A note from George: Few jazz CDs are released in December, because the labels and agents try to get product out in time for holiday sales. As a result, the reviews each January are fewer in number than usual. On another subject, here's my recommendation for a two-fold New Year's Resolution: 1. Get out and about and support live jazz. 2. If you haven't yet done so, join the Jazz Society of Oregon and become a member of ever-improving KMHD radio!
Live In Koblenz, 1979, Bill Evans, piano.
First things first. This two CD set is previously un-issued in any form. It features the last Evans trio, with Marc Johnson, bass, and Joe LaBarbera, drums. The tunes are primarily familiar vehicles that Evans loved to interpret, but the very nature of jazz makes these performances at least slightly different from any versions you've previously heard. So Evans collectors will welcome (one more time) both Bill's tunes ("Turn Out The Stars," "Re: Person I Knew," "Very Early" and others) and some outstanding fare from his usual "book" ("If You Could See Me Now," "A Sleepin' Bee," "Spring Is Here," "Solar," "My Romance," "The Peacocks" and lots more). Nineteen selections in all on two CDs. A small caution, however. The sound quality, while eminently listenable, is not quite up to studio standards. It hardly seems possible that it's been over 30 years since his "Very Early" demise in 1980, but the timeless beauty of the Bill Evans sound continues to influence today's pianists and mesmerize today's listeners. New "gold" such as this simply adds to an extensive Bill Evans discography.
Domino, 2010, two CDs: 53:35 and 51:30.
Things Are Getting Better, Luther Hughes, bass, leader.
As he has done on several past recordings, Luther Hughes and his Cannonball-Cotrane Project continue to explore tunes either written by, performed by, or played in the spirit of Cannonball and 'Trane. This very "together" quintet of L.A. boppers is led by Hughes and includes Glenn Cashman, tenor, Bruce Babad, alto, Ed Czech, piano, and Paul Kreibich, drums. The tunes you'll remember from back in the day include Adderley's "Jive Samba" and the title tune, "Things Are Getting Better"; Ellington's classic "Take the Coltrane"; Frank Rosolino's near standard "Blue Daniel"; and one from the American Songbook, "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise." The remaining selections are originals from various members of the quintet, most of which have that unmistakable "energy drink" enthusiasm. Great straight ahead playing, generous solo space, solid musicianship and finely tuned ensemble passages are the order of the day. Most importantly, remember Duke's admonition: "it don't mean a thing …" Not to worry. It swings with authority.
Primrose Lane, 2010: 74:35.
European Quartet Live, Toots Thielemans, harmonica.
Belgian harmonica genius Thielemans is 88, and I'm quite sure he could have lived on his laurels long ago. He's worked with the best in the business, including Goodman, Shearing, Ella, Evans and Quincy, to name a few. This CD weaves together highlights from European concert appearances in the middle 2000s. His long-time associates here include Karel Boehlee, piano, Hein Van de Geyn, bass and Hans van Oosterhout, drums. The quartet is simply stunning throughout the program on timeless tunes tailored for Toots. You've heard him perform some of them before, but you never tire of that sound. Toots is still at his poignant best on "Days of Wine and Roses," "'Round Midnight," "Autumn Leaves," "Theme from Midnight Cowboy," "If You Go Away," and his own gems, "Bluesette" and "For My Lady," among others. Toots has spent a career bending notes and melting hearts. Be sure you let him into yours.
Challenge, 2010, 53:16.
The Chris Crocco Trio +, Chris Crocco, guitar.
All I ask of a jazz guitarist is that he/she not try to mess with my head by making a guitar sound like a computer inspired, machine gun-like, ugly whiz-bang gizmo. Reserve that sort of thing, please, for the world or rock. So when a guy comes along and gets a guitar sound (imagine that!) from a guitar, I'm on his side! Such a guy is Crocco. On various tunes here, all his own creations, his trio is enhanced with the tenor saxophone of long-time Berklee College icon, George Garzone. Crocco's compositions run from the demanding, bristling tempo of "Avenge" to a delicate, lacy ballad called "Silvia," and cover all points between. His writing, and Garzone's tenor, can be a bit edgy for my ears, but there can be no question of his virtuosity. I'm "old school" in that it takes a couple of standards for me to really gauge a musician. However, his originals are varied and always artistic.
