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CD Reviews - August 2006
by Kyle O'Brien

At a Glance, Jake Kot, bass. Kot is one Portland area musician who definitely doesn't fit the mold. His albums and his live groups play music that Portland doesn't hear much anymore - jazz fusion. This isn't smooth jazz. The rhythms, arrangements and compositions are too complex to be labeled "smooth." And Kot is a master technician on the electric bass. His solos, as on his pensive ballad, "In a Moment (for Nick)," are both fleet fingered and beautiful. There are elements of Jaco, Mark Egan and Patitucci in his playing. On this disc, Kot is joined by a tight band of George Mitchell on keys, the always exciting Renato Caranto on sax, Dave Derge on drums and Paul Mazzio on trumpet. They make Kot's journeys into the fusion realm bristle with energy, pulsing with funky grooves and orchestrated arrangements. The tunes have doses of Chick Corea's Elektric Band, later Miles Davis and Pat Metheny - thick chords, ever-changing flourishes, and highly complex melodic sensibilities. At times the kicks and changes become too much, muddying up the proceedings and straying from a true melody or focus. Granted, they are well-played but occasionally the tunes get too busy for their own good. Still, quality fusion isn't easy to come by these days, and Kot's version of the music makes it a vital sub-genre of jazz. Miles & Me Publishing, 2006, Playing Time: NA, ****.

Wonderbread, Brian Ward, keyboards. Ward honed his jazz skills among Portland masters like Leroy Vinnegar, Ron Steen, Eddie Wied and John Jensen, and made a name for himself accompanying vocalists such as Marilyn Keller, Shirley Nanette, and Victoria Corrigan. On his first solo recording, Ward is all over the map, but keeps most of his compositions and arrangements in the jazz fusion/contemporary R&B realm. But while some tracks are fiery, complex fusion giants, like the Weather Report-like, polyrhythmic "Brothers I," others are bafflingly mundane, like the jazz-lite Latin tune, "Ngicuela." The tune "If Only You Knew" is just downright bad, with a repetitive vocal riff over a sappy R&B ballad. That stated, there is plenty to like here as well, like the dirty-funky "Baby Girl," and the angular groover "She Ain't." Ward's playing is solid throughout, chordally rich and rhythmic. He's backed by a top-notch group that includes bassists Al Criado and Willy Barber, and stellar drummer Reinhardt Melz. When things click, they're great to hear. When they don't, it can be less than pleasant. Ward needs to focus on the higher end of the spectrum and forgo the elevator jazz schlock on his second outing. Baby Girl Productions, 2006; Playing Time: 64:44, ***1/2

Junjo, Esperanza Spalding, bass. Anyone who heard Spalding when she was just an uber-talented teen here in Portland knew she would be something great someday. Well, that day has come and it's a lot sooner than some may have expected. Spalding is a great technician on the bass with an innovative ear to boot. On this, her debut solo CD, she proves that she is already in the upper echelon of jazz talent. Her bass playing is fleet-fingered, engaging as a Ron Carter solo, melodic, and technically brilliant. The arrangements and compositions are all sophisticated and forward-thinking. She juxtaposes chords and textures, and the songs have a feel of avant-Latin chamber music - structured yet flowing. Plus, the young woman who is now teaching at Berklee College of Music, has a wonderfully lilting voice, which takes her to upper registers. She uses it in Brazilian fashion, as an extra instrument rather than a conveyor of lyrics. Her trio, which includes Aruan Ortiz on piano and the reserved Francisco Mela on drums, work together in tight fashion, making for a complex musical dialogue. Spalding's writing is similar to that of Chick Corea in his acoustic mode, and she even covers his "Humpty Dumpty." At times, things can get a bit too involved for no reason, but that's a very minor complaint of an album that has so much going for it. If Spalding gets any better than this it will be scary. Ayva Music., 2006; Playing Time: 49:08, ****1/2.

Jungle Soul, Dr. Lonnie Smith, organ. Whether or not you like the jazz organ, there's no disputing the fact that Smith is one of its top practitioners. His soulful vibe on the B-3, his unrelenting sense of groove and his energy always make for recordings that are both cool, hip and funky. This disc seems to be even funkier than others. Tracks like "Simone" and his Afro-Cuban take on "Freedom Jazz Dance" take back beats to new levels, even in their somewhat subdued form, but hey, that just makes them all the cooler. With Peter Bernstein on guitar, Allison Miller on drums and percussion, and Matt Balitsaris on guitars, Smith is in great company. There always feels like something is bubbling under, with understated grooves that just want to break free but keep the tension level nicely simmering. The ballad "Blue Moment" is pretty but doesn't hold up as nicely as some of the other more pressing tracks, like the soulful "Witch Doctor," or "Jungle Wisdom." Smith proves once again that he's the guru and master of the B-3 and that he still has plenty to say after all these years. Palmetto Records, 2006; Playing Time: 67:5, ****.

