In which the beleaguered reviewer attempts to make some headway into the mounds of CDs seeking reviews accumulating daily by providing quick hits on a few recordings at a time.
Arturo O'Farrill - "Risa Negra"
Perhaps the strongest statement of 2009 from the Latin scene comes from - who else - Arturo O'Farrill. Less conventional than Wayne Wallace but not as out there as Dafnis Prieto, O' Farrill has been creating great recordings like last year's Grammy-winning "Song for Chico" (see our review here), while navigating the line between the two extremes in this post-Andrew Hill world. Risa Negra, or "Black Laughter" is a record fans of Afro-Cuban sounds will want to have in their collection. With a strong cast, including usual fixture trumpeter Jim Seeley, saxophonist David Bixter, bassist Boris Kozlov, drummer Vince Cherico and percussionist Roland Guerrero, as well as several guests (including, but not limited to, tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta, tabla player Badal Roy, violinist Heather Bixler, O'Farrill's wife pianist Alison Deane and two of Arturo's sons Adam on trumpet and Zachary on drums) O'Farrill completely turns your standard Latin jazz onto its side - producing addictive compositions while exploding conventions.
"One Adam 12 Mambo" starts things off in ripping style and Bixler's "Goat Check" just takes the fun into the stratosphere, with killer electric bass by the funky Russian Kozlov. "Blue State Blues" (written after the Bush victory in 2004) pits Kozlov on electric against acoustic bassist Ricardo Rodriguez in a fun "bass battle." Bixler goes off on his alto sax, and Seeley responds in kind, only to give way to the effervescent O'Farrill. The wonderfully-titled and quite lovely "The Darkness is my Closet Friend" slows the pace a bit, while "No Way Off" takes things into an Iyer-esque direction with tasty results. Son Adam brings the intense "Crazy Chicken," proving the third generation O'Farrill musicians will be there to continue bringing great music to the public. The two-part Tabla Rasa compositions were commissioned by the Philadelphia Music Project, feature Heather Bixler and flautist Cecilia Tenconi and are intended to represent an African connection between traditional and Latin jazz. Part One is a nearly classical piece meant to romantically evoke 1900s Cuba. Part Two - the wickedly-titled "Tintal Tintal Deo" (tintal being a pattern played on the Indian tabla) brings Badal Roy into the mix to state O'Farrill's case that Jazz is indeed world music.
Seeley's swinging "Ceviche" and O'Farrill's loving tribute to his wife "Alisonia" bring this finerecording to a highly satisfying conclusion. Yet another excellent release from an artist working at the top of his game.
Agnieszka Iwanska - "All That I Am"
A sure cure for the melancholy blues, Polish-American Chicago-based singer Agnieszka Iwanska's new CD, "All That I Am," is a joyous romp that is like a breath of fresh air with its somewhat retro feel and unabashedly positive romantic spin. Is there a place in this harried modern world for music that seems to exist in an aura of dancing lightness? I sure as heck hope so. Strong songwriting, with music composed by keyboardist Paul Scherer, runs throughout the nine tunes here (three additional Polish language versions round out the twelve tracks). The melange of pop, Brazilian, and ' 70s-influenced funk jazz is delightful ear candy, centered by Scherer's tasteful synthesizers and pianos, and driven by the solid bass work of Scotty Manzo and the underrated Paul Townsend on drums. Saxophonist Scott Angst adds well-conceived solos, while Shawn Maxwell's brilliant flute takes "Thinking About You" into another realm. Songs like the title track, "Live Each Moment," "Love Around," "The Truth" and "Still Alive" and "Wonderland" will restore your joy with a combination of shimmering vocals, smooth sounds and subtle and seductive grooves.
James Moody - "Moody 4A"
Saxophonist James Moody is enjoying a renaissance at age 84. Moody 4A (the first release form a two-day session - Moody 4B is yet to come) shows the talented, yet somewhat overlooked saxophonist still playing great and sounding fabulous on tenor. This set of hand-picked standards includes "Secret Love," "'Round Midnight," "Without a Song," "Stella by Starlight," "East of the Sun," "Stablemates," and "Bye Bye Blackbird" as well as Kenny Barron's oft-covered "Voyage." Barron, one of the jazz world's finest and most lyrical pianists, also handles the piano duties here, with first-call drummer Lewis Nash and Moody regular bassist (and former Chicagoan) Todd Coolman along providing zippy support for the legendary musician. Everything is so relaxed and low key that a kind of magic happens. Almost like the work rock producer Rick Rubin did in getting Johnny Cash back to his roots on the American Recordings series, this recording takes Moody back into the world of straight-ahead standards, with results so warm and joyful as to be taken to heart by the listener. Not a lot of breaking new ground here - "Stella" is cleverly taken as a bossa, but it is Moody's integrity, savory note choices and round tone that could teach a whole younger generation the right way to respectfully play music, not mangle it.
