CD Reviews - August 2012 

by George Fendel, and Kyle O'Brien

Reviews by George Fendel

Songs of Earth, Jessica Williams, piano.
Over a period encompassing several engagements at Seattle’s The Triple Door, pianist Williams compiled six original compositions (of the seven played here) which seemed to have a common thread. All were completely improvised on the spot, and in her effort to meld them into an artistic whole, she chose pieces which complement one another. While the term “jazz pianist” is an honorable title, I’ve always felt that Williams takes it a step further in terms of the creation of high art. And that she does in this solo performance with songs that defy category. Whatever one wishes to call it, one can’t escape the fact that Williams’ melodies are often rich and riveting, passionate and beautiful. A few examples of all of that are “Poem,” a delicate entry with a stirring melody line and a sort of left hand vamp to add tension. “Montoya” is her dedication to flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya, beautifully created on the spot . “Joe and Jane,” in Williams’s words, is a sorrowful psalm and a thank you to all who have served in the armed services. On all of these and others, Williams plays from her heart and invites you to share in this honest and emotional performance.
Origin; 2012; appx. 55 minutes.

Give Me the Simple Life, Joe Alterman, piano.
Sometimes things just turn out right. Alterman, fresh out of New York University, managed to hire his friend and mentor, tenor saxman Houston Person, for this debut recording. To add more frosting to this cake, Ahmad Jamal’s bassist, James Carmack, also made the gig, as did New York drmmer extraordinaire, Herlin Riley. Person appears on four tracks, including a soulful “Georgia on My Mind”; a silvery ballad called “The First Night Home”; another standard in “I Guess I’ll Have to Dream the Rest,” and the obligatory blues, “Kelly’s Blues.” Judging from the rest of the material, Alterman definitely has an ear for quality tunes others tend to overlook. Consider such outstanding fare as “An Affair to Remember,” Pure Imagination,” “Why Do I Love You,” “ I m Yours,” “Why Try to Change Me Now,” and finally, a tune I discovered from a definitive Zoot Sims version, “They Say It’s Spring.” Like Ahmad Jamal, Alterman possesses a clear understanding of the use of space and the power of economy. I sure like all the places his playing seemed to be going.
Miles High Records; 2012; appx. 60 minutes.

Live at the Kitano, Bill Cantrell, trombone.
A busy presence on the New York scene for over a decade, Cantrell takes his hard bop chops on a rhythmic mission in a stirring live performance. His quintet includes other younger vets moving up the ladder on the world’s toughest stage. Stacy Dillard, saxophones, Rick Germanson, piano, Gerald Cannon, bass, and Darrell Green, drums, complete the group, and right from the start there’s energy abounding on a menu of mostly original compositions. The opener was, for awhile, a line with no name, simply notated as “Bb Major,” ultimately becoming “B. B. M.” It s followed by the only non-original on the date, Cole Porter’s “After You.” It s a winner, despite being one of the more obscure Porter melodies, and Cantrell and company give it a subtle, bossa hint. “Sharphead” is a minor-key offering, and it gives Cantrell, Dillard and Germanson generous opportunity to shine. Another tune which caught my attention was “Like I Said,” a bluesy cousin which would have fit in well with guys like Art Blakey or Horace Silver. Finally, there’s a 24-minute entry, “Axiom.” It’s Cantrell’s example of modal writing and adds a couple additional players to the mix. This is real deal, high-octane New York jazz. Perhaps not for everyone, but the musicianship alone should speak to those with ears to hear it.
Upswing Records; 2012; appx. 75 minutes.

