The Composers, Dmitry Baevsky, alto saxophone. Gaining steam with every year and every recording, Baevsky is a gifted alto saxophonist who has chosen to tread the post bop, straight ahead highway as well as anyone on today’s jazz map. For this very welcome recording, he chose to feature compositions by some of jazz’s most significant musician/composers. Thus we’re treated here to the works of (last names will suffice, I’m sure) Walton, Pearson, Shorter, Silver, Ellington, Dameron, Gryce, Hancock and Coleman. Another aspect of this performance is that nearly all the tunes are “sleepers” -- excellent choices but not necessarily the best-known writing of the above named heroes. Yet another strong point is the strong and supportive rhythm section of David Hazeltine, piano, John Webber, bass, and Jason Brown, drums. To further sweeten this dessert, add the guest guitar work of Peter Bernstein. Baevsky is the owner of a beautifully controlled tone at any tempo, and while the entire CD works to perfection, my three faves were Duke’s “Self Portrait (of the Bean),” a serene ballad; “Swift as the Wind,” a gem from Dameron; and “Smoke Signal,” a tour de force from Gryce. In my opinion, great things lie ahead for Baevsky.
Sharp Nine, 2012: 54:03.
The Lost 1974 Sessions, Peter Appleyard, vibes. Here, amazingly, is how it happened. Appleyard had been playing with Benny Goodman’s band and had the chance to assemble the group for one and only one incredible recording session. Benny’s players at that time included monsters such as Zoot Sims, Bobby Hackett, Urbie Green, Hank Jones, Slam Stewart and Mel Lewis (who subbed for Grady Tate). Appleyard’s swinging vibes completed the group. The session gives everyone the chance to shine, from Slam Stewart’s scatting to Zoot’s incredible tenor work to Bobby Hackett’s silky cornet. They’re all ready to cook up a storm on a menu of tunes they could play standing on their heads! The session opens with an Ellington medley; picks up intensity with “After You’ve Gone”; and continues with winning entries like “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “But Beautiful,” “You Go To My Head,” “A Smooth One,” and “Dancing On The Ceiling.” Preceding every one of these tracks is a snippet of brief studio “chat” that puts the listener as close as possible to the actual recording session, nearly 40 years ago! If that’s not enough, there’s an additional 25 minutes of out takes and alternates. Appleyard and Green, sadly, are the only survivors. But what a great cast was assembled that night in Toronto in 1974!
Linus Entertainment, 2011, 73:13.
The James P. Johnson Songbook, Marty Grosz, guitar, banjo, vocals, arrangements. Certain jazz heroes are so much at the front of their class that one doesn’t need to identify them by their full names. Consider “Pops,” “Trane,” “Bird,” “Duke” and “Ella,” among others. Well, the same honor applies to “James P.” One knows immediately that the king of stride piano was James P. Johnson. And as we learn from this CD, our James P. was also a composer and/or interpreter of lilting, sometimes timeless melodies. Enter Marty Grosz. With a sympathetic cadre of seven James P. admirers, Grosz brings us an entertaining menu of tunes dating back to the era of James P. Many are nearly forgotten gems with names like “Hungry Blues,” “I Need Lovin’,” “Stop That Dog,” “My Headache” and “Aintcha Got Music.” But mixed in with these obscure delights is better-known fare such as “Old Fashioned Love,” “If I Could Be With You,” “Charleston,” and a tune I first fell in love with when Jimmy Rowles recorded it, “A Porter’s Love Song To A Chambermaid.” There’s an authentic feeling to these wonderfully orchestrated tunes. And as you might expect, everyone seems to be having way too much fun!
Bringing It Together. Stephane Grappelli, violin, and Toots Thielemans, harmonica, guitar. Twenty eight years. That’s how long this one floated in “the vault” before finally being released. And wow, the duo of violin and harmonica really stirs up your swing juices. Most would agree that, on their respective instruments, these two icons are among the timeless giants of jazz. On this 1984 session, they are joined by guitarists Martin Taylor and Marc Fosset and bassist Brian Torff. These players provide a nice cushion for the two leaders, but make no mistake, this set is all about Grappelli and Toots. They get the proceedings underway with a moderate tempo on “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Then they surprise with a pop tune of that era, and one which never held me, “Just The Two of Us,” which sounds better than it has before. I guess one pop opus deserves another, so the co-leaders take a whack at “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover.” They then return to the standard pallet with “Georgia On My Mind,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” “Hit The Road Jack,” “Limehouse Blues” and the closer, “As Time Goes By.” If you doubt that the unusual combination of violin and harmonica can co-exist musically, erase all doubt. Said another way, fine wine meets caviar.