Komeda Project - "Requiem"
I remember one long-ago night when my brother and I discovered Roman Polanski's film The Fearless Vampire Killers (Or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck) on late night television. We found ourselves delighted by the unusual mix of humor and horror, the incredibly beautiful doomed actress Sharon Tate and a trippy/scary soundtrack, which I found out much later in life was composed by Krzysztof Komeda. Komeda went on to compose the soundtrack for Rosemary's Baby , but he also was one of Poland's most famous modern composers before he died at age 37 in a tragic accident - the result it is said of wresting with the writer Marek Hlasko in1969. Komeda's work has influenced many musicians, including trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and saxophonist Michael Urbaniak (both of whom who played with Komeda), as well as pianist Andrzej Winnicki and saxophonist Krzystof Medya who lead the Komeda Project, whose "Requim" is their sophomore release. American trumpet/flugelhorn player Russ Johnson is a longtime member of the Project , while uber-bassist Scott Colley and rising star drummer Nasheet Waits round out this talented group and give the ephemeral Euros the added heft of American jazz. The rhythm section members also were recruited precisely because they had no prior knowledge of Komeda's work and would bring an element of surprise.
Some of Komeda's most beloved work is represented here, including "Night-time, Daytime Requiem," written by the composer upon hearing of John Coltrane's death. Divided into three parts, the piece opens with a Medyna and Johnson flourish (to be repeated at various time throughout), moves into elegiac lines, then into contemplative piano into intensive band interaction that ranks among the best I've heard this year. The full moody atmospherics of a composer who is considered by many to be the father of Euro Jazz are given their due, but there is bristling energy burbling underneath and the band suddenly kicks into a heavy groove with Medyna's skittering lightning-strike sax lines. Colley pulls off a truly memorable bass solo against Winnicki (perhaps the unsung hero)'s elegant, stately, modernistic classical piano during Part Two. Part Three features Johnson and Medyna and a swinging hard bop sound propelled hard by drummer Waits. Other compositions taken on here include the lightly swinging "Ballad for Bernt" (from Polanski's Knife in the Water), the sadly militaristic "Dirge for Europe," "Prayer and Question," "Litania" and "Astigmatic," while pianist Winnicki adds two original Komeda-inspired compositions of his own. Filled with mystery, dark shades, as well as light, and played in respectful, yet original manner, Requiem is a great introduction to the works Krzysztof Komeda and his talented acolytes.
Ralph Bowen - "Dedicated"
Wow, this cat can really blow. Where do these great, relatively unknown players come from. Apparently tenor saxophonist Bowen is well known around the NYC-area, where he co-led the '80s "OTB-Out of the Blue" sextet, and is now an instructor at Rutgers U., but he was new to me. And a pleasure it is to make the musical acquaintance. Backed by the stellar cast of Adam Rogers on guitar, Antonio Sanchez on drums and John Patitucci on bass, Bowen shows himself to be not only be both a bold and creative player with monster chops, but also a fine composer as well. Each of the six songs is dedicated to a personal mentor and it is clear these men mean a great deal to the saxman, as evidenced by the care and precision taken with the playing and arrangements. I would venture to say that Bowen, like Donny McCaslin and Chris Potter, has studied his Coltrane (especially on the Giant-Steps-ish "Qaiyum"), Brecker and Rollins, but has fashioned a flavor of his own that is distinct - melodic and seemingly always in control. "Canary Drums" swings in the post-bop manner, with shifting moves, while Rogers exhibits some nice traditionalist soloing on the stately "Pat" and eleswhere. Standout may be the crackling "Mr. Bebop," with Bowen pulling off Coltrane licks and young trumpeter Sean Jones stopping by with a superb Miles Davis flavored solo on this Wayne Shorter/Herbie Hancock-flavored track. Don't be a stranger. Ralph.
Wait a minute, I do remember Ralph now from his killer work on Jim Trompeter's Live at the Green Mill CD (see our review here. A truly great player - hope to hear more from him.
