CD Reviews - October 2007
by Kyle O'Brien
Feign, Hardcell ( Berne , Taborn, Rainey). Saxophonist Tim Berne, drummer Tom Rainey and pianist Craig Taborn have joined forces for an avant-garde outing, one thick with contrapuntal melodies, intense displays of improvisation, atonal musings and precise compositional elements. Berne, who will appear with his trio in Portland next February (Feb. 16) at the Winningstad Theater as part of the Portland Jazz Festival lineup, is the driving force here and his music is sparse and full at the same time. The obtuse grooves buoy the sometimes cacophonous trio, anchored by Rainey's textured and steady drumming, even on open-ended tunes like the ever-building “Brokelyn.” Berne 's harsh alto tone fit perfectly with the tempered tone of Taborn's piano. If ever there was accessible avant-garde, this is it. It's heavily calculated traffic that one can't help but observe with slight awe, with pinpoint cars of music bouncing around streets of chordal insanity…but it works. Screwgun Records, 2005; Playing Time: 51:00, *** 1/2.
Tord Gustavsen Trio, Being There. This album creeps in with all the boldness of a church mouse. That is to say, it's so quiet that pin drops seem blaring in comparison. The opener, “At Home,” builds slowly and with melancholy. It is beauty in development, unfolding like a precious rose bud, crimson and thornless, finally opening and slowly wilting. To start an album with such subtle sadness makes a case that pianist Gustavsen, drummer Jarle Vespestad and bassist Harald Johnsen are searching for something deeper than a groove. The album feels deliberate, paced and colored in deep shades. “ Vicar Street ” drones and dances lightly over waves of cymbal textures, while “Draw Near,” utilizes space to the Nth degree. With “Blessed Feet,” we hear an underlying funky groove with a plaintive melody, the first sign of soulfulness. Beats are drawn out and fluid in nature, especially on the longing “Karmosin.” The feeling of this album is that of wandering through a dark forest and being greeted by a tranquil, dark lake at the end – searching for sadness through hope. There's a payoff but one must be patient. (Gustavsen will appear at the Portland Jazz Festival in February (Feb. 16) at the Scottish Rite Auditorium. ECM Records, 2007; Playing Time: 59:00, **** .
Stoa, Nik Bartsch's Ronin. This group, led by pianist/composer Bartsch, starts off in a meditative trance with an almost Asian sensibility. A slow groove builds into an intense urban sophisticated funk, with Bartsch dampening the mallets of the piano. The quintet works as one, feeding the groove machine and creating palpable tension and drama. Bartsch calls his music Zen-funk, and the title is apt. The repetitive themes, played flawlessly by the group, lull one into a dreamlike state, but not of sleep. There is an alertness to the music, an immediacy that calms and lifts simultaneously. The circular motions are pleasing, and somehow manage not to become dull, even when the rhythms are repetitious. This is not jazz in the normal sense. It is exacting without being harsh, intriguing without being dense, and ultimately a blend of fantasy and musicality. (Look for the Ronin group at the Portland Jazz Festival, Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Scottish Rite Auditorium.) ECM Records, 2007; Playing Time: 57:00, **** 1/2.
For, The Claudia Quintet. Avant klezmer? That's the impression one gets when listening to the opening track on this disc, from a group that defies genre categorization. Clarinet, accordion and rhythm combine in a nearly circus-like mish-mash of music. The gears shift suddenly to Euro-Afro on the second track. This is chamber jazz at its most unique. The feel is almost Frank Zappa-esque at times (his classical period), a dizzying array of percussive motion and eclecticism. Irregular bouncy rhythms are in place on “Be Happy,” while drawn-out tones are all the rage on “This Too Shall Pass.” The Claudia Quintet is the defining aural child of percussionist/drummer John Hollenbeck, and his compositions definitely stray from the norm of jazz. There are wild drum solos, frenetic hard bop, thick textures, random squawks, East Asian percussive smashes, and infectious grooves, all within minutes of each other. It's not for everyone, but for those forward thinkers, Claudia is an impressive genre pusher. Cuneiform Records, 2007; Playing Time: 61:00, **** .
