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CD Reviews - November 2009
by George Fendel, and Kyle O'Brien

Reviews by George Fendel

Symbiosis, The Jeff Hamilton Trio.
Over the last decade, Jeff Hamilton’s trio has experienced personnel changes, but it seems that each departee is replaced by someone with equal talent. In sports, they call it reloading. And perhaps the term applies nicely with Hamilton’s present day trio of Tamir Hendelman on piano and Christoph Luty on bass. It’s a wise old adage that says “play good tunes and swing with authority.” And it seems to be the direction this trio wishes to go. You’ll know it from the first phrases of “You Make Me Feel So Young.” Hendelman is following the path of past piano masters like Oscar Peterson, Gene Harris and Monty Alexander. One clearly understands this trio’s mission is not to present cerebral, murky music with hard to decipher melody lines. Instead, they want to play with all the chops they have at their disposal and make sure you’re entertained (is that a bad word?) by a swinging trio traveling right down the center of the   highway. On “Midnight Sun,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Blues In The Night” and others, they come through with aplomb. They’re a tight, rehearsed, solid piano trio in the best of that time-honored tradition.
Capri, 2009, 57:09.

Revival Of The Fittest, Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone.
I knew I wasn’t getting any younger when I read recently that Eric Alexander is nearing his twentieth year as a leader on great recording dates such as this one, where he keeps bearing the hard bop torch to perfection. On this riveting quartet date, he joins forces with Harold Mabern, piano, Nat Reeves, bass, and Joe Farnsworth, drums, on a varied menu of tunes which take us on a journey to many musical destinations. His opener, “Revival,” is a blistering hard bop vehicle with Alexander blowing the roof off. Other impressive entries included Ivan Lins’ near-standard, “The Island”; Mabern’s funky “Too Late Fall Back Baby”; a rather Coltrane-ish “Love Wise,” a pretty thing that I remember from Nancy Wilson; a no punches pulled blues and a Joe Farnsworth-inspired Latin version of Michel Legrand’s “You Must Believe In Spring.” Eric Alexander is one of those artists that doesn’t have to impress with pyrotechnics on tenor. He puts the whole story out there, rather like Dexter Gordon might have done, leaving you to decide that this guy can really play.
High Note, 2009, 55:59.

Johnny Mercer: A Centennial Tribute, Daryl Sherman, vocals.
Here’s my message to Arbors Records:  anytime you wish to release an album of Johnny Mercer’s music, go for it! Mercer was one of the great contributors to the joyous American Songbook, and Daryl Sherman seems to understand what Mercer was all about. Her tribute to our “huckleberry friend” features tunes like “Midnight Sun,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine” and “Charade.” But the real treat comes in more obscure gems like “I’m Shadowing You,” “Peter Piper” and “Here Come The British.” My personal fave is “Little Ingenue,” a tune which Mercer wrote with pianist Jimmy Rowles, and one which enjoyed a separate life under the title “Baby, Don’t You Quit Now.” Here and there, Sherman joins forces with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and/or bassist Jay Leonhart. Other pals on board include Jerry Dodgion, Howard Alden, Chuck Redd, Marian McPartland and Barbara Carroll. Mercer, a grand master of lyric writing, was an outdoor writer as compared to an indoor type like Cole Porter. This session, full of fun, makes it clear that people will be singing Johnny Mercer’s lyrics a hundred years from now.
Arbors, 2009, 62:35.

Boomer Jazz, Marius Nordal, solo piano.
Marius Nordal is one of those virtuoso pianists who can spin you around in your chair and make you rue the day you ever started taking piano lessons. I know this to be true because I own his first two albums for Origin, and I’ve heard his Tatum-esque exploits on both. He has complete command of the piano, and you can’t reign him in, so don’t try. And, by the way, it’s all very musical and lots of fun! This time around, Nordal tackles the music of the last 40 years, hence the title. I don’t think any serious listener will ever come to the conclusion that tunes by Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the like will ever measure up to the sophistication of the Gershwins, Porters, Kerns and Ellingtons. And that’s my only argument with this recording. Nordal plays as brilliantly as ever, but “School Days,” “Good Vibrations” and “She’s Leaving Home” don’t have the jazz clout of the previous generation of composers. Other than that, just breathe in his virtuosity and understand that “Eleanor Rigby” and “Mrs. Robinson” never sounded better.
Origin, 2009, 49:41.

