CD Reviews - August 2007
by Kyle O'Brien
Editor's Note: Kyle O'Brien, a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Jazzscene magazine and other publications, takes his turn this month in igniting the laser beam for Platter Chatter. O'Brien now lives in Denver, but can be reached at 503-816-9291, (his cell phone), or by contacting him via email at email@example.com.
By Kyle O'Brien
Marsalis Music Honors Series: Alvin Batiste, clarinet . This album comes out just after the esteemed Mr. Batiste passed on, leaving a legacy of modern jazz in New Orleans, a town known more for its roots than its vision forward. Batiste was an icon in the Big Easy. His vision of modern jazz seemed at odds with the traditions of New Orleans but he kept taking his lilting clarinet new places, as well as backing greats like Ray Charles and Cannonball Adderley. But it was as an innovator and jazz educator that made Batiste a respected name in the business. He may not have been widely known but those in New Orleans knew of this true gem. Here, in his last recording, Branford Marsalis and crew have produced a lasting disc featuring Batiste's warm sound. This was done shortly before his death, and while it is a quality collection of songs in Batiste's vein, with several written by Batiste, his own clarinet sounds a bit tired. He doesn't hit the bop runs as quickly as he used to and his tonality occasionally wavers. Still, backed by Marsalis, Herlin Riley, Russell Malone, Lawrence Fields and Ricardo Rodriguez, Batiste's last outing is a touching one. Especially nice are the ballads, like the always gorgeous “Skylark,” where his rich tone and fluid phrasing are well intact. It's a fine finish for an respected career. Marsalis Music, 2007; Playing Time: 64:00 , ****
Marsalis Music Honors Series: Bob French, drums. While Batiste strayed from New Orleans traditions, drummer French embraced them, playing the classic tunes of the Crescent City with verve and passion. This is New Orleans trad jazz at its best, the kind you hear flowing out of the clubs on Bourbon Street nightly. And Bourbon Street is the subject of the opener, with the classic “Bourbon Street Parade,” played by French in classic New Orleans street beat. Branford Marsalis returns on soprano for a simple and fun solo. Journeyman French is in great company all around, with fellow New Orleans players like Harry Connick Jr., trombonist Troy Andrews, vocalists Ellen Smith and French as well, plus trumpeter Leon Brown. It feels like a stroll in the French Quarter, especially the march/dirge of “Burgundy Street Blues,” where Marsalis does his best Sidney Bechet. The Marsalis Music label is doing a noble thing by developing this series highlighting the musicians that have made New Orleans tick over the years, and the addition of French is certainly a vital piece of the puzzle Marsalis Music, 2007; Playing Time: 76:00, ****
True, Steve Cole, saxophone. Since 1998, Cole has been a powerhouse in contemporary jazz. There's certainly a place for him in this crowded field, since most don't play with the intensity of Cole. His solos elevate the somewhat bland, over-produced backing tracks. He does have more soul and integrity than many others in this genre, and he does utilize real drums and percussion rather than canned synth sounds. That stated, it's smooth jazz, plain and simple; a genre that hasn't really evolved from the late 80s and early 90s. It's closer to R&B than straight ahead jazz, and as such isn't too shabby, especially the slow groover “Curtis,” with it's Curtis Mayfield-inspired soul. I would still prefer it stripped down and not heavily layered in the studio. It would give Cole and backing musicians like Lenny Castro and Ricky Peterson a chance to come out from behind the wall of sound. Narada Jazz, 2007; Playing Time: 40:00, **1/2.
Live at Athenaeum Jazz, Volume 2, Mike Wofford & Holly Hofmann . There's a jazz comfort level when this husband and wife piano-flute duo records together. The two work together seamlessly on this album of duets, weaving intricate-yet-melodic conversations, ranging from the density of Monk's “Introspection,” to the bluesy “No Mercy.” The album comes off as a fun bit of chamber jazz, heightened by the duo's impeccable tone and talent. Hofman's tone is supple and full, and she works the lower register of the flute (and alto flute) with ease and richness. Working with a theme from Samuel Barber, the free-flowing, dissonant nature of “Free Day (for Samuel Barber)” comes across both bold and delicate. Wofford's touch is light when backing Hofman, but he peppers it with chord punches when it matters and allows himself some fine soloing time. The only problem with having an entire album of just flute and piano is the sameness of tone. Even on passages that are meant to have depth, the feel is still light and airy. The intricacies of this duo are impressive but sometimes it just doesn't feel as though it has enough grit to give the tonal diversity needed for a well rounded album. Look for these two music makers Sept. 6-9 at the 4th annual Jazz at Newport Festival. Capri Records, 2007; Playing Time: 54:00, *** 1/2.
