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CD Reviews - January 2008
by George Fendel & Kyle O'Brien

George Fendel Reviews

Dear Readers:
You will notice that we have omitted the star rating system. It was a decision based on several factors. First, a CD may be perfectly delightful and eminently listenable, but it may lack that elusive creative “extra” which would bring it beyond, say, three stars. In that case, the stars may be misleading. Also, such factors as recording quality, length of the CD, consistency of program, and, let’s face it, the reviewer’s personal preferences come into play, while the stars make the judgment appear “objective.” So let’s try it this way for awhile and see how it works out.

The Lost Bill Holman Charts, Carl Saunders, trumpet and leader.
It’s too long a story for our space, but suffice to say that these brilliant Bill Holman arrangements were safely secured for some twenty years. Thank goodness Carl Saunders unearthed them. And before we get back to Bill Holman, we must also thank our lucky stars that Carl Saunders has become more etched in our musical minds through a series of outstanding recordings over the last several years. Saunders, you see, is a monster, and this CD will help spread his well-deserved, new-found fame. How can it be otherwise, with charts supplied by one of the most respected arrangers of all time, Bill Holman. The tunes are evenly divided between Holman’s crisp originals and standards like “Three Little Words,” “Dearly Beloved,” “We’ll Be Together Again,” “All Too Soon” and Diz’s “Ow!” Saunders calls his septet The Carl Saunders Exploration, and it includes some of the jazziest cats in all of Los Angeles. In our present day world of frequent ear-splitting dreck that is passed off as music, it does my heart good that records like this can still be made. This is one of the very best of 2007.
Mama Records, 2007, 53:00.

Breakfast On The Morning Tram, Stacey Kent, vocals.
On her initial recording for the storied Blue Note label, this CD marks a change for Stacey Kent in that none of the tunes included here are from the great American Songbook era. It also marks the debut of Jim Tomlinson and Kazuo Ishiguro as a songwriting team. They contribute four tunes, the best of which might be the title tune, “Breakfast On The Morning Tram.” The more familiar tunes on the recording include “So Many Stars,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Hard Hearted Hannah” and “What A Wonderful World.” Kent is blessed with a unique vocal quality and a slightly contemporary “edge” which works to her advantage in putting over the meaning of a lyric. While all of these tunes seem to work fine, I found the album to have a bit of a folk flavor to it, perhaps because of the dominance of guitar-based arrangements. This is a mixed bag effort. Quality singing throughout, including two selections entirely in French, but the material doesn’t consistently match the standard of Kent’s earlier efforts.
Blue Note, 2007, 53:00.

Alone, Andre Previn, piano.
I’ve always found that, in an academic sort of way, Andre Previn is one of the great creators in the world of jazz piano, especially playing solo as he does on this CD. Previn’s delightful little twists, turns and forays immediately identify him as the elegant player he’s always been. And if you lean toward the standards played with passion and beauty, this is a lovely and intimate recital quality performance. Previn chooses evergreens such as “Angel Eyes,” “The Second Time Around,” “Night And Day,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “My Ship,” “Skylark” and “It Might As Well Be Spring,” among other winners. And if you think Previn doesn’t swing (a tired old complaint regarding his playing), try “What Is This Thing Called Love.” Indeed Previn swings with authority, it’s just that it’s always “under strict control” and somehow within the context of his “other self,” the classical cat in him. Melody lovers, this is gorgeous stuff and it’s going to make your dinner guests ask “who’s playing those beautiful tunes?”
EmArcy, 2007, 45:38.

The Only Dream, Michael Winkle, vocals.
Just when you’re sure that the male of the species has virtually disappeared from the realm of quality jazz/pop singing, along comes Michael Winkle to set your mind at ease. Michael’s new CD is a mixed bag of proven standards (“You Make Me Feel So Young,” “Blame It On My Youth,” “Summertime” and perhaps my favorite cut on the album, “If I Only Had A Heart”). But he also covers some pop things from the past in “Fool On The Hill” and “Crazy Love” among others. Certainly an album highlight is his composition, “The Only Dream That Ever Mattered.” It has a contemporary feel and a lyric that tells of one of life’s bitter lessons. Winkle is in excellent company here, singing with established PDX cats like Joe Milward, piano; Scott Steed, bass; Paul Mazzio, trumpet; Renato Caranto, tenor sax; and Jeff Uusitalo, trombone (not every guy on every track). There’s something for just about every taste and preference on this album. Michael Winkle manages to straddle the line between pop and jazz without ever losing his balance. More info can be found at www.michaelwinkle.com.
Self-produced, 2007, 45:37.

