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.
Pat Mallinger with Dan Trudell - "Dragon Fish"
One of Chicago's preeminent saxophonists - Pat Mallinger - finally releases another album as leader - and it is a cause for celebration for fans of this young veteran's abilities. Dragon Fish follows Moorean Moon (2000), and Monday Prayer to Tunkashila (1995). Not that Mallinger hasn't been busy. He has also released two albums with Sabertooth - the long-running Saturday night house band he co-leads at the Green Mill, appeared on albums with others - including several with trumpeter Bobby Lewis, as well providing exemplary work with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and Chicago Jazz Ensemble. In fact, he is so busy one wonders how he found time to write and record at all, but we can be thankful that he did.
Collaborating on this recording is old friend and noted keyboardist Dan Trudell, with whom Mallinger has spent many years performing with - from college at North Texas State to Caribbean cruise ship gigs to Boston and finally Chicago – where they both appeared together in Sabertooth as well as both big bands listed above. This long-time association allows for relaxed musical conversation between the duo, with Trudell providing the harmonies for Mallinger's melodies. Those who have seen and heard Pat's work live, will be thrilled to hear it captured in the studio as he shines on tenor, alto and soprano saxes, as well as flute; while Trudell may surprise some who have only heard his fine work on the organ with his groups - Who's Your Daddy? and the B3 Bombers - his playing - which veers from Tyner to Tatum - perfectly counterbalances his associates as they maneuver through these intricate tunes.
Dragon Fish not only features the masterful playing of two virtuosos in a relaxed studio setting, but showcases Mallinger's exceptional compositional skills as well. "CPW" starts things off in a Coltrane-like vein - hardly surprising, considering it is based on Trane's ballad - “Central Park West” taken at breakneck speed. The smoky "Just Give it a Chance" is a true knockout - a song and performance that should alone bring a wider audience to these two talented artists. "Hills Over Tuscany" slows it down and lets Mallinger's flute soar through sunny skies, while the impressive title track lives up to its name (both musicians were born in Pisces (Feb) in the Year of the Dragon - 25 hours apart in 1964) - giving both players the opportunity to slash and burn on this Coltrane-esque piece cleverly constructed of odd intervals and sudden changes.
The cowritten "Diffuse" touches somewhat on Mallinger's interest in Eastern music, while "Camp Dan" is a fun romp written in honor of Trudell's southern Wisconsin homestead. It is a tribute to the skills of these two that the lack of bass and drums is neither noticeable nor missed throughout. The haunting "Dear James" pays tribute to a fallen friend, while "Pigeon Peas" is a raucous finger-snapping and bouncy tune. "Adventures" - a nicely mellow bluesy cut and the sweet and lovely "Madeline's Lullaby" round out this excellent collection. Let's hope this album awakens people to the talents of these two fine musicians and that we will see more releases from them in the near future.
John Abercrombie Quartet - "Wait Till You See Her"
Hard to imagine, but veteran guitarist John Abercrombie may be playing better than ever, and this new release offers some compelling proof. Abercrombie has managed to keep his quartet mostly intact for nearly a decade (the exception being Thomas Morgan replacing Marc Johnson on acoustic bass on this album), and his long association with violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Baron has been quite fruitful. The truly memorable "Sad Song" opens and sounds like a Bill Evans' composition with Baron emulating Paul Motian, Feldman handling the melody and Abercrombie the Evans-like washes of color. This is followed by "Line-Up" - where after a free form intro where Abercrombie skitters, Feldman plucks his strings and Baron and Morgan burble - the heat rises into a satisfying boil, only to break down again through entropy. The title track is an obscure Rodgers and Hart show tune rendered in a shimmering yet subdued palette, is a delicious ballad which perfectly centers this atmospheric chamber jazz outing. "Trio" (minus Feldman) is a jaunty number, while "I've Overlooked Before" unfolds languorously to reveal rewarding intricate interplay. "Anniversary Waltz" is another highlight with Abercrombie and Feldman careening across full, rich and lush harmonies. The pace quickens on the humorously-titled "Out of Towner" (referencing fellow guitarist and collaborator Ralph Towner), while the Middle-Eastern flavored "Chic of Araby" ends things on a powerfully mysterious tone with great playing by all.