LiSem Enterprises, 2011, 39:06.
The L.A. Sessions, Mark Sherman, vibes. It seems to me that Sherman is making important strides ascending the jazz ladder. In the last few years, he’s issued several fine recordings, keeping his name before the jazz public. On this disc, Sherman joins forces with a Los Angeles area trio playing some etched-in-marble bop classics. There are certain tunes one simply can’t hear too many times, the meat and potatoes of jazz history. They arrive at our doorstep with names like “Woody’n You,” “Quasimodo,” “Celia,” “Whisper Not,” “Moment’s Notice,” “Bag’s Groove” and “Serpent’s Tooth.” The one bow to the standard book is the Burke-Van Heusen evergreen, “It Could Happen To You.” Sherman is full of fun and vitality as a player with roots in the tradition of Milt Jackson. The trio with him is made up of Bill Cunliffe, John Chiodini and Charles Ruggiero. The only shift that I would have made on this album would be to seat Cunliffe at a piano instead of Hammond B-3 organ. Other than that, this CD “sings” of the joy and pleasure of classic bop.
Miles High Records, 2012: 65:39.
Triple Play, Chris Brubeck, bass, piano, trombone, vocals. This record opens with someone named Peter Madcat Ruth playing blues harmonica on a tune called “Rollin’ & Tumblin’.” It sounds for all the world like Sonny Terry and one of his rural “fox chase” adventures. Next up is another “folky” thing from the depression era, “Brother Can You Spare A Dime.” A countrified blues with a hopeful spirit follows. It’s called “Win The Lotto.” Another Sonny Terry-like blues, “Phonograph Blues,” follows at a slower tempo, and it is followed by “Koto Blues,” a feature for Dave Brubeck on piano and guitarist Joel Brown. Much of the remainder of this happy, live appearance is also devoted to bluesy but fun-loving music. Father and son Brubeck also find time to revisit “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” It’s a great piece of writing and is all wrapped in new attire featuring harmonica, guitar and piano! Fats Waller’s “Black And Blue” gives Chris a chance to show off his trombone chops, and Dave takes center stage for most of the remainder of the concert. His composition, “Travellin’ Blues,” is another bell ringer from his glorious Paul Desmond group. Speaking of Desmond, can you handle one more version of “Take Five”? Well, here it is, and Paul’s alto part is played on harmonica (!) before Dave steps in to solo. It all ends with a funky take on “St. Louis Blues.” This was a college concert, spiced throughout with one foot in the blues. I think the kids loved it!
Blue Forest Records, 2011, 77:12.
Red Sparkle, Jeff Hamilton trio featuring Tamir Hendelman, piano. Sometimes, I wonder if the classic piano trio format is fading. Then I’m buoyed when a record like this is released. It’s under Hamilton’s name, but it’s just as much about the sensational Hendelman as it is Hamilton, the drum wizard. The trio is rounded out with Christoph Luty, the greatly admired bass man. The album opens with a Gene Harris-like blues, “Ain’t That A Peach,” a favorite expression of the late trumpet master, Snooky Young. Next up is a rarely heard Monk opus, “Bye Ya,” and an album highlight to boot. A very lyrical and delicate “On And On” is a new piece of music for me, and Hendelman’s trippy, upbeat “Hat’s Dance” just feels good! Two selections with Johnny Mercer lyrics come next: outstanding, creative takes on “Too Marvelous For Words” and “Laura.” Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” is a nifty feature for Luty’s bass, and Hamilton’s title tune, “Red Sparkle,” is a high flyer. Ray Brown’s “I Know You Oh So Well” is a ballad many listeners may remember from Brown’s years with Oscar Peterson, and the disc ends with a little wordplay on “In An Elliingtone,” Luty’s composition and a nicely spirited sign-off. I know the year is yet young, but this may well be my piano trio winner for 2012. It’s simply that good!
Capri Records, 2012, times not indicated.
