CD Reviews - February 2007
by George Fendel
What it Is, Jacky Terrasson, piano. In Terrasson's fifth album on Blue Note, he expands from the comfort of his trio setting to a broader tonal palate with multiple guest artists. The result shows a growth by the pianist/composer/arranger. With the help of drummer/percussionist Mino Cinelu, Terrasson heads to South America to experiment with Latin "pulses" as he calls them. There is the quiet, lulling bossa of "Sam's Song," the propelling "Better World" with rich vocals by Cuban vocalist Xiomara Laugart, where Terrasson shows off his best Chick Corea on electric piano, and the frenetic funk-meets-Latin of "What's Wrong With You," with Terrasson's intense rhythmicity and the late Michael Brecker's jaw-dropping sax solo. But it's also a chance for Terrasson to show a subtler side, as on his introverted version of Pink Floyd's "Money," which slinks along at midnight pace. Not everything is perfect, though. "Sam's Song," while starkly pretty, lags at almost eight minutes. And Gregoire Maret's harmonica becomes a tonal liability on the funky "Toot-Toot's Tune." Still, Terrasson is in fine company and in fine form here, growing and maturing as an artist while entertaining. Blue Note, 1999 Playing Time: 54:02, ****.
Come Escape with Me, Amina Figarova. I'll admit that I hadn't heard of this Azerbaijani native when the disc landed in my hands, but after a few listens, I'm sold. The pianist/composer is a rising talent. Now living in the Netherlands, Figarova shows a true sophistication as a bandleader and composer. This septet album has all the prowess of a big band recording, utilizing a three-piece horn section to drive the melodies. It's nothing out of the ordinary in terms of structure, but Figarova creates a tonal richness with the dual-sax and flute lineup, tackling both lighter modes, as on the floating "Flight of Fancy," and the gritty, like the sped-up New Orleans street beat of "Buckshot Blues." Figarova is sublime on piano as well, backing her horn section and soloists with a deft combination of rhythm and chordal richness. She is also a solid soloist, with a fluid touch that lets her waft over the keys while punching at the right moment. Portland Jazz Festival fans should open their ears to this European rising star. Munich Records, 2005, Playing Time: 63:40, ****.
Sangam, Trygve Seim. Norwegian saxophonist Seim takes a term from Sanskrit, "Sangam," and applies it to his approach to orchestral music. The word means confluence and Seim interprets that to mean the juncture of what he has learned as a musician. That being the point, this album is a coming together of styles - jazz, orchestral elements and folk music - making for an ambitious, and sometimes ponderous, project. Those looking for a traditional jazz album will not find it here. Seim follows a different path altogether, one paved by artists like Jan Garbarek and Edward Vesala. One might even categorize this as world music rather than jazz, since the approach and the tones seem culled from various reaches of the globe rather than the traditions of jazz built over the last century. Seim gathers clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet, French horn, tuba, accordion, cello, and drums to create an aural richness that flows like a river through the corners of the world. There are soft, plaintive drones, Eastern European marches, swelling, orchestrated passages, and painfully beautiful melodies. His four part orchestral "Himmerland I Tidevand" suite slowly builds, ebbs and flows, with different textures and harmonies seeping in and out with a tender poignancy. This is not easily comprehensible music, but if given a chance, it will capture you, soothe you, intrigue you and ultimately win you over. ECM Records, 2006, Playing Time: 69:33, ****1/2.
Lontano, Tomasz Stanko, trumpet. Polish trumpeter Stanko has enlisted his regular group of pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz for this hauntingly improvisational disc. Stanko, who has often been compared to Miles Davis, continues to draw those comparisons on this free-floating gathering of compositions. Stanko's trumpet echoes through the wide palette laid down by his rhythm section, most notably by Wasilewski. His plaintive tone uses Davis's long tones and sense of color, contrasting perfectly with the pointed hits and blanketing chords by Wasilewski. When Stanko does take a stab at bop-like runs, they are placed perfectly within context, adding flavor rather than flash. At times, things are drawn out to the nth degree, exhausting the melodic flavor without leaving room for want of more. Stanko's tunes are long and ripe with space, but sometimes too much so. Still, this is a darkly beautiful album, with plenty of exploration and pace. ECM Records, 2006, Playing Time: 1:17:12, ****.