Kobie Watkins - "Involved"
Drummer Kobie Watkins may be best known as a member of Sonny Rollins' band as well as Kurt Elling's combo. Here he takes charge as leader and delivers a colorful mainstream recording that is sure to please fans of mainstream jazz. One thing is certain - he certainly knows how to pick his musicians - he is surrounded here by some of the cream of the Chicago crop. Pianists Ryan Cohan, Ron Perillo and James Austin, bassists Clark Sommers, Dennis Carroll and Josh Ramos are joined by an incredible front line of guitarist Bobby Broom, trumpeter Pharez Whitted, trombonist Terris Ransom and saxophonists Jarrard Harris and Geof Bradfield. Recorded in 2006, Involved was produced by Harold Mims, who also adds the gospel rave-up "Third Pew," the polyrhythmic burner "Congo" and the co-written (with Watkins) funky "Sonny Like." Three other originals by Watkins, along with covers of Stevie Wonder's ballad "Taboo to Love" and Kenny Dorham's "Short Story" are included, along with the wild "Spastic" by Jarrard Harris and quiet "Gentle Souls" by Ryan Cohan. This sharing of songwriting presents a broad range of styles from the post-bop "Spastic" to the almost-smooth "Expressions" and "Movin' On" and offer us a glimpse into the mind of an artist with a diversity of (good) taste. Despite his exciting work on the drums, Watkins chooses the right songs for the right players and throws open the spotlight to the great musicians involved. Broom, Whitted, the keyboardists and especially saxophonists Harris and Bradfield come through with exceptional work. A wonderful debut from the talented former Chicagoan.
The Enoch Smith, Jr. Group - "Church Boy"
From the exuberant opening notes of "Mount Olive Hop" on Enoch Smith Jr.'s Church Boy, the listener knows he is in for a treat. Smith was raised in the Pentecostal church and began playing the piano by ear when he was 14 (?!) At age 16 he auditioned for and was accepted by Berklee without even having had any formal musical lessons. After leaving Berklee, the young man has used his talents to teach students, and he currently serves as the Minister of Music & Arts at Calvary Baptist Church in Paterson, NJ. The "Church" is present in the joyousness of the music, the gospel flavor and the song titles ("Sunday Morning Rush," "Lord I Lift Your Name on High," "I Surrender All"), but so is the "Jazz" in the compelling compositions and arrangements. Smith walks the tightrope between the earthy and spiritual with confidence and grace and has assembled a fine band here and gives ample opportunities for his group to solo, with bassist Jordan Scanella and alto saxophonist Josh Irving especially stepping forward. The lovely "Prelude to Joy" is an absolute highlight with Irving's burning solo leading into a nice trumpet break by Donald Molloy, followed by Smith's stately and satisfying solo - a great number! The frenetic "Lord I Lift Your Name On High" is driven by Rudy Royston's drums and Paula Green's percussion and includes an unexpected Latin transformation. The solo "A Mighty Fortress" introduces a glorious cover of Dizzy Gillespie's "With Soul" with stellar work again by Irving, while Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows" is also given the Enoch Smith treatment. Plenty of great music here to discover. Why, I would even consider going back to church if Mr. Smith provided the music every week.
Bradley Parker Sparrow - "The New World"
(Asian Improv Records)
Pianist Bradley Parker Sparrow has been putting out some of the most interesting music around. His The Black Romantic (see our review here) was a wonderfully twisted solo piano outing. Here, Sparrow utilizes the talents of saxophonist/flautist Francis Wong, bassist/shamisenist Tasu Aoki, percussionist Dede Sampaio and vocalist/drummer Joanie Pallatto to create a brilliant new world of beauty and mystery and one in which the listener will want to return. The use of instruments like the shamisen, berimbau and various other percussion instruments, harmonica, bamboo flute, synthesizer and piano - along with more traditional jazz instruments such as bowed bass gives the music an ambient world music quality that lingers.
The wondrous title track especially exhibits the shimmering mythic nature of Sparrow's vision, as well as featuring some of his best piano playing. "Pinwheel" is a playful rhythmic piece with Aoki and Sampaio propelling the time over which Pallato provides delightful wordless vocals, Wong creates tenor sax smoke rings and Sparrow scampers and crashes with abandon. "Tico's Lust" appeared on The Black Romantic and here is presented as a full-fledged new jazz standard with Wong adding a great solo before everyone is sucked into a black hole. You'll want to decipher the deliciously inscrutable "Secret Code" - an improvised duet between Sparrow and Wong - and unlock its sparkling mysteries. "Skip Hop" inexplicably transforms from funky beginning to brooding piano meditation to post-bop modern jazz courtesy Aoki's walking bass. The "Every Day" East Asian interlude leads into the cut and paste "Finale: The New World" - a triumph of editing that is a good as anything Radiohead has done, but in a jazz vein and with excellent vocals from Pallato. Sparrow gets in the last laugh with his "Essay on Black Noise" and "Kanye OK, OK (She Wants a Jazz Man)" - a poignant look at the current music scene - which ends this provocative recording.