Portology, Lee Konitz, alto saxophone.
Lee Konitz is now in his 80th year, and boasts a resume dating back to Claude Thornhill’s band of the ‘40s, Lennie Tristano’s miraculous innovations and Miles Davis’s ground breaking “Birth Of The Cool.” Konitz, who has achieved international acclaim mostly within the realm of small groups, performs here with a European 18-piece big band led by Ohad Talmor. It marks their third recording together with all the music written by Konitz. The compositions are dense and probing, and in some cases, they actually put Lee’s alto in a secondary position to the stunning arrangements. And when we say “big band,” you may be assured that this ain’t Basie, but a band full of musical colors and hues, perhaps something akin to a George Russell approach or some other third streamer. All the passion and fire of the entire career of Lee Konitz can be found here. At one time this sort of music may have been termed experimental. But now we hear Konitz pouring everything he can into it. And at times, it becomes quite a stirring emotional experience.
OmniTone, 2007, 61:19.

Haunted Heart, Mundell Lowe, guitar, Jim Ferguson, bass and vocals.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of attending a concert in the living room of Diane Mitchell, wife of the late bassist, Red Mitchell. The evening featured the veteran guitarist Mundell Lowe and a newcomer to me at the time, bassist and singer Jim Ferguson. Well, the two have found their way together once again on a brand new CD, and it’s a stunner! Ferguson the singer reminds a bit of Chet Baker in that his voice is small and rather high-pitched. But, as they say, some have it and some don’t, and Ferguson definitely has it as he effortlessly interprets a stable of songs as familiar as “Gone With The Wind,” “My Foolish Heart,” “Detour Ahead,” “Mean To Me” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” A few of my personal faves include his heartfelt take on the title tune, “Haunted Heart”; a revisit to an old Mose Allison blues, “I Don’t Worry About A Thing”; a serene reading of “Close Enough For Love”; and a lovely Bill Evans medley featuring Lowe on “Very Early” and Ferguson on “Waltz For Debby.” Lowe’s elegant guitar fits hand in glove with Ferguson’s hint of a Tennessee drawl on all of these well-chosen tunes. I highly recommend you check out www.jimfergusonmusic.com or www.mundelllowe.com.
Lily’s Dad’s Music, 2007, times not indicated.

Volume Two: Sextet, and Volume Three: Lee Morgan, trumpet.
Among all of Lee Morgan’s Blue Note titles, these two have been hard to find until recent reissues on both. Right off the bat, it was kinda odd that the first of these, Volume Two, was titled “Sextet,” because the other one, “Volume Three,” is also, guess what, a sextet! Another similarity among the two is that nearly all the selections are written by the great tenor man, composer and arranger, Benny Golson. But oddly, Golson plays only on “Three” with Morgan, Gigi Gryce, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Charlie Persip. On “Two,” the tenor chores are handled by Hank Mobley with Horace Silver on piano and all the others remaining the same. Anyway, the two CDs give you a chance to reacquaint yourself with Golson’s Greatest Hits in “Whisper Not” and “I Remember Clifford.” But, make no bones about it, Morgan and his crackerjack colleagues also deliver the hard bop goods on lesser known Golson gems like “Slightly Hip,” “Domingo,” “Mesabi Chant” and others. Lee Morgan, to this day, remains an important part of the phenomenon called the Blue Note Sound, and on these two discs he brings that sound, always fresh and timeless, directly to you.
Blue Note, 2007, Volume Two, 40:17, and Volume Three, 44:32.

New Groove, Peter Beets, piano.
On his fourth album for Criss Cross Records of Holland, Peter Beets alters the recipe slightly. This time around, the gifted pianist takes a hiatus from the standard piano-bass-drums trio. He substitutes a guitarist for the drummer, and according to Beets himself, there’s some precedent for the move. Beets is a great admirer of the Nat Cole and early Oscar Peterson trios, both of which were drummer-less. In fact, Cole’s “Easy Listening Blues” is included in a menu loaded with goodies like “You’re My Everything,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “Three Little Words” and “But Beautiful.” The disc is rounded out with compositions from players such as Django Reinhardt (“Nuages”), Stan Getz (“Parker 51”), and Oscar Pettiford (“Tricrotism”). Two different trios work the magic here, but it’s Peter Beets’ vigorous, Oscar Peterson-influenced piano that pulls it all together. He may well be the most exciting, thoroughly swinging jazz pianist on the other side of the pond. I was honored to write liner notes for one of his earlier Criss Cross releases, and at that time, I sang his praises enthusiastically. New Groove is indeed just that, and it once again shows Peter Beets to be a monstrous torch carrier.
Criss Cross, 2007, 63:27.