GPA Records, 2010, times not indicated.
Rare And Unissued 1955-56 Broadcasts, Gerry Mulligan, baritone saxophone.
If ever there was an award for the complete jazz musician, perhaps Gerry Mulligan would at least be a nominee. After all, he was a force in the cool school, pioneered the piano-less quartet, led the ground breaking Concert Jazz Band and arranged and composed with consistent brilliance. The performances on this CD are divided into sextet and quartet dates with frequent Mulligan colleagues on board. The sextet sides were recorded at Basin Street in New York with Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims and Jon Eardley joining Mulligan on the front line. The quartet material came from a Gotham TV show called "Camera 9" and includes Brookmeyer, Bill Crow and Dave Bailey. Many of the tunes were Mulligan originals and were often heard on other records of his from that era. A few American Songbook standards complete a delightful musical tour with Mulligan and friends. The sound quality is not up to the standard of a recording studio, but it's a treat to hear Mulligan "shmoosing" with the deejay in charge. And it's always a rewarding experience to hear his swinging baritone.
Rare Live Recordings, 2010, 71:52.
The Chess Players, Jimmy Rowles, piano.
This reissue was recorded back in 1976 and became semi-rare very quickly. Any Rowles material is well worth hearing, so it's a real treat to have this one available for the first time on CD. The laid back, dissonant but brilliant Rowles works like maple syrup over hotcakes with Buster Williams, bass, and Billy Hart, drums. It is interesting that Jimmy loved 1920s vaudeville tunes as much as he did thoroughly modern things like Wayne Shorter's title tune. Rowles devotes nearly 12 minutes to it, in part because he also dug Shorter's compositions. In his gravelly, complete unique singing voice, he takes on a couple of obscure items in "Pretty Eyes" and a tune with Halloween possibilities, "(When The) Skeleton in the Closet (Rattled His Bones)." Rowleew knew 'em all! He also put medleys together, and not always, as is the case here, because something or someone wove a common thread among the tunes. He just liked 'em, so his medley is comprised of "Over the Rainbow," "Irene" and "Honeysuckle Rose." Don't try to figure it out, just listen and marvel at the unique Mr. Rowles. From "Far East Suite," Duke's "Dooji" brings the CD to a close. A fitting one in that Rowles idolized Duke and Strayhorn. To me, his piano is high jazz art. You must experience him.
Candid, 2010, 41:23.
One Kiss, Linda Lee Michelet, vocals.
It's easy to come away with the notion that a lot of love and care went into Portland-based Michelet's new CD. Joe Millward's arrangements for both a sterling jazz ensemble and some subtle strings are perfect for Michelet's vocals. It's no secret that the singer admires some of the greats of the past, namely Peggy Lee, Anita O'Day and Nancy Wilson, among others. And Millward did some very cool research, resulting in a complete recording history of each tune: who sang it and when; album name and year; and accompanying artists. It's all here, and it enhances Michelet's renditions of these great tunes. I also liked the fact that she doesn't simply choose the "greatest hits" of these singers. Instead, in many cases, Michelet reprises lesser known gems like Peggy Lee's "One Kiss," "New York City Blues," "Things Are Swingin'," "Ridin' High" and "Boston Beans." In the case of Wilson, it's "Old Country," "He's My Guy" and "Never Will I Marry." Memories of O'Day are also shared in "Four Brothers," "Whisper Not" and "Four." Tenor great David Evans and trumpet/flugelhorn star Paul Mazzio are especially effective solists, but it's Michelet's vocals that are the tasty, bright and breezy focus throughout. And that's a lotta love.
Eader's Bakery, 2010, 69:44.
Valentina, Mario Romano, piano.
Unless you've spent some time in Toronto, it's unlikely that you'd know the name Mario Romano. A mainstay of the Toronto jazz community for decades, he finally realizes his dream of a debut recording. And let me be quite clear, he holds no prisoners. Romano is a grandiose, straight-at-your-head, hard bop pianist. On this high-flying quartet date, he joins forces with equally spirited colleagues in Pat LaBarbera, tenor sax, Roberto Occhipitti, bass, and Mark Kelso, drums. Their program is dedicated for the most part to jazz and bop standards such as "Night in Tunesia," "Autumn Leaves," "Nardis," "On Green Dolphin Street," "Windows" and "Someday My Prince Will Come." The quartet seems to give these tunes fresh new interpretations with new harmonies or by re-inventing rhythmic devices. Not everyone can pull off such a trick, but Romano's quartet attacks absolutely on target. Just listen to what they do, for example, with "Norwegian Wood," a tune which has become listless in some hands. These guys turn it inside out and upside down! LaBarbera, who, I assume, is a Coltrane disciple, is especially fiery throughout. There's lots of excitement here. These Canadian cats can cook!