Antonio Valdetaro & Grupo - "Leticia"
A nice recording for us in Chicago, with winter fast approaching, guitarist Antonio Valdetaro's Leticia comes to us from his Rio home base, but this breezy Brazilian jazz album brings a bit of a surprise in its emphasis on the jazz half of the equation. Perhaps it is to be expected from a musician who has lived in Spain, France and Portugal and studied with Barney Kessell and Kurt Rosenwinkel. Valdetaro's guitar playing straddles the line between his Brazilian heritage and jazz heritage, creating a bright fusion of styles that recalls his mentors as well as Pat Metheny in his warm tonal coloring. He is ably assisted by fine electric bassist Roberto Carvalho, keyboardist Fabio Leandro, saxophonist/flautist Josue dos Santos and drummer Pepa D'Elia in his core group. They are augmented by guest musicians, including Rubinho Antunes, who adds fiery trumpet on "Moca Bonita" and flugelhorn on "Deixa Estar." Lenadro and dos Santos show a command of the material and contribute tasty work, while Carvalho's upper-register bass solos at times sound like a second guitarist is in the band. Much of the music is up-tempo and vibrant, but the title track (written for Valdertaro's wife) is a beautiful slow dance for lovers everywhere. A nice way to warm up on a cold night.
Daniel Smith- "Blue Bassoon"
Admit it, the bassoon is hardly the first instrument you think of when it comes to jazz, is it. In fact, it may be one of the last, perhaps bringing up the rear after such instruments as accordions and maybe even kazoos. Daniel Smith has been called "the greatest bassoon player of his generation" by the New York Daily News, and lauded as the most recorded bassoonist alive today - a player who records in both classical and jazz genres. Here, on Blue Bassoon, he performs with a solid straight-ahead quartet, taking on pieces like Horace Silver's "The Jody Grind," Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce," Joe Zawinul's "Scotch and Water," Coltrane's "Equinox," Wayne Shorter's "Footrprints," Mingus' "Nostalgia in Times Square" and several more by Lee Morgan, George Shearing, Cannonball Adderly, Mercer Ellington and Sonny Rollins. This song list also includes blues numbers from B.B. King and Robert Johnson (both featuring Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell). Perhaps more of a novelty for anyone other than a former or current bassoonist, I admit that once one gets used to the initially rather jarring impact of the bassoon, which flirts with the outer edges of accustomed tonality, the instrument does take on a bit of off-kilter charm, and one can certainly admire Smith's ability to coax jazz out of this ugly duckling of an instrument.
Beat Kaestli - "Far From Home - A Tribute to European Song"
(B + B Productions)
You've got to take notice of a singer who opens up his album with a cabaret jazz version of Bizet's "La Habanera." Hearing the aria from Carmen played with accordion, violin and kinetic drums, while sung by Kaestli in his best Parisian cabaret singer persona, while have you reaching for a bottle of absinthe. But the eclectic singer shifts gears swiftly and moves into a more modern pop singer/songwriter vein with "Somebody New" - which maintains the instrumentation (acoustic guitars, violin by Christian Howes) that recall street musicians and have served artists like Madeleine Peyroux well. "Sunday Morn'" (like the previous number, co-written by Kaestli with German pianist/accordionist Tino Derado) sounds like something that could have plucked from "Rent," while the singer goes yet another direction next with a clever merger of Euro-pop hits Everything But the Girl's "Missing" and the Eurthymics' "Here Comes the Rain Again" done as if Tito Puente would have done it. With a lovely version of Kurt Weill's "September Song" done with only sparse piano accompaniment, a Brazilan-flavored "Eso" co-written with pianist Ben Stivers, a traditional Swiss song, Misaha Piatgorsky's "Lonely Butterfly" (with lyrics by Kaestli), "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" and several more originals that merge various disparate musical styles, the NYC-based Kaestli succeeded in impressing Jon Hendricks (who wrote liner notes), and may just as easily delight fans of male vocal jazz who are looking for something different with more than a little European flavor.
NYNDK - "Hunting the Snark
The always-intriguiging NYNDK group returns with The Hunting of the Snark, and this time the theme is the setting of (mostly) modern 20th century classical composers' works to post-modern jazz music. As such, listeners are treated to engaging versions of Charles Ives' "The Cage," "1,2,3," "Remembrance," Edvard Grieg's "Adagio (from Piano Concerto in A Minor)," a Per Norgard serial composition - "Voyage Into the Golden Screen" and several others, including the title track by Arne Nordheim and pieces composed by members of the group and named after each of the composers whose work has been utilized. The usual suspects are here, with saxophonist/clarinetist Ole Mathisen joined by his brother Per, pianist Soren Moller and trombonist Chris Washburne, with guest Tony Moreno taking on the drum role. Of course, the composers are all either Scandinavian or American to suit the heritage of the players (NYNDK being an acronym for New York, Norway and Denmark). But does the use of these composers work really fit in with modern jazz? The answer is a resounding yes, as evidenced by the Ives opener - "The Cage," where the kinetic energy of the players presents a dramatic tableau in presneting a piece that was written ahead of its time still resonates with he image of a leopard pacing its cage and the caged beast's representation of modern life. The other works fare just as well, with Ives' "Remembrance" a haunting portrait of Ives' brand of uneasy solitude that I suspect the composer himself would have approved of. On the other hand, the band delightfully jazzes up the 2nd Movement of Carl Nielsen's "Symphony No. 2," something the jazz-hating composer would surely have hated. The arrangements of these works are mind-bending, multi-layered and offer an introduction into some interesting compositions while also engaging the senses in the present. NYNDK have come back with yet another revolutionary recording, that takes chances, and cements their status as some of the most innovative jazz artists working today.
