CD Reviews - May 2011 

by George Fendel, and Kyle O'Brien

Reviews by George Fendel

Live At Feinstein's, Rebecca Kilgore, Harry Allen Quartet.

Understand, please, that Kilgore can no longer be considered a "wonderfully talented jazz secret," with a loyal following tucked into her "little big city" home of Portland. She has national credentials now, and she's earned them. And, gifted singer that she is, that got her an appearance at Feinstein's at Lowe's Regency. Sinatra said it like this: "I want to be a part of it, New York, New York." And when one gets a Gotham gig, it adds some luster to work with: Allen, tenor; Rosanno Sportiello, piano; Joel Forbes, bass; and Chuck Riggs, drums. A very delightful theme ran through the evening as well. Kilgore and company chose songs associated with Billie Holiday and/or Lester Young. Lady and Prez, of course, thought the world of one another and worked quite closely together on many a great recording. As she always does, Kilgore chose songs not overworked by either of the two jazz heroes. The most obscure just may be the opener, "Your Mother's Son-In-Law"! Among other winning works are "You Can't Lose a Broken Heart," "That Old Devil Called Love," "You're a Lucky Guy" and "I Wished on the Moon." Allen is at his Ben Webster-ish best on the ballads, and swings ever so politely at faster tempos. Kilgore keeps the audience well informed with tidbits of information about her songs. But, even better, she sings them as well as anyone in today's jazz world. She may live here in Portland, but she's a jazz treasure everywhere she goes!
Arbors, 2011, 72:52.

This Side Of Strayhorn, Terell Stafford, trumpet and flugelhorn.
How nice it is to see today's younger generation of jazz musicians honoring Billy Strayhorn, a genius who died more than 40 years ago, but gave jazz some of its most elegant, sophisticated, and, in many cases, achingly gorgeous songs of all time. Stafford puts together a wondrous quintet to do the honors, including Tim Warfield, tenor and soprano; Bruce Barth, piano; Peter Washington, bass; and Dana Hall, drums. The album is so good that it compares favorably to Art Farmer's all-Strayhorn outing of about three decades ago. The quintet warms to the task with resilient ensemble passages and brisk solos on a well-balanced selection of Strayhorn hits and obscurities. From the former category, there's "Raincheck," "Lush Life" and "Day Dream." From the lesser known ledger comes "Smada," "My Little Brown Book" and "Lana Turner," probably the least known tune on the menu, although bearing the unmistakable Strayhorn stamp. The quintet turns in a superb, thoughtful performance in honoring a true jazz icon. A hundred years from now, the pop shlock will be forgotten, but the music of Strayhorn will endure, thanks in part to Stafford and recordings such as this.
MaxJazz, 2011, 69:50.

Live In Beverly Hills, Dado Moroni, piano.
Now considered one of the stalwarts of jazz piano, Moroni still makes his home in Genoa, Italy. But he ventured quite a distance, to the home of celebrities and Rolls Royces, to record his debut CD on Resonance Records. His trio includes Marco Panascia, bass, and Peter Erskine, drums. And they're ready to fly from the opening notes of "Ghanian Village," a rollicking, ripping original in tribute to Moroni's friend and confidant, Kenny Barron. John Lewis's "Django" takes on a Ray Bryant-ish hue, and it's followed by "Where Is Love," a delicacy from the musical, "Oliver." Among other impressive entries are the venerable standard, "I Hear a Rhapsody"; " Nose Off" is a bluesy, medium tempo original of Moroni's; and "Jamal" is Moroni's tip of the hat to Ahmad Jamal, whom he describes as a "jazz Picasso." All these and others put on display a straight-down-the-middle, post bop pianist of immense talent. To further sweeten the deal, Resonance Records has enclosed a second disc. It's a DVD of the concert, and includes two additional selections. If you don't know about Moroni, here's your chance to meet up with a spirited, in-the-groove talent.
Resonance Records, 2011, 72:12.

