CD Reviews - January 2012 

by George Fendel, and Kyle O'Brien

Reviews by George Fendel

The Monk Project, Jimmy Owens, trumpet, flugelhorn.
A frequent presence as a sideman in big bands of Thad Jones, Owens has had precious few dates as a leader. But here he gets that opportunity, fronting a sextet playing his arrangements of Thelonious Monk classics! Pianist Kenny Barron was an easy choice for this CD, as he had previously been pianist for Sphere, a group dedicated almost entirely to Monk's music. The other players include Wycliffe Gordon, trombone, Marcus Strickland, tenor sax, Howard Johnson, tuba and baritone sax, Kenny Davis, bass, and Winard Harper, drums. The arrangements are both very bluesy, and -- big surprise -- very Monkish. The presence of Johnson on tuba gives the recording depth and color appropriate for this menu of tunes. There are 10 in all, including such Monk masterpieces as "Well You Needn't," "Blue Monk," "Pannonica," "Reflections" and "Epistrophy." But there are also a few lesserknown Monk gems such as "Bright Mississippi" ("Sweet Georgia Brown" changes), "Let's Cool One," "Brilliant Corners" and the even more obscure, "Stuffy Turkey." Just for fun, the guys also include a very Monk-like approach to "It Don't Mean a Thing." In this straightahead, finely crafted setting, Monk's tunes are honored, respected and played with joyous abandon.
Ipo, 2011, 75:05.

Inside Out, Bill Harris, alto and tenor saxophones.
Do you have enough jazz wrinkles to remember the consistently great recordings from labels like Blue Note and Prestige? One after another, they turned out timeless small group sessions that went a long way toward defining the very essence of jazz. Well, Portland native Bill Harris has, perhaps unknowingly, applied this wise concept on an absolutely terrific new CD. He gathered a group of Portland's premier players in the studio; put some fresh, invigorating Steve Hall arrangements on their stands; and in effect said, "You guys take it from here." What resulted was a flawless, classic blowing session featuring Portland giants Paul Mazzio, flugelhorn, George Mitchell, piano, Dave Captein, bass, and Dick Berk, drums -- in addition to Harris's super reed work. Everybody gets generous opportunity to strut their solo stuff, and always with superb taste. And Harris also "gets it right" in choosing ideal quintet vehicles that include "You're My Everything", "I Hear A Rhapsody," "We'll Be Together Again," "I'll Get By" and "A Sleepin' Bee." From the jazz book, there's "Pensativa," "Soultrane" and "Little Rootie Tootie." Two Harris originals complete a straightahead CD with no fluff, no pretense and no frosting. I loved every minute of it!
Self-Produced, 2011, 71:13.

Standards, Bob Brookmeyer, trombone and leader, New Art Orchestra with Fay Claassen, vocals.
One of the jazz icons from "back in the day," Brookmeyer – who passed away in late December, 2011 -- was still making relevant music up to his last days. On this disc, Brookmeyer treads a path both new and old. New in that his polished orchestra has never done an album of revered standards. And old for the very same reason: great material with arrangements that are like sterling silver. But new once again in that Brookmeyer adds the voice of one of today's most natural and hip jazz singers, Fay Claassen. If you haven't heard of her, please trust me. She's a no-gimmicks jazz chanteuse, and she's spot-on-perfecto with this roaring big band. And how can you argue with a choice of tunes like "How Deep Is The Ocean," "Get Out Of Town," "Love For Sale," "I'm Beginning To See The Light," "Come Rain Or Come Shine," "Detour Ahead," "I Get A Kick Out Of You" and "Willow Weep For Me." It's rare to see records like this today. But when it happens, it something to be admired and celebrated.
Artist Share, 2011, 53:21.

Note: I learned of the passing of Bob Brookmeyer a matter of hours after writing this review. One of the most versatile, swinging trombonists in jazz history, we could always distinguish the Brookmeyer sound. His place in jazz history is secure. Thank you, Mr. Brookmeyer.

