CD Reviews - January 2015 

by George Fendel

(Last Update 01/12/2015)

(Previous CD Reviews are available at the CD Archives page. )


Brownie Speaks, a video documentary; Clifford Brown, trumpet.
Clifford Brown is considered by many to be the foremost jazz trumpet virtuoso of all time. This is a film that up until now was simply waiting to be made. Thanks to the efforts of producer and teacher Don Glanden and numerous others who believed in this project, the task has been accomplished. And the result, this glorious, loving portrait of Clifford Brown, immediately becomes one of the most important historic documents of jazz to grace our consciousness. Brown’s short life is covered lovingly from childhood in Wilmington, Delaware to his tragic death in a Pennsylvania auto accident at age 25. We learn from interviews with family and friends of the bright, articulate and friendly young Clifford. We learn of his early development and intense dedication to his growth as a gifted trumpet player. We learn of his role as a loving husband and father. And we travel the road with him through local bands all the way to Max Roach and company. And eventually we learn of his early departure that left the jazz world with a loss that can never be repaired.

Among those interviewed praising both the character and the musical genius of “Brownie” are Benny Golson, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Heath, Donald Byrd, Harold Land, Wynton Marsalis, Herb Geller and many more. You’ll sigh, you’ll cry, you’ll laugh and you’ll love this beautifully crafted tribute to a jazz genius. Clifford Brown lives and now, finally, that life is portrayed with limitless love and passion.

Although there have been many outstanding jazz DVDs issued over the last couple of decades, this is the first I can remember reviewing. It is a “must” in any serious jazz collection.
Glanden Productions; 2014; 87 min.

Chicago, April 1951; Lennie Tristano, piano.
While we’re on the subject of important and historic musical documents, consider this never before released, two-CD set from the underrated but unique innovator Lennie Tristano. One of the early proponents of a minimalist approach, a strong left hand, and a champion of re-fashioning standards into his startling originals, Tristano’s “disciples” included tenorman Warne Marsh, alto wizard Lee Konitz, and in more recent years, the brilliant pianist Alan Broadbent.

This well-recorded treasure brings us a wealth of material presented live at Chicago’s Blue Note jazz club. The players include Marsh and Konitz, along with Willie Dennis on trombone and local cats completing Tristano’s rhythm section. Standards include “All The Things You Are,” “I’ll Remember April,” “These Foolish Things” and “Pennies From Heaven.” On these and a half-dozen originals, the sextet thoroughly explores these classic changes with intense creativity and relentless swing. We are even treated to the sounds of Tristano’s voice as he briefly introduces each tune. As always, Uptown Records also gives us a 24-page booklet filled with history and photographs. Uptown simply keeps scoring these unreleased gems, and this is one of the best. I don’t know how they do it, but I sure am grateful!
Uptown Records; 2014; 55:37 and 48:25.

At the Gaslight Square; Shirley Horn, piano and vocals.
Perhaps 15 or 20 years ago, while browsing in a Corvallis record store, I encountered a real oddity: a vinyl version of a live performance by the amazing singer/pianist Shirley Horn, with John Nixon, bass, and Gene Gammage, drums. The rather home-made-looking cover indicated the title was “At The Village Vanguard.” I slapped two bucks on the counter, bought it, and have never seen another copy. Until now! It was actually recorded at Gaslight Square in St. Louis. The year was 1961. Well, to our great good luck, that rarity is now available on CD for the first time!

Horn is a singer’s singer, and she breezes through a set which includes “If I Should Lose You,” “Summertime,” “Day In Day Out,” “Round Midnight,” “Makin’ Whoopee” and more. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s an additional complete bonus album, “Loads of Love,” which puts Horn in the company of arranger Jimmy Jones and players with names such as Mulligan, Burrell, Cohn and another Jones, Hank. To complete the picture there are three tracks from a rare Norman Granz session. Shirley Horn is one of those bright lights who delivered the meaning of a lyric as few others could even hope to do. These rare sides will be savored by her legion of fans.
Solar Records; 2013; 79:05.