Tribute To Bird And Monk, Heiner Stadler, arranger, conductor.
When the LP version of this album was released in 1978, Downbeat gave it five stars and one critic called it "a brilliant mixture of arranged and free jazz." It features perhaps one player from the mainstream side, Thad Jones. And this time he's on cornet. George Adams, on tenor, and George Lewis, on trombone, are from the avant-garde camp, and really, this CD is an excursion into free playing under the guise of Parker and Monk compositions. Pianist Stanley Cowell has some heavy-duty moments, but he can't keep the other players from sounding at times like the orchestra warming up. Typical of free jazz, it's every man for himself. Don't worry about harmony. Dissonance is king. It get so weird that even a seasoned bop freak like yours truly was challenged to find the usually familiar melodies of "Au Privave," "Misterioso" and "Straight, No Chaser," to name a few. There are countless worthy and often fascinating interpretations of music by master jazz composers (see the review above). Indeed, some listeners may find this recording to be just that. To my ear, however, it's a sea of cacophony with instruments screeching and belching.
Labor Records, 2011, 76:36.

Freedom Trane, Jessica Williams, piano.
On her first trio recording in some years, Williams offers both original compositions in the spirit of John Coltrane and a selection of Trane's work as well. As she writes in liner notes: "John Coltrane has been my light through the darkness. When there are questions, I'll ask 'what would Philly Joe Jones or Dexter Gordon do'; but when things get really weird, I can ask the 'Trane." A treat for Portland jazz fans is the presence of Dave Captein on bass and Mel Brown on drums, marking the fourth time she has recorded with the two . Her insistence on precision and perfection always falls wonderfully in step with her dramatic but never tawdry presentation. And don't forget, she swings! I was particularly moved by two originals, both played with deep feeling for her jazz hero. "Just Words" and "Prayer and Meditation" are riveting and expressive . Among Coltrane's contributions, any Trane fan worth his collection will know "Lonnie's Lament," "Naima," and a tune he co-wrote with Sonny Rollins, "Paul's Pal." The final selection, a rare Trane tune called "Welcome," is played solo, and is the essence of simple beauty. Williams remains a powerful force for all that is good, rich and "right" in the art of jazz.
Origin, 2011, 56:55.

Circle Of Three, David Friesen, bass.
A 2007 inductee into the Oregon Jazz Hall of Fame, Friesen has been referred to by author and critic Nat Hentoff as "a phenomenon, a player whose musicianship, tone, time and imagination are (beyond category.)" On his new recording, Friesen welcomes fellow Portlanders John Gross (tenor) and Greg Goebel (piano) in a performance of seven originals. They seemingly "breathe as one," perfectly executing powerful solos at every turn. Friesen's writing is varied and colorful, starting with the introspective "When Will You Return," but shifting to the more dense and complex "This and That," and returning to the solemnity of "Serenade," among other stimulating compositions. Friesen's gorgeous, rounded tone is on center stage here, but Gross's "Lee Konitz-on-tenor" sound is something special, and Goebel embarks on solo adventures on the piano which are often breathtaking. Together, this "drumless" trio is absolutely compelling.
ITM Records, 2011, 58:16.

These Things We Dig, James L. Dean, tenor, alto, clarinet, flute.
A big band leader for more than 30 years, Dean's boppy sextet holds forth at The Whiskey CafÈ in Lyndhurst. Most of the tunes here are hard bop vehicles, and well-chosen ones. Why? Easy. Many are among the "quiet classics" of jazz in that they're not often played by anyone! Take, for example, the opener, Hank Mobley's "This I Dig of You." It's a well-written melody, but one that is rarely heard these days. The same may be said for several others, including John Coltrane's "Satellite," Benny Golson's "Park Avenue Petite," Thad Jones's "Fingers," and maybe the biggest surprise of all, a big band feel to Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis's "Jaws." There's also a workout based on "Cherokee" changes entitled "Bebop for Linda," a rather jaunty clarinet feature on Monk's "Ask Me Now," and a spirited run through Jobim's "No More Blues." Seems that Dean and his pals are getting the job done in New Jersey. Way out here in Oregon, we dig it too.
Cexton Records, 2010, 72:41.

