CD Reviews - April 2015 

by Tree Palmedo

(Last Update 03/31/2015)

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


Karla Harris Sings the Dave and Iola Brubeck Songbook, Karla Harris.
Since his death in 2012, Dave Brubeck has received a bevy of tributes. Yet with this collection of reinterpreted Brubeck tunes, former Portland vocalist Karla Harris has done something slightly different: her album gives equal credit to both the piano legend and his wife Iola, who penned lyrics to many of her husband’s indelible compositions.

Simple vocal arrangements of these tunes would have been welcome enough, but backed by seasoned pros Ted Howe (piano), Tom Kennedy (bass), and Dave Weckl (drums), Harris truly rearranges the Brubeck songbook. With tasty harmonies and tight grooves that are (for the most part) not overly complex, the album proves that the Brubecks’ melodies and words can survive outside the confines of their light-swinging cool jazz origins.

“The Duke,” a tune most famously recorded by Miles Davis, gets one of the most successful reinterpretations, with a onenote drone and Afro-Cuban feel giving way to driving swing for the instrumental solos. Other, less dramatic arrangements are also successful: “Strange Meadowlark,” an underrated gem from Time Out, floats easily over a lilting jazz waltz, while Brubeck’s oftcovered “In Your Own Sweet Way” benefits from subtle new harmonies and a light Latin groove.

As for the inevitable version of “Take Five,” the group’s arrangement feels fresher than most. Still, it’s perhaps impossible to cover the song in a wholly gimmick-free way. The tune begins with a clever fusion vamp and offers some surprising key changes, but the convoluted time signature feels more like a trick than an organic choice.

To complement the interpolated classics on this disc, Harris also offers up a few deeper cuts. A duo version of “Weep No More” with Howe is a show-stealing showcase for Harris’s huge dynamic range and a rewarding look into the darker side of the Brubeck songbook. It’s an example of why the album works so well: while she could have swung her way through a few classics and called it a day, Harris has added a new voice to the conversation.
2015, Summit.

Break Stuff, Vijay Iyer Trio.
To call Vijay Iyer’s music “mathematical” is to miss the point entirely. Sure, the pianist and his trio are adept at navigating odd time signatures like they’re a 12-bar blues, but as PDX Jazz Festival audiences must have noticed in February, the end result isn’t just complicated; this music grooves.

Break Stuff feels like a natural extension of 2012’s Accelerando, though it lacks that album’s Michael Jackson cover. In its place, Iyer’s trio offers a collection of knotty but accessible originals and, in what feels like a departure for the group, a few standards straight out of the jazz repertoire.

Despite the album’s title, it rarely feels like something is being broken here. Even the album’s most explosive moments, like the pianist’s rumbling block chords at the end of “Diptych,” are reached via slow simmers rather than eruptions. Of course, this isn’t to say the record lacks drama. In fact, each note is wholly intentional and completely unexpected; Iyer makes every phrase a forceful statement and remains totally in control of every idea from beginning to end.

A bit more breaking happens with some of the standards on the record. Coltrane’s “Countdown” is barely recognizable behind the arrangement’s frantic West African-inspired rhythms; Monk’s “Work” swings, but Iyer makes a point of articulating the melody far differently than the composer. Most familiar is the solo piano rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” usually done as a saxophone feature, here it brings to mind Ellington and Jarrett equally.

Of course, while Iyer might have the melodies and the marquee name, don’t sleep on bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. The pianist’s meditative grooves frequently open the door for both Crump’s muscular melodies and Gilmore’s fleet, hip-hop influenced breakbeats.
2015, ECM.

Luminescent, Gene Argel.
Four decades into his career, Gene Argel has finally dropped his debut album. Recorded with some of Seattle’s finest players, Luminescent is a bridging of Argel’s original home—he grew up in Tacoma—and his adopted one, the island of Maui, where Argel has lived since 1982. There’s a lot of catching up to do, and the album does its best to cover years of ground: some tracks are swinging, others funky, others haunting tributes to the island Argel calls home.

It’s no fault to the rest of the album to say that this record peaks early. “Annette,” which was written for an indigenous community in British Columbia, is a gem of a tune, a throwback to the days of Jim Pepper and the Keith Jarrett European Quartet. Multi-instrumentalist Jay Thomas delivers the soaring melody with just the right amount of trembling vibrato, and Argel alternates between feather-light chords and punchy grooves.

After “Anette,” the album moves on to decidedly jazzier fare. Argel’s lines seem to wind on for miles without ever devolving into cliché, and every space he leaves is filled by chattering drums from Mark Ivester Who, with bassist Chuck Deardorf, makes even medium swing numbers like “People” crackle with energy.