Right On Time; Harold Mabern, piano.
Now here’s an under-appreciated veteran of the jazz battalion. Long admired by peers and select fans, Mabern always travels the center of the highway — a straightahead, no fads or fancies groove piano man from the tradition. On this 2013 set from the New York venue called Smoke, Mabern joins forces with John Webber, bass, and Joe Farnsworth, drums. And smoke they do! Mabern makes it clear from the get-go that this is going to be a scorching set with his first two ripping choices “Dance with Me” and “Seven Steps to Heaven”. Mabern’s blues chops are center stage on “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and that is followed by “My Favorite Things” a la Coltrane. An album highlight is “To You,” a beauty by Thad Jones. I don’t recall hearing it in a piano trio setting. Anyway, it ranks up there with anything Jones ever wrote. Other standards include “Charade,” “The Nearness of You,” and a flame thrower closer in “Cherokee.” A few equally compelling originals complete an invigorating set from a 50-year master of jazz piano.
Smoke Sessions; 2013; appx. 65 min.

Phineas; Chris Biesterfeldt, guitar.
Any jazz fan worthy of the name knows of piano virtuoso Phineas Newborn. He and guitarist Chris Biesterfeldt are both products of an historical jazz city, Memphis. Biesterfeldt as a result honors his Memphis brother with a menu of tunes either composed by or associated with Newborn. Biesterfeldt’s trio includes Matthew Rybecki on bass and Jared Schonig on drums. The threesome cooks up a bebop buffet with a strong blues presence on a 13-song set that’s sure to impress. A few examples include Horace Silver’s “Cookin’ At The Continental” race horse tempo; Quincy Jones’ rarely heard beauty, “The Midnight Sun Will Never Set”; Dizzy’s opus “Manteca”; and several entries from Newborn. One of these, “Harlem Blues”, is a very close cousin to the pop tune “Gotta Travel On.” Biesterfeldt’s bluesy approach to all this great material marks him as a dedicated jazz cat who needs to be heard.
Self-produced; 2014; appx. 60 min.

The Devil’s Best Tunes; Bob Dorough, piano and vocals.
No doubt about it. Bob Dorough, at 90, is still going strong. One of the brightest lights of the 2014 Portland Jazz Festival, the very hip Dorough has been a cult favorite for more than 50 years. This CD is a reissue of his 1956 classic, “Devil May Care.” But lucky for us there’s a big bunch of additional takes, most of them very rare. There are 20 selections in all, featuring Dorough in various instrumental settings. The tunes? Well, to name a few: ”Yardbird Suite,” “I Don’t Mind,” “Devil May Care,” “Johnny One Note” and even some beatnik poetry, very much in fashion when recorded in 1958. There are also four instrumentals with Dorough acting as pianist for reedman Sam Most’s quartet. This is a 2011 release that only recently came to my attention. I hope the ultra-hip Dorough reaches new fans with this recording — perhaps even you!
Fingertips Records; 2011; times not indicated.

Such Sweet Thunder; Vance Thompson’s Five Plus Six.
When I began reading the bio page for this CD, I must admit that two red lights quickly came up: the first was the “re-imagining,” which usually means “messing with”; the other was the phrase “the works of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dolly Parton!?? Blasphemy, mentioning her in the same breath with Duke and Monk! Guess I shouldn’t have been so terrified. This is an 11-piece band out of Knoxville, Tennessee (there are great players everywhere, right?), putting fresh and totally accessible coats on Monk’s “Pannonica,” “Ugly Beauty” and “Four In One.” Duke is represented by the title tune, “Rockin’ In Rhythm,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan.” And now for Dolly! Her composition “Little Sparrow” could have easily come from Quincy Jones or Thad Jones or Herbie Hancock. Not a hint of country here. It is very sophisticated jazz writing. What a surprise! All in all, jazz — Tennessee style. Check it out!
Self-produced; 2014; times not indicated.

America; Carl Saunders, trumpet.
Flawless. Creative. Brilliant. Beautiful. These are a few of the adjectives I’d use to try to describe trumpet virtuoso Saunders. The accompanying booklet adds “jaw dropping.” But even that can’t describe the purity and perfection of his sound. This is an album “like they used to make ‘em.” The leader’s trumpet is joined by a rhythm section of L.A. greats: Christian Jacob, piano; Dave Stone, bass; Santo Savino, drums; and some subtle additional percussion form Brad Dutz. Saunders opens with “America the Beautiful.” The first chorus is played straight and march-like. Suddenly the quartet picks up the tempo, and this classic works to perfection in a jazz setting.

