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CD Reviews - April 2008
by Kyle O'Brien

Crossing Lines, Plamen Karadonev, piano.
This Bulgarian pianist has obvious chops, a fact that Berklee College of Music in Boston found out, offering him an international scholarship. While the adept Karadonev may have the technical abilities, which are on display here throughout, he has yet to master the conveyance of emotive music. Everything on here speaks more on a cerebral level, from the outside-the-box title track (with a nifty “trom-o-tizer” – an electric trombone, essentially – solo by Hal Cook) to the ethereal “Sianie,” with floating vocals over a wash of chords. But one doesn’t feel the passion of the music, rather only the honed prowess on the keyboard. There are hints that Karadonev has the potential to bring more heart to the matter, as on the melancholy “Prelude in F,” but until he gets out of his own head, he’ll be just another technically stunning player.
2007, Mu Records, 68:37.

Day, The Bridge Quartet.
The combination of talented musicians assembled in this band intrigued me from the second I opened the envelope. Pianist Darrell Grant, bassist Tom Wakeling, drummer Alan Jones, and Canadian saxophonist Phil Dwyer got together first when Jones returned from Europe on a tour of his old stomping grounds. On a tight schedule, the four found musical magic and decided to record it. Considering the slapdash, two-day recording schedule on top of a full gig schedule, it’s a wonderful collection of covers and a couple of originals. It unfortunately opens slowly, with a serviceable but unspectacular “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly.” But from there it takes off, with Jones’s Coltrane-like, epic “Exidence,” which lets all players mesh in a free-flowing composition that ebbs and surges with power and subtlety. One wants to hear more original compositions, but considering the time constraints, it’s understandable why that didn’t happen. Still, Dwyer’s introspectively pretty “Three for Three” closes out the disc with original elegance. The inclusion of Sonny Rollins’s “Strode Rode” brings muscle in hard bop form, while the lesser known “Italian Sorrow,” by Alain Jean-Marie, shows a lighter touch by this incredible group. The Miles Davis classic, “Milestones” seems a bit too easy a choice for these guys. I’d love to hear a disc of all originals, with each letting the others experiment with their individual sounds.
2008, Origin Records, 60:06.

The Sky at Our Feet, John Stowell, Anson Wright, Open Path Music.
Stowell’s intricate acoustic guitar work is at the center of this fairly new-agey disc. These are soundscapes as done by Stowell. His guitars are occasionally double tracked, so his own lines cascade down from each other. It’s a stark beauty that evokes the Southwest, which is fitting since much of the content here is about the Chaco Canyon, a sacred and historic Native American place in New Mexico. That content – poems by Anson Wright -- is read with understated elegance by Stowell. The words are few but powerful, and the combination of music and poetry comes across as sincere and effective, rather than maudlin, as it could have been. With light electronic scores by the Open Path Music collective, this sparse album serves its purpose -- giving Wright an aural landscape to tell his stories. 
2007, Open Path Music, 40:00.

Here with You, Libby York, vocals.
York has some serious fans in the jazz world. The talented vocalist found a great fit with guitarist Howard Alden at a concert, then got an email from Russell Malone stating his love of her voice. Both guitarists are on this disc, which gives considerable heft to the proceedings, but neither gets in the way of York’s mature, dusky voice. Her interpretations of classics like “You Go to My Head” and “But Beautiful” put her vocals at the forefront, with the arrangements (by Alden) letting her voice lead the way in laid back fashion. York’s voice is beautiful to the point of being soothing, especially with the sublime guitar work by Alden and Malone, plus understated bass work by Jon Burr and some nice cornet playing by Warren Vache. The only track that doesn’t really work is a vocal duet with Vache on “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” Sounds like they had fun recording it, but York’s voice is so far superior to Vache’s low talk style that the two just don’t mesh. With a voice this good, there’s no reason she shouldn’t be headlining big clubs and festivals.
2008 Libby York Music, 48:00.

Trombone Encounters, Nick Sweet & Ben Medler, trombones.
I can’t quite recall the last time I heard a dueling ‘bones CD, but this one, by longtime Portland jazz educator Medler and one-time student Sweet, is a nice return. Sweet, a former Beaverton Arts & Communication Magnet Academy student, has taken his talents to the next level, at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He has returned a more polished player and composer/arranger, and hooking up with his old mentor brings a level of respect and fun. With Brian Ward on piano, Tim Gilson on bass and Charlie Doggett on drums, the musicianship is solid. The compositions are fairly middle of the road. The first two tracks sound similar, loping along at a mid-tempo swing with easy-to-read melodies and dual trombones that play too long in unison. Occasionally the writing is better than the execution, as on Medler’s harmonic “Delightfully Tadd’s,” which hits all the right notes on the page but comes across a bit timid on the counter-melody. “Salsa on Tower Hill” is a welcome change of pace, with enough spice to accent the energy by the two horns. Sweet’s “Uncontrived” builds throughout, with Sweet taking a solo that pushes things forward. Overall, though, I could have used more energy and connection between the musicians. As Sweet keeps learning, hopefully he’ll return with an album that states even more than this pleasing starting point.
2008, Shoo-Wah Records, 47:00.