Coming Together, Friends of Brendan Romaneck.
Brendan Romaneck was a promising tenor saxophonist and composer who died at age 24, just as he embarked on what was to be a very promising career. At the time of his passing, he was preparing his first recording. It would have included the original music played here by friends Chris Potter, tenor, Steve Wilson, alto and soprano, Terrell Stafford, trumpet and flugelhorn, Keith Javors, piano, Delbert Felix, bass, and John Davis, drums. His compositions cover the gamut of emotions and tempos, and one can hear the depth of feeling in the playing of his musical colleagues. A few standards are also covered. Among them are “My Shining Hour” and “Nancy With The Laughing Face,” both of which feature Potter’s sometimes stirring tenor sax. A highlight here is the pop tune “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” putting the passionate soprano of Steve Wilson in the spotlight. And Terrell Stafford is the man on several tracks, with an absolutely juicy solo on a swinging vehicle entitled “11-02.”
Inarhyme Records, 2009, 66:54.

I Remember You, John Hicks, solo piano.
I love it when musicians are hip to the fact that they don’t have to rebuild the pyramids every time they step foot into a recording studio. And with that in mind, we are grateful for this brilliant, recital-like performance from the late John Hicks. I don’t know whether or not High Note has more of John’s work waiting to be released. But if not, this stunning solo effort would be worthy of any of his best work in the past, and would totally stand up as a final musical statement. Every tune is a gift-wrapped winner, and Hicks divides up the program between the work of jazz composers and the American Songbook. Hence, we are treated to rich entries like Monk’s “Reflections” and “Nutty”; Miles’ “Sonar” and Strayhorn’s “Upper Manhattan Medical Group.” From the latter category, Hicks gives us “I Remember You,” “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” and other standards. It adds up to a perfectly balanced, strikingly performed set of solo piano from a master artist. In a 45 year career, John Hicks was consistently a winning contributor to the art of jazz piano. It makes perfect sense that his last CD should be called “I Remember You.”
High Note, 2009, 54:41.

The Way They Make Me Feel, Angela Hagenbach, vocals.
Do you remember singers like Chris Connor and Julie London who didn’t dazzle with show-biz whoops and hollers, but instead tantalized with sensuous low-pitched, husky voices? Angela Hagenbach is somewhere in that niche and offers a swinging, extremely well arranged performance of tunes by Johnny Mandel, Henry Mancini and Michel Legrand, including “Cinnamon And Clove,” “Slow Hot Wind,” “Quietly There,” “Sure as You’re Born,” “Close Enough for Love,” “Charade” and many more. The pianist on the date is the rapidly rising star, Tamir Hendelman. He’s also responsible for several of the arrangements. And with some obviously inspired players on board, even a shimmering string section on several tracks, the band is first cabin all the way. Hagenbach’s unusually low voice handles the assignment with pizzazz and a nice jazz fell throughout. Connor and London aside, today’s parallel might be singer Patti Wicks, also a low-pitched standout. In any case, Hagenbach and company are impressive on a well conceived and beautifully performed program.
Resonance Records, 2009, 60:34.

So Far From Home, The Shook-Russo 4Tet.
They say, and correctly so, that jazz education is a never-ending process, so it’s a delight when we hear a new and impressive group for the first time. The Shook-Russo 4Tet was a new listening experience for me, but I sure liked their studied, lyrical, hip bop sound. And you can’t go astray when you hire Colorado trumpet and flugelhorn wiz Greg Gisbert as a guest. The group’s leaders are Amy Shook, bass, Pat Shook, tenor sax, and Frank Russo, drums. Along with Tim Young on piano, this group makes it all happen in the shadows of great, galloping bop groups from jazz history. There is a strong sense here of the joy of playing this American art form. The writing is full of energetic, compelling and witty melody lines, which inform you that these cats really love to play.
Capri, 2009, 63:47.

