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CD Reviews - May 2008
by Kyle O'Brien

(Previous CD Reviews are available at the CD Archives page. )

Live, The Liquid Soul Tour, Gemini Soul.
I’m never sure why bands decide to use drum machines rather than a live drummer. After nearly 30 years of contemporary groups doing this, don’t they know it sounds canned, especially in a live setting? That aside, this disc still sounds dated. The group is a trio of bass, keyboards and percussion, with a heavy dose of drum programming to give it that unauthentic flair. Gemini Soul is basically a vehicle for Bay Area bassist Andre Mercel Ajamu Akinyele, the guy responsible for the canned drums. His style is full slap funk, which really went out in the ‘90s. Not that he’s bad. He grooves well and has the slapping thing nailed, but he tends to lean on the groove like a crutch, never venturing too far away, meaning that the songs really just aren’t very interesting. “Pandora’s Box” sticks with a droning funk groove and never steps out, making it an 8-minute marathon of sameness. Without a drummer, there is no building of energy, and the songs border on elevator jazz, as on the exceedingly dull cover of the Sade tune, “Hold On to Your Love.” This isn’t a disc you’ll want to spend a whole lot of time with.
2007, Pearl Jazz Recording, 77:39.

Oasis, David Carlos Valdez and Pere Soto.
Portland alto sax player Valdez teams up with Spanish guitarist Soto for this melodic and mellow Latin-jazz album. We hear influences from all over the Latin world, from lyrical bossa novas to subtle sambas, rumbas, ballads and Afro-Cuban stylings, all led by Valdez’s rich, emotive tone. The chords and harmonics are updated and progressive, especially as played by pianists Randy Porter and Dan Gaynor, and the rhythms are all apt and never overbearing, as played by Salvador Toscano. But it is Soto who brings an extra element with his nearly Metheny-like electric guitar and Spanish-style acoustic. I’d love to call out some highlights, like Dan Robbins’s bass solo on a wonderfully lush ballad, but my advanced media copy didn’t come with a song list. Suffice it to say, this is a wonderful album, with Valdez and Soto sharing the melody lines, with Soto going for a rhythmic approach when things go acoustic. Valdez lets the melodies lead the way and doesn’t go for flash, but there is still a palpable energy here, even when the tempos are slower and the music soft. Valdez and Soto are a great match, and with such a strong supporting cast, this is one of the finest locally-produced albums in a while.
2008, Diatic Records, 70:24.

In the Moment, Rob Scheps and JazzCode.
This disc came about as a live jazz celebration in Norway for a guy named Tore Myrholt, Director of McKinsey & Company. According to the lengthy liner notes by drummer Carl Stormer, the group played together for the first time at this gathering, then recorded the day after. What made it work was what Stormer calls the Jazz Code, a theme that is explained extensively: improvisation of this caliber is possible because of the code, which finds that each player knows their roles and comes with a shared knowledge of how songs can fit together. It certainly sounds like the quartet is much more practiced than just the two days that they were actually together, and the sound quality is as professional as it gets. Scheps leads through his power as a conveyor of melodies, peppering them with his signature muscular runs. Stormer is a versatile drummer who uses his ear and touch well. Young piano phenom Jamie Reynolds fits right in, coming forward when needed with smart soloing and an ear for proper chords. Bassist Cameron Brown is rock solid and drives the tempos without being pushy. Guest guitarist Georg Wadenius must know the code, as he fits in well, especially on tunes like the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” Impressively, this impromptu group doesn’t go for the easy standards. Sure, there’s “Summertime” and Jobim’s “Corcovado,” but neither are done in predictable fashion, and each player follows the code by listening and reacting. But there are also tunes that are as unpredictable as it gets, like a lightly funky “What’s Going On,” and a touching jazz-pop ballad version of Madonna’s “Take a Bow.” The album may not be transcendent, but it is a great experiment in musical cohesion and improvisation, and overall, it’s highly listenable. With some timing and rehearsal, they could take it even higher.
2007, JazzCode, 55:11.

Long Ago Today, Sumi Tonooka, piano.
There’s a good dose of Monk in Tonooka’s playing, and the style and ferocity she uses makes that a good thing. This little known player has had an on and off again career, but if this mature sounding trio disc is any indication of her prowess, then she should keep the career on again for good. She teams with Rufus Reid on bass, who she has played with since her debut in 1986, and Bob Braye, who passed away shortly after this recording, but it’s Tonooka’s command of the keyboard that keeps this interesting throughout. The same can be said of her compositions. She only has one cover here, “All of You,” and even that utilizes atypical harmonies, giving the Porter classic a new sound. Otherwise, consider this Monk updated with a slightly more conventional slant. Monk harmonies today aren’t as out there as they were in his day, but Tonooka takes those close chords and gives them propelling rhythms. She also looks to the Asian influences in her life for the pensive and meditative “Dreaming of Tibet.” Tonooka isn’t the most melodic player, but her touch and restrained attack make up for a driving melodicism.
2005, ARC, 61:38.

Afterburn, Torbeen Waldorff, guitar.
Scandinavian guitarist Waldorff is a contemporary player in the style of Scofield and McLaughlin. He courts funk and rock rhythms and ties them to vigorous chords and outside playing, especially as interpreted by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a fiery player. The opener, “Daze,” is a searing piece that updates the fusion that started in the ‘70s and ‘80s, while other tracks, like the folksy “JWS,” give the disc breathing room. Waldorff gives his band plenty of the limelight, with McCaslin almost taking over the central role and Sam Yahel’s keyboards getting lots of solo time. But Waldorff proves himself not just a good composer, which he is, but also a fine soloist as well, albeit a much more understated one than McCaslin. Some of this disc might seem a little retro, but luckily in a good way. Waldorff was obviously influenced by the likes of Metheny, Stern and that crew, but at least he took the best aspects of what they did and made it roughly his own.
2008, ArtistShare, 65:01. 

