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.
The Terence Blanchard Group - "Choices"
Visionary young trumpet star, Terrence Blanchard's last album was the Granmy-Award-winning A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina) (one of our top-10 albums of 2007 - see our review here) which focused on the pain and devastation of Blanchard's hometown of New Orleans. On Choices, Blanchard turns his attention to producing a celebration of the spirit of the people of his city. Warmly recorded live in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the recording is based thematically around the idea of how choices in life determine the human being we all become. To this end, Blanchard recruited eminent scholar Dr. Cornel West to provide spoken word interludes between (and during) the music. The results are startling and remind us how the modern American society has undervalued the exchange of intelligent thought and conversation. Both a revolutionary call to action, a demand for fairness, and a universal plea for self-awareness, West's interjections are intriguing, important and thought-provoking.
As compelling as the spoken interludes are, the music is still key, and Blanchard and his young group rise thoroughly to the occasion. The young players on the recording include the trumpeter's usual band members, pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott and newcomer Walter Smith III on sax. Special guests include vocalist Bilal and rising star guitarist Lionel Loueke - both of whom make important contributions. The band members don't only perform at a high level, but also contributed exceptional compositions. Smith in particular brings two of the strongest tracks - the powerful opener "Byus" and satisfying "Him or Me," as well as creating some beautiful solos. Drummer Scott's "Touched by an Angel" is a lovely ballad, while his "Journey" features Bilal on a wonderful Brazilian number. Pianist Almazan ("Hacia del Aire," "Hugs - (Historically Underrepresented Groups)") and bassist Hodge (the nearly 12-minute "The Winding Road," - perhaps the album centerpiece, and "A New World (created Inside the Walls of Imagination)""both bring strong songs to the recording,while Bilal contributes the pop-flavored diversion "When Will You Call." Throughout the recording, the musicianship (captured so well by this recording) shimmers, with Loueke especially adding marvelous commentary on his strings. Blanchard, meanwhile adds three great tunes about "choices" that frame the album and plays with the technical ability and spirited, lyrical sense of feel he has been noted for - one which starts with Miles, but has moved beyond and into something new and exciting and forward-looking. With Choices, Blanchard continues to demonstrate his growth as an artist and as one of the most important musicians of the current era.
Gary Peacock Mark Copland - "Insight"
In 2007, innovative pianist Marc Copland released three trio recordings - one of which - Voices - with was selected as our #4 album in last year''s best of (see our review here). That recording featured bassist Gary Peacock - a long time collaborator - and drum titan Paul Motian. Here, Copland and Peacock record as a duo - not the first time - they recorded What It Says in 2004. But by recording without drums, the two are given even more of the sonic frequencies with which to work with, and the culmination is an opportunity for the listener to clearly hear two masters reciprocal players and friends interacting.Two Miles Davis tunes from KInd of Blue appear - appropriate considering the obvious Bill Evans influence on Copland's impressionistic voicings. "Alll Blues" starts things off with Peacock's supersonic fingers ripping up his fretboard. Copland takes things in his usual unusually abstract direction - resulting in a memorable deconstruction of this oft-played tune. "Blue and Green" is also covered, as is Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," the theme song from The Deer Hunter ("Cavatina") and "Sweet and Lovely." These are joined by Copland's "River's Run" (which also appears on "Voices"), as well as originals jointly improvised upon by the two. Peacock is one of the best bassists in the world at accompanying a pianist (see his fine work over the decades with Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio), as well as being a stellar soioist in his own rights, while Copland is one of the most creatively lyrical voices on the keys alive today. A true pleasure to hear these two superlative musicians interfacing once again.