Buzios, Bill Beach, piano, vocals, composer.
Imagine writing numerous pieces of music in a style native to another country, and then writing the lyrics in the language of that country. Think about growing up in Corvallis, Oregon, and then at some phase of your life, you begin writing music that's very Brazilian, adding lyrics in Portuguese. Well, Portlander Beach has done exactly that. Twice! On this, his second recording of original music worthy of any well-crafted Jobim or Gilberto melody, Beach offers a dozen examples of his piano, vocals and his charming writing, all in a bossa/Brazilian bag. He surrounds himself with a talented troop of Portlanders in Dave Captein, bass, and, believe it or not, four scintillating Rose City drummers, albeit one to each selection: Charlie Doggett, Gary Hobbs, Reinhardt Melz and Ron Steen. To sweeten the deal, add Portland's premier singer, Rebecca Kilgore, who joins Beach on one outstanding cut. Not all the tunes are vocals, and instrumentally, Beach is playing his own compositions, very musical ones I might add, in a setting he obviously loves. One can only guess how many hundreds of hours Beach has invested in becoming a stirring interpreter of this very special music. What an accomplishment! And what a delicious new CD as well!
Axial Records, 2011; 49:3.0

Into The Moment, Cinzia Spata, vocals.
First there was Roberta Gambarini. Now it's time to discover another singer who is already a sensation in her native Italy, and American jazz audiences had better get hip to Spata. She is a thoroughgoing jazz singer, connected at the hip with the musicians who accompany her. Her intention is to be another voice in the band, so to speak, and she pulls it off with understated taste and jazz chops galore. On what I assume is her initial release in the U.S., Spata teams up with some top players in Bruce Barth, piano, Dave Clark, bass, Yoron Israel, drums, Ken Cervenka, trumpet and flugelhorn, and George Garzone, tenor sax. Her material ranges from creative, original, and sometimes obscure tunes to standards such as "My Favorite Things," "Soul Eyes" and "East Of The Sun." One jazz magazine called her, "one of the most beautiful voices on the Italian jazz scene." There are good singers, and then there are gifted singers. Spata possesses a gift, and we hope it keeps on giving.
Koine Records, 2010, 60:47.

The David Leonhardt Jazz Group Plays Cole Porter.
Philadelphia has contributed a healthy number of jazz musicians for decades, and one of them, with over 40 years experience, is pianist Leonhardt. With many albums to his credit, this time around Leonhardt brings us an entire menu of Cole Porter classics. The presence of Philly legend Larry McKenna on saxophone makes this trio into a swinging quartet completed by Matthew Parrish, bass, and Paul Wells, drums. An added bonus here and there is singer Nancy Reed, who lends a polished presence on these Porter evergreens. There are a dozen of them altogether, and you know every one of them. Leonhardt brings a crystalline touch, and McKenna's Lester Young-inspired tenor is solidly down the middle of the mainstream highway. These are, of course, timeless titles, and they're played here with taste and exuberance.
Big Bang Recrods, 2011, 60:04.

The Sesjun Radio Shows, Chet Baker, trumpet, vocals.
It's truly amazing that these previously unreleased (on CD) treasures keep floating to the surface. Here is the great Chet Baker, performing live in The Netherlands. The Sesjun radio broadcasts ran for some 30 years, finally coming to an end in 2004. Many revered American jazz artists will be included in a series of recordings, and what a wonderful start with samples of Chets's appearances from 1976 through 1985. With various rhythm sections, both European and American, and with the addition of an occasional addition horn or two, Chet puts it all in overdrive on a sterling silver collection of standards and other compositions. Chet definitely had a stable of standards that he leaned on, and you can hear them once again here. As much as Baker's vocal equipment had deteriorated toward the end of his life, that had not taken place at the time of these recordings. Sometimes jazz buyers are suspicious of recording quality on "finds" such as this. No need for concern. The quality is first class. But more importantly, here's the great Chet on some classy, well played material that heretofore had existed only on cassettes in the hands of grizzled old collectors. Now it's available for everyone to enjoy.
T2 Entertainment/Naxos, 2010, 2 CDs; times not indicated.

Live In Marciac, Brad Mehldau, piano.
Anyone who doubts that Mehldau is a virtuoso needs to listen to this two-CD set with a DVD tucked in for extra measure (or pleasure). Mehldau plays solo throughout with a strong dose of his original music and standards such as "It's Allright with Me," "Dat Dere" and "My Favorite Things." I came away from this production with much the same reaction as when I heard Mehldau play solo in Portland several years ago. He's a sensational, spin your head around technician, and few can match him at blistering tempos and feverish improvisation. And that very aspect of Mehldau's playing is problematic for me. I ask, "Where's the line between 'look what I can do?' and stunning virtuosity? When I hear Mehldau, sometimes I come away with the idea that he's displaying chops to impress, and perhaps not to create art. There are many lofty moments on this set, however. "Secret Love," for example, is tender, delicate and sparse. "Unrequited," a Mehldau original, is full of motion and mystery; and another original, "Trailer Park Ghost," moves along briskly but is hardly "scary." Mehldau deservedly has legions of fans and is an artist of importance. I very much want to react to his playing with something more that "wow!"
Nonesuch, 2011; 61:23 and 40:33.