Northern Star - The Singapore Sessions, Amandah Jantzen, vocals.
I haven’t heard anything to the contrary, so I assume that Amandah Jantzen still considers Portland her home. It’s simply that a regular, reliable gig has kept out of our city for a long time. While you gotta be glad she’s got the gig, we sure miss her polished jazz singing here in PDX. But here she is with what I assume is the creme de la creme of Singapore jazz cats with a fresh new palette of mostly familiar songs, and a few new delights as well. Among the latter category is “Sequined Mermaid Dress,” a swinging opener with a clever lyric. It’s a tune that deserves to be “picked up” by other singers. “Social Call” is a catchy line from Betty Carter and “Bye Bye Country Boy” is Blossom Dearie’s invention and a tune slowly gaining more recognition. Other standouts include Matt Dennis’s ode to sorrow, “The Night We Called It A Day”; an invigorating combination of “All Or Nothing At All” and “Stolen Moments”; a bright tempo on an oldie called “Foolin’ Myself”; a sprightly Latinized “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and a fresh take on Rodgers and Hart’s “Everything I’ve Got.” These and more provide Jantzen with the means to prove to you that she’s always been good, real good. But now she’s better than ever. For more info, try www.amandahjantzen.com.
Starfire Records, 2007, approx. 52:00.

Basie At Birdland, Count Basie and His Orchestra.
Well now, here’s a moldy oldie which has stayed in the vault of Roulette Records and out of our hands for way too long. But it’s back, and it’s the “Frank” band, one of Basie’s most ebullient - that ‘50s and ‘60s gathering that featured such big timers as the two Franks, Foster and Wess, along with stalwarts Thad Jones, Snooky Young, Marshall Royal and, of course, the venerable Freddie Green. Jon Hendricks even drops by the club for a quick reminder of the very essence of scat singing on Neal Hefti’s “Whirly Bird.” The band sounds bright, polished, and full of vigor on familiar Count vehicles like “Little Pony,” “One O’Clock Jump,” “Segue In C” and an assortment of blues lines. A delightful bonus on this album is the presence of, count ‘em, no less than eight bonus tunes, with only one alternate take. That adds up to over 30 additional minutes of music, Basie fans. Maybe the guys knew they were making a record on that summer night of 1961 at the club often call the jazz corner of the world. In any case, they were hitting on all cylinders. Pick this one up before it becomes rare — again.
Roulette, 2007 (reissue), 73:03.

A Morning In Paris, Sathima Bea Benjamin, vocals.
This very rare recording, made back in 1963 in Paris, puts near-cult singer Sathima Bea Benjamin to the test, obviously quite early in her career. She sings twelve great ballads and handles them stylishly and skillfully. Her pianist on the date, Abdullah Ibrahim, takes on the role of accompanist with sensitivity and subtlety. But the big names on the date were both pretty decent piano practitioners themselves, namely Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Duke backs the singer on “I Got It Bad” and “Solitude,” both of which, of course, are his own creations. Strayhorn takes over the piano bench on one of his tunes, “Your Love Has Faded,” as well as on the lovely “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.” Other evergreens rendered effortlessly by Ms. Benjamin include “Darn That Dream,” “I Could Write A Book,” “I Should Care,” “The Man I Love,” “I’m Glad There Is You,” “Soon and Lover Man.” Benjamin’s fans will welcome the appearance of this long sought after session.
Ekapa Records, 2007, 42:25.

Breathing Space, Ben Paterson, piano.
Hey, Origin Records – don’t stop with just one CD by Ben Paterson and his trio. Origin gives us no indication where Ben Paterson comes from, but I can tell you that musically, he comes from the long and honored tradition of piano cats with great chops. Paterson, who looks like a youngster from the photo, plays with authority; understands the piano bop tradition from note one; leaves space intelligently (notice the album title) and swings like a veteran. His trio includes Jake Vinsel, bass and Jon Deitmyer, drums. The trio gives us a well polished, straight ahead, no gimmicks menu of such delights as “Whisper Not,” “Alice In Wonderland,” “I Wish I Knew,” “Nardis,” “Hymn To The Orient,” “Dancing In The Dark,” “Gloria’s Step” and more. This is the essence of swinging, in the pocket, piano trio jazz. Raise your glass to young players such as these. They are the ones who will keep the tradition alive for years to come.
OA2 Records, 2007, 48:15.

