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.
Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls - "Seize the Day"
On their 5th album, Seize the Time, the Souls find themselves recording again with True Stereo engineer Ken Christianson, and the results are as to be expected: stunning. Reinterpreting the works of socially-conscious artists like the Clash, Charles Mingus, Caetano Veloso, Miriam Makeba and Stephen Foster (yes, that Stephen Foster), as well as offering up several excellent originals, this talented group makes a strong case that great music and political activism are still a vital combination. Led by Sirota's propulsive drumming, the Rebel Souls include several of Chicago's finest young talents, including bassist Jake Vinsel, guitarist Dave Miller and a dream team front line of Greg Ward on alto sax and Geof Bradfield on tenor and soprano saxes and bass clarinet. All of the members bring compositions, while Bradfield and Miller also arrange the "covers." This mixture of genre's, rock, jazz and Afrobeat is heartfelt and appealing. Mingus' "Free Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi USA" finds the group working strong in the jazz vein, while the underrated Miller's moody and inventive reworking of the Clash's "Clampdown" is virtually unrecognizable fro the original punk rock anthem. Bradfield shows his interest in African (and African-infuenced South American) music with his arrangements of Veloso's "13 De Maio" (which commemorates the day slavery was abolished in Brazil) and Makeba's "Polo Mze." Sirota performs a drum solo tribute to Max Roach (another stalwart against injustice), while his "Killa Dilla" is pure Afropop fun. (Miller shows an uncanny command of African guitar method throughout these tunes) Vinsel adds the delicious "Liitle D," which morphs without warning from a lovely ballad into Mariachi music gone mod. Ward brings a funky, energy-packed "The Keys of Freedom" to end the album on a high note. But, perhaps the centerpiece of the album is the haunting arrangement by Bradfield of Foster's Hard Times (Come Again No More)" - an appropriate sentiment for these current times.
Dafnis Prieto Si O Si Quartet - "Live at Jazz Standard NYC"
Last year's Taking the Soul for a Walk (see our review here was our #2 album of the year for 2008, an album full of energetic bursts, compelling shifts driven by Prieto's highly original blend of Afro-Cuban and modern jazz as performed by an exceptional quintet. This new live album pares the quintet down to a quartet which includes saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and pianist Manuel Valera, as well as adding acoustic and electric bassist Charles Flores (the latter-two are Cuban-born, NYC-based musicians like Prieto). All eleven songs are Prieto compositions and the prolific composer continues to write music that is Cuban-influenced, yet unorthodox and unmistakably the drummer's own. Apfelbaum and Velera add melodica, an instrument not often heard in jazz, as an additional bonus to a recording of strong songs that should help cement Prieto's already stellar reputation as a true trailblazer in the modern jazz arena.
Charito meets Michel Legrand - "Watch What Happens"
Anyone who grew up in the 1970s, like I did, was quite familiar with the works of French pianist Michel Legrand. A serious composer who started his studies at the Paris Conservatoire at age 11, Legrand is one of the few European classical composers to make themselves equally at home in the world of jazz. The multi-award winner of several Oscars and Grammys, Legrand worked with many of the top names in jazz, (Ella Fitzgerald, Miles, Coltrane, Shelly Manne, Phil Woods, among many others) but is perhaps best known for his soundtrack work. Several of his songs for film have become jazz standards, including "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," (The Happy Ending) "I Will Wait For You" from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, "The Windmills of Your Mind" (The Thomas Crown Affair) and "The Summer Knows" (Summer of '42). A gifted pianist himself, Legrand has worked with a plethora of top-notch singers including Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Perry Como, Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Shirley Bassey, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughn. On this recording, Legrand is paired with Tokyo-based singer Charito - a singer whose voice Legrand is said to be enchanted by. Listening to the album one can see why. Her elegant delivery and rich and expressive voice give life to these classic songs, infusing them with a sense of maturity so rare in today's music world. It is rare too for Legrand himself to accompany his singers on the piano, but he does so here with gusty as part of a jazz trio backing the singer. His flourishes on the piano are brilliant, evoking both Bill Evans as well as Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner and the 77-year-old seems invigorated by working with the Far-Eastern chanteuse. Perhaps the highlights are when Legrand sings and scats in duet with Charito on "Summer Me, Winter Me," Pieces of Dreams," and "Quand On S'Aime." This is first-rate, sophisticated and shimmering music that recalls the previous age of cabaret music, but with the benefit of modern sound recording techniques.
