CD Reviews - February 2015 

by Tree Palmedo

(Last Update 02/04/2015)

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

Groovewise, Eric Reed.
It’s arguable that pianist Eric Reed reached his peak popularity in the 1990s, when he emerged as part of the Wynton Marsalis-led, Lincoln Center-trained guard of hard-swinging young players. Newer faces might grace the covers of jazz publications these days, but Reed’s new live record, Groovewise, is a welcome reminder that the pianist has been quietly and consistently putting out quality music for the last twenty years.

There’s nothing quiet about these tracks, though. Recorded just this past September at Harlem’s Smoke Jazz Club, the date finds Reed and his band—saxophonist Seamus Blake, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Gregory Hutchinson—straddling the fine line between polished neo-bop and something more eclectic. Shades of John Coltrane abound on the album: the band adds a Coltrane-esque rumbling rubato intro to Clifford Jordan’s “Powerful Paul Robeson,” and Reed’s “Until the Last Cat has Swung,” a slow blues that recalls Trane’s “Equinox,” gives Hutchinson ample room to play around in the Elvin Jones vein.

“Ornate,” Reed’s tribute to Ornette Coleman, takes the music in a different direction, and there’s also a throwback to Reed’s earlier days, with the Christian McBride swinger “Shade of the Cedar Tree.” But whatever the style, Reed’s rhythm section keeps a fire lit under the music, with Reed’s huge chordal stabs locking in seamlessly with Hutchinson’s chattering snare drum.

Blake’s made his home in ethereal settings like the bands of Kendrick Scott and Ingrid Jensen, and at first his angular playing seems an awkward fit for such a hard-driving set. But Reed offers enough soulful flourishes for the whole band, and Blake’s playing is ultimately made more fascinating by its bop surroundings.

Reed may not be in the center of the spotlight anymore, but if Groovewise is any indication, he’s still very much in his prime.
2014, Smoke Sessions.

Drift, Toby Koenigsberg Trio.
Just a little more than ten years after Elliott Smith’s death, musicians in Oregon remain fascinated by the singer-songwriter. Numerous tribute projects have been released throughout the decade, but very few have come from the jazz sphere. This is surprising; Smith’s Beatles-esque harmonies and indelible melodies seem tailor-made for a jazz cover, a fact proven by rare tributes like Brad Mehldau’s solo rendition of “Bottle Up and Explode” and Taylor Eigsti’s haunting version of “Between the Bars.”

Eugene-based pianist Toby Koenigsberg borrows heavily from Mehldau on “Drift,” an album built around three of Smith’s songs. The opener, an early Smith composition called “Alphabet Town,” shows this influence strongly off the bat. The track is built off a malleable backbeat from Jason Palmer, one of Oregon’s best and most under-heard drummers, and Koenigsberg slowly and tastefully proceeds from Smith’s original melody into a thundering blockchord climax.

The album ends with one of Smith’s last compositions, a bitter waltz called “Strung Out Again.” As Koenigsberg himself states in the liner notes, the trio’s clean sound sanitizes the originally distorted and angry song, but a clever edit to the melody and some unabashed moments of dissonance gives the song the bite it requires.

The disc’s remainder is filled with originals purportedly inspired by Smith. The odd-meter “Song For Aki” fits right in with the other grooving moments on the record and offers some of the album’s most energetic moments. Saxophonist Tim Willcox— who doesn’t actually appear on the album—contributes “The Rain Before it Falls,” which at first seems like the album’s mellowest song, but ultimately becomes its most swinging.

The only piece that doesn’t quite fit on the album is a fourminute improvisation that, while filled with some interesting sounds from Palmer’s collection of auxiliary percussion instruments, feels more like an out-of-place interlude than a complete piece. It’s nonetheless intriguing, and the album as a whole plays as a worthy jazz tribute to one of Oregon’s musical heroes.
2014, Ninjazz.

O’s Time, Hal Galper.
In Circles, The Spin Quartet.
Urban Folklore, Thomas Marriott.
Seattle’s Origin Records always puts out a diverse array of
music from local and national acts, and this year was no exception.
From swinging straight-ahead to more free-leaning fare,
these three standout releases exemplify the diversity not only of
the Seattle label, but of the jazz scene as a whole.

No stranger to Northwest audiences is Seattle trumpeter Thomas Marriott, once again the solo horn in his band after a stint touring with fellow trumpeter Ray Vega. For his latest album, Marriott drafted jazz heavyweights Orrin Evans, Eric Revis, and Donald Edwards, resulting in an impeccable collection of down-the-middle quartet tunes. Revis’s muscular bass playing is particularly notable on tracks like the deep-pocketed “Living on the Minimum.” And Marriott channels Freddie Hubbard with accuracy and poise.

