Joel Harrison - "Urban Myths"
One of the most interesting, enjoyable and exciting albums of the year comes to us from guitarist/composer Joel Harrison, who decided to use the sounds of the music of the '70s that influenced him growing up, including artists like Josef Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Miles and Zappa as a springboard. This merger of jazz, blues, funk and rock could be a mess in lesser hands, but Harrison has been making a name for himself as a serious composers of note who can successfully blend genres and doesn't disappoint here with these original tunes (mostly - there is a funked-up arrangement of Monk's "Straight No Chaser").
Of course, it isn't all seriousness, as the emphasis is clearly on fun, but there are some serious players involved, including Harrison himself. A rhythm section of Daniel Kelly on keys, Stephan Crump on acoustic bass and Jordan Perlson on drums is joined by some other excellent players, such as electric bassist Fima Ephron, trombonist Corey King, tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbag and trumpet star Ambrose Akinmusire on some tunes. But Harrison's main foils are outstanding violin burner Christian Howes and the incomparable alto saxophonist David Binney. "You Must Go Through a Winter" opens things with a churning groove and Howes and Binney providing the fireworks. In fact. Harrison doesn't solo until four minutes into the second track - "125 and Lenox," which sounds a bit like Chick meets Miles'' 70s funk with a violinist. Kelly shines with a nice echoey electric piano solo. But the wait is worth it, as Harrison's electric guitar is supersonic. The 11:18 "Mood Rodeo" (in 5/4) takes the Miles funk comparison even further, but with Harrison's snarling guitar and soaring slide guitar, the multiple changes and almost atonal horn and violin arrangement and Perlson's effervescent drumming leading to yet another stunning Binney solo (best alto saxophonist on the planet in my humble opinion) this tune is a highlight and centerpoint of the album.
"Last Waltz for Queva" (a tribute to former 55 Bar owner Queva Luz, who gave Harrison a start) is a beautiful bluesy waltz highlighted by Harrison's heartfelt Telecaster licks. Akinmusire and Binney burn on the Monk arrangement, while the ever-unfolding "Between the Traveler and the Setting Sun" careens down the highways of Americana (courtesy some delicious Howes fiddle) and gives a Kelly a nice acoustic piano spotlight, while Binney again... is Binney. Howes solos on the offbeat funk title track, as does Harrison in wah-drenched fashion, while "High Expectations, Low Return" is a blast of fusion that will leave your heart racing as this excellent album ends.
Esperanza Spalding - "Esperanza"
Wow is the word. A true young talent on acoustic bass, composition and even lyric-writing turns out to be a superb singer as well (in English, Spanish, Portugese and scat no less). This is an addictive release of jazz with some pop leanings that announces the young woman as one of the leading lights of the upcoming generation of jazz stars. Spalding backed Donald Harrison a couple years ago at the Chicago Jazz Fest, and here the veteran saxophonist repays the favor, along with an exceptional group of Latin Jazz stars, including flamenco guitar master Nino Josele. The compositions (including a version of Body & Soul) are mostly Latin-flavored, with funk and straight-ahead jazz elements, while Esperanza's voice soars clear and fresh above the music. And her lyrics are truly compelling and heartfelt as the young lady sings of the joys and pitfalls of love on such delightful numbers as "Precious," "Espera," and "She Got To You." "Fall In" and "Love in Time" are ballads for the new millennium, while "I Adore You," "Ponta De Areia," "Samba Em Preludio" and "Mela" bring Brazilian jazz to a new generation. A wonderful debut.
Alexis Baro - "From the Other Side"
Trumpeter Alexis Baro was born and raised in a highly musical family in Havana, Cuba, where he received classical training from age eight. He has since moved to Toronto, where he has been winning awards and making a name for himself as one of the finest trumpeters in Canada. This new CD, his sophomore effort, shows the listener why. Combining Latin (Panorama, Wake Up Call), Funk and R&B (Funky Bird, Unexpected Muse), Rock Fusion (Venus Atmosphere) and Jazz together, Baro's fiery trumpet leads the way, supported by a strong group of players. Opening with a funky intro (the title track, which also ends the album), complete with wah-wah horn, Baro next moves into the wonderful "African Escape" and song he says was inspired by the rhythms of baby hearts heard through monitors when he was in the hospital during his wife's pregnancy with his son. He transposed the rhythms of the different hearts into a beat for bata drums and other percussion. But despite such creative inspirations, songs like "U and I" show he can write and play straight jazz as well. This number, which features tenor saxophonist Jeff King, guitarist KC Roberts and keyboardist Robi Botos on Fender Rhodes harkens back to the '70s and proves Baro isn't the only talented Canadian jazzer. Clearly, Baro, whose first album focused primarily on Latin jazz has expanded his ouevre, but the call of the Afro-Cuban genre remains close, even during his forays into North American styles and creates a tasty mixture that is extremely appealing. One hopes this album will give some deserved exposure to an exciting trumpeter/songwriter from the other side of our northern border.