Sound Stories, Marshall Gilkes, trombone. There’s a lot happening in the 11 original compositions presented here by Gilkes and his quintet. First of all, he’s a breathlessly gifted trombone player. And his compositions show versatility, drama, intensity, drive and room for everyone to contribute what are often scintillating solos. And then, suddenly, everyone comes together for either “the big finish” or the peak that leads to further adventurous playing. Gilkes’ colleagues include a tenor saxophone player I once saw when he was still in his teens at the Otter Crest Jazz Weekend, Donny McCaslin. The others in the group are Adam Birnbaum, piano, Yasushi Nakamura, bass, and Eric Doob, drums. Gilkes’ writing exhibits lyricism, delicacy on some tunes, and power and passion on others. What seemed very consistent was the fact that Gilkes insists on strong melody lines (even at blistering tempos) but allows a great deal of freedom for his players. A note on one of the quintet members: I was very impressed with the freshness and the spirit of pianist Birnbaum. All told, this is a session filled with adventurous, high octane playing.
Alternate Side Records, 2012, 71:58.
Boy’s Night Out, The Michael Treni Big Band. In the late 1970s, he came within a breath of blowing trombone on a European tour with Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers. Eventually, he settled into a very successful business career, but the jazz bug never left him. So Michael Treni put together a high stepping groove machine of 16 pieces. And this is the result. Treni’s forces put it in high gear on eight tunes, about equally divided between originals and standards. His arrangements allow for lots of blowing space, and all his soloists meet the challenge. The standards include “Something’s Coming,” “Lullaby of Birdland,” “UMMG” (aka “Upper Manhattan Medical Group”) and “Here’s That Rainy Day.” On the latter tune on an original called “In My Quiet Times,” strings are added to beautiful effect. Of particular interest is the inclusion of “Strayhorn,” a creation from the late arranger-composer-pianist, Clare Fischer. It is appropriate indeed that “UMMG,” a musical gift from Billy Strayhorn’s immense creative mind, is also performed here. And with a stirring tenor solo from the most famous cat on the record, Jerry Bergonzi. The arrangements soar, the soloists sizzle, the ideas flow, and the band is a winner!
Bell Production Company, 2011, 58:57.
A Distant View, Jim Ketch, trumpet and flugelhorn. Sometimes it just hits you. There’s a certain sound -- hard to describe, easy to hear -- that combines tradition, on-the-money musicianship, sensible and swinging writing, and that elusive quality, experience. Ketch, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Carolina, puts all the above pieces together in a recording that is both fresh and stimulating, but still right down the center of the road. I loved his choice of tunes, so let’s look more closely at “just the right” standards.” “Long Ago and Far Away” is a favorite of countless players, and Ketch and company give it an upbeat reading. “My One and Only Love” is another timeless tune, and Ketch credits another gifted trumpet hero, Bobby Shew, as his inspiration for this one. Tom Harrell’s “Sail Away” may not yet be considered a full-fledged standard, but it’s on its way. On this perfect melody for trumpet players, Ketch and friends are spot on perfect. Throughout this recording, there’s practiced balance and skillful communication between Ketch and his colleagues -- Dave Finucane, tenor sax, Stephen Anderson, piano, Jeffry Eckels, bass, and Ross Pederson, drums. The remainder of the CD is devoted to lesser-known or original compositions, all of which provide the varied and attractive straight ahead orientation of this beautifully realized recording.
Summit Records, 2011, 74:22.
Tales Of The Unusual, Lorraine Feather, vocals. Young musicians are always told by their mentors to do something unique, to find their own voice. Certainly Feather has done just that, carving out a specialty in lyric writing that is conversational in nature and clever beyond description. Fortunately for Feather and her listeners, her come-hither voice is perfectly suited to her “no-one-does-it-like-this” lyrics. For this session, she has written lyrics to thirteen songs with the melodies provided, for the most part, by the pianists and arrangers working with her. Space doesn’t allow for commentary on all of them, so here’s the lowdown on a few. “Off The Grid Girl” tells of “scary” scenarios for all except the off the grid girl. Or there’s “Where Is Everybody,” which, in part, speaks of a “woman with a frozen grin.” She is, of course, a mannequin. Then there’s “Five,” the tale of a toddler obsessed with that number! Or how about “Sweet Miriam” whose ghostly lover communicates with her via chalk messages on a New York sidewalk. A tune written as “Felini’s Waltz” by the brilliant pianist Enrico Pieranunzi becomes “I Took Your Hand,” with Feather’s storybook lyric. And “Indiana Lana,” with a Duke Ellington melody, tells of a young lady from the Mid-West who outruns her brother’s pick-up truck and, ultimately, the Indy 500! On these and lots more, Feather is a trippy breath of fresh air.