In Between Moods, Tony Foster, piano.
Here’s a Northwest guy, originally from Vancouver, B.C., now living in Seattle. So why in the heck didn’t I know of him before? From his opener, “Take the A Train,” you’ll discover that Foster, like one of his two piano heroes, Ahmad Jamal, realizes both the importance and the impact of space. His sparse approach gives a totally new look to the old standard. Having plowed ground under the shadow of Jamal, Foster then does a 180 and plays “Cakewalk,” a joyous romp composed by his other hero, Oscar Peterson. Needless to say, Peterson and Jamal are worlds apart, but Foster does ‘em both with ease and flair, all the while not sounding like either of them. Some shades of color and texture follow on several Foster originals, and he ends the program with a medley of “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “You’ve Changed,” followed by the closer, a down-home John Clayton blues called “Serious Grease.” Foster’s playing mates, both sharpshooters, are Russell Botten, bass, and Joe Poole, drums. Foster’s got a lot going for him, and somebody needs to invite him to travel the short 175 miles to play here in Portland.
Self-produced, 2009, 50:45.

Right On Time, Graham Dechter, guitar.
When you buy a new jazz guitar album sight unheard these days, you never know if you’re going to get a true, straightahead jazz guitarist or an expert in electronic gimmickry. In the case of Graham Dechter, I’m delighted to say, he’s released a pure and true and swinging jazz guitar album. Without question, there are certain musical standards to be met in order to record with Jeff Hamilton, John Clayton and Tamir Hendelman. You’d better have chops or these guys will digest you for lunch. And Dechter passes the test with sizzling single note journeys and astonishing chord work as well. All of this talent gives some new excitement to tunes such as “Wave,” “The Nearness of You,” “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues” and a few scrappy, fresh originals. So keep an eye out for the warm and wonderful guitar of Graham Dechter. Undoubtedly, you’ll be hearing more from him.
Capri, 2009, 59:37.

Blue Bassoon, Daniel Smith, bassoon.
If you have more than a little gray at the temples, you might remember some of the more unusual voices of jazz. Like Dorothy Ashby’s harp; Bob Cooper’s oboe or John Graas’s French horn. Joining them is Daniel Smith, probably the world’s one and only bebop bassoon player. Normally, bebop and bassoon would never be uttered in the same sentence, but here comes Smith to put that idea to rest with bop anthems. The bassoon, usually a proud presence in symphony orchestras, gets a good workout here in jazz. Joining the fray is Martin Bejerano, a stunning pianist well on his way up the jazz ladder, as well as Edward Perez, bas,s and Ludwig Alonso, drums. Don’t be thinking that this is some novelty outing. Smith’s a solid improviser on one of the most unwieldy instruments that has ever come down the line. Give him credit. He pulls it off with jazz chops intact.
Summit, 2009, 47:57.

Common Thread, Amanda Carr, vocals and Kenny Hadley, big band leader.
I guess we all have to sit up and take notice when Nat Hentoff tells us in the Wall Street Journal, “Amanda Carr is a true jazz singer in a time of wannabes.”  The Boston area singer works hand in glove with a bevy of Beantown’s best in Kenny Hadley’s Big Band. Carr sings on key and respects melody lines but doesn’t shy away from the subtleties that earn that monicker of jazz singer.  The tunes, all skillfully arranged for big band, include “They All Laughed,” “Time on My Hands,” “There’s a Small Hotel” and a bunch more. It’s nice to see younger generation singers discovering these A+ songs, thus keeping them accessible. And it’s particularly pleasing to hear them interpreted honestly and with a quality orchestral backing. Nicely done!
OMS Records, 2009, 68:23.