Float Like a Butterfly, Mike Longo Trio. Pianist Longo has long been a respected talent. Since he was first discovered by Oscar Peterson (with whom he subsequently studied), he has been a top talent, and his two plus decades with Dizzy Gillespie cemented his prowess. On this disc, he pays tribute to his two mentors, not by playing their music but by expanding on what he learned from them. From Peterson it was the “five Ts: touch, time, tone, technique and taste.” Certainly one hears both touch and taste right up front. Longo is not a heavy or flashy player. He lets his fingers do the talking, giving notes their due time, whether it be a pinpoint jab or a long, supple tone. His technique then takes over as he improvises over the generous space and rhythm of his trio, bassist Paul West and drummer Jimmy Wormworth. Time is ingrained in Longo's style, his immaculate timing neither pushing forward nor laying too far back. His music is clean and crisp, pushing forward but not bounding. It is sophisticated, as on his lighter but still intense take of Wayne Shorter's “Witch Hunt.” From Gillespie, Longo learned textures and rhythms. While most tunes on this disc swing, there is an underlying understanding of counter and polyrhythms that Gillespie would surely have heard, and “Here Tiz (Impromptu)” is a bop ode to the trumpet master. Longo is certainly a wise player, and while the album doesn't take chances, it is a very gratifying celebration of the techniques taught by the greats. Consolidated Artists, 2007; PT: 58:56, **** .
Get Happy, Ezra Weiss, piano. Former Portlander Weiss has made a name for himself in New York , one that grows in stature with each successive disc. His compositions and arrangements are mature and rich, as his tender “Once Upon a Time,” displays, with vocalist Heidi Krenn floating above the lush chords Weiss lays down. And Weiss surrounds himself with exceptional talent all around, including Antonio Hart's incredible alto sax work, like his heartbreaking sound on the original ballad “What I Can Never Say.” He also uses three vocalists to nice effect. Samantha Grabler utilizes a pop sensibility on the harmonic version of the Rodgers & Hart tune “Blue Room.” The title track is flipped upside down, with the normal melody backed by polytonal, dissonant chords. It's a rag turned topsy-turvy, sort of a giddy mash. If this is what Weiss does with the standards, by all means, let's Get Happy with him. Weiss shows sophistication with the right amount of enthusiasm and as he matures even more, we should see fine things from him. Roark Records, 2007; Playing Time: 56:00, **** .
Cyrus Plays Elvis, Cyrus Chestnut, piano. You don't find many jazz players wanting to pay tribute to the King of Rock ‘n Roll, but Chestnut does just that here, revving up this disc with a Vince Guaraldi-like groove of “Hound Dog.” He makes the tune a funky groover, which is peppered with chord alterations and modulations, elevating the fairly simple tune to a new plane. Considering the dearth of Elvis impersonators out there, this disc could have come across as a cheesy way to connect with the phenomenon that is Elvis. Instead, he breathes life into tunes we've heard millions of times before. “Don't Be Cruel” becomes a steady swingin' number, while “Love Me Tender” becomes a light waltz. “It's Now or Never” bops along at a quick pace while other tunes don't quite hit the mark, as on the smooth jazz-fusion version of “Can't Help Falling in Love,” which is nearly as sappy as the original, and “Suspicious Minds,” which doesn't bring anything new to the table except for a light funk-samba. But one has to admire Chestnut for venturing into such familiar territory with a jazz belt on and bringing a mostly fresh look to these classic tunes. Koch Records, 2007; Playing Time: 55:00, *** .
Cornell 1964, Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy. Lest we forget who influenced many of the people we hear today in jazz, listen to this previously unreleased gem, which showcases one of the best working bands ever. While the recording is not stellar, it has been remastered enough to be a viable listen. It opens with the ever nimble and innovative Jaki Byard blending Art Tatum and Fats Waller into a modern avant-stride piece, followed by Mingus doing a solo “Sophisticated Lady,” in his signature fleet-fingered, melodic excellence. He truly made the bass sing. Then the disc gets down to swinging with Mingus's insistent rhythm and Dolphy and Clifford Jordan sharing the prying melody. An overmiked bass drum is the only distraction from the free-flowing fun. “Take the A-Train” is a hoot, with Mingus yelping in approval. The tune speeds up like a barely-controlled locomotive as Dolphy digs in with his alto solo and drummer Dannie Richmond thunders in the foreground. Disc two keeps things rolling with a bowed melody on “Meditations” while Dolphy doubles on flute. The group pulls out a jaunty “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” before ending with Fats Waller's “Jitterbug Waltz,” made lovely by a melody duet of Byard and Dolphy on flute again. This live recording is about as celebratory as Mingus got, and to hear the joy with which the band plays is infectious. Save for a less than perfect recording quality, this is a must have for Mingus fans. Blue Note, 2007; Playing Time, 134:00, **** .