Jazzed Media, 2012, 61:04.
Groove Merchant, John Cocuzzi, vibes. It seems to me that throughout its history of producing accessible, joyous jazz recordings, Arbors has consistently valued melody. Sure, improvisation is at the very heart of jazz, but doggone it, solid melodies are to be admired as well. And vibes player Cocuzzi has put together a session rich in melodies from diverse sources, eras and styles. Take the title tune, for example. Written by reed master Jerome Richardson, “Groove Merchant” is usually associated with Thad Jones, Count Basie or any of a few other big bands. But lo and behold, it sparkles in Cocuzzi’s small group interpretation. Going way back in time, and in contrast to “Groove Merchant,” his other choices include “Crazy Rhythm,” “The Glory of Love,” How Am I To Know,” “Tenderly,” “Did I Remember,” “What’ll I Do” and “Lover.” A particular fave of mine is Cole Porter’s buoyant “Dream Dancing,” which features the silvery clarinet of Anti Sarpila. The other members of Cocuzzi’s sextet include John Sheridan, piano, James Chirillo, guitar, Frank Tate, bass, and Joe Ascione, drums. Timeless melodies have a way of “winning out,” and Cocuzzi and friends do honor to each and every one of them.
Arbors, 2011, 65:55.
The Return, Gerry Beaudoin, guitar. After many years of handling a myriad of musical assignments, mostly outside the jazz arena, Beaudoin ached to return to his first love. Hence, the title. His trio, with Jesse Williams, bass, and Les Harris Jr, drums, is aided on a few tunes by the magnificent tenor saxophone of Harry Allen. Just check out a tune called “Jackie’s Serenade” and hear Beaudoin’s delicate melody line as played sensuously by Allen. The same is true of another Beaudoin original, “I Often Thought You’d Never Leave Me.” But Gerry, Harry and pals also swing with authority on “Hamilton’s Honeymoon” and a blues called “R.S.G.” The trio stays in the blues groove for a slow and easy outing called “Joanne Hears the Blues.” All of this is well balanced by other of the guitarist’s originals plus a couple of standards in “God Bless The Child” and “Wave.” Beaudoin’s years of experience with the likes of Artie Shaw, Muddy Waters and Karin Allyson, among many others, serves him well in this straight ahead setting. If this marks his return to jazz, it’s definitely reason to celebrate.
Francesca Records, 2011; 55:46.
Sakura, Akiko Tsuruga, Hammond B-3 organ. At its best, organ jazz never elicits much more than passing interest on my part, but even I have to admit that Tsuruga swings brightly and gives it everything she’s got. Her set includes the under-appreciated Jerry Weldon on tenor here and there, and trumpet wizard Joe Magnarelli on three selections. The program is quite varied, starting with a typical B-3 funky thing called “Sweet Yam Potato.” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” is taken at a nicely swinging clip, and Wes Montgomery’s “S.O.S” is a pleasure to hear in this setting. An odd choice was the pop tune from decades ago, “Sukiyaki,” and it sounds like skating rink music. But the band recovers nicely with “What A Difference a Day Makes.” Magnarelli helps rescue the pop opus, “I Won’t Last a Day Without You.” The album ends with a feature for Weldon on “The Good Life,” easily one of the real winners on the disc. As these albums go, I’d say Tsuruga gets thumbs up for doing some material outside the usual organguitar funk session.
American Showplace Music, 2011, 65:28.
Deed I Do, The Dave Miller Trio with Rebecca DuMaine, vocals. Dave Miller makes a living as a prominent San Francisco attorney. And oh, by the way, plays a little piano on the side. Correction: a lot of piano! With bandmates Mario Suraci, bass, and Bill Belasco, drums, Miller plays joyful, swinging piano. For this session, the trio is joined by DuMaine, a relaxed, tell-it-like-it-is, on-key singer. The tunes are, for the most part, standard Americana. In addition to the title tune, the group wends its way through “The Trolley Song,” “Isn’t This A Lovely Day,” “The Frim Fram Sauce,” “The Boy Next Door,” two Peggy Lee tunes -- “I Love Being Here With You” and the playful “I Like Men.” A bit of a surprise is “Problem,” a clever choice from bassistsinger Jay Leonhart. Without being at all dated, DuMaine possesses a vocal quality that somehow resembles big band singers. But she sounds entirely comfortable and consistently communicative in the company of Miller’s fresh and facile trio. Summit, 2011, 40:12.
