It Had To Be You, Zoot Sims and Scott Hamilton, tenor saxes.
Quite a number of folks, musicians and record company execs among them, were aware of this rare 1984 meeting of two giants cut from the same cloth. But until now, this gem had never seen the light of day. It seems that Hamilton was on tour in Sweden, and was tipped that Zoot was also there on a separate musical mission. He invited Zoot to play, and with little more than a tune list, the two appeared with a swinging Swedish rhythm section, and together they all hit a grand slam. While both tenor men are disciples of players with names like Lester, Hawk and Ben, their sound differs enough so that there’s no trouble distinguishing where each is featured. And what great tunes! Seven gems, most of them in the 10 minute range, allowing everyone to stretch, but no one to yawn. How about these evergreens: “It Had To Be You,” “Gone With The Wind,” “Indiana,” “Easy Living,” “Sunday,” “Broadway” and “Just You, Just Me.” I had no idea of the existence of this historically important CD until I got a call from former Jazzscene editor, Wayne Thompson, who graciously ordered a copy for me. Sadly, this would be the swan song for Zoot, who would pass on four months after this concert. The liner notes say, “he had reached that rare stage of mastery where he could merely play a tune and make it sound as though he had just invented it.” Thanks, Zoot and Scott!
Gemini Records, probably 2011 or 2012, 67 minutes.
Alive at the Vanguard, Fred Hersch, piano.
There’s a subtlety in the use of the word “Alive” in the title of this outstanding recording. Following a health problem that put him in a coma for two months, Hersch is not only alive, but still one of the triumphant pianists in today‘s jazz pantheon. His current trio includes John Herbert, bass, and Eric McPherson, drums. And the music in this two-CD set, recorded “alive” at arguably the world’s most famous jazz venue, is truly a five-star performance. Hersch is a marvel of the piano; a “monster” of phrasing, precision, beauty and swing; a disciple of heroes with names like Evans, Flanagan and Hank Jones. He can also “write up a storm,” as he does on a variety of tempos, and his improvisations can be creative and often scintillating. His choice of material from other sources suggests that Hersch puts a great deal of though into these details. There are several rarely heard items, such as Horace Parlan’s “Segment,” Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy,” and Russ Freeman’s “The Wind,” which is played in a stunning medley with Alec Wilder’s “Moon And Sand.” Or how about Monk’s “Played Twice”? How many versions, aside from Monk’s, can you recall hearing?! Remarkable, brilliant piano trio albums are a rarity these days. Clearly, this is all that and more.
Palmetto, 2012, two Cds: 58:00 and 57:00.
Introducing Letizia Gambi, vocals.
The cover of this CD will garner some attention for two reasons. One: Italian singer Gambi is gorgeous. And two: among the musicians listed on that cover are Chick Corea, Ron Carter, Wallace Roney and other well-known personnel. Pretty heady company for this youngster, right? She possesses a skilled, clear and beautiful voice, but her material will appeal to a very select audience, but probably not too many from the jazz crowd. With all this stirring accompaniment from jazz musicians, Gambi’s selections don’t have much to do with jazz. In addition, nearly half of her 14 songs are sung in Italian. Nice indeed, and perhaps the feeling of an intimate singer in a café on the Italian coast. How would I describe it? Italian pop, Neopolitan and a touch of opera. All in a good enough voice for Ron Carter to remark, “it was soooo nice to play for a singer that can really sing.” But don’t make a comparison with another Italian singer, Roberta Gambarini, the best jazz singer to have arrived in the last two decades. Gambi is impressive at her craft while Gambarini is, simply, a jazz singer.
Jando Music; 2012; appx. 75 minutes.
Spiritual Nature, Donald Vega, piano.