Live at Jazz Standard Volume 2, Russell Malone, guitar. So nice they did it twice, this live disc starts where Volume 1 left off, which is to say on a high note. The deft guitarist Malone kicks off the set with his propelling “Mugshot,” a slightly outside groover that highlights his soloing skills, his songwriting prowess and his band, which includes Martin Bejerano on piano, Tassili Bond on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. The intensity of the live setting makes for excitement out of the gate, but the intensity is pulled back on the loping “For the Love of You,” an Isley Brothers tune that gets a tender treatment. “Theme From Gunsmoke” is a subtle jazz waltz-ish take on the popular western theme, with Malone bouncing over the familiar melody. He shows off his solo skills on the meandering “How About Me” before taking it into a touching ballad. The quartet goes free-form for a touch on the collaborative “Don't Point That Over Here,” that takes a tad too long to develop into something vital. When Malone is featuring his full-bodied tone he is at the tops, as on his “Playground,” and that's mostly the focus here. MaxJazz, 2007; PT: 59:32, **** .
American Songbook II, Phil Woods Quintet. There's something inherently comfortable in covering the classics, but there's also a danger of sounding dull and repetitive. With a group that includes alto great Woods and pianist Bill Charlap one would think that wouldn't happen. When “Suddenly It's Spring” appears at the top, we're treated to an all-too safe version of the tune. Sure it's played with precision and flair by Woods, trumpeter Brian Lynch, bassist Steve Gilmore, drummer Bill Goodwin and Charlap, but the medium tempo swing doesn't take us anywhere we haven't been before. Instead of being wowed we settle in for what will be a comfortable ride but one that may not excite us. Of course, nothing wrong with a collection of great tunes played really well by a talented bunch, but with this kind of firepower, we should possibly expect more. Still, Woods does pretty justice on an unaccompanied intro to “I Remember You,” then proceeds to lovingly caress the melody. And melody is really what this collection is all about, and on that front it delivers, especially on the modern take of “Yesterdays,” where Lynch and Woods weave the melody and harmony together in cascading lines. Kind of Blue, 2007 Playing time: 66:00 minutes, *** 1/2.
Expectation, Los Angeles Jazz Ensemble. This boringly named band is actually a collective of exceptional talent, organized by bassist Darek “Oles” Oleszkiewicz. Also on board are B-3 organist Alan Pasqua, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, guitarist Larry Koonse and drummer Peter Erskine. The cast is also joined by Manhattan Transfer vocalist Janis Siegel, who adds a refined flair to the gathering of talent. Everyone is in fine form, even if the tunes sometimes don't take off, as the tepid “Along Came Betty” proves. But when Siegel is on the mike, the songs are elevated, as on the beautiful “I Didn't Know What Time it Was.” Otherwise this is yet again a great bunch of musicians playing songs we've heard again and again. At least they mix it up a bit, as on the modulating “All Blues,” which sounds fresh and alive. The Oleszkiewicz original, “Expectation” is a pretty journey of a bossa, with Siegel singing tones rather than words in Brazilian fashion. I could have used more Sheppard rather than Pasqua, whose organ work became same after a while. The album works despite its flaws, but it's not a vital addition to your collection, save for the Siegel-sung tunes. Kind of Blue, 2007; PT: 73:26, *** 1/2.