Swing Gitane, Pere Soto & Django’s Castle.
I unfortunately speak no Spanish, so the brief liner notes on this disc were lost on me. Thankfully the music saved the day. The jump swing and Gypsy swing of Django Reinhardt crosses all language barriers, and in the able hands of Pere Soto, a Barcelona guitarist who plays often in Portland, we hear the music celebrated in true acoustic fashion. With Josep Traver on guitar and Joan Marti on bass, the arrangements are traditional and tight. While this may not bring much new to the Django songbook, it is a deserving tribute to the Gypsy jazz master. And Soto’s own Django-inspired tunes have just the right amount of Spanish and more modern jazz flair to change things up enough to make this a departure from a straight cover album.
2007, Blau Records, 51:00.

“Compasino,” John Keyser, guitar.

Keyser has assembled a heck of a group for his disc, with Tony Pacini on piano, Ed Bennett (who also produced) on bass, and Dick Berk on drums. Keyser is well up to their level, both as a player and compositionally and the four mesh well here. It’s an old-style, classic quartet setup and Bennett records it that way, giving the disc a live feel and an urgency. Keyser’s originals, which take up most of the album, are bases to showcase his easygoing guitar style, and the others glide along with him. Pacini and Bennett both play exceptional as backing and solo players, and Berk is his usual solid self, never overstating the beat but always bringing a sense of touch and life. “Grassy Knolls,” is a lovely piece, with Keyser laying lush chords as Pacini serenades with melodic passes. Keyser is not a flashy showman, but he has a sweet sense of melody and a straightforward approach to jazz that is calmly refreshing. 2007, Saphu Records. Playing Time: 58:37.

A Simple Thank You, Virginia Mayhew Septet.
The title refers to saxophonist Mayhew’s recovery from breast cancer, and the title track, written for her by bassist Harvie S, is a lovely compositional piece that showcases the horns in the septet, who work tightly as a unit. A solo by guest trumpeter Ingrid Jensen adds to the texture of the piece in lovely fashion. Mayhew herself has a penchant for interesting tunes that also show off the clicking horn section, as on “Apple Flambe,” a smokin’ bopper which sounds much bigger than the four horns and three rhythm section players it actually has. I would like to hear how she does with a true big band, as her sense of harmony and color are fully realized. Thankfully Mayhew has beaten breast cancer for now and can concentrate on what she does best, which is interesting compositional jazz music, topped with a fine soloing sense.
2007, Renma Records,: 65:16.

Celebrates the Music of Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, Phil Wilson’s Pan-American All-Stars.
Trombonist Wilson’s tone is distinctive, to the point of being an acquired taste, but there’s no doubt that this longtime educator and player has the chops, even if the tone is pinched and odd. Here he has assembled a group of players to play some Jobim, and the cast, featuring a rhythm section from the Caribbean Jazz Project plus a few talented others, works the music with tenderness, energy and passion. Jobim would have loved these smooth-as-silk arrangements, especially the haunting bass flute work by Matt Marvuglio, which adds something we’ve rarely heard on bossa favorites. The disc starts with two well-known compositions, “Desafinado” and “Corcovado” but strays from the norm with the dreamy “Triste,” “Chega de Saudade” and “Look to the Sky.” Wilson and Marvuglio share and trade melodies and the feel never strays too far from the Jobim bossa and samba mode. It’s a pleasurable tribute to the bossa king, even if you’re not a huge fan of Wilson’s trademark tone.
2006, Capri Records, 55:25.

Musically Yours – Remembering Joe Henderson, Paul Carr, tenor saxophone.
Yet another tribute album, this one comes from the heart for Carr, a native Houston tenor man who admired Henderson and actually sounds a bit like him, with a mellowness that builds into a frenzy, as on the Carr-penned title bopping track. Helping Carr with this tribute are Terrell Stafford on trumpet, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Lewis Nash on drums and Michael Bowie on bass. It’s a searing group, especially when the tempos are up. Henderson’s “Our Thing” smokes along and the band pushes ahead; Stafford playing at the top of his volume level while Carr uses his somewhat harsh tone and flurry of notes to make a statement, much like Henderson did in the ’60s. The inherent difficulty when doing a tribute album is that you will be compared, whether fairly or unfairly, to the original artist. Luckily Carr is a more than able player, especially when he channels the soul jazz of Henderson, as on “Mamacita.” He even shows a tender side with some nicely placed altissimo on “Black Narcissus.” Still, Carr doesn’t have the subtlety of Henderson, especially that of his later years. Too much flourish and not enough long tones. Still, it’s a nice tribute to one of the great voices on the tenor saxophone, and the inclusion of one of the great but unsung Henderson tunes, “Y Todavia LaQuiero” is a wonderful touch.
2008, PCJ Music, 60:29.

Copyright 2008, Jazz Society of Oregon