Voices Deep Within, Cedar Walton, piano.
It seems to me that after some forty years of occupying one of the penthouse suites in the jazz piano condo, that Cedar Walton could rest on his laurel if he was inclined. But as you’ll hear on his new recording, it ain’t gonna happen. Walton was armed and ready, and you’ll believe on the title tune, his own composition. In fact, everybody arrives equipped for heavy duty hard bop, including Vincent Herring, Buster Williams and Willie Jones III. The guys establish a deep, in the shed bop groove on the opener, and then, surprise-surprise, the trio (without Herring) strolls into a medium tempo evergreen, “Memories of You.” Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star” receives a scintillating treatment featuring the tenor sax of Herring (who, incidentally, does not play any alto on the date). “Dear Ruth” is Waton’s lilting original named for his mom, and “Something in Common” has been a Walton staple for decades. Another standard “Over the Rainbow,” is played with a nod to Bud Powell. By now, John Coltrane’s “Naima” has become a jazz standard, and Walton plays it with great respect. The closer, Sonny Rollins’ “No Moe,” is one of hundreds of rhythm changes tunes.  Just another day at the office for Walton. And a great day it was!
High Note, 2009, 54:17.


Lexicon, John Wojciechowski, tenor and soprano saxes.
John Coltrane left a huge imprint on scores of saxophone players, and most certainly John Wojciechowski is one of them. His recording of all original material features a quintet delivering a variety of moods and tempos, much of which seems to bear a connection to Trane. Much of his writing is lyrical and almost thematic, but his group can also throw a knockout punch on some fast-moving hard bop.
Self-produced, 2009, 65:37.

Bifrost, John Moulder, guitars.
If you like spacey guitar music with lots of electronic effects, this may be your CD. At some point in time, musicians are going to come to the conclusion that they don’t have to synthesize and electrify their music to make it palatable or even ìcurrentî. There’s a seamless quality to most of this stuff, making me ask when does the ìsoundî cease and the jazz begin?
Origin, 2009, 58:02.

Keys In Ascension, Christian Fabian, bass.
On what I assume to be a debut album, Christian Fabian has written some melody lines that are both catchy and melodic. Some of them are playful enough that you might find yourself whistling them. The honored guest of the session is pianist Don Friedman, a standout Bill Evans-influenced artist. His classy piano is featured on several trio cuts. Fabian also invites a number of horn guys who contribute solid solo work here. Amidst his pallet of fine original compositions, you’ll find standards like “Sunny Side of the Street,” “Wave” and “What Is this Thing Called Love.”
Consolidated Artists Productions, 2009, 70:15.

The Jury Is Out, Eric Muhler, piano.
A Bay Area pianist who has carved out a nifty niche as a both a composer and pianist, Muhler’s quartet performs a half dozen saucy originals with a most engaging style. He can alternate between Coltrane-inspired lines, bluesy grooves and intimate melodies with ease. His band mates include Mitch Wilcox, bass, Brian Andres, drums, and Sheldon Brown, saxophones, all of whom seemingly work hand in glove with the leader.
Slow Turn Records, 2009, 69:39.

Evolution, Jon Gordon, alto saxophone.
Jon Gordon describes his latest work not so much as jazz, but rather as disparate music which includes elements of many styles. Sometimes there’s a classical bent to the nine original pieces included here. At other times, it takes on something of a film noir sound, a thematic throwback, if you can imagine such a thing. Interesting too are a couple of duets with the great pianist Bill Charlap. Gordon is a virtuoso on alto, but if you’re looking for Bird, Stitt or Phil Woods, this won’t quite work for you.
Artist Share, 2009, 62:46.

Where Is Love? Kelley Suttenfield, vocals.
We may be in a recession, but there are plenty of female singers to keep everyone happy. Kelley Suttenfield brings a sweetness and sincerity to a dozen most familiar melodies including “Charade,” “West Coast Blues” and “My One and Only Love.” Of less interest were pop throwaways like “And I Love Her” and “Ode to Billy Joe.” On the other hand, the inclusion of Betty Carter’s obscure “Open the Door” was a welcome surprise. Reminiscent just a bit of Susannah McCorkle, Suttenfield eases her way into some vocals which will get your attention.
Rhombus Records, 2009, 57:26.

Reviews by Kyle O'Brien

On the Bright Side, The American Music Project.
The band name is a too basic attempt to explain what this group is about -- a fusion of the various musics that we call American, from jazz and rock to funk and rap. As a jazz band the Detroit collective is darned good, with pianist Keith Javors leading the chordal charge and drummer Alex Brooks kicking in layered funk beats. As far as mixing rap and R&B with jazz, it’s been done better. Rapper Dejuan “D Priest” Everett is talented enough, but his raps seem to be fighting with the music on occasion. Revolutionary rap and fusion jazz are not exactly complementary, and Greg Osby and his bunch back in the ‘90s had a more bold approach.
2009, Inarhyme Records, 39:50.