Really Big!, Jimmy Heath Orchestra. Together the Heath Brothers were a jazz force to be reckoned with. As leaders of their own groups they also managed to create excitement and mighty fine music, as this big band disc from 1960 shows. But the bonus is that we get three Heaths – Jimmy, Percy and Albert, holding down the fort, with Percy's steadfast bass work and Albert's bright drums the anchors. Jimmy does an admirable job balancing his jobs as composer, bandleader and solo artist. His solos are backed perfectly by the incredible array of talent here, including brothers Nat and Cannonball Adderley, trumpeter Clark Terry and pianists Cedar Walton and Tommy Flanagan. This small big band creates a full sound, as on the lush ballad “Mona's Mood.” The disc has been well re-mastered and the sound is just as vital now as back then. The tunes aren't complicated, but the arrangements are spot on and the playing couldn't be much better, even as loose and relaxed as this sounds. A nice find for a reissue. Concord Music, 2007; Playing Time: 41:09, **** 1/2.
Butterfly Dreams, Flora Purim, vocals. Flora Purim and Airto have been doing their thing for decades, but this funky album captures them at the height of their popularity, though it's Purim who shines in this fusion jazz setting. The disc starts with a Stanley Clarke bang, his frenetic funk “Dr. Jive (Part 1)” giving Purim a chance to stretch her talented vocal chords with some wordless acrobatics. The rest of the disc is a bit closer to her South American roots, her firmly lilting vocals flying over the melodies on “Dindi” and the title track. But her band is just as responsible for the energetic and polished sound here. Clarke is a moving force and Airto powers the percussion on both set and accoutrements. Joe Henderson on flute and sax shines on his solos, and George Duke provides chordal texture on keyboards. While the disc sounds a bit dated, it captures a snapshot of an exciting and rapidly changing jazz world which meshed styles willingly. Concord Music, 2007; Playing Time: 34:45, **** .
First Flight, Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra. McGuinness is a longtime sideman on the trombone and this is his first opportunity to lead and record his own big band. He proves to be up to the daunting task. His arrangements are a good showcase for his players, who are all fine musicians. McGuinness is also a good soloist in the big band form, tackling the chord changes with ease and grace. The title track is a fast Latin groover that follows typical form but is nonetheless a nice and powerful opener. His take on Charlie Chaplin's “Smile,” is more unique; a Neil Hefti-like arrangement updated for the times, with McGuinness adding wordless vocals for a nice effect. McGuinness's swinging arrangements are tight and well executed. It's nothing exceptionally new for a big band but big bands are also hard to find nowadays so when you find a good one with quality players, best to support it. Summit Records, 2007; Playing Time: 1:01:32, *** 1/2.
For Sentimental Reasons, Bobby Hutcherson, vibes. The vibes may not seem a passionate instrument, but the mallets of Hutcherson bring out a range of emotions. His tender touch draws out love, humor, humility and intellect. Hutcherson draws you into his world, even when playing familiar tunes, like the subtle version of “Embraceable You,” and the playful “Jitterbug Waltz.” If anything, this disc gets a little too sentimental at times, but luckily never syrupy. Michel LeGrand's “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” is understated, sounding more like an ode rather than a love ballad. And on “Don't Blame Me” Hutcherson shows that he can still swing with the best of them. His band – Dwayne Burno on bass, Al Foster on Drums and Renee Rosnes on piano, is a perfect blend of soul and restraint. Having another chorded instrument in the mix could have been overkill but Rosnes stays behind the mix until called upon to solo. Overall, a very fine outing by a respected veteran. Kind of Blue, 2007, Playing Time: 53:32. **** 1/2
Fantasy, Bill Mays, The Inventions Trio. This is chamber jazz at its best. Truly rooted in jazz rather than classical but with many classic elements, this trio, led by the always interesting and sophisticated Mays, carves through new territory in jazz. With Marvin Stamm on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Alisa Horn on cello, the mix of textures and colors makes for wonderful music. The series of Fantasies (“Fantasy Mvts. 1-3”) is like a musical journey through the countryside. One feels as though they are being taken along on a carriage ride over green hills and dark forests. Mays plays Gershwin (“Prelude #2”) and draws comparisons with the great composer by being both exacting and loose at the same time. Horn's cello gives an almost Bach-like feel at times but her ability to swing makes for a well-rounded album. Truly a thing of beauty. Palmetto Records., 2007, PT: 50.33, ***** .