Flurry, Nordic Connect. The name of the band seems obvious when you know its members. Led by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, this group is all Scandinavian in descent. Jensen is joined by her talented saxophone playing sister, Christine, Swedish pianist Maggi Olin, drummer Jon Wikan and bassist Mattias Welin. As one might expect from Jensen, this is not simple, blues-based jazz. It is more of a musical journey; a flurry of sound that ebbs and flows with Nordic precision. The Jensen sisters and Olin share composing duties and all do admirable jobs keeping this disc interesting and ever-changing. The compositions build in intensity throughout, letting the soloists evolve their sounds. Christine Jensen's alto is forward and occasionally bracing, recalling an early Ornette, but she fits in well when sharing front-line melodic duties with her sis, as on Olin's “Sweet Dream.” It's an ambitious album, sometimes too much so for its own good. It meanders too much at times, even within the tight compositional structures. Still, the musicianship of the five Nordic musicians makes for a texturally rich and interesting album. Ingrid Jensen, 2006; Playing Time: 66:00, ****.
Women's Work – Live at Sweet Rhythm NYC, Judi Silvano. An all-female jazz quartet is a rarity, but Silvano is connected to plenty of talented women in jazz and she gathers them for this disc of songs by women composers, including Silvano. I will state this up front: I am not a fan of Silvano. I respect her innate musicianship and her love of the music, but her phrasing and too-frank vocal delivery just grate on me. It's a personal preference thing, but since this is my writeup, I'm entitled to my opinion. That stated, for fans of hers, this is both a good study into the influence of female jazz composers and the role of women in the history of jazz. Silvano has fun with “Pretty Eyed Baby” by Mary Lou Williams, a bluesy swing jaunt, and she adds a tenderness to Blossom Dearie's “Inside a Silent Tear.” She also sings tunes by Sheila Jordan and Bessie Smith, as well as Carla Bley's fun “Can't Get My Motor to Start.” It's a fine study into women in jazz, backed by an all-female band of Janice Friedman on piano, Jennifer Vincent on bass and Allison Miller on drums. But because I can't get over my dislike of Silvano's voice, I just can't recommend this disc. JSL Records, 2007; Playing time: 57:22, **1/2.
Live at the Kennedy Center Volume Two, Mulgrew Miller, piano. The first version was so nice they decided to do it twice…Miller's trio set the Kennedy Center Jazz Club on fire when they became the first group to appear at the club back in 2002. The session was recorded and made into two MaxJazz discs. The trio plays with vibrancy throughout. The electricity of opening night is still intact five years later. Miller is on fire from the opening note of the hard-swinging “Song for Darnell,” and his band, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Rodney Green, light the fire for him. Hodge's solos are fleet-fingered and impressive, and Green keeps a rock solid rhythm. The trio shows a lighter touch on Miller's “Farewell to Dogma,” while retaining that necessary tension and release. Miller is a force in jazz and this album proves it. Only if all live albums could capture this energy. MaxJazz, 2007; Playing Time: 63:57, ****1/2.
Next to You, Teraesa Vinson, vocals. Vinson's voice is so silky smooth it could lull you within three notes. Add in lyrical guitarist Tom Dempsey and you have a perfect fit. Even though this is just Vinson's second recording she shows a subtlety and maturity, restraining her voice until absolutely necessary to belt out, as she does sparingly on “Opportunity Knocks.” Dempsey's mellow tones and gentle touch make him an excellent partner for Vinson. His original tune, “Next to You,” may be one of the prettiest tunes to come along in quite a while. He and Vinson flow through the tunes, ranging from the bossa of “Triste” to the tender ballad “You Taught My Heart to sing,” and the blues of “My How the Time Goes By.” It's a lovely album throughout, though with Vinson putting her voice out there without any studio embellishments, she occasionally shows some inconsistencies in tone, as slight as they are. Amplified Records, 2007; PT: 45:00, ****.
Above & Beyond: An Evening in Grand Rapids, Billy Bang Quintet Featuring Frank Lowe. Violinist Bang and saxophonist Lowe collaborated for years before this recording, but this disc took on special meaning when Lowe passed away shortly after its completion in 2003 from lung cancer. Where Lowe used to be the firebrand and Bang the more soaring and melodic now found Bang taking over the intensity role while Lowe's breath failed him mid-phrase. The tension-filled “Silent Observation” finds Lowe's once-full tone a shadow of its former self. Sure, the drive and desire are there, but one can tell that Lowe is on his way down. It's at once sad but also a grasp at one last farewell performance with his old friend. There are only four tracks here and they give both soloists room to roam. Lowe squeaks out his best solo on the simple “Nothing But Love,” while the two simmer an obtuse melody on the exotic “Dark Silhouette.” As the final track, “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” finishes its modern tango, Lowe's sax bows out quietly as Bang's violin continues solo, mirroring life itself. Justin Time Records, 2007; Play Time: 64:00, ***1/2.