KMHD Presents Blues in Portland, Various artists. Chances are, if you read this publication, your favorite station is KMHD, and for good reason. It gives a voice to our local artists and keeps jazz and blues alive. This disc is a step in the best direction on that front, with 13 tracks of Portland blues artists, many of whom don't get a lot of airplay. It's a nice cross-section of well-known and up-and-coming blues talent, from the acoustic blues of Sheila Wilcoxson to the old time roadhouse of Rose City Kings, the cabaret blues of Mary Flower, the soulful pop jazz of Shelly Rudolph and the horn driven boogie of Norman Sylvester. All are quality tracks and it's a nice opportunity to hear the various artists in town on one disc. KMHD, 2006; Playing Time: 58:43, ***1/2.

KMHD Presents Jazz in Portland, Various Artists. The same concept as the blues album holds true here but with a jazz slant. Some artists you've heard before, like the vibes-driven swing of Tall Jazz, and the big band of the Art Abrams Swing Machine. But the disc also lets us hear some lesser-known gems. Nancy King and Steve Christofferson sing and play with Mt. Hood Community College's award-winning Genesis vocal group. Belinda Underwood's lovely bass and vocals are on here, as is teen piano phenom Grant Richards, the pure-voiced Linda Lee Michelet, and the ultra-funky young group Fiction Junkies. More than the blues disc, this one uncovers lesser-known talent with a positive light. KMHD, 2006; Playing Time: 66:04, ***1/2.

Hank & Frank, Hank Jones and Frank Wess. Former Billy Eckstein bandmates, Jones and Wess, now octogenarians, have been performing together as of late and for those who love to hear classic artists getting together for the love of the music, this is a disc for you. Jones and Wess can still play plenty good, though Wess' tone is a bit thinner and breathier, but hearing this, you can picture the smiles on their faces as they play breakneck bop on "Just One of Those Things," or pretty and pensive on "The Thought of You." With a fine band that includes exemplary drummer Mickey Roker, guitarist Ilya Lushtak, and bassist John Webber, nothing here is off the charts, but for the musical camaraderie it's a nice listen. Lineage Records, 2006;. PT: 53:22, ***.

Codes, Ignacio Berroa, drums. Berroa is never one to play it easy. If he isn't composing densely polyrhythmic Latin jazz, as on this disc's obtusely funky Latin hip-hop "Joao Su Merced," he's rearranging tunes by Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea and Dizzy Gillespie to fit the mold. Even with his layered take on jazz, he knows how to use subtlety and dynamics to create beauty and energy, like the lushly pulsating "La Comparsa," and the modal "Partido Alto." He takes Shorter's "Pinocchio" and gets downright frenetic with it, flying over the set with fervor while Gonzalo Rubalcaba does insane things on the piano. With guest musicians like John Patitucci, David Sanchez and Armando Gola raising the bar, this is one disc that doesn't take it easy but manages to please on numerous levels. Blue Note Records, 2006; Playing Time: 62:53, ****1/2.

Intimidade, Tania Maria, piano/vocals. Veteran Brazilian pianist and singer Maria continues her prolific output with this sensual disc of Brazilian jazz, sung in Portuguese in sultry fashion. Maria's voice is a bit deeper and not as able to hit the higher notes as it once was, but her delivery is mesmerizing over the mostly bossa rhythms. The ballad "Canto" is a typical torch song while her version of "Besame Mucho" has underlying funkiness. Bassist Eddie Gomez makes a welcome appearance on the frevo style "Evocacao." While her voice has been stronger on previous recordings, she still remains an evocative presence and a Brazilian gem. Blue Note, 2006; Playing Time: 56:11, ***1/2.

Piano, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano. For those who only know Rubalcaba as the fiery Cuban pianist who creates a frenzy every time he touches the keyboard as a hardcore jazzer and Cuban music powerhouse, you'll be plenty surprised and pleased with his latest disc, a solo album that lays his talents on the table for all to hear. The fleet fingers are, of course, still there, but there is a quiet and pensive side of this highly rhythmic player. He keeps it subtle quite often, on both his own compositions and traditional Cuban tunes. He chooses unfamiliar melodies, pieces that represent different aesthetic and musical concepts than those we often hear from Cuban artists, and the result is one of haunting beauty, of musical joy. The only familiar melody is "Here's that Rainy Day," which is drawn out in such lengthy fashion as to let each note get a ringing due. This is a side of Rubalcaba that we rarely see, but one that lets us get to know the full artist and all his talents. Blue Note Records, 2006; Playing Time: 55:15, ****1/2.

Bounce, Miles Donahue, saxophone. Saxophonist and trumpeter Donahue is an fine player. Being a great player, though, doesn't always translate into a great composer. The opening tracks on the disc don't make much of a statement. They're played technically well, but the title track lacks focus, meandering between chords, while "Uppy," is a plainly written rock tune. The overall feel of the album is scattered and doesn't create passion within. Cover tunes like the tepid "Close to You," and "On the Street Where You Live," just don't go anywhere. Donahue enlists great players to back him, including John Patitucci, Joey Calderazzo, Adam Nussbaum and John Lockwood, but their playing doesn't make up for the bland nature of the disc. Amerigo Recordings, 2006; Playing Time: 61:20, **1/2.