Boogie Woogie Turnaround, Otmar Binder, piano.
Meade Lux Lewis and Jay McShann would be astounded and delighted -- Boogie Woogie piano from Vienna, Austria. I wouldn’t have believed it. But Binder explains that, as a kid, he was introduced to that style from a record brought home by his father. That was it, I was hooked. And Binder gives you a brawny, buoyant picture of the music that captured him long ago. With an ensemble that includes bass, drums, pedal steel and steel guitars, among other contributors, Binder brings a contemporary aroma to boogie woogie, but never loses its essence. For example, don’t be thrown off by guitars usually reserved for cowboy music. Somehow, they fit quite comfortably here. Some highlights include “Steamin’ Away,” a relentless blues which features a Sonny Terrylike harmonica solo by one Christian Dozzler. “At Last” (not to be confused with the standard of the same name) is straight-forward, bluesy, pure boogie woogie piano; and the same could be said of titles such as “Home Run,” “Travellin’,” and “Brighton to Boston.” On all these and lots more (17 in all!), Binder and a host of pals make it clear that there’s more than the opera house in Vienna!
Jumpriver Records; 2012; appx. 52 minutes.

Less Than Three, Ori Dagan, vocals.
This is Israel native Dagan’s second album, and he takes a different path than he did on his debut. I like the guy a lot, but I can t completely get behind much of the material here. Dagan is a jazz singer through and through. He possesses a gift for scat and a true jazzman’s sense of phrasing, hipness and cool. All of that was what drew me to his earlier release. But this time, he does his best to bring musical validity to songs either written by or associated with the likes of Madonna, Elton John, Elvis Presley and Lady Gaga. And then, when it comes to Frank Sinatra, Dagan chooses “Strangers in the Night,” a throw-away tune that Frank expressed his opinion of at the very end when he sang “Doobie doobie do.” Undoubtedly, Dagan brings more class to this banal material. Thankfully, he includes a fun-filled “Sweet Georgia Brown” and an energetic Israeli folksong I learned at summer camp a thousand years ago, “Eretz Zavat Chalav.” There’s also the very clever title,”Googleable,” a recitation on today’s technology which, one might say, updates the old jazz tune “Doodlin’.” Dagan is a unique and a very natural talent. With a few exceptions, I think he lost his way on this recording. I hope and trust that he ll recover.
Scat Cat Records; 2012; appx. 33 minutes.

Live At The Loft, Michael Pedicin, tenor saxophone.
Upon hearing Pedicin’s tenor sax, one pretty quickly concludes that his inspiration was John Coltrane. Like countless others who pray at the church of JC, Pedicin’s earthy tone, powerful approach, and his entire conception is in the shadow of the giant who grew up in Philadelphia, Pedicin’s hometown. This live recording took place at The Loft, a comfortable New Jersey club favored by Pedicin. With a lively and into it quintet of Johnnie Valentino, guitar, Jim Ridl, piano, Andy Lalasis, bass, and Bob Shomo, drums, Pedicin explores eight tunes, more than half of which were either written by or closely associated with Coltrane. “Theme for Ernie,” a lovely melody approaching standard status, opens the program and is taken a bit faster than usual. The re verse is true on Coltrane’s “ Impressions,” one of his most famous compositions. Also on the bill are two ballads forever linked with Coltrane: “Say It (Over and Over Again)” from the classic “Ballads Album,” and Billy Eckstein’s timeless “I Want to Talk about You.” The other JC-inspired selections are “Like Sonny,” and one from his Impulse years, “Africa.” On these and a few others, Pedicin takes no prisoners and plays cascades of notes. Never sounding like his hero, he nonetheless honors him with every phrase.
The Jazz Hut; 2012; appx. 58 minutes.