David Ashkenazy - "Out With It"
Drummer David Askenazy presents a multifarious outing with the help of some friends: organist Gary Versace, saxophonist Joel Frahm and guitarist Gilad Hekselman. Covers of the Jazz Messengers "Children of the Night" (penned by Wayne Shorter), Frank Foster's "Simone, "Too Young to Go Steady," Israeli folksinger Chava Alberstein's Yiddish "Ikh Shtey Unter A Bokserboym," Bill Frisell's "Strange Meeting" (from This Land)and even the Beatles' "I Want You" are given an "anything-goes" approach that yields many satisfying moments amidst the various directions. Askenazy also adds a couple originals that fit right in with this eclectic set. Fine players all, they all seem quite comfortable with this unusual set list, and listeners may be surprised that they are as well.
Anna Estrada - "Obsesion"
(Feral Flight Productions)
With Obsesion, Bay-area physician/poet/actress and jazz singer Anna Estrada is back with a follow up to 2008's Grammy-nominated Soñando Vuelos (see our review here). Again singing in Portuguese, English and Spanish, Estrada explores a theme of "love" in various invocations through songs that at times touch the heart, and at others pull out the groove. Moving across a wide range of Latin styles from Afro-Cuban to Brazilian, Estrada takes on favorites from the canons ("La Mentira","Llorona," "Carta Ao Tom 74") while also taking on "Nature Boy" and a peppy version of Bacharach/David's "Always Something There to Remind Me." Backed by a strong group of musicians, including guitarist Ray Scott, bassist, Alex Baum, drummer Phil Thompson, pianist Jonathan Alford and percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz,Obsesion also features fine work from guests Charlie McCarthy (saxophone), Damien Masterson (some excellent harmonica), and old friend trombonist Wayne Wallace also appears on one track. With her second release, Estrada presents a solid effort which should please many fans of Latin female vocal jazz.
Jonathon Haffner - "Life on Wednesday"
Who this young saxophonist is, is a bit of a mystery. California-born, he now resides in NYC and had performed with people like Uri Caine, Chris Potter and Bill Frisell. On this debut album - produced by the brilliant David Binney - the young Haffner is accompanied by an all-star lineup of keyboardist Craig Taborn, guitarist Wayne Krantz, bassist Eivind Opsvik and a pairing of drummers: Joechen Rueckert and Kenny Wollesen. Almost sounding like a follow-up to Binney's great "Out of Airplanes" recording (our 2006 album of the year - see our review here) - which featured some of the same musicians (the somewhat more placid Frisell on guitar), Life on Wednesday is filled with industrial sounds, electronics and in-your-face attitude, as on strong opener "Time Time" and the aggressive "Western Wren (The Bird Call)," but the band can just as easily slip into the haunting Americana of the Frisell-like "New Mexico." Krantz revels in metal-tinged, effects-laden guitar shredding when appropriate, and Taborn has gained distinction as one of the finest and most original electronic keyboard players alive. Meanwhile, the powerful two drum and bass attack rumbles underneath like an earthquake. Haffner himself shows a great deal of promise as a young man with elements of Binney and Potter sneaking through at times in his playing, and he also shows considerable maturity in his compositions as well. He also allows the players space and of course, they respond beautifully. The nearly-eleven-minute-long improvised "Formigas" starts with subtle industrial grind which builds and kicks unexpectedly into a lengthy alto solo. There are plenty of melodically rewarding moments as well, including "Wednesday Night Firsts" and "Tuesday Night Danny" (the pairing of Krantz and Taborn is genius) and the album ending "New Year." Binney's fingerprints are all over this recording - including co-writing the catchy "Tuesday Night Danny." Binney has been spot-on is discovering and working with rising young talent, and he has found a good one here in Haffner. He has been personally responsible for some of the most exciting music coming out of jazz in the recent years and deserves credit not only for his incredible playing, but for his growing reputation as a producer. The combination of electronics and acoustic instruments in modern jazz is one that still has much to offer, as clearly shown by this exciting recording, and hopefully this is one young voice who will continue in this direction. Highly recommended.