilting violin provides a tonal center and even courts melodies and gives counterpoints to Sarpola's searching bass work. Storrs steadies the deal with his inventive touch, while George Sarpola provides necessary accents. The result is actually a fun listen, even for those who despise avant-garde jazz. It is more lighthearted than the usual for its genre, and it seems to have a sense of purpose. Plus the musicianship is absolutely solid throughout, even if it is a freewheeling affair. Louie Records, 2005; Playing Time: 47:27, ****.
Here, Eric Reed, piano. The classic piano trio - piano, bass and drums - will always be a staple in jazz. It's a showcase for the player, usually highlighted by two solid rhythm players that create cohesion with their leader. This is the case on Eric Reed's latest outing. He gives validity to the piano trio concept, with his exceptionally creative work within the straight-ahead sub-genre of jazz. His backing duo, Rodney Whitaker on bass and Willie Jones III on drums, lays down a solidly swinging foundation which Reed tops with rhythmic chords and imaginative phrasing. Reed's original tunes are on track, with retro-boppers, like "I C H.N. (for Herbie Nichols)," the explorative "Ornate," and the subtle bossa ballad "Why?" that seems to answer its own question with a pretty melody. The piano trio breaks new ground, but with exceptional players like Reed holding the torch, it's a pleasure to return to the format. MaxJazz, 2006; Playing Time: 58:18, ****.
Full Blown, Steve Cannon and the Blow Hard Big Band. Trumpeter Cannon has been a staple on the Portland scene for years, his big, bold and brassy sound heard with some of the best artists in town. Now he has a showcase for his horn, backed by some of Portland's best players. To get all these cats together for a session is a feat in and of itself, but to pull it off with such precision, great arrangements and high energy is amazing. Cannon is the focus here, much like Maynard Ferguson is with his group, but without the blatant bombast. His forward leaning sound fits well in the big band setting, cutting through with bravado and able runs, as on the opening bopper, "Avalon." Ferguson is again recalled on the contemporary samba of Cannon's "Holiday." The arrangements are all superb, done by master arranger Tom Kubis. He lets the soloists and sections shine, and since he has such a mass of talent to let go, the more solo time the better. With names like Gary Harris, Warren Rand, Renato Caranto, Jeff Uusitalo, Mic Gillette, Randy Mueller, Ramsey Embick, Kevin Deitz, Reinhardt Melz and Jay "Bird" Koder to name just a few, this is one hot band, and it shows. The sound propels forward, even on more laid back tunes like the combo of "All Blues/Willow Weep for Me." Sometimes it seems like too much energy and not enough restraint, like a highly adept college group, but it also makes for an exciting listen. Give credit to Cannon for bringing together such a fine group of players and letting them get both tight and loose in a big band setting. Steve Cannon/Brocan Records Prod, 2006; Playing Time: 65:10, ****1/2.
Continuo, Avishai Cohen, bass. Cohen, once a staple in Chick Corea's groups, continues to push jazz into world realms, combining his incredible techniques with Middle Eastern music, classical and jazz influences. Playing in an expanded trio with pianist Sam Barsh and drummer/percussionist Mark Guiliana, and joined on many tracks by oud player Amos Hoffman, the disc takes a musical journey across America and into Europe and the Middle Eastern desert, meshing styles into a cohesive recording. Polyrhythms abound and the disc is full of texture, despite having only three or four instruments. While traditional jazz fans might have trouble with this fusion of styles, it is expertly executed and marks Cohen as one of the most imaginative musical thinkers working within the jazz realm. RazDaz Recordz, 2006; Playing Time: 50:35, **** 1/2.