My Blue Heaven, Cheryl Jewell, vocals.
There are the singers who are dipped-in-ink jazz vocalists because it’s in their veins. I’m speaking of Anita O Day, Annie Ross, Roberta Gambarini, and, of course, Ella, Sarah and Carmen. There are also very good singers of quality songs who possess solid intonation, energy and style. They’re distinctly not jazz singers, but top talents like Keely Smith, Eydie Gorme and even Judy Garland. Jewell is a similar song stylist, and a very accomplished one. To call her a jazz singer would be to place her in a category where she doesn’t really belong. But that’s not to demean her. She brings a spicy and upbeat contemporary feel to her interpretations of top tier tunes. She’s very comfortable adjusting tempos to her energetic style and, as a result, her singing takes unexpected but delightful little twists and turns. Accompanied primarily by a zestful piano trio, her choices range from newer gems such as “When Do the Bells Ring for Me” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” to standards that include “Over the Rainbow,” “Cry Me a River,” “Get Happy” and “At Last.” I found the folksong, “Wayfaring Stranger,” a rather odd choice. Ditto on the album closer, a gospel entry called “People Get Ready.” But give her high marks for versatility and even higher ones for hitting the rich center of every note.
Self-Produced; 2012; appx. 38 minutes.

Contemplation, Gabriel Zufferey, piano.
For a youngster who hasn’t yet reached his 30th birthday, Swiss pianist Zufferey has a powerful message in his superb touch, romanticism and, seemingly, a quest for what is beautiful. With very good reason, he’s been spoken of in comparison to the high altitude (he is Swiss, you know) of players with names like Evans, Ellington, Jarrett and even Bud Powell. He’s already the recipient of a multitude of European awards, and you ll understand why when you hear this riveting, recital-like solo performance. Zufferey puts a very personal spin on a number of great jazz tunes. For example, as tired as you may be of “Take Fiv “, Zufferey makes it come alive, and you can t help but listen with enthusiasm. Other gems include standards” Tenderly,” “In a Sentimental Mood” and “My Funny Valentine,” plus a host of jazz compositions. Among the latter are winners such as “The Old Country,” “Freedom Jazz Dance,” “Trinkle Tinkle,” “Giant Steps” and a medley of “Lonnie s Lament” and “Lonely Woman.” With several original compositions also in the mix, the entire program is no less than 18 tunes. It is also interesting to note that Zufferey makes his musical statements quite brief. Some of the tunes are less than two minutes in length, but if one says all he needs to say in 1:43, so be it. Most importantly, Zufferey brings a ton of beautiful, crystalline piano into your living room. As sophisticated as he is at 28, one can only wonder where the music will yet take him.
Bee Jazz; 2012; 2012; appx. 56 minutes.

Organ Monk, Uwo In The Black, Greg Lewis, Hammond organ.
At least I’m honest about my dilemma: I love Monk’s music, but I m not even lukewarm about the use of the organ in jazz. I know it has a place, but for me organ jazz stopped with Jimmy Smith, who said just about all that was necessary to say. So how do I come to terms with Lewis, who happens to be swingin’, smokin’ and seemingly made to play Monk. I just need to take a deep breath and realize that a lot of folks DIG organ music, and they re going to eat this up! Lewis’s quartet includes Reginald Woods, tenor sax, Ronald Jackson, guitar, and Nasheet Waits, drums. And as you might expect, 10 or the 14 tunes are byMonk, including some real rare ones such as “Little Rootie Tootie,” the even more rare, “Humph and Skippy,” which were only recorded by the master pianist one time, and “Stuffy Turkey” and “Bright Mississippi,” both known to Monkophiles but rarely played. Certainly more common, but not overplayed, are “Ugly Beauty,” “Thelonious,” “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “52nd Street Theme.” Lewis and friends capture the charm and wit of Monk and remind us that his deceptively simple melody lines did not become classics by accident. As for my B-3 problem, I ll try to get over it.
Self-Produced; 2012; times not indicated.