Coming Together, Chris Potter, Steve Wilson, Terell Stafford, Keith Javors, Delbert Felix, John Davis.
This disc is a tribute to promising saxophonist Brendan Romaneck, who died shortly after his 24th birthday and shortly before he was scheduled to make his recording debut. This collective of prominent modern jazz musicians, led on tenor by Potter, is impressive and at times moving, especially since the group is playing Romaneck’s original tunes. “My Shining Hour” is a searing post bopper that gives Potter a chance to flex his muscle, while “Full Moon” is a melancholy quietude of nighttime textures. Stafford and Wilson join on the melodies of a few tracks, including the minor-keyed swinging title track. The musicians involved play the music with reverence and passion, and the compositions are very mature for a 24-year-old. It’s too bad we’ll never get a chance to hear Romaneck in his splendor but this tribute is fitting.
2009, Inarhyme Records, 66:54.

Obsesion, Anna Estrada.
Bay Area physician, actress and poet Estrada adds singer to her resume with this second album, a collection of love songs with the rhythms of South America and lyrics in English, Spanish and Portuguese. The tunes range from a sultry “Nature Boy” in English with a slinky beat, to a traditional Mexican tale (“Llorona”), to a Latin version of Bacharach’s “Always Something There to Remind Me,” which doesn’t work so well. Estrada has a lovely voice, with a slightly dusky delivery. When she sings in Spanish or Portuguese she is impressive, as on the passionate version of “Flor Sin Retono.” Her band is an able bunch of Bay Area musicians with some guest performances by trombonist Wayne Wallace and saxophonist Charlie McCarthy. A full album in Spanish should be in the works for this rising star.
2009, Feral Flight Productions, 51 minutes.

Requiem, Komeda Project.
Tribute projects to lesser-known artists seem to be growing in popularity. Perhaps it’s because all the great artists have already been eulogized musically, or perhaps it’s to bring attention to artists that never made the mainstream. This disc is a tribute to Polish pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda ... 40 years after his death. Pianist Andrzej Winnicki and saxophonist Krzysztof Medyna are the driving forces behind this overdue tribute. It possesses the melancholy, intense nature of Komeda’s original work (Komeda scored several Polanski films) while bringing a new modern jazz twist. Medyna is a fiery saxophonist with technical prowess, and Winnicki has a nice touch on the keyboard. They’re joined by Scott Colley on bass, Nasheet Watts on drums and the impressive Russ Johnson on trumpet and flugelhorn, who brings passion and emotion to the tunes. If you didn’t know Komeda’s work before, this is a good chance to get acquainted.
2009, WM Records, 59:43.

Hypnotic, Gene Segal.
Brooklyn guitarist Segal was born in Russia, but his influence is definitely from the American ‘70s and ‘80s. The first two tracks, “Red Eyes” and the title track, sound like outtakes from a Mike Stern album, with funky beats and heavily effects laden guitars. Scofield gets into the mix as an influence on “Free Fall,” a tender ballad where Segal plays melodic and quietly. Otherwise Segal is a rhythmic player, as on the funky “Alef” or the bopping “Blues Again.” He can solo with a flourish, with the shredding on “Captain Chaos,” and he can pay attention to melody, as on the aptly named “Quiet.” He even gives plenty of solo time to his band, including organist Sam Barsh and trumpeter Jonathan Powell. Still, Segal is stuck in a bit of a time warp, and it would be nice to hear his sound updated.
2009, innova Records, 64:46.