The CD is loaded with highlights, so let’s touch on at least a few. “Nigeria” is Saunders’ take on Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin,” and a famous Chopin melody gets a lyrical and light bossa nova treatment. Saunders can handle a vocal with class and a jazzman’s sensibility, and the vocal of choice is the old trumpet opus, “I Can’t Get Started.” “Triste” translates to sad, but Saunders and friends find a ton of joy in this Jobim classic. “Bumble Bee Blues” is a cousin to “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” and Saunders makes its blistering tempo a cinch. And “How Deep Is the Ocean” is simply a song he loves and has always wanted to record. On all these and several originals, Saunders adds another high point to his truly magnificent trumpet resume.
Summit; 2014; appx. 68 min.

A Kiss In The Dark; Alexis Cole, vocals.
I’ve sung the praises of Alexis Cole in reviews of her previous CDs, and I see no reason to stop. She’s a true jazz singer. No affectation, no extraneous frosting on this cake — and, perish the thought, no show biz. With the subtle accompaniment of clarinet, guitar, bass and drums, Cole chooses an entire set of very old tunes — time honored classics, most of them from the Depression era. She is completely at ease with these old timers, yet finds perfect little opportunities to alter a phrase or toss in a scat line. All of this is accomplished without the sugary nostalgia that could have diminished these timeless favorites. There are 14 in all, with titles such as “Limehouse Blues,” “After You’ve Gone,” “Indian Summer,” “Let The Rest of the World Go By,” “Chicago”, “Til We Meet Again,” and several lesser known titles from years gone by. Alexis doesn’t need to “sell” these songs. Their pretty melodies and tender lyrics sell themselves. But her flawless vocals enhance every one of them.
Chesky Records; 2014; appx. 52 min.

I Remember Cedar; David Hazeltine, piano.
I still think of David Hazeltine as one of the new generation of jazz pianists. Proof of how fast time flies is the cover of this CD which portrays a handsome 50-ish man with a touch of gray. One thing that hasn’t changed is Hazeltine’s ability to construct intricate, tasty and swinging post bop lines. Complementing the pianist are David Williams, bass, and Joe Farnsworth, drums. The trio embarks on a set of nearly all Cedar Walton compositions, the best known of which are “Holy Land” and “Cedar’s Blues.” Among other Walton gems played here, I particularly liked the joy and passion of “Fiesta Espanol” and the serene waltz “Clockwise.” The one standard in the set is “Over The Rainbow,” which receives a shimmering solo treatment. Cedar Walton’s place in jazz history has long been assured. How very lovely that Hazeltine has chosen to honor his piano hero with this classy recording.
Sharp Nine; 2014; 53:21.

Time Remembered — Compositions of Bill Evans; Jim Norton Collective.
While we’re on the subject of tribute CDs, here’s a beauty. Jim Norton not only plays a host of reed instruments, but he has arranged 15 Bill Evans compositions for a 12-piece ensemble. No small feat, and the music has a grand and glorious third stream feel to it. Several musicians play more than one instrument, giving us a sonic feast with alto flute, bass clarinet, bass flute, contra-alto clarinet, bass trombone, French horn and the usual complement of more common instruments. So we get this full, rich and often mesmerizing Gil Evans sound on Bill Evans music! Some of the more familiar titles are “Time Remembered,” “Very Early,” “Peri’s Scope,” “Five” and “NYC’s No Lark.” The latter tune is of course an anagram of one of Bill’s piano idols, Sonny Clark. Every selection is a showcase of arranging perfection and spot-on performance. I really think that Bill would have applauded every note.
Origin; 2014; appx. 50 min.

Vocal Madness; Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet.
I’m sure that many of you are well-acquainted with Manhattan Transfer. Well, here’s a vocal group that puts their vocalizing in a more solid jazz setting, and so the Uptowners get my vote. A special treat here is the presence of alto great Richie Cole, a dedicated bopper with a stirring sound. Cole not only plays generously here, he also wrote a handful of the melodies and lyrics! Talented guy. Some tunes are original compositions and some are quite familiar. A few words on the latter. “Pure Imagination” is a gorgeous tune from the unlikely film “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.” It’s well on the road to the standards category. “D.C. Farewell” is a terrific and melodic dedication to Washington, D.C. written by Cole; I remember a great version by Mark Murphy! And then there’s “I Love Lucy.” It’s a theme that Richie always loves to play. Finally, there’s “He Was That Cat,” a tribute to Eddie Jefferson, the great bop singer with whom Richie worked for many years. On all of these and numerous others the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet is in it for fun. And before I forget, the spicy vocal arrangements are by one of the singers, Ginny Carr.
Housekat Records; 2014; appx. 63 min.

