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CD Reviews - June 2007
by Kyle O'Brien

Keepin’ it Open, Roni Ben-Hur, guitar. Ben-Hur is one of those artists who creeps up on you. One that you may never have heard of, but one that comforts your thoughts that jazz traditions are alive and well, being played by fine artists. The Israeli-born guitarist is a veteran musician, but still a rising star on the national stage. His hollow-bodied sound is both smooth and forceful and he commands the music while letting his players flow around him. Here those players are prominent – Lewis Nash on drums, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Ronnie Mathews on piano, Santi Debriano on bass and Steve Kroon on percussion. It’s a group that gels from the beginning, an easy-going swing version of “Can’t We Be Friends,” with Ben-Hur reminding us that the foundations laid by Montgomery and Burrell are very much vital. Ben-Hur mines his heritage with a beautiful melancholy melody, “Eshkolit,” a traditional Sephardic tune. He also pays bop tribute to his mentor, Barry Harris, with a smartly retro double melody on “My Man, Harris,” with Pelt before launching into a searing staccato bop solo. Ben-Hur plays equally well on Dori Caymmi’s soothing “Like a Lover,” reminding us of Charlie Byrd, updated for this century. And he even adds a Moorish flair with “Andaluza,” approaching each tune with a sense of confidence, ease and aplomb. He is truly an artist to be recognized. Motema Music, 2007; Playing Time: 52:00, ****1/2.

Jazzed!, Sandy Dennison, vocals. Portlanders will know Dennison’s straight ahead delivery and her bright vibrato. What they may not know is her story. Dennison worked the East Coast scene for nearly a decade but left the biz to raise her family. She later had spinal surgery behind her voice box and there was talk that she might not sing again. Luckily for her and for us, she got that sweet voice back and has now released her second solo album. It’s obvious she is a respected artist. Darrell Grant produced her first solo disc, and this one features a nice assortment of talent, including saxophonist David Evans, trumpeter Derek Sims, bassist Andre St. James, drummer Mark DeFlorio, and Emmy-winning composer/pianist Vincent Frates on piano. The disc showcases Dennison’s ability to convey her lyrics clearly and honestly. Her cover of Cleo Laine’s bluesy “Primrose Color Blue,” is fun and slick, while her loping version of “On the Street Where You Live,” is downright pretty in its light swing. Dennison’s voice does have its flaws, some laid bare here, as on the fast bop of the opening track, “A Wonderful Day Like Today.” Her phrasing is flawless, but she doesn’t hold her long tones as long as they should be held, dropping off and altering tonality. With a voice as sweet and honest as hers, she should stick with tunes that highlight those qualities, like the slow bossa of “Moonlight.” Sandy Dennison Records, 2007; Playing Time: 57:00, *** 1/2.

Ultimate, Jaco Pastorius, bass. As with any “best of” compilation by a renowned artist, there will always be questions of why a particular tune was included or why one was left off. On this compilation of the great electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, there will be those who laud and who criticize. The most notable omission here is his great harmonic exercise, “Portrait of Tracy,” widely considered a feat of strength by any bass player. Other than that, this is a nice selection of tunes spanning his short but fruitful career. There’s his nimble version of “Donna Lee,” his ultra-funky “Teen Town,” with Weather Report, and plenty from his “Word of Mouth” album., plus a couple off his famous recording, “The Birthday Concert.” Mosaic Records, 2007; Playing Time: 52:00, ****.

Analog Man, Ernie Watts, saxophone. Whether playing with the Rolling Stones or as a solo artist, Watts is still widely considered one of the best tenor men working today. His sound is bright and vibrant and his penchant for jaw-dropping runs is still well intact. He is a master technician, as he shows here, playing with a German trio or Rudi Engel on bass, Christof Saenger on piano and Heinrich Koebberling on drums. The tracks, mostly by Watts, are accessible yet challenging. He pushes boundaries while staying within them, as on the title track, which has yet another impressive solo. Saenger’s tune, “Paseando,” is a meandering journey ripe with color and flavor, as Watts shows off his tempered soprano sound. It’s a direction Coltrane might have gone had he lived. The title refers to Watts’ dislike of modern technology and certainly this disc shows the power of the acoustic. On the hard bopping “Joshua” by Victor Feldman, Watts burns through a solo in highly impressive fashion, keeping alive that feeling of true modern jazz excitement that he and the late Michael Brecker were responsible for creating. Watts shows he’s not all flash though. His pretty “A Lilac Grows” is a great vehicle for that smooth soprano, while “Morning Prayer,” with Patricia Watts on Burmese temple bell, is a pensive, meditative end to a powerful disc, and one that truly shows Watts diversity within the analog realm. Flying Dolphin Records, 2006; Playing Time: 70:00, **** 1/2.