Roy Hargrove Big Band - "Emergence"
Unusual, in these tough economic times, when many musicians are scaling back to trios, that trumpeter Roy Hargrove is releasing a big band album, but Hargrove says he has had this as a goal for a long time and he has been leading a big band since the' 90s. It is clear that the band (recruited from players Hargrove has met through the years in schools and gigging) has been playing these tunes together for some time, and the magic is captured crisply by Grammy winning engineer Al Schmitt. Things start off with "Velera" - Hargrove's beautiful tune written for his mother, which first appeared on his album "Family," and which showcases his melodic flugelhorn playing. Band member Jason Marshall (baritone sax and flute) contributes the shuffling "Ms. Garvey Ms. Garvey" - a fun number with some hot playing from Hargrove that leads into another version of the well-worn (but admittedly lovely) "Funny Valentine" (trumpet players just can't resist it, can they?). The energized versions of "Mambo for Roy" (written by Chucho Valdes for the "Habana" album) followed by Frank Lacy's epic (13:36) "Requiem" may be the highlights of the entire album - showing a big band operating in high gear on some difficult and highly rewarding material. Bassist Danton Boller, pianist Gerald Clayton and drummer Montez Coleman all shine on "September in the Rain," which also features Roy on surprisingly good vocals and an enjoyable scatting call and response with the band. More vocals are on tap with the beautiful Roberta Gambarini on "Everytime We Say Goodbye" (with a lush horn arrangement courtesy guitarist Saul Rubin) and "La Puerta" (a hit for the Latin dance floor). "Roy Allan" is another great reprise from the underrated "Family" album with a great big band arrangement by Hargrove with solos by the trumpeter and Rubin. The pulsating "Tschpiso" and placidly romantic "Trust" round out the album with more great work from the ensemble and its leader; a pleasantly surprising and nostalgic turn from the always adventurous trumpet star.
Southern Excursion Quartet - "Trading Post"
Southern Excursion Quartet - "Trading Post"
(Artists Recording Collective)
The emergence of pianist Michael Jefry Stevens continues with this third fine release of interesting material this year (see our reviews of the other two here and here). On this recording, the Memphis-based Stevens finds himself in the company of an exceptional group of regional jazz players. Saxophonist Don Aliquo and drummer Tom Giampietro ( a member of Jeff Coffin's Mu-Tet) are based in Nashville, bassist Jonathan Wires resides in Oxford, MS. It may surprise listeners from outside the southeast to discover the existence of jazz players of such magnitude, but this recording - featuring eight originals written by members of the quintet and one exemplary Andrew Hill cover ("Ashes") will leave you awestruck at the talent and interaction between the band members. The opening "Ashes" features Aliquo's lovely tones and a brilliantly melodic bass solo by Wires, while the bassist's "Out in the World" lets Stevens take the spotlight and display his highly original and lyrical style. Meanwhile, drummer Giampietro combines sensitivity with an unbridled energy throughout, and contributes a beautiful number ("A Long and Lonely Nights Work"). Aliquo's "Longing" is another gentle piece featuring stellar work from the saxman and pianist Stevens, while the latter contributes "For Wheeler" - a tune inspired by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. The music moves from highly improvisation (Aliquo's "Chant 1 & 2" ) to the moody funk of Wire's "December" to bluesy (Stevens' album-ending "Spirtual") in a manner that will leave you breathless and wanting more of this delicious southern fried cooking.
Rented Mule - "X"
I apologize the "mules" for not reviewing their previous self-titled album, which I found to be a surprisingly good release of good old-fashioned funky fusion, but which unfortunately fell through the cracks. With their unusual name (referring to their usual status as overworked sidemen), you might be forgiven for thinking this is another Southern rock band, but the band is led by two veteran Philly-area jazzers (drummer D.A. Jones and bassist Danny Greenberg), who have assembled a tight group of young and energetic players to create rip-roaring music that sounds like it came from the '70s era of L.A. Express and Crusaders and even Miles' funky forays of the time. On their new release, X, tunes like "Massapoag Jaunt," "Drive By Booty" and "Feed the Ferals" keep the feet moving and the heart pumping. Several members contribute songs, with trumpeter Tom Horton's title track and "Psychostatic" and Greenberg/Jones' "Jonesberg" showing the Miles influence most clearly, while saxophonist Jason Mescia's "Insomnia" shows the mules have the heart and skill to pull off a ballad as well.