Though their latest album was also recorded in Seattle, the Spin Quartet is currently based in Chicago (though Portlanders might recognize former Seattle trumpeter Chad McCullough from Andrew Oliver’s Kora Band). A chordless quartet of trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums, the band conjures a remarkable variety of textures, ranging from the funky “You Will Look for Yours on Earth” to the hushed tones of “Place to Be.”

Joining these younger players on the Origin lineup is piano legend Hal Galper, whose latest album is typically great— though not in any way typical. Accompanied by bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer John Bishop, the pianist adopts a freewheeling approach that slips in and out of time and leaves plenty of room for his band-mates to stretch out. Even songs by John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Charlie Chaplin are given this approach, becoming electrifying and fresh under the pianist’s wily touch.
2014, Origin Records.

Numbers, Nicholas Payton.
Nicholas Payton was once known for his fiery trumpet playing alone. Now, he’s just as infamous for his controversial opinions on jazz—or, as he calls it, “Black American Music.” Still, amid all the online conversation, Payton continues putting out music at a brisk pace.

Payton’s been playing less trumpet and more keys these days, and this particular album reflects that shift. After laying down 12 funky soul vamps in the vein of D’Angelo or Marvin Gaye, Payton had intended to overdub trumpet solos on top. When it came time to do so, though, the trumpeter decided to leave the tracks unfinished, releasing the album as a “playalong” instead of a trumpet record. Payton fans might miss the trumpeter’s signature improvisation or find the album too stagnant, but there’s no denying it’s deep, infectious grooves.

In addition to Payton on Fender Rhodes and a dash of trumpet, the album features a Virginia funk outfit called Butcher Brown, composed of young jazz-trained players with an equal passion for jazz, hip-hop and vintage soul. The resulting tracks, which are simply titled with the numbers two through 13, may lack traditional melody, but there is enough variation to hold the ear: on “Five,” the band begins with an almost Calypso feel, transitions into a tight funk, and then opens into a spacy halftime jam, all topped with drummer Corey Fonville’s subtle and clever fills.

The album is also effective in more subtle ways; “Eight” is a simple eight-bar chord progression, but the band experiments in stretching the time as far as it can go, ultimately falling into an unexpected swing feel with Payton soloing melodically on top.

At times, the album feels skeletal, but these moments are fleeting. Payton and company have created an instrumental groove album that sounds remarkably full.
2014, Paytone Records.

Time’s Tales, Jeff Ballard.
When you call Lionel Loueke to play on your record, you don’t just get one of jazz’s most fascinating guitarists. Loueke is notorious for taking over an album, filling the space with his signature vocalizations and West African grooves. “Virgin Forest,” the first track on Jeff Ballard’s new trio album, seems to follow this trend: it’s an odd-metered Loueke tune that builds up from a percussive vocal vamp into a searing series of solos. As the album progresses, however, the tone and vibe shift, and then shift again. Despite being billed as Ballard’s record, this album is a wide-ranging project that features Ballard, Loueke and saxophonist Miguel Zenon equally.

With no bass or piano in the ensemble, the musicians repeatedly shift roles, creating a constantly dynamic sonic texture. On “Beat Street,” a New Orleans street-beat tune, Zenon and Loueke double the melody, but as Zenon begins his solo with sporadic flurries of notes, Loueke drops into the bass role. When Loueke solos, he accompanies himself, letting a chord or bass note rip between his crafted melodies.

The album’s wide variety of grooves affords Ballard—who has often played a supporting role in acclaimed units like the Brad Mehldau Trio—the chance to show his chops in a smattering of settings. On the distorted rocker “Hanging Tree,” he lets loose like he rarely has before, sounding more like John Bonham than Philly Joe as he bashes open hi-hats and crash cymbals.

There’s little in the way of theme on this record, besides the frequent exploration of complex time signatures. No matter; “Time’s Tales” is a chance to see some of jazz’s most accomplished soloists pushing themselves and each other.
2014, Okeh.

Rising Son, Takuya Kuroda.
Takuya Kuroda was trained in the straight-ahead world, but on his Blue Note debut, the Japanese trumpeter has done something a little different. Picking up the torch where Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor left it, Kuroda’s “Rising Son” is a funky fusion record, consisting of more one-chord jam sessions than complicated jazz arrangements.