Alma Records, 2010, 54:13.
Live At Art Gallery Reutlingen, Lee Shaw, piano.
This live performance features the 84 years young pianist Shaw and her trio with a couple of scintillating reedman in baritone ace Michael Lutzeier and tenor maven Johannes Enders. One or the other is featured on seven of the eight tunes in the set. The familiar fare includes the old warhorse "Falling in Love Again," along with "Body And Soul," "It's Alright with Me," Ornette Coleman's blues, "Turnaround," and "Stella By Starlight." The one trio-only selection is "Lonely Town," a Leonard Bernstein beauty seemingly being rediscovered in recent years. At times, both sax players were over the edge to my ears, but the album has its moments, and Shaw shimmers and shines on the Bernstein piece. To paraphrase a lyric from some years back, "Will you still need me when I'm 84?" Well, the answer is a resounding yes -- we still need Lee Shaw playing with vitality and beauty!
Artists Recording Collective, 2010, 60:32.
Icicles, Eastern Boundary Quartet.
This quartet plays a live concert recorded about a year ago in Budapest, Hungary, of all places. The tunes are all original compositions and very exploratory in nature. While this may be music more for your head than your heart, it can't be denied that there's a high level of creativity going on here. Mihaly Borbely, the principal soloist, plays soprano sax exclusively. The soprano is an instrument that I find tedious, and that limited my interest in this concert.
Konnex, 2010, 50:04.
Before The Rain, Noah Preminger, tenor saxophone.
New York just keeps turning out tenor players loaded with chops and creativity. Preminger starts his CD with a brief and gorgeous "Where Or When," and then goes into the very Monkish "Quickening," written by the quartet's pianist, Frank Kimbrough. With the exception of one more standard, "Until the Real Thing Comes Along," most of the remainder is original material His tenor can be aggressive one moment and poignant the next. He's worth checking out.
Palmetto, 2011, 50:11.
No Ordinary Way, Toph-E And The Pussycats.
To call this "smooth jazz" would be unkind and inaccurate. Yet there are connections. The quintet at work here revolves pretty much around the sound of a soprano sax and keyboards. What saves this CD from the dreaded smooth jazz nausea is the fact that the tunes are quite well written, something smooth jazz could never boast of. It's all original material with the exception of Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage." In the genre of contemporary sounds, this might be about as good as it gets.
Self-produced, 2010, 70:47.
Jump! Pete Levin.
The inherent problem with Hammond B-3 organ jazz albums is that they all tend to sound the same; the hum of the organ wavers over the top of a funky groove, and the proceedings lack a bass player, the low end handled by the organist. Levin's new CD is no exception, but as far as jazz organ discs go, it's a darned good one. The title track sets a funky groove, and Levin holds down both chords and bass line with ease. While the sound is nothing new, the musicianship behind it sets the bar high. Levin is a solid player and songwriter, and his backing band is top-notch. Lenny White rocks the drums while Manolo Badrena adds percussive sizzle. Guitarist Dave Stryker does a good job balancing his chords against Levin's, and his solos fit right in the pocket. Luckily, it's not all funky grooves here. "Exclamation" bops along with smart chord changes, while the Mingus song, "Nostalgia in Times Square," swaggers in swing; Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" gets a nice slow groove treatment. Danny Gottleib adds a lighter swing to "Honeysuckle Rose" in his sole appearance. Levin may not be reinventing the jazz organ, but he knows how to make the best of his instrument.
2010, Pete Levin Music, 60 minutes.
One Take: Volume Four, Joey DeFrancesco, Robi Botos, Vito Rezza, Phil Dwyer.
