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CD Reviews - June 2008
by Don Campbell and Kyle O'Brien

Reviews by Don Campbell

 With the Waterfront Blues Festival nearly upon us, we thought it wise to check in with several of the acts appearing at our 2008 Independence Day celebration of American music. 

Orleans & Claiborne, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews & Orleans Street.
If you take what Brandford Marsalis did in 1994 with his funky “Buckshot LeFonque” project add Roy Hargrove’s “RH Factor,” and steep the whole thing a little deeper in New Orleans’ Sixth Ward/Treme neighborhood, you’d have tiny taste of Troy Andrews and his band, Orleans Street.

Andrews, who plays both trumpet and trombone, has earned his bones playing straight-ahead New Orleans jazz, and can count himself among the elite musical families in the Big Easy (including the Marsalises, Nevilles and others). But he’s synthesized a ton of modern music, and happily incorporates it into his ensemble playing.

The CD is serious as a coronary, and funky as year-old cheese. Credit his young-lion band and his passion for playing. In the shadows you can feel the old school fire of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, but Andrews and company stink it up good with sinewy funk rhythms and monstrously tight horn lines and solo playing.

The opening title cut is a driving funk featuring the sax of James Martin and a blistering and manic solo by Andrews. “Frontin’” is less successful, offering Shorty’s weak vocal stylings. The song grooves, but the vocals detract from the tight ensemble playing. “Get Down” is authentic New Orleans brass band, including the tuba line on the low end.

The slick “No Thing on Me” is hampered by vocals as well. But when the band returns to form on “Can’t Get Enough of Dat Funky Stuff,” all is well. Even the rappish “Act Bad With It” is well-served by the grease-soaked funk the band can lay down. The band has absorbed some Afro-Caribbean vibe as well, with the pleasant rollick of “Suite Azari,” as well as the smooth-groove of, say, CTI-era Grover Washington, on a song like “I Don’t Know.” All in all, this is the real deal and Shorty’s a player to watch down the road.
2008, Treme Records

Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss Thing! Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers
Jump blues in the hands of a big band never goes out of favor. Though many acts seem to rely too much on a re-creationist attitude, others prefer to concoct an authentic sound, featuring fresh arrangements. Such is the case of Lavay Smith, a smooth swing-era vocalist who fronts a 14-piece band that plays as sharp as it dresses.

Smith and pianist Chris Siebert ringlead this smooth unit. Arranging credits are spread among scholar and legendary musician David Berger, contemporary swing arranger Bill Elliot, the late Indianapolis bandleader and saxophonist Jimmy Coe, the band’s Allen Smith (with Siebert), Graham Bruce (also with Siebert) and Siebert by his lonesome. I mention arrangers first because it’s those notes on a page that make a big band jump, and these guys are first-rate.

Smith, who could pass for Betty Page’s love child, doesn’t bring much new to the party (except for a hot take on the vintage pinup look, with more curves than a dangerous mountain pass and lips that pout from here to next week – a re-creationist nod we usually tolerate, because what guy isn’t swayed just a little bit by fishnet stockings and a batted eyelash). She vamps and coos and can hold a melody, but one gets the impression that she’s mostly eye candy at center stage when the band plays live. She slurs like Lady Day, and can probably count some Helen Hume records among her collection.

But the strength of the record is the tight arranging and sumptuous soloing, spread out among the band members. Six of the 16 cuts are Liebert/Smith compositions. The rest draw essentially from the Count Basie/Jimmy Rushing and Ellington/Strayhorn books. It’s sweet stuff for ‘30s-era big-band, swing and jump blues fans.
2008, Fat Note Records

The Hard Way, James Hunter.
British soul singer James Hunter is a throwback to the slippery soul sounds of the ‘60s. Fat horn lines punctuate Hunter’s cool vocals through his new CD, “The Hard Way,” which by the way you’ll find in a Starbucks near you in June. There’s plenty of greasy sax, courtesy of Damian Hand, and Hunter’s chunky guitar is reminiscent of Steve Cropper’s work on the Stax label.