Chris Potter Underground - "Ultrahang"
The follow-up to the group's great Follow the Red Line - Live at the Village Vanguard (see our review here, Ultrahang is the Underground group playing at the top of their game. Consisting of guitarist Adam Rogers, drummer Nate Smith and Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, the Underground is of course led by saxophonist Chris Potter - arguably the best tenor saxophonist on the post-Brecker scene. Here, he performs his incendiary magic on his usual tenor sax, while also devoting considerable energy to the bass clarinet (often on the same song) with rewarding results. The other star of this effort is guitarist Rogers - who is given ample opportunity to inject his bluesy snarls into the mix. This ensemble has deservedly gained the reputation of being perhaps the finest groove jazz group around and this Artist Share (fan financed) recording only adds to their status. Potter pens most of the material - the exceptions being the band jam title track, Rogers' funkalicious "Rumples" and a luxurious and surprisingly sentimental cover of Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe." Meanwhile, high energy numbers like the title track, "Time's Arrow" and "Boots" will get the hearts a racing, while "Interstellar Signals" and "Facing East" provide subtler fare. Highest level musicianship - sure to please fans of musical acrobats who are looking for thrills aplenty.
Wadada Leo Smith - "Spiritual Dimensions"
One of the highlights of the 2008 Chicago Jazz Fest was the appearance of trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith - who roused the crowd with his blend of vibrant and energetic outbursts and assortment of sounds and timbres. Smith has been a somewhat neglected figure of the Avant Garde - an early AACM member who moved into education , while developing a musical philosophy he calls "Ahkreanvention." Over the years, Smith has worked with some of the top names in improvised jazz, like Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill and Oliver Lake, while releasing many albums - often on his own label - while exploring the outer edges of music itself. Enveloping world music, blues, free jazz and searing rock textures, while utilizing his unique musical system - with its visual notation method and emphasis on space as an equal partner to sound, Smith has followed his own path, which has often led him to be unjustly overlooked. In recent years however, interest in Smith's work has experienced a rebirth. His high profile membership with guitarist Henry Kaiser in the late-'90s/early '00s "Yo Miles" Miles Davis tribute ensemble brought him somewhat back into the spotlight, and his Golden Quartet - which at times has featured drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Vijay Iyer has released several well-received albums as well.
Spirtual Dimensions is a two-disc set with the Golden Quartet (expanded to a quintet) live in NYC on the first disc, and his Organic Group live in New Haven, CT on the second. Quartet members Iyer, bassist John Lindberg and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff are joined by former Art Ensemble of Chicago drummer Don Moye on the adventurous first disc, which features Smith's concepts of each individual player as an autonomous improviser existing in a naturalistic world in which time is an element of space. It is fascinating listening - filled with starts, stops, abstract solo outbursts and silence and aggressive group improvisation: this is not the Longines Symphonette. The second disc leans even more heavily toward Miles Davis' electric period with electric bassist Skuli Sverisson and cellist Okkyung Lee replacing Iyer and Moye, and a plethora of electric guitarists, including Nels Cline, added to the fray. Davis is clearly the biggest influence on Smith's sound (although he also cites Booker Little and Louis Armstrong). As to be expected, this disc is funkier than the first, while also engaging in electronic soundscapes - reminiscent of Davis' Tribute to Jack Johnson and Pangaea. Interesting music and a great introduction to Smith if you are not already familiar with his ideas and compositions.
Paulinho Garcia - "My Very Life"
I am quite behind in reviewing this album, released earlier this year, but considering the snow drifts outside, maybe it is a good time to contemplate the lovely music of Brazil as guitarist/singer Paulinho Garcia does on this recording. Not content to just concentrate on the usual bossa format familiar to North Americans, Garcia here presents a travelogue of his native country's regional musical styles as expressed in his own original compositions. The Chicago-based musician is a favorite of audiences here and around the world (Garcia has recently returned from concerts in Moscow, Russia), who features a rich resonant voice, as well as an encyclopedic mastery of Brazilian styles on the guitar (he is an instructor at Chicago's storied Old Town School of Music as well).