Something Beatles; Phil Haynes & Free Country.
I know I’ll raise the ire of some when I admit that I was never a wild-eyed Beatles fan. Not then and not now. Drummer Haynes has added a guitar, cello and bass to form a quartet which takes on four Beatles tunes (I think, because composers are not credited) — “Let It Be,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Something” and “Hey Jude.” The group has a pleasant enough ensemble sound. But the singer offers nothing to these proceedings. Fab Four fans will find fond favor here. For the rest of us, well, I think I’ll stick with a guy named Ellington.
Cornerstone Jazz; 2014; times not indicated.

Django’s Castle; Hank Marvin, guitar.
I know that there are a lot of you who take great pleasure in the musicianship and style of the 1930s and ‘40s guitarist Django Reinhardt. He brought an incessant swing and boundless joy to listeners, and his association with violinist Stephane Grappelli produced timeless and often wondrous music. That special style of playing lives on in many groups yet today, and lead guitarist Hank Marvin continues that tradition with this delightful session. Marvin heads a quartet with Gary Taylor on rhythm guitar, Munzio Mondia on accordion, and Pete Jeavons on bass. You heard me right. There’s no violin here. And give the accordion man his due. He’s right on target. And so are his colleagues on 15 spirited tunes. The best known of them are “After You’ve Gone,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Coquette,” “Django’s Castle” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” On these and other infectious melodies of the era, Marvin and Friends sound both authentic and quite wonderful.
Self-produced; 2012 (but recently released); times not indicated.

Akua Dixon (Self-titled), cello.
Quick — how many jazz cello players can you name? I came up with only two, both of whom were bass players who occasionally dabbled on cello: Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown. Well, give a welcome to Akua Dixon, who plays a resonant and beautiful cello and in addition wrote all the arrangements on this warm and often fascinating recording. If you listen to classical music at least occasionally, you know that the cello can be seductive, romantic and stirring. Nine of the ten tunes here utilize strings only: violins, bass, cello and viola; and on one cut, voice. There’s a lot of variation in Dixon’s choice of tunes, from Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” to “Besame Mucho”; or “Moon River” to “Poinciana.” How about moving from Piazzola’s “Libertango” to “Alone Together,” or “It Never Entered My Mind” to “Lush Life”? Dixon is a rare talent both as player and arranger. She could well be a rising star.
Self-produced; 2014; appx. 52 min.

Midnight Melodies; Cyrus Chestnut, piano.
It seems to me that we haven’t heard much from pianist supreme Chestnut in the last few years, so it’s nice to hear his new trio album live from Smoke, a prominent New York jazz club. Joined by Curtis Lundy on bass and Victor Lewis on drums, Chestnut fills the room with life and excitement. The trio opens with two tunes from the late pianist John Hicks. “Two Heartbeats” and “Pocketful of Blues” are both melodic and solidly swinging. They are followed by Chestnut’s original, “To Be Determined,” a sprightly melody with little rhythmic tricks here and there. Among many strong choices, the set also includes “Chelsea Bridge”, and “UMMG” (Upper Manhattan Medical Group). Also included are top tier tunes such as Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”; Miles’ “The Theme”; Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove”; and yet another John Hicks entry, “Naima’s Love Song.” Two originals from drummer Victor Lewis are also on this classic set. This is piano jazz trio music at its finest. Sometimes they do make ‘em like they used to!
Smoke Sessions; 2014; appx. 77 min.

A Beautiful Friendship; The Gary Urwin Jazz Orchestra.
If you’re an arranger and big band leader who resides in Los Angeles, your foremost goal might likely be forming a “beautiful friendship” with three of the world’s greatest bebop soloists. And so, arranger Gary Urwin hired Bill Watrous, trombone, Pete Christlieb, tenor sax, and Carl Saunders, trumpet and flugelhorn. Add another trumpet hero, Bobby Shew in a guest role, and you’re on your way to an exhilarating big band album.

Watrous, Christlieb and Saunders are featured prominently throughout the set, and they’ve never played better. Oh, before I forget, pianist Christian Jacob, one of the busiest cats in the Southland, gets more than ample opportunity to shine here. Every one of the 12 tunes gives reason to celebrate, but let’s catch a few highlights. The Bill Watrous solo on “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” is pure, beautiful and distinctly Watrous. He and Christlieb add lyrical sparkle to “The Gentle Rain,” and all three soloists put Dizzy’s “Shaw Nuff” in festive attire. It’s a joy to hear Saunders and Shew sharing trumpet solos on Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring.” Finally, Jacob is captain of the ship on “We’ll Be Together Again.” This straight blast will rank with the best big band efforts of the year 2014.
Summit; 2014; appx. 63 min.

