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.
Zvonimir Tot - Eloquent Silence
Serbian-born guitarist, Tot is a graduate of Northern Illinois University's masters program, the current assistant director of jazz studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a well-known figure on the Chicago music scene. His guitar style is distinctive in that he combines many more familiar jazz styles, like Latin and straight-ahead with the sound from his Eastern European heritage and even a couple blazing forays into fusion shredding. A much-in-demand player, Tot enlists some of the cream of the crop of Chicago artists on his second album as a leader, and it is the delicious interplay between the guitarist and his fellow players that gives this release much of its energy. Masterfully balancing his own exemplary solos with those of such talented players as bassist Larry Gray, drummer Ernie Adams, trumpeter Orbert Davis, flautist Julie Koidin and tenor saxophonist Mark Colby, Tot creates a simmering musical environment that allows everyone involved to present themselves to great advantage. Besides Tot's frequent guitar flights across many genre, some highlights include several brilliant solos from Gray (check out his incredible bow work on his solo on "Mira's Do-Re-Mis" a perfect complement to Tot's fiery guitar), Colby's sensitive playing on the ballad, "Jurre," Adams (who plays excellent support as always) provides a couple incendiary solo spots, and Serbian classical violin prodigy Stefan Milenkovich adds a romantic gypsy feel to the haunting "Sarabande Blue." Another compelling release from Chicago Sessions - these albums are now available individually as well as in the subscription series.
Tim O'Dell - Dreams of Pangaea
Composer O'Dell is now based in Maine, but previously spent some time in Chicago performing on saxophone in the local clubs. On his latest recording for the Southport label, he returns to the University of Iowa, where he received his undergraduate and doctorate degrees, to have the university's jazz ensemble record a new set of his contemporary big band compositions. Fans of Maria Schnieder's big band work will enjoy O' Dell's arrangements which are also quirky like Teo Macero's compositions and reminiscent of Gil Evans, especially at times in the coloring But despite the solid charts that clearly call on tradition, there are modern elements infused, like funky bass on "Adverse Side Effects," electric piano and fusionesque electric guitar by special guest Steve Grismore on "Cirrus" and "Retrospection," the latter of which also features African percussion. The interesting works are well-played by this ensemble, under the direction of John Rapson.
Lisa Hilton - Twilight & Blues
(Ruby Slippers Production)
Lisa is back and better than ever on her latest release, Twilight & Blues. Backed by her usual world-class rhythm section of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Lewis Nash, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen, the hard-working pianist continues in recording music in her own style. This includes a mixture of up-tempo/oddly rhythmic numbers ("Pandemonium," "City Streets"), sultry and romantic pieces ("Twilight," "Blue For You") and covers done in her own original manner (Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," "Moon River" and even Janis Joplin's "Kozmic Blues"). As the title (and song choices) suggest, much of the recording delves into Hilton's love of the blues, but this is no down-home dirty blues rave up. Hilton uses blue notes to create an intimate world of beauty that is true to the artist she is. For example, transforming Gaye's impassioned call for revolution into a lovely musical panorama may strike some as sacrilege, but for her to attempt to play the part of an African American rebel icon would be the height of absurdity. By presenting it in her way (with exceptional support from her band members) she gives the song a thread of solidarity with the message, while reminding us that Gaye wrote stellar melodies as well. Impossible to pigeonhole into a specific genre, Hilton's originality of vision is her strength, and her light touch is as lovely as she is and as addictive as the waves breaking near her Malibu home.
Mark Colby - Reflections
Origin Records has become a home away form home for many Chicago musicians, with the result being several excellent releases by label. Veteran saxophonist Mark Colby's "Reflections" is no exception, as the tenor master leads a band of some of Chicago's finest, including bassist Eric Hochberg, drummer Bob Rummage and pianist Jeremy Kahn through a program of solid covers and Colby originals. Guest guitarist Mike Pinto pitches in on Colby's take on Jobim's "Desafinado," where the saxophonist again takes on one of his heroes, Stan Getz. No one trick pony, touches of early Coltrane and others as well show up in this player's sound. Some highlights include Johnny Mandell's "Close Enough for Love," the original "Myth Mary's Blues," a lush version of Cole Porter's "So in Love" and "Squires Parlor" with pianist Ron Perillo and the song's composer, alto saxophonist Phil Woods.
Elli Fordyce - Sings Songs Spun of Gold
72-years-young Elli Fordyce rediscovered her jazz vocal career last year with "Something So Cool" (see our review here), and fans of cabaret jazz can be glad she did. Continuing her musical rebirth with Songs Spun of Gold, Fordyce continues to grow as a singer as she takes on a great selection of great American showtunes and standards. Equally at home with up tempo numbers like "Let's Get Lost" and "Pick Yourself Up," as well as ballads, she brings the gravitas of experience to her vocals. She really shines on a heartfelt section that includes "Softly as I Leave You," "A Child is Born/Waltz for Debby," and "Where Do You Start?," as well as a stellar version of "In the Wee Small Hours." A must for fans of vocal jazz, this release is indeed spun of gold.
Mike Arroyo - Transition
(Music Lab Records)
Transition truly lives up to its title as guitarist Mike Arroyo made some major changes in his life over the last few years. After 22 years, he quit his day gig as an engineer to become a full-time musician and part time pastor of his church, while releasing 2006's My Jazzy Life. Judging on the exceptional results, he clearly made the right decision. Mixing Latin, bossa, samba, ballad and straight and contemporary jazz styles together, the Puerto Rican-born Arroyo shows a nimble and sensitive touch that tastefully recalls Wes Montgomery or early George Benson with more of a Latin flair. Backed by a crew of professional players, the songs are lesser known gems (with the exception of "God Bless the Child"), and make for quite the pleasant surprises for the listener. The album starts with two exceptional Armando Aquino compositions, "Street Jam" and "The Whisper of God" - which are true standouts. Sax player Ivan Renta and pianist Pedro Bermudez add some excellent work, while guitar legend Maximo Torres guests on one of his own compositions, "Recuerdos de Humacao." Arroyo bills himself as a "Christian Jazz Guitarist," and the songs are filled with good will and spirit, but no overt preaching - just great solid and enjoyable guitar jazz with a tropical feel.
Gian Tornatore - Fall
2008 Thelonious Monk saxophone finalist, Gian Tornatore is a Berklee graduate currently attending Columbia's doctorate program, while making waves on the NYC scene. Fall is this young man's third album as leader and he is accompanied by Jon Anderson on piano, Thomas Kneeland on bass, Jordan Perlson on drums and Nate Radley on guitar. All are up and coming young players on the rise, with perhaps Radley the most well known. Here he proves an excellent match for bandleader Tornatore, helping cement his reputation by offering up impressive melodic and lines. Kneeland and Perlson are an active and substantial rhythm section, while Anderson is a pleasant discovery on piano. Tornatore, who was raised on Tower of Power and counts Pat Metheny, George Garzone and Hal Crook as influences, finds his compositions somewhere in the middle of these styles. La Vita starts things off and showcases great band interplay and Tornatore's clean and clear sound and impressive technique. The "falling" title track, with great solos Anderson and bassist Kneeland leads into the high octane "La Copa Del Mondo," placing both Radley and Tornatore in the spotlight. "Nobody But You" and "Missing You" show these cats can play a ballad too, while the complex "Hearing Triangles" and mysterious "Scream" triumphantly announce that Tornatore definitely is a composer/player to keep an eye on.