All I See Is Sky, Jessie Marquez, vocals.
The city of Eugene, Oregon is home base for Marquez, a no-gimmicks singer who interprets original songs in the manner of her family's Cuban roots. She sings in an intimate, on-key, story-telling style, both in Spanish and English. Her accompanists are nearly all Portland jazz musicians, most prominently pianist Clay Giberson. He contributes several melodies to the session, collaborating with lyrics by the singer herself. Other Portlanders include Phil Baker, bass, Charlie Doggett, drums, Dan Balmer, guitar, John Nastos, saxophones, Paul Mazziol, trumpet, and Jeff Uusitalo, trombone. Marquez has made several music making trips to Cuba, performing on television and widely throughout the island. If you're into this genre, Marquez and her cohorts have delivered the goods with both some spicy, upbeat offerings and some straight to the heart balladry. All with a touch of Cuba!
Carena Rccords, 2011, 57:45.

Eclectic Nostalgia, Dick Lupino, bass, vocals.
One of the "locals" in the Rhode Island-Massachusetts area, Lupino handles a lyric in the special way of instrumental players who happen to sing. And in this case, Lupino sings quite well. Of course, it didn't hurt to hire the versatile, swinging pianist Mike Renzi. Drummer Vinny Pagano completes the trio, and they are assisted on a few tunes by a skillful horn section. Away they go on "The Best Is Yet to Come." And indeed it does. Standards are pretty much the order of the day, including "Beyond the Sea," "Dindi" and "When Joanna Loved Me." Three medleys work nicely here. The first is a Sinatra twosome: "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Summer Wind." Nat Cole hits include "Unforgettable," "Mona Lisa" and "For Sentimental Reasons." And there's a "Fly" medley with "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Come Fly With Me." Two pop hits didn't quite fit with the rest of the music, but a few additional newer tunes worked well. The strength of this CD lies in Lupino's ability to capture that hard to define quality of the "musicianly" singer. No gimmicks, shmaltz or extra frosting. That's probably why I thought this was a swinging, sincere outing.
Self-produced, 2011, 60:50.

Fragments, Bill Anschell, piano.
It's true, you can go wherever you wish with a mind-boggling 88 keys when you're going it alone. And so it is that Anschell takes us on an intriguing journey of creativity on this solo album. He begins the proceedings with a very different take on "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." I'd think that Cole Porter would have dug it! Next comes Cahn-Van Heusen's gorgeous "All My Tomorrows," a tune seemingly being rediscovered decades after it was written. Rodgers and Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind" is given an impressionistic bent, and "Willow Weep For Me," slightly altered rhythmically, is impressive. Other standards include a totally redecorated "Honeysuckle Rose" and a near-stride outing on "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." The remainder of the CD is devoted to pop hits from years past, such as "Alice's Restaurant" and others of that ilk. It probably will never sound as good as it does here, but why include it when there are zillions of examples of superior writing out there? Overall, however, Anschell gets a thumbs up for creativity on these rather outside interpretations.
Origin, 2011, 52:11.

Dream Awhile, Audrey Silver, vocals.
I've said it before, but perhaps it bears repeating: there are oodles of wanna-be female jazz singers out there, and unfortunately most of 'em will wind up working elsewhere. Silver is one of the exceptions. Her voice is pure; her intonation is perfect, and she shies away from extraneous decoration on first-rate tunes which don't need it. To this point, she has worked quite extensively at area jazz clubs in the New York area, and to very strong response. On this CD, Silver chooses a selection of timeless tunes. And the accompaniment of Joe Barbato, piano, Joe Fitzgerald, bass, and Anthony Pinciotti, drums, is with her all the way, providing subtle but sterling support. Her choice of tunes includes "Too Marvelous For Words," "Exactly Like You," "That's All" and lots more. This CD, although dated 2009, is new to me, as is the name Audrey Silver. I was very impressed with her no-nonsense approach and a certain sweetness in her delivery which reminds, just a bit, of Jane Monheit. I can't help but think there is a solid career out there awaiting Silver. You heard it here first.
Self-Produced, 2009, times not indicated.