Jumping the Creek, Charles Lloyd, saxophone. Lloyd has long been an innovator in jazz, from his early days with Don Cherry, Bobby Hutcherson and others to his latest experimentations with percussionist Zakir Hussain. This disc finds him back in the jazz quartet setting, a place he has often found success. With Geri Allen on piano, Eric Harland on drums, and Robert Hurst on bass, Lloyd takes his usual unpredictable path to composition, starting out meditatively, with the Moorish drone of "Ne Me Quitte Pas (If You Go Away)," with Allen building a percussively dense chordal base for Lloyd's snowballing solo, finally retreating into a pensive melodic outro. But instead of staying that meditative path, Lloyd takes a page from Coltrane and lets Harland go on a marching-bopping rhythm while he solos over it in frenetic, searching fashion. Allen joins in and the result is a disjunct but fully engaging bass-less trio. These are open dialogues with his bandmates for the most part, letting the sparseness of the moment open up into a full band conversation. Lloyd on his end, has a tone that is both beautiful and harsh, depending on the tune and the color. Lloyd is always worth a listen and this is no exception, especially with the deft playing by Allen. ECM Records, 2005; PT: 69:03, ****1/2.
Wade in the Water, Devin Phillips, tenor saxophone. The title is eerily appropriate, since Phillips relocated to Portland after fleeing New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina. Since bursting onto the scene, Phillips has become a fan favorite for his exemplary playing, his roots in New Orleans street rhythms, and his ebullient stage persona. Here, on his debut CD with his group New Orleans Straight Ahead, Phillips makes a bold statement as a saxophonist to be reckoned with. He begins with a page straight from Coltrane, "Cape Verde," a meditative mélange of post bop that could have easily been an outtake from "Crescent." From there, he keeps within the hard bop mold, playing searing solos and showing his prowess on the horn, until he takes a turn towards the traditional, with a trip to the Big Easy and "My Woman's Blues," where he displays a welcome diversity, growling, traipsing and bopping over a rag-style blues with ease and playfulness, backed by a frighteningly solid band. He also courts Grover Washington with the fusiony "Destine's Dream," showcasing that he has a tender side too on a tune that is pretty and smart. He shows he knows how to bop on soprano, how to entwine lines with a trumpet, and how to play with pure soulful energy on New Orleans soul jazz. This is a sometimes brash yet completely enjoyable album by an artist who is taking the Northwest by storm. If this is Phillips' first statement here, it's a strong one. He could use some finesse on the lighter tunes, but overall, Portland is lucky to have such a bright future on the horn, blending contemporary jazz traditions with those straight from the Crescent City. Devin Phillips, 2006, PlayTime: 62:13., ****.
Timeless Portraits and Dreams, Geri Allen, piano. Allen is a highly respected jazz pianist, composer and educator. On this disc, she shows a wonderful elegance, heightened by tunes that speak on technical and emotional levels. Backed by Jimmy Cobb and Ron Carter, Allen couldn't be in better hands. The three take an understated approach to the music, as veterans do, and the result is delightfully proper, with just enough jazz modernity to give it a slight edge. The core trio is joined by several well-picked guest artists, including Allen's husband, trumpeter Wallace Roney, who adds a nice supplemental tonal difference, singer Carmen Lundy, and operatic vocalist George Shirley, who brings a commanding presence to the empowering "I Have a Dream." While this disc breaks no new ground, it heightens jazz's reputation as a viable sophisticated art form. Telarc Jazz Records, 2006; Playing Time: 58:53, ****.
Meaning and Mystery, Dave Douglas, trumpet. Douglas is continually recognized as one of the top trumpeters and composers of our time, always finding a way to create new avenues for jazz while staying within the parameters of what has come before. Here, Douglas returns to his quintet setting, backed by Uri Caine on electric piano, James Genus on bass, Clarence Penn on drums and Donny McCaslin on tenor sax. McCaslin and Douglas play off each other well, as on the dual lead of the slow funker, "Culture Wars." That tune cements the quintet as a tight ensemble and one that has particular firepower on the solo front. Douglas rips off a tightly wound solo, which is followed by McCaslin's building solo that ends well above the register. Caine's Fender Rhodes gives the quintet a retro feel but the music is all modern, as on the angularly playful bop, "The Sheik of Things to Come." Some of the tunes venture to the edges of avant-garde, like the free-falling "Twombly Infinites," and melodies often stray from melodicism, but the tunes remain so well executed that the venture into the avant rarely seems unfathomable. Greenleaf Music, 2006, Playing Time: 61:33, ****1/2.