Status Cymbals, Bruce Cox, drums.
It only makes sense that a drummer should come up with a title like this. And while Cox appears to be in the percussive fast lane, this recording also puts the rest of the quartet squarely in the spotlight. Tenor man Abraham Burton burns in a post-bop frenzy but can whisper and emote on a ballad. And Aruan Ortiz is clearly a force on piano. Gianluca Renzi completes the quartet on bass. (Any relation to pianist Mike Renzi? Just wondering.) The CD is a mix of eight Cox originals and four well-known titles. I like the fact that Cox gives us some additional basis on which to measure his skill by playing at least a few familiar tunes. And the quartet has done that with Van Heusen’s “Darn that Dream,” Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not,” Monk’s “Evidence” and Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer.” I’ve always been drawn to the pretty stuff, so Cox’s ballad writing and slower tempos spoke to me. Among them are regal melodies such as “Rafaelle” and “Robbie- Jean.” The quartet communicates with ease and skill, suggesting that they’ve worked as a unit for a considerable period of time. Great chops all around!
Ray C-B Music; 2012; appx. 70 minutes.

Throop, John Stowell, acoustic nylon string guitar, Ulf Bandgren, acoustic steel string guitar.
Portland guitarist Stowell always has chosen a very unique path. From his physical embrace of the guitar to the preference for an unplugged instrument, to the very music he’s been playing for many years now, Stowell is an original. One could almost suggest that if it sings deliciously and delicately, it’s likely to be Stowell. He’s done prior recordings for Origin, but this is the first time he’s teamed up in a duo setting with Swedish guitarist Bandgren. Talk about two peas in a pod: Stowell and Bandgren share a similar concept regarding the important sound they are putting into the atmosphere. They have developed this musical kinship as a result of honing their duo skills in concert settings in Europe and the States. On this recording, the two present nine original compositions. Some are complex, challenging and highly interactive. Others are lilting and lyrical. Also included here is a Tommy Flanagan piece, “Freight Train,” absolutely brand new to me. As the title suggests, it’s a rollicking wonder. Quite a pair these two. If you’re curious about guitar music which takes a detour from the norm, check em out!
Origin; 2012; appx. 53 minutes.

Now, Sumi Tonooka, solo piano.
Philadelphia-born Tonooka’s live solo performance is captured here in its entirety on two compact discs. Very well recorded at The Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York, the concert is divided in two sections. The first set is comprised entirely of standards which have resonated with her over the years. Thus, she gives us “I Hear a Rhapsody,” “Heaven,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” a Mary Lou Williams medley, “Evidence” and “All of You.” Tonooka states these timeless melodies with assurance and precision, and her improvisations are zestful and imaginative, particularly on the Monk classic. The second CD features Tonooka’s original compositions (with one exception). Her originals are sometimes soaring, sometimes plaintive, sometimes playful, and now and then a bit New-Agey. Of the five, I liked the waltz tempo and melody line of “At Home” in particular. In order to give her audience a cheerful send-off, she bids adieu with Eubie Blake’s “I m Confessin’,” played in an appropriate stride setting. Tonooka appears to be an artist worth keeping an eye on. She s brimming with ideas, and they re all good ones!
Arc Records; 2012; CD #1,. 40 minutes; CD #2: 42 minutes.


Live at the Freight, Jessica Jones, tenor sax & Mark Taylor, French horn & mellophone.
How about a quartet featuring tenor and French horn? And no piano. That’s what Jones and Taylor bring to this live performance of nine originals; five by her, four by him. Jones has a restrained, thick tenor sound which may remind some of Jimmy Giuffre. And Taylor joins in on two instruments not often featured in jazz. Some of the music is a bit on the avant side, but the combination of these two instruments should raise some eyebrows.
New Artists; 2012; appx. 72 minutes.

The Re-(W)Rite of Spring, The Mobtown Modern Big Band.
History tells us that, at the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” a riot ensued. But not so in this live orchestral jazz version. Arranger-conductor Darryl Brenzel puts an updated version of this important work in the capable hands of 17 versatile musicians from the Baltimore-D.C. area. This is a soaring, sometimes complex and stunning work with a hint of third stream in the shadows. A significant accomplishment and a recording which will be welcomed by those in this genre.
Innova; 2012; appx. 75 minutes.