Lucky To Be Me, Rossano Sportiello, piano.
A native of Italy, Sportiello is beginning to carve a prominent place on this side of the pond, becoming an increasing presence on the Florida-based label, Arbors Records. This is his second release as a leader, and this time, it's a trio session with Frank Tate, bass, and Dennis Mackrel, drums. What you need to know about Sportiello is that somewhere in Italia, he "did due diligence" regarding the important chapters in the history of American piano jazz. He's equally comfortable striding along like Fats Waller; swinging politely a la Teddy Wilson or Hank Jones; or bopping buoyantly with a tip of the hat to Barry Harris or Tommy Flanagan. And these are the skills he displays on this very versatile, entertaining album. It's easy to spot Sportiello's elegant touch combined with a consistent confidence in every note he plays. Blessed with chops in any style, he's "all over the place" on this date, and it's very impressive! Consider for a moment titles that range from the ancient "When I Grow Too Old To Dream" to J.J. Johnson's "Lament." All these and more from a refreshing new talent. You're going to hear a lot more from him.
Arbors, 2011, 63:42.

Two And Fro, Debbie Poryes, piano and Bruce Williamson, alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet, flute.
Any duo worth it's salt can bring to the table a sort of intimacy one doesn't always find in other musical settings. Poryes and Williamson have a lot going for themselves in this heartwarming performance. Williamson plays nearly everything with a reed, and Poryes is equally skilled as accompanist as she is soloist. Each contributes an original tune to the set, and the musical menu is quite varied, ranging from Wayne Shorter's "Speak No Evil" to Lennon and McCartney's "In My Life." It's sometimes a small miracle that players of like minds find one another in the big world of jazz. This recording clearly demonstrates communication. Records like this are rare. And well worth hearing.
OA2 Records, 2011; 55:45.

Colors From A Giant's Kit, Sir Roland Hanna, piano.
No stranger to artful, high value jazz, Sir Roland Hanna's credentials date back decades with work alongside giants like Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and Coleman Hawkins, as well as numerous sessions under his own leadership. On this stunning album, Hanna demonstrates his very orchestral sounding solo piano on a perfectly balanced menu of original compositions, etched in marble standards, and one or two surprises. Hanna's piano crosses lines. There's a classical touch, a total comfort zone with standards, and a regal approach to the material of jazz composers. All are well represented here. The title tune is the opener, and if you close your eyes, you'll hear the string section of a symphony orchestra, That approach rings through much of what follows. From the standard side of the ledger, try "Robin's Nest," "My Romance," "Lush Life" and "Cherokee." And then there are jazz evergreens including "Naima," "Moment's Notice" and "In a Mellow Tone." Some might say that Hanna remains an under-appreciated giant. This CD, one would hope, will open the eyes of those who should have stood in long lines to hear him.
IPO Records, 2011, 66:29.

Reviews by Kyle O'Brien

Buzios, Bill Beach.
Beach was bitten by the Brazilian jazz bug nearly a decade ago, and the result has been a couple of infectiously good Brazilian-influenced jazz discs, including this latest from the Portland composer/arranger/pianist/vocalist. His slightly breathy delivery fits the bossa style well, and — when he's joined by fellow Portland vocalist Rebecca Kilgore on "Tudo a Relativo (Everything is Relative)" — the result is smooth sailing, with Kilgore's ebullient voice flowing with the Portuguese lyrics. Also joining Beach are bassist Dave Captein and drummers/percussionists Reinhardt Melz, Gary Hobbs, Charlie Doggett and Ron Steen. Beach has long been a welcome and unique voice in the Portland jazz world, and this disc of originals continues his contributions. While Beach's vocals are nice, his instrumentals are equally strong and focused. The title track warms up the listener with a Bahia breeze, while "Pete's Place" grooves with polyrhythms. Beach has obviously studied the Portuguese language, and it comes out in his mellifluous diction and lyrics that sound like they were written by a true Brazilian — no small feat. Of course, for those of us who don't speak the language, we have to be lulled by the lyrics as if they were another instrumental voice, which works well. Beach's piano takes center stage when the vocals are silent, and he proves once again that he is his own best accompanist. It's another successful voyage to Brazil from Beach, and the subsequent concerts should be a pleasure.
2011, Axial Records, 50 minutes.