Bob Shimizu & Signal Strength - "Cuchillero"
It seems that every year I receive an album from out of nowhere that just seems to capture the true joyful spirit of jazz music in such a delightful manner that it comes across as breath of much needed fresh air. Last year, Mary Fettig's Brazilian Footprints (see our review here) provided the anecdote for this weary listener; this year Arizona-based guitarist Bob Shimizu and his talented Signal Strength Band have come up with the wonderful Cuchillero, an album which combines traditional jazz, with Latin, funk, pop, fusion and even smooth jazz into a tasty Southwestern-flavored concoction. Shimizu, who wrote all the tunes, is a guitarist with a pleasing array of sounds and a way with a tasty lick. He recalls both Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny at times, is fluent on acoustic and electric guitars and also surprises with guitar-synth "vibraphone" or "marimba" on the opening "Joy for Leroy" and "In Harm's Way." Somewhat surprising (to someone unfamiliar with the Arizona jazz scene), the leader is joined by a highly impressive group of local players: tasteful drummer Larry Kantor, percussionist Todd Chuba, talented bassist Michael King and especially the wonderful keyboardist David Vincent Mills, who is the perfect complementary player (on piano, electric piano and organ) to Shimizu. Many highlights here, including the "hit" - "Loop 101" (an argument that "smooth" can be compelling when done right) the lovely straight-ahead ballad "Where Do We Go When We Die," the salsa-flavored "Pedro Like Your Girlfriend," the funky "King Michael" (a feature for bassist King, with Santana-esque guitar by Shimizu), or the other hit - "I Saw Her First," while the more traditional-minded may prefer the organ trio-like groove of "Mr. Brown." But every cut on this is a polished gem and I would recommend picking up a copy and checking the whole album out. Nothing too dark and heavy here, and thank goodness for it - just very enjoyable and skilled writing and playing by Shimizu and Signal Strength, and in the end a truly pleasurable experience for the listener.
Paul Wertico's Mid East/Mid West Alliance - "Impressions of a City"
Attention filmmakers - here is a soundtrack waiting for a film. I would suggest as setting a hellish cityscape - possibly Chicago, possibly Tel Aviv - in any case, post-Apolcayptic. Insisting that none of this material be written or rehearsed ahead of time, former Pat Metheny Group (among others) drummer Wertico went into Studiomedia Recording studios in Evanston - where he augmented his usual trio (himself, bassist/multi-instrumentalist Brian Peters and stellar guitarist John Moulder) with two recent emigrants from Israel - saxophonist Danny Markovitch and guitarist Dani Rabin (we recently reviewed this duo's Marbin release see here). The results are interesting and often unsettling, with moments of calm reflection broken by industrial cacophony. Melodically, the strains often recall the sound of the Mideast - perhaps a prayer call floating high over a city moments before the bomb hits. This is the soundtrack I suspect Hieronymus Bosch would have written had he been a modern composer watching the news. The sometimes humorous titles ("Bumper to Bumper," "15 Minutes For Lunch," "Closing the Deal," "The Boss Needs to See You") hint at the idea that beneath the surface elements of the ordinary daily grind exists an individual hell for each of us living in this modern world. Despite the sometimes nightmarish and chaotic nature, the level of musicianship never ceases to attain a high level. Moulder and Rabin handle the guitars with exuberance, Markovitch soars on saxes, while Wertico himself plays at times like a dervish possessed by his own personal demons looking to break free ("My Side of the Story" is his only true "solo"). Peters provides some chewy bass, synths, violin and an assortment of unusual instruments and sounds, while Rabin's loops and sounds (found radio broadcasts) also add layers of texture to the overall atmosphere. Haunting and memorable, "Impressions of a City" is an engaging musical experiment and one that is highly unique.
Wayne Wallace - "Bien Bien"
Like a machine, West-Coast trombonist/composer/band leader Wayne Wallace keeps charging ahead, producing new recordings at a truly prolific rate. While usually not pushing the envelope as far as Dafnis Prieto, Danilo Perez or even Arturo O' Farrill, Wallace is making a name for himself as a solid practitioner of straight-forward, high-quality Latin Jazz mixed with elements of pop and funk. Backed here by many of his usual cohorts - including first-rate pianist Murray Low and bassist David Bedlove, as well as percussionist Michael Spiro and drummer Paul van Wageningen, Wallace does throw one unusual twist at the listener on Bien Bien. Oddly, there are no saxophones or trumpets; instead, Wallace is joined by Chicagoan Julian Priester and the Bay Area's Dave Martell to make up a three-trombone front line. The usual horns are not generally missed, and Wallace's concise arrangements are attractive, as on the joyful opening title track (also written by Wallace). Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance" is virtually unrecognizable as a Puerto-Rican Bomba, complete with mutli-tracked chorus vocals by Orlando Torriente and Kenny Washington. "Mojito Cafe" is Wallace's tribute to the '70s San Francisco North Beach Jazz scene he was a part of (as well as one of my favorite drinks), and he also provides a delightful cha-cha in "Playa Negra". Two Duke Ellington tunes are given the Wallace treatment: "In A Sentimental Mood" is cleverly presented as a bolero (with muted trombone providing the melody), while "Going Up" is arranged as a tribute to Eliington's trombonists Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown and "Tricky" Sam Nanton. Memo Acevedo's "Building Bridges" is covered well, Sonny Rollins' "Solid" is turned into Cu-Bop, and John Coltrane's masterpiece "Africa" - which is presented in stripped down fashion sans Eric Dolphy's layered charts and ends the album - may be the highlight of this solid recording, Wallace's best to date.
