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CD Reviews - December 2006
by George Fendel

Sketches, Alexa Ray Joel, piano/vocals. The daughter of Billy Joel and Christy Brinkley shows promise, but this is a young artist who hasn't quite found herself yet. This six-song sampler of her original music is self-produced and the music is laid bare, without heavy production. This is both worthy of respect and also shows flaws. Joel has a nice, lilting voice but it also ventures into the melismatic traps of modern R&B, quavering unnecessarily, especially on slower tunes. Her piano chops are building, and she shows the rhythmic strength of her father, but without the polish and finesse. That's understood, since she's barely two decades old. If this disc is any indication of what she's capable of, she may be a pop-world force, but she doesn't yet have the preparation to be a jazz artist. Still, she might just become the Piano Woman given time and practice. Alexa Ray Joel, 2006, PT: 23:22, **1/2

Live at the Jazz Standard, Volume One, Russell Malone, guitar. Malone continues to be one of jazz's coolest of stars. His deep, hollow body sound fits perfectly into his modern-yet-retro swing tunes, and his playing is uniquely fluid and engaging, even when he's taking it outside the chords, as on the obtuse groover, "I Saw You Do It." Malone is joined by pianist Martin Bejerano, bassist Tassili Bond, and drummer Jonathan Blake for this live disc, recorded in 2005 at the Jazz Standard. The session is a fine example of conversational jazz. The players all hear each other and fit like a finely formed glove, with Malone leading the charge with his great sense of melody, even on frantic tunes like "Mean Streak." Malone shows that the six string traditions started by Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery and others are sti ll alive and thriving. MaxJazz, 2006, Playing Time: 62:00, ****1/2

Good Forever, Von Freeman, tenor sax. Veteran Chicago sax man Freeman ventures away from the hard bop and free jazz that made his name. He returns to his early roots, playing blues and ballads standards with considerable emotion and care. His tone wavers at times, but that helps to heighten his stature as a mature statesman. That same tone is both mellow and expressive on tunes like "An Affair to Remember," "Smile" and "A Night in Paris." Helping out Freeman are bassist John Webber, pianist Richard Wyands, and the steady drums of Jimmy Cobb. Freeman may not be a household name, but this disc might just get a few more people appreciating his contributions to jazz in and outside of Chicago. Premonition Records, 2006, PlayTime: 41:32, ****

Minions Dominion, Delfeayo Marsalis, trombone. This Marsalis brother has been more associated with his production work than his trombone playing, but on this disc, he comes forth as a fine player and composer, especially backed by the late, great Elvin Jones on drums. This was recorded in 2002, two years before Jones passed away. That it took four years for this disc to make it to the store shelves is too bad, since it is such a fine venue for Jones' absolutely stunning stick work, but any way to remember a true jazz master is just great for all jazz fans. Marsalis surrounds himself with great players here, including brother Branford on saxes, Donald Harrison on alto sax, Robert Hurst III and Eric Revis on bass, Mulgrew Miller on piano, and of course Jones on drums. The two Marsalis brothers show a lovely tender side on the ballad "If You Only Knew." But as good as everybody is, this is essenti ally an Elvin Jones album. His relentless swing propels the music, especially on the smokin' hard bop title track and "Brer Rabbit." Jones died in 2004, but thanks to this exciting and inspiring album, his rhythm rolls on and on. Troubadour Jass Records, 2006, Playing Time: 63:11, *****

Every Time I Think of You, Alan Broadbent, piano. Leave it to the estimable Broadbent to take what could have been a normal trio album and make it into an orchestral master. Broadbent is an arranger and composer it seems first, almost, but his piano playing certainly comes through strongly here, this time in Gershwin-like fashion. The opener, "Autumn Variations" takes the traditions of a swingin' "Autumn Leaves," and turns it into a showcase for Broadbent's piano work, backed by the subtle strings of The Tokyo Strings. Those strings come to the forefront a bit more on the more highly arranged tunes, like Gershwin's "Bess, Oh Where's My Bess," which is more of an ensemble feature. The trio is exceptional by itself, with Brian Bromberg on bass and Kendall Kay on drums, but with the addition of the strings, this becomes almost a soundtrack of sorts. Broadbent is almost too much of an arranger at times, as on his hyper-lush version of "Blue in Green," where the strings dominate for a stretch before the trio comes in with a mellow waltz. Broadbent is one of jazz's best composer/arrangers, and certainly in the top tier of pianists. Here, though, he should have used the strings as accents rather than as a backdrop for the entire focus. Still, it is wonderfully executed and superbly played all around. Artistry Music Group, 2006, PT: 60:38, ****