Keep Your Hat On, Pete Petersen and the Porkpie Sextet.
Get ready for some swinging, down the center of the groove, well-paced, scintillating straight ahead jazz and bop from a Portland cat who writes and plays in the best of the tradition. Pete Petersen’s original compositions breathe, giving all players room to cook up energetic solos. His arranging has been compared to that of stalwarts like Marty Paich, Neal Hefti, Sammy Nestico and Frank Foster, although all those cats wrote mainly for big bands. In the case of Petersen, the writing is for a sextet that flows with such enthusiasm that they often sound more like a big band. Each original is a distinct, solid little adventure and all comers contribute mightily. In addition to Petersen’s spirited tenor, the sextet includes Brian Dickerson, alto sax; Greg Garrett, trumpet and flugelhorn; Ben Medler, trombone; Brian Ward, piano; Andre St. James, bass; and drum chores split between Ed Pierce and Donny Osborne. The two familiar tunes are “Falling In Love With Love” and Ray Brown’s “Uptown Sop.” The other seven tunes are Petersen’s own, and every one of them rings out with the joy of playing the real deal.
Pony Boy Records, 2007, 47:38.

C’est Magnifique, Ruby Braff, cornet; Bucky, John, and Martin Pizzarelli.
It seems that almost from the inception of the Arbors label, the late Ruby Braff was one its anchor artists. Braff earned the loyal following of fans who found his mellow, swing-style cornet irresistible. On this newly issued CD, his last studio session for Arbors, Braff is in the company of no less than three Pizzarelli family musicians, dad Bucky on guitar and sons John (also on guitar) and Martin on bass. Joined by Ray Kennedy, piano and Jim Gwinn, drums, the ensemble gets off to a sterling start with “Lulu’s Back In Town.” Other highlights include “You’re A Lucky Guy,” “When A Woman Loves A Man,” “C’est Magnifique,” “Sometimes I’m Happy” and “Dancing On The Ceiling.” John even manages to make his way through a couple of classics with vocals on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “As Time Goes By.” With three ‘Pizza delivery men’ on this date, it’s still Ruby’s gig, and as always, in his inimitable fashion, his mellow cornet is the center of sophisticated swing.
Arbors, 2007, 73:51.

The Masters Return! Christian Fabian, bass (Fabian Zone Trio).
I’ve experienced the joy of jazz through listening, reviewing and deejaying for many years, but hardly a month goes by when I do not learn of a new jazz artist whose music impresses me. Such an artist is bassist Christian Fabian. Judging from the titles contained herein, Fabian is a bop and straight ahead devotee. Consider, among others, “My One An Only Love,” “Willow Weep For Me,” “Billie’s Bounce,” “Bebop,” “All Blues” and “Milestones.” The ‘Masters’ in the album title refer to Mike Longo, piano; Lewis Nash, drums; and a couple of inspired guests in Jimmy Owens, trumpet and flugelhorn, and Andres Boiarsky, tenor sax. As Fabian puts it, “The musicians on this disc were given their wisdom directly from Monk, Diz or Miles, and therefore are referred to as The Masters.” In addition to the selections mentioned above, Fabian, Longo and Owens all contribute originals of varying moods and tempos. There’s no pretense here, just straight ahead, well brewed bebop.
Consolidated Artist Productions, 2007, 60:51.

Attractions, Cynthia Sayer, banjo, vocals.
No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That’s right, banjo! And if you know anything about very early jazz, banjos were quite the thing back in the day. Ms. Sayer brings back the feeling of that era, whether she’s singing (and playing) “Viper Mad” and “Dark Eyes” from back then, or “Over The Rainbow,” “Half As Much” or even “Aba Daba Honeymoon” from more recent times. She pulls it off with lots of style and some help from guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, trumpet ace Randy Sandke and other jazz pals. Then there’s “Shakin’ The Blues Away,” “Romance Without Finance” and even a trippy banjo solo on “Hungarian Rhapsody No.2.” Great fun!
Plunk Records, 2007, 55:32.

Bass On Top, Paul Chambers, bass.
As the title suggests, this 1957 reissue puts Paul Chambers in the spotlight as soloist on a selection of great standards and timeless bop tunes. Chambers, of course shares the proceedings with Kenny Burrell, Hank Jones and Art Taylor. Not a bad band, huh? Students of the bass, whether players or listeners, will dig Chambers’ ease of playing and his resonant sound on tunes like “Yesterdays,” “Chasin’ The Bird,” “Dear Old Stockholm,” “The Theme” and “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” This is another in a series of newly minted and most welcome reissues from Blue Note. Finally, Kenny Burrell shows us, as always, how jazz guitar is supposed to sound.
Blue Note, 2007 (reissue), 43:23.