Charlie Haden — Jim Hall; Charlie Haden, bass; Jim Hall, guitar.
I assume that this incredible session was overlooked for nearly 25 years. Recorded in 1990 at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, it wasn’t released until 2014. It features two jazz giants, both gone now, but at their peak of communication and creativity on this disc. Neither Hall nor Haden ever had the need for excess show-boating. Instead, they gave us artistry and constant beauty. Consider for example, “First Song.” I first heard it from another duo — Haden with pianist Kenny Barron. It’s a Haden original with a tender, romantic melody line. But I’m a bit ahead of myself, because this set actually begins with a lively version of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.” The obligatory blues is the invigorating Ornette Coleman tune, “Turn Around”; it is followed by the etched-in-stone classic “Body And Soul.” “Big Blues,” a Hall creation, brought back memories of his recording with the great trumpet ace, Art Farmer. And “Skylark” is a perfect choice for an intimate duo of this sort. Here is a meeting for guitarists, bass players and all the rest of us to marvel over.
Blue Note (Impulse series); 2014; appx. 75 min.

Blue Pepper; Choices Of Swing.
Trust the swing icon, pianist Dick Hyman, who said about this CD — “each track is a gem and each player is a master.” Echoes Of Swing is a group based in Germany that has been preserving a colorful period of jazz history since 1997. Their specialty is the highest quality swing era music. Their heroes have names like Eldridge, Shavers, Hodges, Carter, Waller and James P. The quartet consists of Colin T. Dawson, trumpet, Chris Hopkins, alto sax, Bernd Lhotzky, piano, and Oliver Mewes, drums. On this delightful recital they present 14 tunes with “Blue” or “Blues” in the titles and one, “Azure,” which comes close. Their style is authentic, relaxed, joyful and highly musical. Among the titles you’ll know are “Blue Prelude,” “The Blue Dove” aka “La Paloma,” “Blue Moon,” “Blue Gardenia” and  “Azure.” If this music doesn’t brighten your day, well, you may need a prescription of sorts.
Act Records; 2013; appx. 53 min.

It’s a Good Day; Cyrille Aimee, vocals.
Those who have heard Cyrille Aimee in person have absolutely raved about her. She has even drawn comparisons to Billie Holiday. Not because of her vocal quality — she has a very small voice — but because of her natural ability to tell the story behind the lyrics. The late Susannah McCorkle also possessed that gift.

With swing guitar, bass and drums as back-up, Aimee takes on 13 tunes, some alarmingly successful and a few in the alsoran category. They run the gamut from “Caravan” to “Young at Heart,” “Where or When” to the bop anthem “Tricotism,” and from “Love Me or Leave Me” to Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day.” Some overdubbing here and there didn’t work for me, but two tunes in French were impressive. So here we have a mixed bag. A very expressive voice for someone who looks no older than a high school senior. But there remain some decisions to make regarding material as well as the overall direction she will take in the music.
Mack Avenue; 2014; appx. 43 min.

SHORT TAKES

Harmolodic Monk; Matt Lavelle, trumpet, flugelhorn and alto clarinet; and John Pietaro, vibes and percussion.
Monk’s Music is interpreted with thought, creativity and a hint of mystery by this imaginative duo. It’s definitely Monk with all sorts of new shadings and colors, and it works well. Ten Monk classics are newly examined with imagination in high gear. A must hear for Monk fans.
Unseen Rain; 2014; appx. 74 min.

A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller; Jason Moran, piano, Wurlitzer, Rhodes.
Some things are just too sacred to be messed with. The joyous music of Fats Waller gets electrified, contemporized, synthesized and pulverized beyond description in this disrespectful mistake. Fats used to end some of his tunes with the phrase “yes, yes!” If he could hear this, I’m sure he’d say “no, no!”
Blue Note; 2014; appx. 44 min.

All The Cats Join In; Connie Evingson, vocals.
Minneapolis singer Connie Evingson tackles a welcome set of standards with a “Django-style” swing quintet providing perfect accompaniment. Among the 14 tunes are “The Lamp Is Low.” “Jersey Bounce,” “Solitude” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” None other than scat hero Jon Hendricks drops by on a medley of “All The Cats Join In” and “Tickle Toe.” Much fun here!
Minnehaha Music; 2014; appx. 56 min.