Brand New Mischief, Leon Foster Thomas, steel pan.
I guess someone decided to change the name of these things from steel drums to steel pan. Be that as it may, they always sound very Jamaican to me. So much so that I envision a line of beautiful dancers in colorful costumes with feathery, flamboyant headwear. Ethnic music? Yes! And pretty good for what it is. American jazz? No. It never was and it never will be. So, let s leave it at this -- if you dig steel pans/drums, Thomas and his quartet have a nice energy. Now where did I put that bottle of rum?
Self-Produced; 2012; appx. 40 minutes

Reviews by Kyle O'Brien

Give Me the Simple Life, Joe Alterman.
Young New York pianist Alterman is in good company on this debut. Mentor Houston Person, whom he met at a master class at NYU, provides lovely melodies (“The First Night Home”), and soulful solos (“Georgia on My Mind”), while Herlin Riley plays with his usual brilliance on drums, and James Cammack holds down the bottom end. Alterman is a sophisticated musician, playing classic melodies in true piano trio fashion, chock full of chordal, rhythmic comping and tasteful solos. He harkens back to an earlier time, which is why his song choice, while a tad too safe, is perfect for his style. For fans of melodic jazz, this is a winner.
2012, Miles High Records. Playing Time: 60 minutes.

Bop! Bang! Boom! Grant Geissman.
The look of this disc is far out and retro-space-age-funky. The music is funky as well, though hardly futuristic. Guitarist Geissman’s melodies are complex, both rhythmically and melodically, but his band of all stars – Albert Lee, Tom Scott, Larry Carlton, Russell Ferrante, Leland Sklar and Mike Finnigan, among others -- elevates the music past the usual modern jazz proceeding. Geissman’s fluid guitar work can be funky (“Boom!” “Q Tip”), swinging (“The Singularity”), or even western-tinged (“Texas Shuffle”). This music is just plain fun. It doesn’t have boundaries yet remains cohesive because of Geissman’s wise writing. Worth a spin or 12.
2012, Futurism Records. Playing Time: 60 minutes.

Birth of the Minotaur, The Odd Trio.
Unconventional trios seem to be rising in popularity as the walls of jazz continue to be knocked down. This bass-less trio consists of Brian Smith on guitar, Marc Gilley on saxophone, and Todd Mueller on drums. The Athens, Georgia group is a modern jazz trio in the loosest sense. The music is eclectic but not unapproachable. It starts with a New Orleans funk groove, “Raucous Bacchus,” which sounds a bit like Galactic meets Charlie Hunter, then goes psychedelic, with a Bitches Brew-style electric wash of avant-garde noodling. The band is talented enough to live without bass, though sometimes the sound can be a little thin. Smith uses multiple effects on his guitar to fill out the sound, as on the ethereal “Deckard’s Dream,” and the out-there rock of “Whiskey.”
2012, Odd Trio Records. Playing Time: 60 minutes.

Sweet Happy Life, Connie Evingson.
Minnesota vocalist Evingson tackles the lyrics of Grammy and Oscar-winning songwriter Norman Gimbel, and she does a fine job interpreting the classic lyrics of tunes like “Meditation,” “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” and “The Girl From Ipanema.” Obviously, Gimbel paired with quite a few great melodicists, like Jobim, Henry Mancini and Michel Legrand, so there’s a lot to work with. Evingson’s vocal delivery is smooth and fluid, her tone bright and effervescent. You can tell she feels and knows these songs well, singing with depth and passion. Her voice is a tad nasally, but it makes her stand out, and this tribute highlights a name many may not know, even if the lyrics are familiar.
2012, Minehaha Music. 65 minutes.