Hunter and company can lay it down fat and funky in songs like “Don’t Do Me No Favours,” but can turn around and play it cooler than air conditioning on the title cut, a Sam Cook soul groove that percolates like roadhouse coffee.  Hunter dabbles in a light, almost Caribbean ska sound with “Carina,” with its pizzicato violin against the chunky blat of Hand and Lee Badau’s duel-sax line. It’s as fresh as the first morning waking up sober.

Hunter hit the scene as a discovery of Van Morrison, who hired him as a back-up singer for several albums and tours. Hunter’s love of old ‘50s and ‘60s soul music has helped him adhere to a strict analog sound, and he found a musical soul mate in producer Liam Watson. The new CD, like Hunter’s previous releases, were done at Toe Rag Studios, a paean to the warm tube sound that’s missing from much of today’s music.
2008, Starbucks/Hear Music

MarchFourth Marching Band, MarchFourth Marching Band.
On CD is probably not the best way to experience Portland’s MarchFourth Marching Band. This mobile circus, replete with stilt walkers, acrobats, dancers and other assorted freaks, also features a dynamic 12-piece horn section 0f saxes, trombones and trumpets, a 10-piece drum unit, and a battery-powered electric bass. The band draws on the funk of New Orleans second line parades (only maybe with a little too much John the Conqueror root rolled up and smoked beforehand), but easily covers anything remotely funky, including the sounds of Eastern Europe’s gypsy bands, samba, funk, Afro-beat and rock.

Their self-titled CD is reasonably low-fidelity, but captures the soul and manic energy of the group. For this troupe, it’s all about the groove. And this ain’t no starched-uniform Sousa unit. On “Crack Haus,” the electric bass propels an insistent staccato horn line. Trombones always seem to play a driving role in the band’s headier tunes. Every song sounds like it’s on the edge of disaster, but never is. “Matador” features an Afro-Caribbean beat with chanting vocals. “Nej Nej” features the lushest of horn arrangements, tightly rendered for such a large marching ensemble. “Pilo Erect” takes it to the Casbah, for some Middle Eastern rock.

The CD is a tease until you can catch the act live. Other live cuts are available on the band’s MySpace website, but the full glory comes when this group marches your way. 
2008, Self-produced.

Here are a couple of blues-esque releases by acts not appearing at the blues fest, but that just might catch the ear of jazz lovers. 

The Prince’s Groove, Vince Sineri 2008,
Sineri is a masterful Hammond B3 organist from New Jersey. Though it’s easy to lump him in with Jimmy Smith, he’s a power in his own right. On this, Sineri’s fourth album, he teams up with Randy Brecker, flautist Dave Valentin, Houston Person on tenor sax, guitarist Paul Bollenback, drummer Buddy Williams and percussionists Richie Flores and Gary Fritz.

You can feel the warmth of every glowing tube in Sineri’s B3. This is the kind of smooth organ jazz that makes babies. It’s sensual playing from some of the very best. “Renegade Man,” a Sineri composition (he contributes five cuts to the project), lopes along with a serious strut. “Dearly Beloved” swings hard, with Sineri copping the head figure and Bollenback adding sinewy guitar. “Sway (Quien Sera)” is a mambo fired by Valentin’s flute and Bollenback’s sleek guitar. “The Stinger” jumps like a Cadillac doing 85 mph.
2008, Self-produced.

Lay It Down, Al Green, vocals.
Couldn’t resist sampling the Rev. Al’s new and highly anticipated “Lay It Down.” This is neo-soul from a timeless artist. Produced by Ahmir Thompson (known in the music world as ?uestlove), James Poyser (whose credits include Jill Scott, Mariah Carey and Erykah Badu), and Green, the 11-song gem finds Green in rare and brilliant form, as he duets with Corinne Baily Rae, Anthony Hamilton and silky-smooth R&B phenom John Legend. The CD also features the Dap-Kings Horns, who lay down honey-thick lines. This might not scratch the itch of hardcore jazz lovers, but the underlayment of case-hardened grooves, gentle guitar, expressive organ, tight horn punctuation and Green’s melt-in-your-ears vocals shows the power of soul. 