Caravan, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Blakey helped launch the careers of many a jazz artist and this reissue from the Keepnews Collection, from original producer Orrin Keepnews, was filled with bright young talent in 1962. Curtis Fuller on trombone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Wayne Shorter on sax are a powerhouse front line. Cedar Walton and Reggie Workman round out this hot lineup. Blakey is his usual propelling self, creating a flurry of rhythm on the title track. While much of this disc is on the harder edge of bop, there are some quiet moments, as on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” where Fuller does a lovely solo much of the way through. Hearing Shorter, Fuller and Hubbard as relative young guns is a pure pleasure, and Blakey does his best to allow them the room to create winning solos. Two bonus tracks make this a must-have for all jazz fans. Concord Music, 2007, Playing Time: 52:18, **** 1/2.
Shamokin!, Mostly Other People do the Killing. The name of this band was enough to make me want to take off the wrapper and give it a spin. MOPDTK is a young, brash Pennsylvania group that takes the traditions of the past and updates them with a slightly outside twist. Old school soul jazz, traditional jazz, Latin jazz and bop are turned upside down in a wonderfully sloppy fashion. This is fun music played with edge but rarely with precision. It's more like a loose jam session but one where all the players know the tunes well. Playful trumpeter Peter Evans shrieks, pops and blows frantically throughout while leader/bassist Moppa Elliott holds down the fort with a steady hand. The shrieking can get a little much here. Maybe too much youthful enthusiasm. But still, it's a fun disc, if a little scattered. With some time and honing, MOPDTK could have something really valuable. Hot Cup Records, 2007, Playing Time: 74:20, *** .
Chet, Chet Baker, trumpet. Baker was a master of understatement. His long tones, his metered, emotive playing brought you into his sometimes painful world with a melancholy urgency. This reissue from the Keepnews Collection, originally recorded in the late 50s, starts with a midnight black version of “Alone Together,” with Baker playing a mournful melody. The sparse feel continues throughout the album, with a slow groove on “How High the Moon,” and a lovely “'Tis Autumn.” With Pepper Adams on bari sax, Herbie Mann on flute, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones or Connie Kay on drums, Baker shines as a solo artist. His band comes on when they should, but stays behind the scenes to keep the album lean. It's a bit on the slow side, but played with so much feeling that one listens throughout. Concord Jazz, 2007, PT: 51:06, **** 1/2.
Clubhouse, Dexter Gordon. The famed tenor saxophonist had been living in Europe for a while before he came back to the states to record two albums on Blue Note for contractual obligation reasons. The disc was recorded in 1965 but didn't see release until 1979, which many critics and fans took to mean the album was a failure. One listen and this certainly isn't the case. It doesn't have the same easy feel as some other Gordon albums, but it's far from bad. Gordon plays with his usual laid back feel and he's backed nicely by Freddie Hubbard, Barry Harris on piano, Ben Tucker and Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. The band doesn't have an immediate cohesiveness, but there is plenty of fun to be had here, as on the playful opening number, Gordon's own “Hanky Panky.” And he shows off that rich tone on the ballad “I'm a Fool to Want You,” which also showcases Hubbard's long tones. The title track is an easy bopper with plenty of solo room for the horns. One wonders why it took over a decade to put this disc on the shelves, but for Gordon fans it is a decent recording. Blue Note, 2007 Playing Time: 39:44, *** 1/2.
The Spoiler, Stanley Turrentine, tenor sax. The ‘60s were one of jazz's richest decades, one that changed how we thought about the music as it incorporated different themes and sounds into the mix. Here we get a taste of gospel blues in the opening track, “The Magilla,” and down-home blues on “When the Sun Comes Out.” A Latin flair takes over “La Fiesta,” and there is a soulful bossa feel on “Sunny.” Considering this was 1966, everything was up for grabs and the term soul jazz was just coming into being. Turrentine always had an R&B edge and here it comes on strong, especially with the likes of Blue Mitchell, Julian Priester, McCoy Tyner and others lending cool rhythms and horn lines. The inclusion of Max Roach's “Lonesome Lover,” done as a bluesy waltz as a bonus track cements this disc as an undiscovered gem from a vital period in jazz. Blue Note, 2007, Playing Time: 39:00, **** .