Solo, Lynne Arriale. We haven’t heard pianist Arriale like this before, but this solo disc displays what a great talent she truly is. Arriale has mostly played in trio and quartet settings, but her sound is full without additional instruments. She has an incredible touch and use of dynamics, from the nimble, modal nature of her original, “La Noche,” to quieter tunes that include the sparse and tender “The Dove,” or the pretty waltz of “Dance.” She brings new life to both Cole Porter and Monk here, with a sprite version of “What Is this Thing Called Love,” complete with numerous chord alterations, as the standout. This solo disc is a pleasure and interesting throughout. It’s uplifting to know that an artist who has always leaned on other musicians is confident enough to show off a bit.
2012, Motema Music. Playing Time: 52:24.
Red Sparkle, Jeff Hamilton Trio. A good jazz trio works best when the music is a conversation, a back-and-forth dialogue forged through great ears and familiarity. This disc, by veteran drummer and tastemaker Hamilton, has all the elements of great conversational jazz, due to the group’s 10 years together. With bassist Chris Luty and tasteful pianist Tamir Hendelman, Hamilton is able to be both a steady rock of a drummer, a brilliant soloist and a composer. The opener, “Ain’t That a Peach,” is Hamilton’s tribute to Snooky Young, a longtime member of the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. It swings relentlessly but with taste, with Hendelman using a chordal rhythmic style that recalls Count Basie, while Luty and Hamilton lock into a perfect pocket. Monk’s “Bye Ya” gets a rougher treatment, but the overall focus, as is usual with Hamilton, is one of sophistication and taste. Other gems include a lush version of the movie theme, “Laura,” and the bopping title track. This recalls Oscar Peterson’s great trio work, and it doesn’t get much better.
2012, Capri Records. Playing Time: 57 minutes.
Sound Stories, Marshall Gilkes. This recording of Gilkes originals sounds much bigger than its five players, due in large part to Gilkes' robust arrangements. The trombonist and composer fills the spaces with orchestral chords and rhythms, and he employs some fiery musicians to help, including explosive saxophonist Donny McCaslin, pianist Adam Birnbaum, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Eric Doobs. It’s not to say there aren’t moments of quiet and tension, including a lovely “Presence - Part 2,” which is in contrast to the intense Part 1, and the plush “Bare.” The intertwining horn lines would fit just as easily in a big band setting, but the power of the players gives the impression of a bigger band, and the dynamic swells give greater depth to the music. Gilkes and company do a fine job with modern jazz, and it would be interesting to hear some of these compositions in a larger setting.
2012, Alternate Side Records. Playing Time: 74 minutes.
The L.A. Sessions, Mark Sherman. Vibraphonist Sherman is an adept composer and arranger, but here he opts for some of his favorite tunes of the past, played mostly straight ahead and with reverence for the bop and American Songbook masters, but a modern spin. Joined by drummer Charles Ruggiero, guitarist John Chiodini and Bill Cunliffe, who uncharacteristically plays the Hammond B-3 organ here, Sherman is in good company, playing with a west coast cool factor on bop classics that include the grooving “Woody n’ You,” Bud Powell’s “Celia” and Milt Jackson's “Bags Groove.” The unconventional blending of vibes and organ means a lot of the tonality is smack in the mellow middle, and as good as both Cunliffe and Sherman are, the mix can get slightly muddy. Still, it’s a pleasing disc of familiar melodies, such as a lithe version of Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice.” Three alternate takes let us hear more, though the space could have been better spent on more tributes.
2012, Mile High Records. Playing Time: 71 minutes.