There's no bass here, but Joey D knows how to hold down the low end on organ. What makes this a non-organ jazz CD is the subtlety of DeFrancesco within the two-keyboard setup, wherein he shares the chordal space with pianist Botos, and the two manage to complement rather than overpower each other. Drummer Reza keeps the rhythm moving forward, while saxophonist Dwyer carries the melodic torch. This is the fourth in a series of "One Take" discs, capturing the artists without rehearsal, overdubs and edits. Just pure jazz by practiced professionals. The song choices aren't terribly inspirational, but they all have a strong sense of melody to build off. "Tenderly" is done as a slow, soulful ballad, while "There is No Greater Love" swings with both keyboardists. "Not That" is a typical organ shuffle by DeFrancesco, while "Broadway" bops with abandon, Dwyer flying his fingers over the keys. The most interesting tune is Aurthur Young's "Village Green," a fast swinger built on minor blues chords overgrown with alterations. It gives all the players a chance to stretch out on their solos, and it keeps the energy high.
2010, Alma Records, 54:45.
The Bickel/Marks Group with Dave Liebman, The Bickel/Marks Group.
Floridians Doug Bickel and Dennis Marks have been playing together for two decades, and the two jazz educators have a winning disc with this collaboration with Liebman. Bassist Marks scores a hit with his tune, "Sparrows and Sidewinders," a smoking hard bopper that lets both Liebman and alto saxophonist Matt Vashlishan make the most of their muscular playing. Pianist Bickel goes more cerebral with his floating "Finding Your Way," which gives Marks a chance to shine on acoustic bass. Their collaboration on the jazz waltz, "Home," lacks definition, but Liebman's arrangement of "Do I Love You Because You are Beautiful" is indeed starkly beautiful, with the melody carried on soprano by Liebman. Marco Marcinko's drums kick off the Coltrane-meets-Miles tune, "Truncated Time," a quick bopper that gives credence to Floridian jazz, and then some. There is grit and polish here at the same time.
2010 ZOHO Music, 52:55.
Soul of the Movement, Marcus Shelby Orchestra.
The danger in tackling weighty political themes in jazz. Is that the message may become stronger than the music and take away from a good listen. Shelby's disc of meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. walks a very fine line between preachy activism and musical tribute. Utilizing the Civil Rights movement as musical inspiration allows Shelby to build big sounds, both orchestrally and vocally. But that occasionally gets in the way of the cohesion of the music. The orchestra is spot on good, and when they have the floor to themselves the results can be inspiring, as on the wonderfully layered "Emmett Till (Bobo)." When the multiple vocalists enter, however, things can be texturally confused. Vocalist Jeannine Anderson has a stunning voice, but her classical/gospel timbres conflict with the jazz backgrounds. Singer Kenny Washington fits in slightly more easily, as on his solo turn on the swinging "Black Cab (Montgomery)." The gospel tunes are a mixed bag. "We Shall Overcome" is a fitting tribute to Dr. King, but "Amen" sounds out of place in its jazz-meets-gospel-meets classical blend. Curtis Mayfield's "We're a Winner" is a surprisingly good fit, even in its heavy, funky gospel, sung magically by Faye Carol. This is an achievement of musical fortitude, but it's not without its shortcomings.
2010, Porto Franco Records, 65 minutes.
Brazil Confidential, Jon Gold.
Pianist and composer Gold plays music inspired by his adopted country of Brazil, and he captures the layered essence of that country's musical heritage well by combining elements of classical, jazz, multiple Latin styles and traditional folk sounds. It begins with a journey through the Brazilian landscape on "Alem Do Azul," highlighted by Gold's repeated keyboard phrases and Jorge Continentino's breathy flute. Anat Cohen joins in on several tracks, including the frenetic "Funky Jabour," where her soprano sax soars above the percussion. This disc travels from thick jungles to the breezy beaches evoked by "Carioca Da Clara." There is plenty of classical influence here too, as on the chamber-like "Janacek Suite No. 4." Gold has captured the country in a bottle, and his compositions don't lack for interest or color. This is Brazilian done right.
2010, ZOHO Music, 59:55.
Past Present, George Cotsirilos Trio.