Wish List, Mike Holober, piano. I'll admit that I'm not familiar with Holober's playing, but considering he has both John Patitucci and Brian Blade as part of his quintet on this album of original tunes, he must be a respected artist. His piano playing and compositional techniques certainly prove that upon first listen. Holober can not only hold his own with the tops in the biz, he also proves that he is a quality player. His sense of chordal structure can be dense at times, but nothing too far out there. His tunes are pensive and introspective. His melodies aren't simple but still have a sense of melodicism and focus, as on the slow-moving, building "Conundrum," where guitar, saxophones and piano interweave their lines. There are times when things are muddy on the production end. The instruments mash together in a tonality blend that only courts a middle range, washing out the vibrancy. But Holober has a light touch as a player and composer, and with great solos by himself and Patitucci, the album is redeemed. Sons of Sound Productions, 2006, Playing Time: 65:52, ***1/2

Alma Brasileira, Volume II, Alfredo Muro, guitar. Muro is one of Portland's finest musicians, especially as it pertains to Latin jazz. Here, he brings his vibrant sound out with a beautiful Latin sampler - ranging from sambas, waltzes, and other Brazilian styles - his nylon-stringed guitar at the forefront. Muro has always been a wonderful solo artist, and he gives himself plenty of room to show his technique and his innate sense of melody without accompaniment, as on the lovely ballad, "Minha Namorada," where he begins with a lengthy guitar solo before the rhythm comes in. The Peruvian guitarist shows his range throughout this disc, the second of four dedicated to "Brazilian Soul." From lush lullabies ("Abismo Das Rosas") to solo rhythmics ("Lamentos do Morro"), to pensive takes on bossa nova ("Manha de Carnaval"), Muro runs the gamut of South American compositional favorites. Much time is focused on Muro's solo pieces, but the strength of his quartet, with Carlton Jackson on drums, Brian Healey on bass, and Dave Fischer on percussion, gives even more life and depth to the songs. Muro is a Latin treasure in the Northwest and this disc shows his strengths and range. Self-produced, 2006, Playing Time: 55:38, ****1/2

Open, Dominique Eade and Jed Wilson, voice and piano. When Wilson was a teen-age piano phenom, he was the talk of the town, a kid with unlimited potential to be a jazz star. Having gone through the esteemed program at the New England Conservatory, Wilson has grown and emerged as a pianist to be heard. Here, he is a duet partner with vocalist/composer Eade, a woman with a clear, enunciated voice who has a sense of storytelling and muted theatrics. While it is clearly her melodies that are at the forefront, it is Wilson's tender and subtle piano playing that highlights this disc. He has matured as expected and adds creative chords, a light touch and a sense of melody that backs the vocals beautifully, almost more beautiful than the voice. Eade is not the best of vocalists . Her tonality veers occasionally, but she does have a good grasp of expressive delivery. Wilson's soloing fits seamlessly into the tone of the album, and his sophisticatedly playful nature, as on "You Fascinate Me So," makes the disc better. Wilson deserves to put out a disc that features his astute playing. Here, he shows a maturity beyond his years in a collaborative effort. He should be collaborating with even higher caliber artists, though. The Jazz Project, 2006, Playing Time: 45:55, ***

Mythologies, Patricia Barber, piano/vocals. Barber has pushed her music forward with each release. This takes it further than ever before. In 2003, Barber was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to create this ambitious work, a song cycle based on Greek mythology, using characters from "The Metamorphoses of Ovid" as the basis for each of the 11 songs. While many of the songs could easily stand on their own, it's the overall effect that makes this such an amazing disc. It starts darkly and brooding, with "The Moon," a floating, discordant piece. The following compositions capture different moods of different characters, like the fallen wings of "Icarus," dedicated to Nina Simone, the melancholy nature of "Orpheus," and the loving (self?) pop ballad of "Narcissus." On this work, Barber's dusky voice shines through, bringing her characters to life, as on the sophisticated, funky rant of "Whiteworld." She also enlists the help of many guest musicians to play with her base quartet, including saxophonist Jim Gailloreto, vocalist Paul Falk, and members of the Chicago Children's Choir. While some of the tunes are more Joni Mitchell-style pop than jazz, this is a monumental piece of music. Barber should be praised for creating a musical story arc and doing it with such melodic aplomb. She is truly an artist to watch intensely. Blue Note, 2006, Playing Time: 59:58, ****1/2

Moon and Sand, John Proulx, piano/vocals. Proulx makes his debut on the MaxJazz label with a voice that updates a young Chet Baker in a modern setting. His voice is high, pure and warm, and his crooning style is a refreshing change of pace from the usual baritones and low tenors. His piano talents heighten his overall musicianship, and he accompanies himself nicely, even trading fours between piano and scatting on Frank Loesser's swinging "I've Never Been in Love Before." Backed by veteran drummer Joe LaBarbera and bassist Chuck Berghofer, Proulx is in good company, giving him a solid and steadfast base to build his arrangements. Proulx plays it fairly close to the norm, choosing songs that will establish him as a fine interpreter of American standards, like "I Should Care," "There is No Greater Love," and "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." But rather than compete with the Michael Bubles of the world, Proulx has the talent to take it to the next level, not just as an interpreter of song, but as a composer and arranger as well. MaxJazz, 2006, PT: 54:59, ****

