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CD Reviews - April 2007
by Kyle O'Brien

Imaginacion, Bill Cunliffe, piano/composer/arranger. There are plenty of quality Latin ensembles working today, but that doesn’t mean that those not named Poncho can’t take a stab at the genre. The underrated Cunliffe has assembled a small big band made up of some amazing players, getting a sound that is rich, full and lively. While this disc doesn’t capture the vibrancy of much of Sanchez’s work, it is flawlessly executed and the arrangements and compositions are exacting and well constructed. The original, “Afluencia,” is a contemplative Latin tune in the vein of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” with excellently fluid solos by saxophonist Bob Sheppard and Cunliffe. Trumpeter Bobby Shew takes a nice turn on Cunliffe’s slinky mambo arrangement of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again,” and drummer Ramon Banda impresses with quiet sophistication on the understated “Heat Wave.” The album darts around the Latin jazz world, with montunos, bossas, boleros, mambos and Cuban beats, but all come together to create a cohesive and pleasurable disc. Torii Records, 2005; Playing Time: 67:00, ****.

Surprisingly Good for You, Barbara Lusch, vocals. Lusch has come a long ways from her days as a Bottle Blonde. With this, her second album as a solo artist, she proves that she has a solid place in Portland’s jazz community. Her voice is pure, melodic and clear, and she surrounds herself with exceptional talent to bring the most out of her voice. Her light Latin version of “Crazy” showcases her fluid, lulling delivery, and the smart arrangement by Dan Gaynor also highlights his talents on piano. Lusch harkens back to earlier times of classic pop, when singing was gentler. Her tonality is spot-on and she sticks mostly with tunes that suit her sweetness. Her version of Bobby Troupe’s “Daddy,” is slyly sexy, sung with hints and whispers. And she includes some cabaret tango with Cole Porter’s coy “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” At times, she stays a little too safe, as on the opener, “Sentimental Journey,” which doesn’t bring much new to the table. But for the most part, Lusch balances the pop-jazz canon with some unconventional treats, like the lightly funky “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and the bluesy “‘Taint What You Do.” With players like Reinhardt Melz, Gary Hobbs, Rob Thomas and Bobby Torres, Lusch’s latest disc proves surprisingly good, especially for lovers of a good melody. Blush Records 2006; Play Time: 48:00, ****.

In Krakow in November, Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura, piano and trumpet. More and more artists are releasing duo albums, with varying results and textures. This one, by husband and wife team Fujii and Tamura, is certainly different. It skirts around rhythm and it skews concepts of melody. While both players are in sync, this is not an album that rolls across the ears lightly. Certainly, there is beauty, as on the pensive, tranquil “Morning Mist,” which evokes a fog-soaked forest at dawn, with Tamura playing long tones while Fujii adds modal chords. Other tunes aren’t as pleasing, but rather challenging, like the obtuse “Strange Village,” which slowly ebbs and flows with sharp hits and long stretches of solitude. Then there is the almost cheerily boppy “Ninepin,” which lays down a bouncy bed that builds with Tamura’s trumpet solo. The duo plays with textures, but there is an underlying rumble of low piano notes throughout, which oddly ties things together. Will the common jazz fan take to this disc? Probably not, but those who enjoy a musical challenge and a turn of tonality will appreciate the strange nature of this project. NotTwo Records, 2006; Playing Time: 52:00, ***.

The Scenic Route, Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts. Sometimes you just need a good drive to take your troubles away, and you need the right music to set the mood. This disc, by drummer/composer/arranger Wilson has all the right elements for a driving album – cool grooves, a decent variety of tunes, slick musicianship, and just a touch of edge to keep it interesting. It starts with the soul jazz groove of the title track, then swings hard, with a searing trumpet solo by Terrell Stafford on Monk’s “We See.” Gary Versace’s B-3 organ on “25 Years of Rootabagas” adds essence, while Ornette Coleman’s “Rejoicing” bounces along with vitality. Things slow down with Pat Metheny’s “The Bat,” which becomes more textural, but they pick up with Wilson’s ultra-hip ode to Dewey Redman, “In Touch with Dewey.” The slinky swing of “Tenderly” gives way to Lennon and McCartney’s “Give Peace a Chance,” which takes on different focus, with the chorus being sung over a New Orleans street beat. It’s a quirky and fun album, played well, and perfect for a Sunday cruise. Palmetto Records, 2006; Play Time: 56 Minutes, ****.