Goin' Home, Sam Pannunzio, piano.
This very musical outing is the initial release for a new label out of the Seattle area, Eastside Jazz. The leader on the date is Pannunzio, a pianist out of Colorado Springs. His trio also includes Mark Bullis, bass, and Lionel Kramer, drums. Sad to say, Bullis passed on shortly after this recording was made, so it is, of course, dedicated to his memory. All the tunes are Pannunzio's originals. Sometimes such an album, especially by a newer voice, can be a red flag. Not so here, as Pannunzio and the trio present nine examples of melodies that swing, make musical sense, show movement and grace, and, in a couple of cases, seem to have "cousinly" relationships to standards. Most importantly, Pannunzio is fluid and lyrical, showing a debt to Bill Evans, but with some real muscle here and there as well. I'd bet the mortgage that the guy knows the whole American Songbook, and on his next release, I'd like to hear him knock out some Mandel, Mercer and Monk! Until then, this is definitely an eye-opening debut.
Eastside Jazz, 2011, 51:35.

Rhythm On The River, Harry Allen, tenor saxophone.
If anyone had ever asked, I would have politely suggested that it would not be possible to come up with 13 songs on the theme of the word "river." "Love," "Moon," "Spring," sure, but "River?" Yet Allen came up with the necessary tunes, and pulled a bunch of 'em out of 1920's and '30s obscurity. And one the one he chose not to include may have been the most obvious of all, "Moon River." Allen teams up with Rossano Sportiello, piano, Joel Forbes, bass, and Chuck Riggs, drums, on a rhythmic, swinging set that opens with a 1924 opus, "Riverboat Shuffle." Other upbeat, familiar melodies include "Rhythm On The River," "Lazy River," "River Stay Away from My Door" and "Swanee River." But Allen and company find some dark horses along the way in "Blue River" (1927), "Weary River" (1929), "Ready For The River" (1928) and "Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On" (1931), among others. A very welcome guest, by the way, is Warren Vache and his glorious cornet on four of the 13 selections. The "winningest" tune of the set was Harry's solo on "Cry Me A River." If you've ever heard Ben Webster's breathy version, well, the highest compliment payable to Allen is simply that his "Cry Me A River" is in the same ballpark.
Challenge Records, 2011, 61:45.

Duduka Da Fonseca Trio Plays Toninho Horta.
If you're even a semi-regular reader of my reviews, you're most likely aware that I'm not a flag-waving advocate of Latin jazz. But Brazilian music is, in my opinion, a completely different animal. And so here you have a trio led by a drummer, Da Fonseca, playing lyrical, lovely and sensible melodies by Brazilian composer Toninho Horta. I was most impressed, I must say, with the pianist on the session, an American named David Feldman. A product of New York's New School for Contemporary Music and Jazz, Feldman now makes his home in Rio de Janiero. I found him to be a player with a rare and quite astonishing touch. As accomplished as he is in this program of Horta's haunting original music, I'd love to hear him tackle of group of standard jazz tunes and a ballad or two. While all the music on the album is quite compelling, I found the song "Francisca" to be the award winner. It's a waltz so lovely it could have been a feature for Bill Evans. The trio is completed by bassist Guto Wirth, whose subtle and serene presence adds to the beauty of the session. "Pretty" is always worth major points in my world, and this is a very pretty album.
Zoho, 2011, 47:29.

Trio And Quartet, Russ Freeman, piano.
Here's a very polished reissue from the fascinating Fresh Sound label. It features one of the busiest,but still under the radar pianists of the glory years of West Coast jazz. Russ Freeman worked with such Southland luminaries as Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne and Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, among many others. On a generous 22 selections, Freeman is featured here in no less than five different ensembles. Two early fifties trios put him in the company of stalwarts such as bassist Joe Mondragon and drummer Shelly Manne. On a quartet date, he works with Manne, Monty Budwig and Stu Williamson. Finally, there are a couple of quintet dates which include reedman Bud Shank, bassist Carson Smith and the young drummer, Mel Lewis. The bill of fare nicely balances a handful of Russ's rhythmic originals with several standards of the day, including "Lullaby In Rhythm," "East Of The Sun," "At Last," "You Stepped Out of a Dream," "Don't Worry 'Bout Me," "Blues in the Night" and more. All of Russ's tunes combine swinging melody lines with a lyrical sensibility, but a couple of my favorites were Charlie Parker's "Steeplechase" and a Jerome Kern tune new to my ears called "Bojangles of Harlem." Russ Freeman was deservedly "all over the place" in 1950s Los Angeles jazz circles. This thoughtful collection will help maintain his important place in the West Coast jazz pantheon.
Fresh Sound, 2010, 79:23.