Understandably for an album so diverse, things can feel a bit scattered. Thomas’s “Baby Gator,” a funky minor blues, is performed well but feels a little out of place next to the lush and somber “Haida Welcome Song.” But it’s worth hearing a taste of everything Argel can do, and fortunately, the album ends with what he does best: a return to the ‘70s Jarrett vibe with the sunny “Hermosa” and the free ballad “If I Loved You.” He may have called somewhere else home for years, but Gene Argel hasn’t lost the utterly friendly spirit of the Pacific Northwest.
2014, Origin Records.

Lines of Color, Ryan Truesdell Gil Evans Project.
Tribute projects can be a beast to pull off, but composer Ryan Truesdell’s 2012 album Centennial was more than just a tribute. Working with unrecorded compositions and arrangements by Gil Evans, the late great Miles Davis collaborator, Truesdell reconstructed the arrangements and laid them down with an all-star big band—nay, orchestra, replete with woodwinds and French horns. But a one-off wasn’t nearly the end of the story. Truesdell’s taken the band on the road, and their new album, Lines of Color, documents one blast of an evening at New York’s Jazz Standard. While the music may be more familiar than on Centennial, the set is a fittingly diverse celebration of Evans’s career.

Somehow, Truesdell managed to secure one of the most stacked lineups of any New York big band. On “Time of the Barracudas,” oft-played but seldom heard in its original context, Donny McCaslin weaves a monstrously proficient tenor solo that prompts cheering from the audience. Trumpeter Matt Jodrell is the star of “Davenport Blues,” with a crystal-clear tone and impressive chops that never get in the way of his laid-back melodicism.

The numbers chosen for this date stay on the traditional, accessible side while remaining undeniably Evans. Classic tunes like “Just One of Those Things” swing hard atop a thick, warm blanket of horns, and more knotty fare, like “Concorde,” is full of the dense counterpoint that made Evans such an in-demand arranger.

While Centennial was a spotless studio recording, Lines of Color is rougher—one can almost hear the carpeted walls of the Jazz Standard—and this roughness is entirely welcome. Every soloist seems to go for broke; the little out-of-tune moments only recall the slight sloppiness of the legendary Evans-Miles Davis recordings. And tiny quibbles aside, the band is so clean, the blend so spot-on, you’d barely know it’s a live recording without the waves of exuberant applause after every tune.
2014, Blue Note/ArtistShare.

Risky Notion, George Colligan and Theoretical Planets.
It’s a common scene at a Portland jam session: George Colligan walks in, sits at the piano and rips a nimble bebop solo. George Colligan pulls out his pocket trumpet, plays a subdued solo, then moves to the bass … you see where this is going. Colligan’s multi-instrumental prowess is well known, but until Risky Notion, the acclaimed pianist had never recorded an album on drums.

The project isn’t just a novelty. Colligan’s played with some of the finest drummers in jazz—he’s recently been in the piano chair with Jack DeJohnette—and the compositions on Risky Notion are fully realized and well-rehearsed. In fact, while he may not be a technical whiz, Colligan sounds remarkably at home behind the kit.

While the album is, on the one hand, an exercise for Colligan’s drum chops, it also serves as an excellent showcase for some of Portland’s brightest young talent. I’ve had the opportunity to play with saxophonist Nicole Glover and bassist Jon Lakey, and can attest that they’re some of the most gifted, surprising, and musical players on the scene. Saxophonist Joe Manis is of a different generation, but he fits effortlessly into the hard-swinging vibe.

The tunes generally favor moods and attitudes over complex changes; “Gorgasaurus” is a hard-driving, Elvin Jones-esque swinger that starts with a repeated bass motif and breaks down as Manis and Glover blow over the top. Throughout, Colligan and Lakey offer enough interplay to fill the void left by the album’s lack of chordal instrument, especially when the horns are in harmony. On a few tracks, trumpeter Tony Glausi joins in, offering a welcome third voice and some angular lines; he particularly shines on the quirky rhumba and funk grooves of “Harmawhatics,” the tune being one of several winks Colligan makes at his listener. Sure, he seems to say, there’s a bit of novelty at play—but it’s still good music.
2015, Origin Records.

American Songs Vol. 3: Time and Place, Marc Seales. Grassroots, Chamber 3.
It seems there’s a new Seattle jazz record out every week thanks to Origin Records. Two of the most recent come from artists who, while totally different players, have long been prominent in the Seattle scene.