Agogic, Agogic.
It's not easy being avant-garde, but there is a segment of jazz listeners that appreciates the blatant experimentation, improvisation and somewhat tonally askew sensibilities found in the avant garde. Seattle quartet Agogic is talented enough to draw in even some folks who might not initially love the approach. Led by longtime collaborators Cuong Vu on trumpet and Andrew D'Angelo on sax and bass clarinet, the two create explosive music with young Seattle up-and-comers Luke Bergman on bass and Evan Woodle on drums. The opener, "En Se Ne," is a drop funk groover that seems tight and composed at first, then dissolves into improvisation — in a good way. That constant sense of composition gone awry, but never too far, keeps this disc exciting. "Two Well" is the hardest of hard bop explorations, while "Acid Kiss" reminds me of a crazier outtake from Miles Davis's "Live Evil." The music isn't as cacophonous as some avant-garde jazz groups. There is a sense of melody hidden in most tracks — the tune "Felicia," for instance, is actually quite harmonious — and it doesn't venture outside unnecessarily. Vu and D'Angelo are adept at leading the proceedings deftly while keeping a sense of adventure.
2011, Table and Chair Music, 45:25.

Karma, Tommy Smith.
Scottish saxophonist Smith is one of the most accomplished players and composers you many never have heard of. His sense of adventure, his technically perfect playing, and his diversity of material has made him worth listening for. But American audiences aren't as familiar with him as they should be. Here, with his new quartet, Karma — drummer Alyn Cosker, bassist Kevin Glasgow and pianist Steve Hamilton — Smith changes his musical direction again. This time, he gets gritty and funky. He calls it his "grunge" album, and the vibe is definitely edgy, but it also shows off a nearly spiritual restraint. The tunes are both frenetic and wild ("Cause and Effect," "Tomorrow") and hauntingly beautiful ("Body or Soul," "Land of Heroes"), sometimes both in the same song. Smith's tone is bright and yearning. The band is tight and vibrant, like the fusion groups of the '70s but with a more refined sensibility. It's exciting music played with precision.
2011, Spartacus Records, 60 minutes.

Live at Koger Hall, Walt Weiskopf Quartet.
Saxophonist Weiskopf has a brash, bright tone and a sense of flair on the keys. This live disc was recorded at the North American Saxophone Alliance Convention at the University of South Carolina. Weiskopf is the featured player, but his band, including Renee Rosnes on piano, Paul Gill on bass and Tony Reedus on drums, is on par, making it a tight and inspired quartet disc. It opens with a fiery post-bop number, "Man of Many Colors," with all four players coalescing into a hard bop frenzy. The other tunes are challenging ("Dizzy Spells/Jay-Walking"), melodic ("Love for Sale"), and nice in a modern way ("Scottish Folk Song"). The disc is a good listen for modern jazz lovers, and it's also a great memory of Reedus, who died shortly after this was recorded. His precision and touch on the drums was wonderful, and it makes this album a lovely tribute to his talents.
2011, Capri Records, 69:50.

Live at Smalls, Bruce Barth Trio.
A good piano trio disc can be great jazz in a simple form — just three musicians connecting to create the best jazz possibe. Barth's latest live disc captures the energy of a solid performance at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village. Barth, bassist Vincente Archer, and drummer Rudy Royston are all on the same page, making the music come alive for the appreciative audience. Barth's playing is full of smartly placed runs, chord alterations and pointed melodies. "Yama" is a lovely, textured ballad that is accented by sparse touches by Royston. But the trio can also swing with abandon, as on the grooving "Almost Blues," anchored by Archer's thumping acoustic bass. Barth keeps the music interesting by utilizing different rhythms and chord changes, as on the more angular "Wilsonian Alto," or the funky "Looking Up," but he keeps the sound cohesive without being boring — the sign of a good piano trio.
2011, Smalls Live, 60 minutes.