Delaware River Suite, Inventions Trio.
Bill Mays is a respected pianist, and rightfully so. His sense of touch and melody are exceptional, and his sophisticated music elevates it above much of the jazz currently out there. It floats between jazz and classical, especially with this project, a trio of Mays, trumpeter Marvin Stamm and cellist Alisa Horn. It begins with a light and chordally rich “Zingaro” that takes it north of its native Brazil. The “Suite” begins with Mays talking about his love of rivers, including the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, where Mays lives. They take away from the flow of the music, but the words gives a great insight as to his inspiration. It then takes a journey down river, with the three instruments creating a greater sound than their combined power, thanks to open chords and lines that criss-cross with grace. The journey takes stabs at chamber music, free jazz, Americana folk, boogie woogie and lush ballads, and it all works as it floats, flows and meanders to the Atlantic. Mays makes it all fit together and Stamm and Horn bring melody and texture to the suite with near perfection. A delightful album.
2008, No Blooze Music, 57:53.

Skating on the Sidewalk,” David Widelock Trio.
Guitarist Widelock is a veteran Bay Area player who is comfortable with both electric and acoustic guitar. This simple trio, with drummer Jim Kassis and bassist Fred Randolph, doesn’t push the envelope, opting instead for nice swing, funk and modern jazz numbers that let Widelock display his soloing. His solos are easy to listen to, with fluid phrasing and chord punches that seem to fall at the right time. It’s a pleasing album, one that won’t offend and may introduce you to an artist who deserves some recognition.
2009, Beegum Records, 53 minutes.

Libera, Marco Bittelli.
Italian guitarist Bittelli takes influences from his Mediterranean homeland and blends it with western jazz. The opener, a modern waltz titled “Gennaio 1997,” is a tender fusion piece that displays Bittelli’s full sound and sense of melody. The flute on “Nudo,” sounds too predictable, but is forgiven on “Vento Sulla Palouse,” where the flute is plaintive and floats through the Washington-influenced tune. The flute is played by Horace Alexander Young, who also adds fine tenor playing on tunes like “Nexus” and “Pulses.” But the flute is overused and takes away from Bittelli’s guitar and compositions. Bittelli is a solid guitarist but his compositions are hit and miss, not pushing hard enough to take them away from typical modern jazz. I’d like to hear more European influence and less safety.
2009 Pacific Coast Jazz, 43 minutes.

I Talking Now, Luis Bonilla.
Trombonist Bonilla pays tribute to his father, who would yell the title phrase at the dinner table in frustration. It also is a way for Bonilla to say that this disc is him speaking his mind. The frenetic title track is in your face, with Bonilla pushing his horn to its sonic limit, blatting and sliding with fervor. The band keeps up nicely, with drummer John Riley, exceptional pianist Arturo O’Farrell, saxophonist Ivan Renta and bassist Andy McKee pushing just as hard as Bonilla. This is urban fusion, as the constantly changing feel of “Uh, Uh, Uh,” displays. It’s brash and bold with a sophistication that allows for the punchy nature and balances out the muscle. Bonilla’s Costa Rican heritage is evident in the numerous Latin beats and undertones, but it’s certainly not a Latin disc. At times the horns can push too hard, as on the shared melody of “Fifty Eight” which sounds more like musical jousting than exacting playing. Still, it’s a fun listen, and one that surely would be a blast to hear live. With a bit more restraint Bonilla could have a real winner.
2009, Planet Arts, 57 minutes.

Hope and Destruction, Edom.
Not sure this is really a jazz album, but that’s also what people said about the Bad Plus when they came out. The opener, “Somewhere,” is more prog rock than jazz, with a heavy beat and sludgy guitar and keys and a hint at Jewish folk music. Guitarist Eyal Maoz was a guest artist with John Zorn’s Cobra, and he is clearly influenced by the avant-garde artist. The heavy use of synthesizers and effects on his guitar make this an odd but intriguing blend of middle eastern folk, prog rock, synth pop, and something that resembles jazz. The mash of styles and the electronica-meets-acoustic is hard to pin down. One wonders what exactly they’re listening to as they make their way through this disc, but jazz is not the first thing that springs to mind. Is it interesting? Yes. I kept wanting to hear what was coming next, but it’s not something I’m pulling out at a dinner party. If you ever wanted to know what Jewish folk would sound like if Rush or King Crimson got a hold of it, this might be it.
2009, Tzadik, 62 minutes.

Copyright 2009, Jazz Society of Oregon