A Sea of Voices, Jamie Ousley, bass.
Give some credit to Ousley who decided to donate all of the proceeds from the sale of this recording to a non-profit project to benefit the environment. Music with that sort of theme, one would think, should have its own environmental connection, and this is entirely music with a "water" theme. Sure, it's been done before. Consider Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," Kenny Barron's "Voyage," or Enrico Pieranunzi's "Seaward," the most beautiful of them all. Ousley's basic trio includes Joe Davidian, piano, and Austin McMahon, drums. The only standard in the mix is Irving Berlin's classic, "How Deep Is the Ocean." Other than that, the trio finds beauty and serenity in titles that include "Hymn Of The Tides," "Rocky Top," "Loving Beauty" and a pristine vocal by Nanami Morikawa on the traditional tune, "Shenandoah." Special kudos to Davidian, whose elegant piano impressed throughout. This is very pretty, lyrical music, and for the good cause it serves, I hope it sells a lot of copies.
Tie Records, 2012, 61:48.

The Complete 1969 Pescara Festival, Bill Evans, piano.
Please don't think of this as a review. This CD was issued back in 2004, and escaped my attention until now. It's just that there are a lot of Evans freaks who are going to want to know about this exceptional live concert that was well-recorded in Italy. My guess is that it's likely still available. It's classic Bill Evans trio material, with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell on 11 evergreens of the period. Lone Hill Jazz is a boutique reissue label that has picked up on a lot of rare and juicy jazz in the last decade. I just wanted the Evans crowd to be aware of it. Happy hunting!
Lone Hill Jazz; LHJ-10156; 2004; 62:00.


The 11th Gate, Dennis Rollins, trombone.
The accompanying notes to this recording tell us that Rollins is a celebrated player in the United Kingdom. I'd love to hear him in a setting other than this one. Here, he's a very hip trombonist playing in an organ-funk trio. And I've heard enough of these groups to last a couple of lifetimes. The CD notes tell us of "cinematic washes of cymbals spilling over organ grooves, to choral gospel riffs of nature's inherent vibrational divinity." Oh, thank goodness, it's all clear now.
Motema, 2011, 47:14.

Turn Signal, Mike Wofford, piano and Holly Hoffman, flute.
Husband and wife Mike and Holly give us their first quintet CD, and it contains many high-wire moments. Joining them is the sensational Terrell Stafford, a gifted master of trumpet and flugelhorn. Rob Thorsen, bass, and Richard Sellers, drums, round out the quintet on a selection of original compositions and one modern standard, "Pure Imagination." Wofford has enjoyed a lengthy career as a top-tier pianist, and Hoffman's flute is often something to behold.
Capri, 2011, 55:18.

Mystic Nights, Pat Battstone, piano, Richard Poole, vibes.
This is a duo of original music. The phrase "not quite" might apply in several respects. It's not quite New Age music because it isn't seamless, meandering nothingness. It's not quite jazz in that it doesn't swing; and it's not quite classical because, well, just because. If anything, it's mostly moody music with no recognizable melody lines. It might fit for a soundtrack to an indie film or a sleep aid if you don't like to take pills.
Self-Produced, 2011, 63:47.

Reviews by Kyle O'Brien

Ghost in the Corner, John Stowell, Christopher Woitach.
The prolific Stowell is out with another collaboration, giving the guitarist another outlet for his impressive talents. This one is with guitarist Christopher Woitach, who fits Stowell's style well. The opener, "When Jasper Grows Up," features Woitach on banjo, the metallic strings twanging while Stowell's guitar flows easily. It's an unfamiliar contrast, but offers a welcome and homey mix of tonalities. When two guitars are in play, as on the title track, there is still contrast, but it's less pronounced than with the banjo, and it gives both the ability to solo. We hear Woitach's mellow electric guitar sound against Stowell's clean strumming, the two taking turns at the forefront but in full complement. When Woitach employs the synth-guitar, it adds a forlorn echo, as on "Greta and Lucy," a somewhat atonal piece with interweaving lines and random thoughts. That Stowell plays fretless guitar adds to the dizzying sound of the tune. One nice thing about this album is that it is unconventional, yet quite engaging. Its quietude is tempered by its invention, making for an album both conventional and unconventional jazz fans can enjoy.
2011, Teal Creek, 50 minutes.