Braggtown, Branford Marsalis Quartet. Branford Marsalis is the most notable name on the tenor saxophone these days, especially with the passing of Michael Brecker (apologies to Sonny Rollins and Joe Lovano, but hey, ask a majority of jazz and non-jazz fans...). While Marsalis does veer into the pop realm every now and then, he is a serious jazzer as a bandleader, and this disc does nothing to alter that fact. Marsalis has taken his game to the next level several times, and here he continues to wow, especially with the searing opening track, "Jack Baker," which finds the tenor man in Coltrane territory, the later years. He recreates the wall of sound that Coltrane was known for in the mid to late 60s, firing off non-stop runs and licks over a relentless onslaught of rhythm, duly created by pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and the always incredible drummer, Jeff "Tain" Watts. At nearly 15 minutes, the listener is exhausted, but there is more. Thankfully, the ears get to settle back down with Calderazzo's quietude on "Hope," where he takes an extended legato solo, which is preceded by Marsalis's lovely soprano work, then builds to a rousing conclusion. But the hard bop returns on "Blakzilla," and again on "Black Elk Speaks." It's a yin-yang album, with tension and release to the ultimate degree. Fans of Coltrane will enjoy Marsalis's near-perfect representation of the master, while those who likes Branford's subtler, soprano side will also be pleased. But fans of just one style might find the other a bit much to take. Marsalis Music, 2006, Playing Time: 1:14:08, ****1/2.
In Concert, Zurich, October 28, 1979, Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Burton and Corea seemed such a perfect pair, even before their lauded album, "Crystal Silence," was recorded in 1972. The two were both storied technicians, Corea on keyboards and Burton on vibes, and their styles, it seemed, would fit seamlessly. That's certainly the case here, as the two trade rhythms and melodic lines like kids trading baseball cards, echoing the earlier success of that disc. Burton is a master in a duo setting and nowhere is that better heard than with Corea. The two are in such sync you think they'd been doing this their entire careers. Playing a set of mostly Corea originals, they both take to the contrapuntal lines like squirrels to nuts, Corea's jaunty style mixing with Burton's fluid use of the mallets. The pleasure had by the audience is palpable and it translates easily to the listener. One wonders, though, why this disc doesn't contain two tracks that were included on the original recording. Puzzling omission. ECM Records, 1980, Playing Time: 61:20, ****.
Native Sense, The New Duets, Chick Corea and Gary Burton. When two people work so well together, it's hard to keep them apart, even two renowned artists as busy as Corea and Burton. But when they got back together for this continuation of their duet project in 1997, it was a welcome return for fans. The two hadn't lost a step, and if anything, their musical depth had grown and evolved. The same sense of rhythm, melody and counter-melody is on display - Corea's taxi-traffic quick rhythms and Burton's deft interplay. But added to that is Burton playing marimba on a couple of the tunes, as well as a rounder selection of tunes and composers. Corea's pizzicato melodies are still here, but two of Bela Bartok's obtuse Bagatelles are also added, as is a Monk tune, "Four in One," a wonderful piece of outside swing. Burton and Corea create more than just two people, they create a band out of a duet, and one ripe with intense conversation. Stretch Records, 1997, Playing Time: 64:40, *****.