Right off the top, don’t let the title of the recording confuse you. It’s not a “religious” album; far from it. In fact, it opens with a Vega original called “Scorpion.” Vega and friends let you know with clarity that something is happening here that is bound to get your attention. Trumpet man Gilbert Castellanos and sax ace Bob Sheppard deliver especially fiery solos. It’s followed by “First Trip,” a jaunty, more than medium tempo creation of Ron Carter. “River,” a tune by Monty Alexander, brings on the solo work of violinist Christian Howes, and the title tune, “Spiritual Nature,” puts Sheppard’s sax and Bob McChesney’s trombone in the spotlight. Another “Monty” contribution with the odd title “Accompong,” is a stop and go sizzler featuring Anthony Wilson on guitar. “Future Child” is a regal sounding beauty from the late bass hero, Neils Pedersen, and “You Never Tell Me Anything” is a classy blues with a Ray Brown sort of construction. It gives Vega the chance to strut his stuff with the trio. On all these and more, Vega shows a versatile musical pallette, a deft and often serene touch, and writing and arranging skills that impress. I must say that the final tune (and the only standard), “I Remember Clifford,” is played simply and sincerely by Vega and his trio mates, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash. It ranks right up there among the prettiest versions of the Benny Golson classic.
Summit; 2012, 72 minutes.
Lifetimes, The Brubeck Brothers Quartet.
Two of Dave Brubeck’s sons -- Chris on electric bass and bass trombone, and Dan on drums -- join forces with pianist Chuck Lamb and guitarist Mike DeMicco on eight tunes, half of which hail from the elder Brubeck’s glory years. The best known of those would be “The Duke” and “Kathy’s Waltz,” both mainstays of the DB book. “Jazzanians” is a Brubeck rarity, and “My One Bad Habit” dates back to a Carmen McRae vocal from a brilliant album called “The Real Ambassadors.” A couple of tunes by present-day quartet members are also on the menu, as is the venerable “Take Five,” the Paul Desmond hit by which jazz itself is often defined by the uninitiated. Lamb’s piano, quite lyrical and very swinging, doesn’t at all derive from Dave’s more chordal, dense style. And DeMicco seems to be a very strong and sometimes subtle presence on the guitar. Brubeck’s compositions are completely respected here, but they simply show up in fashionable new attire. The Brubeck boys take it pretty much straight down the middle of the highway, resulting in an energetic, musical and satisfying session.
Blue Forest Records, 2012, 55 minutes.
The Sweetest Melody, David Sills, tenor sax, Michael Kanan, piano.
Another believer in the concept that swing is essential, ballads are a thrill, and blues is part of the vocabulary, is Southern California tenor man Sills. This is his seventh CD (in my collection), and I’ve long been an admirer of his musicianship, choice of material, and past playing mates such as Alan Broadbent, Gary Foster and others. This time around, David and his classic, gorgeous tone have encountered pianist Michael Kanan in a duo setting. The two have recorded previously, but in a more conventional setting. Their extremely satisfying musical communication is somewhat reminiscent of the great duo recordings from a Con cord Jazz series many years ago. Indeed, the two of them bring a recital-like quality to 10 standards, one classic from the jazz book and, of course, a blues. How can you go wrong with “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” “All The Things You Are,” “Get Out of Town,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and other Songbook America gems. “Milestones” is the jazz standard, and Sills switches to flute on a happy “Blues In Ten.” The big surprise is “How Little We Know,” a beautifully crafted, medium tempo delight which Sinatra once handled with aplomb. All in all, Sills is a relaxed, highly skilled veteran, and Kanan’s accompaniment simply couldn’t be tastier.
Gut String Records, 2012, 67 minutes.
Embers and Ashes and Where Are You Going (2 LPs on 1 CD) Shirley Horn, vocals, piano.
Horn was an exceptional jazz singer right from the beginning. It’s just that nobody knew it. This CD makes available for the first time two of her early albums originally issued on small, obscure labels. The first, “Embers and Ashes,” dates from 1960, and the second, “Where Are You Going,” from 1972. As is usually the case, Horn accompanies herself on all tracks, and all the material, save one tune, is performed in a trio setting. There are 21 selections all told, including a rare “bonus” on “A Foggy Day” with violinist Stuff Smith, of all people. Other winners include: “Like Someone in Love,” “I Thought About You,” “If I Should Lose You,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Just In Time” and a couple of very torchy things called “He Never Mentioned Love” and “Blue City.” Horn’s career would blossom some years after these two fine efforts. It’s a mystery to me that singers with a thumbnail of her talent often climb to the top. But the Horns of the world stay true to their muse, never selling out to the current fad and always maintaining the highest standards of musicianship. Her fans will be surprised and delighted to find these two sleeper LPs together.