Whirlpool, Ran Blake & Dominique Eade.
This isn't your typical piano and vocal duo, mostly because Blake isn't your conventional pianist. His use of chordal reinterpretations makes the melody almost secondary here. The melodies of classics that include "My Foolish Heart" and "Dearly Beloved," get an almost avant-garde treatment. But it's stranger than that, since Eade's vocals are both beautiful and melodic. Blake jumps in and out of what might be termed "regular" chord progressions, setting up a feeling that is both disturbing and slightly exciting. It's a combination of classical, jazz, and chamber music with the barriers pulled down. Quincy Jones's "The Pawnbroker" is almost unrecognizable as a free-form ballad, but it still holds true to its form. This may not be the most accessible of all the piano-vocal discs, but it is different.
2011, Jazz Project, 45 minutes.

Slipstream, Noah Haidu.
Pianist Haidu isn't a household name, but this disc, recorded with some recognizable talent, is a step in becoming one. It starts on a positive note, with a modern Latin groover, "Soulstep," featuring cascading chords and fine solos by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, Haidu and saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Haidu's compositions are rooted in jazz traditions but have all the marks of modernity. Elements of hard bop, Latin jazz, fusion and avant-garde all come together cohesively, and even when the music is at its most forward, there is a melodic undercurrent. And the musicianship keeps the tunes moving, especially through drumming by both Willie Jones III and John Davis, and solid bass playing by Chris Haney. The chords are all layered and quite modern, and it's certainly not simple music. Still, it's not so dense as to be a turnoff. Haidu is a smart writer, and his cohesion of harmony is compelling.
2011, Posi-Tone Records, 48 minutes.

Turn Signal, Mike Wofford/Holly Hofmann Quintet.
One of the best and prolific couples in jazz enlists the help of trumpeter Terell Stafford for this quintet album, rounded out by bassist Rob Thorsen and drummer Richard Sellers. It's a collection of tunes paying homage to those who have influenced them in some way. The opener, Wofford's "The Dipper," is dedicated to Horace Silver, and the creeping groover builds with a modern interpretation of how Silver might approach jazz now. Wofford expands the chordal range, and Stafford and Hofmann take solos that elevate the plodding tempo. Hofmann's alto flute is a deep highlight to Vince Mendoza's pretty "Esperanca," while Stafford does a nice mellow turn on the lightly funky "Karita" by Bobby Watson. Perhaps the most interesting tune on the album is Dick Twardzik's "The Girl From Greenland," which has a constantly moving set of changes and which Wofford infuses with a bit of Debussy. Hofmann's "M-Line" is a sprite bopper with a wicked flute solo. I want more.
2012, Capri Records, 54 minutes.

Changing Seasons, Phil Dwyer Orchestra.
Having a four-movement orchestral piece named after the seasons will always draw comparisons to Vivaldi, and that's certainly an influence here. But saxophonist, composer and conductor Dwyer is as much moved by jazz in this ambitious work, and one can hear modern jazz chords being played by the strings and horns as well as the rhythm section. "Spring" alone changes colors many times through its nine-minute length, even referencing Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring" at one point. The unifying voice is violinist Mark Fewer, who is adept at jumping between genres. Dwyer jumps in with a burning solo on the "Summer" movement, backed by a wall of strings and horns. "Autumn" is heavily string focused, though not as melancholy as one might expect from the season of change. Fewer ignites on "Winter" and is followed by a tremendous, swinging solo from Ingrid Jensen. The composition is big and bold, but thankfully never over-orchestrated nor over the top. Dwyer should be commended for keeping it focused and, well … seasonal.
2011, ALMA Records, 35 minutes.

Route de Freres, Andrew Cyrille & Haitian Fascination.
Drummer Cyrille, born over 70 years ago to Haitian parents in Brooklyn, returns to his Haitian roots, blending modern and avant-garde jazz with his island heritage. Utilizing Haitian drum master Frisner Augustin, the disc is full of the exotic, multi-cultural music that made Haiti a Caribbean melting pot -- African traditions, French and western influences, and VooDoo. The opener, "Marinet," a Haitian folk song, features quick polyrhythms and a vibrant vocal delivery, full of laughs and yelps by Augustin. The rhythms are strong, but the guitar from Haitian native Alix Pascal also provides melody and rhythm. Combined with bassist Lisle Atkinson and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, this group blends jazz with Haitian music so adeptly you'll find yourself immersed in it. Sure, Bluiett takes the melodies outside sometimes, but he also plays gorgeously at others, as on the slow "Hope Springs Eternal." The title track draws together both of Cyrille's worlds, and his understated drumming lets the tunes develop organically. It's a fine example of world jazz that doesn't feel forced.
2011, TUM Records, 66 minutes.