Ira Sullivan presents Lin Halliday - "Where or When"
Tenor saxophonist Lin Halliday was a one-of-a-kind musician. Born in 1936 in Oklahoma, Halliday kicked around the country, spending time playing in New York City (where he replaced Wayne Shorter in Maynard Ferguson's band), Nashville and various other locales, before settling after the death of his wife here in Chicago, where he became a beloved player and friend to many of the musicians here in town. Beset by health problems and nearly toothless, his gaunt figure carrying a sax case held together by a belt was a familiar sight at places like the infamous Get Me High Lounge, where he led Tuesday night jam sessions where many of the young locals worked on their chops. A late bloomer, Halliday never recorded as a leader until he was 55 years old, but he recorded several well-received albums for Delmark records in his later years before passing in 2000. Generally, he was paired with sax/trumpet player Ira Sullivan (or Eric Alexander) and/or pianist Jodie Christian. On the recently rereleased Where or When, both Sullivan and Christian, along with drummer Robert Barry and bassist Larry Gray join Halliday in performing strong versions of standards like "Street of Dreams," "My Shining Hour," "Sophisticated Lady," "Dear Old Stockholm," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and more. Sullivan and Christian are both great as is to be expected, and it is a pleasure to hear Gray in this setting, but the surprise to those unfamiliar to him is what a fabulous player Halliday was. Some comparisons have been made to Sonny Rollins, and that is not too far off, but although there are similarities in style, there isn't outright imitation. It is a shame that the circumstances of his life did not grant Halliday the fame his talent deserved, but thanks to Bob Koester and Delmark, he can at least be accorded some appreciation posthumously.
Fahir Takoglu - "Istanbul in Blue"
So I'm driving down the road the other day with a friend of mine and I pop Fahir Atakoglu's Istanbul in Blue into the CD player for the first time. My friend is one who is not easily impressed, but he turns to me with wide eyes after a few minutes of listening and says "I like this." I liked it too. A lot. Described in the liner notes as jazz/rock fusion with a Turkish influence, the actual music far surpasses that description. One reason it does is because composer Atakoglu studied classical music, theory and harmony at the London School of Music before returning to his native Istanbul and went on to compose ballets, jingles, theatre and movie soundtracks, eventually becoming known as Turkey's most celebrated composer, famous in his home country as well as throughout Europe, with 15 records to his credit. So how does a composer so talented not be known in the United States? As usual our country's self-centeredness when it comes to culture is legendary, but as the cliche goes, hopefully this recording will bring some attention to Fahir Atakoglu. Some progress may be found in the fact that this album (Atakoglu's second to be released in the U.S. ) was nominated for a world music Grammy Award last year.
Part of the success of this recording is the musicians Takoglu chose to work with. Drummer/conga player Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez is a true force on the Cuban/Latin Jazz Rock scene and an absolute monster on rhythm. Add veteran bass innovator Anthony Jackson (inventor of the 6-string bass) and guitarist titans Mike Stern and Wayne Krantz (they appear on different tracks) and you have true bliss. Additionally, tenor and soprano saxophonist/flautist/clarinetist Bob Franceschini - with whom I was not familiar - appears and is another exceptional player. His resume show that he has played with many great players and is a usual cohort of Sterns; I suspect his lengthy sojourns in Europe have contributed to his having only relatively few recorded outings. His shredding tenor solo on the opener (tongue-in-cheek titled) "Fuse On" should open a few eyes and his work on the album in its entirely is quite admirable. Atakoglu shows fine chops himself on acoustic piano on tracks like "Sync-Op" and "ESS" (short for "East Side Story" from one of his ballets. He also plays Fender Rhodes, synths and voice). "Black Sea" and "Gypsy in Me" (of course) show a Gypsy influence on Atakoglu's writing. The top notch rhythm section is stellar throughout - navigating the interesting time changes smoothly and with vigor. And of course, guitarists Stern and Krantz distinguish themselves with their solos as well. The high energy of much of the album is matched by lovely quiet moments as on the ending title track. An east/west merger in this time when we need more understanding between cultures, this is a fascinating release full of grooves and melodies that should appeal to listeners from around the globe.