Pablo Held - "Forest of Oblivion"
It is almost startling to see the photo of pianist Held on the inside of his debut CD, as the baby-faced young man appears to be a high school senior at best. This is at first quite hard to comprehend, given the maturity and level of the playing and compositions; however, this 21-year-old has been a child prodigy award-winning pianist in his native Germany since an early age. The classical technique is apparent, and there is plenty of snow globe atmospherics in his sound, but unlike much European music, the pieces are hardly tranquil: most simmer with an astonishing energy. Backed by bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel, this is a power trio to be reckoned with. Six of the ten tunes are Held originals, which display a wide range of influences (Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock come to mind) forming an original voice, while there is one improvised number and three covers, including Wayne Shorter's "Ana Maria" and a swinging take on Tony Williams' "Hand Jive." Throughout, the interplay between the members of the trio is exceptional on these subtle, yet intricate songs, which are filled with shifts, shading and clever twists and interlocking parts. Hard to pick highlights, but Phasen and Phase II are clear and exciting indications of Held's musical direction, while the lovely title track and a delicious version of Catalonian composer Federico Mompou's "Pajaro Triste" (Sad Bird) especially highlight this young artist's more melodic bend.
Klang - "Tea Music"
Another group appearing at this year's Jazz Fest is Klang, led by clarinetist James Falzone, and featuring mainstays of the Chicago jazz scene: vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Tim Daisy. This quartet will be paying homage to Benny Goodman in concert, but on their new release, Tea Music, all of the members (with the exception of Adasiewicz) have contributed music, which is admittedly inspired by the free form interplay of Jimmy Giuffre's combos of the mid-1950s. The pairing of clarinet and vibes recalls Goodman's work with Lionel Hampton, but the compositions here are angular and modernistic. Daisy is masterful on various percussion and keeps some interesting beats that at times sound like distant jungle drums, Roebke grooves, while Falzone and Adazsiewicz create melodic patterns. Falzone's clarinet is central and he shows formidable chops. The music itself is very tight and shimmers like a mysterious form of chamber jazz. This is enhanced by the recording work by engineer Todd Carter (and Falzone) at Strobe Studio. This style of music can sometimes get too "out there" for me, but I must admit that like a nice cup of Earl Grey, the recording has really grown on me, and I can heartily recommend this local blend for consumption. Klang will be playing a record release concert at the Hideout on September 23.
Luis Bonilla - "I Talking Now"
(PlanetArts/Now Jazz Consortium)
Luis Bonilla has been making a splash as a trombonist with several NYC-based big bands and ensembles, including Dave Douglas' Brass Ecstasy (who appeared with great fanfare last year at Jazz Fest), the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (under the direction of Arturo O'Farrill) and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. On his third release as a leader, Bonilla has enlisted some of his fellow players including pianist O'Farrill, saxophonist Ivan Renta, bassist Andy McKee and drummer John Riley, to present an album of hard-hitting Latin-flavored jazz. These players are all heavy hitters and the music is in your face. After the intense title track opens things, "Uh, Uh, Uh" blends avant garde with funk in a way that makes the listener understand this isn't going to be your usual Latin Jazz album. The fun is still present, but the level of writing and playing is advanced, edgier and cerebral. "No Longer Looking Back" morphs from classical-tinged ballad into tough blues with several swinging permutations, while "Closer Still" is a love ballad to his wife, which was inspired by Bob Brookmeyer's "First Love Song," and which shows these players to be equally adept at slowing things down. "Fifty Eight" brings a near hip-hop drum pattern into the mix, while "Triumph" (inspired by tennis-great Arthur Ashe) lives up to it's name with a delightful blend of rhythm and unison/contrapuntal horn lines that build to an echo-filled climax. The swinging "Luminescence" and waltzing "Elis" round out this impressive and enjoyable release that marks Bonilla as a formidable composer as well as player.