Zora Young - "Sunnyland"
This hard-hitting blues album featuring an all-star cast of blues musicians from the Sunnyland Slim tree - backing powerhouse vocalist Zora Young should bring a big smile to the face of Chicago-style blues fans the world over. Produced by tenor saxman Sam Burkhardt - who played with the late pianist Slim, this strong album is a fitting tribute to the late bluesman, who helped so many young blues artists, including singer Young, along the way. Some of the top-notch musicians on the recording include, Barrelhouse Chuck filling Sunnyland's seat on piano and organ, guitarist Steve Freund and rhythm section mates Bob "Have Bass Will Travel" Stroger and drummer Kenny Smith laying down solid grooves for their fine vocalist. And just when you think it can't get any better, legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin appears on over half the tracks - providing his unique and influential fretwork (Sumlin's work with Holwin' Wolf is said to have greatly influenced rock guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page), as well as a couple of vocals, including a duet with Young. Zora Young's fame as a blues singer is a worldwide phenomena and she is regarded as a true Chicago favorite. She also is an accomplished songwriter and wrote several of the songs, including the sassy "Bad Track Record," "Travelin' Light" the shuffling "Stumblin' Blocks and Stepping Stones," funky "Til the Fat Lady Sings," and twist-worthy "Daughter of a Son-of-a-Gun," not to mention something most ladies probably will relate to this time of year - "Football Widow." She also co-wrote "Looka Here Baby" with Hubert Sumlin - who also brought "You Said You Were Leaving" and the juicy instrumental "Hubert's Groove." Two well-loved Sunnyland numbers - "Goin' Back to Memphis" and the sinister "Johnson Machine Gun" are given loving treatment, while Burkhardt adds two excellent originals: the jazzy "Blues for Hubert" and jaunty title track. This is first-class Chicago blues with attitude sung and performed by some of the very best in the business.
The Hashem Assadullahi Quintet - "Strange Neighbor"
Oregon-based alto/soprano saxophonist Hashem Assadullahi presents a wide range of moods on his debut recording, Strange Neighbor. Assisted by talented guitarist Justin Morell and well-known G Trumpeter Ron Miles, Assadullahi - who is active in performance across many genres and educational endeavors, including work in the Far East - creates atmospheric music that at times resembles soundtrack music for a science fiction film with strange noises and wailing and at other times smacks of melodic straight-ahead jazz music (sometimes within the context of the same song). The front line players are ably supported by drummer Jason Palmer and acoustic bassist Josh Tower - whose lovely solo greatly enhances "Hypothesis B - The Widower." I put this album on in the car and didn't take it out for days - reveling in the subtle surprises inherent in the compositions. Assadullahi's use of space on tunes like "Stale Fortune" and the Wayne Shorter-esque opener "Hypothesis A - The Feign" is exemplary and the band interplay admirable. Miles is great, as we already know, but Assadullahi shows a keen sense of melody and some killer chops as well. Guitarist Morell, too, is a find - contributing stellar work, as well as a great tune (the 10:19 "O"). At times he is content to comp quietly - adding gentle washes, while at others he tears into it - as on the fusion/free jazz "Hypothesis C - The Geneticist." Here drummer Palmer also is given the chance to cut loose in exciting fashion. "Hypothesis D - The Gossip" takes things into a Latin vein with satisfying results (Miles plays a sweet solo here), while "Hypothesis E - 'The Mayor'" truly swings. There are AACM-style breaks (the title track) and "Near... far..." that unexpectedly mutates from classic swing into wild squeals. And love the "confiscated bootleg" live track "Lonely Llama" that ends the album. Thoughtful music, with energetic bursts; I can't wait to hear more from these exciting young players.
Ted Kooshian's Standard Orbit Quartet - "Underdog and Other Stories"
Yes, you heard right: "Underdog." Pianist Kooshian, who may be best known for his work with the Ed Palermo Big Band (whose Zappa covers are wacky enough), has here again put his twisted mind on exhibition, with another album of (primarily) cartoon, TV and movie themes. Listeners will have a ball hearing the "Popeye," "Little Lulu" and "Underdog" themes performed as jazz. Who knew "Underdog" woud make a great Latin number? Only Kooshian, and his cohorts in the Standard Orbit Quartet I suspect. Some of the covers make sense: '70s TV themes "Sanford and Son" (written by Quincy Jones), "Baretta" (Dave Grusin) and "The Odd Couple" were pretty jazzy to begin with, but hearing the "Wild, Wild West" theme as a waltzing ballad never occurred to me. Special credit must got to saxophonist Jeff Lederer, who simply burns through this humorous, yet musical jaunt.
Fred Simon, Paul McCandless, Steve Rodby, Mark Walker - "Since Forever"
Another lush and beautiful recording from Naim and recording engineer Ken Christianson, Since Forever was recorded at Northwestern's Pick-Staiger Hall and features pianist Fred Simon - known for his work on the Windham Hill label and collaborations with people like Kurt Elling, Larry Coryell and the group Oregon. Here, he is joined by two members of Oregon, saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless and drummer/percussionist Mark Walker, as well as bassist Steve Rodby (Pat Metheny), who also produced the album, in performing Simon's compositions. Weaving elements from classical, jazz, world music and folk and pop into a tableau that shifts seamlessly from bright and bouncy ("Since Forever" - dedicated to Pete Seeger, "I Know You Know," "What's the Magic Word") to melancholic ("Even in the Evening" - dedicated to Simon's late sister, a version of Joe Zawinul's classic "In A Silent Way") to thematic (the album-ending "Beginning/Middle/End"). These piano-centered compositions have a bit of a New Age feel to them, but with a jazz and pop sensibility and enhanced by the great playing from all involved (Simon and McCandless especially shine) and the audiophile analogue recording which captures both the warmth and sheen wonderfully. Contemplative music for long winter nights ahead.