Sharel Cassity - "Relentless"
(Jazz Legacy Productions)
Talk about living up to a title! I was just about to review this young sax star's first disc ("Just For You"), when her sophomore effort lands in my mailbox. Don't know whether this is more the sign of a precocious and prolific with talent and energy to spare or an indictment of just how far behind I am in getting reviews done (I hope it's the former), but I am happy to report that Ms. Cassity (ShaREL) is an artist well worth checking out. I enjoyed her previous release, a solid recording which featured Cassity on alto sax, performing three tunes by her mentor -trombonist Michael Dease, one by trumpeter Tom Barber, one Lennie Tristano tune, and the old chestnuts "Lover Man" and "Cherokee." On "Relentless," Dease contributes the "How Insensitive"-inspired title track, but Cassity has expanded her range - providing the bulk of the recording - 6 original songs, with only a superb Cassity-arranged Charles Tolliver tune ("On The Nile") rounding out the release. Not only that, but Cassity also adds soprano saxophone and flute to her usual alto. Is this youngster growing by leaps and bounds in front of our eyes or what? I feel like a proud parent without actually having met the young lady.
Not only does she write the songs, but they are very good as well. She shows a nice command of the blues ("Say What"), swing ("Still"), burners ("Call to Order," "No Turning Back") - and I am especially taken with her slow blues ballad ("Love's Lament") as well as her complexly rewarding "Song of Those Who Seek." This "relentless" (and award-wining) composition moves effortlessly through multiple time changes in a seamless manner most veteran composers would kill for. Of course I keep speaking of her as if she were a novice, when Cassity is a grad of Juliard's masters program who has spent several years playing in the NYC scene. Her playing is strong and confident (even more so on the new recording) and although smooth and sweet, it is never soppy. She has chops to burn. And finally, she clearly has the respect of her peers as evidenced by the lineup she has recruited for this album. Dease and Barber reappear, along with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, tenor saxophonist Andres Boyarsky and the great Don Braden (on alto flute!). These stars are strongly supported by young up-and-comers Orrin Evans on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass and E.J. Strickland on drums. This is exciting music, well produced and well played by young and energetic jazz artists with attitude and skill to spare. I'm sure we will be hearing more from these players and Ms. Cassity as time passes.
Roberta Gambarini - "So in Love"
Pianist Hank Jones has accompanied some of the finest vocalists in the history of jazz: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, and Billy Eckstine. So when he claims that Roberta Gambarini is the best singer to emerge in over 60 years, people take notice. Born in Torino, Italy, Gambarini was exposed to jazz by her parents at an early age, began singing in clubs as a teen, moved to radio and television work in Milan, then won a scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she was awarded 3rd place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition just two weeks after arriving in the U.S. Since then she has worked with Jones, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove (see our review of Emergence here), Frank Wess, James Moody, Toots Thielmann and many more of the top names in the business.
So in Love is Gambarini's 3rd album under her own name. High-powered musicians such as Gerald Clayton, George Mraz, Jake Hanna, Al Foster and Moody and Hargrove make guest appearances, while pianists Tamir Hendelman or Eric Gunnison and bassists Chuck Berghofer or Neil Swainson handle most of the heavy lifting. Songs covered include range from standards like Cole Porter's title track, "Get Out of Town," From This Moment On" to "That Old Black Magic" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers" and "Here, There and Everywhere" and Willie Nelson's "Crazy." Throughout this presentation, does the beautiful Gambarini live up to her lofty billing? She does possess a strong and assured voice and a lush sense of phrasing - her voice is lovely, no doubt. But I find that in matters of female vocals - not unlike most music in general - that much judgement is made due to personal taste. Many will find her voice and delivery compelling, but I didn't hear enough to excite me, I don't hear enough "personality" and some of her sliding-into-the-note bothered me. I find myself outside the conventional wisdom again in this case, but I have to be honest. She is a fine vocalist, but I personally will have to wait to hear more from her before I anoint her as successor to the greats listed above.