Via, Storms/Nocturnes.
This is the third disc by the chamber jazz trio Storms/Nocturnes, and it cements the group as one of the tops in its genre. Pianist Geoffrey Keezer, vibraphonist Joe Locke and saxophonist Tim Garland put out textural compositions that combine the musical signatures of all three in a cohesive vision, while allowing each voice to stand on its own. The music is heavily influenced by places, reflected in the tranquility of "Her Sanctuary," the Tuscan farmhouse teeming with life in "Ripertoli," or the easy to understand "Snowfall in Central Park." Each piece paints a picture. One can almost see the snowflakes falling on Central Park in Keezer's light, cascading touch; can hear the whales in Garland's yearning bass clarinet on "A Big Wavy Thing / Infinite Blue"; can feel the introspective solitude of "Tiger Lily's DIY Paradise." It's chamber jazz that truly works, thanks to the vision and prowess of the three musicians. It's modern composition that has something to say.
2011, Origin Records, 60 minutes.

Sign of Four, REDS.
The acronym moniker stands for the four musicians in this quartet — guitarist Bjarne Roupe, baritone saxophonist Ed Epstein, drummer Dennis Drud, and bassist Goran Schelin. This is northern European jazz, in that three of the players are based in Denmark and one in Sweden (though Epstein, father of saxophonist Pete Epstein, is an Oregon native). It also has that calculated feel that typifies jazz from the Scandinavian countries. But it is more approachable than much of the compositional jazz of that region in that it brings in a more American sensibility. The title track is a modern swinger that has numerous bluesy elements, especially as done by guitarist Roupe. Those blues elements make this more interesting, as does the cool tone of Epstein's baritone sax. There is an intimacy to this music, but it also has some fun. The original tunes bop, ("Space Acre") and groove ("Cambodia"). It's not groundbreaking stuff, but the combination of the rich tones of both the guitar and the sax, combined with the vibrant sounds of the bass and drums, makes this a bit of Americana in Denmark.
2011, Origin Records, 50:10.

The Stream of Pearls Project, Claire Ritter.
This is another album inspired by places, and here those places are all waterways. This is pretty compositional jazz that rose out of the beauty of pianist Ritter's surroundings on trips beginning in 2006 to Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Water makes the music flow, as on the lovely "Bolero on the Charles," with percussive touches by Takaaki Masuko. Other guests come through the waves, including cellist Ashima Scripp, banjo player Richie Stearns, vibraphonist Jon Metzger and accordionists Toni Naples and Rick Hansen. Ritter treats her subjects like a painter, using the colors of her piano as her main palette, but adding brush strokes with her collaborators. This is more compositional art than true jazz, but there is a beauty in her musical explorations of water in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, the sand dunes of Kill Devil Hills, the crashing waters of Niagra Falls. It's nice to close your eyes and imagine her journeys.
2011, Zoning Recordings, 48 minutes.

Two & Fro, Debbie Poryes and Bruce Williamson.
Jazz has either gotten quieter or louder, depending on the new releases you hear, no matter the genre. Younger musicians seem to be gravitating towards more instruments, more textures and louder volumes. Seasoned musicians have often opted to pare down their groups, experimenting with duos, trios and solo albums. This disc falls into the latter category, but it manages to remain interesting. Pianist Poryes and saxophonist/flutist/clarinetist Williamson use the sparse setting to explore the intimate pairing of their instruments. When it works best, it is both beautiful and complex, as on their version of Wayne Shorter's "Speak No Evil," which starts out stark and plodding and builds to a crescendo, then back again. At times it can be a little on the sugary side, as with their version of the Beatles' "In My Life," though it holds back from sounding too sweet with some smart chord alterations. The cover tracks bring new life to the tunes, regardless of their sugar content, thanks to the fine musicianship and interplay between the two, and the originals break up the familiar.
It's another example of chamber jazz done well.
2011, OA2 Records, 55:46.

Tito Puente Masterworks - Live!!! Bobby Sanabria & the Manhattan
School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra.
Sometimes, the best jazz is just plain fun. This disc, done by this finely-honed group at the Manhattan School of Music, is fun, but also chronicles the life of Tito Puente through music. The disc swings at times and provides plenty of Latin funk. Conductor Sanabria brings out the best in his group. He uses dynamics to heighten the intensity, and the updated arrangements bring a modernity to Puente's music while respecting its roots. Norman Edwards does an admirable job recreating the Puente parts on vibes and percussion, but it is the ensemble as a whole that elevates this disc. Puente was a product of New York, and this band has the vibe and tenacity to pull off this musical tribute.
2011, Jazzheads, 64 minutes.