Moving Target, Dick De Graaf Quartet. Dutch saxophonist de Graaf is certainly a diverse player. He has released two discs side by side with dramatically different results. This one is more in the traditional straight ahead vein, even if the tunes contained wander over the globe. It begins swinging, with “Cascade,” then quickly moves into a world realm with the Eastern European polyrhythms of the Bela Bartok influenced “A Touch of Bela.” It also courts ballads (a darkly lovely “Stolen Dream”), retro-80s Weather Report (“Climate Change”), and obtuse funk (“Handiclap”). Bartok again rears his odd head with the calculated “Somsok Orkim Saleb II.” While this is a technically adept album, it lacks a real soul, even though the playing contained within is deftly executed. Soundroots Records, 2007; Playing Time: 56:00, *** 1/2.

Trio Nuevo: Jazz Meets Tango, Dick De Graaf. De Graaf’s alter-ego is a contrast to his straight ahead persona. This combination of tenor sax, violin and accordion is certainly a different musical perspective. The mix of the three actually sounds more than the sum of its parts. It is reedy at its core, but in its minimalist approach it becomes a welcome fullness. Astor Piazzola is well represented here, with compositions both opening and closing the disc. It’s like traveling to a café on the left bank in Paris, sipping café au lait while taking in the artistic sights and people. It’s like being in a small club in Buenos Aires, or riding a train up a steep South American slope. In other words, it evokes place in a strong sense. When guest vocalist Sandra Coelers adds her emotive touch, we are taken to a tiny stage, with a sole spotlight against a backdrop of a claret curtain, as the drama of the single performer unfolds. Unlike de Graaf’s more conventional album, this is full of emotion and soul, while retaining its pure musical integrity. Soundroots Records, 2006; Playing Time: 57:49, ****.

Ultimate, Alex Bugnon, keyboards. The big question is, did we really need a “best of” of a guy who wasn’t that good in the first place? This smooth jazz wonder did more for elevators than he did for the forwarding of jazz. In fact, he and his fellow smooth cronies did more to bring jazz down than they did to improve its standing in the world. The canned drums on the first half dozen tunes just screams “we don’t care about real musicians.” And the whispery vocal backing is positively annoying. The multiple synth patches are both dated and cheesy, and even the funkier tunes sound bland as rice cakes. Bugnon is not a bad pianist when he finally finds the acoustic, but his compositions are about as exciting as watching clothes dry. If you have a dental office, this disc might suit you well. Otherwise, best to leave this one on the shelf. Mosaic Records, 2007; Playing Time: 62:00, *1/2.

Ultimate, Earl Klugh, acoustic guitar. We can either thank Klugh for taking jazz in a different direction in the 70s, or we can stone him for ushering in nearly two decades of elevator jazz. He successfully fused R&B, pop, soul, folk and jazz into a very easy to listen to music. Some might argue too easy. One thing about Klugh, though, is that he always used great musicians, like Steve Gadd, Ralph McDonald, George Benson, and the Royal Philharmonic, to further his music. Sure, he was a smooth jazz artist, but at least he wasn’t a follower. He had some substance, however airy it may have been. This best of disc is pleasant enough, if light as a feather. If you’re going to go smooth, better Klugh than Bugnon. Mosaic Records, 2007; Playing Time: 58:59, ** 1/2.

Up & Running, John Fedchock New York Big Band. Trombonist Fedchock has been one of the leaders on his horn for a while now, and his artistry keeps growing and expanding. Fronting this tight big band, which has been around since 1989, he is at his strongest. Here he serves as director, arranger and trombone soloist. The arrangements are tight, if a tad predictable at times. Everything is orchestrated with the sections in mind – it’s not just a vehicle for Fedchock. Maybe it’s the mentality bone players have that they are almost always part of an ensemble, but Fedchock knows the strengths of this band and plays to them, and with them, every step of the way. On here are many Fedchock originals, plus deft arrangements of classic tunes, like a harmonically rich “Embraceable You.” A standout is a spicy Latin version of Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” which keeps the chordally complex nature of the original while expanding it to include full horn punches throughout. His band is full of known names, like bari player Gary Smulyan and tenor man Rick Margitza, and supporting talent. It’s a fun and active disc that keeps all of the traditions of Kenton alive and well, with some great solo work by the title artist. Reservoir Music, 2007; PT: 68:10, ****.