The Best of All Possible Worlds, James Dejoie Quartet. Clarinetist/saxophonist Dejoie from Seattle creates a different world of experimental music, heavy on the woodwinds and ripe with world influences, with bits and pieces of percussion and modalities from around the globe. It's interesting more on a textural level than melodic, and the musicians involved know how to pull out sounds that will make the music evolve and adapt throughout the course of the free-thinking forms. No one will mistake this for great, listenable music with a true sense of melody, but for those who enjoy the outer edges of jazz and world music will be intrigued by what Dejoie has to offer, from electronic landscapes to trance woodwinds and percussion, and other places in between. HypSync Records, 2005; Playing Time: 62:34, ***.

Sophisticated Approach, Stan Kenton. Many remember Kenton and his big band as a powerhouse, playing high, fast and loud in extremely tight fashion. While that was a major part of his allure, this disc is a completely different side of the big band. For this 1961 recording, Lennie Niehaus prepared a book of standard ballads for Kenton's newly expanded Mellophonium orchestra. The result is a classic big band sound with a deep middle section, featuring great soloists like saxophonist Gabe Baltazar and trumpeter Marvin Stamm. The tunes are all from the jazz canon, like the lush "It Might as Well Be Spring," and the silky "You Stepped Out of a Dream." Extra tracks, like "Some Enchanted Evening" add to the romance of the disc. Perfect for a candlelit dinner and dancing. Blue Note, 2006; Playing Time: 60:24, ****1/2.

Translucent Space, Jason Rigby, woodwinds. This disc juxtaposes the immediacy of intense improvisation with the structure of composed chamber jazz. Some of the tunes sound directly plucked from Ornette Coleman's grab bag of frenetic and free bop ("Turquoise Turkish"); others float through colorscapes, grabbing at tones ("Atmospheric"), while some sound as if they were composed as pieces for indie-house films ("Proximo"), with tight chords and woodwind parts. Rigby is a fine player on saxophones, clarinets and flutes, and he gives plenty of time to his cohesive group, especially bassist Cameron Brown and pianist Mike Holober. His compositions seem to be an attempt to stray outside the jazz norm while still retaining its basal elements, like loping from free-form to swing on "Backandforthedness" or putting in a standard-sounding piano solo over an amorphous but lushly pretty "Christopher." Rigby is somebody at the edges of the jazz world who should be watched for his interesting ways of putting instrumentation and color together. He must also watch himself, though, and make sure his compositions don't venture so far outside the norm that he limits himself to the avant garde. He has too much talent for that to happen. Fresh Sounds Records, 2006; Playing Time: 58:35, ***1/2.

Lounging Around, Ron Kaplan, vocals. Kaplan has an easygoing voice, one that puts a listener at ease with him immediately. His gentle baritone is of the crooning variety, which fits especially well on loping ballads like "I Surrender Dear" and Brazilian bossa, as on "How Insensitive.," which also features a fluid solo by flugelhorn player Dmitri Matheny. Less successful are Kaplan's attempts at the blues, where his nice-guy voice is ill suited to the rougher edges of the genre. On "Blues in the Night" Kaplan seems starkly out of place, and that's the album's opener, which isn't the best way to introduce yourself to a new listener. Kaplan's relaxed phrasing is much better on Latin-influenced tunes ("Caravan") and ballads like "What a Wonderful World." His delivery is just too straightforward for the dirtier sides of jazz and blues, like "Moanin'," to the point where he sounds insincere in his portrayal of the lyrics. It would be nice to hear Kaplan to an album of bossa or ballads and shuck the blues. Kapland Records. 1999, remastered 2006, Playing Time: 48:16, **1/2.

The Capitol Jazz & Blues Session, The Best of Lou Rawls. Some might only remember the Lou Rawls of tuxedoed lounge fame, singing hits behind disco beats. But that takes away from the essentially great legacy from his earlier years, when that wonderfully distinctive baritone sang jazz, R&B and soul tunes during the 60s. This collection covers Rawls' career from 1962-1970 and here we hear a Lou Rawls who sang for the passion and love. We hear a passionate and jazzy version of "God Bless the Child," with Les McCann and featuring the steady bass of Leroy Vinnegar. Other highlights include an electric blues version of "Going to Chicago Blues" with the Onzy Matthews Octet, a narrative "Southside Blues" with the Tommy Strode Quartet, an orchestrated version of "Georgia on My Mind," and three newly discovered blues tracks recorded with the Curtis Amy Sextet. Blue Note Records, 2006; Playing Time: 73:03, ****.

Copyright 2007, Jazz Society of Oregon