Joyful!, Pete Malinverni. Gospel has always had a tie to jazz. Its upbeat messages and music, its love of improvisation has always had a place in jazz. So when pianist/composer Malinverni decided to compose a set of gospel tunes and have them sung and played by a full band and giant choir (the uplifting Devoe Street Baptist Church Choir and Friends, led by narrator Rev. Frederick C. Enette), it fits. While the music is great for churchgoers, those who aren't of the spiritual nature might have to wade through some preaching to get to the music, with some great solos by Steve Wilson on sax and Joe Magnarelli on trumpet. The recording of a group of this size is not perfect, and one would rather be in the church listening rather than on the other end of a speaker. A DVD included in the package gives a better feel for the ongoing musical sermon. But nothing can take away from the coming together of jazz and gospel by this fine group. ArtistShare, 2006; Playing Time: 63:04, ***.
Play, Frank Kimbrough, piano. Kimbrough is always at the top of critics' polls, and for good reason. He is an exceptional talent as a composer and player. He is not one to court happy places or the regular jazz canon. Kimbrough, here helped by drummer Paul Motian and bassist Masa Kamaguchi - both who know how to use subtlety and texture to astoundingly hushed effect - mines the deeper, darker points of jazz. It's thick music at times, and freely sparse at others. Even when the tunes swing, as on the dizzying "The Spins," they do not conform to a comfortable sense of melody. "Waiting in Santander" floats along, with repeated and evolving themes, with Motian creating a bubbling undercurrent, like a stream that eddies in one spot, constantly circulating a leaf and never letting it free. But there is something to grasp, as on the slow moving blues of "Jimmy G," and the lighthearted humor of "Little Big Man." While Kimbrough may never be an artist for the masses, for musicians and critics he remains a vital part of what moves jazz forward, and sometimes sideways. Palmetto Records, 2006; Playing Time: 53:09, ****.
Tender Moments, McCoy Tyner, piano. Rudy Van Gelder is lucky to be able to remaster some of his coolest recordings, discs that others might have forgotten had it not been for his ability to bring them back to life and give them a renewed sense of purpose. Such is the case with this 1967 gem. Tyner was experimenting with more sounds on this, his second Blue Note recording. Rather than his usual sextet, he has nine people in the studio. Lee Morgan does a blistering solo on "Man From Tanganyika" while James Spaulding plays a flute line over the top. A thick melody on "The High Priest" blends all the horns, including Julian Priester on trombone, Bennie Maupin on tenor, Bob Northern on French horn and Howard Johnson on tuba. Herbie Lewis on bass and Joe Chambers on drums rounds out the nonet. This may not be McCoy's most memorable disc but it set him up for years of jazz exploration. Blue Note Records, 2004; Play Time: 37:49, ****.
In My Time, Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Octogenarian conductor, composer and arranger Wilson takes up the baton to lead an all-star big band through a selection of tunes, including "The Diminished Triangle," a three-part commissioned suite. At his age, Wilson really doesn't need to be working, but he shows a strong commitment to the music, deftly leading a crack band with names like Jeremy Pelt, Renee Rosnes, Gary Smulyan, Jon Faddis, Russell Malone, Lewis Nash, Peter Washington and many others. His skill as an arranger maps out in the dynamics of the tunes. The suite grooves, swings and also becomes a subtle relayer of emotion. While the compositions can go a bit over the top at times, it is orchestrated to bring out the textures of a big band and more, and Wilson is a fine helmsman. Mack Avenue Records, 2005; Playing Time: 75:15, ****.
Don't Be Afraid...the Music of Charles Mingus, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. This is one big band that can do no wrong, save for the fact that even with some of the top, most emotive players on the roster, they can sound too clinical for their own good. Perfection is good, but emotion and passion have their due place in music, too. Maybe it's the setting, but Mingus always had an undercurrent of true passion, even with his often obtuse leanings. This group is so spot on with their deliveries of tunes like "Dizzy Moods," and "Tijuana Gift Shop," that it sounds like an orchestra rather than a jazz band. That takes nothing away from the absolutely stellar musicianship by the likes of Ted Nash, Marcus Printup, Herlin Riley, Wess Anderson, Marsalis and the rest of the longtime crew. I'd just rather not feel like I'm in a library when I'm trying to enjoy my jazz. Palmetto Records, 2005; Playing Time: 57:38, ****.