The album was produced by the R&B vocalist Jose James— also signed to Blue Note—and James even makes a sultry appearance on the Roy Ayers cover “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” It’s a standout track that proves an excellent launching pad for Kuroda’s improvisations. Even when he’s not singing, James’s touch is evident throughout; the production, full of electric piano and organ, favors atmosphere over fancy tricks.

While much of the album is built on heavy backbeats, there are also more upbeat moments. A standout cut is “Afro Blues,” featuring Lionel Loueke in a guest appearance. Over a brisk, percussion-heavy groove and a blues progression with a few alterations, Kuroda and trombonist Corey King stab at the tune’s angular melody before jumping into some of the most fiery solos on the record. King sounds particularly poised here, with a sound that splits the difference between the grit of Trombone Shorty and harmonic depth of Elliot Mason.

Kuroda’s solos are impressive but never flashy. He sticks mostly to conventional jazz language, making his few forays outside the changes even more electrifying. Yet even with the album’s impressive array of soloists, the end result underwhelms. The chilled-out vibe, at first a selling point, drags down the latter half with a parade of slow-tempo, vaguely melodic numbers.

But as the title suggests, Kuroda is still on the rise. Look out for more from the understated trumpet player, particularly if Jose James is on the microphone.
2014, Blue Note.

Samsara, Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group.
Veteran saxophonist Dave Liebman has always been a bit of an oddball, fond of weird harmonies and swooping chromatic lines. At age 68, Liebman hasn’t stopped taking risks, and he’s formed a new, younger band willing to go with him wherever he wants.

Liebman is still the most free-leaning player on the group’s new album. On “Endive,” a fast-swinging tune replete with hits and odd melodic turns, Liebman stretches around the time like a rubber band, while subsequent solos from saxophonist Matt Vashlishan and pianist Bobby Avey are harmonically adventurous but rhythmically precise.

While “Endive” sits just a bit uncomfortably in straight-ahead territory, other tracks, like the episodic “Rhythm Thing,” are more dense. That track begins with a jagged melody but soon plunges into a dark and moody soundscape. Harmonies are murky, the groove is hazy, and the overall effect sounds like something off of Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way.”

Much of the album is sonically intriguing but emotionally uninviting. The title track, for instance, is a blistering swing tune that cycles through various keys to exhilarating and near nauseating effect. Liebman’s brief solo on the tune is a highlight of the album, a massive waterfall of notes that cascades into an angular solo from Vashlishan. The two saxophonists never step on each other’s toes; each player covers distinct territory in the band.

On “Searcher 2,” Liebman shows his spiritual side, playing a rubato sax-and-flute duet with Vashlishan accompanied by rumblings from bassist Tony Marino and drummer Alex Ritz. It’s by far the most tonal piece on the album, and it’s a pleasant respite from the scintillating cacophony that surrounds it.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Liebman continues to produce challenging music with its hands right up against the jazz boundaries.
2014, Whaling City Sound.

Before You Know It (Live in Portland), Ez Weiss Sextet.
A quick disclaimer: I’ve played in the Ezra Weiss Sextet before, subbing for Farnell Newton at the very jazz club where this disc was recorded. It’s partly because of this that I’m so floored by the performance captured on the record; Weiss typically eschews simple head charts in favor of dense arrangements, with tricky changes and, for a brass player, little room to breathe. During its regular stint at the now-defunct Ivories, though, this sextet consistently nailed the tunes and sharpened itself into one of the most exciting working bands in Portland.

In the piano chair, Weiss typically stays out of the spotlight and features the powerhouse horn section. And for good reason: lineups don’t get more exciting than the triple threat of Devin Phillips, John Nastos, and Newton. Phillips and Nastos make for a particularly interesting contrast, with Phillips preferring the grit of the tenor’s low range and Nastos’s alto playing channeling Jim Pepper and Charlie Parker equally. On trumpet, Newton shows why he’s become so in-demand, tackling Freddie Hubbard-esque runs, sharp growls, and soulful blues licks with panache. At the low end, drummer Chris Brown and bassist Jon Shaw show why they are two of the most in-demand players in town.

Weiss’ repertoire of original compositions is huge, and on this particular date the band decides to land more on the swinging side of things. On the greasy opener “Winter Machine,” Newton and Nastos solo over different sections, building into a powerful coda. “The Five A.M. Strut” has been in the book for years, and its bouncy street beat has never sounded better. The title track, saved for last, is probably my favorite Weiss original. A slow-burning R&B number, written for Weiss’s first child, it gives each horn player a fitting showcase before closing the night with a triumphant “amen.” Here’s hoping that this band finds a new regular gig very soon.
2014, Roark Records.