Pianist Marc Seales has been a Northwest mainstay for years, and his American Songs series has been a consistently entertaining look at jazz and blues history. On the third volume in the series, Seales digs into the funkier side of things, both with his song choice and his band’s electrified sound. The album kicks off with Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusher Man,” a bold choice and one that initially feels off. But once guitarist Fred Hamilton launches into his solo over a wave of Seales’s synthesizer, the track sounds like something new instead of a pale imitation of Mayfield’s funk. Some of Seales’s sound choices seem a bit dated—check out the faux Rhodes on Stevie Wonder’s “Looking for Another Pure Love”—but the pianist plays them with confidence, and the band, which includes Portland’s Gary Hobbs and Dave Captein, is in fine form throughout.
2014, Origin Records.

In contrast to the laid-back grooves of Seales’s American Song, the Seattle/German collective Chamber 3 seems to burst with urgency. Propelled by the Emerald City’s Matt Jorgensen on drums, Grassroots is an explosive exercise in stormy postbop, with fine playing from all involved. Particularly inspired is German saxophonist Steffen Weber, who spins an inspiring blend of bebop and angular lines with a smooth, smoky tone. Though he’s less eager to hog the spotlight, guitarist Christian Eckert brings an essential texture to the disc: check out his ethereal ambience on “Uphill Struggle.”
2014, Origin Records.

New Cities, The Kora Band.
Ajoyo, Ajoyo.
Andrew Oliver may call London home now, but the Kora Band still feels like a Northwest institution. Maybe it’s because the band, though geographically split up, hasn’t really taken a break in its activities. While Oliver’s got a UK version of the ensemble now (still involving kora player Kane Mathis), the new recording features the original ensemble, and the players are sounding as tight as ever.

Listening to Oliver and company is always refreshing; even though the band mostly comprises American jazz musicians, the music is far from the typically head-solo-head routine. The compositions unfold slowly. Motifs are repeated and stretched out, then punctuated by hits from Chad McCullough’s bright trumpet. On the labyrinthine “5 Ans D’Effort,” the extended melody lasts for nearly four minutes before Oliver finally enters with a moody piano solo. It’s easy to tell that the album was written as a suite, exploring the boundaries of jazz and traditional West African Mandinka music. Each track is full of surprises, but the album feels seamless, linked tightly by Mathis’s billowing kora lines.
2015, Whirlwind Recordings.

Yacine Boulares is also cultivating a potent blend of jazz and African music. But the New York-based French saxophonist has drastically different priorities than Oliver: his This isn’t to say that Ajoyo is a pop record; its tunes are rhythmically intricate and feel like the world’s tightest jam session. Every once in a while, pianist Can Olgun will drop a few dissonant chords, and the band’s melodies edge ever-so-slightly away from the folk arena. But when guitarist Alon Albagli comes in, channeling Kurt Rosenwinkel and John McLaughlin equally with his distorted tone, the vision becomes crystal clear and the music impossible to define.
2014, Ropeadope.

Songs for Quintet, Kenny Wheeler.
Kenny Wheeler never quite conformed to the conventions of a jazz trumpeter, and he never needed to. From his days trading choruses with Dave Holland and Keith Jarrett to his lush later releases for big band, Wheeler’s music was about more than just his playing (though his free-floating trumpet style has been mimicked by many). Half a year after the trumpeter’s passing, his final album is far from an impeccable showcase for Wheeler’s improvising, but no matter; the music as a whole makes for a more than fitting swan song.

The album features mostly recent compositions, many of them bubbling with energy. The mysterious “Jigsaw” is typical Wheele: an eerie, funky drone with a haunting melody that also includes one of Wheeler’s longest solos. The trumpeter, here playing flugelhorn, paces himself and sticks to fragmented melodies. It’s a fitting contrast to the tune’s next solo, a blistering statement from saxophonist Stan Sulzmann. He and guitarist John Parricelli share most of the solo space on the record, navigating Wheeler’s meandering changes with clarity and finesse.

The one older song on the record is “Nonetheless,” a tune Wheeler first recorded on his groundbreaking 1997 album Angel Song. That version was a spacey meditation devoid of drums and filled with Bill Frisell’s guitar sounds; on Songs for Quintet, however, the tempo is taken up a few clicks and the energy raised by Martin France’s pattering drums. Swathed in reverb, Wheeler plays a brief and typically understated solo, detached from the groove as usual. At the end of the final melody, though, he trades melodic jabs with Salzmann. He didn’t always show it, but Wheeler was a fighter to the end.
2015, ECM.