Truth and Reconciliation, Darrell Grant, piano. Portland is lucky to have Darrell Grant. The PSU educator and solo artist is exemplary at both his titles, and while he is a respected member of the community for all the things he does for young artists, he is even better when he’s behind his piano, as he is here, leading a stunningly talented group through two discs of musical joy. Grant has gathered a who’s who of jazz, including John Patitucci, Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, Steve Wilson, Joe Locke and Adam Rogers. With that kind of talent, nearly anybody could make a great record, but Grant, with his wonderful abilities as a player, arranger, and composer, makes a truly fine recording. The double disc set follows a theme, one Grant describes as his “wonder at…the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa” and also his “personal wish that this music express my deepest truth, and begin to reconcile the diverse facets, styles, genres and influences that through most of my professional life have run separate courses.” His eloquence on the page translates to the music. Grant’s playing is both sophisticated and soulful, passionate and calculated. His tune, “Ubuntu,” even with no lyrics, seems to unite in its building structure and Wilson’s plaintive soprano sax. Each player gets a chance to shine here, as Patitucci does on acoustic bass on “Introduction,” which leads into “Fils du Soleil (for Tony Williams),” which ends up being less about drumming than the gentle touch Williams used to put on his own pieces. Grant’s pleasing voice gets a chance to shine on “Resolution of Love,” his uncomplicated song of, well, peaceful love. It’s not an overtly strong track but does fit well with the theme. His cover of Sting’s “King of Pain,” is much more effective, taking the opening piano riff and putting a jazz element to it while Blade and Patitucci lend light accompaniment. Disc two starts where the first ended, continuing the theme. Some tunes begin with sound bytes from peace advocates, like Mandela, Gandhi, and Franklin Roosevelt, which set the tone for the tunes to follow, while Sheryl Crow’s “I Believe” effectively intersperses melodic music with clips of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Grant’s two other vocal tracks stick to a simpler formula, with “When I See the Water” taking a bluesy feel to his song of hope, while “The Geography of Hope (I Am Music)” takes a poetic spoken word approach to its message of peace. On these, Grant uses frank messaging rather than metaphor to make a point, which might be too easy of an approach. His instrumental tracks almost make the point better, the passion of the players coming through with an emotive plea to listen. Taking on a double disc is an ambitious feat for any composer and performer, especially with a heady theme, but Grant has done an admirable job in both music and vision. Darrell Grant Recording, 2007; Playing Time: 92:00, **** 1/2.

Downright Upright, Brian Bromberg, bass. When I saw some of the names on this disc, I was scared it might be Bromberg’s attempt at smooth jazz. But when I heard Kirk Whalum blow a rippin’ tenor solo on “Cantaloupe Island,” my mind was quickly changed. Bromberg has been a prolific recording artist over the last few years, and this disc is his time to have some fun. He invited a group of friends in for a relatively loose session where they could stretch out and blow. With friends like George Duke, Jeff Lorber, Boney James, Rick Braun, Gary Meek and Whalum, one might have thought, as I did, that this would be fluffier than a marshmallow, but Bromberg chose some fun soul jazz classics, like “Chameleon” and “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” along with his own funky originals so his guest artists could have some fun. It may not be the deepest disc Bromberg has ever done, but it sure is fun to hear, and it heightens my respect for artists who I had always considered elevator jazz guys. Artistry Music, 2007; Playing Time: 1:10:01, *** 1/2.

Poetica, Anat Cohen, clarinet. Here’s an Israeli clarinetist who starts her disc off with a Japanese melody (“Agada Yapanit – A Japanese Tale”). But when you think about it, the two cultures share a musical sense of modality in common. Nonetheless, it’s this sense of cultural blending that marks this album different. It’s more folk chamber music than jazz, and Cohen has a melodious tone and a great sense of melody, which propels the music forward. Considering she has the French classical bent of Jacques Brel right before a symphonic take of Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament,” shows that Cohen isn’t afraid to take chances. While the tunes jump around the globe, Cohen’s clarinet holds it together without stretching too much. It’s certainly a different kind of music, but one worth a listen for an adventurer. Anzic Records, 2007; PT: 1:05:12, *** 1/2.

Lunch with Millie, Ed Barrett Jazz Trio. Barrett is a New Orleans guitarist who went through Berklee and Katrina. Both the college and the hurricane shaped his musical existence, but his retro-meets-modern sound is steeped in jazz traditions. Barrett’s style is often choppy and relentless, especially on the swirling “Ides of March,” one of the many original compositions. He’s better when he pulls it back a little and lets things build, like on his bluesy funky “Sirius.” His tunes are often busier than they need to be, changing chords at a rapid-fire pace, as on the title track, where a sense of melody is an afterthought. It’s clear that Barrett knows his chords, but time for them to develop would give him time to really dig into his solos rather than play over the top of them. While some tunes lock in, like the medium swing of “Coquettes de Lucy Lou,” others make it seem like Barrett and the rhythm section aren’t quite on the same page, like the opener, “54x11” which finds the trio searching for the focus. Part of it might be the quality of the recording, which is a little too barren for its own good. Barrett needs to tone it down before he dials it up again. Ed Barrett, 2007; Playing Time: 45:49, **.

Homework, Richie Barshay, drums/percussion. Albums by drummers tend to be heavy on the percussion, but in this case that’s not such a bad thing. Barshay is a young, vibrant player that has been a part of Herbie Hancock’s quartet since 2003, when he was just 20. He has a tremendous sense of world beats, polyrhythms, and Hancock’s exacting standards. The great pianist even makes a cameo on three tracks. Barshay’s enthusiasm combined with his tremendous sense of rhythm make this a disc that pushes forward. He utilizes African, Indian and western melodies and ably plays everything from drum set to tabla, congas and bells. While the disc is more a showcase of his talents rather than a truly cohesive disc, it is still well worth a listen, especially for those who enjoy a dance on the wilder side. AYVA Music, 2007; Playing Time: 54:54, ****.

Copyright 2007, Jazz Society of Oregon