After the Rainfall, Hiroe Sekine. Pianist and composer Sekine is well connected, which is why she is backed here by saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassists Darek Oles and Jimmy Johnson, guitarist Larry Koonse, and drummer Peter Erskine. With the whole thing produced by Russell Ferrante, it’s no surprise that this has a decidedly contemporary sound. Sekine’s original, “Song of the Owl,” is a layered Latin-lite tune that sounds like an outtake of a Pat Metheny album, which isn’t a bad thing, but the over-layering of her wordless vocals are a touch over-produced. The title track starts more acoustically, but the over-effected vocals are distracting from the incredibly tight musicianship. Sekine is a quality composer and fine pianist, and the musicians here bring life and focus. Her vocals are breathy and slightly meek, and the overly sappy cover of the Beatles’ “In My Life,” with vocalist Arnold McCuller, doesn’t do her any favors. In contrast, Chick Corea’s “Windows” is done with zest and even gets a little gritty. It’s one of the more powerful statements on an album that is understated most of the time. Sekine’s original, “So, But Anyway,” is also a bit of off-kilter fun, with its thick chords and groovy polyrhythms, but there’s also a few tunes here that should have stayed on the editing room floor.
2012, SekaiMusic. Playing Time: 48 minutes.
Return from the Unknown, Rick Drumm and Fatty Necroses. “Fatty necrosis” is a term for a benign condition left over after surviving non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and that’s how drummer Drumm came up with his band name and the first track on this album, “Fatty Necrosis Sings the Blues.” It’s compelling terminology, and the music matches the intensity Drumm surely felt when he found he had lymphoma. Though a musician for decades, Drumm had been on the other side of the business as a head of several companies, including famed string maker, D’Addario. So this marks his debut, and one wonders why he didn’t do it earlier, since this is cool stuff. It recalls a lot of the better aspects of fusion -- soaring arrangements, punchy musicianship, plenty of improvisation, thick chords and intensity. The musicians, including guitarists Fred Hamilton and Corey Christiansen, saxophonist Frank Catalano, and trumpeter Pete Grimaldi, bring Drumm’s vision to life. The original tunes, mostly by the guitarists, allow for plenty of soloing and improvisational interplay, as on the open-ended “Gentle Spirit,” where Drumm shows off tasteful licks. There are elements of Chick Corea, Mike Stern, Mahavishnu Orchestra and other retro-fusion artists, but it does manage to sound contemporary. It’s also a good bit of fun, and Drumm should be praised for using his status as cancer survivor as the basis for the recording.
2012 Rick Drumm. Playing Time: 63 minutes.
No Time Like Now, Nick Moran Trio. The problem with the Hammond B-3 organ is that it sounds like a Hammond B-3 organ, and nothing else, so it’s difficult to hear it played in a way that’s different from the soul jazz masters that made it cool. I’m indifferent to the organ, but I’m game to hear good musicianship, so guitarist Moran’s latest organ trio disc let me enjoy the music without being put off by the patented vibrato of Brad Whiteley’s organ. Moran is a very good player, and his hollow-body guitar sound is rich and melodic. With drummer Chris Benham, the trio is tight, and the chordal instruments know their roles, which means the organ doesn’t get in the way of the guitar, and vice versa. A cover tune opens the disc, a funky soul version of Cream’s “Strange Brew,” which doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. It’s when they dive into Moran’s original tunes that it picks up and becomes more than an organ groove recording. Moran’s tunes have a complexity that makes the organ work harder, especially with bass lines that aren’t just bluesbased, as on the ever-shifting, Latin-ish tune, “My Beautiful.” The guitar is the focal point throughout, and Moran handles a diverse group of tunes with aplomb, as on the John Scofield-esque “Wishful Thinking,” and the mellow waltz, “No Time Like Now.” Taking the organ trio out of its usual realm creates good things here.
2012, Manor Sound Records. Playing Time: 55:54.
All We Are Saying..., Bill Frisell. In less capable hands, this musical tribute to John Lennon could have been sappy or trite. But Frisell has a way of making the old sound new and fresh while still being reverent. Here, he works with a group of incredible musicians to take Lennon’s Beatles and solo pieces and mold them into something completely Frisell. With steel guitarist Greg Leisz, violinist Jenny Scheinman, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Frisell stays true to the melodies of tunes like “Across the Universe,” “Revolution” and “Beautiful Boy,” but the tonalities, utilization of space, and organic feel of the grooves make the tunes come alive in new ways. “Revolution” sounds like a back-porch country groove, while “Imagine” floats in an ethereal space wash of strings, the melody wavering under Frisell’s fingertips. “In My Life” recreates the chamber music feel in a folky way, while “Give Peace a Chance” creates layers of sound over a flurry of non-rhythmic activity. It’s the first truly fresh version of Lennon that’s been done in ages, and one that certainly falls within the realm of jazz.