Colombe, David Reinhardt.
Being the grandson of legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt doesn’t necessarily mean instant success, but luckily the younger Reinhardt is a talented guitarist in his own right, not having to lean on the tunes of his famous relative to find his path. Reinhardt is also a thoughtful guitarist, playing his hollow-bodied axe with subtlety and panache. The disc opens with a lovely ballad, “Lady,” which is part of this tribute to his grandmother. With Florent Gac on Hammond B-3 organ, and Yoann Serra on drums, the sound is sparse and open, meaning everyone is heard, though no one takes over. The album has elements of swing, European jazz, Latin jazz and modern trio jazz. Reinhardt’s tunes dominate, but there are other gems from Ivan Lins and Jimmy van Heusen. “Here’s That Rainy Day” gets a bouncy swing treatment, while the “Love Theme From Spartacus” becomes a surprisingly beautiful ballad.
2011, Cristal Records. Playing Time: 46 minutes.

Our Thing, Roni Ben-Hur, Santi Debirano, featuring Duduka Da Fonseca.
For the world jazz firepower on this recording – Ben-Hur from Israel, Debriano from Panama and New York, and Da Fonseca from Brazil – this is surprisingly western sounding. It starts with a slick version of Monk’s “Green Chimneys,” then gets a little Latin with Debriano’s “Our Thing,” which lets Da Fonseca show his considerable skills on percussion, keeping it bubbling under as Ben-Hur massages the melody and Debriano goes rhythmic on the bass. The trio toys with Jobim a couple times, and throws in Irving Berlin at the end, bringing a world jazz feel to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” While the disc is reserved, it’s also of high quality from three fine artists.
2012, Motema. Playing Time: 57 minutes.

Dos Y Mas, Elio Villafranca, Arturo Stable.
Pianist Villafranca and percussionist Stable make a rich pairing, even as sparse as this duo might seem. But the two Cuban-born musicians are virtuosos on their instruments, and each is able to sound bigger than one instrument might. In fact, Stable’s polyrhythms sound like two people are playing them at times, and Villafranca’s full keyboard usage and rhythmic style allow for a full-bodied sound as they traipse through the world of music, paying tribute to the places that have molded their musical views – Cuba, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Spain. There is fire and passion throughout, and both musicians work as one to create their sound. Igor Arias adds vocals on “Cuba Linda,” bringing the music home to their native land.
2012, Motema. Playing Time: 60 minutes.

Funkengruven: The Joy of Driving a B-3, Kevin Coelho.
My eyes rolled a bit when I read “16-year old Californian…” in the promo. It’s rare when any teenager deserves a solo album, let alone one playing an instrument usually associated with older players. But I gave it a spin and was pleasantly surprised. Coelho, a protégé of veteran organist Tony Monaco, has learned well and plays with a metered maturity, and his arrangements and compositions are beyond his years. His funky version of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” breathes new life into an already cool tune, and the kid can swing too, as he displays on “Donna Lee.” Not every tune is a winner. The slightly funkier version of “Dock of the Bay” is a throwaway, but Coelho has plenty of time to mature.
2012, Chicken Coop Records. Playing Time: 62 minutes.

The 11th Gate, Dennis Rollins & Velocity Trio.
Rollins is a bigger name in his native UK, but the trombonist has also backed some of jazz and funk’s best, including Courtney Pine and Maceo Parker, so he’s no newcomer. This disc has considerable firepower, even though it’s a trio. Drummer Pedro Segundo powers through each track, while Ross Stanley rounds out the middle with his B-3 organ, letting Rollins lay his trombone over the top. “Samba Galactica” starts things off like a kick to the gut – powerful, punchy and fantastically energetic. Rollins doubles his horn through electronics occasionally, giving him more sonic girth, as on the Latin funk of “Ujamma.” The only cover here is Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance,” and the trio tackles the retro tune with verve. It’s a solid album by a quality trombonist and composer.
2011, Motema. Playing Time: 47 minutes.


After many years reviewing CDs and writing features for Jazzscene, musician, writer and radio industry professional Kyle O’Brien is moving to Pennsylvania. This will be his last column for the magazine, and we want to thank him for his contributions to the Jazz Society and the area music community.