Summer Me, Winter Me, Jan Eisen, vocals. I had never heard nor heard of Jan Eisen before receiving this disc, but seeing that she was singing several Michel LeGrand tunes made me want to listen. With the opening track, LeGrand’s “Papa Can You Hear Me,” I was gently drawn in by Eisen’s lilting voice. Unfortunately my pleasure was disrupted by her occasional dips in tonality and her sometimes awkward breathing and phrasing. It got better on “You Must Believe in Spring,” but my enthusiasm kept wavering in and out throughout the album. Eisen picked some overplayed standards, like “Deed I Do,” and “Cocktails for Two,” and did nothing with them. But her double-time take on “With a Song in My Heart” brought me back in, as did the title track. Overall, it was just too spotty to garner my praise, even with decent backing musicians. One Take Productions, 2006; Playing Time: 55:05, **.

My Jazzy Mood, Mike Arroyo, guitar. The term elevator jazz came out of the traditions of fusion jazz. Unfortunately, the fusion and edge that developed in the late 1970s and early ‘80s took a boring left hand turn towards milquetoast. This album falls into that unenviable elevator shaft populated by mid-level contemporary jazz artists. Arroyo seems to be trying to be George Benson, and his playing is fine if uninspired, but his tunes sound like something you’d hear while shopping rather than sitting down and listening. Arroyo shows a little spark on more Latin-themed tunes, like “Initial Flight,” which hums along at a nice, spicy clip. And he shows some pretty tonality on “What a Friend I Have in Jesus.” But for the most part, this is about as dully tame as it gets. Mike Arroyo self-produced, 2005; Playing Time: 43:00, *1/2.

Party Hats, Will Bernard, guitar. Bernard’s Palmetto label debut builds off the funky reputation he built as a member of Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble and the collaborative, T.J. Kirk. Bernard’s penchant for junky-funky grooves, cerebral soul and forward-thinking Bay Area sensibility have him at the top of the modern soul jazz movement, along with the likes of Medeski, Martin and Wood and the like, and continuing the traditions built by John Scofield. Here, we find Bernard and his organic sound meshing with players like Apfelbaum, Dave Ellis, Will Blades, Michael Bluestein and others. The grooves jam hard, the playing is stellar but with a garage aesthetic edge, and the group is cohesive, even on the sometimes greasy chords. While the disc doesn’t break any new ground, it’s good and gritty, with some great playing by all. This kind of music makes jazz fun again. Palmetto Records, 2007; Playing Time: 58:00, ****.

Duology, Michael Marcus, clarinet, and Ted Daniel, trumpet. There’s a fine line between modern jazz and cacophony. This disc falls to the side of the latter. Why anyone would choose to listen to this bizarre experimentation the whole way through is beyond me. It’s basically a trumpeter and a clarinetist improvising with each other, only connecting on several planned melodic introductions. Unlike a duo album by Chick Corea and Dave Burton, which are both heavily compositional and highly improvisational, this definitely sounds like two guys just winging it. Neither listens closely to the other, or so it seems. Plus, the mid-to-high range tones of both the instruments gets to be grating after about 5 minutes. And when they veer completely into the avant garde realm, things just get ugly. No recommendation here. Boxholder Records, 2007; Playing Time: 48 very long minutes. 1/2 star, for having the guts to put this on disc).

The Only Way Out Is Up, Elisabeth Lohninger, vocals. The Austrian-born Lohninger has a soothing alto voice that is a welcome change from the many sopranos singing jazz today. She pulls from pop, folk and jazz traditions, as well as big slices of her adopted New York City in her original compositions. Her lyrics are personal but not uncomfortably so, and her cadence is confident and sophisticated. When she covers a tune, she makes it her own, as on her rapid Latin take on “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” She also backs herself with some fine musicians, including bassist Chris Tarry, pianist Walter Fischbacher, and guest artist Mino Cinelu on percussion. If Lohninger shows this much promise in only her second effort as a leader, she looks to have a bright future, blazing a path that’s all her own. Lofish Music, 2006; Playing Time: 56:00, ****1/2.

Very Strange Night, Samson Trinh, composer/conductor. Rarely do you come across a young artist who stakes a claim as a composer first and foremost. Trinh is that rare breed. The 23-year old from Virginia follows in the line of the Gunther Schuller’s of the world, willing to hold a baton and sheet music rather than an instrument. Trinh apparently was born in the wrong decade, since his music harkens back to some of Ellington and Kenton’s more ambitious work, even in the recording style, which comes across as retro-mono with a modern twist. The opening track, “To You, Near You, With You,” is a 40s-era style vocal track with singer Terri Murphy backed by a big band orchestra. He takes it swinging, with “I Can’t Believe I’m Addicted to the O.C.”, a humorous title for a track that sounds like it could be an outtake from “Anatomy of a Murder.” This actually sounds like a soundtrack for a film noir, and effectively so. Trinh is effective in his retro sensibilities, even courting western swing and 70s hard fusion, a la Miles Davis circa 1968. While his arranging and compositional skills are spot on, it would be nice to hear something that sounds a bit more modern, so that one could gauge where he can go, rather than having to settle for his retro personality. Lounge Union Music, 2006; Playing Time: 35 Minutes, ****.