Unlike other slicker productions, the drums sound absolutely live in the studio. On every cut, from the opening “Lay It Down,” to the sweet ache of “Take Your Time,” the album sounds like one-take, in-studio recording. It’s the way records used to be made (and good ones still are). The album gets a big boost from the Dap Kings, as well as Chalmers “Spanky” Alford (who’s worked with the Mighty Clouds of Joy and youngster Joss Stone) and bassist Adam Blackstone (an alum of Jill Scott and DJ Jazzy Jeff bands, among others). This one sparkles, and proves once again that soul, in the hands of Al Green, never goes out of style.
2008, Blue Note.

Reviews by Kyle O'Brien

Cafe Cirque, Shoehorn.
They say to make it in show business you need to find your niche. That’s certainly what Michael “Shoehorn” Conley has done over the years in Portland. The tap dancing saxophonist has perfected his multi-talented vaudevillian niche role, but as he shows here he’s more than just a snappy novelty act. He can actually play pretty well, and he gets off to a decent start on the slow groover, “Okonomide,” where, despite a fairly straightly delivered melody, he shows some prowess in the altissimo register on his alto sax. From there, we get to hear his tapping talents on the self-penned “Carbon Footprint,” a bouncy bopper. Nobody will call Shoehorn a great sax player. His solos are somewhat rudimentary and sometimes his rhythmic tapping outshines his playing. But for a combination of talents, he works it as best he can. Backed here by Ward Griffiths on drums, the always great Dan Gaynor on piano and Skip Elliott Bowman on bass, Shoehorn knows to surround himself with talent. This disc goes to many different musical areas, including Latin (“Waking Up in Mexico”) jazz waltz (“The Strawberry Waltz”) and even the blues, as on “Wet Foot Blues,” where he sings enough to get by. While his tone can be pinched at times, Conley knows when to stick to the melody and not try anything too out there. That rule unfortunately doesn’t carry over to “Raptapsody in Blue,” a rap based on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” This novelty tune is neither a good rendition of the original composition nor a solid rap, coming off stilted and odd, but not in a good way. Throw that out and the disc is interesting enough, especially when the tap kicks in.
2008, Shoehorn Music; 52 minutes.

Quixotic, The Stein Brothers Quintet.
If the production here weren’t so crisp, I might have thought this was a long lost disc from the late ‘50s/early ‘60s. It has that laid-back be-bop meets post bop feel that someone like Dizzy or Bill Evans might have put out. The Stein Brothers are Asher and Alex, who play alto and tenor sax, respectively. They clearly were influenced by bop pioneers, as their dual melodies suggest, especially on “Jammin’ at the JCT,” written by the quintet’s pianist, Mferghu. It breezes along at mid-tempo and gives nice, tight solo time over traditional bop chord changes. Duane Eubanks, guesting on trumpet, gets a nice couple of choruses before Asher does his best Sonny Stitt. The group even does its best to recall the Parker era by doing a lovely, subtle “Embraceable You,” which isn’t too far removed from Bird’s version in the actual bop era, save for rich alto and tenor solo by the brothers. They even borrow the chord changes from “Cherokee” and add a cascading melody to make their own “Trailblazer.” If the playing on here weren’t so good, this might be a throw away disc, but the group lovingly pulls on bop’s history and adds its own flourish to update slightly.
2008, Jazzed Media; 58 minutes.

Latin Dreams, “Killer” Ray Appleton, Melvin Rhyne Quartet, featuring Milton Cardona.
 Another trip back in time takes us to the soul jazz era of the 60s, when Hammond B-3 organs ruled. Drummer Appleton and organist Rhyne have performed together since 1955, when they were the other two in the Wes Montgomery Trio. Things start out promisingly enough, with a subtle sizzler in Rhyne’s “Night Vision,” a dark and brooding Latin groover, with Appleton’s bell-like cymbal hits propelling the tune forward. It takes a swing turn with a nice, if uninspired “I’ll Take Romance.” When the Afro-Cuban rhythms return, things get more interesting. The disc has the feel of some of the good stuff from the ‘60s with some updates for current listeners, including some fine guitar work from Ilya Lushtak. Appleton shows off subtle brush work on “The Very Thought of You,” as Lushtak lovingly strums the melody. Really nice stuff. The title of the disc is a tad misleading, though, since only about half the tracks feature Latin rhythms. The rest, like the bopping “Melvin’s Masquerade,” swing it out. These veteran musicians certainly have good chemistry, and while the feel is mostly retro, it’s a pleasing disc that recalls an era where good melodies met new sounds.
2006, Lineage Reocrds; 52 minutes.