I Loved You Once, Emmett Wheatfall.
In all honesty, I'm not usually a fan of poetry read to jazz. It either comes off as hackneyed beat poetry or New Age-y treacle. But this disc by Portland poet Wheatfall has captured my attention. His deep voice is expressive and powerful, and his delivery is just plain cool. Using pianist Ramsey Embick as a backdrop for his phrasing, Wheatfall recites in styles ranging from walking swing ("The Wild Woods") to gospel-ish preaching ("I Understand You") to Latin ballads. All the while, his earnest delivery keeps things interesting and his words engaging. Embick is a perfect choice, due to his versatility and expert playing. Saxophonist Noah Peterson provides the backing on a couple of tunes, adding an urban honk to Wheatfall's punchy poetry. The one that goes nearly over the sappy line is "I Loved You Once," with both Embick and Peterson playing soft and pretty behind a love poem. Luckily, Wheatfall's words are smart enough to keep metaphors above the basal love meanings. I wish they had included the poetry in the sparse liner notes, but for fans of poetry and jazz, this is one of the better combos I've heard.
2011, Peterson Entertainment, 18 minutes.

Humble Origins, Wellstone Conspiracy.
This (mostly) Seattle group lives in the modern jazz world, making original music that is somewhere between straight ahead and chamber jazz. Soprano saxophonist Brent Jensen, pianist Bill Anschell, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer John Bishop are all veteran musicians, and the interplay is tight, letting the group move as a quartet, and allowing the individual members chances to solo within the arrangements. The title track is a journey that changes chords rapidly and plays with color. Jensen's soprano sax is richly-toned and a welcome melodic voice. His tribute to Lee Konitz, "All of Lee," is a minor key swinger that colors slightly outside the lines, just like Konitz would, and Anschell's chords are altered in the right fashion. Johnson is fairly understated on this refined album, but he gets a few chances to show his nimble fingers, as on his own "Peregrine." They cover the Beatles, but their take on "Fixing a Hole" is completely original in its lushness.
2011, Origin Records, 60 minutes.

Descendants, Noah Kaplan Quartet.
The fact that saxophonist Kaplan has worked with the Boston Microtonal Society should tell you a thing or two about his style. The young player is bold yet meditative, inventive yet reverent. He deals with the tones between tones, bending and shaping. It's as though his sax is rubber and the concept of western tonality unimportant. With guitarist Joe Morris, bassist Giacomo Merega and drummer Jason Nazary, the Descendents even toy with the usual notion of what we think of as free jazz. This is free without boundaries, improvisational to the point of complete exploration. There is little in the way of melody to grasp onto, but the interplay between these young artists is intense, and for those who like their jazz outside any box, this is a huge step in that direction.
2011, Hat Hut Records, 48:33.

Rhythm on the River, Harry Allen.
Saxophonist Allen has long been a favorite of tenor fans. His traditional style, flawless playing and penchant for some of the most gorgeous ballads in jazz is well documented. Here, Allen is in top form. He plays from an old catalog, with some favorites and lesser-known numbers. His gorgeous take on "Cry Me a River" should be cemented in the canon of best ballad performances of all time. His tone is lush and his playing quiet yet emotive. Genius. The rest of the tracks harken back to the beginnings of popular jazz, and include gentle swingers like the title track, a couple of Hoagy Carmichael tunes, including the bopping "Riverboat Shuffle," that features the fantastic Warren Vache on cornet. Vache also appears on Carmichael's "Lazy River" and a lovely version of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home." The river theme runs throughout, which gives Allen plenty of room to get slinky with his tenor, as on Gus Kahn's "Ready for the River," and to show off his tone on several ballads. Allen is acked by pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Chuck Riggs; fans of melodic, straight ahead jazz will be more than pleased.
2011, Challenge Records, 67 minutes.