Canopy Of Stars, Yoko Miwa, piano.
Somebody ought to make it a law that liner notes be included for new artists. Unfortunately no such law exists, and neither do any descriptive notes for Yoko Miwa and her trio. I can tell you, however, that she has a very deft and sure touch, and that she writes songs with attractive melody lines. There’s a freshness, an airiness to her playing and it seems that one so young (judging from her cover photo) would not be ready to write with such depth. My guess is that she was a Berklee College of Music product because this was recorded in 2004 in Massachusetts but mastered in Tokyo in 2005. Interested? Try yokomiwa.com.
Polystar, 2005, playing time not listed.

One More Mile, Brent Jensen, soprano saxophone.
Earlier releases by Brent Jensen have all concentrated on his alto chops, so I was a bit surprised to see him playing exclusively soprano on this album. A certain Seattle soprano player has adversely affected my ability to digest the soprano, but Jensen brings new hope. He plays with vigorous jazz chops on such material as “Sweet And Lovely,” “Birk’s Works” and “Alone Together.” These and several originals make interesting, albeit slightly edgy listening at times. Jensen is joined here by Seattle vets Bill Anschell, piano, Jeff Johnson, bass and John Bishop, drums.
Origin Records, 2007, 49:53.

Modern Times, Pearl Django.
Another Seattle based group, but with a night and day difference, is Pearl Django. Their specialty is swing music, typically in the manner of 1930’s swing groups. Hence the quartet’s use of both an accordion and a violin in addition to guitar and bass. Each of the four players contributes at least one bouncy original, and standards like “Smile,” “Once In A While,” “September In The Rain,” “Warm Valley” and “Cheek To Cheek” complete a well-balanced program. The group is augmented on several tunes by the talents of no less than four additional guitarists. Nice stuff!
Modern Hot Records, 2007, 53:22.

A Jones For Bones Tones, Conrad Herwig, trombone.
The title of this CD is a clever turn around on the familiar “Tones For Joan’s Bones,” and also a signal (if you think about it) that trombonist Conrad Herwig herein embarks on a salute to trombonists who have influenced his musical pallet. Among the best known of them are Frank Rosolino, Slide Hampton, J. J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller. The album consists entirely of Herwig’s original tributes and the quintet features a second trombonist in Steve Davis. As he has done on past albums, Herwig once again scores here with a fresh thematic approach. Bone players, don’t overlook this one!
Criss Cross, 2007, 59:44.

Kyle O'Brien Reviews

Seein’ & Speakin’, Hank Hirsh Quintet, saxophone.
Hirsh has become a vital part of Portland’s jazz scene since bringing his veteran horn playing to town a few years back. He recalls an earlier era of jazz, one of hard bop, blues and swing without overcomplicating. His personal style is somewhere between Stanley Turrentine, Ben Webster and Sonny Rollins, and his original tunes sound familiar even though they’re all new on this disc. On the easygoing blues, “Coppin’ the Jug,” Hirsh lays back and doesn’t try to mess with the groove. It’s a welcome style, considering most artists nowadays push too hard and don’t take the time to remember the Basie mentality of less is more. Hirsh has instilled the same attention to rhythm to his son, Sam, who plays a wonderful piano, especially considering his young age of 18. The Neil Hefti-ish “The Rain Suite,” also allows things to develop from a slow groove to a blistering bop without seeming contrived. The band – including Dave Speranza on bass, Alan Tarpinian on percussion, Dave Bones on trombone – is cohesive and knows how to balance technique with a sense of fun, because music IS fun. The title track is a trad-jazz groover that lets Hirsh and Bones open up, while “The Pearl,” shows that Hirsh can write modern, pretty and subtle as well. There are a couple of sticking points; Hirsh’s tone is still a bit thin and reedy at times, especially when he blows loudly, which makes for some uncomfortable squeaks. It’s puzzling, since on the more tender tunes, he has a lovely tonal sense. Another nitpick is that the tunes occasionally get a little too loose and need to come back for some focus. Otherwise, though, Hirsh displays a great sense of songwriting, bringing back the fun and approachable nature of modern jazz.
2007, Six Perfections Music. Playing Time: 72:46.