John Wojciechowski - "Lexicon"
Local jazz fans in the know tout tenor saxophonist John Wojciechowski as perhaps the most underrated musician in the area. Having caught him live briefly in action, as well as on rare recordings (see our review of the Jeff Campbell Trio - "A Declaration of Optimism" here), I can attest to the tremendous skills of the still young artist - a veteran of several top big bands and 1996 finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. That he is not more well known and more thoroughly recorded is a bit of a mystery to me, and can only conclude that his duties playing in the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Rob Parton Big Band, the Chicago Yestet and Dana Hall's SPRING, and also as a high school educator in west suburban St. Charles have taken up much of his time and contributed to his flying under the radar. Lexicon is Wojo's first album as leader and features top Chicago musicians like keyboardist Ron Perillo, guitarist Dave Miller and a rhythm section of Dennis Carroll on bass and Dana Hall on drums. With such great players as these you can imagine nothing can go wrong - and indeed it is a solid record (recorded in 2006 and 2008) with great playing by all involved. The combustible Hall and Carroll make a truly dynamic duo, while Perillo contributes his usual stellar work on acoustic and electric pianos. Miller is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine and his African-flavored exchanges with the bandleader on "Lion and the Lamb" are a highlight. Although Wojciechowski is generous with giving ample spotlight time to his compatriots, he himself is the star here and even treats us to some brilliant work on soprano sax . His assured technique hints at Coltrane, but with a more measured, melodic and less fevered approach, although he generates enough heat on "Push" and his "Pentatonic Tune" solo to singe the edge of the CD (the rest of the band is also on fire on the latter - one of the best burners I have heard in some time). There is so much to hear in this wonderfully layered recording - including strong and creative compositions and great individual and ensemble playing - that I am confident listeners will enjoy playing it often, while absorbing the subtleties for some time to come.
Slivovitz - "Hubris"
MoonJune has done it again - scouring the earth for the best in the progressive jazz/rock fusion music wherever it may be found. In this case, Slivovitz (taken from the name of a popular Slavic plum brandy) is a seven-piece ensemble from Naples, Italy which calls Frank Zappa and John Zorn primary influences. Combining Eastern-European and Gypsy folk music, Middle-Eastern, African and South American genres, reggae, Zappa-esque free jazz bursts and jazz rock, the Slivovitz sound is one which is highly original. Saxophonist Pietro Santangelo shows exceptional skill as the primary soloist on the opener "Zorn A Surriento" (also showcasing electric fretless bassist Domenico Angarano and vocalist Ludovica Manzo). "Caldo Bagno" follows with African vocals by guest Giovanni Imparato and excellent electric and acoustic guitars courtesy of Marcello Giannini. Here (and elsewhere) I detect an influence of the great and under-appreciated Italian progressive rock masters, PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi). "Mangiare" follows and sounds especially Zappa-like - with its loping tempo, vibraphone (guest Marco Pezzenati) and squawking saxophone. As much fun as the craziness is, I really enjoy when everything comes together - as on the pop "hit" "CO2," the ultra-funky "Sono TRanquillo Eppure Spesso Strillo - STRESS" or "Errore di Parallasse" - where violinist Riccardo Villari solos like Jean Luc Ponty with Zappa and drummer Stefano Costnazo cuts loose with powerful abandon. Great fun and one that makes me want to get ahold of some plum brandy to see just where the band gets its inspiration and hubris.
Bobby Bradford, Tom Heasley & Ken Rosser - "Varistar"
Recorded a decade ago, but only now seeing release, Varistar offers one of the most unusual lineups you will ever hear: a free form trio consisting of cornet (Bradford), guitar - both electric and acoustic (Rosser - also on effects) and tuba?!?! (Heasley). Suprisingly, the outcome is fairly rewarding - perhaps not so surprising considering the pedigree of these three L.A.-based musicians. Bradford is a veteran of both Ornette Coleman as well as John Carter (among others) and met tuba maven Heasley while both were playing in Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. Heasley is known for his ambient tuba and didjeridu music, while GIT-instructor Rosser has played with a wide range of artists including, Glen Branca, John Cage, Smokey Robinson, Alphonse Mouzon, John Abercrombie, John Zorn and The Grandmothers (former members of Frank Zappa's Mothers). This is the only recording by this trio, who played live in Southern California from 1997 through 2003. The vast array of different sounds produced by these musicians is impressive, and the creativity of the improvisations is laudatory. However, the length of each of the pieces (all but one exceeds 9 minutes - with several over 10 or 11 - the title track is 14:16) means the "songs" sometimes run a tad thin and suffer from sameness of overall sound (perhaps not as much as one might think - and the delightful 3:21 "Crooked March" is an exception) stretching the limits of most non avant-garde fans, I would suspect. That said, there are plenty of enjoyable moments to appreciate for the patient listener (the sci-fi soundtrack-sounding "Elegy for John Carter" comes to mind), and - based on this document, I would imagine seeing this trio interact live in its day would have been quite the experience. A recording for the adventurous.
Bobby Bradford will be appearing Friday Nov. 6 at Elastic and Sat. Nov. 7th at the Hideout as part of the 2009 Umbrella Music Festival. Check out the happenings at www.umbrellamusic.org.