Everybody Digs Bill Evans, Bill Evans, piano. Bill Evans didn't need accolades to keep playing fantastic music, but the interesting cover of this disc from 1958 certainly didn't hurt. It has quotes from the likes of Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal and Cannonball Adderley about what a great player Evans is. The disc certainly delivers on those high promises. It's a simple trio album with Evans, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Philly Joe Jones creating cohesion with note one. Evans' copious talents are on display. His ability to make every note count, as on the touching ballad “Young and Foolish” was next to none. He plays the tune “Lucky to Be Me” solo and one can hear a deeply talented and somewhat troubled player. He uses space to the maximum, as if it almost hurt emotionally to play, but it draws the listener deep into his world. His bop prowess is there, though this is much more subdued than usual Evans. “Oleo” is done at a rapid tempo, with Evans taking the chords outside just enough to keep things interesting. Philly Joe plays sparingly, with just light kicks and rhythm for the first part of Evans's solo, finally riding the cymbals and building the tune. We get many flavors of Evans here, and it's a touching scrapbook from an artist who left us too soon. Concord Music Records, 2007, Playing Time: 48:21, **** 1/2
The Right Touch, Duke Pearson, piano. Pearson may not have the enduring name that others from his generation did, but he was a fine pianist and composer. This disc features all Pearson tunes played by a hot ensemble that included Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Grady Tate and other hot players of the mid-1960s. The opener, “Chili Peppers,” is a hot Latin-tinged number that lets Turrentine blow his face off. Lots of fun here. Pearson's piano has a lighter touch, which may be why he had comparisons to Basie. The soft touch he displays on the opener of “Make it Good” is indeed Basie-esque, and the rhythm section lets him keep it light. Pearson was certainly a fine composer with a varied style. His “My Love Waits (O Meu Amor Espera)” is a lovely Latin ballad, and his “Los Malos Hombres” sizzles on the opposite end of the Latin spectrum. He also adds in a good dose of the blues on the gritty “Scrap Iron.” An alternate take of “Hombres” gives us insight into what must have been a blast of a recording session. Blue Note, 2007, Playing Time: 42:11, **** .
Undercurrent, Kenny Drew, piano. Freddie Hubbard must have been the most in-demand trumpeter during the hard bop era. He appears on this smokin' 1961 disc, playing opposite Hank Mobley on tenor and burning up the melody on the title track. One can tell that the tone of jazz was changing. More soulful elements were making it into the mix, as on “Funk-Cosity,” a slinky blues groover. But bop still ruled, and much of this album swing with the dual horn attack leading the way. Drew was one of the top composing pianists of the day and his work was rooted in bop but had a forward-thinking nature to it. This wonderfully remastered recording captures the era perfectly. It may not be the most engaging bunch of tunes, but everything is well-played, and Louis Hayes keeps the proceedings buoyant with his upbeat swing. It's on the border between hard bop and soul jazz and paints a picture of the accessibility of jazz coming out of the late be-bop era. Blue Note, 2007, Playing Time: 38:37, **** .
Lush Life, Lou Donaldson, alto sax. It's difficult to say what's more impressive on this 1967 reissue, Donaldson's rich and pretty tone, or the lush arrangements for a nine piece ensemble. Before this disc, Donaldson had been recording a lot of blues and soul jazz, and this return to Blue Note marked a new and much mellower direction. Here are gathered some of Blue Note's best names * Jerry Dodgion, Pepper Adams, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Garnett Brown, Ron Carter and Al Harewood. The resulting band plays these arrangements of classic romantic tunes with aplomb and grace, never overshadowing the tunes. Songs like “You've Changed,” “Star Dust” and “It Might as Well Be Spring” are all played lovingly by Donaldson, marking him as a master balladeer, his plaintive, emotive tone shining through. Very few others solo throughout, which is just fine, but when they do, they accent Donaldson's lead rather than overshadowing him. A fine ballad album in its day . . . on any day, indeed. Blue Note Records, 2007, Playing Time: 35:18, **** .