Lights and Shadows, Bobby Few, piano.
Few was Steve Lacy’s pianist for over a decade, and the inclusion of Lacy’s cascading “Flakes” is a solid fit for this disc, a solo piano outing that borders on the avant garde. “Flakes” sounds like an ice skater on the brink of falling, which was Lacy’s intention, so on that note, good job, Few. The rest of the tracks are all penned by Few and they recall a slightly less dense and more melodic Cecil Taylor. They create a sense of mood, as on the dark “Different Land,” which uses space smartly to create an eerie unease. Few does have a sense of melody, as he displays on “Enomis,” a pretty, chordally based song that’s just enough off-kilter to not be schmaltzy. When he takes things more outside, as on the title track, the tunes seem to meander more, like Few is searching without ever finding a focus. But with the closing track, “Dreams,” Few proves he has plenty to say, as both a melodic player and a free spirit.
2007, Boxholder Records. Playing Time: 57 minutes.

This Time Around, Sandy Kastel, vocals.
When I received this disc in the mail, I immediately dreaded listening to it, since the promo materials said, “you may remember Kastel as the former Miss NevadaÖ” I didn’t remember her and I immediately flashed to bad pageants where a pretty, vacuous girl sings “Buttons and Bows” loudly and poorly. I grudgingly put in the disc and was happy to hear a tight big band blasting away. And when Kastel’s brassy, if indistinctive voice came in, it was on key and had a hint of personality. That said, while I wasn’t immediately turned off, the disc did nothing to convince me that there was a reason that Kastel should be mentioned in the same sentence with names like Cassandra Wilson or Dianne Reeves. Sure, her voice is nice enough, but her phrasing on overly played tunes like “Fever,” and “Cry Me a River” is predictable and she stays far too close to the safety of the beat to stand out. Plus, the disc is so overly produced that it sounds like muzak backing her, save for the smart big band arrangements. Kastel will probably be a hit in Vegas showrooms, but she has a long way to go to if she wants to be considered a legitimate jazz singer.
2007, Silk and Satin Records. Playing Time: 62:33.

Canopy of Stars, Yoko Miwa Trio.
Boston-based Miwa balances technique, intellect and passion on this, her third album. The Kobe, Japan native studied at Berklee before accompanying Kevin Mahogany. As a solo artist, she shows herself to be a taut pianist with a penchant for the pretty, without being flowery, and a fine composer. Backed by bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Scott Goulding, Miwa creates a lovely and balanced trio album. The melancholy “Solitude” has guest bassist Bronek Suchanek bowing a longing melody while Goulding accents with the lightest of cymbal touches. Miwa displays a keen sense of swing on “Borders,” as she mixes thick chords with nimble runs, and Latin rhythms, as on the sultry “Tango Soledad.” At times, Miwa holds back a bit too much when she should be pounding away, but it’s this restraint that makes this a sophisticated recording. Now, if we can just get Miwa away from Boston for a tour.
2007, Polystar Jazz Library Recordings. Playing Time: 52 minutes.

Noir, Anat Cohen & the Anzic Orchestra.
Clarinetist/saxophonist Cohen brings together her wonderful clarinet tone and a beautifully led small orchestra, conducted by her Israeli friend Oded Lev-Ari. The result is a smart, Latin-tinged disc, with Cohen’s clarinet standing out as a focal point. It slides in gracefully with Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s lush “La Comparsa,” with strings and horns highlighting Cohen’s lithe clarinet. She switches to tenor sax on the swinging “No Moon at All,” though she shows slightly less prowess and subtlety on that horn. Things return south of the border with “Carnaval de Sao Vicente,” with her expressive licorice stick giving a klezmer flair to the pulsing rhythm. Her brother, trumpeter Avishai, adds some flourish with his clear solo. This disc jumps between north and south American continents, with the bop-swing of Johnny Griffin’s “Do It,” and the bluesy “Cry Me a River,” contrasting with the sizzling “Samba De Orfeu/Struttin’ with “Some Barbeque” and the Brazilian groove on “Bebe.” But while the tunes contrast, they never clash. It’s a stretch to call the proceedings “Noir,” since the tone is fairly upbeat, but the rich arrangements and Cohen’s lovely playing make it a true winner.
2007, Anzic Records. Playing Time: 52 minutes.