I Ain’t Looking at You, Alvin Queen, drums.
Queen spent time as Don Pullen’s stick man before succeeding Billy Cobham in the Horace Silver Quintet. He worked with George Benson and others, but as this disc displays, his heart is with the soul jazz and post bop that Silver helped make famous. He’s helped out by a great group that includes firebrand alto sax player Jesse Davis, trumpeter Terell Stafford, organist Mike LeDonne and guitarist Peter Bernstein. The quintet smokes through a blistering “Seven Steps to Heaven,” complete with a cymbal-bashing drum solo by Queen, then pulls it back for a groovy “Contemplation.” Queen isn’t the most subtle of drummers, favoring for the flurrying style popular during the ‘60s, and he’s occasionally too high in the mix, but he is full of flash and energy. He gets downright funky on the title track, with its stop choruses, and he even pays tribute to Silver with a spicy version of “Nutville.” This disc recalls earlier times, but with Queen, it’s warranted, and with his band, it’s also well-executed.
2007, Justin Time Records; 63 minutes.

Word, Jessica Jones Quartet.
This disc is listed as a marriage of poetry and jazz, but it starts with a pretty jazz ballad, “Everything Is,” sung beautifully and with passion by Jones’s daughter, Candace. We are serenaded by Candace Jones’s lilting voice for the first half of the album, singing jazz and cabaret songs by her mother, including the sophisticated, playful “The Roses.” We don’t get to the poetry until track 8, when Arisa White recites an intensely cadenced “Saratoga Avenue,” over an urban pastiche of jazz saxophone and drums. It reminds a bit of Mingus when he worked in the same medium. It’s distinctly Beat, but the musicians involved and the poetry are way above what you’d hear at a poetry slam. Abe Manieri is the other poet utilized on “Side B” of the disc, alternating tracks with White, his slightly nasally, sing-song tenor not having quite the impact as White’s throaty delivery. I’m often turned off by poetry and jazz, as it can seem forced, but Jones’s arrangements are loose enough to hold the capacity of this sophisticated street verse.
2008, House With a Garden Music; 55 minutes.

Minamo, Carla Kihlstedt, Satoko Fujii.
Violin and piano duos seem more appropriate for classical music, but this one is clearly on the edge of both jazz and classical, heading mostly into the avant-garde. This is highly improvised music with two players who clearly know where the other is going. If you hold no desire to listen to minimalist, atonal jazz, this is clearly not for you, but for those that like their tunes pushed farther, then the blending of bowed and hammered strings is quite intriguing. Kihlstedt’s searching violin can be at once attractive and harsh. On the opening track, “Remembering Backwards,” Fujii sets up a pulsing background while the violin jerks, slashes and screeches, albeit finely controlled, into the concert hall where this was recorded (actually two different live recordings, in 2002 and 2005). “One Hundred and Sixty Billion Spray” utilizes space and swirling energies in its approach, as the two dance into a frenzy of pedaled chords and long tones. “Lychnis” has Eastern European folk overtones in its opening before Fujiia’s pounding entrance takes it to its quick conclusion. The master track, “Remainder of one, Remainder of two,” runs 26 minutes and starts with sparse, harsh effects and evolves slowly from there, utilizing silence and space until it finally finds a churn of tones. This is not a toe tapper nor a melodic bit of fun; it is intense and experimental, but the two musicians are uniquely intertwined.
2007, Henceforth Records. Playing Time: 50:56.