American Jazz Classics, 2012, 76 minutes.
Rhapsody In Swing, SWR Big Band, conductor Wayne Marshall.
For a guy who has never considered himself a big band devotee, I sure love this record. The SWR Big Band has enjoyed a creative and much respected place in the big band arena for years. This recording contains only three cuts, but what riveting and dramatic ones they are! First there’s a 21+ minute medley referred to as “A Swingphonic Collection.” It’s arranged by former Count Basie arranger, Sammy Nestico. He’s worked on many projects with this great aggregation over the years. And his superb arranging skills give old favorites new life. “April In Paris,” “Take the A Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Cherokee,” “Stardust,” “A Night in Tunisia” and “How High the Moon” simply brim with excitement. Next comes Ferde Grofe’s 1926 original jazz band version of George Gershwin’s triumphant “Rhapsody in Blue” -- 19 minutes of exhilarating pleasure! The final selection is a Duke Ellington marvel, 15 minutes long, called “Harlem.” Written in 1951, it was originally commissioned by the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It is a work rich in colors and tempos and, as evident, it is performed by one of the premier big bands in the world. Make no mistake about it, this is where classical music and jazz meet. The players of the SWR Big Band seem to always bring a high standard of performance. They do again on this outstanding recording.
Hanssler Classic, 2011, 57 minutes.
Ellington Saxophone Encounters, Mark Masters, arranger.
Speaking of Ellington, the great one often encouraged his players to come up with original material. As a result, Duke’s “book” included entries from guys with names like Hodges, Gonsalves, Carney, Webster and Hamilton. Mark Masters, always engaged in a thematic approach to his many excellent recordings, scores once again here. The idea was to take some of these riffs and put them in the hands of a choice group of saxophones. The featured soloist throughout the session is baritone ace Gary Smulyan. But there’s plenty of action for fellow sax mavens Gary Foster, Pete Christlieb, Don Shelton and Gene Cipriano. Toss in a sizzling rhythm section of Bill Cunliffe, Tom Warrington and Joe LaBarbera, and these rarities from Duke’s personnel shine like gold. Actually, only two selections would eventually become “money tunes” for Ellington, “Jeep’s Blues” and “Rockin’ In Rhythm.” The remainder, much less well known, include “Esquire Swank,” “The Line Up,” “Ultra Blue,” “Get Ready,” “The Happening” and more. A particular favorite of mine is Ben Webster’s ultra-rare “Love’s Away,” featuring Pete Christlieb’s solo, an album highlight. Masters, who has given us stellar dedications to the likes of Clifford Brown, Gary McFarland and Jimmy Knepper, once again finds a musical thread and runs with it … all the way to the end zone!
Capri Records, 2012, 67 minutes.
Live, Randy Crawford, vocals, Joe Sample, piano.
Singer Crawford and pianist Sample and his trio apparently did a European tour in 2008, and this disc compiles some of the highlights of those performances. I must admit that I’ve never given Crawford much attention, thinking of her as a soul/r&b “shouter” and somewhat “over the top” as my preferences go. And she is a singer who can turn up the heat. But on this album, she reigns it in on a selection of tunes which fit well with her soulful essence. She opens with the Basie/Joe Williams classic, “Every Day I Have the Blues,” and continues with a sterling reading of “Feeling Good,” from the musical “Golden Boy.” Other tunes well suited to her style include “Rainy Night in Georgia,” “This Bitter Earth,” and a little teaser once done by Billie Holiday, “Me, Myself and I.” Sample contributes three tunes. The best known, perhaps, is “Street Life,” a formidable hit a couple decades ago. It should also be said that Sample plays acoustic piano exclusively here. No electricity. No synthesizers. Which only adds to the “thumbs up” feel of this session. While I can’t say I’m firmly entrenched in Crawford’s camp, she exceeded my expectations by keeping everything well under control.