Early American: Melodies of Stephen Foster, Andy Biskin Quartet.
Beginning your disc with a music-box version of “My Old Kentucky Home” seems a bit hokey, especially when the rest of the disc does a fairly admirable job of updating Foster’s folksy, simple melodies. But when one learns, in the liner notes, that it was played on a windup music box from the late 1800s, the choice seems more apt. Biskin is a clarinetist in the modern jazz vein, so approaching these timeless melodies with a decidedly contemporary approach might seem blasphemous to some, and welcome to others. “Camptown Races,” starts mildly enough, but Biskin takes a light chamber approach and alters the chords significantly, making the combination of tuba, clarinet, guitar and drums pleasing and upbeat without being Dixieland-ish. Other Foster tunes get an update, like “Nelly Bly,” a folksy number that utilizes altered modalities on tuba and banjo to make it seem like those old guys playing on the porch got a whole lot younger. “Old Folks at Home,” teases the melody but surrounds it with swirling dissonant chords. Others, though, don’t quite hit as well. “Oh! Susanna,” plays the melody straight and two-beat, then slows down periodically for no good reason. It almost seems as though they’re poking fun rather than revering Foster. When the quartet isn’t playing off Foster’s themes, Baskin’s self-penned numbers take over. They’re hit and miss as well, taking some clichÈd themes and putting them in the middle of some relatively cool music, as on “Early American,” where again, one wonders if Baskin is having fun, or merely a joke. The musicianship is top-notch and the instrumentation interesting, but the approach treads the line between folk and fun.
2006, Strudelmedia. Playing Time: 56 minutes.

Friendly Travelers, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Brian Blade.
Blade is a master drummer, so it’s interesting to see him branch out here and pick up guitar and even sing a bit. Playing with Austrian modern jazz guitarist Muthspiel, Blade gets a chance to show off his contemporary jazz chops. While he mostly sticks to drums and percussion, he stretches musically, and Muthspiel gives Blade plenty of room within the wide parameters of the compositions here. The opening track, “Gnadenwald,” sounds like a mix between Pat Metheny and early John Scofield, and the tracks get even more interesting from there. There are elements of African music (“Youssou”), open-ended improvisation (“Between the Beats”), free-bop (“End on 4”), and dual guitars (the touching “Friendly Travelers”). The two work together perfectly, creating rich textures and intriguing harmonics, as on the aptly titled, “Heavy Song,” which recalls both Mike Stern and John Coltrane. This may be one of the most interesting contemporary duo albums to come along. For those who like a musical journey, Blade and Muthspiel prove to be welcome guides.
2006, Material Records. Playing Time: 54 minutes.

Brooklyn Suite, Jentsch Group Large.
Brooklyn guitarist/composer Chris Jentsch was commissioned by American Composers Forum as a feature for his electric guitar sounds and textures. He utilizes his large group format to bring his ambitious work to life. This is orchestral jazz, which is not nearly a new concept, but Jentsch is adept at composing for a big band while using a small group feel. The horns move the musical action forward sometimes and sit back in the mix on the others, creating colors of sound. There are other soloists besides Jentsch, including on trombone, saxophone and clarinet, but it is not in the traditional set-up/feature as a regular big band chart. Styles range from compositional contemporary to swinging call-and-answer. While some of the music is derivative, it is never stale. Jentsch’s electric guitar work brings modern tonalities, which keeps the sound lively and fresh, along with musical themes that aren’t overstated. The music can be propelling and dense (“See You in Bali”) or stark and pensive (“Going to Hail”), and all is meant to capture Jentsch’s daily existence in his New York burg. Job well done.
2007, Fleur de Son Classics. Playing Time: 60 minutes.

Just Chase Away, Melani Skybell, piano/vocals.
There is certainly no shortage of female singer-pianists on the national jazz circuit. Some are deserving of greater recognition and some just won’t make it. Put the Texas-based Skybell in the former category. The North Texas State grad has the tools to take herself outside of the heart of Texas to bigger things. Her voice is clear and her delivery easy and effortless. To make things nicer, she writes most of her own tunes, and her songsmithing is engaging and listenable. Most tunes fall into the light bossa category, and her band lays right back with her, making for a relaxed album, as on the infectiously swaying “Let’s Get Away,” with Pete Brewer playing a fitting flute solo. There is a bit of swing and waltz here too, showing that Skybell isn’t just a one bossa note wonder. Her voice is sweet and sophisticated and her piano work unassuming. Her most assertive piano comes on the slow bossa, “The Stars in Your Eyes,” where her chords move the song along in pretty fashion. Her lyrics are mostly love and romance based, but considering the romantic mood of the disc, the style fits her voice and tone well. Getting her out of Texas and in front of more people would be a good thing.
2007, Melani Skybell. Playing Time: 46 minutes.