Guitarist Cotsirilos is a veteran Bay Area player with a polished grit to his playing. Here he appears with bassist Robb Fisher and drummer Ron Marabuto in a stripped down swing trio. The opener, "Good Wood," features Cotsirilos on his deep hollow body, strumming and picking over a minor blues groove. He alters the chords enough to keep things interesting and delivers a solo that is both commanding and laid back. "The Way You Look Tonight" gets an upbeat waltz treatment, with Fisher's sturdy bass work anchoring the buoyant beat. The nice thing about this disc is its lack of pretense. It's a simple, stripped down trio -- pure guitar, bass and drums -- and all three players click with each other, making this a pleasing listen.
2010, OA2 Records, 58:05.
Together Again, John Medeski & Lee Shaw.
Eighty-four-year-old pianist Shaw is still going strong, and her playing is still a welcome mix of jazz and classical. Here, she is captured live at the Egg in Albany, New York, with her former student, John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame. It's nice to hear student and teacher, especially since Medeski is more known for his jazz-funk fusion than classically influenced chamber jazz. The opening group improv finds both Shaw and Medeski on acoustic piano, trading lines and chords as bassist Rich Syracuse and drummer Jeff Siegel create a base behind them. Things get more interesting when Medeski goes to other keyed instruments, giving more texture to the recording. He plays a fine melodica on the bouncy "Prairie Child," and his organ work is soothing on Shaw's melancholy "Tears." He even gets a chance to show off his solo piano on a lengthy intro to his "Where's Sly." Medeski has obvious respect for his teacher, and the interplay between the two is musically touching. It's a pleasure to hear the generations play well together.
2009/2010 Artists Recording Collective, 60 minutes.
Before the Rain, Noah Preminger.
Saxophonist Preminger opens his Palmetto debut with a ballad. The pretty "Where or When," a lush melody by Rodgers & Hart, shows off Preminger's sophisticated tone, though it's a tad too breathy. Pianist Frank Kimbrough, drummer Matt Wilson and bassist John Hebert all have the touch and sensitivity to navigate the spaces Preminger uses in his playing, as on his starkly pretty title track. The disc is a nice display of ballads and slower tunes, but there isn't a lot of upbeat material, save for Kimbrough's "Quickening" and Ornette Coleman's free "Toy Dance." Preminger has a fine tone on tenor, and he draws you in with his feel and use of color.
2011 Palmetto Records, 50:25.
European Quartet Live, Toots Thielemans.
The master of the jazz harmonica is up there in years, but he still plays his plaintive mini instrument like nobody else. Here, he appears live with a quartet that includes pianist Karel Boehlee, bassist Hein Van de Geyn and drummer Hans van Oosterhout. While I have never been a big fan of jazz harmonica, he is unique, and Thielemans is able to pull out sounds and runs better than many horn players. His solo on the swing-waltz version of "Summertime" is inspired. The lack of sonic diversity of the harmonica is the one thing that keeps me from loving it. Thankfully, the music here is diverse enough to go beyond that. There is Brazilian balladry ("Comecar De Novo"), light swing ("The Days of Wine and Roses"), solo Monk (a melancholy "'Round Midnight"), and light waltz ("Bluesette"). His European quartet is certainly no slouch of a backing band. All players are strong, but they know that Thielemans is the star. Each gets solo time, but he's the melodic and solo focus and makes the most of it.
2010 Challenge Records, 56:15.
Lieb Plays the Blues a la Trane, David Liebman Trio.
For being a contemporary of John Coltrane, it's surprising that Liebman only recently decided to pay tribute to the artist he called his epiphany. His song choices are fairly straightforward, but the playing is uniquely Liebman. His take on Miles Davis's "All Blues" lets him stretch his musical legs on soprano. The results are inspiring. The groove from drummer Eric Ineke and bassist Marius Beets stays steady but fast, letting Liebman explore the horn and the fairly simple chord changes. He pulls out the tenor on "Up Against the Wall," taking the blues to the limit with multiphonics and runs that travel way outside the changes. "Mr. P.C." gives Beets and Ineke a chance to shine, but this disc is all about the saxophone. The simplicity of "Village Blues" again lets Liebman go crazy on soprano, and it's great to hear the lifelong student of Coltrane-ography play some of Trane's simpler tunes, letting the setting dictate the course of his musings. With "Take the Coltrane" ending the disc, we hear Liebman pushing himself in honor of his hero. It's great to hear Liebman let loose and have fun. Trane would have been proud.
2010 Challenge Records, 53:10.