Here he navigates from baiaos to chorinhos to sambas, frevos and bossas in a warm and appealing manner. He is assisted by his brother Heitor and Geraldo de Oliveira on percussion, Brett Benteler on basses, electric guitarists Mike Allemana (Von Freeman) and Ernie Denov (Chevere). Julie Koidin (Suenos) adds flute, Don Stierberg mandolin and the multi-talented Steve Eisen (Chevere, Chicago Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble) appears on saxophone and flute as well. Much of the music is moody and haunting like "Cintura Fina" and "Ponto De Encontro" (with poignant sax from Eisen) and the memorable title track, but "Chorinho Novo" and "Chorinho Do Paulinho" are brisk and "I'll Be Calling for Maria (No Matter What)" - a song written for his late wife (who the album is also dedicated to) is suprisingly upbeat and positive. Garcia duets with his frequent singing partner Grazyna Auguscik on the lovely "Do You Remember Me" - which also showcases Garcia's talent on melodic lead guitar, as does "Chorinho Da Paula." The album ending "Disfrutando a Box Vida" ends things with a carnival march. With songs for his wife, son and daughter, and original songs in the myriad of styles from his native country, this truly is a presentation of Garcia's musical life - and one in which the listener feels honored to be invited to visit.
Hristo Vitchev Weber Iago - "The Secrets of an Angel"
On the heels of his impressive debut recording - Song for Messambria (see our review here), guitarist Hristo Vitchev returns along with pianist Weber Iago for a wonderful guitar/piano duet recording - The Secrets of an Angel. Eight songs written by Vitchev and arranged by the pair were recorded in the studio in one day - a remarkable achievement, but perhaps not so surprising considering the abilities of these two individuals, who also seem to possess a shared feel for the music. The San Francisco-based guitarist (via Bulgaria and Venzuela) merges all the elements of his experience into his music - resulting in an Eastern Eurpoean/West Coast/South American melange , while Iago mixes classical, jazz and Brazilian ingredients into his style. It is a winning combo. "Waltz by Chance Alone" opens with beautiful turbulence before settling into the dark shades of "Zima's Poem." Both players take extended solos that are never overlong, but rather seem a part of the atmosphere. "When it Rains" picks the pace back up, but maintains Vitchev's love of bittersweet voicings in this rhythmic number. The traditional quartet sound of the earlier album was wonderful, but this duo album offers the clarity to hear Vitchev and Iago more directly and it is a fresh and agreeable sound. The music of today is often difficult to describe because it combines traditional and world genres into something new and personal and Vitchev and Iago's music clearly falls into this category. "Haiuri's Dance" references the sprightly one-armed/one-legged/one-eyed African monster in an up-tempo romp, while the gentle title track shimmers like a glisteningiceberg on a cold sea. The delightful two-part "The Last Pirate" is a highlight - brilliantly showcasing the exciting romantic bend inherent in Vitchev's music, while the the nostaligic lullaby "Leka Nosht (Good Night)" recalls a farway youth and rounds out this fine release.
Pablo Menendez & Mezcla - "I'll See You in Cuba"
Despite the considerable amount of hatred directed by the U.. government toward Castro-led Cuba, the island's commitment to the arts and music cannot be unquestioned. In a surprising turn of events, young Oakland, CA-born Pablo (Paul) Menendez moved at age 14 in 1966 from the U.S. To Cuba to attend the National Arts School. Focusing on electric guitar, Menedez stayed in Cuba, marrying (actress Adria Santana) and raising his children (his son is now a member in the top rock group in Cuba - "Havana") and playing music. Since the mid-'80s, he has been the leader of "Mezcla." (Spanish for "mixture"). The group has been played several times each month at Havana's legendary jazz club La Zorra y el Cuervo, hosting jam sessions that have included many of the top jazz artists in the world sitting in with them, including Wynton Marsalis, Chucho Valdez, Roy Hargrove, Dafnis Prieto, George Benson and Steve Coleman.