Pretty Blues, Antoinette Montague, vocals. Montague is a voice that should have come to light earlier. She possesses a warm, inviting voice that can be best described by this album title – it is pretty but has the ability to sing the blues. She puts forth her vocals with articulation and expression, so you fully understand the meaning of the lyrics. She is not just reciting, she is living the lyrics as she sings. Obviously, her peers think she has what it takes as well, since she is backed by a fabulous band – Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Washington, Bill Easley and Peter Washington. While her song choices are somewhat standard (“How Deep is the Ocean,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Blue Skies”), she does choose songs that have meaning for her, like the slinky and subtle “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)”. Montague doesn’t have the stunning range of a Nnenna Freelon or the pliable nature of a Dianne Reeves, but she does show a great sense of melody and a promise of more good to come. Consolidated Artists Productions, 2006; Playing Time: 53:00, ***1/2.

A Reason for Being Alone, Alex Levin Trio. More and more jazz artists are coming out of the woodworks these days, and while there may not be room for all of them in the long run, Alex Levin has a good chance of sticking around. The Philadelphia bred pianist/composer is a rising talent, and here, he has done a wonderfully sublime expanded trio album, with solid compositions and exemplary playing. He displays a passion for the music, beautiful compositions that range from light, romantic and meditative waltzes to hard-bopping barn burners, all played with sophistication, creativity and flair. He adds two saxes for several tunes, broadening his palette, and then infuses cello for a chamber-like insouciance. If all new artists were as good as Levin, we would be overrun with talent. As it is, Alex Levin, if he continues his passion for the music, has a bright future. Apology Records, 2006; Playing Time: 55:01, ****1/2.

The Messenger, Nick Moran Trio. Guitarist Moran makes his solo debut with this soulful CD. On it he displays a knowledge of those who came before him. We hear elements of Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, and soul jazzers like Jimmy Smith and Horace Silver. Moran has a fluid nature on his hollow bodied Gibson, and he clearly reveres the masters of the electric. That said, his compositions range from slick bop to funk and rock, ballads to textural modern tunes. It’s not groundbreaking, but Moran’s artistry comes through, as do the talents of his trio mates, organist Ed Wirthington and drummer Andy Watson. The three explore tones and textures while staying within the realms of standard jazz structures. It’s a nice debut and hopefully Moran will take even more chances with his next release.Consolidated Artists Productions, 2006; Playing Time: 59:11, ***1/2.

Emily’s Song, Alex Clements, piano. Every musician has his or her inspiration. For some it is art, for others it’s a city or place, or even literature. For Alex Clements it’s his children and his life. The pianist has produced a lovely collection of solo pieces, two of which were inspired by his offspring, including the loping title track. The other, Ethan’s Song, for his son, is a pretty, light waltz. The other tracks are, according to Clements’s liner notes, “inspired by people and events…in my life.” This kind of personal nature is what draws a listener to his poignant compositions. But while the album has melodic beauty, it doesn’t exactly light a musical fire, like those by Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Lyle Mays. Instead, the listener should just enjoy the melodies and not be concerned with the lack of chordal complications. Alex Clements Self-produced, 2005; Playing Time: 53:30, ***.

Capistrano Sessions, Craig Buhler, saxophone. Yet another unfamiliar name crosses my path, and with this one, I am again un-wowed. The ensemble work by Buhler and his five piece band is nice, melodic and fairly tight, especially on the lightly pleasing original tunes. But Buhler’s tone is a major distraction. He plays underwhelmingly as a soloist, even if he does adequately play alto, tenor and clarinet. His tunes are simplistic, so the band is able to be cohesive. It’s a well meaning disc and for the most part inoffensive, but the quality is just not that strong. Buhler is best on tenor, where his sound is more open and smooth, rather than the pinched nature of his clarinet and alto work. Buhler’s compositions aren’t bad, just a tad simple. A little more melodic diversity might do the trick. Discernment Music, 2006; PT: 43:05, **.

Copyright 2007, Jazz Society of Oregon