Birthday Bash: Live at Yoshi's, Kenny Burrell, guitar. Few birthday bashes truly live up to the hype, but Burrell's 75 th must have been a barnburner at Yoshi's, the venerable east Bay club. The guitarist got to play with not just one all-star band, but two. Half of this disc has Burrell playing with a small group that included Hubert Laws, Jeff Clayton, Joey DeFrancesco and others, while the other half features Burrell in a big band setting playing with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. His guitar work sounds as fresh as ever, soaring over the mash of instruments of the orchestra on the retro “Viva Tirado.” He coaxes the blues smoothly from his axe on “Stormy Monday/Blues for the Count,” then takes a tender turn on “Sophisticated Lady.” When the small group comes in, the energy level remains high even if the volume drops a bit. Laws and Burrell create deep textures with flute and guitar on the J.J. Johnson ballad, “Lament.” “A Night in Tunisia” is a bit sloppy, with the horns running amok, but DeFrancesco's rumbling organ keeps it propelling forward. If I live to 75, I hope somebody throws me this good a party. Loose, full of music and fun. Blue Note, 2007; Playing Time: 65:00, ****.
Love Letters From Ella, Ella Fitzgerald. If Starbucks Entertainment – the new music division of the coffee giant – is going to put out albums like this, well then, bring on the java. Starbucks has teamed up with Concord Records to bring these 10 unreleased tracks out of the vault and into our ears. Produced in high-definition audio, this disc features the stunning voice of one of America's best ladies of song in settings ranging from the big band of the Count Basie Orchestra to small groups, a tender duo with Joe Pass, and several tracks with the London Symphony Orchestra. The recording quality is crystal clear and to hear Ella sing again is absolutely a treat. I never thought I'd say this, but thank you Starbucks. Concord Music Group, 2007; PT: 40:00, *****.
This Way, Acoustic Alchemy. It's been 20 years since Acoustic Alchemy burst onto the scene with a smooth jazz whimper and this disc proves that their staying power is completely unwarranted. There's nothing wrong with the music except for the fact that it's just not that interesting. Acoustic guitar is still the main conveyor of average melodies, even if this disc adds some zest with quality horn players like saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa and trumpeter Rick Braun. Fans will like it, as it doesn't stray far from the roots of the group. Those who are averse to smooth jazz best not put this in their disc player. It's fairly lightweight and doesn't say too much, but it's not unpleasant to listen to. Just a bit dull. If you need to kill an hour, you could do worse… Narada Productions, 2007; Playing Time: 55:00 **.
The Acatama Experience, Jean-Luc Ponty, violin. Ponty is well-respected in both the rock and jazz worlds. While not all of his solo work has been as cutting edge as his work with Frank Zappa and Mahavishnu Orchestra, he has become the leading contemporary jazz violinist. On this disc, his first in several years, he plays it fairly safe to the jazz-rock vein. Slightly funky and mostly melodic. His violin soloing, as on his “Premonition” is sharp, though the synth horn kicks are a bit disconcerting. He calls in a few favors from friends, as guitarist Philip Catherine plays fine lines on “Parisian Thoroughfare,” and Allan Holdsworth rips up the fretboard on “Point of No Return.” Ponty hasn't grown much as an artist since his heyday in the 70s, but he still remains a vital part of the contemporary jazz world, peppering his songs with global musical influences like Celtic fiddling, French urban, and Indian modalities. JLP Productions, 2007; Playing Time: 59:00, ***
Bobo Bazinsky in the Bronx, 35 Days in May. This disc is from the fairly twisted mind of keyboardist/composer/producer Jeff Kaye. Call this electronic avant-garde. There are influences of the Headhunters, Weather Report, Chick Corea, electric Miles Davis and even hints of Chet Baker, though this is a very unique album. The keyboards are retro and very techno. Guest horn players bring some human nature to the bizarreness. As odd as it is, with its urban circus theme, it's a fairly endearing disc in its strangeness alone, and not as far out as some Anthony Braxton outings. New Indie Artists, 2007; Playing Time: 39:00, HHH 1/2.
Well Water, Frank Foster, saxophones. This recording had been lost for nearly three decades before being recently discovered and restored. It features the Loud Minority Big Band, a powerhouse group, anchored by the late Elvin Jones (Foster's cousin) on drums. It starts with a Kenton-like version of “Joy Spring” with an amazingly nimble piano run by Mickey Tucker. Foster's sound is brash and reedy, but his playing strong. Jones proves a solid focal point for the rhythm, adding both tempo and texture, especially on the bossa flavored Foster tune, “Cecilia is Love.” The horn arrangements could be stronger and tighter, but the loose aspect also brings up the energy level. The recording quality is distant and echo-filled, making it seem older than it really is. Still, it's an interesting glimpse into the past featuring a big band most have never heard. Piadrum Records, 2007; PT: 58:00, ***1/2.