Harriet Tubman, Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra featuring Faye Carol.
There have been many tribute albums over the years in jazz, and quite a few that try to capture a moment in history through ambitious music. This double disc, by Bay Area bassist/composer/librettist Marcus Shelby, joins the ranks as being one of the most ambitious. Here he takes the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery hero, Harriet Tubman, and blends her spirit with modern jazz, exacting composition, and the early languages of jazz and blues. And for the most part, it works. The big band he uses is tight and often recalls the impressive tightness of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In between these retro compositions, Shelby utilizes elements like field cries, blues hollers, work songs, spirituals and scat singing to recall the influence slaves had on the formation of America’s original art form. Vocalists Kenny Washington, Jeannine Anderson and Joseph Mace all embody personas in this loose history, but it is Carol’s expressive, heartfelt vocals that bring Tubman closer. Her voice has the rasp of experience and the power of a true professional. While some of the swinging and scatting contrast a bit too much with the historic tracks, there is no doubting that Shelby has created a work worthy of the history it represents.
2007, MSJO Publishing, 86 minutes.

Guitar Bass Drums, The Paul Speidel Band.
This Boston-based group is probably not one we’ll be hearing a lot from out west, but the trio, led by guitarist Paul Speidel, is a quality young group. They lean on a base of blues and rock, with Speidel’s fireworks -- no doubt inspired by Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix -- leading the way. He must have studied early rock as well (Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly), since there is plenty of that here as well. But Speidel knows jazz, as on the meanderingly pretty “Beautiful and Blue,” and he might be smart to do a disc that plays up his chordal knowledge and lighter touch. I’m not sure if Speidel and friends are trying to be the next rock power trio or viable jazz artists, but at least listening to find out is pretty fun.
2005, Giovanna Music, 50:00.

One Peace, Gregg August Sextet.
New York bassist/composer August was originally a drummer before switching to the big violin, and his love for complex rhythms is obvious on this, his second disc as a bandleader. His background in Latin jazz is evident, though this disc is a smart blend of contemporary composition, compound chords, Latin influences and post-bop. August’s tunes are thick and nuanced, and his band, featuring exceptional young New York jazz players like trumpeter John Bailey and drummer E.J. Strickland, easily bring the compositions to life with vigor. This is fairly intense music, challenging the ear with tightly wound lines and complicated runs. The musicians are all on the same page and the parts all well fleshed out, making this a fine disc for those who like a bit of a test.
2007, Lacuessa Records, 59:00.

New Basement Research, Gebhard Ullmann.
One might argue that deconstructionism is only good if there is a process of reconstruction involved. On saxophonist Ullmann’s latest outing, according to the liner notes, he has taken many of his previous compositions, deconstructed them and given them new frameworks. Of course, not having heard the originals, this is just an exercise in controlled cacophony. Granted, everyone is on the same page in his group, including the exceptional drummer Gerald Cleaver, who creates flurries of sound, and trombonist Steve Swell, who adds needed texture. But without any tonal center on most pieces, this is for the hard-core avant garde fan and not really my cup of tea.
2007, Soul Note, 63:00.

Zamazu, Roberto Fonseca, piano.
Let’s face it -- Cuba is currently chic in jazz. Some of the finest Latin jazz players out there are from the isle of Castro, and this fine young player is no exception to the rule. He doesn’t have quite the technical ferocity of a Gonzalo Rubalcaba, but his playing is impressive, and his compositions are a great blend of his Afro-Cuban traditions, classical influence, pan-Latin traditions and modern jazz. Fonseca has great respect for both his mother, who turns out to be an inspiration and a collaborator, and Ibrahim Ferrer, who is a mentor. The resulting album is highly personal; we are able to hear the passion and depth of Fonseca’s playing. He knows when to be subtle and light, as on the beautifully haunting “Llego Cachaito,” and when to let his passion bubble to the surface, as on the rapid-fire “Asi Baila Mi Madre.” Fonseca stands out from other Cuban artists in that he combines influences from elsewhere and modernizes his sound. He is not just a Cuban musician -- he is a complete jazz artist with roots in the Caribbean and a toe everywhere else.
2006, Enja Records, 64:00.

This is Carolyn Joyce, Carolyn Joyce (vocals) with the Tony Pacini Trio.
This disc unfortunately escaped my notice until recently, which is too bad because I probably would have had it higher in my disc rotation on my personal player for a while now. Joyce has a distinctive voice – slightly nasally, deep, with a lyrical sense that serves her well on swing tunes. Her voice glides over the melody on the bopping “Without a Song,” as Pacini, Ed Bennett and Tim Rap blister through the changes. Her delivery is effortless, as on her laid back swagger on “Born to Be Blue.” Joyce is the featured vocalist with the Mazel Tov Orchestra, but as a solo artist she should be heard more. She brings character and a clean tone to standards like “Give Me the Simple Life” and lesser known gems like Clare Fischer’s “Morning.” I’d like to hear her take some more chances and dig deeper into the jazz canon on her next release, but this is a great start.
2007, Saphu Records. Playing Time: 46:02.

Copyright 2008, Jazz Society of Oregon