Do the Boomerang, Don Byron. Byron has tackled so many styles in his career he's become a musical chameleon. Luckily, he has the chops and the varied bands to back that claim. Mostly known as a clarinetist, Byron pulls out his tenor sax and lets his band go electric to pay tribute to the music of blues/soul/R&B great Junior Walker. Byron has always strived for a "sound above genre" and that's certainly true here. This is nearly a straight ahead blues rock album, save for a few twists, with his band grooving soulfully behind him while he plays more like Illinois Jacquet than a classically trained clarinetist. While his tenor playing is strong, it's when he pulls out his clarinet, as on the title track, where the songs get texturally interesting. Byron's horn is big, yet a bit more fluid, pensive and intricate, as only Byron can do. With a band that includes vocalists David Bowman and Chris Thomas King (who also does an admirable job on guitar), and George Colligan on Hammond B-3, Byron has an energetic crew do kick forth these hot hits, especially on the infectious groover "Shotgun," and the James Brown funker "There it Is." With the recordings of Walker still available, this seems more like a fun project for Byron rather than a vital part of the jazz canon. But it is fun, no denying, and if it gets more people interested in the work of Junior Walker, so be it. Blue Note, 2006, PT: 51:40, ****.
Nothing Serious, Roy Hargrove Quintet. Trumpeter Hargrove released two albums of vastly different styles, but both possessing his skill as a writer, arranger and player. "Nothing Serious" is the straight laced one of the pair, with Hargrove getting back to his straight ahead roots. It starts with the sizzle of Leo Quintero's "Nothing Serious," then settles into swing, with Slide Hampton's "A Day in Vienna," featuring Hampton himself showing no signs of age on his smooth solo. Hampton reappears on two other tracks, fitting in nicely with the core group, which includes a talented Justin Robinson on sax and flute, plus Ronnie Matthews on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass and Willie Jones III on drums. The group is tight and clicks on all cylinders, even on Hargrove's ballad, "Trust," where Hargrove plays a lovely flugelhorn. The disc doesn't hit a home run, with some tunes wandering a bit too much, but the musicianship is solid throughout and it's nice to hear Hargrove play it straight. Verve Records, 2005; Playing Time: 46:04, ****. (Reviewed by Kyle O'Brien in the October, 2005 issue of Jazzscene.)
Distractions, The RH Factor, Roy Hargrove, trumpet, Hargrove is the core of the RH Factor, his funky fusion group and a departure from the previous disc. The grooves are solid throughout, laid down by bassists Lenny Stallworth and Reggie Washington and drummers Willie Jones III and Jason Thomas. The rest of the group, which also features saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and Keith Anderson, is solid and they noodle around the base tunes with expertise as on the very hip "Kansas City Funk," and the two snippets of the title track. There's even a Parliament Funkadelic vibe on "A Place" which gives up the funk big time. The vocals on that track fit well and utilize a smart, jazzy 70s energy. The vocals otherwise, though, are hit and miss. Hargrove sings a bit, but it's Renee Neufville taking most of the singing duties. The lyrics aren't super strong on "Crazy Race" and "Hold On," and Hargrove doesn't give enough oomph to his delivery to break through the rhythms. The track by R&B star D'Angelo, "Bull___t, is worthy of radio play (heavily beeped of course). Overall, this disc fits better into R&B than jazz, but if more R&B artists were this talented, it would be better for the whole genre.Verve Records, 2005; PT: 38:06, ***1/2. (Reviewed by Kyle O'Brien in the October, 2005 issue of Jazzscene.)
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, PT: 59:58, ****1/2. (Reviewed by Kyle O'Brien in the December, 2005 issue of Jazzscene.)
Eternal, Branford Marsalis, saxophones. Marsalis, here playing with his longtime quartet of pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Reves and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, creates an album of stark beauty, not heard by him since his two classical albums. The opening track, a haunting version of "The Ruby and the Pearl" is flat out gorgeous. Everything is understated, from Calderazzo's piano to Marsalis' near perfect-toned soprano, which walks through the melody with a soft but confident touch. For fans of Branford's more intense, modern music, this is a departure for sure, but one that marks the veteran saxophonist as a wonderful melodic player. Aside from the incredible control on soprano, his tenor becomes a poignant interpreter, as on the pensive, Coltrane-like "Gloomy Sunday." This is more chamber jazz than swing, and the result is one of the most hauntingly beautiful albums to come out in years - controlled, restrained and melancholy. Marsalis Music / Rounder, 2004, Playing Time: 68:41, *****. (Reviewed by Kyle O'Brien in the October, 2004 issue of Jazzscene.)