On "I'll See You in Cuba," things start out in fiery fashion on tenor saxophonist's "Big Brecker" (as in Michael), with great solos from Sanchez, trumpeter Mayquel Gonzalez and bassist Ernesto Hermida. Magela Herrera's dancing flute combines with Menendez's guitar to float above Octavio Rodriguez's percussion on "Quien Tiene Ritmo?" or "Who's Got Rhythm" (based on Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm") and which also features enjoyable vocals from "Las Elas." Several Afro-Cuban styles are utilized - as on "El Medico de los Pianos" ("The Piano Doctor") - which is a danzon which morphs into a cha-cha. Featuring a distorted electric guitar solo from Menendez, this tune also offers a political message referencing the U.S. Embargo on sending musical instruments to Cuba. Irving Berlin's title track is a tongue-in-cheek Prohibition-era tune with Menendez taking the lead vocal spotlight and Herrera and Gonzalez revisiting the'30s on their piano and trumpet on this fun tune. As to be expected from a guitarist whose last album was titled Havana Blues Mambo, the blues are not ignored, and Menendez shreds like Jeff Beck on Sanchez's "Chicoy's Blues." "Oslo," meanwhile is a lovely drink of cool water (or rum) in the midst of all the fire. The rest of the album offers the funky "Chucho's Blues," a bluesy version of "Round Midnight," an exciting harmonic and rhythmic number by Gonzalez ("Homenaje a Afro Cuba"), and humorous coda. Several guest stars from the ranks of great unknown (in the U.S.) Cuban musicians appear on this album. Perhaps this release could be a step toward reconciliation between our countries, whose citizens share a love of music?
Geoff Leigh & Yumi Hara - "Upstream"
Leigh is a flautist/saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist who made his name initially as a member of English progressive band Henry Cow and went on to play with many of the leading names of the era. After surviving a dangerous illness, Leigh returned to playing - often in a duet setting, or solo improvising soundscapes for experimental films. Hara is a London-based Japanese vocalist who has worked with former King Crimson violinist David Cross and Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper. On Upstream, the two create a series of atmospheric musical communications that journey from Tibetan temples in the Himalayans to the depths of the oceans. Leigh primarily plays the flute but uses effects and different techniques to produce a diversity of sounds. Hara uses piano and organ and electronic keyboards along with her eerie voice. The title track starts the album off in a fairly ambient manner but deconstructs when Hara begins banging on the piano keys, while "The Mountain Laughs" is powered by Hara's intense organ looming over everything. "The Strait" pairs jangly piano improv with effected soprano sax, while the temple bells and floating vocals come out on "Stone of the Beach." Meanwhile, Hara's vocals and Leigh's sax sound like whales in "Dolphin Chase." The varying combinations voice/effects/piano/bells/flute or sax continue throughout the album, and the skill and sensitivity of the two players never allow the pieces to sink into tedium as could be the case in lesser hands - the interest level maintained is admirable. The ending, "The Siren Returns" brings the album full circle back to the opening echoes and provides a satisfying conclusion to this interesting recording from MooonJune.
Wazozo - "Newton Circus"
One of the highlights of my recent trip to New Orleans was catching Helen Gillet performing in Yuki on Frenchmen Street. Accompanied only by a guitarist, Gillet played her cello and sang French chansons to the delight of the crowd. On Gillet's Wazozo group's debut album Newton Circus, the chansons are still delightful, but fleshed out by the addition of more instrumentation. Gillet, was born in Belguim, lived in Singapore and spent much of her life in the northern Chicago suburb of Mundelein before locating to New Orleans a few years ago, has performed with James Singleton, Fred Lonberg-Holm and many more. Here, she is joined by guitarist Gregory Good, violinist Daron Douglas, Luke Brecthelsbauer on harp and xylophone, Walt McClements on accordion and Bill Strickland on french horn.
Gillet's husky and quite attractive voice recalls Edith Piaf, while the additional musicians add frosting to an already substantial musical base. Ranging from Pink Martini's "Sympathique" to the traditional French drinking song "Chevaliers de La Table Ronde," Gillet shows a knack for covering these Franco musical gems. Piaf is covered of course ("Mon Amart de Saint Jean," "Padam Padam" and "Milord") and Gillet deftly presents these tales of broken hearts in a cold world. Additionally, she is a fine interpreter of Georges Brassens - perhaps the father of the modern singer/songwriter - covering five of his numbers here, including the jaunty favorite "La Chasse aux Papillons." Jean Renoir's "La Complainte de La Butte" - revived in recent years by Rufus Wainwright in Moulin Rouge is also covered, and an original number by Gillet - "Les Pagodes" makes one hope the artist will write and record more of her own work in the future. This beautiful song is followed by another of my highlights - a stunning version of Julos Beaucarne's "Le Petit Royaume" - that is utterly entrancing and will linger long afterwards in your heart and mind. Songs to raise a glass to - from the Old Country to the French Quarter and beyond.