PRA Records, 2012, 45 minutes.
Clarinet Swing, Daniel McBrearty, clarinet.
Born and raised in Wales, McBrearty’s musical path took many twists and turns through a variety of musical pursuits. But all the while, his first love was the jazz of Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. It so happens, however, that as recently as two years ago, he wasn’t playing it. A trip to New Orleans changed all that, however. McBrearty came away absolutely determined to get back to his musical first and abiding love. And this CD is the result. Now living in Belguim, he contacted resident pianist Dirk Van der Linden and bassist Jean Van Lint about making this CD. The result is a recital quality mix of standards associated with his chosen musical era and three original tunes with the same sort of feeling. McBrearty and friends are ultra-relaxed on “Skylark,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Body and Soul,” “When I Grow too Old to Dream” and even “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” McBrearty’s unforced, dreamy, liquid clarinet is pure delight. It’ll make you glad that he returned to the music he always loved.
Dan McB Music, 2012,. 45 minutes.
Hustlin’ for a Gig, Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet.
Vocal groups were once a hot commodity on the pop and jazz scene. On the pop side, you probably remember The Mills Brothers, the Ames Brothers and the Maguire Sisters, among dozens of others. More jazz-centered vocal groups included The Hi-los, The Four Freshmen, Jackie and Roy, The Singers Unlimited and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. But there’s not much to write home about in recent years. So here comes the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet featuring two female and two male voices with fresh new material. And when I say “new,” I mean it literally. All the tunes,save one, were written, both music and lyrics, by Ginny Carr, one of the members of the group. A few highlights include “He Was A Cat,” a solid tribute to vocalese master Eddie Jefferson ; “Hustlin’ For A Gig” is a clever recitation outlining all the pitfalls of finding a venue with a sympathetic audience; and “Java Junkie,” which makes clear that coffee can be something of a religion. The lyric even exhorts “I’m a java junkie, hit me again!” And the closer, with a very catchy melody line, brings back Al Jolson’s famous line “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” On these and several others, the UJVQ demonstrates a fresh outlook on a nearly lost art.
HouseKat Records, 2012, 45 minutes.
Let’s Misbehave - The Cole Porter Songbook, Cheryl Bentyne, vocals.
One vocal group that I didn’t mention in the review above is Manhattan Transfer. And for many years, Bentyne has lent her considerable talents to the MT. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the group -- lots of great tunes, but often a bit too slick. Bentyne, however, is well-suited for such a group because her voice is dependably consistent in a “good pop singer” sort of way. And she holds forth in the same manner here, taking on 14 Cole Porter gems with style and intelligence. A jazz singer she’s not, but she has lots of pizzazz on such winners as “Love For Sale,” “I Love Paris,” “Night and Day,” “All of You” and “It’s Delovely,” among others. Perhaps the best tune on the album is the title tune, done in flapper style with an arrangement so “20s” sounding that I’d bet Bentyne’s voice is dubbed over the original instrumental version. Very few “Songbook America” recordings are issued these days, so let’s thank Bentyne and give her credit for helping keep these treasures in our midst.
Summit, 2012;, 56 minutes.
Minor Relocation, Eric Vaughn, piano.
A longtime resident of the Bay Area, Vaughn spent a dozen years in Seattle before resettling in San Francisco about three years ago. Hence the title of this CD, his first to receive national distribution. Vaughn is a straight ahead player; a product of the hard bop tradition who also happens to write some pretty solid melodies. He works here primarily in a trio setting with several different colleagues alternating on bass and drums. On a few selections, the trio becomes a quartet with the addition of tenor man Bob Kenmotso. His originals run the gamut from “Funny Waltz,” a tune working around the changes to Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring”; a bossa ballad called “Joyce”; a Tyner-like line called “Tune For Trane”; and a couple of his own ideas on the blues. A few standards complete the program, namely “Alone Together,” “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Stella By Starlight.” The latter two also receive alternate takes, all well worth hearing. The notes inform us that Vaughn is 58, and undoubtedly settled into a regular music-making routine. One can only hope that this session will give him the exposure he obviously deserves.