Ivey-Divey, Don Byron, clarinets, saxophones. Byron will never sit back and do what has been done before. Just listen to his "Bug Music" or any of his other myriad projects to know that this is a man who likes to move in new directions constantly. Joined here by pianist Jason Moran and drum legend Jack DeJohnette, Byron has the freedom to explore his instruments. The disc slips in and out of happy expression. It is mostly upbeat, but angular in its approach. The bouncy "Somebody Love Me" is put on its side by Moran's disjointed approach, while DeJohnette steers it in and out of swing. The trio is joined by bassist Lonnie Plaxico and trumpeter Ralph Alessi on several tunes, rounding out the sound, as on the fairly straightforward swing of "The Goon Drag." There are moments of dissonance too, as on the sharp corners of "Abie the Fishman." But there are standard melodies here too, as on the sparse version of "Freddie Freeloader," with its building block structure. It's not an easy album to pin down, but one that drives the listener to delve deeper and get to the layers involved, and it's approachable enough to let you do that. Blue Note Records, 2004, Playing Time: 75:01, ****. (Reviewed by Kyle O'Brien in the October, 2004 issue of Jazzscene.)
Free to Be, Donald Harrison, saxophones. Harrison has kept growing as an artist since his time with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. While he is often associated with the New Orleans sound, this disc is more modern and urban sophisticated. His affinity for rhythm is understated here, opting for a more streamlined acoustic sound. His tone is round and smooth, and his playing often quite lovely, as on the ballad "Again, Never." He also shows a great bop sense with his alto on the rapid "Duck's Steps." Harrison continues to impress and as his sound keeps developing and expanding, he's an artist to look towards in the future. Impulse Recordings, 1999; Playing Time: 1:06:56, ****. (Reviewed by Kyle O'Brien in the August, 2004 issue of Jazzscene.)
Smile, Jacky Terrasson, piano. This album just might make you smile. Terrasson's agile fingers are in top form here, and his backing trio brings out the best in him. The bustling "Parisian Thoroughfare" starts off the disc with a 7/4 frenzy, pumping up the rhythm like a crisscrossing stream of Vespas. But Terrasson can be soulful as well, as the mildly funky "Mo Better Blues" displays. And he proves equally proficient on ballads, as the lovely "Sous le Ciel de Paris" floats down a river of brushes and soft chords. An angular approach to Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" is challenging and welcome, and a solo version of "Autumn Leaves" leaves the melody behind for notey explorations. Blue Note Records, 2002; Playing Time: 47:13, ****. (Reviewed by Kyle O'Brien in the April, 2003 issue of Jazzscene.)
Romare Bearden Revealed, Branford Marsalis Quartet. Artists are often inspired by other art forms. Painters often cite music as vital to their progression as artists, and vice versa. Here, Marsalis gives a musical interpretation of Romare Bearden, an artist who was intimately influenced by jazz, blues, and the Harlem culture in which the music was inspired. "I'm Slappin' Seventh Avenue" relates to Bearden's "Slapping Seventh Avenue with the Sole of My Shoes," an intertwined urban bustle of a tune written by Ellington. "Jungle Blues" gets the whole Marsalis crew together. Recorded live in 2003, it features Branford, Wynton and Delfeayo playfully calling and answering on the Jelly Roll Morton tune while dad Ellis, brother Jason and bassist Reginald Veal hold down the New Orleans strolling rhythm. Bearden makes an aural appearance with his classic "Seabreeze" floating through Marsalis' tenor sax, backed smoothly by Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts on brushed drums. This is one of Marsalis' more accessible discs, especially as it relates to Bearden's impressionistic and collage-style art work, which is reprinted on the cover and in the inside jacket. Marsalis channels the great Sidney Bechet with his retro soprano sax on "B's Paris Blues," which recalls Bearden's Paris years, with guitarist Doug Wamble doing his best Django. Wamble even gets a chance to play solo slide guitar on "Autumn Lamp." The album leaps between decades, from the early 20th century to modern day, with Watts' adventurous, bopping "Laughin' & Talkin' (with Higg)." Fellow New Orleans mate Harry Connick, Jr. makes a welcome appearance with the stride duet "Carolina Shout," and the overall impression of the album is a positive, musically enriched celebration of art and jazz. Marsalis Music, 2003; Playing Time: 53:39, ****1/2. (Reviewed by Kyle O'Brien in the April, 2004 issue of Jazzscene.)