Into the Light, Aaron Irwin, alto saxophone. This young alto player is taking a familiar path to success, with a combination of original compositions and covers. He unfortunately starts with a tune way too familiar to the jazz public, "All the Things You Are," not bringing anything terribly new to the mix, save for the alternating tempos dictated by each soloist. But when Irwin's originals come into play, it gets more interesting. A fusiony "Fumes," shows both power and restraint, while "Into the '90s" lets Irwin show a smooth tone in a ballad setting, and "Into the Light" swings with a double sax bop melody. His cover of Monk's "Ugly Beauty" is pensive and understated, a nice touch on a unique tune. Irwin can grow as a composer and artist. With more focus on his original compositions, he may reach greater heights. Fresh Sound Records, 2006, Playing Time: 58:36, ***

Climbing the Gates, Falkner Evans Trio. Pianist Falkner takes the typical piano trio and makes a fairly typical piano trio album. Not that there's anything wrong with an album nicely played and decently recorded. It's just that we've heard this before from many a jazz musician. Take some lesser-known jazz standards, here Rogers and Hart's "Easy to Remember" and Monk's "Ask Me Now," and add some more complex chord progressions, and make it sophisticated in approach. With bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Matt Wilson, Evans has a cohesive trio. If you want some good dinner music or something to have on at a party, this makes a nice addition to the collection. Consolidated Artists Productions, 2006, Playing Time: 57:30, ***

Rosetta, Stephan Crump, bass. This is definitely not your typical trio album. Bassist Crump has written and arranged 11 tunes of bass and two guitar interplay. The lines by the three artists interweave and wander in a chamber-like setting. Liberty Ellman's acoustic guitar, Jamie Fox's electric guitar and Crump's upright bass create textures, intricate counterpoints and sparse harmonics. While a true sense of melody is not present here, the sense of experimentation is intriguing. The lack of rhythm makes for a cohesive if somewhat monochromatic album. But the musicianship and the sense of discovery, like on the bluesy "Rosie," which finally gives melodic focus, and the circular journey of "Atanarjuat." Crump takes our concepts of jazz and throws them out the door, giving us an idea where new music can go if artists are willing to break down the traditional molds. Papillon Sounds, 2006, Playing Time: 59:01, ****

Hot Club of Detroit. There seems to be a growing resurgence in the interest in the jump swing of the '30s, a time when upbeat, feel-good music took away people's problems, even if just for a song or a concert. This "Gypsy Jazz," led by Django Reinhardt, was a vital part of jazz's growth, especially on the European front. In the 1930s in Paris, the Hot Club de France was a foremost purveyor of Gypsy Jazz. This group, obviously from the Motor City, keeps the traditions of Django, Birelli LeGrane alive and kicking. Sticking mostly to the standards of the time, many by Django, this sextet hops with jump-swing energy, using traditional instrumentation - three guitars, bass, clarinet and button accordion - to convey the immediacy of the music. It certainly is uplifting and the musicians are all spot-on in their knowledge of the style. The strumming of the guitars, the buoyant melodies, the lively nature of the clarinet and accordion, all combine for an authentic representation of the era. The one tune written by bandleader Evan Perri, "Swing One," sounds like it was plucked right out of a Parisian café circa 1934. This is fun music done with reverence. Is it original? No, but in its derivation it is a microcosm of what this genre was all about. Mack Avenue Recordings, 2006, Playing Time: 73:42, ****

Other Tongues, Paul Carlon Octet. Bandleader and woodwind player Carlon has made a mini-version of a Kenton-style big band album, but with a small ensemble and tunes updated for this decade. The compositions are all rich in big band horn punches, underlying textures, propelling rhythm section grooves, and plenty of decent soloists. The tunes have a decidedly Latin flair, reminding of Kenton's penchant for Latin grooves, and tunes like "Smada" and "Rumbatapestry" enlist the vocal talents of Ileana Santamaria to highlight the tonal richness. But there is plenty of swing here for good measure, with "Street Beat" sounding like a cool Ellington slinker. Carlon has one foot in the big band past, and one in the future of what small ensembles can create with the right musicianship and focus. A fun listen for fans of big band looking for something new but familiar. Deep Tone Records, 2006, Playing Time: 62:04, ****

Copyright 2007, Jazz Society of Oregon