Self-Produced, 2011, 65 minutes.
Time Passes On, Jeff Hamilton, drums, and the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble.
From the time I took a 12-year-old alto player to the 1985 Otter Crest Jazz Weekend, I could see that the phenomenal drummer, Jeff Hamilton, understood and practiced the concept of “passing it on.” And I believe that has remained an important aspect of his career. This time around, he is an inspiration to some up and coming cats at DePaul University. Directed by Bob Lark, the DUJE is a high-energy big band with a mighty dedication to this fragile art, and a roster of individual players who sound ready to make some noise. On a program of 10 selections, the guys split the bill 50-50 between standards and originals. They are precise and polished on every single tune. And let it be said that unlike too many of their elders, they swing! Frank Foster once told me that “Shiny Stockings” -- “put his kids through college.” And they open with the Basie evergreen. Other familiar fare includes “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Indiana” and “Nature Boy.” Hamilton shows the way on six of the tunes, and the entire band hits the bulls eye in this impressive performance.
Jazzed Media, 2012, 66 minutes.
Joy Mover, vocals.
It’s too bad the love song from “The Music Man” - “Till There Was You” - was not the opener. It would have given an indication of what was to follow. Instead, Mover starts with a brief rap (I’m not kidding) on Meredith Wilson‘s charmer, and the rock beat, synthesizers and screamy guitars complete the job of destroying it. Mover, who is the sister of Bob Mover, a veteran sax man, apparently wanted to reach an audience geared to all this electronic hysteria, so it doesn’t work for a guy like me. About half the program consists of Mover’s original material, some of which is melodically valid, but her lyrics, against all the electronica, are nearly impossible to understand. Once all the pop-rock stuff is complete, she tries to rescue what’s left with an overdone “Nature Boy,” “Til There Is You,” and “Corcovado” and “Fever.” Thankfully, it concludes with a down home “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Trumpet and saxophone wizard Ira Sullivan contributes here and there, but I don’t think he’ll include this on his resume.
Joy Mover Music, 2012, 46 minutes.
Blueprints, Bill Anschell, piano, Brent Jensen, soprano sax, Chris Symer, bass.
This isn’t the first time that Anschell and Jensen have found their way into a recording studio. But it is their initial effort in presenting a set of jazz standards. Anschell has been an in-demand Seattle artist for some years now, and I believe that Jensen is still based somewhere in that jazz mecca called Idaho. Bassist Symer, a new name to me, completes the trio. I know that the soprano saxophone has become the “darling” of the smooth jazz set, but you needn’t worry. There’s nothing even close to that on this session. On the contrary, these musicians are engaged in the nearly cosmic act of “reading” each other as they converse musically on eight etched-in-marble standards and one original. The evergreens include “All Blues,” “Just Squeeze Me,” “How Deep Is The Ocean,” “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,“ “There Will Never Be Another You,” “Blue Monk,” “Star Eyes” and “Yardbird Suite.” One might assume that Jensen and Anschell have worked together extensively. It can be heard in the passion and precision, the new life, one might say, that they bring to this session. Jensen refers to songs such as this as “our collective tribal language.” I couldn’t say it any better.
Origin, 2012, 45 minutes.
Just Duet! Joe Powers, harmonica.
Portland harmonica wizard Powers put his own spin on the Nike slogan “just do it” for this recording which features 12 duets, each with a different person. Much of the CD is far from jazz, obvious when one scans the list of other instruments: banjo, koto, tuba, pipe organ, erhu, bandoneon and cavaquinho. The tunes range from Bach and Schubert to “Georgia on My Mind” and “Sunny Side of the Street” to distinctly Eastern melodies and even “Maple Leaf Rag.” Jazz? Not really. Well-performed and a nice diversion? Absolutely.
Self-Produced, 2012, 48 minutes.