Step Right Up, Jim Templeton’s Cosmic Dust.
Pianist Jim Templeton has only been a Portland-area resident (Vancouver, Wash. to be exact) for a few years. But in that time he’s made plenty of musical friends and has formed Cosmic Dust, a contemporary fusion band that recalls some of the predecessors in the genre. In Templeton’s electronic keyboards we hear bits of Joe Zawinul, Jeff Lorber and Tom Schuman from Spyro Gyra. Luckily Templeton doesn’t rely solely on the electronics, switching back and forth between plugged in keys and acoustic piano. Still, this is a fusion disc that might have fit better back in the ‘80s, with its square wave synthesis, as on the bass-keyboard funk of “Spank Me Easy,” which sounds like a soundtrack for an early ‘80s love fest movie. Thankfully, the whole disc isn’t stuck in time, as the contrapuntal “Spanish Ears” displays; it’s a waltz with a nice sense of melody. The musicianship is fine, featuring Chris Mosley’s pinpoint guitar work, lyrical sax work by John Nastos, and restrained rhythm by bassist Dave Turner and drummer Charlie Doggett. Still, Templeton relies too heavily on dated electronic keyboards, especially when he pulls out the Yamaha DX7, a synth which had its day during the big hair ‘80s. If he stayed acoustic more often, as on the swinging blues of “Whose Blues,” it would give more credence to the proceedings.
2008, Jim Templeton; 51 minutes.

Then, Now & Again, CNY Jazz Orchestra.
This group, from the Central New York Jazz Arts Foundation, has been around 12 years, but its regional location kept us left coasters from hearing it until this disc. You won’t recognize any names, but the band is tight while retaining a sense of character. They obviously have a sense of humor, doing a fun and free take on the “Get Smart” TV theme to open the disc, with playful solos by saxophonists Joe Carello and John Jeanneret. The CNY Orchestra is a fairly typical big band, with solid horn sections, crisp arrangements, a few original compositions, and a full sound. Maybe the big band isn’t dead yet, and regional orchestras like this help keep them alive and doing surprisingly well.
2008, CNY Jazz Arts Foundation; 60 minutes.

Solace, Jamie Baum Septet.
Jazz flutists are few and far between. Many sax players double on flute, but there are only a handful dedicated to the silver stick. Jamie Baum joins the James Newtons and Herbie Mann’s of the world, and does so with talent and a great sense of composition. Here is a woman that is not just a pretty tone, but someone who can write as well. The opening track is a modern tonal journey, with the flute combining with horns to create a pleasing harmonic combination, one that propels the searching melody. “Wheeler of Fortune” was influenced by Kenny Wheeler. It starts with thick, obtuse harmonies that blend reedy and brassy textures -- clarinet, flute, trumpet and French horn intertwining rapid-fire chord changes over a swinging beat. The song displays a depth of chordal knowledge and bites with an edge, especially on an intense solo by George Colligan. Baum is also a respectable soloist, and at her most captivating when she pulls out the deep-toned alto flute. Her compositions are evocative, setting mood and place with finely crafted chord lines. Baum may be one of just a handful of flutists in the jazz world, but she’s certainly one to listen for.
2008, Sunnyside Communications; 74 minutes.

Changing Tide, Kenny Carr, guitar.
Carr spent over a decade with Ray Charles, but this is his third disc as a leader, and it cements him as a diverse artist who can switch easily between straight-ahead and contemporary without missing a note. The disc starts off swinging, with melodies shared by Carr and firebrand saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who does a blistering solo on “Tempo Tantrum.” The rest of the originals run the gamut, from bluesy shuffles (the amiable “Blues for Ray”) to soothing bossa novas (“Bossa Luna”) to tender contemporary jazz (“Soaring”) and light Latin jazz (“Costa del Sol”). Throughout, Carr shows off a lyrical soloing nature, a nice attention to melody and solid compositional skills. The tunes aren’t groundbreaking, but their melodic nature will hook you, even some of the tracks that tend more towards jazz-lite, like the innocuous “Bay to Breakers.” Carr is better when leaning towards swing and blues, and sometimes the contemporary tracks lessen the impact of the others. With a little more focus, Carr can separate even more from the lite fare.
2007, Kenny Carr; 52 minutes.

Copyright 2008, Jazz Society of Oregon