Holdsworth, Pasqua, Haslip, Wackerman - "Blues for Tony"
A reunion of guitarist Holdsworth and keyboardist Pasqua - both fellow members of Tony Williams' mid-70's lineup of his famous New Lifetime fusion group, along with Holdsworth regulars, bassist Jimmy Haslip (The Yellowjackets) and Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa), in a live concert setting recorded while on tour in 2007. As is to be expected, the playing is first rate, and the material ranges from Lifetime favorites like Holdsworth's "Fred," Pasqua's "Protocomos" and Timeline bassist Tony Newton's "Red Alert," and songs from Holdsworth's recordings like "Looking Glass" and "Pud Wud," all of which are extended, allowing the players to stretch out. Pasqua's acoustic gem, "San Michele" is turned into electric fusion and there are also some new originals by the keyboardist, one from Wackerman and one from the group. Great playing all around and both Pasqua and Holdsworth sound especially invigorated playing with this energetic rhythm section. Fans of jazz rock fusion will love this recording from some of the most important players from the movement.
Paul Renz - "In My Own Hands"
Minneapolis-based guitarist Paul Renz is Director of Jazz Studies at the West Bank School of Music and resident jazz guitar teacher at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. In his spare time, he has recorded seven CDs as leader, including 2006's Beyond Blues and 2007's ReBop. In my Own Hands finds Renz employing the same musicians from ReBop: fellow Minnesotans keyboardist Brian Ziemniak on Hammond B3 and piano, drummer Nathan Fryett, bassist Eric Graham and his Swedish-born, East-coast-based former fellow Berklee student - flautist Anders Bostrom. While the compositions are often in a fusion vein and feature an active electric bass, Renz favors an old-fashioned guitar tone and style, which, along with Ziemniak's organ, takes the music in a unique direction: one that straddles eras and genres in memorable fashion. The free-flowing compositions indulge in blues, down-home funk, pop, and melodic impressionism and are often six to twelve minutes in length - allowing room for plenty of jamming. Nice to hear a jazz flute as well - something that sadly seems a rarity since the '70s of Hubert Laws on the CTI label. Lots of fun stuff throughout and the gloriously funky "Off the Cuff" brings it all together for a rousing finale.
Emilio Teubal & La Balteuband - "Un Monton de Notas"
(Not Yet Records)
Argentinean pianist Emilio Teubal's La Balteuband brings together musicians from around the globe, including Cuba, Brazil, Japan, Isreal, Argentina and the U.S. to produce Un Monton de Notas ("A bunch of notes"). The notes played form a mixture of Latin Jazz with a distinctive modern jazz direction. This is fearless music in which traditional instruments like accordion, cello, percussion and handclaps meets soprano and tenor saxes, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, acoustic piano, as well as electric piano, six-string electric bass and electronic effects, to sound absolutely like no other music out there. Don't get me wrong: the music is still melodic and not so far out there as to be over the edge. But the music is adventurous and free-flowing, allowing plenty of opportunity for these talented soloists to experiment, and the results are very rewarding, with excitement, suspense and surprise. Proof that Vijay Iyer and Dafnis Prieto aren't the only NYC-based musicians exploring the blending of cultures, Un Monton de Notas is one of the strongest Latin jazz albums of the year and one I highly recommend for listeners looking for something new. Favorite cuts: the catchy opener - "Ping Pong," the incredible title track with percussive piano, soaring flute, startling shifts and an aggressive cello solo, the sprightly "(T) la arania" and the achingly beautiful "Baguala."
Mike Mainieri / Marnix Busstra Quartet - "Twelve Pieces"
Steps Ahead founder and vibraphonist Mainieri is paired with Netherlands-based guitarist Marnix Busstra on this interesting release. Maineri and Busstra remind a bit of Gary Burton and Pat Metheny, but only in a passing manner, as they have their own sound and musical direction. Busstra is relatively unknown in the States, but this outing may serve to out him. He not only plays guitars, but bouzouki and electric sitar as well, which gives the group a folk/world music sound on numbers like "Old Fashion," "Don't Break Step,: "Lost in Little Spain" and "Kannada." Meanwhile, Busstra's long-time rhythm section of Eric Van der Westen on acoustic bass and Pieter Bast on drums create a solid and sensitive foundation for their leaders. The pairing of vibraphone and guitar creates a dreamy atmosphere that moves from quiet pieces like "It's Done" and "Where Am I?" to the up-tempo folk dance of "Square Brown," mysterious "All in a Row" and satisfying melancholy of the acoustic jazz "The Same New Story."