Comet Ride, Willie Williams Trio.
Remember when jazz CDs started off with a bang? When notes came flying out of horns and it was called hard bop because it challenged the listener to keep up? That’s how the latest disc from tenor saxophonist Williams opens up. But lest the listener think that a massive aural assault is headed their way for an hour, the blistering nature of the opening track, “Comet Ride” – which has Williams throwing walls of notes out like Coltrane – it’s tempered by the lulling “Tenor Ballet,” a methodical, nearly liturgical chamber ballad that utilizes space, soft tones and a bowed bass. The rest of the tunes by this veteran player, who has worked with Arthur Taylor, T.S. Monk, Art Blakey and others, is a mix of retro swing and bop, and solid original trio music. There’s spontaneous improvisation (“Three Generations”), easy waltz (“I’m Misunderstood”), Coltrane-ish bop (the Giant Steps-like “Changes of Heart”) and tributes to earlier boppers, including “Freedom Suite,” which incorporates tunes by Eddie Harris and Jimmy Heath. While the concepts on here aren’t new, and the spacious reverb in the recording makes the disc sound as if it were recorded in 1967, it’s a fine outing by an unsung player.
2007, Miles High Productions. Playing Time: 75 minutes.

Lo Que Somos Lo Que Sea, Grupo Los Santos.
This New York-based group’s heart is in Havana. It’s a sophisticated take on traditional Cuban music, with splashes of modern and contemporary jazz thrown in for extra flavor. The group takes the traditions of Cuban music – son, timba, rumba – and updates them with a jazz sensibility. While it is sophisticated and tightly structured, it’s not quite as free-flowing as the actual music from the island. It lacks the thrill and intensity of other groups from the Caribbean, but it’s obvious these guys are truly committed to the music. Saxophonist Paul Carlon and guitarist Pete Smith take the chords outside enough to make it interesting and add layers. And drummer William “Beaver” Bausch does an admirable job of creating enough rhythm by himself – a job usually done by two or four players. And the lack of a piano, a staple in Cuban music, makes the group have to try harder to make up for the absence of an instrument that provides chords and rhythm. But taken as is, Grupo Los Santos manages to make engaging Cuban-based jazz originals, replete with intersecting melodies and fiery solos. The addition of Rumbatap pioneer Max Pollak on tap adds that extra rhythmic element that brings this group closer to Havana.
2007, Grupo Los Santos. Playing Time: 54 minutes.

Odessa/Havana, David Buchbinder.
It’s not often you hear music described as an “explosive Jewish/Cuban musical mash-up,” but that’s exactly how trumpeter/composer Buchbinder describes this very interesting project. Call it klezmer-mambo or what have you, but there’s no denying that it’s a unique blend of both styles. They share some tonalities and passion, so the combination isn’t as contrived as you might think. Buchbinder collaborated with pianist/composer Hilario Dur•n and a crew of Canada’s top jazz and world musicians to come up with a combination that fuses minor modalities and eastern roots with Afro-Cuban rhythms and improvisatory flourishes. Trumpet and piano dominate the landscape, on original tunes like the minor-keyed “Impresiones,” but the additions of strings, reeds and percussion make for new and modern textures. Western influences come into play as well, especially on the modal “Next One Rising,” where pianist Duran does a sizzling solo. This is truly original music, with a sound that connects and captures the listener in a new and fun way, all the while keeping its musical integrity.
2007, TZ. Playing Time: 49 minutes.

One Summer in Winters, Jeff Alkire, alto sax.
This disc by saxophonist Alkire starts in a mellow mood with the colored Alkire tune “At This Moment.” It’s an odd way to make a statement but it shows us right off that Alkire likes to use space and touch in his compositions and his approach. He picks it up with modern bop on his “Pancakes,” where he lets trumpeter Riley Mullins and pianist Kelvin Sholar take able solos before he makes a statement that is more tonal than flash. Alkire is certainly a solid player with a sweet tone that searches and bends, though he can still take it outside and have fun. But it’s his use of tone and space that makes him stand out against other, harsher young saxophonists. His ballads are a practice in spatial sensibility, as on the title track, a drifting pastiche of winter colors, highlighted by Craig Bailey’s flute and Esperanza Spalding’s floating bass work. This is a cohesive disc that is both modern and mellow. The only recognizable cover here, “All the Things You Are,” is a simple trio piece that deconstructs the tune and presents it bare and beautiful. It won’t light the world on fire, but it does create a wonderfully tranquil mood.
2007, Jeff Alkire. Playing Time: 62 minutes.

Copyright 2007, Jazz Society of Oregon