2011, Savoy Jazz. Playing Time: 68 minutes.
Federico on Broadway, Clazz Ensemble/Frank Carlberg. Pianist and composer Carlberg here combines his love of Fellini’s movies with musical theater and carnival atmosphere. The Ensemble is a Dutch “small” big band led by trumpeter Gerard Kleijin and saxophonist Dick de Graaf. The result is a somewhat whimsical, occasionally chaotic album of old-timey-meets-European avant garde. The first tracks flurry through a Fellini-meetscarnival atmosphere, with flickering woodwinds, flaring brass and crazy themes. “Green Room” holds back a bit, with tension building to the next tune, a jumbled “Rat Race.” The music is interesting, played well by the performers, and evokes the feel the composer intended, but it's more soundtrack than a good listen.
2012, Red Piano Records. Playing Time: 60 minutes.
Boys Night Out, Michael Treni Big Band. The concept behind this big band disc is 30 years old, written by trombonist and bandleader Treni, who took time out to be a businessman before re-launching his performing and arranging side. It is a combination of Treni’s arrangements of tunes by Bernstein, Strayhorn, Shearing and Van Husen, and his own compositions. It’s meant to evoke a night out playing in the clubs, but that concept seems a bit dated decades later. Still, the music holds up on its own, and it has a hip swagger. As played by this 16-piece group (with strings added on a few tracks), it swings, as on the first two tracks, including the title piece. The band is full of quality players, including saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, who mostly takes an ensemble role here. All the soloists are fine, including soprano saxophonist Sal Spicola, a veteran of the Woody Herman group, and tenor man Frank Elmo. The harmonically rich “Strayhorn” is a standout here, as it goes deeper than some of the other tunes and develops luxuriant tones, including those delivered by flute soloist Ken Hitchcock. While this collection might seem a bit retro, the vibe is cool and the level of musicianship high.
2012, Bell Production Co. Playing Time: 58 minutes.
The New Old-Fashioned, Bridgetown Sextet. Trad jazz revivalists aren’t difficult to find. They’ve been playing at trad jazz clubs and festivals ever since eartly jazz was redubbed Dixieland. But it’s rarely been tackled by such accomplished younger musicians. There’s an immediacy here that goes beyond the quicker tempos often found in early jazz. Maybe it’s the bright, unadorned production that makes the listener feel right in the room, or maybe it’s the well-planned set of less conventional gems, or perhaps it’s the musicianship itself, by some of the best in town. Listen as saxophonist David Evans swings as hard as Ben Webster on Count Basie’s “Sent for You Yesterday.” Or check out Scott Kennedy’s on “Sporting House Rag” and John Moak’s velvety trombone solo on “If I Could Be with You.” It’s a pleasure to hear these musicians pay tribute while bringing a new vibrancy. Andrew Oliver does triple duty here, on cornet, piano, or drums when needed, and Doug Sammons chunks away at guitar and croons his best. He’s joined by fellow Midnight Serenaders singer Dee Settlemeier on “If I Could Be with You.” Bassist Eric Gruber holds down the bottom admirably, and the group coalesces without ego -- just a love for great melodies and jams, as on Duke Ellington’s infectiously toe-tapping, “C Jam Blues.” It even sounds a bit rebellious, especially considering most folks that play trad jazz don’t infuse it with this much chutzpah.
2011, Bridgetown Sextet. Playing Time: 60 minutes.
Ult-ernative, Upper Left Trio. The name refers to our location in the top left of the U.S., since the trio is composed of Portlanders: pianist Clay Giberson, bassist Jeff Leonard, and drummer Charlie Doggett. The “ulternative” refers to the young, brash approach of the group, even though they are accomplished musicians with a solid basis in tradition. Still, this group pushes the tunes forward, as on the funky opener, Giberson’s “Smells Like French,” or Leonard’s “Swamped,” which has the muddy grit of the Bayou. There is also an element of quiet sophistication, as on “Cross Off the Stars,” a pretty tune full of chord alterations and a beat by Doggett that keeps the tension. Doggett’s compositional contribution, “Steel Wheel,” uses textures, such as dampened, buzzing piano strings and a wash of cymbals, as well as an uneasy waltz feel, to keep things interesting. While there is a forward thinking attitude, there is still a solid sense of melody and song here, elevating the piano trio to new, contemporary heights.
2012, Origin Records. Playing Time: 55:50.